System Builder Marathon Q2 2015: $1600 Performance PC

This month’s high-end build looks lighter than its predecessor, yet includes a six-core Haswell-E CPU. Will the shift away from graphics kill its gaming cred?

Introduction

System Builder Marathon Q2 2015

Here are links to each of the five 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. $1600 Performance PC
  2. $1600 Mini Performance PC
  3. $1600 Gaming PC
  4. $1600 Mini Gaming PC
  5. System Value Compared

$1600 Performance PC

Prices change but the value cause remains. Our System Builder Marathon originally merged our ultimate PC and budget PCs into a series of face-offs intended to inform and entertain, as builders struggled against each other to reach the ultimate value across a tough set of tasks. We’ve long forgotten our $500, $1500 and $4500 machines as the majority of readers started sounding like Jimmy McMillan every time one of our budgets crossed the $2,000 threshold. We get that. We like saving money too!

A look at what many readers were saying indicates that the realistic budget limit for most enthusiasts is around $1600. That’s also about where the top of the mainstream and bottom of the high-end markets meet. Careful budgeters know that this is just enough money to buy a high-end CPU, a high-end GPU, and all the parts to support those processors. But that’s just the cost of the parts! While I build with leftover licenses from old machines and upgrade keys purchased through promotions, many readers want a complete system price with software to compare to mass-configured systems that include a $100 OS. Believing that $1600 would be the minimum hardware cost for a high-end build, I questioned what I do with just $1500 worth of hardware.

  • Platform Cost: $1,345
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1,495
  • Complete System Price: $1,595

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I can actually do quite well with $1500 if I’m willing to step down to a GTX 970 or R9 290X. My commitment last quarter to stick with Haswell-E prevented me from sacrificing CPU for GPU performance, and also helped me avoid dealing with the heat vs performance debate between dual R9 290X graphics in CrossFire or a single GTX 980. Dropping down to graphics I could still afford, the GTX 970 costs as much as a single R9 290X, offers similar performance, and uses much less power.

The only really big sacrifice then is cooling. The Hyper 612 Ver.2 is massive in scale but has less mass than we’d expect, a lower-speed fan than we’d like, and thus less performance than we believe a cooler this size should have. An extra $30 for cooling would have been a big budget buster.

Here’s how I picked and assembled these parts.

Component Selection

I promised a Haswell-E and a storage upgrade during our last SBM, but combining those two things didn’t leave much room for a high-model Haswell-E, or even a top graphics card within my $1500 hardware budget. We’d still need other somewhat-expensive things such as a minimum of 16GB DDR4 in quad-channel mode, and a big stable power supply. Let’s start with the CPU:

Hardware Installation

The installation of Cooler Master’s Hyper 612 Ver. 2 on MSI’s X99S SLI Plus is fully detailed in our previous SBM alternative build. Today’s installation differs only in memory module aesthetics.

Our Z11 Neo case review shows most of the features utilized in today’s build, but the SSR-650RM power supply didn’t have any straight ends needed to connect the SSD when attached to the back of the motherboard tray. To minimize the number of required cable leads, I put both the SSD and the HDD into two adapter trays located beneath the Z11 Neo’s ODD bay.

The rest of the installation doesn’t require much explanation. The I/O shield (included with the motherboard) snapped into its rectangular hole, the motherboard is attached to standoffs using nine screws, and the power supply is attached to the back of the case with another four screws. The case includes all the necessary screws.

Overclocking

Even with the externally-venting graphics card and fairly good front-to-back airflow, the Hyper 612 Ver. 2 CPU cooler couldn’t handle the load of this overclocked Core i7-5820K. Though capable of 4.5 GHz at 1.28 volts, I was forced to drop its core voltage to 1.22 volts due to thermal issues, Noting that it wouldn’t even run all six cores at 4.30 GHz using this voltage, I also applied a 4.0 (six cores) to 4.30 GHz (two cores) scale similar to the Turbo Boost modes used by Intel. Finally, noticing that the CPU bumped its 100 °Celsius thermal limit, I increased that threshold to 105°.

DRAM was far easier to overclock, reaching DDR4-3200 CAS 16-18-18-36 at 1.30 volts. That’s pretty convenient too, since this motherboard lacks any DRAM ratios between the stock DDR4-2666 and the overclocked DDR4-3200.

In a rush to finish, I pushed the GPU graphics RAM to +250 MHz in MSI Afterburner, only to encounter a crash. Dialing each back in 50 MHz increments, I found complete stability at +150 and +200 MHz, respectively. A 106% power limit helps keep the GPU near its maximum boost frequency.

The results under graphics loads are 4.30 GHz CPU, DDR4-3200, a graphics clock up to 1328 MHz, and GDDR5-7412.

Comparison Systems

Last quarter’s $1750 PC had two GTX 970’s and a four core CPU, while today’s $1600 machine has 50% fewer graphics cards and 50% more CPU cores. We don’t expect it to win overall in performance, but the value challenge should be interesting. The fairer question is whether today’s machine can take out last-year’s GTX 980 enhanced $1600 PC.

 Q2 $1600 Performance PCQ1 $1750 Performance PCQ4 2014 $1600 PC
Processor
(Overclock)
Intel Core i7-5820K: 3.30 GHz -
3.60 GHz, Four Physical Cores
O/C to 4.0-4.3GHz, 1.22V
Intel Core i7-4790K: 4.00 GHz -
4.40 GHz, Four Physical Cores
O/C to 4.60-4.80 GHz, +20mV
Intel Core i7-4790K: 4.00 GHz -
4.40 GHz, Four Physical Cores
O/C to 4.60 GHz, 1.26V
Graphics
(Overclock)
PNY GTX 970: <1178 MHz GPU,  GDDR5-7012 O/C to <1328 MHz, GDDR5-74122x PNY GTX 970: <1178 MHz GPU,  GDDR5-7012 O/C to <1328 MHz, GDDR5-7312PNY GTX 980: <1216 MHz GPU,  GDDR5-7012 O/C to <1456 MHz, GDDR5-7972
Memory
(Overclock)
16GB G.Skill DDR4-2666 CAS 15-15-15-35, O/C to DDR4-3200 CL 16-18-18-36, 1.30V16GB G.Skill DDR3-1866 CAS 10-11-10-28, O/C to DDR3-2133 CL 11-12-11-24, 1.60V8 GB G.Skill DDR3-2133 CAS 9-11-10-28, O/C to DDR3-2400 CL 10-12-12-28, 1.60V
Motherboard
(Overclock)
MSI X99 SLI Plus:
LGA 2011-v3, Intel X99
Stock 100 MHz BCLK
Gigabyte Z97X-Gaming 5:
LGA 1150, Intel Z97 Express
Stock 100 MHz BCLK
Biostar Hi-Fi Z97WE:
LGA 1150, Intel Z97 Express
Stock 100 MHz BCLK
CaseZALMAN Z11 NeoCorsair Graphite 230TThermaltake Chaser A31
CPU CoolerCooler Master Hyper 612 Ver.2Corsair H100i Closed-LoopPhanteks PH-TC14PE 140mm
Hard DriveSamsung 850 Evo 250GB SATA 6Gb/s SSDCrucial MX100 256GB SATA 6Gb/s SSDPlextor M6S PX-256M6S 256GB SATA 6Gb/s SSD
PowerSeaSonic SSR-650RM: 650W, 80 PLUS GoldRosewill CAPSTONE-750: 750W, 80 PLUS GoldRosewill CAPSTONE-750-M: 750W, 80 PLUS Gold
Software
OSMicrosoft Windows 8 Pro x64Microsoft Windows 8 Pro x64Microsoft Windows 8 Pro x64
GraphicsNvidia GeForce 352.86Nvidia GeForce 347.25Nvidia GeForce 344.75
ChipsetIntel INF 9.4.2.1019Intel INF 9.4.0.1026Intel INF 9.4.0.1026

Synthetics

The extra CPU cores won’t help in 3DMark’s overall score or graphics test, though we do see noticeable improvements in this build’s Physics score. Otherwise, its weaker graphics register a 3DMark loss.

PCMark highlights slightly better SSD performance, while Sandra shows off the gains of the new build’s six-core CPU and quad-channel memory controller. Arithmetic scores are up only slightly, bandwidth scores gain wildly, and the encoding/decoding cycle in Cryptography falls in the middle due to its dependence on memory bandwidth.

Gaming

Our new build edges out last-quarter’s SLI configuration at Arma 3’s lowest test settings, but that’s probably due to a small amount of CPU overhead for the second GPU. The previous builds assume a commanding lead at Ultra quality.

Grid 2 likewise benefits at our lower test settings from the new machine’s better memory performance, but the new machine’s single graphics card and slower clock speed force a loss at nearly every other game setting.

Media, Productivity And Compression

Lower is better in timed applications, where single-threaded audio encoding benefits from the higher clock speeds of previous builds while multi-threaded video encoding benefits from the new machine’s additional cores. Photoshop’s OpenCL-optimized filters hang in the balance, favoring the GTX 980 of last-year’s machine.

WinZip strangely favors the SLI machine when using OpenCL enhancement, where non-games typically don’t get that type of benenfit. WinRAR appears to balance added cores against added clock frequency, while WinZip’s CPU-based compression and 7-Zip both agree that the new machines extra cores are extra-nice to have.

Power, Heat, Efficiency And Value

Though the new build’s six-core CPU and quad-channel memory require more energy while idle, the high-end graphics solutions of previous builds pushed their peak power consumption sky high. Even with its 650W power supply, the new system has more than enough power in reserve for future SLI upgrades.

Heat numbers are good for the graphics card and bad for the CPU. We have experience with this CPU cooler and, reasoning that a fan upgrade might cost more than an upgrade to a better cooler, are opening up the discussion to our readers. What “better” CPU cooler would you buy for $50 or less?

Thanks primarily to performance gains in professional applications, the new $1600 machine provides far more performance-per-dollar than its predecessor. On the other hand, the performance of some games was artificially capped at our lower test settings, with things such as Battlefield 4’s 200FPS limit limiting the overall gaming performance gains available to previous graphics-heavy machines. Suggested long ago by a former colleague, a chart of performance-per-dollar at our highest gaming test resolution better-represents the value of top graphics configurations.

The Q1 build’s GTX 970s in SLI look like the killer configuration for high-resolution gaming, though I’ve seen benchmarks showing that a similarly-priced R9 290X CrossFire configuration is more suitable at 4K. Either way, the weaker single GTX 970 appeared best suited to 4800x900 at the quality limits of most games, which is far short of 4K.

Not that I mind gaming at 4800x900. In fact, today’s PC follows the same building strategy I’ve used since my University experience, where I was able to perform the same professional tasks from my apartment that required them to return to the computer lab, and have some gaming fun in my off-time. Right, wrong or just different, I’ll take today’s overall value win as a step in the right direction until an onslaught of readers tell me otherwise.

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Thomas Soderstrom is a Senior Staff Editor at Tom's Hardware, covering Cases, Cooling, Memory and Motherboards. Follow him onTwitter.

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