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System Builder Marathon, Q1 2014: The $750 Gaming PC

A More Affordable Gaming Alternative

System Builder Marathon, Q1 2014: The Articles

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!

Day 1: The $2400 Reader's Choice PC
Day 2: Our New Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $750 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected

Introduction

When the System Builder Marathon team started talking about giving each of us our own choice for the theme of this quarter's competition, I knew exactly the direction I wanted to go. I’d resist the temptation to spend more money on enthusiast-oriented part, even forgoing an SSD for snappier boot times. Rather, I’d fine-tune my previous effort and build a formidable yet affordable pure gaming box.

The $650 Gaming PC from Q3 2013 was designed to do all things well, without compromising the machine’s gaming prowess. I used an AMD FX-6300 CPU and Nvidia GeForce GTX 760 to get there. For the money, both components continually earn our recommendations.

Last quarter, to avoid repeating the same basic build, I was allotted an additional $150, which bought me a Radeon R9 280X graphics for higher-resolution gaming, plus an Ivy Bridge-based Core i5 for better overall performance. The resulting $800 Gaming PC was not only successful for bolstering benchmark scores across the board, but it even trumped the previous quarter's stellar bang-for-the-buck value.

I faced a problem, though. Duplicating those efforts this quarter would have cost me nearly $940 as a result of steep price hikes on AMD's Radeon cards, among other increasing expenses. So, my top priority was honing in on gaming, trimming as much of the prior build's fat as possible. Could I maintain the same performance in games at a more reasonable bottom line?

My first order of business was axing the Radeon R9 280X. Fortunately, prices on that card are stabilizing a bit today. But my options when we placed our orders were more limited. Maintaining the graphics horsepower to match my previous effort would require nothing shy of a $330 GeForce GTX 770, though.

Although I recommend Intel's Core i5 if you can afford it, stepping down to a less-fancy processor then allowed me to shave an easy $60 from the system's cost without giving up alacrity in my favorite games. AMD's FX-6300 would have been a good fallback. Or, I could have pulled from Intel's similarly-priced Core i3 family. A three-module CPU based on the Piledriver architecture would have probably been a better overall value option. But unless I added the expense of a cooler and more overclocking-friendly motherboard, I'd get higher frame rates from a Core i3-4130. High efficiency and locked-out overclocking meant I wouldn't need to dump extra cash into a beefy motherboard, either. Any stable H81-based board would work. I'd sacrifice features and use the savings to help offset the 30% premium charged for 8 GB of memory.

Nailing down my ideal list of components required an almost comical amount of tuning to hit $750. Significant fluctuations in pricing and availability stymied my efforts throughout the day our orders were to be placed. In fact, every single component I selected, aside from the Core i3, was eventually swapped out (in some cases, multiple times), including no less than four different GeForce GTX 770s at $330. When it came time to submit, I lucked out and snagged Zotac's offering for $20 less than any of the competing cards.

As my build came together, the team discussed introducing a new twist. Based on reader input, plus our desire to build nicer boxes, we decided we wouldn't factor in the price of the chassis or optical drive into the final equation. Don and I were free to venture beyond cheap $40 enclosures without giving up our performance parts, while Thomas would no longer be penalized for holding his build to a higher standard of form and function. We could also avoid debating whether the expense of a DVD or Blu-ray burner should be spent elsewhere.

ComponentModelPurchase Price
CPUIntel Core i3-4130 (Haswell)$130
CPU CoolerIntel Boxed Heat Sink and Fan0
MotherboardAsus H81M-K LGA 1150 Intel H81 Express$58
RAMAdata XPG V2 8 GB (2 x 4 GB) DDR3-1600 AX3U1600W4G9-DGV$70
GraphicsZotac ZT-70301-10P GeForce GTX 770 2 GB$320
Hard DriveWestern Digital Blue WD10EZEX 1 TB$65
CaseRosewill Line-M MicroATX Mini Tower$50
PowerRosewill Capstone-450-M 450 W ATX$60
OpticalAsus 24x DVD Burner DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS$20
Total Price$773

Although I was free of previous budgetary constraints, I didn't want to go crazy on the enclosure. After all, my goal was to build a more affordable gaming system. And $750 in hardware is no small chunk considering that you also need to add Windows, a 1080p display, and peripherals. At the last minute, however, I spent an extra $23 tweaking the case and power supply to match my own personal tastes. So let's have a look at the parts I picked.

  • blackmagnum
    This is the everyday Joe sort of gaming PC... cheap and workable. Why not Core i5 quad-core?
    Reply
  • hmp_goose
    "The games we just added are unquestionably less processor-bound." This sounds like a major oversight, I fear …
    Reply
  • ingtar33
    nice build, and a good example of how even modern multi-threaded games are STILL at their heart primarily single or dual threaded games. We see this in BF4 most clearly, as the advantage of MOAR CORZ vanishes once you pass the 3rd core on the cpu... meaning a dual cored and hyperthreaded intel is still a viable gaming option; and though you can get an fx8320 for the same price as that i3, almost nothing truely makes use of 8 cores yet. I say yet, because the next gen game consoles will force games to become truly multithreaded in the future. Purhaps down the road the old piledriver chips will start to look like a great gaming value, but the situation today is still largely the same problem facing AMD 3 years ago... which is games simply don't really need MOAR CORZ. Not really anyway. I'm sure some people will have issues with using an i3, but really i think it was a fantastic read; and quite informative. Its important we keep things in perspective... and as things stand now you really don't need much more cpu power then a dual cored pentium or i3... or i guess quad core phenomII or piledriver fx.it all comes down to what you can afford to build around it.
    Reply
  • lostgamer_03
    The i3 was a bad choice, why not get an i5-3330 which is about the same in price and it offers 2 more fully enabled cores, which really would help in applications and the 'newer' games.The MOBO would also be cheaper as it is last gen.
    Reply
  • de5_Roy
    the psu was a smart choice for the case, imo. modular cabling prevented the usual clutter seen in cases like these. the resulted unusually clean look of the inside. 80+ gold efficiency is also welcome. i don't think clean cable management can be measured in charts, but it's an added bonus.
    Reply
  • pauldh
    That's what I thought too de5_Roy. Modular and 80 PLUS Gold was well worth spending an extra $15.
    Reply
  • bemused_fred
    The i3 was a bad choice, why not get an i5-3330 which is about the same in price and it offers 2 more fully enabled cores, which really would help in applications and the 'newer' games.The MOBO would also be cheaper as it is last gen.

    When I first saw the parts list for this build, I expected myself to be in full agreement with you. I mean, can you imagine someone suggesting paring a GTX 680 with an I3? Ludicrous. They'd be laughed out the forums. However, looking at the benchmarks for the highest settings in 1920x1080 and 4800x900, I found there were 2 types of results

    1. Those where the I3 and the GTX 770 build beat, or were within a few FPS of the I5 and R9-280X build:
    Battlefield 3
    Battlefield 4
    Arma 3
    Far Cry 3
    2. Those where the I5 and R9-280X beat the I3 and GTX 770 build by a significant margin, but where all frame rates were well above 60FPS:
    F1 2012
    Grid 2
    Skyrim

    So, while overall performance percentage charts might put the I3 and GTX 770 behind the I5 and R9-280X behind in certain games, in a real-life setting, it seems that the I3 and GTX 770 is an equally good build. Which is really not what I was expecting.
    nalmost nothing truely makes use of 8 cores yet. I say yet, because the next gen game consoles will force games to become truly multithreaded in the future.

    Citations desperately needed. The XBOX 360 had 3 hyper-threaded CPUs and the PS3 had a 7-core cell CPU, but this didn't push PC games during this period beyond dual cores. Indeed, as late as January 2012, Tom's hardware was finding it impossible to recommend any Quad-core AMD processors over intel Dual-core processors and as late as December 2012, dual-core Intel pentiums were taking the low-end recommendations, as they were still better at gaming at this point than 4-core AMD processors. Indeed, it wasn't until February 2013 that they reversed this recommendation, so any assumption that consoles having more cores will result in P.C. games using more cores doesn't really stand up to scrutiny, I'm afraid.
    Reply
  • pauldh
    The i3 was a bad choice, why not get an i5-3330 which is about the same in price and it offers 2 more fully enabled cores, which really would help in applications and the 'newer' games.The MOBO would also be cheaper as it is last gen.
    As explained on page 1, the whole idea here with this build was to spend less on the platform, more-than covering the premiums on graphics, RAM, and ODD vs. our last purchase.

    Sure we'd go i5 if priced the same. But the -3330 is $60 more @ $190, just like the -3470 used last quarter. The -3350P saves $10 off that. H61 doesn't save much, starting $5-10 below H81, and then we'd give up capitalizing on the i5's limited overclocking.
    Reply
  • pauldh
    @bemused_fred - Yes, exactly! Good post.

    I was surprised to see i3 didn't yield any meaningful drop in minimum fps, at all! In fact, minimums often appeared GPU-bound, and the new GTX 770 rig won out, especially OC'ed. System bound at 70+ fps and up full-time in Skyrim or F1 2012 is hardly a loss, but an extra 3-8 fps consistently down low in ARMA III and Far Cry 3 could come in handy.
    Reply
  • redgarl
    CPU choice is really overated with a single graphic card. The conclusion proves it. I would even stretch to go AMD to cut some money to fetch up two 750ti-760 GTX or 2 R7 graphic card.CF or SLI of two low tier graphic cards provide really good performances for a budget.
    Reply