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Building and Testing the Unbalanced Gaming PC

By Loyd Case

Gamers with fairly old PCs often complain to me that games don’t perform well. In the old days, I’d suggest they simply build or buy a new system. Now I just tell them to get a new graphics card and SSD.

Modern PC games are at an interesting crossroads. Most modern games have access to all the CPU performance they generally need, but rarely have access to all the gaming performance they need. Gamers with fairly old PCs–for example, one based on a quad-core Sandy Bridge CPU or even an older Core 2 Quad–complain to me that games don’t perform well.

In the old days, I’d suggest they simply build or buy a new system. Now I just tell them to get a new graphics card and SSD.

So when I set out to build a new gaming PC, I decided to build one that was “unbalanced”–a modest (by today’s standards) CPU with a high-powered graphics card and a capacious and speedy SSD. So bear in mind that this gaming PC is something of an experiment, but I learned some lessons from building it, and are happy to pass them on to you.

Unbalance as a Goal

The goal of any new gaming PC is to run current generation games at fluid frame rates with maximum eye candy. But like any system, a gaming PC consists of trade-offs. You can have all the eye candy you want in a triple graphics card behemoth, but that requires a massive power supply and might cost you as much as a small car.

My goal with this system was to hit an average 45 frames per second in current generation games at extremely high detail levels. What’s that you ask? At what resolution? Good question, you get a biscuit. So let me repeat myself:

My goal with this system was to hit an average 45 fps in current generation games at very high detail levels.

My goal with this system was to hit an average 45 fps in current generation games at very high detail levels. I managed that very nicely, but did have to change the resolution in one of four games I benchmarked. It’s possible that I’d have to change the resolution in others as well. More on that shortly.

Why 45 frames per second? A lot of other sites have dedicated a lot of time and benchmarking effort to test issues like micro-stuttering, minimum versus maximum frame rates and other factors that can affect your gaming experience. These have value, particularly for hard core gamers. But Intel conducted some studies a few years back and discovered that most gamers report good gaming experiences as long as the average frame rate hit 45fps consistently, without massive variations. So that seems like a good number to shoot for. Higher frame rates are better, to a point, although anyone who isn’t a professional, competitive gamer might not notice differences once we get north of 60 fps.

Now let’s talk about the system.

Graphics and Storage

Since the experiment is to maximize graphics and storage performance, let’s talk about the GPU and SSD first.

The graphics card I chose is an EVGA GTX 780 SC. This particular card ships with EVGA’s dual-fan ACX cooler, which runs cooler and quieter than Nvidia’s original cooling system.

EVGA boosts the base clock speed over 100MHz higher than Nvidia’s default.

EVGA’s card runs the GPU cores at 967MHz, 104MHz higher than the default 863MHz with Nvidia’s reference GTX 780. The boost clock is higher, too, at 1020MHz (versus 900MHz for the reference card.) That’s a solid 12% higher than Nvidia’s reference card, which suggests a pretty substantial performance advantage. Memory clocks are only slightly higher, though at 6008MHz (effective) versus Nvidia’s 6000MHz reference clock.

The GTX 780 GPU consists of 2304 graphics cores, and uses a cut down version of Nvidia’s GTX Titan GPU. The EVGA GTX 780 SC costs $650, which is a pretty hefty price for a graphics card. To put it in perspective, it’s about $250 more than a GTX 770, but $350 less than a GTX Titan. That extra $250 does give you better performance, though, as we’ll see soon.

Now let’s talk storage.

If you’re running old school, rotating media hard drives, one of the biggest upgrades you can give yourself other than a graphics card is an SSD. The conventional wisdom is to get an SSD of modest capacity for the OS and office apps, and put your games on a larger hard drive. I say, forget that. I want my games to start up fast and game levels to load quickly. Let’s get a big SSD and put everything--all my games, apps, and operating system--on it.

Samsung’s 840 EVO series offer excellent capacities and good performance.

I went with a 750GB Samsung 840 EVO. It’s fast, and 750GB should be enough for most gaming needs. Samsung builds a bigger EVO, a 1TB version, I found the 750GB version for under $500 (less than a dollar per GB!), so went with that. Now let’s move onto other key components.

CPU, Motherboard and RAM

The CPU isn’t rendered irrelevant in modern games, but you also don’t need high-end CPUs for most modern games. The Intel Core i5 4570 is more than adequate. The Core i5 4570 runs at a base clock of 3.2GHz, with a Turbo Boost clock speed as high as 3.6GHz. It’s got 6MB of L3 cache and is rated at a TDP of 84W. It’s Haswell-based, so is power efficient. The final system idle power, running Windows 8.1 RTM, was just 47W with memory, graphics card, CPU and SSD. The asking price is under $200.

The LGA 1150 based Core i5 4570 costs less than $200.

In the spirit of keeping other components fairly moderate, the Core i5 4570 is living in an Asus Z87M-Plus motherboard, built on the higher end Intel Z87 core logic. It’s a micro-ATX board, with four total slots (two PCI Express x16 and two PCIe x1 slots.) It includes plenty of USB ports, a snazzy, mouse-driven UEFI BIOS and four memory sockets.

Four memory sockets and a pair of PCI Express X16 slots make the Z87-Plus an excellent Micro-ATX board.

The Z87-Plus isn’t as low cost as some boards based around lower end chipsets, at $140. The rich feature set and the possibility of running SLI or CrosseFire X make it an intriguing board. The placement of the outboard PCIe X16 slot makes SLI a little more interesting, as the graphics card would hang off the end of the board, rather than consuming active slot space.

Since this was built to be purely a gaming rig, I stuck with 8GB of DDR3. Part of this is that memory prices have been creeping up lately, so I’m loathe to spend more than I needed. Another reason was that $70 can buy you 8GB of Corsair low profile DDR3-1866.

8GB is enough. Really.

If I were building a rig for Photoshop or other similar, memory consuming applications, I would have gone with 16GB. But 8GB will get the job done in a gaming rig.

Case, Cooling and PSU

A good PC deserves a good home. This little rig is living inside a Corsair Obsidian 350D Window, a nifty little micro-ATX case that takes the best features from the Corsair case line and shrinks them down to micro-ATX size. It’s got all the features you’d want: a motherboard cutout for easy installation of high end CPU coolers, USB 3.0 front panel support, mostly tool-free design and grommeted ports for liquid cooling, if you want that sort of thing. One of the neatest design elements is the SSD cage. The cage holds up to three SSDs, and you just slide in the 2.5-inch SSD and snap it into place. You don’t need to remove the cage, nor any trays.

The Obsidian 350D Window is the Mini-Me of Corsair cases.

Power delivery is handled by a Corsair GS700 PSU, which is designed to appeal to gamers. In other words, it’s relatively inexpensive for a relatively quiet, relatively efficient power supply and lights up. The downside of the GS700 is that it’s not modular, so you’ll need to bundle up the unused power cables. The case can be found for $100 and the PSU for $110.

It lights up. What more do you want? Okay, it also delivers clean power and is relatively efficient.

Note: Some users have reported a high pitch whine coming from this PSU, but my middle-aged ears can’t hear any unusual noise coming from the particular unit I have.

Modern CPUs require modern CPU coolers. I could have shaved a few bucks by using the stock cooler, but opted for a Corsair H60 sealed liquid cooler. Almost all the PCs in the basement lab now use some variation of these sealed coolers, and I’m pretty bullish on them. They’re quiet, facilitate airflow by not creating a giant impediment inside the system and have come down in price. Some units now cost under $50; the somewhat more robust H60 I’m using costs around $65. All these coolers are built with a compact heat sink and pump assembly, with the coolant circulating through permanently attached, flexible tubes to the radiator. You combine an external fan with the radiator and attach the radiator and fan assembly to a convenient 120mm fan mount – usually, the one at the rear of the case.

The H60 heat sink is smaller than most air coolers, since heat dissipation is handled by the radiator attached to the rear of the case.

Windows 8.1 RTM

Rather than installing vanilla Windows 8, I installed the 64-bit version of Windows 8.1 RTM. That required new Nvidia drivers which were different from the Windows 8 drivers. (That’s just recently changed, as Nvidia has now released its 327.23 WHQL drivers, which now support Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 8.1).

I don’t have much to say about Windows 8.1 at this point, except that shutting the system down is a little easier (right-click on the lower left corner and select “Shutdown.” But it’s different enough that performance comparisons may not be valid, and I wasn’t about to install Windows 8.1 on older systems just to run benchmarks.

One reason to install Windows 8.1 on this particular system is that it does support the additional sleep states that Intel built into the Haswell processor, which may explain the very low idle power (47W.)

Odds and Ends

When I told Norm I was adding a Blu-ray drive, Norm snorted, and suggested in no uncertain terms that I didn’t need one. But I still have a lot of older games on disc, and run the occasional Blu-ray movie through my PCs. I’m using an LG UH12NS30, which has an attractive, yet unobtrusive bezel.

I’m also planning on installing a sound card–specifically, a $130 Sound Blaster ZX. This PC works just fine with integrated audio; that’s how I built it for the video. And I’m not installing a sound card because of the sound card per se. I’m installing a Sound Blaster ZX because I want this:

Both the Sound Blaster ZX and the pricier big brother, the ZXR, ship with this control pod, complete with beam-forming microphone.

The control pod is nice, but the beam forming microphone is the wunderkind here. Working with the Creative drives (which are actually lean and robust now, unlike drivers for earlier Creative sound cards), you can narrow the beam so that it picks up just your voice. I’ve have it sitting adjacent, and just in front of, my right desktop speaker. I’ve used it in this configuration in Skype and online gaming services. People on the other end can hear me clearly, and there’s nary a bit of feedback.

Finally, in a bit of silly vanity, I installed an NZXT sleeved (white) LED lighting kit to light up the interior a bit. It’s relatively understated as such things go, and I opted for white instead of garish blue or red.

The lights look a little bluish here, but are actually white.

Testing Performance

The real question is whether I achieved my goal of hitting at least 45fps, and what resolution setting was needed to achieve that goal. Here’s a table of results from four different games. Note that all of these were at maximum detail levels with an AA setting of at least 4x multi-sampled. The built-in benchmark was used for each game.

GameAverage Frame RateResolution
Metro: Last Light43fps1920x1080
Bioshock: Infinite62fps2560x1440
Tomb Raider51fps2560x1440
Grid 278fps2560x1440

Since running the benchmarks, I’ve played the games a bit, and those numbers seem pretty realistic. CPU performance also doesn't seem to be an issue. EVGA’s overclocked GTX 780 generally gets the job done with those spiffy 27-inch, 2560 x 1440 displays. As you can see, I only had to dial down the resolution with Metro: Last Light. I was able to hit comfortable frame rates while maxing out detail levels on the other games, all of which use different game engines.

Price vs. Performance

So how much does this cute little rig set us back? Let’s do the numbers.

ComponentModelPrice
CPUCore i5 4570200
CPU CoolerCorsair H6070
GPUEVGA GTX 780 SC650
MotherboardAsus Z87M Plus140
CaseObsidian 350D w/ Window100
PSUCorsair GS700110
StorageSamsung 840 Evo 750485
RAMCorsair 8GB 1866 LP100
AudioCreative Sound Blaster ZX127
OpticalLG Blu-ray39
OSWindows 8.1100
Total$2131

That’s well over two grand, including the sound card and Blu-ray drive. If we dump the Sound Blaster ZX, the price drops to a slightly more palatable $2,003. Note that this is all before taxes and shipping, so the full cost is likely a little more. On the other hand, none of these were sale items, so that’s a factor in pricing, too. Careful shopping will likely shave a few dollars off.

More Affordable Alternatives

Two grand for a gaming system is pretty steep for some budgets. What can we shave off to save some money, while still hitting the magical fluid frame rates we desire? First, let’s assume that most people will likely be gaming on 1080p displays, so you don’t necessarily need a GPU that can drive 2560 x 1440 monitors. That’s a GTX 770, at around $400-$450, depending on the model. Remove the SSD and use a 1TB hard drive, which now can be found for around $70. We’ve just shaved over $800 while retaining the sound card. Our alternative system now costs $1,258–definitely in more affordable terrain. Bear in mind that even at 1080p, you’ll have to dial back detail levels a bit in Metro: Last Light–but probably not in most other games.

If you want to step up to SSD performance, consider a Corsair Force GT 360GB SSD, priced around $332. You can get Windows and quite a few games on a 360GB SSD. Assuming you’re sticking with the lower cost GTX 770, your system price would be $1,520.

If you want to seriously shave the cost down even more, drop the sound card and SSD, and drop in a Radeon HD 7970. It’s almost as fast as a GTX 770, although it does use a little more power and is a little noisier. Some models of the Radeon HD 7970 GHz edition can be found for as little as $335. Here’s what our stripped down system might look like:

ComponentModelPrice
CPUCore i5 4570200
CPU CoolerStock0
GPURadeon HD 7970 GHz335
MotherboardAsus Z87M Plus140
CaseObsidian 350D w/ Window100
PSUCorsair GS700110
StorageWD 1TB70
RAMCorsair 8GB 1866 LP100
AudioOnboard0
OpticalLG Blu-ray39
OSWindows 8.1100
Total$1194

We’ve cut nearly 50% off the price of the original system by swapping out a couple of components, and you’ll get really solid gaming performance on a 1080p display.

Ultimately, the PC you design and build for yourself depends on your budget and performance goals. But if you get right down to it, a gaming rig costing a little over $2,000 and able to drive a 3.7 megapixel display at playable frame rates, may be priced just about right.

Now watch us build this thing, and stay until the end for details on how to win some of these components!