This month, we build an affordable AMD-based gaming rig to find out just how good (or bad) a CPU/GPU combo can be
LENGTH OF Time: 1-3 HOURS LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY: EASY
THE MISSION. We’ve put together some spendy systems recently. Hey, there’s a reason this mag is called Maximum PC. However, it’s caused a few readers to wonder if we drive gold-plated Humvees to work. As if! We have chauffeurs for that kind of thing. The fact is, we like the challenge of building to a rig’s optimum potential, at any price. So this month, we turn the tables and go full-on budget build.
The timing is perfect since AMD has just released its new «Richland» APUs (Accelerated Processing Units), and it seems like a good way to go when building a machine on change found in your couch. Plus, we hear that it overclockers well, and that the integrated graphics are pretty respectable. Thus our plan became the following: Get the best APU we could afford, good RAM, an aftermarket CPU cooler, and a solid motherboard to overclock as a baseline. Using an integrated GPU would keep the cost below $700 including Windows and an SSD, in addition to the usual items like the case, power supply, etc. Then, stuff it all into a mid-tower case with an ATX motherboard and — boom!—we have an affordable, upgradeable budget box.
GATHERING THE A-TEAM the inside of a case looks pretty naked without at least one video card, right? For this Build It, we’re running the graphics off the APU’s integrated graphics processor (IGP). The APU is an AMD A10-6800K, which is a quad-core chip running at 4.1GHz, and the IGP is a Radeon HD 8670D. Since AMD’s latest cards are numbered 7000 series, the IGP’s numbering makes it look like it’s newer or better, but it’s actually a midrange chip. But the APU has a correspondingly modest price, coming in around $150 at press time. Still, it should soundly defeat the HD 4600 IGP that’s in an Intel Core i5-4670, which comes in at about $230 (but whose non- IGP performance is better than the A10’s in every benchmark that we’ve run).
This chip uses AMD’s FM2 socket, instead of AM3+. We had a high-end FM2 board in the office, but with our relatively economical budget, we’re going with a mid-level F2A85X-D3H from Gigabyte. We expect a solid overclock out of it despite its modest price since it offers a bevy of overclocking options. Assisting our overclock is a Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo CPU cooler, which has the exact combination of performance and low cost that we need. We added a 60GB SSD from Mushkin as a boot drive, to give overall system performance a shot in the arm (in addition to our 1TB hard drive), and we threw it all into an NZXT Source 210 Elite. Everything gets hooked up to a Corsair CX500 power supply. The case and PSU will give us plenty of room to grow.
PART price case
NZXT Source 210 Elite
$85 (street) cpu
Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo
Radeon HD 8670D
2x 4GB Kingston HyperX KHX16C9B1BK2/8
60GB Mushkin Chronos MKNSSDCR60GB-7
1TB Seagate Barracuda
Windows 8 64-bit OEM
1. BRAINS OF THE OPERATION
THE AMD A10-6800K CPU has the fastest off-the-shelf IGP available, which has made it popular for entry-level gaming systems. It beats out everything on the Intel side by a margin of about 20 percent, while costing the same or less. But it’s not a conventional quad-core chip, since each pair of integer cores inside the chip share one floating-point core.
Installing the chip is easy, since the FM2 socket has pretty much the same shape as the AM3/AM3+ socket. CPU coolers for AM3+ will also be 100 percent compatible.
2. THE ARSENAL
THE GIGABYTE GA-F2A85X-D3H motherboard hovers around $85, but this is a full- featured board, with a front USB 3. 0 header, eight SATA 6Gb/s ports, HDMI and dual-link DVI connectors, five PCI Express slots (of varying speeds), a backup BIOS chip, three different RAID modes, and heatsinks on the voltage regulators. Its four-phase regulation is not super-powered, but we should be able to overclock it quite nicely. It doesn’t have PCI Express 3.0, but 2.0 x16 is plenty of bandwidth for a single video card if we want to add one down the line. It also supports Nvidia SLI and AMD CrossFire, though the second PCIe slot is only x4. It also accepts up to four 16GB RAM sticks, and has a total of four fan headers—one of these is right next to the CPU fan header, which makes dual-fan coolers easier to install and manage. The GA-F2A85X-UP4 is the next step up, with things like CrossFire support, six-phase power, and DisplayPort, but it’s about $40 more.
3. THE MUSCLE
SINCE WE’RE NOT using a discrete video card in this system, we probably don’t need more than 300 watts. But the Corsair CX500’s sheer wattage and two 9-pin PCI-Express cables gives this build the option to take pretty much any single-GPU card on the market. At press time, it was also just $30 after a $20 mail-in rebate and $10 promo code on Newegg. So you get a lot of headroom for the money, and the build quality is excellent, as well, for the price. It’s rated as «80 Plus Bronze,» so it’s respectably efficient. Its fan will adjust speeds according to temp readings, it has a unified 12-volt rail for better power distribution, and a three-year warranty.
4. THE WHEELS
THE NZXT SOURCE 210 Elite packs in a surprising amount of value for a sub-$50 case. You get a 120mm and a 140mm fan, two extra 140mm fan mounts, and two extra 120mm mounts in the front. It also has a USB 3.0 port on the front, decent cable management options, ventilation underneath the power supply mount, and a motherboard tray cut-out for easy installation and removal of the CPU cooler. The drive cage is not removable, and it faces toward the back of the case, but this design allows for good airflow and still leaves enough room for long video cards. We did make one small change; we removed the 140mm exhaust fan from the top of the case and made it an intake fan on the case door. We would have liked to move it to the front as an intake fan, but its 140mm width is too large for the dual 120mm mounts. We left the 120mm rear exhaust fan in place.
5. STORE THE SCORETHE
1TB SEAGATE Barracuda hard drive will give us performance similar to a Western Digital Caviar Black, for less money (though the Black has a five-year warranty, instead of the Barracuda’s three). We need an HDD since our SSD is really small. The Mushkin Chronos SSD did not come with a bracket or converter kit for a 3.5-inch drive bay, and this case has no 2.5-inch bays, so we grabbed a spare adapter from the Lab, but you can buy them online for about five bucks. The case’s drive bays are tool-free; you just twist a knob to pull a fastener out, insert a 3.5-inch drive into the slot, put the fastener back in, and twist its knob back to the locked position.
Since the drive has no moving parts and generates negligible heat, we could normally skip the converter, save five bucks, and just tape the SSD down somewhere (behind the motherboard tray is a favorite spot of ours). Leaving the SSD in the cage makes the cabling more manageable though, and since the cage points toward the rear of the case, the orientation won’t obstruct airflow should an intake fan be added in the future.
6. WRAPPING UP LOOSE ENDS
THE COOLER Master Hyper 212 Evo CPU cooler is tall enough to actually touch the case’s side panel. That’s one of the trade-offs of using a cooler with such a large heatsink. It’s actually the heat pipes running through the heatsink that add the extra height of about 5 millimeters. But since there isn’t any electricity running through the 212 Evo or the case, physical contact between these two parts won’t cause a short circuit or otherwise hurt anything. It’s worth putting up with a tight fit, because the 212 Evo has a great balance of performance and price, and it’s easy to install.
We could probably skip an optical drive these days, but at less than $20, it’s is an acceptable insurance cost for items that only exist on an optical disc, like older versions of software, old games, music, and movies. It also allows you to install the motherboard’s integrated Ethernet controller from the bundled CD, rather than having to hunt for it on the Internet.
Last but not least, we’re sticking with Windows 8 from this point forward. It boots faster than Windows 7, and it doesn’t require as many third-party drivers to get up and running.
1. AM D’s A10-6800K has a stock speed of 4.1 GHz, but we were able to push it to 4.7GHz thanks to the performance of the Hyper 212 Evo.
2. The Gigabyte GA-F2A85X- D3H motherboard packs a lot of features into its $85 street price, like a full ATX form factor and heatsinks on the voltage regulators.3. The 60GB Mushkin Chronos SSD loaded Windows 8 in less than 10 seconds, making it easy to pop in and out of the BIOS to tweak various performance settings.4. The NZXT Source 210 Elite is surprisingly sturdy and adaptable for the price, and allows up to seven 120mm fans. The Corsair 200R is an alternative option for budget-oriented gamers.
A PLAN COMES TOGETHER
ONCE WE WERE UP and running, one of the first things we wanted to do was overclock, to see how much it would compensate for the lack of a dedicated video card. We increased the CPU clock by 600 MHz ,to 4.7GHz; and the APU’s Radeon 8670D has a separate clock speed setting in the BIOS, which we increased by 50MHz, to 894MHz.
The end result soundly defeated Intel integrated graphics. For example, the HD 4600 IGP in the Intel Core i7-4770K managed about 45fps in Portal 2 at 1080p with all effects on (minus antialiasing), when we tested it at launch. In this build, the HD 8670D got about the same frame rate—but we were able to run 4x multisample antialiasing, as well.
We also tested Amnesia: The Dark Descent, which uses fancy visual effects like ambient occlusion (AO) and parallax mapping. Here, the chip barely managed
Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec)
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec)
1,947 x264 HD 5.0 (fps)
Stalker: Call of Pripyat (fps)
0% 10% 20% 30% 40% 50% 60% 70% 80% 90% 100%
Our zero-point is a Phenom II X4 965 BE, Gigabyte GA-970A-UD3, 4GB of DDR3/1333, Asus Radeon HD 7770, Samsung 840, and WD Caviar Blue 1TB HDD. All tests were run on Windows 8.
BENCHMARKS to run at 30fps at 1080p, though that was at the «high» preset. Disabling AO gave back 10—15fps. Borderlands 2 ran at 25-30fps at 1080p on the lowest settings. (If you’re looking for better gaming performance on a budget, a Phenom II 965 and Radeon HD 7770 can have the same total cost as a 6800K that uses an aftermarket CPU cooler, if you shop around and don’t mind mail-in rebates.)
The non-GPU performance was also pretty good for the money. In CPU tests it outshone the AMD Phenom II X4 965 in our budget zero-point system—and sometimes demolished it. AMD’s latest CPU cores are a lot better at encoding video in ProShow, where it slashed a whopping 20 minutes off the encode (though the 4.7GHz clock speed also helps). If you’re solely looking for CPU performance, however, AMD’s FX 6300 would be a better choice due to its superior CPU chops.
The bottom line is that the AMD 6800K has the fastest integrated graphics you can buy off-the-shelf. Intel’s «Iris Pro» silicon that’s embedded in some of its new Haswell CPUs appears to be faster based on the numbers we’ve seen, but the CPUs it’s paired with are not available outside of prebuilt systems, and they’re pretty expensive. So if you’re an infrequent gamer with a modest budget, the 6800K is a great piece of hardware.
Otherwise, the Mushkin SSD booted and loaded apps very quickly, though a larger one would have been helpful; the 60GB model fit Windows and a few games, and that’s about it. Overall, we are satisfied with the performance and build quality of the system, even though our inner performance junky craves a video card and liquid cooling.