The Road to 1080p
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”.
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:
|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!
Subject: Systems | June 12, 2014 - 07:13 PM | Jeremy Hellstrom
Tagged: zotac, SFF, htpc, Sphere OI520
Inside this unique casing you will find a Core i5 4200U, up to 16GB of DDR3 and room for an mSATA and a 2.5" drive; but not a GPU. The onboard HD4400 can output to HDMI or DisplayPort and in addition to the connections you can see below there is indeed 802.11ac and Bluetooth for wireless connectivity. The power supply is external so there is only one rather quiet fan to be found inside the ball, perfect for HTPC usage as you won't be very impressed by its ability to game. Check out Bjorn3D's full review and the reason they expect this will be available for well under $1000.
"There was a time when a computer in most cases consisted of a big beige box that you certainly did not want to show off or which took up a lot of space on your desk. Those days are gone and today we have a lot more variety both how computer looks and how big they are. Zotac is a company that for quite some time have been pumping out smaller mini-PC’s under their ZBox brand and today we are taking a look at their new round ZBox Sphere OI520."
Here are some more Systems articles from around the web:
- ECS LIVA Mini PC Kit @ techPowerUp
- CyberPower Achilles Pro System @ Kitguru
- TR's May 2014 System Guide
Subject: General Tech, Systems, Shows and Expos | June 11, 2014 - 02:44 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: Steam Machine, E3 14, E3, dell, alienware alpha, alienware
While "Steam Machines" are delayed, Alienware will still launch their console form-factor PC. The $550 price tag includes a black Xbox 360 wireless controller (with receiver) and Windows 8.1 64-bit. Alienware has also designed their own "Console-mode UI" for Windows 8.1, which can be navigated directly with a controller. It will ship Holiday 2014.
Apparently PC-based consoles equate to dubstep and parkour.
About the "Console-mode UI", it will apparently be what the user sees when the Alpha boots. The user can then select between Steam Big Picture, media, and programs. They also allow users to boot into the standard Windows 8.1 interface.
As for its specifications:
|Base Model ($550)||Upgrade Options|
|Processor||Haswell-based Intel Core i3||Core i5, Core i7 (user accessible)|
|GPU||"Custom" Maxwell-based, 2GB GDDR5
(see next paragraph)
|(none) (not user accessible, soldered on)|
|System Memory||4GB at 1600 MHz||8GB (user accessible)|
|HDD||500GB SATA3||1TB or 2TB (user accessible)|
|Wireless||Dual-band 802.11ac||(user accessible)|
The GPU is not specified, or even given a similar part to refer to. PC World claims that it will be comparable to the performance found on the two next-gen consoles. Since the 750 Ti has around 1.3 TeraFLOPs of performance, this GPU is probably near that, or slightly above it. PC Gamer says that it will be based on mobile Maxwell, so it might be similar to an current or upcoming laptop GPU.
One thing that has not been addressed is the HDMI-in port. We know that it supports passthrough for low latency, but we do not know what it will do with the input video. Alienware has several of these set up at their booth on the show floor, so we might hear more soon. While its specifications are a bit on the light side, particularly on the default amount of RAM (although that is easily and cheaply upgraded), its $550 price, which includes a wireless controller and its adapter, is also pretty good.
Subject: General Tech, Systems | June 7, 2014 - 02:44 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: msi, all-in-one, Kabini
MSI has just announced an updated all-in-one PC which they hope you find... Adora-able? If you thought that joke was terrible, then it gets worse: I stole it from their product page. The Adora20 3M is based on an AMD E2-3800, which is a quad-core Kabini APU. Its built-in Radeon HD 8280 will not be able to play most modern games as it is unable to keep 30 FPS in either DOTA 2 or Diablo III at the screen's native (1600x900) resolution. This will be a GPU for web browsing and video decoding tasks.
The device, itself, is built into a 19.5-inch touchscreen display and comes with Windows 8.1. It has two integrated 3W speakers from Creative and a one-megapixel webcam. It also has mic in, headphone out, a pair of USB 3.0 ports, two more pairs of USB 2.0 ports (one pair on the side and one pair on the back), an HDMI-out port, gigabit Ethernet, and an SD card reader (no maximum card size listed). It also has Wireless-N. An SSD will be available on some units, but not every one. A TV tuner is also optional.
The Adora design is marketed as a slim design that about nine-tenths (9/10) of an inch at its thickest. The point seems to be that it is a full desktop PC in a TV form factor. They do not mention whether it supports VESA wall mounts (and its pictures suggest that it does not). Its kickstand looks handy, but I cannot really find a compelling reason for a thin monitor that is just going to lean on its kickstand all day.
It could be a good deal, however, if it is priced appropriately. Unfortunately, we do not have details on pricing or availability yet. If cheap enough, this could be very compelling for a kiosk or a kitchen/office nook. I still question whether those use cases would care about it being less than an inch thick, but I guess it would be a nice bonus.
Subject: General Tech, Systems, Shows and Expos | June 3, 2014 - 12:46 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: ROG, gaming pc, computex 2014, computex, asus
Gaming PCs are often misunderstood. Many of our viewers will probably build their own from their personal selection of parts. If you would like to have someone else handle it, then an oft dismissed option is going through a system builder. If you find an option that is in your budget and has the performance you desire, then it is perfectly acceptable to buy it.
ASUS has just announced two offerings, branded Republic of Gamers (ROG), for you to consider.
The ROG G20 Gaming Desktop can be customized with options which range up to an Intel Core i7 with an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780. It is designed to be quiet, with expected noise at around 23-25 dbA (it is unclear whether this is measured idle or under load). While it has two fans, it also uses "natural convection" cooling, a process which uses the excess heat to make hot air rise, which is replaced by cool air that cools the components.
Yup, the PC cools itself with the air motion caused by its own heat.
After customizations, the ROG G20 Gaming Desktop is expected to retail for $800-$1700, depending on what options the user selects, and be available in late Q3, for North Americans.
The other PC is the ROG GR8 Gaming Desktop. This device will include an Intel Core i7 and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 750 Ti. Despite its form factor, a side panel allows user access to RAM and storage. It has Gigabit Ethernet and built-in 802.11ac wireless. While it obviously has HDMI outputs, it also includes DisplayPort.
ASUS does not currently have an expected price range, but it will also be available Q3, for North Americans.
Subject: General Tech, Systems | May 21, 2014 - 06:33 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: zotac, zbox
Zotac has announced the ZBOX Sphere OI520 in two forms. The Plus version comes with 4GB of DDR3 RAM and a 500GB hard drive while the standard version leaves the choice (and installation) up to the user. At the very least, that means it is user-serviceable. Its real draw is its "orb form factor" with decent, albeit laptop, performing components.
The ZBOX OI520, from behind.
Its actual system specifications are:
- Intel Core i5 4200U
- Intel HD Graphics 4400 (GT2)
- HDMI and DisplayPort
- Wireless AC (802.11ac), Gigabit Ethernet, and Bluetooth 4.0
- 3x USB 2.0, 4x USB 3.0, SD/SDHC/SDXC/MMC Card Reader
- Supports up to 16GB of RAM (2xDDR3L)
- Supports one 2.5-inch HDD/SSD
- Apparently, no OS pre-installed.
Pricing and availability are not yet announced. Obviously, that will be the biggest factor in someone looking for a barebones PC, like this one. Also, Intel graphics support on Linux is not the most pleasant, kind-of famously. Zotac claims full support for Windows 7 and Windows 8, of course, but you will probably need to factor that price in if that is the direction you want to go.
Subject: General Tech, Systems | May 16, 2014 - 09:06 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: msi, all-in-one, AIO, gtx 880m
The MSI AG270 is an All-in-One (AIO) PC built in a 27-inch, 1920x1080, multi-touch display. The series is split into two models, the AG270 2PC and the higher-end AG270 2PE. Both are billed as gaming devices and, with a GeForce GTX 870M (2PC) or a GeForce GTX 880M (2PE), they fit the bill. The 880M, for instance, is basically a desktop GeForce 680 with 8GB of frame buffer (!!) and a slight underclock.
Two processor options are available, the i7-4860HQ and the i7-4700HQ. MSI does not state whether one (or both) models has a choice, or if the higher-end processor (4860HQ) is always in the higher-end PC (AG270 2PE) and the lower-end processor (4700HQ) is always in the lower-end PC (AG270 2PC). Users will get 2TB of storage and "up to" 3 mSATA SSDs. Yamaha will provide the two 5W speakers. BigFoot (owned by Qualcomm) provides the Ethernet and Wireless N through their Killer DoubleShot network adapter. It also has a DVD and BluRay reader/writer built-in.
MSI does not discuss pricing and availability, directly, and instead point to their retail partners.
Subject: Systems | May 15, 2014 - 02:10 PM | Jeremy Hellstrom
Tagged: CyberPowerPC, Zeus Mini-I 780, i7-4770k, gtx 780
If you are looking for a tiny system that you don't have to assemble yourself then CyberPowerPC is a good source as they have released their Zeus Mini-I 780. Measuring a mere 13" tall, 4.4" wide and 17.4" deep (33x11x44cm) this system is rather tiny and tightly packed for as the name suggests it does contain a EVGA GeForce GTX 780. You will also find an i7-4770K a Gigabyte Z87N-WiFi and 16GB of G.SKILL Ripjaws X DDR3-1866; pretty hefty stats for such a small box. As you might expect Custom PC Review saw the CPU get quite toasty, a maximum of 96ºC was recorded under synthetic load though the system stayed stable while running at that temperature. Check out the full review to see how it performed.
"Today we’ll be reviewing the CyberPowerPC Zeus Mini-I 780, which is a brand new system from CyberPowerPC that was unveiled for the first time at CES earlier this year. Unlike most CyberPowerPC systems that simply use off the shelf parts, CyberPowerPC decided to up the ante with the Zeus Mini by not only making the..."
Here are some more Systems articles from around the web:
- AWD Ignis Aqua 290X 250D Mini ITX PC @ Kitguru
- Braebo Computers ‘Titan’ Budget AMD Gaming System @ eTeknix
- OverclockersUK ‘Infinity Vesuvius’ R9 295X2 QuadXFire System @ Kitguru
- Gigabyte BRIX Pro Mini-PC Review @ Madshrimps
- Gigabyte Brix Pro GB-BXi7-4770R Ultra Compact Barebones System @ eTeknix
- Building a New Dual Intel/AMD Triple 2560×1440 Display 5Ft High PC System @ The SSD Review
Subject: General Tech, Systems, Mobile | April 27, 2014 - 03:30 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: nvidia, sheild, shield 2, AnTuTu
VR-Zone is claiming that this is the successor to NVIDIA's SHIELD portable gaming system. An AnTuTu benchmark was found for a device called, "NVIDIA test model(SHIELD)" with an "NVIDIA Gefroce(Kepler Graphics)" GPU, typos left as-is. My gut expects that it is valid, but I hesitate to vouch the rumor. If it even came from NVIDIA, which the improper spelling and capitalization of "GeForce" calls into question, it could easily be an internal prototype and maybe even incorrectly given the "SHIELD" (which is properly spelled and capitalized) label.
Image Credit: AnTuTu.com
As far as its camera listing, it would make sense for the SHIELD to get one at standard definition (0.3MP -- probably 640x480). The fact that the original SHIELD shipped without any, at all, still confuses me. The low resolution sensor still does not make sense, seeming like an almost pointless upgrade, but it could be used by NVIDIA for a specific application or built-in purpose.
Or, it could be an irrelevant benchmark listing.
Either way, there are rumors floating around about a SHIELD 2 being announced at E3 in June. It is unlikely that NVIDIA will give up on the handheld any time soon. Whether that means new hardware, versus more software updates, is anyone's guess. The Tegra K1 would have been a good launching SoC for the SHIELD, however, with its full OpenGL 4.4 and compute support (the hardware supports up to OpenCL 1.2 although driver support will apparently be "based on customer needs". PDF - page 8).
Waiting. Seeing. You know the drill.
Subject: General Tech, Systems, Mobile | April 18, 2014 - 02:39 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: canonical, ubuntu, ubuntu 14.04
Ubuntu, the popular Linux distribution, has been on a steady six-month release schedule for eight years. Every four versions, that is, once every two years, one is marked as Long Term Support (LTS). While typical (non-LTS) releases are supported for around 9 months, LTS versions are provided with five years of updates. Of course, each version, LTS or not, is free. The choice to stay on a specific branch is something else entirely.
For most home users, it will probably make sense to pick up the latest version available on your update manager. Of course, each new release will change things and that can be a problem for some users. That said, given that releases come in six-month intervals, it does make sense to keep up with the changes as they happen, rather than fall behind and have a real shock in five years. Enterprise customers, on the other hand, would love to adopt an operating system which never changes, outside of security updates. Windows XP is a recent example of where enterprise customers will actually pay to not upgrade. These customers will benefit most from LTS.
First and foremost, Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu, wants to catch the wave of PC users who are looking to upgrade from Windows XP and Windows 7. It is free, it has a web browser and an office suite, it is stable and secure, and they suggest that it will be easy to deploy and manage for governments and other institutions.
The interface is Unity7, although users will have the option to try Unity8. The latter version is Canonical's attempt to cover all form factors: phones, tablets, TVs, and desktops.
They probably could have chosen a different number, if only for the jokes.
Ubuntu 14.04 LTS is available now at their website. It is free. If you want it, go get it unless you already have it.