Professional Opinion: Gaming On Integrated Graphics
Jon Bach started Puget Systems in 2000, a time when small, local system builders could wage war more successfully against the big brands through specialization and experimentation. Over the years, Puget Systems gained a reputation for high-end performance, including with HTPCs. By 2009, the company had its Serenity line, which relied on considerable design testing to achieve a finished product significantly more quiet than most competitors. Few, if any, system builders left in America have Puget’s experience in crafting fast PCs with the acoustics someone in a theater environment would demand. This is why we sought out Bach for his thoughts on gaming in the living room on an integrated graphics engine.
Tom's Hardware: Let’s start with the big question: Are today’s HTPCs ready to tackle 1920x1080 gaming?
Jon Bach: There are all types of gaming, of course. There are those who are very casual gamers—a little Angry Birds here, a little The Sims 3 there. Integrated graphics today will handle those titles just fine. Even at 1080p, no problem. But then there’s higher-end gaming. Steam’s Big Picture is bringing a lot of attention to this space. I play some Battlefield 3 myself, and I wouldn’t even think of running that on integrated graphics, even at lower resolutions.
That isn’t to say HTPCs can't meet those needs. We build PCs for home theaters that can handle intense gaming. They just need a mid- or high-range discrete video card. We can build PCs like that and keep them quiet too. Even better, modern video cards have such low idle power draw that they work out very nicely, becoming nearly silent during movie and TV playback, and then spinning up as needed during intense gaming. Where we’ve hit more of an obstacle is actually in making sure the cabinet the PC is inside is cooled well. Not many people think about that, so we have to be very careful to bring it up, and help each client plan accordingly.
Tom's Hardware: Our initial gaming results with Core i3 and A8/A10 are pretty encouraging. We’re seem to be "getting there," assuming that integrated hardware evolves more quickly than the games over time. Do you see this happening? Will on-die logic accommodate ever more of the gaming field as we go forward?
Jon Bach: It’s all relative. Our customers wouldn't be happy with 30 FPS at medium settings. They want 60 FPS at Ultra settings. A big reason why people go to the PC platform for gaming is for the quality improvement. At Puget Systems, it is rare for us to sell a gaming-oriented PC with anything less than a GeForce GTX 560 Ti (now probably the GTX 660). People just want more. Of course, we serve the distinct niche of high-performance, high-quality PCs. To us, integrated chipset graphics are still a long ways off—even the new platforms coming up.
However, I will say that it is definitely moving in that direction. Back in 2008, you needed to spend $1000 in multi-GPU setups to run games at their highest quality settings. Today, a single GeForce GTX 670 does it with ease. You can see the trend. I think that, for the casual gamer, we’re getting very close. For the hardcore gamer, they’re going to be looking for more performance for quite some time to come.
In a way, isn’t this a microcosm of the PC versus tablet talk? Some people say, "Tablets are getting so powerful now, they can do almost everything I need." Then you have the other camp saying, "No way. I need a lot more processing power." Both are true. There is just a huge variation in the kind of performance that people want and need.
Tom's Hardware: In building our test system in a SilverStone HTPC case, we had to make special consideration for the heat sink height, and our Blu-ray drive was too long to fit. Those are pretty obvious snafus once you’ve run into them. What are some of the less obvious design concerns that DIYers should watch out for when building HTPCs?
Jon Bach: The physical compatibility of the CPU cooler is a common issue, for sure. Proper airflow is another concern, especially for gaming. If you run a discrete video card, many HTPC chassis are not very good about getting fresh air to that part of the chassis. Height of the video card is another common issue. Many video cards now run the heat sink higher than the PCI Express slot, which conflicts with the top panel many times. Some motherboards have right-angle SATA ports coming off the side of the motherboard, and many HTPC chassis do not leave adequate room for this, leaving you only able to use one SATA port per row, and only with right-angle SATA connectors.