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Each editor makes a final case for his config
My system might be unbalanced, but it has the video chops to do every GPU task imaginable.
Members of the Maximum PC court, let me start by stating that almost everything that a PC enthusiast does on his or her desktop uses the GPU in one way or another—from using multiple monitors to gaming. If you set your video encode to run on the GPU, the GeForce GTX 670 would easily smoke the Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition chosen by Tom and the GTX 660 selected by Gordon. Those who have high-res panels of 2560x1600 will also benefit from the 670, as it outperform the other video cards at higher resolutions. My processor might not have as much oomph as an FX part or an Ivy Bridge chip, but it gets the job done well enough while my GPU handles the brunt of my PC’s load.
Helping to get these video tasks done is 8GB of Kingston Black DDR3/1600 RAM, which will more than suffice for your multitasking needs. The RAM is clocked higher than my competitors’ and should give an edge when running multiple programs, too.
Something I found to be interesting is that every part I used in my system came with a manufacturer warranty of two or more years. Gordon, on the other hand, has a case and PSU covered for an almost insulting 30 days. The rig I put together might be lopsided when it comes to my CPU and GPU, but at least it’s graphically appealing inside and out.
At this budget level, the quality of individual components can be unreliable. Since a person spending this kind of money probably can't afford many replacement parts or major upgrades, it's better to start with the bar set as high as possible. The places you cut corners can end up costing you double when they break down unexpectedly. And you don't want to have to buy a whole new motherboard just to upgrade your CPU or add more RAM. Boards are a pain to replace, and if you have an OEM version of Windows, it's usually a violation of the user license to reinstall the OS on a system that has a different board.
My 970 Extreme3 has heatsinks on the voltage regulators, high-quality capacitors, four RAM slots, several PCI slots, five SATA 6Gb/s ports, three audio outputs, and an eSATA port. And the AM3+ socket should stay relevant for a few more years. None of this shows up directly on a benchmark, but there is high value for a builder who wants reliability, expansion, and adaptation.
The CX500's dual 8-pin PCIe cables can take every single-GPU card available, too. The Evo 212 cooler will allow big overclocks and should be compatible with the next couple of iterations of FX CPUs. The 210 Elite case can take a 24cm radiator despite costing about 50 bucks, and you don't need a modular power supply to keep the insides tidy, thanks to some generous space for cable management. My system may not win every benchmark, but I can say that it's built to last.
Your honors, let me first state that I intended to present my argument for winning by using a short movie produced and written by Steven Spielberg and directed by J.J. Abrams with Tom Hanks playing my role. That idea was canned when I realized my competitors had no ability to play a DVD, much less burn a CD.
I will instead state my case like so: What matters most? How “pretty” a case is or whether your photo chores take twice as long as the box next to it? Sure, you might get a few more frames at a still unplayable frame rate (is 28fps vs. 23.4fps really something to crow about when you’re actually playing the game?), but what about the extra 15 seconds it takes to launch the game or your favorite app? Yes, Windows 8 does indeed have speedier launch times, but it ain’t as speedy as you’d expect on a 7,200rpm low-areal-density drive. The LGA1155 truly gives you the luxurious feel of a rig with an SSD.
And lest anyone play the “upgrade” card by saying LGA1155 is a dead man walking, let me remind the judges that there is indeed a healthy upgrade path for this system, as you could drop in a Core i7-3770K tomorrow, if you could afford that luxury chip.
So to reiterate: This is the only balanced system here offering top-of-the-line performance in all categories while giving you smooth, SSD-like responsiveness and an optical drive so you don’t have to panhandle a drive or USB stick from your buddy just to install the OS.
The test scores tell the story of where each rig succeeds and fails
To evaluate the performance of our systems, we pitted them against our current Budget Blueprint, a Phenom II X4 965 box with a fresh install of Windows 8, in a subset of our system benchmarks, in addition to a couple of games run at 1920x1080 rather than the typical nut-busting 2560x1600 we use to test $5,000 boxes. We also ran an additional set of benchmarks to increase our data. You can see the full suite of test results at MaximumPC.com when the story is posted online.
The benchmarks you see here held the most sway over our panel of judges. The results were a bit eye-opening.
First up, our CPU benchmarks. TechArp.com’s x264 5.01 encoding test is heavily multithreaded and if you have eight cores, it’ll use them. ProShow Producer 5.0 is optimized for four cores and Stitch.EFx 2.0 is a combination: The first two-thirds of the run is single-threaded with the last third exploiting multiple threads. The FM2-based A6 CPU gets destroyed by the FX and Core i5 parts. It even gets pummeled by the Phenom II in x264 and Stich.Efx, but shockingly beats the quad-core Phenom II in ProShow Producer. Between the FX and Core i5, the more efficient i5 easily trounces the FX in Stitch. The spread came as a surprise since we didn’t think the relatively low clocks of the Core i5 would spank the FX part so badly, especially with the overclock Tom put on the FX CPU. The overclock definitely helped the FX in ProShow, too. It didn’t win, but it came surprisingly close to the Ivy Bridge quad CPU. Finally, in the second pass of x264, the six cores of the FX put it on top—and we expected the Core i5 to take top honors.
Moving on to gaming, we had expected the FM2 platform to spank both other boxes with its $350 GPU, but the dual-core/shared-core design of the CPU put it at a severe disadvantage in 3DMark 11 and Hitman: Absolution. Both feature physics tests, which are CPU-heavy, and the dual-core severely sags. The good news for the FM2 box is that it did manage to win the STALKER: CoP test, but if you look at the numbers, it’s not what you’d expect of a $350 GPU. We’ve long said that gaming is 90 percent GPU, but seeing this data, we’re inclined to revise that to 75 percent—but only when coupled with a decent quad-core chip.
To pick our winner, each PC was presented to an independent panel of Maximum PC editors not involved in the contest.
The FM2 system was almost immediately eliminated from contention. Yes, it did have the highest score in STALKER: CoP, but that’s it, and it wasn’t exactly by a large margin. The overall thrashing it took from the LGA1155 and the AM3+ as well as the older Phenom II 965 relegated it to a distant third place in all three judge’s eyes.
That made it a two-horse race between the AM3+ and LGA1155 system. After seeing the benchmark data and poking around the interiors of the systems, Judge Josh Norem selected the AM3+ as the winner. Norem said the arguments were pretty clear-cut: The AM3+ has easy upgrade options in the empty DIMM slots, a full ATX motherboard, and a case that’s far superior to the LGA1155’s Rosewill enclosure for enthusiasts.
Judge Katherine Stevenson, however, sided against Judge Norem, arguing that the better CPU performance and the close-enough gaming performance (Gordon’s “28fps vs. 23fps—big whoop” argument obviously worked) put the LGA1155 ahead. She also said the SSD caching was a persuasive factor in her pick, as 500GB HDD performance is nothing anyone wants to be stuck with, even if the case is prettier. Judge Stevenson even did some mouse driving on both systems and timed how long it took to launch games and apps and boot the systems. The results only cemented her belief that the LGA1155, though ugly as hell, was the winner.
The swing vote on the panel was Judge Jimmy Thang. Judge Thang crunched the benchmark numbers and decided that the LGA1155 was the overall better system. Judge Thang felt the CPU-heavy wins were more persuasive than the GPU wins, which were pretty close when you look at the frame rates. He also said the caching SSD proved to be a critical advantage in performance and agreed that the ability to cut application and launch times outweighed a sturdier PSU or case since those don’t impact felt performance.
It’s not a unanimous decision, but the judges have ruled: The LGA1155 system is the Budget Build winner.