|The Fast Enough Computer|
|Articles - Opinion & Editorials|
|Written by David Ramsey|
|Wednesday, 26 January 2011|
The Fast Enough Computer
Why you shouldn't always buy the fastest, most expensive parts; even if you can afford them.
While I have not yet (and may never) recover from my addiction to having the Biggest Fastest Most Expensive computer parts I can afford, the experience I've gained writing for this website over the past year or so has hammered home the lesson that most of the time, I'm just wasting my money. And you probably are, too.
What do you need a fast computer for?
Unless you're a professional who needs the power of a high-end workstation, the meanest, cheapest no-name box you can buy is likely more than sufficient for everything you do...except gaming. That's the metric I'm going to use here: frame rates in games, at a decent resolution with good visual effects. Looking at the Steam hardware survey, we can see that the most common gaming resolution is 1680x1050 pixels, so that's what I'll use. The goal is to build a system that will play most modern games at 30fps or better at 1680x1050 with good visual quality (i.e. without having to turn off anti-aliasing or other visual effects) and decent expansion capability for the least amount of money.
Benchmarks don't matter
Most of us will look to benchmark results to determine a computer's performance. It's like taking your car to the local drag strip and seeing how fast it'll do the 1/4 mile run. But much of the time, a benchmark score has about as much relevance to your computer as your car's 1/4 miles time has to its day-to-day driving experience. This is especially true for synthetic benchmarks: while tuning your system to deliver the bestest fastest results in AIDA64 or PassMark can be fun, all that really matters at the end of the day is how many FPS you can spit out in Crysis, Metro 2033, Bad Company, or whatever your favorite game is.
Sure, having a monster system that delivers triple-digit frame rates on a 30" monitor with the latest DX11 games with all the eye candy turned on confers certain bragging rights...and if bragging rights is what you're after, well, go get those three NVIDIA GTX580 cards and start overclocking them. But don't expect it to make any difference in your gaming experience unless you're running a PhysX-heavy game in 3D Vision on a triple monitor system. What, that's not what you're running? Well, then...
Consider this: first, if your system can maintain 30 frames per second or more on a given game, that's Fast Enough. Very few people can discern the visual difference between 30fps and anything faster. I certainly can't. But even if you can, the absolute limit is 60fps, because that's the refresh frequency of your monitor. It physically can't display more than that, and when you do, you get horizontal "tearing" artifacts, which is why most games these days have an option to sync the frame redraws to the monitor's vertical refresh, effectively capping your frame rate at 60fps. Given this, who cares if your system can generate more frames per second? You're not going to see them.
Second, game developers want to produce games that run well on mid-range systems, because people with Intel 980X systems running dual NVIDIA GTX580 cards don't really make up a large part of the market. Sure, Crysis brought even high-end systems to their knees when it was introduced, but do you want to spend hundreds of dollars to run a single game?
So, what do you need to play current modern games at 1680x1050 with good frame rates and decent visual quality? As it turns out, all you need is a computer that's Fast Enough. Here's what I'd suggest...
Building the Fast Enough Computer
Let's recap what we're looking for in a Fast Enough computer:
The "expansion capability" part is important: you want room to grow the system a bit at a time as more demanding games appear (and more money becomes available). Of course, everyone's needs and wants will vary, but here's what I'd start with:
Any computer case. This is the least important part of your system, so the cheaper the better. Still, "inexpensive" doesn't have to mean "cheap": the NZXT M59 case provides both interesting looks and excellent quality for under $50.
An AMD 790FX or 890FX motherboard. I prefer AMD here simply because these chipsets support 42 PCIe lanes, which means you can run a tri-CrossFireX system and still have plenty of lanes left over for USB 3.0, SATA 6G, and a couple of PCIe cards. The downside is that you won't be able to run NVIDIA SLI, and that's a drawback (especially if you like PhysX), but the only ways to get a decent number of PCIe lanes in the Intel world are to buy an X58 system, or a P55 or P67 motherboard with an expensive NVIDIA NF200 bridge chip.
If you don't need USB 3.0 (easily added with a PCIe card later) or SATA 6G, a 790FX motherboard will save you $30-$50 over an 890FX motherboard.
An AMD Phenom II X2 560 Black Edition processor. Stick with the Phenom II series CPUs: they're faster and typically overclock better than Phenom or Athlon CPUs. The 560 is inexpensive ($100 at Newegg), and this unlocked-multiplier dual-core CPU can easily be overclocked past 4Ghz.
4GB of DDR3 memory. Stick with a major brand for warranty reasons, but as our tests have shown, paying extra for fast timings, low latency, and fancy heat sinks will yield very little in the way of better frame rates, so I'd go for DDR3-1333. With such memory currently selling for about $10/gigabyte, you can easily add another 4GB later if you need to.
A Radeon 6850 video card. These are available for about $180 and will handle most modern games at 1680x1050 without having to turn off anti-aliasing or other image processing features, although you won't be able to crank the visual effects up all the way on games like Crysis or Metro 2033. If you need more horsepower, a pair of these cards in CrossFireX will almost double your performance and play any current game at well over 30fps even at 1920x1200. One caveat: the 6850 is limited to two-card CrossFireX; for three-card setups, you'll need to move up to the Radeon 6950, which costs $90-$100 more.
A Samsung SpinPoint 500GB or 1T drive. The real-world performance of these drives is excellent (close to WD's much more expensive VelociRaptor drives), and they're only $65 for the 500GB version. Any generic DVD writer will do; I use Sony Optiarc OEM drives, available for less than $20, or $25 for a Lightscribe version.
A decent power supply. The one place you shouldn't skimp is the power supply. You want it to be reliable and able to support your system as it grows. The Radeon 6850 requires only a single 6-pin power connector, so a Seasonic SS-560KM would work well for up to two of them, but you might want a power supply that has 4 PCI power connectors if you want to be able to expand to more powerful cards (with dual power connectors) in the future.
You can build this system for about $750, less if you find a 790FX motherboard, or go with a smaller hard drive or Radeon 5770 instead of a 6850. And it gives you several upgrade paths: AMD has been dropping the prices on their 4- and 6-core processors, and you can add one or two more video cards as your needs grow.
It's not as easy to build an inexpensive Fast Enough system with Intel: their processors are much more expensive than AMD's, and the Sandy Bridge P67 chipset suffers from the same dearth of PCIe lanes as did the previous-generation P55 chipset. X58 motherboards will give you the PCIe lanes you need, and there are a number available now in the sub-$200 range, but Socket 1366 CPUs are still quite expensive, at $300 for the current Core i7-950.
If you can live with the lack of PCIe lanes, Intel's Sandy Bridge CPUs offer excellent performance, and a good P67 motherboard can be had for less than many 890FX motherboards. But you'll pay a lot more for even the cheapest Core i5 Sandy Bridge processor, and you'll be locked out of any overclocking unless you get a "K"-series CPU (the cheapest of which is the Core i5-2500K at $225). Also, be aware that not all P67 motherboards support SLI, so if you want this option, make sure to check that your P67 motherboard is SLI-certified.
Would you build a Fast Enough computer? Leave your comment below, or start a discussion in our Forum.