Review Index:
Feedback

The Budget Gaming PC Shootout: Affordable System Builds Compared

Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: Various

The Road to 1080p

View Full Size

The stars of the show: a group of affordable GPU options

When preparing to build or upgrade a PC on any kind of a budget, how can you make sure you're extracting the highest performance per dollar from the parts you choose? Even if you do your homework comparing every combination of components is impossible. As system builders we always end up having to look at various benchmarks here and there and then ultimately make assumptions. It's the nature of choosing products within an industry that's completely congested at every price point.

Another problem is that lower-priced graphics cards are usually benchmarked on high-end test platforms with Core i7 processors - which is actually a necessary thing when you need to eliminate CPU bottlenecks from the mix when testing GPUs. So it seems like it might be valuable (and might help narrow buying choices down) if we could take a closer look at gaming performance from complete systems built with only budget parts, and see what these different combinations are capable of.

With this in mind I set out to see just how much it might take to reach acceptable gaming performance at 1080p (acceptable being 30 FPS+). I wanted to see where the real-world gaming bottlenecks might occur, and get a feel for the relationship between CPU and GPU performance. After all, if there was no difference in gaming performance between, say, a $40 and an $80 processor, why spend twice as much money? The same goes for graphics. We’re looking for “good enough” here, not “future-proof”.

View Full Size

The components in all their shiny boxy-ness (not everything made the final cut)

If money was no object we’d all have the most amazing high-end parts, and play every game at ultra settings with hundreds of frames per second (well, except at 4K). Of course most of us have limits, but the time and skill required to assemble a system with as little cash as possible can result in something that's actually a lot more rewarding (and impressive) than just throwing a bunch of money at top-shelf components.

The theme of this article is good enough, as in, don't spend more than you have to. I don't want this to sound like a bad thing. And if along the way you discover a bargain, or a part that overperforms for the price, even better!

Yet Another AM1 Story?

We’ve been talking about the AMD AM1 platform since its introduction, and it makes a compelling case for a low cost gaming PC. With the “high-end” CPU in the lineup (the Athlon 5350) just $60 and motherboards in the $35 range, it makes sense to start here. (I actually began this project with the Sempron 3820 as well, but it just wasn’t enough for 1080p gaming by a long shot so the test results were quickly discarded.) But while the 5350 is an APU, I didn't end up testing it without a dedicated GPU. (Ok, I eventually did but it just can't handle 1080p.)

But this isn’t just a story about AM1 after all. Jumping right in here, let's look at the result of my research (and mounting credit card debt). All prices were accurate as I wrote this, but are naturally prone to fluctuate:

Tested Hardware
Graphics Cards

MSI AMD Radeon R7 250 2GB OC - $79.99

XFX AMD Radeon R7 260X - $109.99

EVGA NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 - $109.99

EVGA NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti SC - $153.99

Processors

AMD Athlon 5350 2.05 GHz Quad-Core APU - $59.99

AMD Athlon X2 340X 3.2 GHz Dual-Core CPU - $44.99.

AMD Athlon X4 760K 3.8 GHz Quad-Core CPU - $84.99

Intel Pentium G3220 3.0 GHz Dual-Core CPU - $56.99

Motherboards

ASRock AM1B-ITX Mini-ITX AMD AM1 - $39.99

MSI A88XM-E45 Micro-ATX AMD A88X - $72.99

ECS H81H3-M4 Micro-ATX Intel H81 - $47.99

Memory 4GB Samsung OEM PC3-12800 DDR3-1600 (~$40 Value)
Storage Western Digital Blue 1TB Hard Drive - $59.99
Power Supply EVGA 430 Watt 80 PLUS PSU - $39.99
OS Windows 8.1 64-bit - $99

So there it is. I'm sure it won't please everyone, but there is enough variety in this list to support no less than 16 different combinations, and you'd better believe I ran each test on every one of those 16 system builds!

Keep reading our look at budget gaming builds for 1080p!!

Graphics Cards

From the table above you'll see that I had four GPUs at my disposal, and from lowest to highest price they were:

  • MSI AMD Radeon R7 250 OC ($79.99)
  • XFX AMD Radeon R7 260X ($109.99)
  • EVGA NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 ($109.99)
  • EVGA NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti SC ($153.99)

I'll point out the GTX 750 Ti "SC" here, as this "SuperClocked" version of the 750 Ti features a pretty hefty overclock out of the box (1176MHz/1255MHz base/boost vs. stock 1020MHz/1085MHz), but only cost $4 more than a stock GTX 750 Ti on Amazon at the time I ordered it.

The next step is where it gets tricky. I mean, it’s not difficult to grab some video cards in the $80 to $150 range, but there are so many different CPU/chipset options it could lead to total confusion and possible insanity. (Just me?) I persevered, however.

Processors and Platforms

Besides the Athlon 5350 the other three CPU players in this review included AMD processors on the FM2 socket as well as an option from Intel. The other two processors from AMD were the Athlon X4 760K, a quad-core Richland part which is a great choice for gaming (but the most expensive in the group at $85), and the low-cost Athlon X2 340X (around $42) which is dual-core part that’s essentially a Trinity APU without the graphics. While this lower-end X2 part is not really intended for a gaming system, it does support a full x16 graphics connection, which is significant when we're comparing systems against the AM1 platform.

I wanted to see how much of a difference PCI Express bandwidth alone might have on GPU performance, and a CPU like the X2 340X doesn't have really much else going for it. It is a dual core part that runs at 3.2GHz with a Turbo boost to 3.6GHz, while the Athlon 5350 is a 2.05GHz quad-core part. I speculated that the AM1 CPU's reduced clock speeds and x4 limitation on the PCI Express bus might affect gaming on a discrete GPU more with the 5350, and give the X2 340X an advantage in performance even with two fewer cores. We’ll see if I was right.

Along with the AM1 and A88X platforms from AMD I tested systems based on an Intel H81 motherboard, powered by the lowest-cost LGA 1150 chipset. For these Intel builds I selected the Pentium G3220 processor, which has become a solid budget gaming choice for its good performance and low price tag at just under $60.

Next we'll look at the rest of the components.

June 25, 2014 | 09:38 AM - Posted by Searching4Sasquatch (not verified)

"Though the GTX 750 was nearly identical across the game benchmarks, the 260X put up a heck of a showing in the synthetic benchmarks often matching or even beating an overclocked GTX 750 Ti at times (which made me kind of question the game benchmarks I chose). Plus, the R7 260X supports Mantle. You know, that graphics API I didn’t use here?"

So you pick the 260x because it does better in a synthetic benchmark (not something you can f'ing PLAY) and then see Mantle as a bonus even though you did ZERO testing with it?

The GeForce stuff has GeForce Experience (with ShadowPlay - dramatically better image quality than RAPTR), TWITCH streaming, GameStream to Shield, G-SYNC, PhysX, CUDA, better drivers, etc.

Weak PCPer...weak.

June 25, 2014 | 10:46 AM - Posted by Nvidia Shills All Over The Web (not verified)

The 260X performed identically in most of the tests to the 750 TI and it costs less, so shouldn't it naturally be the best choice?

June 25, 2014 | 05:16 PM - Posted by arbiter

Really? it was ~10-15% slower how is that identical? On top of that, 260x also uses 120watts vs only 60 for 750ti. 750 non-TI card is in same price/performance as 260x, on other note with that 750 is a 55watt TDP part.

June 25, 2014 | 10:52 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

the 260x is a lot cheaper, raptr and obs now have VCE support, and people are saying it looks better than shadowplay,

Shield is not free (for most people), PhysX is a rarity, and do you really think a 750 is fast enough for 1080P rendering + physx acceleration?

Gsync? you mean the overpriced and unavailable thing? people buying budget PCs are not going to buy gsync monitors, oh and the 260x is going to support adaptive sync,

Cuda is for developers, and the Radeon have better OpenCL support I think.

there is no big advantage for nvidia, and Mantle is real, and works nicely with slow CPUs to improve gaming performance.

750 Ti is way to overpriced, a nice card in terms of power efficiency, but performance per $ is more important here.

June 25, 2014 | 05:08 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I don't know why people think the 750/750 Ti are the greatest cards since sliced bread. They are awesome when it comes to power consumption and heat, but not that great in performance to price. I'd take a GTX 660 over a 750 Ti any day of the week for only a couple teners more. The performance gap between the two is pretty significant.

June 25, 2014 | 09:58 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

What are the complainers going to do when they have to see the real world. I swear, if you don't like it just say something constructive instead of throwing insults. It really is counter productive.

June 30, 2014 | 01:47 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Totes agree, the fanboyism is really getting old! Just buy what works for YOU, and don't complain when someone recommends something different.

June 25, 2014 | 10:23 AM - Posted by oblivion (not verified)

r7 265 150$ on newegg 256bit memory
7850 169$ 256bit memory

hd both of them better choices than the 750ti

June 25, 2014 | 09:20 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

It's the better gpu at its price point but when building a system you have to consider the savings you can make on the power supply.

Nvidia competes strongly for the budget minded without offering unacceptable performance.

June 25, 2014 | 10:37 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

What I really want to see is how this stacks up with the Linux version of Metro Last Light and maybe some other games too. Because if you are really budget who is paying for an OS.

June 25, 2014 | 10:57 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Linux is not viable for gaming yet...

people saving money normally pirate windows (oh and small tablets get windows 8 for free), but obviously it's wrong.
so there is not way to avoid paying for the win license if you are gaming, because linux gaming is to limited, some old games, a few indies!? metro, an extremely bad port of witcher 2, and what else?

June 25, 2014 | 12:11 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

There's this indie developer called Valve, you probably haven't heard of them, but I think they have a few games that run on linux now.

June 25, 2014 | 12:51 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

they are included in the "old games" category for the most part.

June 25, 2014 | 10:38 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Do the PS4 and XB1 operate at low settings or medium? It would have been nice to see how these systems performed at the settings that the consoles use.

June 25, 2014 | 10:59 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

BF4 runs close to "high" on the PS4, but at 1600x900
xbone looks the same but 1280x720...

the 760K + 260x with mantle would probably look a lot like the ps4 version,

June 25, 2014 | 11:06 AM - Posted by demaksi

You should use G3258 instead G3220.

June 25, 2014 | 11:12 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

it's useless if the motherboard does not support overclock, and overclock ready motherboards are normally more expensive, in that case i3 + $50 motherboard is better for gaming (most of the time) than 3258 + $90 motherboard.

June 25, 2014 | 11:16 AM - Posted by demaksi

Asus has recently released an announcement informing us that their latest H97, H87, B85 and H81 Series motherboards has now the ability to overclock 4th Generation Intel Haswell Core K Series (unlock) processors, including the Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition processor.
Others will probably follow.

June 25, 2014 | 11:29 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

last year asrock and others announced b85/h87/h81 overclock (for K CPUs) motherboards, a few weeks later Intel announced a microcode update to lock it again, so Intel changed their mind about requiring Z chipset for OC?

June 26, 2014 | 07:25 PM - Posted by revanchrist (not verified)

Don't be an idiot. All Asrock's B85, H87 and H97 (not sure of H81 though) can still overclock any K-series processor as of today since last year. If you have no idea of what you're talking about, please shut up. There's no such microcode update released by Intel whatsoever. I've seen even ridiculous comments on linustechtips that speak of Intel releasing update through Windows Update that disable non-Z OC on motherboard. What a bunch of idiots!

June 25, 2014 | 01:05 PM - Posted by AMDBumLover (not verified)

The 760k would do better if overclocked, it is unlocked afterall.

June 25, 2014 | 03:16 PM - Posted by collie

So who is the r7 250 for anyways? Is it atleast better than intel hd 4000? Who is the market, what can it do, why is it a thing?

June 25, 2014 | 06:03 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

it certainly is, it even beats the 7850K IGP easily.

it can play most current games with lower settings (include resolution) OK, it's a huge upgrade over the Intel HD Graphics from the Pentiums...

June 25, 2014 | 06:17 PM - Posted by Sebastian Peak

Yep, the R7 250 beats the 7850K even if you overclock the IGP core in the APU significantly (I tested the 7850K with the IGPU core at 900MHz). The 250 certainly would be a great option for 1366x768 (or possibly a little higher) gaming for only $80.

Just not able to handle 1080p very well - but 1920x1080 is a million more pixels to pump out vs 1366x768 after all...

June 25, 2014 | 03:41 PM - Posted by Bill (not verified)

I know this is a budget build and all but all I could think of when seeing those horrible numbers for 1080p and low settings was "But for only $100 more, you could have a MUCH better gaming experience!"

June 25, 2014 | 09:25 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Or a week trolling Craigslist. A couple lucky trades and I ended up with a 290X for something like $140 in the end!

June 25, 2014 | 03:49 PM - Posted by PCPerFan (not verified)

This round-up is useless without the 265...

June 25, 2014 | 04:01 PM - Posted by collie

The r7 265 is a great card yes, better than the 750ti, but it's just a little too pricy to be considered a budget card, especially considering that you can normally find a r9 270 for a few bucks cheaper on sale

June 25, 2014 | 04:04 PM - Posted by Sebastian Peak

It's not possible to include a lot of valid options when operating within a budget, as I was. The R7 260X is around $30 cheaper than a 265, and I bought every component in this review myself. $150 was the hard cutoff for a GPU, and I originally didn't want to go that high. The original group was APU graphics, R7 240, 250, 260X plus a GTX 750. I had to improvise and added a 750 Ti as numbers for the bottom cards (APU, R7 240) were unacceptable but I still wanted at least four cards. In the interest of balance I added a second NVIDIA GPU to have two of each. This was back in April before a couple of lower cost NV cards were announced. That's all.

June 25, 2014 | 05:22 PM - Posted by arbiter

After looking over TDP's to, athlon x4 is 100watt tdp, intel g3220 is 55watts, and on gpu side, 260x is 115watts and 750/750ti is 55/60watts, Seems like g3220 and either 750/750ti would be cheaper option not just initial cost but over say 1 year the lower usage of electric.

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <blockquote><p><br>
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.