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System Builder Marathon Q1 2015: Alternative $1750 PC

The Great CPU Versus GPU Debate

System Builder Marathon, Q1 2015: The Articles

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!

Day 1: The Budget Gaming PC
Day 2: The Mainstream Enthusiast PC
Day 3: Our $1750 Performance PC
Day 4: System Value Compared
Day 5: Alternative $1750 PC

System Builder Marathon machines compete with each other across a total of six benchmark suites—leaving only 15% of the score to games. But it usually seems like the winner spends most of his budget on graphics muscle. We understand the math, with fewer than half of the remaining benchmarks able to use more than four CPU cores. Yet, our gaming suite does have limits. Battlefield 4, for example has a 200 FPS cap, and Grid 2 is primarily limited by DRAM bandwidth and/or latency at its lowest-detail test settings. Our gaming suite is further capped at around six megapixels, though we hardly feel that this is legitimate constraint when we're running games across three 1920x1080 displays in Nvidia Surround or AMD Eyefinity mode. Even with those frame rate caps, DRAM bottlenecks and graphics resolution targets, the majority of readers recommended an SLI upgrade to my Q4 high-end build. I eagerly obliged.

Perhaps I was too hasty? A smaller but equally vocal group of enthusiasts suggested that a six-core CPU would be the true answer to overall system performance. Using it would mean dropping from 4.4 to a 3.6GHz Turbo Boost ceiling, giving up a little overclocking capability and paying around $200 more for the CPU, DRAM and motherboard upgrade. They even suggested dropping from a single GeForce GTX 980 to a single 970 to free up that added funding. That's the point when I slammed on the brakes.

I quickly reconsidered my options when competitors agreed to add $50, $100 and $150 to each system’s hardware budget. Either SLI or Haswell-E were now within reach, and I picked SLI for the first system. I’d still need to find $200 in savings to build a six-core machine capable of taking on the SLI configuration in the balance of benchmarks, and some of those savings—such as the windowless version of the SLI machine’s fancy-looking case—are more apparent than others.

Q1 2015 Alternative $1750 PC Components
ProcessorIntel Core i7-5820K: 3.3-3.6GHz, Six Cores, 15 MB Shared L3 Cache$390
GraphicsGigabyte GV-N980WF3OC-4GD GeForce GTX 980 4GB$550
MotherboardMSI X99S SLI Plus: LGA 2011-v3, Intel X99 Express, ATX$195
MemoryAdata AX4U2400W4G16-QRZ: DDR4-2400 C16, 16GB (4 x 4GB)$200
System DriveCrucial MX100 CT256MX100SSD1 2.5" 256GB SATA 6Gb/s (SSD)$108
PowerRosewill Capstone-750: 750W Non-Modular, ATX12V v2.31, 80 PLUS Gold$80
CPU CoolerCooler Master Hyper 612 Ver. 2$46
Platform Cost$1569
Storage DriveNone$0
OpticalAsus DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS: 24x DVD±R, 48x CD-R$20
CaseCorsair Graphite 230T CC-9011036-WW Black$70
Total Hardware Cost$1659
OSWindows 8.1 x64 OEM$100
Complete System Price$1759

Dropping back to last quarter's $600 graphics card would save only $60, so I further economized by switching to an even cheaper GeForce GTX 980. I cut another $49 out of cooling, which is certain to hurt overclocking when paired with an internally-vented graphics card. The windowless black case saved me another $10, and I also picked a basic motherboard as opposed to the SLI build’s mid-priced model to reduce X99’s price penalty.

The storage drive present in my Q4 high-end build—which is important in practice but not essential to the competition—is missing. This is the only time I plan to make that sacrifice, since I feel that the winner of our System Builder Marathon will be far happier with a complete machine. Still, the fact that it was missing from Wednesday’s SLI system means that saving money makes for a fair comparison.

Thomas Soderstrom
Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware US. He tests and reviews cases, cooling, memory and motherboards.