System Builder Marathon Q3 2015: Gaming PC

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?

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

Gaming PC

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. 

Loading...

  • Platform Cost: $620
  • Total Hardware Cost: $700
  • Complete System Price: $800

Component Selection

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.

Assembly

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.

Overclocking

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 GamingQ2 $1600 Gaming PCQ1 $800 Gaming PC
Processor
(Overclock)
Intel Core i3-4170: 3.7GHz
Two Physical Cores
Stock Settings
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
Graphics
(Overclock)
Sapphire R9 380 985 MHz GPU,  GDDR5-5800 O/C to 1080 MHz, GDDR5-6520Gigabyte GTX 980: 1178 MHz GPU,  GDDR5-7010 O/C to 1335 MHz, GDDR5-8000Sapphire R9 280, 940MHz GPU, GDDR5-5000 O/C to 1080MHz, GDDR5-5400
Memory
(Overclock)
8GB G.Skill DDR3-1600 CAS 11-11-11-28, O/C to Applied XMP Profile16GB Team Extreme DDR3-2400 CAS 10-12-12-31, Applied XMP Profile8GB G.Skill DDR3-1600 CAS 11-11-11-28, Applied XMP Profile
Motherboard
(Overclock)
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
CaseCorsair Carbide SPEC-03 Black, White LEDDIY Adventurer-9601GNZXT Source 210 Elite Black
CPU CoolerCooler Master Hyper TX3Zalman CNPS10X OptimaIntel Boxed Heat Sink and Fan
Hard DriveSamsung 850 Evo 250GB SATA 6Gb/s SSDSandisk Extreme Pro 240GB SATA 6Gb/s SSDWestern Digital Blue 1TB HDD, 3.5", 16MB Cache
PowerEVGA 100-W1-500-KR: 500W Non-Modular, ATX12V, 80 PLUSCrucial CSM Series CS750M: 750W, 80 Plus GoldEVGA 100-W1-500-KR: 500W Non-Modular, ATX12V, 80 PLUS
Software
OSMicrosoft Windows 8.1 x64Microsoft Windows 8 Pro x64Microsoft Windows 8 Pro x64
GraphicsAMD Catalyst 15.7.1Nvidia GeForce 353.06AMD Catalyst 14.4
ChipsetIntel INF 10.1.1Intel INF 9.4.0.1017Intel INF 9.4.0.1017

Test Results

Synthetics

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.

Gaming

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.

Applications

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).

Final Word

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.

MORE: Latest Systems News
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Chris Miconi is an Associate Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware covering Cases.

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64 comments
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  • envy14tpe
    For gaming and for $800, this is an excellent build. As we saw in the AMD build, the 860k can limit in some games, and going i3 is a pure solid choice. Also, a 380 will max out most games at 1080p. Great choices and to hell with the whiners.
  • RedJaron
    While many H81, 87, 97, and B85 boards support unofficial overclocking, they're primarily limited to just CPU multiplier and voltage. Only Z boards let you fiddle with the BCLK to take the locked i3 any higher. The ASRock Z97M Pro4 might have been an alternative if you put the TX3 money toward it. However, you are right that a few hundred MHz more don't make a big difference in most daily computing.

    Also, your particular board may "technically" support CFX, but that bottom slot is only PCIe 2.0 x4 and will severely handicap any second GPU you add.

    But still a good, efficient build nonetheless. Your build will definitely cream mine in the productivity benchmarks come Wednesday.
  • Bossyfins
    The main reason the EVGA 500w get a lot of hate by users, including me, is because XFX makes a higher quality, made by seasonic to be exact, for about 10-15$ more. I would, and probably many others would choose to pay an extra mere 15$ than have a potential burn out of all components. Other than the PSU, solid part selections.
  • Tomtompiper
    Is it just me or is the System Builder Marathon Q3 2015: AMD Mini PC faster than this in most games? This would fit in with the "save on the processor and go big on the GPU philosophy. Also I believe it is time to throw in a multitasking benchmark, seldom do I encode or game an leave the machine running that one task, I'm gaming while streaming videos or encoding while surfing the web or streaming videos or both.
  • kinney
    This is good. I do love that i3 and 380 combo. Until AMD shows a rebound in their business though, I'd probably avoid them to reduce chances of ending up with unsupported product. A 970 would be ideal.
    A 380 or 970 is pretty much all most of us really need. The PC market is mature and has been for some time, spending on top end hardware doesn't make sense any longer. I'm waiting for KabyLake which should have enough graphics performance for my MOBA and other competitive gaming needs. Unless you're looking at buying into VR in which case a PS4+Morpheus needs to be considered.
  • Marko Ravnjak
    Do we still need a dvd in each box? :)
  • M515k4
    This is the way I build gaming PCs for friends. Agreed with HDD vs SDD part. I would only use some smaller case.
  • ykki
    Quote:
    For gaming and for $800, this is an excellent build. As we saw in the AMD build, the 860k can limit in some games, and going i3 is a pure solid choice.


    Though in the AMD build you can get a cpu cooler later down the road and OC the 860k.
  • filippi
    1427918 said:
    Quote:
    For gaming and for $800, this is an excellent build. As we saw in the AMD build, the 860k can limit in some games, and going i3 is a pure solid choice.
    Though in the AMD build you can get a cpu cooler later down the road and OC the 860k.


    This for me is the Intel main advantage: FM2 upgrade path is a 3rd party cpu cooler + overclock.
    Haswell upgrade path is an i5/i7/xeon.
  • Math Geek
    i would love to see the amd build from yesterday overclocked just for the academics of it. give it away as is but since you don't normally have such a system in the comparisons, why not cool it right and oc it just to see how it does with the 970.

    again just for the academics of it more than anything. just curious how it would hold up to this i3 build.

    but overall nice build, i even don't mind the evga psu. it's not as bad as folks want it ot be. it has reviewed very well and is solid for it's proper uses. though i am not so sure about it being capable of a second 380. i'd go with a bit better psu for that.
  • g-unit1111
    Why is the cost of these systems $800? Does that include the price of the operating system license in there or not? How is that determining the cost of the hardware that is going inside these systems? I'm just wondering what the logic is behind the part choices.
  • RedJaron
    330036 said:
    Is it just me or is the System Builder Marathon Q3 2015: AMD Mini PC faster than this in most games?
    In certain things, yes, my AMD build is faster at games.

    In Arma 3, Chris' build is faster than mine across the board except at 5760x1080 on Ultra detail. That's kinda academic since 29 fps isn't really smooth for gaming.

    In BF4, the AMD system is faster in every respect, though Chris does tie me at single-screen resolutions and medium detail.

    In FC3, Chris has a slight advantage over me at stock speeds and lower details. Once I OC my machine, it takes a small lead in most places.

    Grid 2 has us trading blows all over the place.

    Generally, as you go higher resolution and/or higher detail settings, my AMD build will pull away from Chris' system.
  • Co BIY
    Nice build! Your experience shows in how well this system is balanced. I appreciate how you set the machine up with both the eventual owner and those enthusiasts upgrading by following your lead in mind.

    My only quibble - A smaller tower would have taken better advantage of the Micro ATX board and low power/heat of the system.

    I think the DVD recorder and spinning disks are in the same category. Lots want or need them but they are cheap commodities that don't help a competitive build. Lean is the way to go for the Marathon!

    Which if any of the benchmarks show the benefits of Direct X12 ?
  • Math Geek
    537231 said:
    Why is the cost of these systems $800? Does that include the price of the operating system license in there or not? How is that determining the cost of the hardware that is going inside these systems? I'm just wondering what the logic is behind the part choices.


    yah, windows is included in the $800 price. so basically, they are $700 builds without the OS. this is stated in each article in the introduction.

    "This quarter, Thomas, Eric, and I are all building $800 systems, well $700, with the remaining money reserved for the operating system"
  • Durandul
    Would've personally went with a 280X over the 380, but I understand the price fluctuates pretty heavily on the 280X, so whatever.

    Also, I know the Core i3 is fine for games today, but I still cringe at possible forwards compatibility issues. I'd have gone FX 6350 on principle alone basically, but the Core i3 is admittedly better in most games, and has a reputation of being more stable overall.
  • RedJaron
    1786133 said:
    i would love to see the amd build from yesterday overclocked just for the academics of it. give it away as is but since you don't normally have such a system in the comparisons, why not cool it right and oc it just to see how it does with the 970. again just for the academics of it more than anything. just curious how it would hold up to this i3 build.
    I did OC it, I was just very limited due to a small, hot environment. In light work, the CPU stays between 4.0 and 4.3 GHz ( stock speeds were 3.7 - 4.0 GHz. However, once a heavy workload sets in, it will throttle itself back to 3.5 - 3.7 GHz as temps climb. That threshold is around 63° - 67° C ( total, not over ambient ). What you're suggesting would require putting the Munchkin internals on a bench and strapping a massive cooler to it. I don't know if we have that much time before it gets sent out to the winner. It would be an interesting experiment though.
  • Math Geek
    570460 said:
    1786133 said:
    i would love to see the amd build from yesterday overclocked just for the academics of it. give it away as is but since you don't normally have such a system in the comparisons, why not cool it right and oc it just to see how it does with the 970. again just for the academics of it more than anything. just curious how it would hold up to this i3 build.
    I did OC it, I was just very limited due to a small, hot environment. In light work, the CPU stays between 4.0 and 4.3 GHz ( stock speeds were 3.7 - 4.0 GHz. However, once a heavy workload sets in, it will throttle itself back to 3.5 - 3.7 GHz as temps climb. That threshold is around 63° - 67° C ( total, not over ambient ). What you're suggesting would require putting the Munchkin internals on a bench and strapping a massive cooler to it. I don't know if we have that much time before it gets sent out to the winner. It would be an interesting experiment though.


    yah that's pretty much what i was asking :) to really strap on some high end cooling on an open bench and see what the cpu can really do without being throttled. again not practical overall as a build but i am very curious as to how it does with such a nice gpu. plenty of benchmarks with high end cpu's but pretty much nothing available with these entry level ones.

    back before the unlocked penium showed up, the 860k was used in the low end system of the SBM a lot but was always a low budget and was paired with low end gpu's as a result. so we never really got a feel for what it would do with a nice high end gpu thrown in. :D
  • envy14tpe
    In what decade will the fx-63xx series outperform a i3? It's not "future proof" buying a fx-63xx. It hasn't shown (for years) that it will beat a i3, and I doubt it will in the future.
  • filippi
    1786133 said:
    570460 said:
    1786133 said:
    i would love to see the amd build from yesterday overclocked just for the academics of it. give it away as is but since you don't normally have such a system in the comparisons, why not cool it right and oc it just to see how it does with the 970. again just for the academics of it more than anything. just curious how it would hold up to this i3 build.
    I did OC it, I was just very limited due to a small, hot environment. In light work, the CPU stays between 4.0 and 4.3 GHz ( stock speeds were 3.7 - 4.0 GHz. However, once a heavy workload sets in, it will throttle itself back to 3.5 - 3.7 GHz as temps climb. That threshold is around 63° - 67° C ( total, not over ambient ). What you're suggesting would require putting the Munchkin internals on a bench and strapping a massive cooler to it. I don't know if we have that much time before it gets sent out to the winner. It would be an interesting experiment though.
    yah that's pretty much what i was asking :) to really strap on some high end cooling on an open bench and see what the cpu can really do without being throttled. again not practical overall as a build but i am very curious as to how it does with such a nice gpu. plenty of benchmarks with high end cpu's but pretty much nothing available with these entry level ones. back before the unlocked penium showed up, the 860k was used in the low end system of the SBM a lot but was always a low budget and was paired with low end gpu's as a result. so we never really got a feel for what it would do with a nice high end gpu thrown in. :D


    I would like to see a test w/ the $40 Cooler Master Seidon 120V. This is a true option for this particular build.
  • RedJaron
    I'd be interested where you're seeing a Seidon for $40. Remember, we're not allowed to use mail-in rebates for these things.
  • James Mason
    Well, $50 from Newegg and B&H, $40 from newegg with the mail-in.

    I think trying to fit the seidon into the AMD build could have helped it alot though, but may have punished it's graphics performance with a lower chip requirement.
  • filippi
    570460 said:
    I'd be interested where you're seeing a Seidon for $40. Remember, we're not allowed to use mail-in rebates for these things.


    I was not question your build. As far as I am concerned this was a well thought and executed gaming build. I just point out that this particular cpu cooler would be a good match for this build and the suggested oc testing.

    know what... if i win this rig i will send you the Seidon for the test! Deal? :D
  • Onus
    This machine did very well, which I think is a suspicion that most readers would have had at the outset; an excellent build, but uninteresting data points from it. Once again, I'm not thrilled by the PSU choice, but it was certainly enough to provide the data. I'd like to win this one; I'd use a modular Antec PSU I've got on a shelf, and toss in at least one magnetic HDD.
  • Chris Droste
    i just revel in the knowledge that without rebates i can goto a local/regional merchant, drop the aftermarket cooler from this setup and move to a cheaper case, step up to the i5-4590 and manage to squeeze the 970 back into the build after nailing down an (almost) never ending rebate on a slightly cheaper SSD.