System Builder Marathon Q3 2015: AMD Mini PC

This quarter we're building three equally priced PCs, with no theme restrictions! First up is an AMD-based Mini PC for LAN parties dubbed the "Munchkin."

Introduction

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!

  1. $800 AMD Mini PC
  2. $800 Gaming PC
  3. $800 Prosumer PC
  4. 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.

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  • Platform Cost: $645
  • Total Hardware Cost: $707
  • Complete System Price: $797

Inception

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."

Option Overload

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).

Plan A

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.

Component Selection

Like many readers, I have questioned past SBMs about hardware selection. Having gone through it now, I have a lot more sympathy for Paul, Don, Thomas, and the other SBM builders. Having a completely firm budget is quite restricting. The machines I've built in the past for myself, family and friends had general budget ranges. An $800 budget usually meant that going to $820 was allowed if the extra $20 meant a greater than 2.5 percent boost in performance. I'm not allowed to do that here. If you can't find a perfect mix of parts and prices, you end up leaving money on the table. Sometimes you get lucky and it doesn't matter a whole lot. In the sub-$1000 range, every dollar counts.

The Munchkin went through two major part iterations. The case, hard drive, and power supply all changed dramatically between the two. My first submitted part list didn't include an optical drive and my chosen GPU had a $20 instant rebate. This allowed me to fit a 240 GB SSD and SeaSonic modular power supply. Management told me I had to include an optical drive. My case didn't have a 5.25" bay, meaning I'd have to get a more expensive external drive or a different case. While looking at my options, the GPU discount ended. That meant I was effectively $40 over budget. Cutting $40 meant dropping the SSD for a mechanical drive and swapping for a less prestigious PSU.

Munchkin, Assemble!

Assembling the build was… an experience. Even if all the parts can fit together, the order of assembly becomes very important in an ITX build. Unlike a tower case, you can't remove any part at any time. Installing one component usually blocks access to anything previously installed. Once most of the pieces were in place, adjusting anything meant removing at least the GPU and usually the DVD drive too.

The Elite 130 case sports two fans, but my motherboard only had two fan headers, and I needed one for the CPU cooler. The case did come with some 4-pin Molex fan adapters, but I pulled an old fan splitter cable from a drawer and used that. Is that cheating? Considering fan splitters are only $3, I'm still within the $800 budget had I bought one with the rest of the parts. And while it's nice for case manufacturers to include fan power adapters, I would ask them to switch away from 4-pin Molex and start using SATA power plugs instead.

The biggest obstacle I faced during assembly was the hard drive. The Elite 130 offers a few mounting points for hard drives and finding the most harmonious location took a few attempts. I originally had it on the case floor in front of the motherboard, however that put it very close to the GPU, and safely threading the data and power cables in the crevices was difficult. I moved it to the opposite wall of the GPU and had a lot more success. This moved it closer to the DVD drive, meaning I could use the shorter SATA power cable from the PSU. It also somewhat closed off the vents on that side. This resulted in the drive not only being cooled by the intake fan, but also channeling the air to the CPU cooler.

While the hard drive placement was a bit of a puzzle, it never actually prevented pieces from fitting together. I can't say the same about the motherboard, or more particularly its HD audio header. The front audio jack is located right at the head of the PCIe slot. I have no idea why ASRock would decide to put it there since the audio cable now has to smash under the GPU cooler shroud. The Elite 130 comes with both HD audio and AC97 jacks. Since AC97 uses fewer cables I was able to fit that underneath. Fitting the HD audio cable required me to trim the plug a little, but I'm handy with a Dremel.

Here you can see the importance of a modular PSU in a case like this. All the cables behind the optical drive may look like a rat nest, but they're actually carefully bundled together and out of the way. I don't know where I would've put the extra power cables from a non-modular PSU without negatively impacting airflow to the CPU.

After running the bench suite at stock clocks, it was clear that overclocking the CPU wasn't an option. During the heavy-hitting benches, the CPU would throttle back to 3.5 GHz due to heat. That was expected. The only thing I could do was raise the maximum turbo multiplier to let the CPU speed up during single-threaded work.

I looked to see if I could improve the cooling situation at all. I wasn't going to exhaust the CPU heat through the PSU since I view that as a short-term gain, long-term loss. The small 80mm fan on the side normally acts as an intake. Since it's right by the RAM and CPU, I thought switching it to exhaust might act like a push-pull configuration with the intake fan, placing the CPU in the middle. Temperatures actually climbed a bit after reversing it. My guess is that the Elite 130 has so much mesh on the panels that getting hot air out of the case isn't difficult. It's more important that the side fan deliver a blast of fresh air right by the CPU.

RAM overclocking was an interesting affair. Left on "auto", the FM2A88X-ITX+ actually ran the RAM at DDR3-1600 8-9-9-24. However it only handles RAM timings on full automatic or full manual. Most boards I've recently worked on will take the primary timings you enter and then automatically calculate the secondary and tertiary timings to match. The ITX+ wouldn't do this. If I wanted to override the XMP timings with a higher frequency, I would have to manually specify every single timing. I didn't have time to optimize the RAM in that detail. I did have Patriot Viper and Corsair Vengeance RAM kits sitting around that I use for motherboard reviews.

I plugged in each, enabled their XMP profiles, and started testing how high the board could go. The ITX+ couldn't reach the Vengeance's native DDR3-2800 speeds at any level, but both were stable at the Viper's slower DDR3-2400 setting. I saved their timing configs to a BIOS quicksave slot and swapped back to the SBM RAM. After a quick prayer I tried booting the RAM at the new settings. The SBM gods were with me and it worked. The Viper kit had slightly tighter timings at 11-13-13-31 (remember, the Vengeance XMP was 12-14-14-36 at 2800) so I went with those. I increased the northbridge from 1800 MHz to 2000 Mhz and started stress testing. A few errors showed that the RAM wasn't fully stable. I bumped it down from CAS 11 to 12 and had no problems.

The 970 was the last thing on my overclocking plate. I know MSI's Afterburner is a popular program, but since this is an Asus card, I went with Asus' GPU Tweak II. The 970's stock speed is 1050 MHz with 1178 MHz boost and 1750 MHz memory (7000 MHz effective). Asus factory-overclocks their Turbo to 1088MHz/1228 MHz and adds a tiny 2.5 MHz increase on the memory. Raising the target power to 110 percent and adding 10mV to the GPU, I was able to increase the clock to 1400 MHz (1450 MHz boost) and the memory to 1852.5 MHz (7410 MHz effectively). I left the fan control on auto and limited the GPU temperature to 87 degrees.

Finally, I taped up the inside fan intake on the GPU. The GPU fan is only an inch or two from the main case intake fan, and I felt the GPU was stealing the intake air away from the CPU. The case panel is fully vented, so the GPU still had plenty of breathing room.

How We Tested

Test System Components

At twice the price of the Munchkin, there's little information we can glean from comparing it against builds from last quarter. However the Q1 systems were $700 and $1300, so the Munchkin will slot nicely between them.

Both of those systems feature Intel CPUs (an i3 and i7, respectively), and Intel's had the CPU efficiency crown for a while. I already know the Munchkin will get slaughtered in the productivity benchmarks. I'm not too worried about that because I built this as a LAN box. The Q1 $1300 machine has a GTX 970 as well, so this is a perfect opportunity to test my hypothesis. If I'm right and the 860K isn't a big bottleneck, we should see similar framerates between the two, especially at the higher detail levels.

I've done something a little different this time in calculating system cost. I've tallied the total cost for each system into Complete System, Hardware Only, Performance Parts, and Core Components categories. Core Components includes the CPU, CPU cooler, motherboard, RAM, GPU, system drive, and power supply. The Performance Parts category take the Core group and adds the case. My reasoning on this is that the case is an integral part of system cooling and directly responsible for the overclocks achieved. The Hardware Only category should be self-explanatory, and the Complete System total includes the OS.

System Comparison Components

Q3 2015 $800 MunchkinQ1 2015 $700
Budget Gaming PC
Q1 2015 $1300
Enthusiast PC
ProcessorAMD Athlon X4 860K: 3.7 GHz-4.0 GHz, Four Cores, No L3Intel Core i3-4150: 3.5GHz, Two Cores, 3 MB CacheIntel Core i7-4790K: 4.0GHz-4.4GHz, Four Cores, 8 MB Cache
CPU CoolerAMD Boxed Heatsink and FanIntel Boxed Heatsink and FanZalman CNPS9900MAX-B
MotherboardASRock FM2A88X-ITX+: FM2+/FM2, AMD A88X, Mini ITXASRock H81M-HDS: LGA 1150, Intel H81 ExpressMSI Z97 PC Mate: LGA 1150, Intel Z97 Express
GraphicsAsus TURBO-GTX970-OC-4GD5 GeForce GTX 970 4GB SAPPHIRE DUAL-X 100373L Radeon R9 280 3GBASUS Strix STRIX-GTX970-DC2OC-4GD5 GTX 970 4GB
MemoryCrucial Ballistix Sport BLS2KIT4G3D1609DS1S00: DDR3-1600 C9, 8GB (2 x 4GB)G.Skill Ripjaws X DDR3-1600 C9, 8GB (2 x 4GB)G.Skill Ripjaws X DDR3-2133 C9, 8GB (2 x 4GB)
System DriveWD Blue WD10EZEX; 1TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDDWD Blue WD10EZEX; 1TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDDPNY Optima SSD7SC240GOPT-RB: 2.5" 240GB SATA 6Gb/s SSD
PowerCorsair CX500M 500W Modular, ATX12V, 80 PLUS BronzeEVGA 100-W1-0500-KR: 500W, 80 PLUS (standard)EVGA 600B 100-B1-0600-KR: 600W, 80 PLUS Bronze
Core Components$645$519$1,019
CaseCooler Master 130 Elite Mini ITXNZXT Source 210 Elite BlackCooler Master HAF XB Evo
Total Performance Components Cost$695$569$1,114
Storage DriveUses System DriveUses Sustem DriveWD Blue WD10EZEX; 1TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDD
Optical DriveAsus DRW-24F1ST: 24x DVD±R, 48X CD-RAsus DRW-24B1ST 24x DVD±RPioneer BDC-207DBK 8x BRD Reader, 16x DVD±R
Total Hardware Cost$707$589$1,214
OSWindows 8.1 X64 OEMWindows 8.1 X64 OEMWindows 8.1 X64 OEM
Complete System Price$797$689$1,314

Benchmark Suite

As with my motherboard reviews, I set this machine to stock clocks, enabled AMD Cool'n'Quiet and other energy saving features, and set the CPU fan to maximum. I use Windows default "Performance" power option preset for everything except idle power consumption where it's set to "Balanced."

3D Games
Battlefield 4Version 1.0.0.1, DirectX 11, 100-sec. Fraps "Tashgar"
Test Set 1: Medium Quality Preset, No AA, 4X AF, SSAO
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality Preset,  4X MSAA, 16X AF, HBAO
Grid 2Version 1.0.85.8679, Direct X 11, Built-in Benchmark
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 8x MSAA
Arma 3Version 1.08.113494, 30-Sec. Fraps "Infantry Showcase"
Test Set 1: Standard Preset, No AA, Standard AF
Test Set 2: Ultra Preset, 8x FSAA, Ultra AF
Far Cry 3V. 1.04, DirectX 11, 50-sec. Fraps "Amanaki Outpost"
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA, Standard ATC, SSAO
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 4x MSAA, Enhanced ATC, HDAO
Adobe Creative Suite
Adobe After Effects CCVersion 12.0.0.404: Create Video which includes 3 Streams, 210 Frames, Render Multiple Frames Simultaneosly
Adobe Photoshop CCVersion 14.0 x64: Filter 15.7MB TIF Image: Radial Blur, Shape Blur, Median, Polar Coordinates
Adobe Premeire Pro CCVersion 7.0.0 (342), 6.61 GB MXF Project to H.264 to H.264 Blu-ray, Output 1920x1080, Maximum Quality
Audio/Video Encoding
iTunesVersion 11.0.4.4 x64: Audio CD (Terminator II SE), 53 minutes, default AAC format 
Lame MP3Version 3.98.3: Audio CD "Terminator II SE", 53 min, convert WAV to MP3 audio format, Command: -b 160 --nores (160 kb/s)
Handbrake CLIVersion: 0.99: Video from Canon Eos 7D (1920x1080, 25 FPS) 1 Minutes 22 Seconds
Audio: PCM-S16, 48000 Hz, 2-Channel, to Video: AVC1 Audio: AAC (High Profile)
TotalCodeStudio 2.5Version: 2.5.0.10677: MPEG-2 to H.264, MainConcept H.264/AVC Codec, 28 sec HDTV 1920x1080 (MPEG-2), Audio: MPEG-2 (44.1 kHz, 2 Channel, 16-Bit, 224 kb/s), Codec: H.264 Pro, Mode: PAL 50i (25 FPS), Profile: H.264 BD HDMV
Productivity
ABBYY FineReaderVersion 10.0.102.95: Read PDF save to Doc, Source: Political Economy (J. Broadhurst 1842) 111 Pages
Adobe Acrobat 11Version 11.0.0.379: Print PDF from 115 Page PowerPoint, 128-bit RC4 Encryption
Autodesk 3ds Max 2013Version 15.0 x64: Space Flyby Mentalray, 248 Frames, 1440x1080
BlenderVersion: 2.68A, Cycles Engine, Syntax blender -b thg.blend -f 1, 1920x1080, 8x Anti-Aliasing, Render THG.blend frame 1
File Compression
WinZipVersion 18.0 Pro: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to ZIP, command line switches "-a -ez -p -r"
WinRARVersion 5.0: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to RAR, command line switches "winrar a -r -m3"
7-ZipVersion 9.30 alpha (64-bit): THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to .7z, command line switches "a -t7z -r -m0=LZMA2 -mx=5"
Synthetic Benchmarks and Settings
3DMark ProfessionalVersion: 1.2.250.0 (64-bit), Fire Strike Benchmark
PCMark 8Version: 1.0.0 x64, Full Test
SiSoftware SandraVersion 2014.02.20.10, CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic / Multimedia / Cryptography, Memory Bandwidth Benchmarks

Test Results

Synthetics

The R9 280 in Paul's $700 system can't compete with the Munchkin's GTX 970 when it comes to graphics processing, though Intel's better efficiency nets the i3 a small advantage in the physics department. As expected, Don's $1300 machine and its i7 thoroughly outclasses the Munchkin. Note that the graphical scores aren't too different, however.

PCMark is less forgiving for the Munchkin. It loses in every category except where it ties the $700 machine in the storage test. Unsurprising since they both use the exact same hard drive.

Overclocking doesn't help the 860K a lot in Sandra due to thermal throttling. It does beat the i3-4150 in Sandra's arithmetic section. The i7 again is in its own class. Haswell's additional extensions and better memory bandwidth let it pull away in cryptographic processing.

Games

Now it's time to prove my hypothesis right or wrong. I'm going to spend a little extra time on these benchmarks because this is where the Munchkin can explain itself. Specifically we're looking for places where the $700 i3 system ties or beats the Munchkin (clear evidence of a CPU bottleneck) and where the Munchkin comes close to the $1300 i7 machine (evidence that the GTX 970 isn't held back).

Paul's machine wasn't tested at 5670x1080. That's unfortunate, but perfectly understandable since no one expects to triple-screen game on an R9 280. However I would've loved to see the actual scores for a more complete comparison. What we have tells an intriguing story.

Arma 3 is very heavy on the CPU. As such, it's not surprising to see the Intel builds walk away with this. Regardless of detail setting, the Munchkin is just as fast at 1600x900 as it is at 1920x1080, a clear sign the GPU is waiting on a maxed out CPU. The same can be seen between the two triple-screen resolutions after overclocking.

Upping the detail settings, a move that usually forces more work on the GPU, helps the Munchkin close the gap, but it's still notably behind the other two systems at single-screen resolutions. Nearly every score across all three machines is cut in half with the shift from Standard to Ultra details. Clearly Arma 3 is one title that the 860K does indeed impose a significant bottleneck to the GTX 970 on a single display.

However, make note of the overclocked Munchkin versus Don's overclocked $1300 machine at 5760x1080. At Standard details the Munchkin is only 5fps behind. The bottleneck is still there, but it's not nearly so pronounced at higher resolutions. This is one title where I wish I had 5760x1080 results for the $700 machine to see if it beats the Munchkin or not.

Ultra detail on three screens is strictly academic as even the mighty i7 can't get smooth gameplay.

Glancing at the graphs, you might think Grid 2 shows the same thing as Arma 3 with the Munchkin essentially tying the i3. You'd be partially right. As we know, Grid is constrained by memory performance. Haswell is faster in this regard than Kaveri, and you can see how the $700 basically ties the Munchkin at High detail. Crank the detail settings and you'll see the Munchkin pull away. It's telling that the Munchkin performs better at 5760x1080 on Ultra than the $700 machine does at 4800x900. The Munchkin has half the bandwidth of Don's machine, so there's no chance of catching the more expensive system.

I can't explain the Munchkin's performance at stock speeds and High details. I got higher framerates at higher resolutions except for triple-1080. This was repeatable however, so it wasn't a one-time fluke. The $700 machine shows similar behavior at stock speeds.

Once again we see the Munchkin and the $700 machine trading blows on single-screen resolution and lower detail settings. And once again we see the Munchkin able to game faster across three FHD displays than the $700 machine can at lower resolutions.

The real story here is told at Ultra details. At every resolution, the Munchkin dominates the $700 system. But that's not all. Look how the Munchkin compares to the $1300 rig. At every resolution above 1600x900, the Munchkin is within spitting distance of its more expensive rival. CPU bottleneck? It's there, but it's almost insignificant.

Of the four games here, Far Cry 3 may be the most demanding in terms of using the whole system. It wants a beefy CPU and a beefier GPU. Altogether it looks very similar to what we've seen before. On single screens and lower detail settings, the Munchkin does little to differentiate itself from its cheaper cousin. Once you increase the details and/or increase resolution, it asserts itself proudly. It can't maintain playable framerates at Ultra on three screens, but neither can the i7. Lower the detail just a touch and you have smooth sailing only a few frames behind the $1300 system.

Applications

As I said in the beginning, the 860K doesn't fare particularly well here. Having four actual cores instead of the 2C/4T configuration of the i3 helps in a few places, but mostly it falls victim to Intel's higher efficiency. Compared to the i7, the 860K's scores are embarrassing. But keep in mind the i7 costs four times as much.

Power & Temperature

The Munchkin enjoys an ever-so-slight advantage at idle speeds in terms of power consumed. That's likely due to the low idle usage of the GTX 970. Under any kind of load, the Munchkin has higher power draw than any system except the overclocked $1300 system.

Temperatures are another matter. The cramped confines of an ITX case are on clear display. And that's not a typo, the max CPU temp actually dropped a bit after overclocking. I credit this to taping up the internal fan intake on the GPU so more fresh air made it to the CPU. Even without that, the temperature wouldn't change since thermal throttling was in effect under full load.

Overall Performance & Efficiency

The Munchkin enjoys a significant gaming performance advantage over Paul's machine, but loses everywhere else. Don's i7 machine demonstrates a commanding lead in all categories.

Using more power to do less work doesn't win any efficiency awards. The only rig that burnt more electricity than the Munchkin was Don's overclocked machine.

System Value

Paul's machine performed better overall than mine and did so while costing $100 less, so it's no surprise to see it out front in most of the value scores. Depending on how you count machine cost, Don's machine even nabs a win. Is there any saving grace for the Munchkin?

Gaming Value

Why yes, there is. I set out to make a gaming-first system and I have to say I was pretty successful at it. Calculating the cost of just performance parts (no OS, no OD drives, no storage drives), the Munchkin does pretty well if we only tally the game benchmarks. However Paul's configuration still wins the value award.

But what happens if we just count framerates at the highest detail levels? After all, if you want to play at medium detail on a single screen, there are far more cost effective solutions than a GTX 970. If your gaming goal is to "Max Out" the game, the Munchkin shows excellent value.

For those with the desktop real estate to fit three monitors, the Munchkin is by far the winner at 5760x1080 resolution gaming value. It serves up triple-screen gaming almost equal to a machine that costs almost 50 percent more money, and even does it in a portable ITX case.

Final Word

I've made my hypothesis, conducted my experiments, and observed the results. So, do the results support the hypothesis? In some ways, yes. But not all. Does an 860K bottleneck a GTX 970? Yes. Is the bottleneck detrimental to your gaming experience? That of course is up to personal interpretation. So long as framerates stay north of 60 fps, does it matter a whole lot? For only $695 worth of hardware, you get smooth gaming across three screens, sometimes at the highest detail settings. Did you ever think you could do that?

It doesn't work for all games. Arma 3 showed that very clearly. There is also the lack of performance in productivity tasks. Let's be honest: this is not a machine most people would build. It was purpose built to conduct an experiment. As I said before, the idea of an 860K in an ITX case doesn't make a lot of sense due to thermal limitations. Adding aftermarket cooling leaves you spending more money than you would on a much more capable i3 platform. Also, if your budget is so tight that you build this lopsided system, I wonder how you would have three monitors for gaming.

Amid the absurdity of the Munchkin, I can't help but feel a sense of pride in it. It's a ridiculous machine. There's no way else to say it. But it still succeeds in its purpose and gives us a better understanding of the limits of the relationship between CPU and GPU in modern games. After seeing this, I'm very interested in what an i3 paired with a 970 or 290X could accomplish. The total cost of a system based on an i3-4160 and a cheap motherboard like the MSI H81M-E34 would be almost the same price as the Munchkin. And I'm willing to bet the Munchkin would get thoroughly embarrassed in such a matchup.

MORE: Latest Systems News
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Eric Vander Linden is an Associate Contributing Writer at Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter.

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This thread is closed for comments
77 comments
    Your comment
  • RedJaron
    Ok, let's have it! I'm ready for the second-guessing. ;)
  • ykki
    All the talk about the ''path less travelled" and you still couldn't ditch the optical drive (in favor of a better psu).
    Aside from that its nice to see an AMD platform in ITX.
  • chimera201
    This is what I wanted. Comparing different systems at the same price. And 800$ is a good pick for the price. But what I actually want to see is a comparison of

    Intel CPU & Nvidia GPU system
    Intel CPU & AMD GPU system
    AMD CPU & Nvidia GPU system
    AMD CPU & AMD GPU system

    at the same price at the same time
  • Flying-Q
    Quote:
    All the talk about the ''path less travelled" and you still couldn't ditch the optical drive (in favor of a better psu). Aside from that its nice to see an AMD platform in ITX.

    The ODD wasn't Eric's choice, it was an editorial requirement.
    From the article
    Quote:
    My first submitted part list didn't include an optical drive and my chosen GPU had a $20 instant rebate. This allowed me to fit a 240 GB SSD and SeaSonic modular power supply. Management told me I had to include an optical drive. My case didn't have a 5.25" bay, meaning I'd have to get a more expensive external drive or a different case.


    Speaking of which, it is about time 'management' recognise that ODDs are no longer mandatory. I built a machine 5 years ago with an ODD and have used it only 3 times in those 5 years, and those occasions only because I couldn't be bothered to go downstairs to get my keys with their attached USB stick. On one of those occasions I had to take an external ODD with me as my friend didn't have any ODD of his own!

    Aside from all that, Eric, this is a really great SBM experiment and your writing style is a pleasure to read. Thank you.
  • alidan
    is there any way to move to videos/audio that you make 100% yourself, so that we can run our current systems through the same tests? i'm assuming there are a number of people here who would live to bench their system against these to see what an upgrade would cost them.

    also, on the optical drive front, i see no reason not to include one.
    if you want to talk music, depending on the band, its cheaper to buy used cd's than it is to buy the songs individually, and its far cheaper to buy a used dvd/bluray than to even rent a movie or tv series, some exceptions can be made if you have netflix dvd/bluray delivery, but even than, a 4 disc or 6 disc season would cost you something like 5-8$ to rent and likely the same to buy and have it shipped for free.

    personally, i have a bluray burner that i use quite a bit, and i have a dvd drive that till it broke was almost constantly used... its hooked up to an IDE cable, and the last time i messed with one of those the computer wouldn't go passed the bios anymore... so i dont take it out just because i dont want my computer to screw up in a way i dont know how to fix...

    lets also say you want to legitimately buy games, you can get in box on the pc games for cheaper than digital most of the time, and when a game goes on sale digitally, you can get them used on the pc for cheaper, though you probably won't line up with the eula if you go that route.

    i would at the very least love to see a drive bay case in all builds like this, but the drive itself does not need to be there, a decent compromise or in the case of you absolutely do not want to have an internal drive space, than make an annotated price that shows what it would cost to hook one up... i believe an external sata ide interface is able to run dvd/bluray drives along with hdds (i had to get one when 2 of my external drive cases failed on me, cheaper getting one 20$ thing opposed to 2 cases, one for each interface.
  • RedJaron
    49549 said:
    Speaking of which, it is about time 'management' recognise that ODDs are no longer mandatory. I built a machine 5 years ago with an ODD and have used it only 3 times in those 5 years, and those occasions only because I couldn't be bothered to go downstairs to get my keys with their attached USB stick. On one of those occasions I had to take an external ODD with me as my friend didn't have any ODD of his own!
    As I said, regularly I disagree with the "no ODD" crowd. You're right in that they're not always a hard requirement. However I've had enough requirements for them in the last three years that I'll still include one in my personal builds. But, also as I said in the article, I always have a flexible budget where adding an extra $20 isn't out of the question.

    In terms of the first version of the Munchkin, I asked management if I could just include a regular internal drive ( even though the case couldn't fit it ), and just say the user would have to use it from the bench before the case was closed up. They wouldn't go for it. ;)

    49549 said:
    Aside from all that, Eric, this is a really great SBM experiment and your writing style is a pleasure to read. Thank you.
    Thank you. I know I tend to get a bit verbose, but I wanted this to be kind of like a narrative.
  • RedJaron
    269694 said:
    is there any way to move to videos/audio that you make 100% yourself, so that we can run our current systems through the same tests? i'm assuming there are a number of people here who would live to bench their system against these to see what an upgrade would cost them.
    This was kinda my idea when Joe and I designed the bench suite used for the $60 mboards. Everything used there was free and freely available so everyone else could run the same thing to compare their system. Joe has modified it for his uses as he has basically come to own that review segment.

    The problem with it is that it's largely made up of synthetics. Synthetic benches are great for hardware testing because they can be more strenuous and use every new feature and instruction set. That means they can show off strengths and weaknesses better.

    However, for the SBM we also want to use real-world software to get real-world-applicable results. That means we use things like MS Office, Adobe Creative Cloud, iTunes, and code compilers. You could run the same tests on your machine, but you'd have to have the exact same software as well as the same project files and such. I don't think it's some super Tom's Hardware secret exactly what we use, we just don't want to host a 200 GB image that contains the files and instructions how to use it.


    269694 said:
    also, on the optical drive front, i see no reason not to include one. if you want to talk music, depending on the band, its cheaper to buy used cd's than it is to buy the songs individually, and its far cheaper to buy a used dvd/bluray than to even rent a movie or tv series, some exceptions can be made if you have netflix dvd/bluray delivery, but even than, a 4 disc or 6 disc season would cost you something like 5-8$ to rent and likely the same to buy and have it shipped for free. personally, i have a bluray burner that i use quite a bit, and i have a dvd drive that till it broke was almost constantly used... its hooked up to an IDE cable, and the last time i messed with one of those the computer wouldn't go passed the bios anymore... so i dont take it out just because i dont want my computer to screw up in a way i dont know how to fix... lets also say you want to legitimately buy games, you can get in box on the pc games for cheaper than digital most of the time, and when a game goes on sale digitally, you can get them used on the pc for cheaper, though you probably won't line up with the eula if you go that route. i would at the very least love to see a drive bay case in all builds like this, but the drive itself does not need to be there, a decent compromise or in the case of you absolutely do not want to have an internal drive space, than make an annotated price that shows what it would cost to hook one up... i believe an external sata ide interface is able to run dvd/bluray drives along with hdds (i had to get one when 2 of my external drive cases failed on me, cheaper getting one 20$ thing opposed to 2 cases, one for each interface.
    As I said, for myself I usually use an ODD. However, I will recognize that not everyone wants or needs one. If you're fortunate to have a good internet connection, downloading games and software isn't a problem. Someone who lives in the boonies and doesn't have a fat pipe, or that has a metered connection, doesn't want to deal with 20GB downloads. With the Munchkin as a LAN box, I didn't think an ODD was necessary. Ten years ago when I was going to LANs more regularly, sharing a game disc to get everyone a copy so we could all play it was common. If you go to a LAN party now, most files will be shared over network or via USB stick.

    I don't agree with the idea that every SBM case must have an external bay. Getting an external USB ODD is easy enough for those cases and machines. An external drive also has the benefit of being portable so you can share it among all your home computers.
  • Onus
    I do feel compelled to comment on the Corsair CX. Personally I would have risked the untested ARC, under the theory that "the orc that one hears (the CX) is worse than the orc that one fears (the ARC)." With that out of the way, this article was a pleasure to read, and the limited comments we made back and forth did not reveal what an outstanding analysis we would all get to read. Whether anyone would build a PC like this or not, the value of the data point it has provided is undeniable. Very well done.
  • RedJaron
    I'm not crazy on the CX either. If this was in a system that was constantly drawing 400W, I'd be a little worried. But the PSU has it's own air intake to keep it cool, and it doesn't go above 60% load so I think it's fine.
  • braincruser
    When you are building a LAN pc, can we have a same priced laptop in there to compare the performance. Many of us use laptops regularly and would like to know where they stand compared to desktops.
  • DouglasThurman
    I am extremely proud of this build as I built almost the exact same system but with a micro-ATX motherboard and a GTX 960 for my daughter. The 860k, when coupled with a higher level cooling solution will fly. I have always been an AMD fan, and I love the FM2+ format. My HTPC is a FM2+ APU. My work machine is an AMD FX-6300. Storage seems to be the crippling factor in this build. Personally I'd have gone with a 120GB SSD for the system load and a 500GB 7200RPM HDD for the rest of the stuff. I did that on my daughter's machine and it makes not a whit of difference for gaming and all the world for loading up Windows. All in all though an excellent build! I bequeath unto you several chocolate chip kudos!
  • RedJaron
    553724 said:
    When you are building a LAN pc, can we have a same priced laptop in there to compare the performance. Many of us use laptops regularly and would like to know where they stand compared to desktops.
    I fuly understand you. I used to have a laptop that was my primary gamer as well and it visited many LAN parties. The problem is you can get a wide-variety of laptops in the same price range, so getting one that's representative of what the majority wants is difficult. And more simply, I don't have an $800 gaming laptop available to me. Not only that, but we don't always go for a gaming-centric build in the SBM, so it wouldn't be used all that often if I did have such a laptop.


    108006 said:
    The 860k, when coupled with a higher level cooling solution will fly.
    This idea really doesn't make a lot of sense, however. As I said in the article, the total cost of an 860K and a "higher level cooling system" exceeds the cost of an i3-4170 or FX-6300, both of which are much more capable chips. The i3 doesn't need any aftermarket cooling, and even the 6300 can be OC'd a bit on the stock cooler. If you're on a mATX or larger platform and you're willing to spend $110+ on CPU and cooling, I see no reason why you would consider the 860K

    108006 said:
    Storage seems to be the crippling factor in this build. Personally I'd have gone with a 120GB SSD for the system load and a 500GB 7200RPM HDD for the rest of the stuff.
    I too would prefer a SSD in here. As I said, originally it was supposed to have a 240GB SSD as the only internal drive, then the end user could attach any external storage they wanted over the eSATA. However, after changing the system and getting the rest of the parts, I only had ~$50 left for storage. That's not enough for a SSD and spindle drive.
  • Samuil Munis
    This was painful to read. Everytime I saw a gaming graph something inside me screams ... the 970 is sooo bottlenecked .
    I get why such articles are made , it wouldn't be interesting to read if everything was totally sensible . Still please for the love of god do not give advise to people that don't know any better , to go and buy an amd cpu and pair with a 970 + class gpu ... .Sorry to say this but at the present day going with any amd cpu in a certain price range , its just not smart .
    Here is hoping for "zen" to be good enough to compete ...
  • RedJaron
    1367129 said:
    Still please for the love of god do not give advise to people that don't know any better , to go and buy an amd cpu and pair with a 970 + class gpu
    Please show me one place I recommended someone else do this. Just one. It's okay. I'll wait.
  • Sir Jun
    There's a typo in the System Comparison Components chart. In the Q1 2015 $700
    Budget Gaming PC column, in the storage drive row it says "uses sustem drive". I'm pretty sure you meant system drive.
  • Onus
    The author said himself that this was not a system he'd build, even saying it might be for nothing other than the data points it would generate. For that reason, I didn't even howl too much about the PSU, which need not last in order for this PC to fulfill its purpose.
    This build is a LOT more balanced than one Paul tried a few years ago, pairing a Celeron with a flagship GPU, aimed specifically at "Ultra" gaming. It performed abysmally at almost every other task, and was nothing anyone would recommend, but it too was an interesting data point because it was actually viable at its stated purpose.
  • g-unit1111
    1427918 said:
    All the talk about the ''path less travelled" and you still couldn't ditch the optical drive (in favor of a better psu). Aside from that its nice to see an AMD platform in ITX.


    I totally would have gone for that too, optical drives are becoming useless more and more each day (and this is coming from someone with a rather large media collection). Especially now with Windows 10 shipping on USB drives, why even bother?
  • RedJaron
    537231 said:
    1427918 said:
    All the talk about the ''path less travelled" and you still couldn't ditch the optical drive (in favor of a better psu). Aside from that its nice to see an AMD platform in ITX.
    I totally would have gone for that too, optical drives are becoming useless more and more each day (and this is coming from someone with a rather large media collection). Especially now with Windows 10 shipping on USB drives, why even bother?
    Because not everyone is in your situation. I understand why a lot of people think they're a waste of money and don't want one. But it doesn't make sense to ditch them altogether just as it doesn't make sense to force every machine to have one. Whether or not a machine includes an ODD, including future SBMs, should be determined if it makes sense in that particular machine and situation.
  • Crashman
    49549 said:
    Speaking of which, it is about time 'management' recognise that ODDs are no longer mandatory. I built a machine 5 years ago with an ODD and have used it only 3 times in those 5 years, and those occasions only because I couldn't be bothered to go downstairs to get my keys with their attached USB stick. On one of those occasions I had to take an external ODD with me as my friend didn't have any ODD of his own! Aside from all that, Eric, this is a really great SBM experiment and your writing style is a pleasure to read. Thank you.
    Bull feces. The reason not explained in this article for including the ODD was that the winner is receiving his system disassembled and unloaded with a Windows DVD. Done. We can drop the ODD when the DVD goes away. That will probably be when we do the Win 10 upgrade (and that will probably be Q1 2016).

    I know I'm going to get down votes for telling things the way they are rather than telling people what they want to hear, but I'm OK with that :)
  • dstarr3
    Too bad it's got an AMD potato in it. Might be a decent build if not for that.
  • Dugimodo
    I've built a couple of itx builds, firstly in a silverstone sugo SG06 then in a CM elite 120. It probably wouldn't fit in the budget but my advice when building in these cases is choose small components even when larger will fit.

    for example using a silverstone SFF modular PSU with the included adapter plate in the CM case gives you so much more room to work with it's worth it for the convenience alone.

    I would suggest the itx version of the 970 also except it may be a bad choice in terms of cooling, if not though it would also make working in that case easier
  • g-unit1111
    570460 said:
    Because not everyone is in your situation. I understand why a lot of people think they're a waste of money and don't want one. But it doesn't make sense to ditch them altogether just as it doesn't make sense to force every machine to have one. Whether or not a machine includes an ODD, including future SBMs, should be determined if it makes sense in that particular machine and situation.


    Yeah I agree, I think it would depend on the user's specific needs. Not everyone streams and people still hang onto their media collections because they don't want to buy new ones. If I were doing this build I would kill the mechanical drive - since they're so cheap now they can be added later, if we're building for space/performance I'd take out the mechanical drive and optical drive in favor of a 250GB SSD, since these can be had for less than $100 they wouldn't break the bank on a build of this budget.
  • spentshells
    This build is hobbled without a better cooler. Im sure it would have performed a lot better with a decent overclock.
  • de5_Roy
    570460 said:
    I'm not crazy on the CX either. If this was in a system that was constantly drawing 400W, I'd be a little worried. But the PSU has it's own air intake to keep it cool, and it doesn't go above 60% load so I think it's fine.

    i understand why you chose the corsair unit. but i gotta ask - were these following psus out of budget at the time of ordering?
    xfx 550 TS,
    seasonic s12g 450,
    seasonic s12g 550,
    seasonic s12g 650,
    antec neo eco 520.
    i've been tracking the xfx and the s12g psus' prices. both have been hovering around $80 and slightly less for months. since prices change everyday, i was wondering if that's what happened during ordering.

    i am not worried about the load or the airflow ( about the psu), rather the internal components and their quality and performance. CWT is quite capable of building good psus, but it builds according to order and corsair puts the cx series in the entry level segment.

    for a first time SBM article, very good job. i'd been looking forward to seeing an amd processor inside a small case as well as a blower type gaming card for quite some time. :)