Ultra Battlebox: Building a Battlefield 3 PC For Under $1,600

Nathan Edwards

You can't get the full BF3 experience on a console, but what does it take to get it on a PC?

In an age of sloppy console ports, Battlefield 3 is a huge relief for PC gamers. Not only is the PC a “lead platform” for DICE’s flagship modern shooter, but we’re getting all the good stuff: 64-player maps? You won’t find ‘em on a console. DirectX 11 graphics? Only on a PC, Sparky. Indeed, Battlefield 3’s Frostbite 2 engine brings fully destructible environments, ambient occlusion, MLAA, and full DX11 support—and it reaches its full potential only on the PC. But with great power comes great power requirements: DICE’s minimum recommended GPU is a GeForce GTX 560 or AMD Radeon HD 6950, and performance scales up from there. That means a lot of us are going to have to go get new videocards—or a whole new rig.

Any Neanderthal can slap together a $3,000 box and play Battlefield 3 like a dream, but that’s out of reach for most people. So we decided to build a machine that can play BF3 as nature intended—at 1920x1200 resolution, with all settings at Ultra—and do it for less than $1,600.

[Note: This story was originally written for the Holiday 2011 print magazine, and predated both the retail release of Battlefield 3 and the flooding-related hard drive shortage. ] Print deadlines being what they are, we didn’t have access to the final Battlefield 3 code, but we played the open beta and used Battlefield 3-optimized drivers from AMD and Nvidia as they became available.

We’ll start by explaining the parts we chose and why. Some were obvious, and some—like the videocards—changed multiple times. Then we’ll talk about our testing and gameplay experience, and describe some alternate configurations. If you’ve ever needed a good excuse to upgrade or build a new rig, Battlefield 3 just might be it.

CPU - Intel Core i5-2500K

We think the Core i5 -2500K is the best midrange processor on the market. It’s a 3.3GHz quad-core chip, and though it lacks Hyper-Threading, it's multiplier-unlocked and overclocks like a dream, thus extending its usable lifespan (though we left ours at stock speeds for this rig). Sandy Bridge is a great platform, and the 2500K hits the price/performance sweet spot for that platform. Bulldozer and Sandy Bridge-E CPUs weren’t available when we built our system, but even if they were, we’d probably still go with the 2500K. It’s that good a value.

Motherboard - Asus P8Z68-V Pro

Asus’s P8Z68-V Pro is the perfect complement to our i5-2500K. Not only does it have Intel’s excellent native 6Gb/s SATA chipset and USB 3.0 support, but it also brings three PCIe x16 slots—although the third is restricted to x4 mode, and the first two, if both used, default to dual x8 speeds. A UEFI BIOS enables use of hard drives bigger than 2.2TB, and Intel’s Smart Response Technology (SRT) is an option if you prefer a large mechanical boot drive with a small SSD for caching—an option we considered before settling on the final storage loadout.

RAM - 8GB Patriot Division 2 DDR3/1600

DICE’s minimum RAM requirement for Battlefield 3 is 2GB, and its recommended specs call for 4GB. 4GB is, frankly, the bare minimum we’d consider putting into a new rig, and it’s not very future-proof. The Z68 chipset is dual-channel, and our motherboard has four DIMM slots. With memory prices so low, it only made sense to go with two 4GB DIMMs. That gives us 8GB of RAM now, and room to double up later.

GPU - XFX Radeon 6970 2GB

This was the trickiest part to pick. Throughout the beta period, Nvidia and AMD kept releasing beta drivers that would put their respective GPUs in the lead. AMD’s second preview drivers, though, kicked the 6970’s average frame rate on Ultra at 1920x1200 up to 45fps on our system—well in the playable range, and for $150 less than Nvidia’s GTX 580. If we had gone with the GTX 560 Ti or Radeon 6950, we would have had to ratchet down the graphical quality or the resolution. With the Radeon 6970 we get a tasty balance of performance and price.

SSD - 120GB Corsair Force GT

Our original plan called for a 3TB boot drive with a 40GB SSD for caching via Intel’s SRT. That install fell over and died twice, thanks to some bugs with SRT and drives greater than 2.2TB, so we went back to the drawing board. We decided on a blazing-fast 6Gb/s SATA SSD with 120GB of storage as our boot drive. That’s enough for the OS and a few of our favorite games and applications, with a larger traditional hard drive for documents, movies, music, and other media. A 120GB drive, right now, is the sweet spot between price and capacity.

Hard Drive - 2TB Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000

We had our eyes on a 3TB Deskstar and 40GB SSD, as noted previously, but—in addition to the aforementioned buggy install—we realized we could get a 120GB SSD and 2TB drive for around the same price. We figure we’ll miss 1TB of mass storage less than we’d miss the ultra-fast load times of a dedicated SSD for our OS and gaming. For now, two terabytes is plenty for us, and the Deskstar is both speedy and reliable. 11.28.11 Update: The price for the 2TB Deskstar is now approximately $200, instead of the $120 it was at the time this story was written.

PSU - 750W Corsair TX750 V2

Not much to talk about here; we needed power. Power enough to run our rig without stuttering, freezing, or crashing. Power that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Corsair’s TX750 V2 isn’t frilly or fancy—we didn’t spring for the modular version—but it does what it says on the tin, and that’s enough. 750W is sufficient for our solitary Radeon HD 6970, and should even enable us to throw another card in the system later, if we so choose.

Case - Rosewill Thor v2

For price-conscious builds we normally opt for mid-tower chassis, as they’re usually less expensive than their full-tower kin. However, we reviewed Rosewill’s Thor V2 last month and it really captured our imagination. Either it’s well built for a budget full-tower, or it’s cheap for a good full-tower, but either way, we dig its roomy interior, easy cable routing, and fantastic stock cooling. The Thor has two variable-speed fan controllers that support three fans each; we connected its intake fans (23cm, front and side) to one and its exhaust fans (14cm rear and 23cm top) to the other.

Inside Scoop

1. The Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus is our favorite step-up-from-stock CPU cooler.

2. The Thor has room for even the longest of graphics cards.

3. We skipped a Blu-ray player to save money. Why watch movies when you can play games?

Our Battlebox In Action

You go to war with the drivers you have

Building a rig to play a game that hasn’t come out yet presents some unique challenges. The Battlefield 3 beta was only open for a brief time, didn’t include a benchmarking tool, and, well, wasn’t the final shipping code. Also, throughout our testing, both Nvidia and AMD released updated Battlefield 3-specific beta drivers, which drastically improved performance with each respective company’s cards. We tested performance by running the Fraps utility throughout a series of matches in the beta, then taking the average frames per second from each playthrough and averaging them.

For our Battlebox, we set a simple performance goal: We wanted a rig that could play Battlefield 3 at 1920x1200 at Ultra, the highest of its four performance presets, without having to turn down any of the settings. Neither the GTX 560 Ti nor the Radeon HD 6950 could stay above 35fps at Ultra, though both were fine at 1920x1200 on the High preset. Nvidia’s GTX 580 delivered excellent performance at Ultra, averaging more than 45fps with the 285.38 beta drivers, while AMD’s Radeon HD 6970, using the first set of Catalyst 11.10 preview drivers, mustered an average of 35fps—playable, but not quite the frame rate we were looking for.

However, just a few days before the open beta period ended, AMD released the Catalyst Preview 11.10 (version 2) drivers, which promised big Battlefield 3 performance gains. And boy, did they deliver. The new drivers let our Radeon HD 6970 average 42fps in Battlefield 3’s Operation Metro map. That’s an average frame rate we’re comfortable with—enough to choose the Radeon HD 6970 over the GTX 580. The GTX 580 is an objectively faster card, and Nvidia’s release drivers will doubtless bump its performance higher than the 45fps we saw. But the Radeon is $150 cheaper, and in a rig that’s all about bang for the buck, we couldn’t pass it up.

It goes without saying that upping your GPU will up your performance. DICE’s “recommended system requirements” for Battlefield 3 advises using an Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 or AMD Radeon HD 6950. Nvidia provides more detail, saying that a GTX 560 or higher will play the game at 1920x1200 at High settings, while a 580 is required for Ultra settings. This is borne out in our testing. If you’re OK with High quality, or you’re playing at a lower resolution, you can get away with a GTX 560 or Radeon HD 6950. For Ultra at 1920x1200, we recommend a Radeon HD 6970 at minimum. The more GPU you bring to the game, the better it will look.

If you’ve built a gaming system in the past few years, you shouldn’t have to do much to ready your rig for Battlefield 3, beyond adding a bit of RAM, perhaps, and upping your GPU power a bit. If you’re running a Radeon HD 5870 or 6870, or a GTX 480 or 570, you probably don’t need to upgrade at all. If you have a midrange card, you might consider adding a second one for an SLI or CrossFire configuration.

One thing the frames-per-second numbers don’t tell you is how awesome Battlefield 3 looks at Ultra settings. Shoot, it even looks fantastic on High. So even if your current videocard is ancient, you can swap it out for a GTX 560 Ti or Radeon HD 6950 and still get a kick-ass experience—for less than the cost of a console. Don’t get us wrong—we’re sure BF3 will be just fine on a console, if you’re OK with the 24-player maps, plodding dual-analog controllers, and prehistoric graphics.

We’re super-excited for Battlefield 3, as much for its unabashed PC-centricity as its gameplay, which is addictive as all get-out. But if Battlefield isn’t your bag, never fear—the rig we built is a great general-purpose gaming PC, with enough power to handle any modern game you care to throw at it. We just happen to want to throw Battlefield 3 its way and never stop playing.

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