Part 1: Building A Balanced Gaming PC

Graphics Cards

If you have any hope of playing the latest games in their full glory (by which we mean max'ed out details) and at high native LCD resolutions, we can’t overstate how important it is to have a powerful graphics card in your system. For our purposed here, we chose three card from ATI and three cards from Nvidia, covering (at the time) a snapshot of the available gaming solutions priced $100 and up.

Naturally, a series of this magnitude takes weeks to plan for and test for; since we began, ATI has launched its Radeon HD 5000-series DirectX 11 boards. Thus, data for those cards won't be available in this part or the next. However, we're hoping to incorporate them into Parts 3 and 4.

Nevertheless, it's fairly easy to draw some parallels to our choices here, since ATI essentially doubled the resources on its previous single-GPU flagship. When you see a Radeon HD 4870 X2, imagine a Radeon HD 5870 there. The Radeon HD 4890 will generally be faster than the Radeon HD 5770. And the Radeon HD 5750 often looks a lot like the older Radeon HD 4770, if not a bit faster when you apply anti-aliasing.

BFG GeForce GTX 295

Representing the flagship of Nvidia’s GTX 200-series is the BFG GeForce GTX 295. Unlike the original GTX 295s, built on two PCBs, this newer revision features two GT200b GPUs on a single PCB.

Sporting a  total of 1,792MB GDDR3 (896MB per GPU), two 448-bit memory interfaces, a 576 MHz core clock rate, a 1,242 MHz shader clock, and a 999 MHz memory clock, each GPU has the general specifications of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 260. However, the GPUs themselves boast a full 240 stream processing cores, like the GeForce GTX 285, GeForce GTX 280, and GeForce GTX 275. 

ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2

The flagship of ATI’s Radeon HD 4800-series is still the Radeon HD 4870 X2, a card consisting of two Radeon HD 4870 GPUs. Each processor has its own dedicated 1GB GDDR5 (2GB total) frame buffer. The individual GPU specs are identical to a single-chip Radeon HD 4870, including 800 stream processors, 40 texture units, 16 ROPs (Raster Operation Units), a 256-bit memory bus, 750 MHz GPU, and 900 MHz memory frequency.  

BFG GeForce GTX 285 OCFU

This BFG GeForce GTX 285 OCFU represents the most powerful single-GPU card available for our first round of testing.  Its features include 240 shader processors, a 712 MHz core clock rate, a 1,620 MHz shader clock rate, 1GB of GDDR3 memory running at 1,332 MHz (2,664 MHz effective), and a 512-bit memory interface. These are extremely high (albeit overclocked) clock rates right out of the box, backed by BFG’s lifetime warranty. 

For Part 1 and Part 2 testing, we down-clock this board to reference GeForce GTX 285 speeds of 648 MHz (core), 1,476 MHz (shader), and 1,242 MHz (memory).

ATI Radeon HD 4890

Representing ATI’s top single-GPU card from the 4800-series generation, the Radeon HD 4890 has the same vital GPU specifications listed above for the Radeon HD 4870 X2, like 1GB of GDDR5 memory, 800 shader processors, 40 texture units, 16 ROPs, and a 256-bit memory bus. However, the RV790 graphics processor made it possible for ATI to serve up higher clock rates (up to 850 MHz on the core and 975 MHz memory).

BFG GeForce GTX 260 OCX Max Core 55

The BFG GeForce GTX 260 OCX Max Core 55 combines 216 shader processors, 896MB of GDDR3 memory, BFG’s highest factory overclock on a GeForce GTX 260 of 655 MHz core, 1,404 shader, and 1,125 MHz on the memory clock (2,250 MHz effective). Of course, it's also covered by BFG’s lifetime warranty.

We again down-clock this board to reference speeds of 576 MHz core, 1,242 MHz shader, and 999 MHz memory frequencies for initial testing in Parts 1 and 2.

HIS Radeon HD 4850 512MB

The HIS Radeon HD 4850 has the same 800 ALUs, 40 texture units, and 16 ROPs as its bigger brothers, but it also has a lower GPU clock of 625MHz and 512MB of GDDR3 running at 993 MHz (1,986 MHz effective). 

As a reminder: all testing for this first part was finished, but we couldn’t kick this series off prior to ATI’s Radeon HD 5800-series launch. To see how these new cards stack up to the ones used today, be sure to check out our launch reviews here and here.

Special thanks to ATI and Nvidia for arranging the graphics hardware needed to make this entire series possible.

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  • mi1ez
    Time to post our balanced PCs?

    Q6600 @3.2GHz
    4GB ram @approx 920MHz
    4870 @790MHz 1GHz

    I reckon this is relatively balanced. Only thing stopping me from hitting full detail on games at 1680 is the graphics card. High details with AA will do for now. 5870 next?
  • blibba
    The settings here are too ambitious - I imagine it's perfectley possible to build a balanced gaming PC around an e6300.
  • Redsnake77
    E6850 @ 3.5Ghz
    2GB OCZ SLI @ 1066Mhz
    BFG 680i SLI (hot NB!!)
    2 x BFG 8800GTX OC2 in SLI
    850w Enermax Galaxy psu
  • burn-e86
    well this dashes my hopes of getting a 4850. Have to move a few steps higher
  • plasmastorm
    Q6600 @ 3.6Ghz
    8gb Geil DDR800
    150gb WD Raptor
    2x 1TB Samsung
    2x Radeon 5850 crossfire
    850W Enermax
  • OverK1lL
    Athlon II X4 620 (stock)
    2gb DDR2 800MHZ Hynix
    160GB Samsung SATA2
    PowerColor HD4890 (stock)
    Coolermaster 500W Extreme Power

    Works brilliantly, taking into account though that my monitor is a 17" LCD @1280x1024 :/
  • Fox Montage
    On the whole, very nice article. It's something that I haven't come across before and it should help people to save a few bob (the whole point of a balanced system) and get the best bang for buck when upgrading (everyone that reads these reviews main concern :).

    burn-e86well this dashes my hopes of getting a 4850. Have to move a few steps higher

    Keep in mind that these tests were done at 4X AA, (pretty much) max settings through out. The HD 4850 is still a good card with good price/ performance. Perhaps it's just a case of AA killing this card?

    I appreciated this article, because it's a first step towards presenting data that gives expected performance in games. Virtually all performance reviews of hardware is done on a comparison basis, to tell people which of the cards tested performs the best at a given set of tests.

    I don't think this point is stressed enough in the online hardware review community. It's very easy to look at a bar graph and see 35 fps and think to one's self "POS card", without stopping to check what the whole test setup was, or what the review is actually looking to highlight.
  • ukcal
    Aha, nice article, though the highlight has to be the picture on the first page. Not only would I love all those graphics cards, imagine having all those games AND LEGALLY! :D
  • Fueled
    Very pertinent article! It's quite helpful in getting a general overview for today's gaming requirements. Thanks for gathering all this data.

    I'm looking forward to the next installment, regarding AMD systems and the new 5000 series GPUs.
  • Anonymous
    I have an E6850 @ 3Ghz, 4GB ram, 1x DVD Rom, 1x HDD..
    I'm looking at getting either the HD4890 or the new 5850, BUT I only have a 400w power supply. I see the E8400+HD4890 combination draws a max consumption of about 250w. Will my 400w be ok? Really dont want to fork out for a new power supply...
  • Anonymous
    Wow, I'm really astonished by this article. I have an E8200 and a 1680*1050 panel, there are some surprising results for me. First off, the 4850 I was thinking of upgrading to would still leave my system entirely GPU limited. Thanks for the warning! Secondly a 4890 would actually perform significantly better in my system than a GTX 295 that costs over twice as much!
    Why is it that the GTX 295 responds so badly to a lack of CPU?
  • welshmousepk

    a dual GPU card requires alot more work from the processor jsut to get it rendering, so in a CPU limited rig they are often a bad choice.

    and @blitonguy: i would not recomend running a 4890 with a 400w PSU. when i have a 650w to power my 4890, and would say a 550 should really be the lowest you should go.
  • devilxc
    Good article. I can't believe how many times I have warned my friend about balance with his 3x Geforce 280 SLi. That being said, I am significantly GPU limited (Intel 920 O/C and Geforce 260). Although my computer is not solely a gaming rig.
  • Anonymous
    5850 people..THAT'S the GC to have ;)
  • chriscornell
    E6750 2,66Ghz @ 3,5Ghz aircooled on stockvoltage
    P5N-E SLI motherboard
    GTX 260 V.2 (stock speed)
    8Gb HyperX DDR2 PC8500 @ 4,4,4,12 timings, 1:1 with cpu
    Patriot Warp2 32Gb SSD system drive + Western Digital Caviar SE 500Gb
    Creative Xtreme Gaming Soundcard
    Samsung S.M. 23" 16:9 monitor running 1920x1080
    Chill Innovation 540W PSU

    Runs everything great atm. I'm a sucker for AA, AF and vertical sync. so I'll upgrade when I can't play new games with at least 4xAA and 8xAF.

    Next thing on my wishlist is a Q9550 and probably a XFX-motherboard.
  • Tonkyboy
    I have a C2D E6300 (stock 1.86 Ghz) - OC'd to 3.2 Ghz
    Sapphire Radeon HD4850 512 Mb OC'd approx 10 % GPU and memory
    2 Gb DDR2 800 OCZ Gold

    I run a 19 inch LG LCD Monitor, native res is 1280 x 1024. This setup provides me a really nice balance. I only use AA in older titles, but I run almost everything on at least High detail levels, and I can run everything I've ever asked my system to run, and do not have frame rate issues. I have no issues with Far Cry 2, GRID, Oblivion, Frontlines, HL2, Doom 3, COD 4 etc... Crysis is the one title I need to turn down.

    The issue here is of course balance. I'm not sure why Toms is using Ultra Quality settings on a review about balance. Surely quality settings have to come into the balance equation too. If you are on a budget, and can't afford the best of everything, then a slightly lower image quality would be a price you would be willing to pay.

    btw, I'm sure the Pentium E6300 is not the same as a C2D E6300, as the Pentium badged chip runs at 2.8, and mine at 1.86 stock ?? Is that right ?
  • Anonymous
    Here's my balanced rig :D
    Core i7 920 3.35GHz
    6gb DDR3 1600MHz
    2x500GB RAID 0
    GTX260 216sp
    All on Foxconn Renessaince board

    I think balance will depend on budget :D
  • Anonymous
    Ok some comments about PSU, if your going to buy expensive mobo, cpu, gfx cards and run it on anything around 400-500w make sure its very good quality one like Tagan, Thermaltake, OCZ, and others in above rigs, do not use a cheapo PSU no matter how much the wattage is, it will work but I guarantee it will go bang and take one of those expensive parts with it, thats if it dont catch the Qtec PSU do.
    I run this rig with a Tagan 480w 5-6 years old
    AMD x2 5600 @2.9GHz energy efficient
    HIS ATi 3870HD @800MHz
    4GB OCZ Reaper PC8500
    2x 750GB Samsung HD's
    Samsung 22in monitor
    It will play anything I throw at it with ease, you dont have to spend a fortune just to play a game, keep your buget reasonable and youll enjoy it so much more.
  • st0rmcr0w
    This is why I love Toms Hardware. You guys review the obvious things such as the new HD5870 like every other site. But the thing that makes you stand out is that you guys also make articles such as this one.

    I'm still having a dual core (E8400 @ 3.6GHz) with quite the demanding SLI setup (2x 8800GT) and have been wondering what the best upgrade will be for my computer. This gives me a lot of insight and I'm eagerly awaiting the follow up overclocking article.
  • demondrumer
    where are the amd provessers