Part 3: Building A Balanced Gaming PC

What does it mean to build a truly-balanced PC? How great would it be to piece together a machine bottlenecked by neither CPU or GPU? We set forth to measure the perfect balance in seven different games and four resolutions in this third of many parts.

1) Building A Balanced Gaming PC: Part 1
2) Building A Balanced Gaming PC: Part 2
3) Building A Balanced Gaming PC: Part 3

Are you disappointed? Are you frustrated? Are you wondering why your PC won’t game? Before you make a rash decision, resulting in a wrongful upgrade or a new system purchase, you need to know exactly what it means to build a balanced gaming platform. We want to welcome you back to one of our most ambitious projects ever, as we continue today with Part 3 of this multi-part series aimed at educating PC users on what it means to seek balance in their configuration.

Balance is what is often lacking in standard off-the-shelf PCs. Even the configurations flaunting fast processors, lots of memory, and ample storage space typically still don’t have sufficient graphics muscle to get things done in today’s demanding 3D games. It (balance) is also what’s lacking when gamers buy the hottest new graphics card, only to discover that their aging system and slow CPU prevent it from delivering the expected level of performance you often see in our own graphics evaluations.

Of course, we realize that the Tom's Hardware audience is far from your average PC user. Perhaps you’re an enthusiast who already knows his or her stuff. After all, you’ve done your research. You thrive on the latest hardware reviews and have long been building your own machines, allotting the proper potions of budget to the components that will best suit the system's intended purpose.

Well, we encourage you to read on and form your own conclusions, as there will be plenty of data to scour, tested and presented in a way you likely have never seen before.

In this series, we combine various levels of graphics cards and processors to determine which offers the best balance in a number of different games. Rather than turn down graphic settings to reach playability, we keep them cranked as high as possible in order to determine exactly how much hardware muscle you need to enjoy these games as the developers intended them to be seen. Keeping the same level of eye candy, we’ll also test various resolutions, simulating the experience of several different monitor sizes, too (right up to 30").

As you might imagine, testing numerous graphic cards paired with numerous processors in numerous games very quickly turns into a massive data set. In order to cover the broadest range of hardware and still keep the project manageable, we chose a handful of CPUs from Intel and AMD, and several graphics cards from both ATI and Nvidia. Too large a project to be wrapped into a single story, it will be split up into a multi-part series, and potentially even an ongoing saga covering newly released hardware, drivers, and games.

There are three main goals for this series:

First, we want to simply present the raw data, gleaned by pairing various CPUs and GPUs. Typical graphics card reviews try to eliminate system-oriented limitations by using a high-end CPU. We've heard many of you complain about this, and are addressing it here. Typical CPU reviews often use a high-end graphics processor and/or lowered detail levels to eliminate GPU-oriented bottlenecks. Reasons for that should be obvious, but here in this series, we’ll have the opportunity to see how the hardware you own today performs versus faster or slower setups. Second, we aim to recommend a minimum level of hardware for each game and at each resolution. This is where theory turns into pragmatism and the story becomes a buyer's guide. Third, we'll show you exactly where the best balance between your CPU and GPU truly resides, with as little “bottlenecking” as possible.

In Part 1, we took a look at how six different graphics cards perform when paired with four Intel CPUs, two dual-core models and two quad-core chips. Part 2 covered these same graphics cards paired with three AMD Phenom II processors. So far we have concentrated on stock performance, but it is now time to turn our attention towards overclocking. Additionally, we'll later dedicate two stories to exploring the benefits and scaling of graphics horsepower with ATI's CrossFire and Nvidia's SLI technologies. Along the way, we'll try to add new products to the mix, taking into account recent hardware launches. Here in Part 3, we migrate to Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit, introduce ATI Radeon HD 5000-series graphics, and set up an additional Intel Core i5 LGA 1156 platform.

Before we move onto today’s data, we’ll again take a peek at the hardware we use in this series.

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  • mi1ez
    No links from P5 to P6?
  • evolvedpc
    It would be really good for those of us who have already read the previous articles in this series to have a "cut to the chase" summary, that tells us which parts are different. There is so much copy-paste that it's hard to find the new stuff.
  • ksampanna
    It seems this was edited a few months back, but posted now.
  • chispas
    Looks like the moral of the story a 5870.
  • wild9
    Socket [bAM3: Asus M4N82 Deluxe

    The Asus M4N82 Deluxe will be put to use when it comes time to test dual GeForce cards in SLI paired up to our Socket AM3 processors.

    Socket AM2+, I think.

    Amazing what you can get for your money in terms of CPU power, from both camps.
  • mi1ez