System Builder Marathon Q1 2016: Value Comparison

How do this quarter's builds stack up against each other, and those of last quarter, in terms of overall value?

System Builder Marathon Q1 2016

Here are links to each of the four articles in this quarter’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please fill out this SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

  1. $1275 Professional Workstation
  2. $1232 Prosumer PC
  3. $662 Budget PC
  4. System Value Compared

System Value Compared

It's round three between Chris, Thomas and myself in the SBM. This time around we ditched all restrictions and were free to build anything we wanted. Chris branched out and explored the professional side with workstation graphics. Thomas made version 3.0 of his prosumer build by including both flash and mechanical storage and upgraded to a Skylake Xeon that allowed impressive overclocking range. I abandoned my initial Xeon plans after learning the other two used the exact same CPU and instead made a general purpose computer for the low-budget crowd that saw much smaller success in overclocking. We've seen how they compare to their predecessors, now comes the time to see how they compare to each other.

System Components Comparison
 Q1 2016 $1275 WorkstationQ1 2016 $1232 "Prosumer" PCQ1 2016 Budget PC
ProcessorIntel Xeon E3-1275 v5: 3.6GHz-4.0GHz, Four Cores, 8 MB CacheIntel Xeon E3-1230 v5: 3.40GHz-3.80GHz, Four Cores, 8 MB CacheIntel i3-6100: 3.7 GHz, 2C/4T, 3MB L3
CPU CoolerStock Intel CoolerDeepCool Gammaxx 400DeepCool 200T
MotherboardASRock Rack C236 WSIASRock Fatal1ty E3V5 Gaming/OCASRock Z170 Pro4S
GraphicsAMD FirePro W5100 100-505737, 4GB GDDR5Asus GTX970-OC-4GD5 GeForce GTX 970 4GBAsus Strix GeForce GTX 950 2GB
MemoryCrucial Ballistix Sport BLS2K8G4D240FSA 16GB (2x 8GB) DDR4-2400G.SKILL Ripjaws V F4-2666C15D-16GVR: DDR4-2666 C15, 16GB (2 x 8GB) Mushkin Redline DDR4-2400 C13, 8GB (2 x 4GB)
System DriveSAMSUNG 850 EVO 250GB SSDSAMSUNG 850 EVO M.2 250GB SSDWD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDD
PowerAntec EarthWatts Green EA-380D, 380W ATX12V 80 PLUS BronzeEVGA 600B: 600W ATX12V, 80 PLUS BronzeAntec VP-450 450W, ATX12V, 80 PLUS Bronze
 Core Components $1,090 $1,001 $515
CaseRosewill Redbone U3Thermaltake Core V1Rosewill Redbone U3
 Total Performance Components Cost $1,155 $1,061 $558
Storage DriveUses System DriveWD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM 64MB Cache 3.5" HDDUses System Drive
Optical DriveNoneAsus SDRW-08D2S-U, 8x DVD±RW, 24X CD-RWNone
 Total Hardware Cost $1,155 $1,112 $558
OSWindows 10 X64 OEMWindows 10 X64 OEMWindows 10 X64 OEM
 Complete System Price $1,275 $1,232 $662

Chris went the wildcard route this quarter seeking to build a true workstation with professional grade graphics and ECC memory. Market availability threw a monkey wrench his way as the correct RAM type he wanted was all out of stock at time of purchase. He also suffered from poor graphical performance. While workstation cards don't lack for processing power, their drivers aren't optimized for games. Chris knew this going in, but still wanted to experiment for it, which we applaud him. Even with his dearth of gaming framerates, his Xeon serves up excellent performance everywhere else.

Thomas seems intent on finally getting his prosumer build perfect. His ace in the hole this time of course is the BCLK overclock he was able to pull off. Taking a supposedly locked Xeon above 4 GHz instead of dropping an extra $100 on an i7 has been an enthusiast's dream for years.

My course this time was fraught with frustration, as seems normal with my builds. I'm sure Chris and Thomas see their own share of it too, perhaps I just complain about it more. While I had hopes of a fantastic overclock to match Thomas, it was not to be. Instead I had memory stability issues. My saving grace was a good overclock on my GPU, something the 950 is known for. Is that and a mild overclock on the i3 enough to finally take down the king of the SBM given my machine's drastically lower total cost?

Gaming
Battlefield 4Version 1.0.0.1, DirectX 11, 100-sec. Fraps "Tashgar"
Test Set 1: Medium Quality Preset, No AA, 4X AF, SSAO
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality Preset,  4X MSAA, 16X AF, HBAO
Grid 2Version 1.0.85.8679, Direct X 11, Built-in Benchmark
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 8x MSAA
Arma 3Version 1.08.113494, 30-Sec. Fraps "Infantry Showcase"
Test Set 1: Standard Preset, No AA, Standard AF
Test Set 2: Ultra Preset, 8x FSAA, Ultra AF
Far Cry 3V. 1.05, DirectX 11, 50-sec. Fraps "Amanaki Outpost"
Test Set 1: High Quality, No AA, Standard ATC, SSAO
Test Set 2: Ultra Quality, 4x MSAA, Enhanced ATC, HDAO
Apps
Adobe After Effects CCVersion 12.0.0.404: Create Video which includes 3 Streams, 210 Frames, Render Multiple Frames Simultaneosly
Adobe Photoshop CCVersion 14.0 x64: Filter 15.7MB TIF Image: Radial Blur, Shape Blur, Median, Polar Coordinates
Adobe Premeire Pro CCVersion 7.0.0 (342), 6.61 GB MXF Project to H.264 to H.264 Blu-ray, Output 1920x1080, Maximum Quality
iTunesVersion 11.0.4.4 x64: Audio CD (Terminator II SE), 53 minutes, default AAC format 
Lame MP3Version 3.98.3: Audio CD "Terminator II SE", 53 min, convert WAV to MP3 audio format, Command: -b 160 --nores (160 kb/s)
Handbrake CLIVersion: 0.99: Video from Canon Eos 7D (1920x1080, 25 FPS) 1 Minutes 22 Seconds
Audio: PCM-S16, 48000 Hz, 2-Channel, to Video: AVC1 Audio: AAC (High Profile)
TotalCodeStudio 2.5Version: 2.5.0.10677: MPEG-2 to H.264, MainConcept H.264/AVC Codec, 28 sec HDTV 1920x1080 (MPEG-2), Audio: MPEG-2 (44.1 kHz, 2 Channel, 16-Bit, 224 kb/s), Codec: H.264 Pro, Mode: PAL 50i (25 FPS), Profile: H.264 BD HDMV
ABBYY FineReaderVersion 10.0.102.95: Read PDF save to Doc, Source: Political Economy (J. Broadhurst 1842) 111 Pages
Adobe Acrobat 11Version 11.0.0.379: Print PDF from 115 Page PowerPoint, 128-bit RC4 Encryption
Autodesk 3ds Max 2013Version 15.0 x64: Space Flyby Mentalray, 248 Frames, 1440x1080
BlenderVersion: 2.68A, Cycles Engine, Syntax blender -b thg.blend -f 1, 1920x1080, 8x Anti-Aliasing, Render THG.blend frame 1
WinZipVersion 18.0 Pro: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to ZIP, command line switches "-a -ez -p -r"
WinRARVersion 5.0: THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to RAR, command line switches "winrar a -r -m3"
7-ZipVersion 9.30 alpha (64-bit): THG-Workload (1.3 GB) to .7z, command line switches "a -t7z -r -m0=LZMA2 -mx=5"
Synthetics
3DMark ProfessionalVersion: 1.2.250.0 (64-bit), Fire Strike Benchmark
PCMark 8Version: 1.0.0 x64, Full Test
SiSoftware SandraVersion 2014.02.20.10, CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic / Multimedia / Cryptography, Memory Bandwidth Benchmarks

Synthetics

Thomas' machine enjoys the graphical lead due to its stronger GPU. Chris' machine, while enjoying great physics scores, is sorely lacking on the 3D side, a trend we'll see a lot of. Mine sits somewhere in the middle. Mine is quite obviously behind in the storage as the only machine without a SSD.

My budget build scores nearly half in the arithmetic as the other two, fitting since it has half the CPU cores. While Thomas' overclock nets him a big lead in total encoding, notice the penalties he incurs in the other cryptographic categories due to losing AVX. This is the exact behavior I avoided by lowering my overclock. Without AVX even my lowly i3 beats a Xeon despite a much slower clock rate. Chris wasn't able to tune his RAM due to his workstation board. While I was able to get a good bump in my memory bandwidth, Thomas edges me out a little bit.

Gaming

It appears Arma has some sort of framerate cap at 136fps on standard detail. My guess is it only uses four cores and at stock rates each CPU has a similar clock. But as expected throughout, Thomas' investment in the much stronger 970, as well as his stronger GPU, pays off with big wins over the other two machines. Chris' build gets decent framerates at lower details, but struggles to even reach playable levels at the higher settings. My cheap 950 doesn't impress like a 970, but it gets smooth play at every single-screen setting, with the exception of Far Cry 3 on ultra.

Apps

Nothing is surprising here. My tiny i3 puts up a good fight, but simply can't compete against two CPUs with more than double the resources available. Only in the single-threaded tests does it make a good showing.

Power & Temperature

Though it's taken some licks, Chris' machine boasts the lowest power draw all-around. All three machines exhibit very low thermals, a testament to the improvement in computing efficiency in recent years.

Overall Performance & Efficiency

Thomas' build leads in every category. In contrast my budget PC trails in every category except gaming. That may look bad, but remember my build was half the cost of the other two. Since the other two haven't doubled my scores everywhere, there may still be a chance.

Chris takes the cake in terms of efficiency thanks to his incredibly low power draw.

System Value

Drumroll, please! My budget machine wins the performance value race at stock settings by a wide margin. Once overclocking is taken into consideration, it's a photo finish between me and Thomas. Though mine technically wins by two-tenths of a percent, that can simply be rounding error. In any realistic sense, our machines are tied. Remember when I talked about that extra $3 on my case for the red color and how if that cost me the value win I didn't deserve it? If anyone has a good recipe for crow, send it on over because it looks like I've got a plate to eat.

Once the OS cost is taken out, the value race goes convincingly to my machine at both stock and overclocked settings.

If you want to make this just about the gaming benchmarks, my machine again takes the win. However gaming experience isn't just about value numbers, it's often about sheer framerate, at which Thomas' machine easily would win.

The value win goes to my general purpose build again when we consider only the core platform components.

I am rather surprised about the results of this. When I hit the overclocking wall, I was sure the Thomas would take home the win again. Instead I tie him in the overall and sweep every other category. But what does this really say? To me it reinforces the idea we've hit upon for months (years, really). That is to build with a purpose.

To the uneducated eye, Chris build looks like a huge disappointment. Now yes, he got hit hard by missing the ECC RAM which challenges whether the build can truly be considered a professional workstation. But even with that, his build gets destroyed in any kind of graphical benchmark by a machine that costs half as much. So what? The thing wasn't meant to play games. It was meant for professional content creation workloads. If we ran the SBM machines through a suite of heavy rendering that would take advantage of his FirePro's acceleration, the other two machines would have been embarrassed as well.

Another interesting point is that Thomas and I approached this from almost completely different ends and still arrived at almost the same place. What this says to me is that the value sweet spot for computers is still between $600 and $1200. If you figure it works on a curve, the center point at $900 seems to be the ideal price range right now. That sounds right to me considering you could get an i5, GTX 970 and SSD for that money ( which I think would be a formidable opponent ).  But once again, that's just a basic guide.  You'll still get the most out of a home-built computer by tailoring the components to your specific work load.

Eric Vander Linden is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware. Follow him on Twitter.

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