AMD’s Bulldozer architecture finally hit retail in October 2011, and Gordon put the highest-performing chip, the FX-8150, through the wringer. His conclusion: It’s a decent competitor to Intel’s i5-2500K, but no match for the (much more expensive) Sandy Bridge-E or 2600K parts. And that’s OK; there are plenty of reasons to want a solid midrange performer. Maybe you really, really want to be able to say you have an eight-core processor. Maybe you’re opposed to Intel for religious reasons. Or maybe you just want real PCIe x16 lanes without having to put out for the pricey X79 platform.
Whatever your reason, an FX-8150 can be a respectable foundation for a solid gaming rig since modern gaming is still more about the GPU than the CPU. In this article, we'll give you a step-by-step walkthrough of our build--if you're wondering how to build a killer gaming PC of your own, read on!
A previous version of this article incorrectly said we used 38GB of RAM. Maximum PC regrets the error.
Central to my build, of course, is AMD’s top-tier Bulldozer part, the 3.6GHz FX-8150. It’ll rest in Asus’s Sabertooth 990FX motherboard, which has USB 3.0, six SATA 6Gb/s ports, and plenty of PCIe x16 lanes. The 990FX isn’t markedly different from 890FX except for one glaring change: Board vendors are now offering SLI “support” (read unlock codes) in the BIOS. I was originally going to use Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Evo CPU cooler, but in the course of overclocking I decided to swap it out for AMD’s Asetek-built Bulldozer FX liquid cooler, which bears a very strong resemblance to Antec’s Kuhler 920.
To keep things in the AMD house and at the $1,500 price point, my graphics card of choice is the Radeon HD 6970. It’s got enough juice to power any game on the market at reasonable settings, and at $330 it fits well with my budget without being a budget card.
NZXT’s just-launched Phantom 410 is a smaller version of the original Phantom, with a few more fans and USB 3.0 support. Corsair’s TX750 v2 PSU is more than enough power for my overclocks and any extra graphics cards I want to add later.
The one wild card in my build is the hard drive. Thanks to the still-ongoing Thailand floods, the price of a 750GB 2.5-inch hybrid drive is (at press time) only a little more than a 1TB 3.5-inch drive. The 8GB of NAND cache on the Momentus XT gives a performance boost to my most frequently accessed sectors of the disk, so boot and oft-used programs will be faster.
To install the CPU, lift the socket arm and gently lower the CPU into place, making sure the triangle on the CPU’s corner is aligned with the correct corner in the socket. Lower the lever back into place. Install the RAM into the second and fourth slots (the tan ones).
Before we start building into the case, it’s time to move some fans. Remove the side, top, and front panels from the case, then remove the rear 12cm exhaust fan and top 14cm exhaust fan. This will involve unplugging them from their fan controller connectors behind the motherboard tray. Use the long screws provided to install the 12cm fan in the front of the case, directly above the existing intake fan. Reconnect it to one of the fan control connectors behind the motherboard tray. Set aside the 14cm fan and its screws for now.
Install the motherboard standoffs in standard ATX configuration, put the motherboard I/O shield in place, then install the motherboard in the case.
If you’re getting flashbacks to last month, I don’t blame you. AMD’s Bulldozer-branded liquid-cooling system is built by Asetek, the same OEM who makes Intel’s RST2011LC liquid cooler, and is, in fact, nearly identical to the Asetek-made Antec Kuhler 920.
The instructions say to install the cooling fans as intakes, but we’re going to use ours as exhaust. Attach one fan to the inside of the cooler, then attach the other through the exhaust fan mounts to the radiator (image D). Run the radiator fans’ power cables behind the motherboard tray.
Next, assemble the cooler mounting bracket as shown in AMD’s instructions and clip it to the CPU heatsink.
Unscrew the four screws attaching AMD’s cooling mount to the backplate and remove the plastic mounts. Mount the CPU cooler/pump unit to the AMD backplate, tightening the mounting screws in an X-shaped pattern.
Attach the 3-pin pump power cable to the CPU_FAN header and run the radiator fan Y-connector behind the motherboard tray to the radiator fan cables. Run the USB 2.0 cable behind the motherboard tray to the bottom of the motherboard and connect it to a USB 2.0 header).
Install the GPU in to the topmost x16 PCIe slot.
Remove the top optical drive bezel and replace the case’s front panel. Slide the optical drive into that bay and secure it with the toolless mechanism. Add thumbscrews if you like. Take a hard drive tray from the cage and remove the mounting posts from the sides. Install the Momentus XT using the 2.5-inch mounting holes on the bottom of the tray. Replace in bay.
Install the power supply into the case with the fan facing down. Bring the dual-4-pin ATX auxiliary power cable, 24-pin ATX power cable, and two 6-pin PCIe power cables through the cutout nearest the PSU to the back of the motherboard tray. Bring the auxiliary ATX power cable through the opening at the top of the motherboard tray and connect it (image I). Bring the 24-pin motherboard power cable through the top side cutout and connect it, then connect the 6-pin PCIe connectors to the GPU—one will require the use of the 2-pin connector, as well.
Replace the top 14cm fan, but flip it around so that it’s used as an intake fan rather than exhaust. This will keep the motherboard voltage regulators under the radiator from overheating.
Connect the fan power lead to one of the fan controller connectors behind the motherboard tray.
Connect the front-panel connector power and LED switches to the board, as well as the HD Audio, USB 2.0, and USB 3.0 connectors. Connect SATA power and data cables to the optical and hard drives, then connect 6Gb/s SATA cables from the drives to the lowest set of SATA ports on the motherboard.
Use zip ties to tie excess fan controller connectors and case wiring to the rear of the motherboard tray. Bundle the unused power connectors here as well, if you can fit them.
At this point you should connect your monitor, mouse, and keyboard and turn on the rig. Enter the BIOS’s Advanced Mode, go to Boot, and deselect “Wait for F1 on Error.” This will prevent the system from hanging up due to a perceived fan-speed error from the pump. Exit out of the BIOS, and install Windows and your drivers as normal, making sure to install the ChillControl software for the CPU cooler.
Once Windows is set up and working, it’s time to tweak the CPU a little bit. Bulldozer parts seem to vary in their overclocking stability: After many overly ambitious overclocks, I got to 4.2GHz, mostly by upping the CPU multiplier, but I’ve seen overclocks of over 4.8GHz with the same CPU and motherboard, so your mileage may vary.
Given that Gordon had already benchmarked the FX-8150, I wasn’t expecting miracles, and I didn’t get them. The Bulldozer rig pulled down respectable scores for a $1,500 rig, but I didn’t really see any benefit from eight cores at 4.2GHz that wasn’t exceeded by a quad-core i7-920 at 3.5GHz. I was really surprised by both the difficulty of maintaining a stable overclock and the lack of oomph I got when I did manage to overclock.
After spending hours trying to stabilize my Bulldozer system at 4.8GHz and 4.6GHz, both of which I’d seen run on the same motherboard with the same processor, I had to lower my sights a little. I finally settled on a stable 4.2GHz—17 percent faster than stock. On CPU-bound benchmarks, though, like Vegas Pro and MainConcept Reference, I saw less than a 10 percent improvement over the FX-8150 at stock, and the other benchmarks showed even less improvement. FX-8150 chips seem to be variable in their tolerance for overclocks, so you might have better luck.
Of course, the lower scores on encoding tests could also have to do with my boot drive. I normally prefer to run with an SSD boot drive, but I went with a hybrid drive this time. The disk access speed and slower-than-solid-state write speeds doubtless affected the encoding tests, which all involve reading and writing large files to the disk.
That said, Bulldozer does offer better thermal performance. My FX-8150 never got above 55 C, even running Prime95 at 4.2GHz, which is far lower than we’d see from the overclocked i7-920 in our zero-point test bed.
If your budget allows for it, you may want to go for a multi-GPU setup. Unlike Sandy Bridge motherboards, which can run two x16 PCIe videocards but only at x8, the Sabretooth 990FX can run them at their full x16 speed. Does it really make a big difference? In the vast majority of cases no, but hell, you can at least rub it in the noses of your friends running at x8 speeds.
For a $1,500 machine, the Bulldozer rig does offer a lot of performance, although unless you’re running heavily multithreaded applications you probably won’t notice the difference between its eight cores and a decent quad-core—especially if the quad has Hyper-Threading. At this point, diehard AMD fans will probably just be happy to hear that a Bulldozer-powered rig holds its own at its price point. A Bulldozer rig isn’t the fastest money can buy, but for the price, you get a lot of cores, decent performance, and full PCIe lanes to grown into.