Computing

Build The Best Bang For The Buck PC

We all know that, generally speaking, buying the newest top-end part gets you the most performance. But, in most cases, the premium you pay for that part covers a whole lot of other stuff as well that has no bearing on frame rates or video encoding times.

We’re talking about the added cost of covering research and development, product marketing, lower production yields, etc. That high price also includes a vanity tax, if you will-the extra charge incurred by folks who simply want to have the latest hardware, hot off the fab, for bragging rights.

Splashing out on the very latest gear is all well and good, if you’re rolling in cabbage. But for most of us, the job of choosing what part to buy is much more nuanced. The object is to find the hardware that offers the greatest value-the best price-to-performance ratio.

That’s our objective here-to examine each of the major PC component categories, run the relevant benchmarks where warranted, and zero in on the coveted sweet spot. What we’ve come up with is a list of parts that are capable of meeting a typical enthusiast user’s needs for the best price possible.


CPU

Intel Core i5-3570K

Pay for the threads you need, not the threads you want
Make no mistake, we love cores and threads. But when you start talking about bang for the buck and sweet spots, eight-core and six-core CPUs don’t fit into the equation (well, unless you consider AMD’s Bulldozer, but that’s another matter). As power users who like to regularly drop in new CPUs, we have a personal fondness for the LGA2011 platform, but frankly, LGA2011 carries a price premium that the vast majority of users don’t need to pay.

Really, when you talk about bang for the buck, it very much gets into the complicated question of just what kind of bang you’re after. Are you a 100 per cent gamer (a rare duck, in our book) or someone who spends most of his or her time pushing pixels professionally?

Since you pay for every thread in your system, you want to make sure they’re actually working for you. Take a gander at our benchmark chart, which compares a six-core Core i7-3930K to the quad-core Core i7-3820. To see what impact threads have on the benchmarks, we turned Hyper-Threading on and off for both processors. The value of the threads are there-but only if you have multithreaded apps that can use them. For the most part, today’s apps are optimised for quad-core or lower.

This quad part offers Ivy Bridge performance and is unlocked for overclocking.

Based on our thread experiment, we believe we can make a case for Intel’s $US230 quad-core 3.4GHz Core i5-3570K chip sans Hyper-Threading. Ivy Bridge offers at least a 10 per cent performance advantage over Sandy Bridge and the 3570K is unlocked. Keep in mind, if you run thread-heavy apps such as encoding or 3D rendering, you should pay for Hyper-Threading or move up to a six-core part, but the sweet spot today remains four cores.

We used an Asus Sabertooth X79 motherboard, 8GB of DDR3/1333, a GeForce GTX 690, and OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional for testing both CPU configurations.


Videocard

GeForce GTX 660

It’s a tight race, but this relative newcomer takes the crown
When you begin to compare price/performance ratios of GPUs at the high end of the scale, you typically see diminishing returns once you go beyond about $US300. That’s rarefied air up there, where 5–10 additional frames per second will cost you an extra $US100 or so. The real battle for frames, frags, minds, and dollars exists below that price point, as the GPUs loitering in the mid-$US200 region offer very good performance for literally half the price of the flagship videocards. This is the sweet spot-typically around $US250 or so-where you can find 1080p gaming at 60fps for the least amount of money possible.

Don’t let its size and single 6-pin power connector fool you-the GTX 660 is a serious gaming weapon.

After examining the cards in this pricing segment, as well the cards in the pricing segment above it, we’re granting the brand-new Nvidia GTX 660 best-bang-for-the-buck status. At just $US230, this GPU is faster than the slightly more expensive (or same-priced, depending on where you shop) AMD HD 7850 by a respectable margin, and even beats the pricier $US280 Radeon HD 7870 in some of our tests, making it the fastest GPU under $US250 by a wide margin.

So, why not spend $US70 more and get a GTX 660 Ti? Looking at the benchmark chart, you can see that extra money nets you some performance gains, but in our judgment you don’t get enough of a return on that investment. The GTX 660 Ti costs roughly 25 per cent more than a GTX 660, and yet offers an average of 15 per cent performance improvement in most tests. When you tabulate price-per-fps, the GTX 660 also has the advantage over the GTX 660 Ti in the majority of tests we run, making it the value leader. As icing on the cake, you only need one 6-pin connector instead of the two that bigger cards require, so you’re saving money in the PSU department, as well.

Best scores are bolded. Our test bed is a 3.3GHz Intel Core i7 3960X Extreme Edition in an Asus P797X Deluxe motherboard with 16GB Corsair DDR3/1600 RAM and a Corsair AX1200 PSU. The OS is 64-bit Windows 7 Ultimate. All games were run at 1900×1200 with 4x AA unless otherwise noted.


Motherboard

Gigabyte Z77X-UP4 TH

It doesn’t cost much to go from strippo mobo to feature-rich

When it comes to motherboards, you can seemingly spend as much as you want or as little. So, do you need a bells-and-whistles board like Asus’s ultimate Z77 P8Z77-V Premium with its Thunderbolt and PLX chips for four-way GPUs, or is a $US90 Z77 strippo board good enough? We find the sweet spot for a cost-conscious power user to be right about $US190. Sure, you can get a microATX Z77 board for under $US100, but it’s usually stripped down to the barest of essentials, with thermals on the VRMs as an afterthought. It’s like getting a new car with roll-up windows and manual locks. We think that by stepping up to about $US190, you get such worthwhile amenities as Virtu hybrid-graphics support, multi-GPU support (both CrossFireX and SLI), and ports galore. Some good examples of bang-for-the-buck boards are Asus’s P8Z77-V and Gigabyte’s Z77X-UP4 TH. Both are feature-rich yet don’t break the $US200 mark.


Solid-State Drive

Crucial M4 256GB

400MB/s reads, 250MB/s writes, less than $US200
Right now the sweet spot for solid-state drives is a 6Gb/s SATA SSD in a capacity near 256GB (240GB for a SandForce-based drive). Why 256? 256 is big enough to store your OS, programs, and several games, and many modern controllers are optimised for that capacity-SandForce SF-2281 controllers, for example, have 16 lanes, and a 240GB drive has 16 NAND modules. Best of all, thanks to this year’s massive price drops, SSD prices are under a dollar per gigabyte: You can get a 256GB Samsung 830 Series, one of our favourite SSDs, for under $US230.

Not the newest nor the fastest, but good speeds for a good price.

So, which SSD offers the best value? Crucial’s M4 SSD is a favourite of system builders for its relatively good performance and low price. It’s not the fastest 6Gb/s SATA SSD, but it’s plenty fast by any standard, and it’s attractively priced. For $US180 at the time of this writing, you can get a drive with sustained reads over 400MB/s, sustained writes over 250MB/s, and good random-read and -write performance, as well. For $US20 more you get the OCZ Vertex 4, with reads and writes in the 440MB/s range and higher random IOPS, and for $US50 more than the M4 you can get a Samsung 830 Series drive, with 500MB/s-plus sequential reads, 400MB/s writes, but lower random IOPS-which is fine, unless you’re running a really active database server.

The specific drive you get will depend on current pricing, and (as is the case with most components) you can get a great drive for a little more than the cost of a very good drive, but right now we think the Crucial M4 is the sweet spot to beat.

We used an Asus Sabertooth X79 motherboard, 8GB of DDR3/1333, a GeForce GTX 690, and OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional for testing both CPU configurations.


Hard Drive

Seagate Barracuda 3TB

The best drive is also the best value
It’s weird to say this, but the sweet-spot hard drive is the same as the Best of the Best hard drive. The 3TB Seagate Barracuda is the best combination of price, performance, and capacity, whether you’re using it as your only drive or as the backup for a boot SSD. Its sequential read and write speeds of over 150MB/s make it the fastest 7,200rpm drive we’ve ever tested, and its price of $US140 means its per-gigabyte cost is only 4.6 cents, making it the best value on the market right now. By contrast, 2TB “Green” drives, which spin at around 5,900rpm, are around $US120 from WD and Seagate right now. Why pay more per gigabyte for slower storage? Cost-per-gigabyte goes way up as size goes down, too, especially for any drive under 1TB.

At 4.6 cents per gigabyte, you can’t afford to pass up the Barracuda 3TB.

If your budget can’t stretch to $US140 and you don’t have an SSD, you’ll want to prioritise performance over capacity. Get a 2TB Barracuda (make sure it’s one of the two-platter 7200rpm ones with 64MB of cache). At $US100, that’s 5 cents per gigabyte. 2TB WD Caviar Black drives, on the other hand, are over $US200 at press time.

If you do have an SSD and you only have, say, $US85 or $US90, get the 1.5TB Barracuda Green from NCIX US. It’s one of the few drives over 1TB that are under $US100 right now, though we hope that changes as the industry recovers.

Whether Seagate is engaged in a price war or it just fared better in the Thailand floods of last year, its drive prices are

unbeatable at press time, and the 3TB Barracuda is by far the most screaming deal.


Case

NZXT Phantom 410

There’s no need to pay more for a solid enclosure
There are people who say that the case doesn’t matter, that the sweet spot for cases is “as cheap as you can possibly get.” These people are bad and they should feel bad. The sweet spot for cases is right around $US100. At $US100, you can get a great mid-tower or full-tower case with solid build quality, plenty of fans or fan mounting options, front-panel USB 3.0, toolless drive bays, and a nice paint job. Below that you’ll sacrifice build quality or looks, and above that you start getting fancy, with water-cooling mounts, support for giant motherboards or a half-dozen fans, or premium materials, but $US100 will get you a case with good air cooling that you can be proud of.

Our favourite cases at $US100 are the Fractal Design Define R4 and the NZXT Phantom 410. The Define R4 is the more flexible of the two. It’s more of a silent PC by design, with its acoustic foam on the inside of the side panels and its unused fan holes covered with sound-damping material until removed to add fans. The Phantom 410 looks stunning, especially in red or grey, and comes with much more fan support and more fans, flat out.

These aren’t the only cases at $US100 and below that are worthy of consideration, but they’re two of our favourite mid-towers and they both happen to be around the $US100 sweet spot.


RAM

8GB DDR3/1600 or DDR3/1866

The sweet place to be is in dual-channel mode

How much RAM do you need, how many channels, and what speed? From our experience, and based on today’s RAM prices and capacities, we recommend 8GB of DDR3/1600. Everyone knows that 2GB is not enough RAM today. And while 4GB is OK, why stop there when 8GB isn’t much more? At press time, 8GB of DDR3/1600 fetched roughly $US40 while 4GB is about $US30.

Should you buy more RAM than that? Only you can answer that question. If your applications are RAM hogs or you tend to multitask, additional RAM can’t hurt.

8GB is truly the new 4GB when it comes to RAM.

There’s one more pesky problem though: How many memory channels do you really need? Is it worth paying the extra surcharge for a quad-channel setup or is dual-channel enough? To find out, we took our trusty LGA2011-based zero-point, set it to bone-stock clock speed and tested it with 8GB of DDR3/1333 in quad-channel, dual-channel, and, well, single-channel, using various benchmarks. Some of the benchmarks are GPU-limited and others are CPU-limited to make a point that memory bandwidth won’t make a difference in many of your applications. Stepping from quad to dual doesn’t hurt much, but going to single will definitely take a bite out of performance, although not as much as you would suspect. In fact, upping the memory speed from DDR3/1333 to DDR3/1866 actually erased the difference in the apps that seem to like bandwidth the most: encoding.

Why does memory bandwidth make nary a difference in the vast majority of apps? Thank the huge caches in today’s CPUs. The only time you really want to go all-out on memory bandwidth is when you’re intending to game with integrated graphics.

We used an Asus Sabertooth X79 motherboard, 8GB of DDR3/1333, GeForce GTX 690, OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional for testing both CPU configurations.We used an Asus Sabertooth X79 motherboard, 8GB of DDR3/1333, GeForce GTX 690, OCZ Vertex 3 SSD, and 64-bit Windows 7 Professional for testing both CPU configurations.


Air Cooler

Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo

The best cooler-for-the-coin we’ve ever tested
There are many unsolved mysteries in life, such as who built the pyramids, where socks go during laundry, and how is it possible that the Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo costs only $US35. It just doesn’t make any sense. This simple cooling device has bested the majority of our skyscraper coolers since it was reviewed in January 2012, and yet it has cost less than almost every single one of its competitors, making it a rare gem in the world of PC components.

What about water cooling? We’re not going to go there, simply because even though the all-in-one designs have radically simplified the installation and maintenance of cooling loops, their price-to-performance ratio is still not as good as what’s available from a solid air cooler. In fact, in some cases the bigger air coolers perform better than their liquid brethren while costing less, so the sweet spot for now is definitely on dry land.

All temperatures in degrees Celsius. Best scores bolded. All tests performed using an Intel Core i7-3960 at 4.2GHz, on an Asus P9X79 Deluxe motherboard with 16GB DDR3/1600, in a Thermaltake Level 10 GT with stock fans set to High.


PSU

Corsair CX600

Buy just enough PSU for your needs
Our normal advice for an enthusiast constructing a system is to think long term, overbuild because you don’t know what parts your machine will end up with, and consider how hard your PSU is working on those sweltering days of summer. And if we were making a recommendation for someone using our guidelines, we’d say buy a Corsair TX 750 V2 or Thermaltake Smart 730. Both are about $US100, give you a nice long five-year warranty, and offer four 6+2 connectors for future beefy-GPU support.

But this story is about bang for the buck, and with today’s sweet-spot GPUs offering pretty fantastic power envelopes, we surprised even ourselves by stepping down in PSUs. Corsair’s $US70 CX600 V2 provides 600 watts and two 6+2 GPU power connectors. The PSU has plenty of power to run a single-GPU machine, no problem, and even SLI if you keep the system properly cooled. Be aware, if you plan to vary from our sweet-spot GPU, the TX 750 V2 is recommended instead.


Best Box for the Buck

When you put all these great-value parts together, you end up with one sweet PC

1. The NZXT Phantom 410 easily accommodates all our parts, with room to spare for expansion. The Gunmetal paint job looks hella tough, too.

2. With an Intel Core i5-3570K onboard and the cooling prowess of the Cooler Master 212 Evo, you’d be a fool not to overclock.

3. The GTX 660 lets us connect to a 1080p panel and get 60fps with all settings maxed out.

4. Gigabyte’s Z77X-UP4 is SLI-friendly, so commence saving your shekels for that second card.

Proof positive you can get a lot of bang for 1200 bucks. Note: Cost reflects NewEgg and Amazon prices at press time.


Sweet Spot Hall of Fame

They captured our hearts with a combo of kick-ass performance and killer price

Celeron 300A

At the Bang-for-the-Buckers reunion, there will always be a seat reserved for Intel’s Celeron 300A. The “Celery” 300A’s claim to fame was an almost guaranteed overclock from 300MHz to 450MHz. You scoff today, but that difference let you get performance similar to a $US670 450MHz Pentium II, but for only $US150.

Nvidia GeForce 8800 GT

How great was the $US250 GeForce 8800 GT? It was faster than the next card up the ladder and damn near as fast as the one a rung above that. It was so popular that Nvidia will still refer to a new card in its lineup as the “GeForce 8800 GT” of the litter.


AMD CPUs

We’re going to break form here by declaring AMD CPUs bang-for-the-buckers. Which one? Just pick any, because nearly all of them qualify. Yes, AMD is out of the hunt right now, but in general its chips have always been incredibly price competitive and have kept Intel’s prices far more reasonable.

Cooler Master’s famous Hyper 212 Plus

proved that an excellent cooler didn’t have to cost a claw and a tendril. The amazing thing is that the $US25 Hyper 212 Plus was as good as 90 per cent of the pack that cost twice as much, and it came pretty darn close to the best performers, too.


Antec 900

You’re probably spoiled by today’s $US100 enclosures, but years ago, all a hundy would get you was a razor-blade-shaped box made from recycled roller skates. The P900 gave you incredible bang for the buck and nearly a full set of fans instead of the typical 10-exhaust-ports-but-just-one-fan routine.


Abit BP6

Dual-proc men (and women) have always gotten gouged on price-you literally had to pay for the privilege of running two processors. Abit’s BP6 shattered that price lock by giving you a dual-proc board that let you run and overclock two Socket 370 Celerons-a config the Celery was never supposed to support!

Nvidia GeForce 4 Ti 4200

Before the GeForce 8800 GT, there was the GeForce 4 Ti 4200. The 4200′s hallmark was that despite Nvidia intentionally Nerfing the card to keep it from competing with higher-end cards, card vendors ignored the clock-speed directive and sold boat loads of them, all but killing its sibling, the Ti 4400.


Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600

The sweet spot in CPUs always seems to be near the $US250 mark. At $US266, the 2.4GHz Core 2 Quad Q6600 was exactly the same as the $US1,000 2.93GHz Core 2 Extreme QX6800 in cache and front-side-bus speed. Oh, and it overclocked just fine, thank you.

Note: This article was taken from the December 2012 issue of the magazine.


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