System Builder Marathon Q3 2015
Here are links to each of the five articles in this quarter’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.
To enter the giveaway, please fill out this SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!
- $800 AMD Mini PC
- $800 Gaming PC
- $800 Prosumer PC
- System Value Compared
$800 AMD Mini PC
Well, this is a real treat. I only started doing motherboard reviews for Tom's Hardware earlier this year, and now I get to do an SBM build! This feature was always one of my favorites, so I'll try not to let any of the readers down. That said, it's a given that not everyone will agree with the part selection, and I'm sure you'll let me know in the comments. In fact, I know right now many will violently disagree with at least two decisions. Not every part below was my first pick. Time and money constraints dictated some choices for me. So to preemptively cut off arguments before they happen, I'll take a little extra time and space in this article to explain the entire genesis of my SBM offering. Before you lay flame to the comment thread, I ask that you consider the machine in its own right.
The restriction this quarter was $800, including OS, and nothing else. No form-factor constraints, no platform requirements, no general theme. That meant I had about $700 for hardware. I decided to build a LAN box that's easy to take on the go, but with enough power for triple-screen gaming at home. Don't believe you can do that for only $800? Let me introduce you to what I call the Munchkin.
- Platform Cost: $645
- Total Hardware Cost: $707
- Complete System Price: $797
The invitation to participate in the SBM was a complete surprise to me. Paul was originally slated a build, but had to withdraw due to a packed schedule. The offer came with a strict time limit attached. I had two weeks to shop for parts, get them delivered, photograph the parts, assemble the rig (and photograph that process too), bench it, overclock it, bench it again and write up this article. As the kids say: "Challenge accepted."
I hit a wall immediately after starting: option overload. As most artists and creators will tell you, a blank canvas is one of the most intimidating things to confront. You have endless options and deciding on a direction can be difficult. Left to my own devices, I would have built a nice general purpose system that's "good enough" for both light professional work and serious gaming, just like my personal rig I use every day. But we already know how an i5 with a GTX 960, R9 280X, or GTX 970 performs. The SBM is a great time to explore alternative build ideas to get some more interesting data points. I needed at least one constraint to start organizing my thoughts and make this interesting. A quick email revealed Paul was planning an ITX build. That was the start I needed.
Form Factor Locked In
Tom's Hardware has featured many ITX builds over the years, so I didn't want to make a repeat. Thomas and Julio both built ITX rigs last quarter, but had twice as much money in doing so. Two years ago the entire Marathon was about ITX, but we're well past Ivy Bridge, Kepler and Tahiti (ok, well, first-generation Tahiti). So I was in the clear; I wasn't going to duplicate anything too closely.
If I was going ITX, I wanted it to be small. BitFenix and Rosewill make good cases, but a Prodigy and Neutron are both the size of a mini tower case. I don't see the point of an ITX build in something that big when (usually) cheaper microATX parts can do the same. I wasn't shooting for tiny cable-box size, but I definitely wanted it about the size of a big shoebox (around 1500 cubic inches or 24.6 liters).
My motherboard partner-in-crime Joe Trott advised me to pick a system theme. What was it intended to do? My first thought was to make a professional system with "gaming on the side." A $250 Xeon 1231v3 would take a big chunk of my budget, but it was doable. Unless someone fit an i7 into their build, I knew a Xeon would probably win the benchmark section of the competition, even though it's a locked processor. Fitting the rest of the components in was difficult. For me to call it a professional system, I wanted 16GB of RAM. I also wanted both a large SSD and at least 1TB of spindle storage. After all this, I had about $50 left over for a graphics card. I could squeeze in an R5 240 or GT 730 if I cut back on the motherboard, but I was hoping for something a little more robust.
The Path Less Traveled
I had "Plan A" mostly done, but I wanted to explore other options as well. What if I approached this from the other side? I could get the strongest GPU I could find and make a gaming machine. Paul has built plenty of gaming-first machines in the low-budget space, so how was I going to differentiate this one? Many users in the forums have been asking for an FM2+ ITX build for a while, and specifically wanted to know how an Athlon 860K would do. This idea isn't terribly popular since the CPU puts out more heat than a similarly priced Intel CPU. Still, the SBM is supposed to be about experimenting. The idea of pairing an 860K with a high-end GPU is simply too delicious to not explore. Mr. Trott said the idea was risky but interesting.
Something to Prove
I'm treating this SBM as an experiment of sorts. That means I have some questions that I want answered. The first is whether an 860K is a viable ITX platform on stock cooling. I can hear you already: "Stock AMD cooling? Are you crazy?" Well, that wouldn't be the first time I've been accused of that, but yes, I'm sticking with stock cooling. At time of purchase, the 860K was $75 USD. An i3-4160 (or 4170) is $125. That means you only have $50 to spend on cooling before you're spending more money on a weaker chip. Really, if you spend $40 on cooling you'd be better trimming $10 from your build elsewhere and switching to the i3. So stock cooling it is.
The second question is just how far back an 860K will hold a premium GPU. The idea of cheaper CPUs bottlenecking premium GPUs in games is hotly debated in the forums. I'm not going to say a budget CPU doesn't hold a GPU back, I simply want to quantify how large the bottlenecks is. Does it mean games are unplayable? Does it mean they're stuttering a little and are just on the wrong side of smooth framerates? Or does it mean you only maintain 70fps instead of 80fps? I'm inclined to believe this setup will take about 10fps off the top end from what you'd expect with a stronger CPU, but that everything will still be very playable at higher detail settings. Let's see if I'm wrong.
This is going to be a min/max system past the point of sanity (possibly). It's going to be a munchkin not only in stature, but intent as well. I will likely crash and burn on this endeavor, but I'm going to do it in style.