A Return to Basics
System Builder Marathon Q1 2016
Here are links to each of the four 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!
$662 Budget PC
Regular SBM readers will know I spent the last six months trying to wring every drop out of an Athlon 860K (within reason). The upside was tempting. An unlocked quad-core CPU that can theoretically compete with the more expensive i3 for less money is the low-budget tweaker's Holy Grail. What I found is an age-old lesson: there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The time and money it takes to reach the i3 level is greater than the cost of an i3 platform itself.
The feedback from readers was mixed on a variety of things, but one thread was fairly constant: where were the low-budget builds? It’s been a year since we’ve seen an SBM entry under the $700 mark. Where was the love for our readers without bottomless bank accounts? While I was tempted to follow my cohorts with a mid-range system this time around, ultimately I decided to cut my budget for my fiscally-minded friends.
|Q1 2016 Low-Budget PC Component List|
|Processor||Intel i3-6100 (Skylake)||$129.99|
|CPU Cooler||DeepCool T200||$14.99|
|Motherboard||ASRock Z170 Pro4S||$79.99|
|Graphics||Asus Stric GeForce GTX 950 2GB||$155.09|
|Memory||Mushkin Redline DDR4-2400 CAS13 (2 x 4GB)||$42.99|
|System Drive||WD Blue 1TB 3.5"||$53.99|
|Case||Rosewill Redbone U3||$42.99|
|Total Performance Cost||$558.02|
|Total Hardware Cost||$558.02|
|OS||Windows 10 x64 Home||$104.48|
|Complete System Price||$662.50|
I hesitate to call this a “gaming” build. I’m not sure how I’d classify it, truth be told. I’ll leave the machine to talk for itself and let the readers categorize it. As always, I’m sure you’ll have a lot to say in the comments, and I’m eager to see your responses. As always, I only ask that you read the article in its entirety before posting. I assure you it will answer most of the obvious questions. And hat tip to user filippi. Whether he was serious or not, his prediction from three months ago came true.
A New Directive
Thomas, Chris and I followed a similar theme this time as last quarter, seeking only performance value, but this time we have no inherited restrictions from prior machines. I received an additional directive from Editor-in-Chief Fritz: knock Thomas down a peg or three and beat him. Mr. Soderstrom has gone more than a year since losing the final value crown in the SBM. My Intel Munchkin last quarter tied him at stock clocks, but got thrashed when overclocking was counted. No SSD and limited RAM capacity in Thomas’ declared “Prosumer” build left him with a little ire from the readers last quarter, but the fact is the numbers were not firmly on my side.
A Chance to Excel
Last quarter I was hobbled in my value pursuit by the original Munchkin. While the GTX 970 is a great card, and perhaps still the best mid- to high-end gaming value on the market, gaming benchmarks make up a small portion of the overall test suite. I'll never see value investment returns when spending 40% of my budget on a GPU. Swapping it out for a mainstream GPU should still net me good game performance without spending too much.
On the CPU side there's no need for any drastic change. I could go for an unlocked i5 that Thomas used last quarter, but that would undoubtedly increase the machine cost above any reasonable notion of "low-budget." I'll be sticking with an i3 again this quarter, though I'll be upgrading to the Skylake platform. This brings up the question of BCLK overclocking. Those who looked at the component list on the first page already know the answer. You should be asking, "Is it worth it?" instead. You'll get your answer to that in the next few pages.
The i3 last quarter proved a winner for me so there's little reason to go away from that now. However, there's little reason to stay with Haswell at this point. Moving to Skylake gets me better efficiency, DDR4 memory, and the possibility of BCLK overclocking. While I didn't set out for the latter, I ended up giving it a whirl as you'll find out below.
I actually like Intel's stock coolers, but that's provided you get the nicer ones with the copper slug. Those that come with the i3 are solid aluminum and don't perform as well. That being the case, and since I was attempting to overclock the i3, an aftermarket cooler seemed prudent. The i3 gives off very little heat compared to other Intel CPUs, so a small cooler would be more than adequate. I was stung by another DeepCool product last quarter for not fully clearing RAM modules. However, since this is a small tower cooler, I doubt I'll run into similar problems. The 200T's bigger brother just earned Thomas' adoration, so that (hopefully) bodes well for me.
Originally I had no intention of overclocking the i3 through its BCLK. The news seemed to change every other day whether it was possible or not. And after the troubles I had the last two quarters, I didn't want to take the time either. So I first settled on a good H110 board. The MSI H110M Gaming was on sale for only $70. While you can get a cheaper H110 board, this one featured USB 3.1 ports. MSI boards also have a reputation of better RAM support, so I was hoping for some better memory overclocking than I had last quarter. Then I got wind of an email discussion between Thomas and ASRock.
Not only was Thomas going for a Xeon build, but according to ASRock, they had boards they guaranteed would overclock a Xeon without disabling Hyper Threading. Without that hurdle I knew there was no way my humble i3 could compete. I fired off my own email to ASRock, asking if this could be done on an i3 at a reasonable price. Their response was that any Z170 board would be up to the task. Fearing that meant a drastic increase in system price, I hit up Newegg. To my surprise I saw the MSI Z170-A on sale for $80 instead of the normal $120. That was only $10 more than I spent on the H110 board. If I could overclock even 5 percent, I would end up ahead in terms of value. Knowing this was likely putting me back in the headache I swore off three months ago, I sent in the purchase order.
Sadly the sale ended the morning the purchase was approved. Going back to Newegg I looked for cheap Z170 boards and found ASRock's Z170 Pro4S for the same $80. It meant giving up USB 3.1 for 3.0, but it was the best Z board I was likely to get without greatly increasing my budget.
This is the third Asus card I've used in a row. No, I don't have some secret loyalty to Asus. Like most things in the SBM, it's the timing of when parts go on sale. I'd decided on a 950 when I first elected for a low-budget gaming and all-around performance machine. Initial prices when I was part shopping had MSI and EVGA cards on sale. By the time my list got finalized, those cards jumped up $15 while the Strix went on sale. My cohort Mr. Carbotte sang this card's praises, so that's enough for me to give it a go. Its black and red color scheme also matched my chosen (at the time) motherboard, so bonus style points.
Mushkin's kit has much better timings than most inexpensive RAM kits available. While most are DDR4-2133 CAS 14 or 15, Mushkin ups the frequency and lowers the latency. The rated 1.2V also might give a little room to push it higher. At time of original purchase, they also matched the motherboard and GPU in color. I don't normally prioritize style and looks when building computers, but who am I to deny Fate when she hands me a great color scheme?
Not all in-house brands are inferior and not all cheap cases are flimsy sheet metal boxes masquerading as computer enclosures. The Redbone may not be quite as rigid as other more expensive chassis, but it does offer front panel USB 3.0, eSATA and three 120mm fans pre-installed. Paul, Don and Thomas have all used this case in SBMs to success and I expect to do the same. Having already selected a board, GPU and RAM, I admit I did spend an extra $3 on this case for the color. If $3 makes the difference in my value win, then I don't deserve it this time.
The list of good quality, low price PSUs in the 400W – 500W range is pretty slim. Getting one with a PCIe power lead makes it even harder. Finding Antec's unit at a discount was a small blessing. This machine shouldn't come anywhere near even half of the 450W this supply can handle, but going with anything smaller means either spending more money or powering the GPU off molex adapters, neither of which is a good option.
The absence of a SSD will no doubt be disappointing to some. That disappointment is not unmerited. I didn't have any budget restrictions, so I can't say I couldn't afford one. I was hoping to keep the total system under (or at least around) $650 total. Even without a SSD I overshot that goal a little. The SBM test image requires at least 200GB of disk space. That means I would've needed at least a 240GB SSD, and those run at least $60. That would put me over $700 total. At that point I feared the low-budget crowd would think the SBM had ignored them once again. I could've used a 120GB drive, but since that couldn't hold the test image, it wouldn't have counted in the benchmarks. The spindle drive seemed to be the best way to hit the most goals possible.
OS – Windows 10 x64 OEM - $100
Like last time, our part list shows Windows 10 while the bench results say Windows 8. We're still finalizing the new test image so that will have to wait a little longer. Also like last time, I added an 8GB USB drive for the winner that I'll load with the Windows 10 install files so they won't need to use a DVD drive. There was a little discussion last time as to whether this is fair or not. So I'll add that $4.50 to my total machine cost.
A spacious ATX tower case seems luxurious after six months of cramped ITX quarters. Assembling the components in the case went smoothly. The 200T has a mounting system similar to Intel's stock cooler. A base ring attaches to the motherboard using push-pins and the cooler clamps to the ring. In an AMD build, the cooler can attach directly to the stock AMD mount plate. I'm not a fan of push-pins in general, but this system proves both elegant and effective.
As Thomas and others have found before, the Redbone offers practically no accommodations for clean cable management. None of the cutouts were useful. The best I could do was tuck and tie the cables out of the main air paths. It's not pretty but it shouldn't pose any thermal problems. My CPU cooler was short enough to still fit under the side case fan in its stock position. However the CPU had plenty of thermal headroom so I moved it lower on the panel to give the GPU more air. Installation of software proved more problematic
Our master test image for the SBM is still on Windows 8, not even 8.1. Simply getting the image loaded and running on the new hardware was difficult enough. None of the manufacturer provided driver installation packages wanted to work. Now I may be knowledgeable enough to extract a driver out of the package and manually apply it, but most people aren't. This is just a gentle reminder to those complaining about Microsoft dropping additional support for older Windows versions on newer hardware. Other companies are doing it too. If you look at the motherboard drivers for new LGA1151 boards, you may notice that most no longer offer Windows XP drivers. It wouldn't surprise me if Windows 7 drivers got dropped in the next generation.
My dad had a favorite saying: I hate it when they do it to themselves. I'm sure he'd be laughing at me right now. Only a few short months after swearing off overclocking this quarter, here I am again. Worst of all, I brought it on myself. I could've said no. I could've said it's not worth it. I could've said I wasn't going to mess with the morass that seems to be Skylake BCLK tinkering. Just do a simple memory and GPU boost and be done with it. But I've never claimed to be an overly humble fellow, and when I heard Thomas was having success overclocking a supposedly locked down Xeon, it's difficult for me to swallow pride and take that lying down.
But don't let me scare you off with tales of doom and horror. The overclocking started off quite easy. The 3.0 BIOS that was on this board still had ASRock's Sky OC feature, but I ignored it at first. Sky OC is reported to disable AVX. A lot of the CPU tasks in the SBM bench suite enable AVX and if I lost that acceleration I would lose more performance than I would gain in pure clock speed. Instead I got my hands dirty in the pure manual settings.
A quick bump to a 105 MHz BCLK showed no problem. Another jump to 110 MHz likewise went well. At this point I went for gusto and punched in 120 MHz. Finally I hit a boot error. Slowly lowering the BCLK it seemed 115 MHz was either this motherboard's limit or the CPU wouldn't budge above 4.225 GHz. It wasn't a thermal issue as the CPU wasn't going over 60 degrees C total, and boosting the voltage wasn't helping either. With my CPU limit in hand, I turned to the RAM.
Setting the BCLK back to 100 MHz, I started stretching the RAM above its XMP values. The modules proved stable at DDR4-2666 and auto timings so I tried for 2800. That too was a success so I went for 2933. The system booted but proved unstable at the lightest load. Dropping back to 2800 I found I couldn't get the timings tighter than CAS 15. A quick run of Sandra showed the bandwidth wasn't any better than the 2400 XMP. Dropping once again to the 2666 multiplier I found CAS14 was both stable and offered better bandwidth than either 2400 or 2800. I found my two sweet spots so now it was time to marry them. And that's when the horror show started.
With a 115 MHz BCLK, using the 2400 multiplier would result in DDR4-2760, which was a little higher than I'd proved was stable, but I'd give it a go. Except I couldn't boot the system at all on those settings. A little disappointed I lowered BCLK to 110 MHz and tried again. This time the computer at least booted, but the RAM wasn't stable. This confused me as it was only DDR4-2640, or slower than I had done boosting the RAM alone. I brought the BCLK back up to 115 MHz but lowered the RAM multiplier to the 2133 default for DDR4-2453. Again, it would boot but it wasn't stable. At this point I was wondering if the memory controller in the CPU simply didn't respond well to the higher BCLK. It was fine for light loads, but any sort of heavy memory work resulted in crashes and rounding errors.
At this point I contacted ASRock for assistance and advice. They provided a new BIOS which somewhat helped, but not entirely. I still couldn't reach the RAM speeds on an overclocked BCLK as I could at stock. In desperation I turned to Sky OC. Perhaps it would unlock some additional memory controls and multipliers. Perhaps the cache being tied to the main CPU multiplier was causing problems and Sky OC would give me separate controls.
Sky OC did get me booted and stable at BCLK 110 and DDR4-2640, but it was at CAS 18. Not only that, but AVX had been disabled. At this point, things looked grim. The incredible 15 percent overclock I was able to get with the CPU would be for naught as the system wouldn't be able to complete the test battery. I had to roll back the CPU until I could stabilize the memory system.
A Changed Outlook
While licking your wounds is hardly pleasant, this time it came with a feeling of relief. There was little chance I was going to catch Thomas this quarter (sorry Fritz!). At this point I was just looking for the highest BCLK that didn't kill the RAM and didn't disable AVX. It took a few tries, but I finally locked it in at 102 MHz. That brought another problem as I noticed the motherboard automatically lowered both my CPU and cache multiplier from 37 to 36. Meaning I was actually losing clock speed. As the i3 is a locked chip, multiplier controls are nowhere in the UEFI. However, A-Tune in Windows has the ability to bump them back up. The cache multiplier change actually seemed helpful as I reached DDR4-2720 CAS 14. It helped in making up for the hurt of losing 13 percent of my gains, but not much.
Between hassling with drivers and fiddling with the CPU and RAM overclock, I was very short on time to tune the GPU. I went back to Kevin's review and looked at what he was able to reach. I tried those settings and found them relatively stable. A few extra tweaks and I was done. My memory was friendlier than Kevin's sample and was able to take a 250 MHz boost. My GPU core wasn't quite as nice, but it was able to go up another 125 MHz by raising the power target to 120 percent.