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System Builder Marathon, Q3 2013: $350 Bonus Entry-Level PC

Results: Tuning Games For An APU

In this series, we need to run each System Builder Marathon PC through our entire test suite to generate data we can compare to our other builds. But the reality is that our game settings are tuned assuming discrete graphics are being used. Our three main builds are expected to compete at higher budgets, so up until now, APUs weren't even a consideration. 

We take some liberties to explore other options in our bonus builds, though. And rather than say APUs fail at our cranked-up details, we want to test more realistic settings that are appropriate for our budget constraints. Most folks gaming on an APU would probably play more casual titles, and they'd be thrilled to see playable performance in any AAA game. If you're expecting more, then you don't want an APU.

We know the performance of on-die graphics is tied directly to memory data rates. Unfortunately, we couldn’t afford the additional expense of a high-end memory kit for this cheap build. Luckily, however, our budget DDR3-1600 kit was fully stable though 2133 MT/s at reduced timings. I'm only concerned that I had no way of knowing what voltage MSI's motherboard was pushing to keep the RAM stable.

So, we’ll take a look at our stock and overclocked on-die GPU clocks married to three different stable memory configurations to figure out which variable nets the greatest performance gain.

Thankfully, Battlefield 3 is playable at 1280x720 on the lowest quality preset, though you may need some overclocking or high-speed memory to help smooth out the most demanding levels. Medium details are still a stretch, even if we run our memory full-bore.

Memory frequency plays a big role in how well an APU handles F1 2012 (far more so than bolstered GPU clocks). Even at relaxed timings, running DDR3-2133 allows 2 FPS more than our previously-tested overclock. Fully tweaked, we should be able to play this title at 1920x1080 at the High detail preset.

If you don't overclock, or if you simply have more stringent frame rate demands), the Medium quality preset might be more realistic. Ultra details are still a no-go. Even with MSAA disabled, the best we can average falls under 33 FPS.

Skyrim isn’t as limited by memory as F1 2012, and we were only able to pick up about 3 FPS from overclocking our RAM on its own. The stock $350 PC is comfortable at 1280x720 using the High detail preset. Overclocked, we could easily choose Medium details at 1920x1080. Either way, the key is to disable anti-aliasing.

The stock $350 PC had absolutely no problem handling Far Cry 3 at 1280x720, so long as we dropped to the Low quality preset. Once we tweaked it properly, the system even delivered an enjoyable experience at the game's Medium preset without dropping below 30 FPS.