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."
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.
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.
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 Munchkin||Q1 2015 $700|
Budget Gaming PC
|Q1 2015 $1300|
|Processor||AMD Athlon X4 860K: 3.7 GHz-4.0 GHz, Four Cores, No L3||Intel Core i3-4150: 3.5GHz, Two Cores, 3 MB Cache||Intel Core i7-4790K: 4.0GHz-4.4GHz, Four Cores, 8 MB Cache|
|CPU Cooler||AMD Boxed Heatsink and Fan||Intel Boxed Heatsink and Fan||Zalman CNPS9900MAX-B|
|Motherboard||ASRock FM2A88X-ITX+: FM2+/FM2, AMD A88X, Mini ITX||ASRock H81M-HDS: LGA 1150, Intel H81 Express||MSI Z97 PC Mate: LGA 1150, Intel Z97 Express|
|Graphics||Asus TURBO-GTX970-OC-4GD5 GeForce GTX 970 4GB||SAPPHIRE DUAL-X 100373L Radeon R9 280 3GB||ASUS Strix STRIX-GTX970-DC2OC-4GD5 GTX 970 4GB|
|Memory||Crucial 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 Drive||WD Blue WD10EZEX; 1TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDD||WD Blue WD10EZEX; 1TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDD||PNY Optima SSD7SC240GOPT-RB: 2.5" 240GB SATA 6Gb/s SSD|
|Power||Corsair CX500M 500W Modular, ATX12V, 80 PLUS Bronze||EVGA 100-W1-0500-KR: 500W, 80 PLUS (standard)||EVGA 600B 100-B1-0600-KR: 600W, 80 PLUS Bronze|
|Case||Cooler Master 130 Elite Mini ITX||NZXT Source 210 Elite Black||Cooler Master HAF XB Evo|
|Total Performance Components Cost||$695||$569||$1,114|
|Storage Drive||Uses System Drive||Uses Sustem Drive||WD Blue WD10EZEX; 1TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDD|
|Optical Drive||Asus DRW-24F1ST: 24x DVD±R, 48X CD-R||Asus DRW-24B1ST 24x DVD±R||Pioneer BDC-207DBK 8x BRD Reader, 16x DVD±R|
|Total Hardware Cost||$707||$589||$1,214|
|OS||Windows 8.1 X64 OEM||Windows 8.1 X64 OEM||Windows 8.1 X64 OEM|
|Complete System Price||$797||$689||$1,314|
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."
|Battlefield 4||Version 126.96.36.199, 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 2||Version 188.8.131.5279, Direct X 11, Built-in Benchmark|
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 8x MSAA
|Arma 3||Version 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 3||V. 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 CC||Version 184.108.40.2064: Create Video which includes 3 Streams, 210 Frames, Render Multiple Frames Simultaneosly|
|Adobe Photoshop CC||Version 14.0 x64: Filter 15.7MB TIF Image: Radial Blur, Shape Blur, Median, Polar Coordinates|
|Adobe Premeire Pro CC||Version 7.0.0 (342), 6.61 GB MXF Project to H.264 to H.264 Blu-ray, Output 1920x1080, Maximum Quality|
|iTunes||Version 220.127.116.11 x64: Audio CD (Terminator II SE), 53 minutes, default AAC format|
|Lame MP3||Version 3.98.3: Audio CD "Terminator II SE", 53 min, convert WAV to MP3 audio format, Command: -b 160 --nores (160 kb/s)|
|Handbrake CLI||Version: 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 2.5||Version: 18.104.22.16877: 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|
|ABBYY FineReader||Version 10.0.102.95: Read PDF save to Doc, Source: Political Economy (J. Broadhurst 1842) 111 Pages|
|Adobe Acrobat 11||Version 22.214.171.1249: Print PDF from 115 Page PowerPoint, 128-bit RC4 Encryption|
|Autodesk 3ds Max 2013||Version 15.0 x64: Space Flyby Mentalray, 248 Frames, 1440x1080|
|Blender||Version: 2.68A, Cycles Engine, Syntax blender -b thg.blend -f 1, 1920x1080, 8x Anti-Aliasing, Render THG.blend frame 1|
|WinZip||Version 18.0 Pro: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to ZIP, command line switches "-a -ez -p -r"|
|WinRAR||Version 5.0: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to RAR, command line switches "winrar a -r -m3"|
|7-Zip||Version 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 Professional||Version: 126.96.36.199 (64-bit), Fire Strike Benchmark|
|PCMark 8||Version: 1.0.0 x64, Full Test|
|SiSoftware Sandra||Version 2014.02.20.10, CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic / Multimedia / Cryptography, Memory Bandwidth Benchmarks|
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.