Part 1: Building A Balanced Gaming PC

Pricing, Methodology, And A Sample Chart

In order to establish a cost for each combination of hardware, we used Newegg to price out each pair of processors and graphics cards. Although this could be taken a step further by factoring in the cost of the motherboard, memory, and power supply, for the purpose of this series, we will leave those other variables out, as our supplementary choices were specific to pulling off x16/x16 multi-GPU Crossfire/SLI testing.

Note that with the introduction of the Radeon HD 5800-series graphics cards, ATI's Radeon HD 4870 X2 briefly dropped to $330 before availability dwindled and the last model was deactivated. Therefore, we searched other sites to find the best current price of $380 for a new Radeon HD 4870 X2. As you can see in the chart below, we are looking at CPU+GPU combinations ranging from $177 to $745 dollars at the time of writing. 

Plotting six GPUs paired up to four CPU’s at four different resolutions in our typical horizontal bar charts was a less-than-ideal exercise. While having the advantage of displaying the exact FPS in data labels, the bigger picture was all but lost in an overwhelming number of rather humongous charts. Instead, we switch things up for this series and will plot all data in line charts. This was an idea presented to us by the guys over at Nvidia as we discussed this project with them. 

We’ll use a separate line chart for each resolution and cover one game per page. The y-axis represents average frames per second (FPS), and to keep our data as spaced out as possible, we won't use zero as our starting point. In the x-axis, you’ll see the CPUs tested, ordered from least expensive to most expensive. Our six GPUs are listed down in the legend, with each brand represented by a blue or red series. Each specific model is then distinguished by the shape of the data point, with triangles representing the most expensive, diamonds in the middle, and squares signifying the least expensive cards.

Let’s break this down even further with some sample data. First, we set a target line (in green) at our desired FPS for the game. Then, we plot all of the data. Each data point landing above the target line represents an acceptable level of platform performance for the CPU/GPU combination in the game in question and resolution tested. For data points below the target line, the platform performance is too low.

In this example, all six GPUs start below the target line, as CPU 1 is not powerful enough to deliver the desired performance at the tested settings. We insert a dashed light blue vertical line at the first point a data series crosses over the target line, which provides us a quadrant where we know “too little CPU performance” is causing the platform bottleneck. Data points in the remaining lower quadrant represent low platform performance from either too little graphics muscle, or a combination of too little GPU/CPU

Now let’s focus on the upper quadrant of data points, which do reach the target or desired level of playability. The cheapest acceptable solution in this case is CPU 2 and GPU 3. If we follow GPU 3’s series even further, we see little benefit from stepping up to a higher-performance CPU. As a result, we can surmise that, in this example, our cheapest solution is also well-balanced. Pairing more GPU with CPU 2 adds a little performance, but shifts the platform out of balance towards a CPU bottleneck, as both of the high-end GPUs pick up a substantial performance boost when paired with more CPU power. By studying the charts, you’ll soon see that CPU limitations are represented by steep upward slopes, while GPU-limited situations are illustrated by flat horizontal lines, such as those seen on GPU 1 and 2 in the example.

Inevitably, someone will bring this up. So let’s just say clearly right now that there are some variables and limitations to a story like this. For starters, not all gamers have the same frame rate demands for the various types of games that they play. In competitive online shooters, high frame rates are desired as to not give the competition an edge in reaction time. In single-player games, gamers typically want to maximize visual quality while maintaining acceptable performance. Of course, each person’s idea of what is acceptable will vary. We’ll try to explain how and why we chose the target for our minimum recommendations in each game, and of course plot all data so that readers can see what best suits their individual preference.

Also, as with all game benchmarking, testing methods or the maps/levels tested will provide varied results from one to the next. At Tom’s Hardware, we typically use repeatable tests as long as they still relate to the demands of game play. But then again, even the style or tactics practiced by individual gamers will account for varied performance during actual game play. For example, do you practice stealth tactics, snipe from afar, or blaze down a path with a vehicle-mounted machine gun ripping up all of vegetation in sight? Each style will, at times, place different demands on the system components, resulting in different levels of performance. While a “worst-case” scenario is the safest general situation to paint, it still may or may not represent the performance your gaming style will generate. With that said, let’s get to it.

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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