System Builder Marathon Q2 2015: $1600 Performance PC

This month’s high-end build looks lighter than its predecessor, yet includes a six-core Haswell-E CPU. Will the shift away from graphics kill its gaming cred?


System Builder Marathon Q2 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. $1600 Performance PC
  2. $1600 Mini Performance PC
  3. $1600 Gaming PC
  4. $1600 Mini Gaming PC
  5. System Value Compared

$1600 Performance PC

Prices change but the value cause remains. Our System Builder Marathon originally merged our ultimate PC and budget PCs into a series of face-offs intended to inform and entertain, as builders struggled against each other to reach the ultimate value across a tough set of tasks. We’ve long forgotten our $500, $1500 and $4500 machines as the majority of readers started sounding like Jimmy McMillan every time one of our budgets crossed the $2,000 threshold. We get that. We like saving money too!

A look at what many readers were saying indicates that the realistic budget limit for most enthusiasts is around $1600. That’s also about where the top of the mainstream and bottom of the high-end markets meet. Careful budgeters know that this is just enough money to buy a high-end CPU, a high-end GPU, and all the parts to support those processors. But that’s just the cost of the parts! While I build with leftover licenses from old machines and upgrade keys purchased through promotions, many readers want a complete system price with software to compare to mass-configured systems that include a $100 OS. Believing that $1600 would be the minimum hardware cost for a high-end build, I questioned what I do with just $1500 worth of hardware.


  • Platform Cost: $1,345
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1,495
  • Complete System Price: $1,595

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I can actually do quite well with $1500 if I’m willing to step down to a GTX 970 or R9 290X. My commitment last quarter to stick with Haswell-E prevented me from sacrificing CPU for GPU performance, and also helped me avoid dealing with the heat vs performance debate between dual R9 290X graphics in CrossFire or a single GTX 980. Dropping down to graphics I could still afford, the GTX 970 costs as much as a single R9 290X, offers similar performance, and uses much less power.

The only really big sacrifice then is cooling. The Hyper 612 Ver.2 is massive in scale but has less mass than we’d expect, a lower-speed fan than we’d like, and thus less performance than we believe a cooler this size should have. An extra $30 for cooling would have been a big budget buster.

Here’s how I picked and assembled these parts.

Component Selection

I promised a Haswell-E and a storage upgrade during our last SBM, but combining those two things didn’t leave much room for a high-model Haswell-E, or even a top graphics card within my $1500 hardware budget. We’d still need other somewhat-expensive things such as a minimum of 16GB DDR4 in quad-channel mode, and a big stable power supply. Let’s start with the CPU:

Hardware Installation

The installation of Cooler Master’s Hyper 612 Ver. 2 on MSI’s X99S SLI Plus is fully detailed in our previous SBM alternative build. Today’s installation differs only in memory module aesthetics.

Our Z11 Neo case review shows most of the features utilized in today’s build, but the SSR-650RM power supply didn’t have any straight ends needed to connect the SSD when attached to the back of the motherboard tray. To minimize the number of required cable leads, I put both the SSD and the HDD into two adapter trays located beneath the Z11 Neo’s ODD bay.

The rest of the installation doesn’t require much explanation. The I/O shield (included with the motherboard) snapped into its rectangular hole, the motherboard is attached to standoffs using nine screws, and the power supply is attached to the back of the case with another four screws. The case includes all the necessary screws.


Even with the externally-venting graphics card and fairly good front-to-back airflow, the Hyper 612 Ver. 2 CPU cooler couldn’t handle the load of this overclocked Core i7-5820K. Though capable of 4.5 GHz at 1.28 volts, I was forced to drop its core voltage to 1.22 volts due to thermal issues, Noting that it wouldn’t even run all six cores at 4.30 GHz using this voltage, I also applied a 4.0 (six cores) to 4.30 GHz (two cores) scale similar to the Turbo Boost modes used by Intel. Finally, noticing that the CPU bumped its 100 °Celsius thermal limit, I increased that threshold to 105°.

DRAM was far easier to overclock, reaching DDR4-3200 CAS 16-18-18-36 at 1.30 volts. That’s pretty convenient too, since this motherboard lacks any DRAM ratios between the stock DDR4-2666 and the overclocked DDR4-3200.

In a rush to finish, I pushed the GPU graphics RAM to +250 MHz in MSI Afterburner, only to encounter a crash. Dialing each back in 50 MHz increments, I found complete stability at +150 and +200 MHz, respectively. A 106% power limit helps keep the GPU near its maximum boost frequency.

The results under graphics loads are 4.30 GHz CPU, DDR4-3200, a graphics clock up to 1328 MHz, and GDDR5-7412.

Comparison Systems

Last quarter’s $1750 PC had two GTX 970’s and a four core CPU, while today’s $1600 machine has 50% fewer graphics cards and 50% more CPU cores. We don’t expect it to win overall in performance, but the value challenge should be interesting. The fairer question is whether today’s machine can take out last-year’s GTX 980 enhanced $1600 PC.

 Q2 $1600 Performance PCQ1 $1750 Performance PCQ4 2014 $1600 PC
Intel Core i7-5820K: 3.30 GHz -
3.60 GHz, Six Physical Cores
O/C to 4.0-4.3GHz, 1.22V
Intel Core i7-4790K: 4.00 GHz -
4.40 GHz, Four Physical Cores
O/C to 4.60-4.80 GHz, +20mV
Intel Core i7-4790K: 4.00 GHz -
4.40 GHz, Four Physical Cores
O/C to 4.60 GHz, 1.26V
PNY GTX 970: <1178 MHz GPU,  GDDR5-7012 O/C to <1328 MHz, GDDR5-74122x PNY GTX 970: <1178 MHz GPU,  GDDR5-7012 O/C to <1328 MHz, GDDR5-7312PNY GTX 980: <1216 MHz GPU,  GDDR5-7012 O/C to <1456 MHz, GDDR5-7972
16GB G.Skill DDR4-2666 CAS 15-15-15-35, O/C to DDR4-3200 CL 16-18-18-36, 1.30V16GB G.Skill DDR3-1866 CAS 10-11-10-28, O/C to DDR3-2133 CL 11-12-11-24, 1.60V8 GB G.Skill DDR3-2133 CAS 9-11-10-28, O/C to DDR3-2400 CL 10-12-12-28, 1.60V
MSI X99 SLI Plus:
LGA 2011-v3, Intel X99
Stock 100 MHz BCLK
Gigabyte Z97X-Gaming 5:
LGA 1150, Intel Z97 Express
Stock 100 MHz BCLK
Biostar Hi-Fi Z97WE:
LGA 1150, Intel Z97 Express
Stock 100 MHz BCLK
CaseZALMAN Z11 NeoCorsair Graphite 230TThermaltake Chaser A31
CPU CoolerCooler Master Hyper 612 Ver.2Corsair H100i Closed-LoopPhanteks PH-TC14PE 140mm
Hard DriveSamsung 850 Evo 250GB SATA 6Gb/s SSDCrucial MX100 256GB SATA 6Gb/s SSDPlextor M6S PX-256M6S 256GB SATA 6Gb/s SSD
PowerSeaSonic SSR-650RM: 650W, 80 PLUS GoldRosewill CAPSTONE-750: 750W, 80 PLUS GoldRosewill CAPSTONE-750-M: 750W, 80 PLUS Gold
OSMicrosoft Windows 8 Pro x64Microsoft Windows 8 Pro x64Microsoft Windows 8 Pro x64
GraphicsNvidia GeForce 352.86Nvidia GeForce 347.25Nvidia GeForce 344.75
ChipsetIntel INF INF INF


The extra CPU cores won’t help in 3DMark’s overall score or graphics test, though we do see noticeable improvements in this build’s Physics score. Otherwise, its weaker graphics register a 3DMark loss.

PCMark highlights slightly better SSD performance, while Sandra shows off the gains of the new build’s six-core CPU and quad-channel memory controller. Arithmetic scores are up only slightly, bandwidth scores gain wildly, and the encoding/decoding cycle in Cryptography falls in the middle due to its dependence on memory bandwidth.


Our new build edges out last-quarter’s SLI configuration at Arma 3’s lowest test settings, but that’s probably due to a small amount of CPU overhead for the second GPU. The previous builds assume a commanding lead at Ultra quality.

Grid 2 likewise benefits at our lower test settings from the new machine’s better memory performance, but the new machine’s single graphics card and slower clock speed force a loss at nearly every other game setting.

Media, Productivity And Compression

Lower is better in timed applications, where single-threaded audio encoding benefits from the higher clock speeds of previous builds while multi-threaded video encoding benefits from the new machine’s additional cores. Photoshop’s OpenCL-optimized filters hang in the balance, favoring the GTX 980 of last-year’s machine.

WinZip strangely favors the SLI machine when using OpenCL enhancement, where non-games typically don’t get that type of benenfit. WinRAR appears to balance added cores against added clock frequency, while WinZip’s CPU-based compression and 7-Zip both agree that the new machines extra cores are extra-nice to have.

Power, Heat, Efficiency And Value

Though the new build’s six-core CPU and quad-channel memory require more energy while idle, the high-end graphics solutions of previous builds pushed their peak power consumption sky high. Even with its 650W power supply, the new system has more than enough power in reserve for future SLI upgrades.

Heat numbers are good for the graphics card and bad for the CPU. We have experience with this CPU cooler and, reasoning that a fan upgrade might cost more than an upgrade to a better cooler, are opening up the discussion to our readers. What “better” CPU cooler would you buy for $50 or less?

Thanks primarily to performance gains in professional applications, the new $1600 machine provides far more performance-per-dollar than its predecessor. On the other hand, the performance of some games was artificially capped at our lower test settings, with things such as Battlefield 4’s 200FPS limit limiting the overall gaming performance gains available to previous graphics-heavy machines. Suggested long ago by a former colleague, a chart of performance-per-dollar at our highest gaming test resolution better-represents the value of top graphics configurations.

The Q1 build’s GTX 970s in SLI look like the killer configuration for high-resolution gaming, though I’ve seen benchmarks showing that a similarly-priced R9 290X CrossFire configuration is more suitable at 4K. Either way, the weaker single GTX 970 appeared best suited to 4800x900 at the quality limits of most games, which is far short of 4K.

Not that I mind gaming at 4800x900. In fact, today’s PC follows the same building strategy I’ve used since my University experience, where I was able to perform the same professional tasks from my apartment that required my classmates to return to the computer lab, and have some gaming fun in my off-time. Right, wrong or just different, I’ll take today’s overall value win as a step in the right direction until an onslaught of readers tell me otherwise.

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Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware, covering Cases, Cooling, Memory and Motherboards. Follow him onTwitter.

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    Top Comments
  • Aspiring techie
    The arrows are in the way AGAIN!
  • Other Comments
  • synphul
    Looks like a solid build but the thing sticking out like such a sore thumb is that overpriced under performing cooler. May as well have paired that build with a $30 corsair cx builder psu.

    For the same price as that cpu cooler the build could have easily supported the thermalright true spirit 140 power which is a much better cooler. Offering similar if not identical performance to the noctua nh-d14. $5 over the price of that hyper 612 so it wouldn't have blown the budget. If $5 blows a budget set for $1600 people need to rethink their priorities.
  • ingtar33
    yeah, i'm with synphul. You should have tried to hunt down a Thermalright Macho HR-02 rev.b; it's about the same pricerange and a much better performer then that junk coolermaster. still great article.
  • vimes123
    In my opinion this is not really a gaming PC build (EDIT: I guess it is not supposed to be either, it would be nice to define what "Performance PC" means, though).
    You would never settle for a 970 in a $1500 build. One could easily cut $200 from the cpu (i5-4590), $50 from the mainboard and $50 from the imo pointlessly expensive Samsung 850 for a regular 250gb ssd.
    Put these additional $300 into the graphic card and you are in Radeon R9 fury or Geforce 980ti territory.
    What use is any build if the purpose is not clear?
  • Aspiring techie
    The arrows are in the way AGAIN!
  • MasterMace
    a $1600 build with only a GTX 970 in it? Of course its credibility is shot.
  • rolli59
    I guess people are missing the point that this is the $1600 performance/productivity build not the $1600 gaming build to be featured in ARTICLE 3!
  • clonazepam
    116608 said:
    I guess people are missing the point that this is the $1600 performance/productivity build not the $1600 gaming build to be featured in ARTICLE 3!

    Interesting approach this time around. Eager to see the rest!
  • jonxor
    Article asks: "This month’s high-end build looks lighter than its predecessor, yet includes a six-core Haswell-E CPU. Will the shift away from graphics kill its gaming cred?" Yes. Yes it did. It cost nearly the same as the SLI machine, and was comparably terrible in gaming, and in exchange you got about a 5% increase in a few media/rendering apps. For the price, you almost could have built an equally fast rendering PC without a dedicated GPU, and a gaming PC with a nice graphics card. Toms articles over the past few years proved that once you get to a certain point, 99% of games don't get any benefit from faster CPU's, (look at the "best CPU for the money" articles). What was going on with this build? it seemed to have wandered from the original mission of a gaming PC, and into a 1600$ office PC that can unzip files slightly faster? This is bizarre and confusing.

    Not to say I wouldn't want this PC if it were cheaper, but why spend so much to make it middle-of-the-road in everything?
  • tsnor
    Umm, maybe they got tired of the comments claiming a i7-5720K w/DDR4 and 6 cpus would crush the devil's canyon cpu, video heavy builds they usually spec.

    I like the build variety. It's good to see data showing why a gaming system would never be built this way.
  • synphul
    Exactly, it's not exclusively a gaming build. The majority of the build makes sense, the case is more or less personal preference and open to interpretation provided it still does the job and provides effective cooling. This particular case will support coolers over 200mm tall which makes it a perfect candidate for the taller and more effective true spirit 140 power without breaking the budget. For a gaming build I'd definitely work a 980 in there at this budget but the extra cores are beneficial to general performance and heavier workloads aside from gaming. The 970 is still more than adequate for much more than 'occasional' gaming though.

    Each type of build will focus elsewhere depending on the specific intentions. There are a lot of editing and content creation type tasks as well as office work and other computing that requires little in the way of a gpu at all and instead may focus on a raid array or more ram. Or a gaming setup that will sacrifice those things for a bigger gpu. Still a solid build and a good article. That cooler just makes me think the rest of the build was complete and someone rummaged around in a bin of extras to find something to cool it and that's what they came up with.

    It's not a terrible cooler but at $50 I would expect a better level of performance. The be quiet pure rock has better thermals and nearly equal sound levels for the price, literally. Scythe mugen 4 comes to mind (though newegg has just about the highest prices on it), raijentek themis evo etc. More of a personal preference, but the 612 v2 appears to have the same wonky retention system as the 212 evo as well. Hard to beat the true spirit 140 power at the $50 mark when given a case plenty wide to support it.
  • TNT27
    I do not understand why everyone goes with the wd blue 1tb, or baracuda.

    I mean I find plenty of Hitachi 2tb for same prices, and they also have a lower fail rate percentage than those two also. (Hitachi was bought out from WD while back)
  • g-unit1111
    I'm curious why the generic GPU cooler - especially when a lot of stores are selling the Asus Strix for $10 less and the MSI TwinFROZR for the same price?
  • synphul
    I'm willing to bet hitachi branded drives don't sell but maybe 1/10th or less of the volume than seagate or wd drives do also which can skew the results of fail percentages. They're not terrible drives. Samsung spinpoint were decent drives too. However the only 2tb model I found that was cheaper than the typical seagate or wd blue drives also was reviewed on tom's a mere 4+ years ago. Other places reviewed it nearly 5yrs ago. That was shortly after seagate's 7200.10 perpendicular recording method. Aka, it's old as dirt which is why it's low priced.

    Not everyone goes with wd blue drives. I wasn't the one putting the system together but for a 'performance' pc with a budget heading closer to $2k I think I would've sprung for a wd black or wd re4 with a longer warranty and twice the cache as the wd blue. Both my systems run wd re4's. Blue's are more of the budget line for average desktops which see light to moderate use and may not be seeing 24/7 use.

    I think I could have done a lot better for $1600 but my preferences aren't everyone's and this is still a solid build. Also unless I'm mistaken the tom's builds always go by newegg prices. The idea being, it's a realistic representation of a build that at that budget anyone can go to newegg and put that build together for that price as a one stop shop. Trouble is, newegg isn't the best price in town anymore. They used to be and sometimes they still have good value. It's nothing against their customer service or anything but it pays to shop around. The processor alone I could knock $100 off the build simply by going to a microcenter (which isn't possible for everyone if they don't live nearby). For $13 more than that 250gb 850 evo ssd costs through newegg I can go to amazon and get the 850 evo 500gb ssd. Going with the 250gb 850 evo I could shave another $40 off that build price.

    Bottom line, by not simply shopping around newegg already costs nearly $150 more for the same build on just 2 components. Which is why I don't shop there exclusively anymore. That represents poor value to me when just two components of an entire build already put their customers paying a 10% price premium. Nothing value about it.
  • lunyone
    I think a good compromise in having a good CPU for CPU tasks and a GPU for gaming would be:

    PCPartPicker part list / Price breakdown by merchant

    CPU: Intel Xeon E3-1231 V3 3.4GHz Quad-Core Processor ($246.79 @ Amazon)
    Motherboard: ASRock Z97 Anniversary ATX LGA1150 Motherboard ($82.98 @ Newegg)
    Memory: G.Skill Ares Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3-1866 Memory ($89.99 @ Newegg)
    Storage: Samsung 850 EVO-Series 250GB 2.5" Solid State Drive ($108.36 @ Amazon)
    Storage: Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($47.99 @ Newegg)
    Video Card: EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti 6GB ACX 2.0+ Video Card ($649.99 @ Amazon)
    Case: Corsair 100R ATX Mid Tower Case ($49.99 @ Amazon)
    Power Supply: EVGA 750W 80+ Bronze Certified Semi-Modular ATX Power Supply ($54.99 @ NCIX US)
    Total: $1331.08
    Prices include shipping, taxes, and discounts when available
    Generated by PCPartPicker 2015-06-28 20:13 EDT-0400

    * Obviously probably a bit slower than the 6 core CPU in the article, but this would be a more affordable option, IMHO.
    * GPU would be good for quite some time and it also would be good for higher resolutions, due to the 6 gb's of vRAM.
  • Calculatron
    Although Thermaltake is taking a lot of flak at the moment, their non-invasive (to DIMM-slots) line of CPU coolers often go on sale for affordable prices:

    Beyond that, the only thing I can thing of is a Raijintek solution.

    But I would still go for the Thermalright.
  • redgarl
    290x CF at 4k is indead a better pick and it is cheaper. IMHO, 295x, 290x CF and 980 GTX SLI are the only choice for 4k.

    One TI is not enough and a Titan is a waste of money.
  • redgarl
    I guess people are missing the point that this is the $1600 performance/productivity build not the $1600 gaming build to be featured in ARTICLE 3!

    If it was the case, what in hell a case like that was chosen? Also, is the 200$ premnium over the CPU really going to make a difference?
  • rolli59
    251426 said:
    I guess people are missing the point that this is the $1600 performance/productivity build not the $1600 gaming build to be featured in ARTICLE 3!
    If it was the case, what in hell a case like that was chosen? Also, is the 200$ premnium over the CPU really going to make a difference?

    Well to quote from the beginning of the article where this series is introduced!
    1 $1600 Performance PC
    2 $1600 Mini Performance PC
    3 $1600 Gaming PC
    4 $1600 Mini Gaming PC
    5 System Value Compared
  • iam2thecrowe
    a $1600 build with only a GTX 970 in it? Of course its credibility is shot.

    But have you seen what HP consideres a "gaming PC", an i7 4790 and a gtx745........
  • lunyone
    388413 said:
    a $1600 build with only a GTX 970 in it? Of course its credibility is shot.
    But have you seen what HP consideres a "gaming PC", an i7 4790 and a gtx745........

    It'll do Minesweeper like no tomorrow (45,678 fps, FTW!)! Lol! I'd rather have an i3 with a GTX 970 than an i7 with the gtx 745!