Tuesday, May 19, 2009

New Gaming Rigs - Where to Start

Almost a year ago, I built a new computer. It was a budget machine that cost around $800, and it's still going strong today. I can play all of my games at their highest detail, including a graphically intense one released this year, and they all run silky smooth. For details on my setup, as well as basic advice on PC building, refer to my first blog post.

Are you in the market for a new gaming rig? If so, read on. I've done some studying of what's currently available, and I have great news for you. First, prices have gone down. Second, AMD is back in the game, so you have more options for processors and video cards. Third, there's even a new, reasonable option on the Intel side for a slightly larger budget. Last year, there was really only one viable option for a budget gaming rig. Now, there are more.

In this post, I'm going to analyze five different combinations of processors, motherboards, and RAM. Remember, these are what make up the core of the system; everything else is cake. I'll get to the other parts in another post. These other parts include, but are not limited to:

- Video Card
- Hard Drive
- Case
- Power Supply
- Optical Drive (DVD)
- Heatsink and Fan

I estimate that these other parts might total about $450 if we're careful, so keep that in the back of your mind when considering the entire cost of your new machine. I'm assuming you already have a monitor, keyboard, mouse, and other external things.

This is a long post. If you don't care about all the details, I recommend you just take a look at the first build and the last build. Those are the two most viable options in my opinion.

Now, onto the meat!

My first CPU/MB/RAM combo is an AMD build. It's the least expensive, but it's still a competitive performer when compared to the others. Here's the breakdown:

Processor: AMD Phenom II X3 710 - $119
Motherboard: ASUS M3A76-CM - $65
RAM: Patriot Viper 4GB DDR2 800 - $27 (after $25 rebate)
Shipping: $11
Discount: $25 for Newegg's CPU/MB combo deal
Total: $197
Estimated entire build: $647

Like I said, AMD is back, and its Phenom II line is right up there with Intel's Core 2 line. The triple-core Phenom IIs are giving the Wolfdale processors a run for their money.

You'll have a hard time finding the Phenom II X3 710 on benchmark sites. The reason is that the 710's big brother, the 720 Black Edition, is more popular. However, the only differences between these two processors are the clock speed and the unlocked multiplier in the 720.

The 710 is clocked at 2.6GHz while the 720 is clocked at 2.8GHz. This gives the 720 a very slight performance advantage. AMD will unlock multipliers in some of their processors, and these are referred to as Black Editions. This makes BE processors a little easier to overclock. However, all the Phenom IIs are great overclockers and you don't need a Black Edition to get a modest boost in clock speed. So, what is the performance difference between the two? I found a spot an AnandTech that gives a nice comparison.

For the games, which are at the bottom, the difference is no more than 5%. If you want to get the 720 instead, you'll have to pay an extra $25. The processor itself costs $20 more, but your combo discount will also be $5 less. The Phenom II X3 710 is a gem that will give you way more bang for your buck than anything else I will discuss here.

Beware! Never forget that gaming performance is most heavily impacted by your video card, not your processor! The benchmark sites that measure CPU gaming performance do their tests in a way that is not practical for actual gameplay. They run the games at very low detail, shifting the bottleneck from the video card to the processors. This makes for good CPU comparisons, but it's not a realistic example of actual gameplay. When you get your shiny new video card and run these games at much higher detail, the difference in CPU performance will be practically non-existent.

If money is tight, anything more than the Phenom II X3 710 is a waste. You won't notice any gaming difference with other processors as long as you have a video card that's more than $70.

Regarding the motherboard, it's inexpensive but it has good reviews. (I ignore any product with less than 4/5 eggs.) Newegg's combo deal makes it an absolute steal. It is PCI-Express 2.0 compatible and has HD Audio, as does every motherboard in this post. It should also allow you to do some modest overclocking, as should every motherboard in this post. You should note that it does not support firewire, and it only has one PCI-E 2.0 x16 slot. It also does not support DDR3 RAM. If you want an AMD motherboard that has firewire, more than one PCI-E 2.0 slot, or DDR3 support, they are available. However, they also come with a higher price tag. Please leave a comment of write me an e-mail if you want recommendations that meet your specific needs.

The DDR2 RAM is an awesome value. It operates at 4-4-4-12 which is about the fastest you can get with DDR2 800. 4GB is more than enough for today's software. Simple and sweet. Moving on.

What does Intel have to offer for a budget gaming rig? Well, it still looks similar to my own setup. Here's the breakdown:

Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 Wolfdale - $168
Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-EP45C-UD3R - $105 (after $15 rebate)
RAM: Patriot Viper 4GB DDR2 800 - $27 (same as RAM above)
Shipping: $3
Discount: $15 for CPU/MB combo deal
Total: $288
Estimated entire build: $738

Last year, I paid $190 for the same processor. The price has dropped a bit, but not significantly. It still seems to be the sweet spot on the price/performance curve. If you want something that costs less, you'll end up with a crippled CPU that has not only a lower clock speed but also a smaller cache. If you go up, you pay a premium for a very slight clock increase.

For performance comparisons, you can use the same tool I did for the 720/710 comparison. The E8400 seems to be about a 10% gaming improvement over the 710. However, I also noticed an interesting benchmark article that showed the Phenom II x3 720 outperforming the E8400 in Far Cry 2 and Unreal Tournament 3.

You'll also notice that the 710 and 720 outperform the E8400 on some things like media encoding. The E8400 is a dual-core processor, and software is slowly changing. It still has the edge in gaming, but other areas are not so clear. As more multi-threaded applications are used, triple-core and quad-core processors will have a greater advantage. Also, consider that these other applications will not be relying on your video card as much as games, if at all. Therefore, you're actually more likely to notice the performance increase.

There really aren't any viable motherboards with a price similar to the one in the AMD build. However, this GIGABYTE board does have some features that the other doesn't. It has firewire and supports both DDR2 and DDR3.

The RAM is the same as before. However, if you really want DDR3 you can get this set for a total of $25 extra. Since the price of DDR3 has dropped significantly from what it was last year, this actually isn't a terrible option. However, the performance increase won't be much more than 5% if you're lucky.

Thanks to AMD's options, Intel has a great competitor at this price point:

Processor: AMD Phenom II X4 940 Black Edition - $190
Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-MA790X-UD4P - $110
RAM: Patriot Viper 4GB DDR2 800 - $27 (after $25 rebate)
Shipping: $3
Discount: $30 for CPU/MB combo deal
Total: $300
Estimated entire build: $750

This quad-core processor seems to be neck and neck across a spectrum of gaming benchmarks from different sites. However, since it has twice as many cores it seems to have the edge in other applications.

This motherboard doesn't support DDR3, but it does have firewire. It also has two PCI-Express 2.0 slots so you can run Crossfire or Physx. NVIDIA doesn't like AMD, though, so the AMD boards can't do SLI.

Overall the comparison between the X4 940 and E8400 is too close to call. It's really up to your personal preferences.

Now, let's suppose that you're on Dave Ramsey's Baby Step #5 or further. (You know who you are.) There's a new option that will give you a relatively future-proof machine for a price that has recently become somewhat affordable. The following may be worth considering:

Processor: Intel Core i7-920 (Nehalem) - $280
Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-EX58-UD3R - $185 (after $15 rebate)
RAM: OCZ Platinum 6GB DDR3 1600 - $75 (after $20 rebate)
Shipping: $8
Discount: $25 for CPU/MB combo deal
Total: $523
Estimated entire build: $973

Core i7 is Intel's newest architecture, replacing the incredibly successful Core 2. These pricey processors weren't exactly designed for gaming, though the most expensive ones still give the best gaming performance. The 920 is the most inexpensive Core i7 CPU available right now, and its gaming performance is actually pretty close to the other processors listed already. Core i7 was really designed for multi-threaded performance, and that's where it excels.

If we look at the Tech Report benchmarks again we'll see that this processor is very slightly outperformed in games by the others I've mentioned. However, notice that they did comparisons with the Core i7-965 Extreme with Hyperthreading enabled and disabled. You can do the same thing with the 920. It looks like this can give you perhaps a 5% boost to your gaming performance, putting it about exactly on par with the others. Also, the 920 totally owns in most of the non-gaming benchmarks. If you plan to use your machine for more than just gaming, you may want to give this build some serious consideration.

Don't make a judgement just yet! If we look at Anandtech, they seem to show the i7 beating out the other processors. It's hard to tell just what's happening here, so I'll investigate it further and post an update.

Anyway, the motherboard is also more expensive than the others, but it definitely has more to offer. It supports firewire, triple channel DDR3, and has two PCI-E 2.0 x16 slots for Crossfire, SLI, or Physx. Yet again, a combo deal helps to curb the hefty price tag.

Since the motherboard uses triple channel, we're getting 6MB of RAM. Just like the 4GB of DDR3 I picked out for the E8400, this ram operates at 7-7-7-24. This is about the fastest you can get at this bandwidth. Make sure you use a 64-bit operating system so your computer uses all the memory! Also, note that this set of RAM has several combo deals with video cards. You may be able to save up to $25 if you want the right card. I'll consider this in a later post when I dig into the other hardware.

By the way, don't assume that you'll be able to upgrade your CPU if you get a more advanced motherboard right now. If you only upgrade about every 3 years, your board will probably be outdated no matter what you get. It's generally a bad reason to spend more on a motherboard.

Is there an AMD alternative at this price point? I'm glad you asked. Take a gander:

Processor: AMD Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition - $245
Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-MA790XT-UD4P - $125 (after $15 rebate)
RAM: OCZ Reaper HPC 4GB DDR3 1600 - $55 (after $20 rebate)
Shipping: $8
Discount: $15 for CPU/RAM combo deal
Total: $418
Estimated entire build: $868

Well, what can I say? This build puts Intel to shame, at least as far as gaming is concerned. The motherboard supports firewire, dual channel DDR3, and Crossfire or Physx. This build is basically capable of anything the i7 build is capable of, it costs less, and it seems to usually beat out the 920 in gaming performance if you look at both the Tech Report and AnandTech. I the i7 still has a clear performance advantage in other applications, but that's not really our focus here.

By the way, you could even couple this processor with the motherboard and RAM from the X4 940 build for a total savings of $53. The only real difference would be a choice between DDR2 and DDR3.

So there you have it. These are five different builds based on the three main CPU architectures available. Each one has its own advantages and disadvantages. Each one is also highly customizable, and I'm willing to help you make adjustments to meet your specific desires.

All of these CPUs are manufactured using a 45nm process. They are all great for overclocking. I strongly suggest that you give it a try, and am willing to walk you through the process.

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