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System Builder Marathon, Q2 2014: A Balanced High-End Build

Can A $1600 PC Really Be High-End?

System Builder Marathon, Q2 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 Budget Gaming PC
Day 2: Our Mainstream Enthusiast System
Day 3: The Balanced High-End Build
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected

Redefining The SBM Brackets

As you've seen over the past two days, Paul, Don, and I pored over feedback and made some changes to this quarter's System Builder Marathon, which we hope reflects more of what you'd like to see.

Perhaps the most frequently-requested update, readers asked that we narrow the entire range to make this a closer competition. So, rather than multiplying Paul's baseline ~$600 machine by 2x and 4x, which used to result in Don's $1200 system and my $2400 config, we dropped back to 2x and 3x ($1200 and $1800). That was complicated by another move: we added operating systems to our cost considerations.

And so the arguments between builders began. If the $600 PC only had $500 worth of hardware, shouldn't the price range for parts be $500, $1000, and $1500? Then, the original debate that $600, $1200, and $1800 budgets should include Windows turned into a compromise. We'd hold the hardware down at a lower target, and make a distinction between components that affect performance and everything else (like the chassis and optical drive).

This would supposedly give me the flexibility to splurge on a fancy case and Blu-ray drive without getting slaughtered in the value competition. But wait, doesn't a case directly affect the cooling system? Isn’t overclocking a vital part of our overall analysis?

As a case reviewer, I know that anyone leaning on a large radiator for liquid cooling has to shop for a chassis able to accommodate the extra equipment. I also know that cases with multiple fans typically cost more than similar enclosures without. So, I went back to the original formula: $1500 should buy everything except for Windows.

Q2 2014 $1600 Performance PC Components
ProcessorIntel Core i7-4770K: 3.5 GHz base (3.9 GHz max. Turbo Boost), Quad-core, 8 MB shared L3 cache$320
GraphicsPowerColor PCS+ AXR9 290X 4GBD5-PPDHE Radeon R9 290X$529
MotherboardAsus Z97-A: LGA 1150, Intel Z97 Express$150
MemoryG.Skill Ripjaws X F3-14900CL8D-8GBXM: DDR3-1866 C8, 8 GB (2 x 4 GB)$85
System DriveSamsung 840 EVO MZ-7TE250BW: 250 GB, SATA 6Gb/s SSD$150
PowerRosewill HIVE-750: 750 W Semi-Modular, ATX12V v2.3, 80 PLUS Bronze$90
CPU CoolerThermaltake NiC L32 (CL-P002-AL14RE-A) 140 mm$38
Platform Cost$1362
Storage DriveWD Blue WD10EZEX: 1 TB, SATA 6Gb/s Hard Drive$60
OpticalLite-On iHAS124-04: 24x DVD±R, 48x CD-R$20
CaseCM Storm Scout 2 Advanced$90
Total Hardware Cost$1532
OSWindows 8.1 X64 OEM$100
Complete System Price$1632

After compiling my list of parts, I was at $1472 without a hard drive or operating system, and ready to place my order. After all, my SSD was large enough that I didn’t need to split games and applications between two drives. I likewise would have preferred a better CPU cooler or Blu-ray drive, but any step up would have put me over $1500.

Eventually, I let the guys talk me into adding a 1 TB drive using the logic that only the parts affecting performance would go into the value calculation, and my mechanical disk drive wouldn't be included. In fact, I wouldn't even need to format my extra hard drive to complete our benchmark suite.

And so I stand alone, with a system that was supposed to cost $1472 of my $1500 hardware budget, and a nod to whoever wins this PC; it has an extra storage drive so you won't have to rely on a 250 GB SSD for all of your movies, music, and documents.

Rather than continuing to argue, I'm listing the complete platform price that they want to use in the value analysis, the total hardware cost that we previously used in our value analysis, and a complete system price (including the operating system). The best part is that I'm the one who gets to divvy-up prices for the various value charts for tomorrow's value shoot-out.

Conversely, as the “big-budget builder”, I’m also forced to make this quarter’s $1532 hardware compete with the previous quarter’s $2400 configuration. I do have one small ace in the hole, though. You may have noticed yesterday that Don's graphics card of choice went up in price, but comes with a free 250 GB Samsung 840 EVO. It just so happens that's the exact SSD I bought for this system back in May. If you don't mind paying $40 more for the PowerColor card in my build, for the next few days it also includes a bundled 250 GB 840 EVO. That $40 expense saves $150. You'd need to hurry though; PowerColor reps say the sale is only on through the end of June.

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