System Builder Marathon Q2 2015: Value Comparison

Now that we’ve built four PCs with matching budgets, which builder, and which machine, owns the title of best performance for $1600?

4 Machines, 2 Builders, 1 Winner

After temporarily losing Paul to his day job, we found a few ways to keep the challenge level up and the competition interesting. Each of the remaining two builders would be forced to try outperforming the other across a brutal set of benchmarks, and then they’d try to repeat the process in a mini-ITX chassis.

Caught off-guard by the difficulty of building an overclocked performance machine, Julio found himself a little overwhelmed when tasked with gaming hardware and overclocking techniques, pushing his tuning efforts way past the deadline and into the publishing week before finally giving in on a few details just to stay in-play. But given his IT professional background, I think we can forgive him this once.

The biggest split isn’t in size, but in function. My own performance PCs follow a similar path to the homework machines I built during my college days. Now useful for running my engineering programs and games on the same set of monitors at home.

Q2 2015 SBM Build Components

$1600 Performance PC

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  • Platform Cost: $1345
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1495
  • Complete System Price: $1595

$1600 Mini Performance PC

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  • Platform Cost: $1376
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1496
  • Complete System Price: $1596

$1600 Gaming PC

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  • Platform Cost: $1348
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1499
  • Complete System Price: $1599

$1600 Mini Gaming PC

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  • Platform Cost: $1402
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1495
  • Complete System Price: $1595

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Synthetics

3DMark says it’s the red bar in the chart below that matters most, but the blue and black bars certainly stand out more. That’s because the black bars represent the gaming machine’s graphics muscle, while the blue bars represent the work machine’s workhorse CPU.

The full ATX work PC gets a quad-channel boost to go along with its hefty six-core/12-thread processor, while its mini-ITX sibling supports only two DIMMs and thus two memory channels. But as weak as the mini-ITX work machine looks in Bandwidth and Cryptography, the gaming PC is out of its league.

Gaming

The work PC games surprisingly well in Arma 3 and Battlefield 4, as the gaming PC only begins to stress its GPU at the highest panel resolutions and detail levels.

None of our readers informed Julio that there might be a problem with his Far Cry 3 Ultra Quality test settings, so I inquired. He didn’t realize that the changes were spread across two menus, so I’m scratching those results from the final analysis. Having said that, his Grid 2 Ultra Quality results are both superb and realistically achievable.

Media, Productivity And Compression

Less is better when it comes to encoding times, where the gaming PCs are only completely competitive in single-threaded and OpenCL-based applications.

The work machines work harder at work applications.

Power, Heat And Efficiency

Power numbers are surprisingly consistent between different builds at stock settings, but CPU overclocking puts a big mound on the loaded power numbers of the work machines.

Because the work machine topped so many workstation applications, it came out ahead in the efficiency scale. Because there weren’t any old or cheap machines to use as a baseline, I used the average of all systems instead.

Value Analysis

The work machines worked harder and the play machines played better. So how well did these come out in overall value? Close prices kept the blue bar (price) at 100%, so that performance levels are approximately equal to value index scores. And since games made up only one-sixth of our benchmark set, the system with the more powerful processor wins by a large margin.

More impressive is that the little mini-ITX work machine outperformed its larger sibling due to a slightly better-overclocking CPU. Its expected handicap from running two memory modules on a quad-channel processor just isn’t noticeable in overall performance scores.

The work machines finished over 20% better in overall performance including games, yet games actually put a significant damper on those numbers since they also finished 19% worse when gaming across three panels. Readers who complained about the work machines not having enough gaming focus were right, within a narrow margin of correctness that says “the only performance that matters is gaming performance”.

So which machine would you choose, and what types of builds would you like to see in upcoming System Builder Marathons? The discussion is now open!

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

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23 comments
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  • Jarlve
    Test is biased towards work PC. It is hard to differentiate between systems in your graphs.

    5/10.
  • Crashman
    2023056 said:
    Test is biased towards work PC.
    That's probably why so many readers demanded a 5820K last winter.

    2023056 said:
    It is hard to differentiate between systems in your graphs.

    That's why I retained the same order throughout the article. This chart format works best with 5 or fewer configurations, 6 was a stretch and 8 is too much for some readers. We'll most likely go back to fewer configurations next time.
  • AndrewJacksonZA
    Is it just me, or are the noise tests missing?
  • Onus
    I'm not sure I enjoyed this SBM as much as usual. In past cycles, even builds that have been bad have presented additional "data points" to use when evaluating new builds in general. Don's 4x Crossfire HD4850 build, Paul's Celeron+flagship graphics machine, and Thomas' beautiful Antec Professional PC stand out in that regard.
    I'm not sure these systems show anything new or unexpected, although there may still be people who don't realize just how effective mini-ITX can be. The silicon lottery played its part, and thermal problems raised their ugly head as well.
    Not to defend "we've always done it this way," for its own sake, but I'm sure I'm not the only one a little exasperated by some of Julio's choices and methods. With few exceptions, I could see why any of the three previous builders did certain things (Don's cheap case selection(s) being one of those exceptions), but I hardly know where to begin with Julio. It's not even that he's blatantly "wrong" about things, but his builds felt awkward; maybe like music where A=432Hz is notably different from music where A is tuned to 440Hz.
    Of these builds, I prefer the mITX boxes. My own games and single monitor need nothing more than a GTX970, so that makes Thomas' little box the one I'd prefer to win.
  • salgado18
    Am I the only one who can't see a big case such as the Rosewill Neutron as an ITX? I mean, it's like a regular tower, just two bays lower. Compare that to DIYPC's case, now that's something you can call compact.
  • James Mason
    120171 said:
    Am I the only one who can't see a big case such as the Rosewill Neutron as an ITX? I mean, it's like a regular tower, just two bays lower. Compare that to DIYPC's case, now that's something you can call compact.


    I kind of agree, but that's because mini-itx cases are kinda weird as the are likely one of two extremes. They're either short and long, like the coolermaster elite 1## / haf stacker series, or tall and "fat" like the rosewill neutron. (HTPC cases are a different class)
  • Crashman
    545051 said:
    Is it just me, or are the noise tests missing?
    Since the little cube PC was the only one of mine (the workhorses) noticeably noisy, I measured it. Overclocked, it produced 42.4db under combined load (card spins up), 34.3db idle. I reset it to stock, and it dropped to 35.9db under combined load and 32db idle. Both of those are at 1m. Since the full tower didn't get my attention, I can guess it was at least 6db quieter.

    I never got a chance to hear the gaming machines running.
  • synphul
    I'm sure the tests were done as accurately as possible, there will always be margins for error but a few of the test results seemed really out of place. For instance the 7zip times. The gaming pc scored the worst/slowest but when oc'd it performed even better than the oc'd work/performance pc? By a huge margin no less. I can see there being different variables due to program behavior, how well it makes use of multiple threads and so on. It doesn't explain how there was such a huge leap from stock to oc'd game pc build vs the much less significant jump from stock to oc'd performance pc. Many results were in line with one another while others seemed to be all over the place.
  • RedJaron
    I like the theory of this SBM: every system gets equal money but different themes. Doing such should reveal how shifting balance around in system components affects overall system performance. But I have to agree with Joe. It just felt . . . awkward.
  • Crashman
    470171 said:
    I'm sure the tests were done as accurately as possible, there will always be margins for error but a few of the test results seemed really out of place. For instance the 7zip times. The gaming pc scored the worst/slowest but when oc'd it performed even better than the oc'd work/performance pc? By a huge margin no less. I can see there being different variables due to program behavior, how well it makes use of multiple threads and so on. It doesn't explain how there was such a huge leap from stock to oc'd game pc build vs the much less significant jump from stock to oc'd performance pc. Many results were in line with one another while others seemed to be all over the place.
    My guess is that the program crashed but the timer closed without registering the crash :) New builder doesn't know what an errant result looks like yet, but he's learning quickly!
  • synphul
    I agree with RedJaron, sometimes it's hard to explain to people who are looking for performance. Marketing and packaging focus on one thing and people get stuck on cpu performance or gpu performance and there really is quite a shift ranging from everything in between depending how the system is laid out within the same budget.

    @ Crashman - oh ok, that makes a bit more sense. Nothing like learning in front of an audience, trial by fire haha.
  • Onus
    It's a lot more awkward than outright wrong, else we'd probably have had to moderate significantly more caustic remarks. The data does not align neatly with prior data points.
  • Frozen Fractal
    I felt like there was something missing from this SBM. Not enitirely what I expected it to be.
  • Crashman
    1986621 said:
    I felt like there was something missing from this SBM. Not enitirely what I expected it to be.

    The funny remarks in the final piece? Sorry, Julio was still finishing his up by the mid afternoon and I just crammed the article into two-hours of messing with the charts and 2-hours of writing about the charts.

    Oh, and he's not Canadian...
  • Dan414
    Thanks for doing this work. I enjoyed second-guessing the builders at every step. As with others, I like the concept.
    Here's an idea I wonder if you could work into the next one: How big a price difference can be made between a small, quiet, svelt, high quality part mITX build and a big, noisy, ugly or even cheap ATX build, but get relatively the same performance?
  • CRITICALThinker
    Was there no way to get an i7 in the gaming machine? mucked around a bit on this, it may not fit completely in due to Newegg being a reseller as well, but -

    PCPartPicker part list: http://pcpartpicker.com/p/kfcTgs
    Price breakdown by merchant: http://pcpartpicker.com/p/kfcTgs/by_merchant/

    CPU: Intel Core i7-4790K 4.0GHz Quad-Core Processor ($339.99 @ Newegg)
    CPU Cooler: Phanteks PH-TC12DX_BK 68.5 CFM CPU Cooler ($49.99 @ Newegg)
    Motherboard: ASRock Z97E-ITX/ac Mini ITX LGA1150 Motherboard ($121.98 @ Newegg)
    Memory: A-Data XPG V1.0 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 Memory ($93.99 @ Newegg)
    Storage: Samsung 850 EVO-Series 250GB 2.5" Solid State Drive ($110.99 @ Newegg)
    Storage: Seagate Barracuda 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($49.99 @ Newegg)
    Video Card: EVGA GeForce GTX 980 4GB FTW ACX 2.0 Video Card ($499.99 @ Newegg)
    Case: Cooler Master HAF Stacker 915F Mini ITX Tower Case ($35.98 @ Newegg)
    Power Supply: EVGA SuperNOVA GS 550W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular ATX Power Supply ($54.99 @ Newegg)
    Operating System: Microsoft Windows 8.1 OEM (64-bit) ($99.99 @ Newegg)
    Total: $1457.88
    Prices include shipping, taxes, and discounts when available
    Generated by PCPartPicker 2015-07-02 00:59 EDT-0400
  • Crashman
    1569743 said:
    Was there no way to get an i7 in the gaming machine? mucked around a bit on this, it may not fit completely in due to Newegg being a reseller as well, but - PCPartPicker part list: http://pcpartpicker.com/p/kfcTgs Price breakdown by merchant: http://pcpartpicker.com/p/kfcTgs/by_merchant/ CPU: Intel Core i7-4790K 4.0GHz Quad-Core Processor ($339.99 @ Newegg) CPU Cooler: Phanteks PH-TC12DX_BK 68.5 CFM CPU Cooler ($49.99 @ Newegg) Motherboard: ASRock Z97E-ITX/ac Mini ITX LGA1150 Motherboard ($121.98 @ Newegg) Memory: A-Data XPG V1.0 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR3-1600 Memory ($93.99 @ Newegg) Storage: Samsung 850 EVO-Series 250GB 2.5" Solid State Drive ($110.99 @ Newegg) Storage: Seagate Barracuda 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($49.99 @ Newegg) Video Card: EVGA GeForce GTX 980 4GB FTW ACX 2.0 Video Card ($499.99 @ Newegg) Case: Cooler Master HAF Stacker 915F Mini ITX Tower Case ($35.98 @ Newegg) Power Supply: EVGA SuperNOVA GS 550W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular ATX Power Supply ($54.99 @ Newegg) Operating System: Microsoft Windows 8.1 OEM (64-bit) ($99.99 @ Newegg) Total: $1457.88 Prices include shipping, taxes, and discounts when available Generated by PCPartPicker 2015-07-02 00:59 EDT-0400

    I think he was trying to make this a fair fight. I was just trying to win :)
  • wtfxxxgp
    I'd personally like to see a head to head build at every price point that is dedicated to branding. For example, for 1600 USD, give us a work PC and gaming PC but do it as an AMD vs Intel - you can do a whole host of different configurations this way too because you could say that an Intel machine should have a version that relies on AMD GPU and vice versa etc.

    I think this will eventually show us just how important the Relative Pricing is between brands. A full AMD system could end up having double the storage capacity of the Intel build for the same money for example. It's just a zygote of an idea, you guys can thrash out details if it seems like something interesting or viable to do for a future SBM session.
  • Giroro
    The "mini" gaming PC appears to be larger than the full-sized ones in terms of overall volume, as it is wider than a normal PC, albeit a little shorter... It looks like it wouldn't fit on the 'desktop PC' sized shelf that a lot of desks come outfitted with, which is ridiculous. Could you really not fit an identical cooler on the mini ITX gaming PC that you did on the full sized one?
    Also, what happened to the "If you can afford a 980 then you can afford a 980 Ti" sentiment from Tom's?

    Overall, I think the builds are too similar to justify doing it 4 times.
  • Giroro
    One more thing, the entry form says:
    "One (1) $1600 Mini Performance PC Approximate retail value: $1,1596.00"

    I hope I don't win that one until you fix the typo, because I don't want to pay taxes on an $11k computer.
  • Ben Archer
    Though practically difficult, it would be fun to see the two builders work to together combining the best components of each (mutually decided upon) and see how it stacks up, both in performance and price. How much value do you lose going for the best of both worlds?
  • synphul
    I think it would be interesting too, amd vs intel though when scoring for performance there's no real contest unfortunately. Adding additional hard drives and so forth won't make a pc faster unless it's a highly i/o intensive build for specific programs and makes use of raid arrays. Without doing an entire build, it really comes down to the core basics of cpu/motherboard and potentially cpu cooler. The rest of the system can remain the same and those components alone will determine the price/performance difference. It's already been done countless times. Amd's and intel chips aside from getting caught up in speed or core count across the two different platforms are priced very close to one another in terms of price/performance. Until it gets to the i7's where amd really has nothing to compete at that level no matter if it was a $1600 build and any negligible price savings of the cpu/mobo went to an additional hard drives or other components.
  • AndrewJacksonZA
    8708 said:
    545051 said:
    Is it just me, or are the noise tests missing?
    Since the little cube PC was the only one of mine (the workhorses) noticeably noisy, I measured it. Overclocked, it produced 42.4db under combined load (card spins up), 34.3db idle. I reset it to stock, and it dropped to 35.9db under combined load and 32db idle. Both of those are at 1m. Since the full tower didn't get my attention, I can guess it was at least 6db quieter. I never got a chance to hear the gaming machines running.


    Thanks Crash.