System Builder Marathon, Q1 2013: $1,600 Alternative PC

The Less-Obvious Benefits Of Spending More

Today’s $1,600 build started out as an upgrade to my original $1,000 Performance PC, and should have contained only the components needed to make that build perform better. At the end of the day, however, I had to spend a little more on a motherboard that didn't help my performance, but rather addressed a couple of show-stopping flaws. Those issues were revealed when I paired an E1-stepping CPU with 1.65 V RAM, and then added a very heavy cooler with a very high-tension mounting kit.

Because I had problems with both the CPU memory controller and motherboard flex, I can’t be completely sure that Noctua's NH-D14 isn’t responsible for the whole mess. I only know from experience that the big cooler had a negative impact on at least three of my ASRock Z77 Extreme4 motherboards. And I’m not willing to talk about what might have happened to my fourth motherboard sample in my mad rush to find the problem.

I also know that Intel explicitly states that 1.50 V plus or minus 5% is the limit for Ivy Bridge-based processors, while at the same time validating the use of 1.65 V memory. I further know that the Z77 Extreme4 automatically sets 1.665 V for DDR3-2133, that ASRock’s set voltage levels are slightly lower than its actual voltage levels, and that nobody has given me proof of the E1-stepping Core i5’s ability to cope with voltage levels approaching 1.7 V.

In the end, I was forced to either give up the big CPU cooler or try a different motherboard model. In the end, I was forced to scale back to low-voltage RAM. And, in the end, I was left with ten days, two processors, and four motherboards wasted.

All of that work, and I still don’t see any increase in overall value when it comes to the performance-per-dollar charts. I do like that the system is quieter, that its case is more durable, that its power supply has more connectors, and that the extra hard drive provides room for all my old media files.

I also like that it can game at 5760x1080. You see, the $1,000 PC, for all of its performance and overall value hype, simply couldn’t be called a consistent triple-display performer. Most games needed a second GPU to produce smooth 5760x1080 frame rates, and some game settings even required the second card simply to reach 2560x1600.

The only thing that could make the $1,000 PC a universal gaming box is if we limited it to 1920x1080. Real quality-seekers will find real gaming quality in the $1,600 build, which also has a better case, motherboard, CPU cooler, and more storage capacity. Even though we paid money to get those non-gaming improvements, the second card still pushes this system’s gaming value far beyond that of our original $1,000 build.