It's easy to build a gaming machine on a budget if you're playing at 1650x1080 or 1920x1200, but if you're rocking 2560x1600, you need a little more oomph
As Maximum PC senior editor Gordon Mah Ung puts it, building a budget gaming rig for a 30-inch panel is the metaphorical equivalent of slapping a Ferrari engine into a crappy Ford car. If you can afford a display that rings up north of $2,000, then why the heck are you trying to cut corners on the system you’re connecting it to?
I can’t answer that one for you. But what I can tell you is exactly how you can go about getting the best frame rate for your buck without purchasing a PC that’s more expensive than your mega-monitor. That’s my task for this build-it: killer gaming performance without needless budgetary destruction. And as you might expect, picking the perfect graphics card for the mix is the biggest challenge of this build.
So in the interest of fairness, I selected two videocard setups that I put to the test in this build: the best of Nvidia’s dual-GPU monstrosities, and two high-end ATI cards in a CrossFire setup. Compared to what these cards can do, everything else on this PC is practically window dressing.
Choosing the Right Hardware
As far as top-notch processors go, Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture is a no-brainer for my killer system build. I’ve opted for the 3.3GHz 2500K instead of its 2600K cousin because it’s less expensive and is easy to overclock up to the 2600K’s 3.4GHz, and I don’t feel that the addition of Hyper-Threading is going to make that much of a difference to gaming frame rates. To keep the system speedy (and load times low), Intel’s Z68 platform and its integrated Smart Response Technology allow me to use an SSD as an expanded read/write cache for a standard hard drive. What little benefit in speeds I’d see by jumping from a Western Digital Caviar Blue to a Caviar Black drive is eclipsed by the SSD cache’s performance.
And now for the elephant in the room: the videocards. The point of this system build is to present an affordable PC that can dish out top-notch gaming on a 30-inch panel. That’s why I’m not just taking the easy route and slapping in two Nvidia GTX 590 cards or two ATI Radeon HD 6990 cards in a paired configuration and calling it a day (don’t do the math; the cost of these cards hurts.)
Maximum PC recommending a CrossFire scenario instead of a single-card setup? What is this world coming to?
As for my ultimate decision to go with two ATI Radeon HD 6970 cards in a CrossFire configuration instead of a single, dual-GPU Nvidia GTX 590, I’ll let the benchmarks (see page 2)—and the price points—speak for themselves. Simply put, I found that I could achieve similar or even better performance (depending on the game) from a comparably priced CrossFire setup than with Nvidia’s single-card solution.
From benchmark tests of Batman: Arkham Asylum, to Dirt 3, to Metro 2033, to an ever-punishing trip through Crysis 2, my CrossFire setup consistently spanked Nvidia’s GTX 590. Now, I realize that my selection flies in the face of the advice that Maximum PC has been giving you since videocards were invented—namely, that you should always purchase the fastest single-card solution you can get under the presumption that you’ll later be able to bolster your setup with a wicked-fast SLI or CrossFire setup, if you so desire.
But with the price of these extreme videocards shooting up into the $700 range, I think we can take that suggestion and throw it out the window. If you can afford $1,400 worth of videocards, you’re reading the wrong article. For the best out-of-box solution that can make your games scream on a 30-inch display without breaking your bank account, you can’t go wrong with dual ATI Radeon HD 6970s.
It’s always a delight to attempt to pack huge videocards inside of a mid-tower case. Not! But that’s the price I’m paying for sinking most of my budget into graphics. Cooler Master’s Storm Enforcer case presents a tight squeeze for parts and cable management, but its slick looks, side-panel window, and support for two USB 3.0 ports on the front of the case make it an appealing package for a sub-$100 chassis. Most of the parts and pieces you can stuff inside the chassis are screwless additions, except for your screw-dependent PCI devices—an unexpected omission by Cooler Master.
See the gaping hole in what would otherwise be a nice column of drive bays? The beauty of the Cooler Master Storm Enforcer case is its modularity: You can remove some of the drive bays in the chassis to give yourself more room for cards, cables, and delicious airflow. Good thing, too—I had to remove the case’s included 2.5-inch drive bays (originally attached between the 3.5-inch bays and the PSU mount), in order to get the power supply to fit. The next best solution is to attach the SSD to a 2.5-inch-to-3.5-inch converter kit, and then use the Cooler Master’s included drive rails to attach the contraption into one of the remaining 3.5-inch drive bays.
ANTEC HCG-750 PSU
What I gained in cost savings by picking Antec’s reasonably priced power supply, I lost in modularity. There’s no way to get rid of cables I otherwise don’t need on this power supply, which is a bit of a let-down given the already cramped confines of the Cooler Master Storm Enforcer case and the two huge graphics cards I’m packing into the rig. But that’s OK—I was able to stuff the PSU’s extra cords behind the right side panel.
Since this is a budget build (of sorts), Gigabyte's Z68X-UD3H-B3 motherboard delivers an appealing mix of features and affordability. I love the diversity of connections Gigabyte throws into the mix: four USB ports, two USB 3.0 ports, eSATA, FireWire, and HDMI and DisplayPort for all those times you won't be using your discrete videocard. Three SATA 3Gb/s connections meet four SATA 6Gb/s on the motherboard itself, and Gigabyte makes sure to wire up its PCI connections in such a way that populating them all doesn't disable any other connections on the mobo itself—a big problem with other inexpensive Z68 motherboards I considered.
One thing you should note: The Z68-UD3H-B3's SATA ports are color-coded to indicate which of the ports are which. The gray ports are 6Gb/s SATA, but they are on the integrated Marvell controller. The two white Intel chipset-based 6Gb/s SATA ports (hint: use these for best performance!) are next to the two black 3Gb/s ports. Careful—you can't mix-and-match RAIDs across controllers.
INTEL'S SMART RESPONSE TECHNOLOGY
Enabling Intel's Smart Response Technology is as easy as setting a single option within the system's BIOS, installing Windows onto a non-SSD hard drive, and flicking on SRT within a small Intel software utility.
The Big Picture
My initial goal with this build was to get a $1,500 PC that could run Crysis 2 at maxed-out settings. So the cost is a little higher, and the frame rates are a little lower, but I’m confident that the PC I’ve fashioned best straddles the line between affordability and awesome gaming. And this is all without overclocking the system a single bit—I will leave the process of jacking up your CPU and GPU speeds to your capable hands. I just wanted to showcase the kind of out-of-the-box performance you can expect from such a rig.
Gaming-wise, you aren’t going to get much better than an ATI Radeon 6970 CrossFire setup unless you jump into the realm of tri-card packages or dual-GPU CrossFireX/quad-SLI configurations, and those don’t really bring the word “budget” to mind (which is also why I opted not to pack two Nvidia GTX 580 cards into this rig). While you might scoff at my decision to spend half this rig’s cost on its graphics, I think the benchmarks speak for themselves. It’s no small feat to max out the resolution and quality of the games I’ve picked, and my system delivered excellent frame rates on what I’d otherwise consider unthinkable playing situations.
For a smallish chassis, Cooler Master's Storm Enforcer easily fits everything we need to game on a 30-inch panel.
Why’s that? It’s simple: I ran benchmarks that cranked antialiasing as high as it would possibly go on each game, a practice that’s all but unnecessary when you’re playing at a 2560x1600 resolution. You just aren’t going to need to maximize the visual-smoothing feature during common gaming. And as soon as you’ve turned that setting down a bit, boom—time to enjoy Crysis 2 in its raw, speedy glory. Wave goodbye to the 40 frames per second as reported by our maxed-out benchmark settings (including DirectX 11 and the high-resolution texture pack add-on; I’m not kidding when I say I tried to melt faces with this game).
Since every Build It invariably generates its share of “I could do that for cheaper” comments, here are some of the downgrades I’d consider if I really wanted to stick to a $1,500 price point. First off, there’s the case: You can always find a cheaper (albeit lamer) case, but it’s going to be a journey worthy of Indiana Jones to find an inexpensive one with USB 3.0 support that doesn’t stink. I might also drop down to ATI Radeon 6950 cards sprinkled with an overclock or a third-party firmware update that unlocks the cards’ shaders. If worse comes to worst, I could always drop the SSD and SRT. But that’s not very Maximum PC now, is it? Especially when all you’re left with is a fairly average, non-eye-popping hard drive.
For a tad over $1,500, you now have a system that’s capable of rocking out on a monitor that costs just as much, if not more, than the system itself. God speed, gamer.
CrossFire ATI Radeon HD 6970 Rig
Nvidia GTX 590 Rig
Batman Arkham Asylum
MSAA 16XQ, PhysX
No MSAA, No PhysX
AA and AF maxed, no PhysX
Total War: Shogun 2
Best scores are bolded. All benchmarks run at maximum/ultra-quality mode across both setups, DirectX 11 mode used when appropriate. Crysis 2 benchmarks incorporate DirectX 11 patch and high-resolution texture patch. All benchmarks run four times, with frame rates recorded for second, third, and fourth runs.