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System Builder Marathon Q3 2014: Budget Gaming PC

Did We Build a Better Machine?

Performance

I honestly didn’t expect my new Pentium-based gaming PC to fare as well as it did in stock form. It not only out-works last quarter’s build, but even out-games my previous overclocked efforts by remaining playable at higher settings. Once its Pentium G3258 and Radeon R9 270 graphics card are fully optimized, it stands toe-to-toe in almost every threaded workload, while its victories became far more pronounced.

The real beauty of this rig is easy to gloss over when we summarize average frame rates: think about the best playable settings. In all four games, this quarter’s stock configuration can be tweaked to handle higher resolutions and details than last’s quarter’s overclocked PC. I fully expected that the Pentium would require overclocking to exploit this build’s increased graphics muscle. However, it only failed to cope with the demands of Ultra quality in Far Cry 3. Instead, our new PC allowed 2x MSAA with Very High details in Full HD, and remained playable at 4800x900 at High details. Last quarter’s PC couldn’t survive those settings, even overclocked.

And of course, higher average frame rates mean little if the gaming experience isn’t smooth. I’m happy to report that today's machine exhibits no noticeable lag, micro-stutter, or frame time variance issues in the four games we tested. If anything, it sustains higher minimum frame rates. Marginal benchmark results actually feel smoother in-game than last quarter’s hardware.

Efficiency

There are no surprises; more performance, while consuming less power, equals greater efficiency.

Value

Charting value would be redundant, since only fifty cents separate our two hardware budgets. The system cost, including the case, DVD burner, and Windows 8.1, jumped by only three dollars. Once we factor in the eight-dollar spike we absorbed by securing 8 GB of RAM, it’s fair to just look at the performance charts and forget minor price fluctuations. Apart from a few threaded application workloads, our new PC simply delivers more performance and value in stock and overclocked trim.

This success story can’t be credited to the unlocked Pentium alone. In fact, at 4.1 GHz, we didn’t even get a particularly good sample. Chris was able to squeeze a stable 4.4 GHz from his using the same H81-based motherboard and cooler. We are certainly happy to have more options to consider for budget-oriented gaming. But the biggest prize in this comparison comes from bowing out of the megahertz war and embarking on milder “free overclocking” instead. By leveraging the relatively potent capabilities of a $45 MSI motherboard and bundled Intel cooler, we lowered the platform costs enough to outfit a Radeon R9 270 graphics card. The price drop on this beefier AMD offering was a key factor in making that a reality.