This quarter, each participant can build whatever they want using the same $800 budget. Can I improve upon the gaming build of two quarters' past?
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.
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- $800 AMD Mini PC
- $800 Gaming PC
- $800 Prosumer PC
- System Value Compared
I'm fairly new to Tom's Hardware, with only a handful of articles under my belt. However, that didn't stop Thomas from asking if I wanted to give it a go on this quarter's System Builder Marathon. I've got a strong background in IT, with experience as both a systems administrator and as an independent contractor. A good part of my independent work has involved me spec'ing and building systems for clients, so I'm not exactly new to the build. After getting the rules and budget from Thomas, I was ready to get to work.
This quarter, Thomas, Eric, and I are all building $800 systems, well $700, with the remaining money reserved for the operating system. Additionally, there isn't any particular purpose that these machines are required to fulfill, meaning they aren't specifically supposed to be gaming- or workstation-oriented systems, for example. Rather, the goal is simply to take the budget given and build the "best" machines we can, benchmark them, and then compare their performance and value. Thomas chose to build something more workstation-oriented, while I went the opposite direction and built a rig better suited for gaming. Eric chose to break away from the pack and build something vaguely gaming-oriented, but with an AMD processor.
Price wise, I think that $800 (with OS) is a good target for any budget-oriented build. It's just enough money for a gaming rig that will push decent settings on most current games at high resolutions but can also be upgraded in the future, all without breaking the bank.
- Platform Cost: $620
- Total Hardware Cost: $700
- Complete System Price: $800
With my budget in hand, I set out to start picking my components. For a fleeting moment, I got the notion that I might be able to use a Skylake processor and still somehow manage to afford a decent graphics card as well. That lasted for all of 30 seconds, until my budget brought me back to Earth and I accepted the reality of the situation. With Skylake off the table, and since I happened to have an extra $100 for hardware, I decided to go back to the Q1 2015 $700 build and see what I could do to improve upon it. The chief complaints from that build seem to be the lack of an SSD, a lackluster motherboard, and the poor choice of power supply. Let's see if I can manage to do any better.
The focus of my build is on gaming, so this means forgoing the possibility of a Skylake or Haswell i5 in order to shift what little money I have into funding the graphics card.
For this build, careful component selection and attention to detail have allowed me to avoid any surprises concerning parts fitting or working together.
The Carbide SPEC-03 has plenty of room on the inside for both installing components and cable management, which made the assembly a breeze. Both side panels detach with thumbscrews, and after moving a few of the motherboard standoffs around to fit the configuration of the micro-ATX motherboard, I installed the board and went on to the rest of the case.
The Hyper TX3 from Cooler Master mounts in the same manner as the stock cooler, utilizing a set of pushpins to secure itself to the board. Both the optical drive and the SSD mount in tool-less drive bays, and took seconds to install.
After installing the graphics card and power supply, the only thing that was left was cable management. Thanks to the amount of room in the case, even the cable management was mostly effortless.
After everything was put in place, the finished product looked something like the photo below.
Even with everything installed, there's still room for another graphics card (CrossFire only), SSD, several hard drives, additional RAM and more.
Since this is a budget build, expectations of dramatic overclocks aren't really reasonable, however there is still plenty of overclocking potential to be had. Since we're working with an i3 processor with a locked multiplier, overclocking via the usual route is out of the question, but I've had some success in the past overclocking locked-multiplier CPUs by increasing the BCLK on the motherboard. Usually, base-clock overclocks don't lead to too much of a performance gain, but anything is better than nothing. Normally, it wouldn't be unreasonable to push a 3.7GHz processor to 3.9 or 4.0, provided you paid attention to what that was doing to the RAM. In this case, it seems like this board doesn't support that feature at all for the i3. I tried flashing the BIOS to several different versions but had no success. In the end, I'm stuck just applying the XMP profile to the RAM to bring its CL11-11-11-28 timings down to the advertised CL9-9-9-24 timings.
Heading on over to the GPU, I was able to find much more success. I gradually increased the clock rate until I ran into visual artifacts, then I backed it down until the artifacts went away. After that, I ran through a Firestrike benchmark for 30 minutes to make sure the settings were stable. I then repeated this with the memory clock. In all, I managed to push out a 9.6 percent core overclock and a 13.1 percent memory overclock, or 95 MHz and 190 MHz, respectively. Ultimately, I ended up with a core clock of 1080MHz and a memory clock of 1640MHz.
How We Tested
Test System Components
Since this quarter's build looks to improve upon the Q1 2015 build's shortcomings, we'll be including that PC's results in today's lineup. Additionally, we're going to be comparing this build to last quarter's $1,600 gaming build to see how close we can come to premium performance on a modest budget.
|Q3 $800 Budget Gaming||Q2 $1600 Gaming PC||Q1 $800 Gaming PC|
|Intel Core i3-4170: 3.7GHz|
Two Physical Cores
|Intel Core i5-4690K: 3.50 GHz -|
3.90 GHz, Four Physical Cores
O/C to 4.2-4.4GHz, 1.24V
|Intel Core i3-4150: 3.5GHz, Two Physical Cores, Stock Settings|
|Sapphire R9 380 985 MHz GPU, GDDR5-5800 O/C to 1080 MHz, GDDR5-6520||Gigabyte GTX 980: 1178 MHz GPU, GDDR5-7010 O/C to 1335 MHz, GDDR5-8000||Sapphire R9 280, 940MHz GPU, GDDR5-5000 O/C to 1080MHz, GDDR5-5400|
|8GB G.Skill DDR3-1600 CAS 11-11-11-28, O/C to Applied XMP Profile||16GB Team Extreme DDR3-2400 CAS 10-12-12-31, Applied XMP Profile||8GB G.Skill DDR3-1600 CAS 11-11-11-28, Applied XMP Profile|
|ASRock H97M Pro4:|
LGA 1150, Intel H97 Express
Stock 100 MHz BCLK
|ASRock Z97 Extreme6:|
LGA 1150, Intel Z97 Express
Stock 100 MHz BCLK
|ASRock H81M-HDS: LGA 1150, Intel H81 Express Stock 100MHz BCLK|
|Case||Corsair Carbide SPEC-03 Black, White LED||DIY Adventurer-9601G||NZXT Source 210 Elite Black|
|CPU Cooler||Cooler Master Hyper TX3||Zalman CNPS10X Optima||Intel Boxed Heat Sink and Fan|
|Hard Drive||Samsung 850 Evo 250GB SATA 6Gb/s SSD||Sandisk Extreme Pro 240GB SATA 6Gb/s SSD||Western Digital Blue 1TB HDD, 3.5", 16MB Cache|
|Power||EVGA 100-W1-500-KR: 500W Non-Modular, ATX12V, 80 PLUS||Crucial CSM Series CS750M: 750W, 80 Plus Gold||EVGA 100-W1-500-KR: 500W Non-Modular, ATX12V, 80 PLUS|
|OS||Microsoft Windows 8.1 x64||Microsoft Windows 8 Pro x64||Microsoft Windows 8 Pro x64|
|Graphics||AMD Catalyst 15.7.1||Nvidia GeForce 353.06||AMD Catalyst 14.4|
|Chipset||Intel INF 10.1.1||Intel INF 184.108.40.2067||Intel INF 220.127.116.117|
We're not expecting to see much of an improvement from the extra 200MHz CPU clock in the CPU-based benchmarks, however we should see a nice improvement in the graphics benchmarks thanks to the new R9 380 GPU.
As expected, we see a modest bump in CPU performance, and an even more pronounced increase from the GPU. Interestingly enough, we actually manage to come close to the $1,600 gaming PC in the PCMark 8 Work and Home benchmarks and even manage to exceed that PC in the Storage benchmark. However, since the storage benchmark is well within the three percent margin of error, I can’t exactly call it a victory. In the rest of the synthetics, the results return to more of what we would expect.
In any case, my build either meets or exceeds the Q1 2015 computer in all of the synthetic benchmarks.
It's a bit trickier to compare the gaming benchmarks with each other because the other two builds each lack a different video resolution from their test results. Still, it shouldn't be all that hard to see the effects of the new hardware.
Overall, we see only a mediocre improvement in frame rates compared to the Q1 build. In most cases, the extra frames aren't going to make much of a difference, especially at low settings. At the very least, the extra graphics power does get us back up to playable framerates at the wider resolutions, like 4800x900 and 5760x1080. As expected, there's a very clear difference between this quarter's build and last quarter's $1,600 build.
Shorter times are better in all of our applications tested below. All of the single-threaded applications benefit from the modest increase in clock speed on our new Core i3. The multi-threaded applications also enjoy the benefits of the higher clock speed, though to a lesser extent because the number of cores and threads remains the same.
Again, we see this quarter's build perform slightly better than the Q1 2015 build thanks to the better hardware, but it falls short of the $1,600 gaming build. Interestingly enough, the 3ds Max benchmark sees a significant increase in performance due to the effects of the new R9 380 graphics card.
Power & Heat
Idle power consumption on this quarter's build sees a bit of improvement thanks to the power-saving features built into the R9 380 GPU. Oddly enough, although this build uses less power than the Q1 build in the individual load tests, it uses more power in the combined tests. With the 500W power supply, this system should have more than enough power for an additional graphics card in the future.
The upgraded CPU cooler helps to keep the temperatures lower during the CPU load tests, but overall, the two budget systems are mostly the same. For reference, the ambient temperature for my tests was maintained at 26 degrees Celsius (78.8 degrees Fahrenheit).
With 75 percent the performance of the $1,600 gaming PC at 50 percent of the cost, this quarter's budget build beats both of the other builds in value across all three of the major performance-per-dollar metrics. Normally, due to the frame-rate limitations in Battlefield 4 and other factors, we would defer to using the performance-per-dollar ratio of our highest-tested resolution for gaming, as it better represents the value of the higher performance configurations. However, since none of the builds share the same maximum resolution, it becomes more difficult to make that last comparison.
Although it lacks the top performance of the $1,600 build, this quarter's overclocked build still manages to come out on top value-wise, due to only costing half as much. As I briefly alluded to earlier, the Q1 build lacks statistics on value and performance in our last chart because it was never tested at the same 5760 x 1080 resolution as the others. Even though it's not the best at anything performance-wise, overall this quarter's build turned out to be a success.
Chris Miconi is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware covering Cases.