System Builder Marathon Q2 2015: Value Comparison

Now that we’ve built four PCs with matching budgets, which builder, and which machine, owns the title of best performance for $1600?

4 Machines, 2 Builders, 1 Winner

After temporarily losing Paul to his day job, we found a few ways to keep the challenge level up and the competition interesting. Each of the remaining two builders would be forced to try outperforming the other across a brutal set of benchmarks, and then they’d try to repeat the process in a mini-ITX chassis.

Caught off-guard by the difficulty of building an overclocked performance machine, Julio found himself a little overwhelmed when tasked with gaming hardware and overclocking techniques, pushing his tuning efforts way past the deadline and into the publishing week before finally giving in on a few details just to stay in-play. But given his IT professional background, I think we can forgive him this once.

The biggest split isn’t in size, but in function. My own performance PCs follow a similar path to the homework machines I built during my college days. Now useful for running my engineering programs and games on the same set of monitors at home.

Q2 2015 SBM Build Components

$1600 Performance PC

  • Platform Cost: $1345
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1495
  • Complete System Price: $1595

$1600 Mini Performance PC

  • Platform Cost: $1376
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1496
  • Complete System Price: $1596

$1600 Gaming PC

  • Platform Cost: $1348
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1499
  • Complete System Price: $1599

$1600 Mini Gaming PC

  • Platform Cost: $1402
  • Total Hardware Cost: $1495
  • Complete System Price: $1595

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Synthetics

3DMark says it’s the red bar in the chart below that matters most, but the blue and black bars certainly stand out more. That’s because the black bars represent the gaming machine’s graphics muscle, while the blue bars represent the work machine’s workhorse CPU.

The full ATX work PC gets a quad-channel boost to go along with its hefty six-core/12-thread processor, while its mini-ITX sibling supports only two DIMMs and thus two memory channels. But as weak as the mini-ITX work machine looks in Bandwidth and Cryptography, the gaming PC is out of its league.

Gaming

The work PC games surprisingly well in Arma 3 and Battlefield 4, as the gaming PC only begins to stress its GPU at the highest panel resolutions and detail levels.

None of our readers informed Julio that there might be a problem with his Far Cry 3 Ultra Quality test settings, so I inquired. He didn’t realize that the changes were spread across two menus, so I’m scratching those results from the final analysis. Having said that, his Grid 2 Ultra Quality results are both superb and realistically achievable.

Media, Productivity And Compression

Less is better when it comes to encoding times, where the gaming PCs are only completely competitive in single-threaded and OpenCL-based applications.

The work machines work harder at work applications.

Power, Heat And Efficiency

Power numbers are surprisingly consistent between different builds at stock settings, but CPU overclocking puts a big mound on the loaded power numbers of the work machines.

Because the work machine topped so many workstation applications, it came out ahead in the efficiency scale. Because there weren’t any old or cheap machines to use as a baseline, I used the average of all systems instead.

Value Analysis

The work machines worked harder and the play machines played better. So how well did these come out in overall value? Close prices kept the blue bar (price) at 100%, so that performance levels are approximately equal to value index scores. And since games made up only one-sixth of our benchmark set, the system with the more powerful processor wins by a large margin.

More impressive is that the little mini-ITX work machine outperformed its larger sibling due to a slightly better-overclocking CPU. Its expected handicap from running two memory modules on a quad-channel processor just isn’t noticeable in overall performance scores.

The work machines finished over 20% better in overall performance including games, yet games actually put a significant damper on those numbers since they also finished 19% worse when gaming across three panels. Readers who complained about the work machines not having enough gaming focus were right, within a narrow margin of correctness that says “the only performance that matters is gaming performance”.

So which machine would you choose, and what types of builds would you like to see in upcoming System Builder Marathons? The discussion is now open!

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

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