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Friday, November 18, 2011

What's the Baseline for Big-Screen Gaming?

It's easy to build a gaming machine on a budget if you're playing at 1650x1080 or 1920x1200, but if you're rocking 2560x1600, you need a little more oomph

Choosing the right hardware
MY AS FAR AS top-notch processors go, Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture is a no-brainer for my killer system build. I’ve opted for the 3.3GHz 2500K instead of its 2600K cousin because it’s less expensive and is easy to overclock up to the 2600K’s 3.4GHz, and I don’t feel that the addition of Hyper-Threading is going to make that much of a difference to gaming frame rates. To keep the system speedy (and load times low), Intel’s Z68 platform and its integrated Smart Response Technology allow me to use an SSD as an expanded read/write cache for a standard hard drive. What little benefi t in speeds I’d see by jumping from a Western Digital Caviar Blue to a Caviar Black drive is eclipsed by the SSD cache’s performance. And now for the elephant in the room: the videocards. The point of this system build is to present an affordable PC that can dish out topnotch gaming on a 30-inch panel. That’s why I’m not just taking the easy route and slapping in two Nvidia GTX 590 cards or two ATI Radeon HD 6990 cards in a paired confi guration and calling it a day (don’t do the math; the cost of these cards hurts.)

As for my ultimate decision to go with two ATI Radeon HD 6970 cards in a CrossFire configuration instead of a single, dual-GPU Nvidia GTX 590, I’ll let the benchmarks—and the price points—speak for themselves. Simply put, I found that I could achieve similar or even better performance (depending on the game) from a comparably priced CrossFire setup than with Nvidia’s single-card solution.

From benchmark tests of Batman: Arkham Asylum, to Dirt 3, to Metro 2033, to an everpunishing
trip through Crysis 2, my CrossFire setup consistently spanked Nvidia’s GTX 590. Now, I realize that my selection fl ies in the face of the advice that Maximum PC has been giving you since videocards were invented—namely, that you should always purchase the fastest single-card solution you can get under the presumption that you’ll later be able to bolster your setup with a wicked-fast SLI or CrossFire setup, if you so desire. But with the price of these extreme videocards shooting up into the $700 range, I think we can take that suggestion and throw it out the window. If you can afford $1,400 worth of videocards, you’re reading the wrong article. For the best out-of-box solution that can make your games scream on a 30-inch display without breaking your bank account, you can’t go wrong with dual ATI Radeon HD 6970s.

Hardware Highlights
COOLER MASTER STORM ENFORCER It’s always a delight to attempt to pack huge videocards inside of a mid-tower case. Not! But that’s the price I’m paying for sinking most of my budget into graphics. Cooler Master’s Storm Enforcer case presents a tight squeeze for parts and cable management, but its slick looks, side-panel window, and support for two USB 3.0 ports on the front of the case make it an appealing package for a sub-$100 chassis. Most of the parts and pieces you can stuff inside the chassis are screwless additions, except for your screw-dependent PCI devices—an unexpected omission by Cooler Master.

Since this is a budget build (of sorts), Gigabyte’s Z68X-UD3H-B3 motherboard delivers an appealing mix of features and affordability. I love the diversity of connections Gigabyte throws into the mix: four USB ports, two USB 3.0 ports, eSATA, FireWire, and HDMI and DisplayPort for all those times you won’t be using your discrete videocard. Three SATA 3Gb/s connections meet four SATA 6Gb/s on the motherboard itself, and Gigabyte makes sure to wire up its PCI connections in such a way that populating them all doesn’t disable any other connections on the mobo itself—a big problem with other inexpensive Z68 motherboards I considered. One thing you should note: The Z68X-UD3H-B3’s SATA ports are color-coded to indicate which of the ports are which. The gray ports are 6Gb/s SATA, but they are on the integrated Marvell controller. The two white Intel chipset-based 6Gb/s SATA ports (hint: use these for best performance!) are next to the two black 3Gb/s ports. Careful—you can’t mix-and-match RAIDs across controllers.

Enabling Intel’s Smart Response Technology is as easy as setting a single option within the system’s BIOS, installing Windows onto a non-SSD hard drive, and fl icking on SRT within a small Intel software utility.

The Big Picture
MY INITIAL GOAL with this build was to get a $1,500 PC that could run Crysis 2 at maxedout settings. So the cost is a little higher, and the frame rates are a little lower, but I’m confident that the PC I’ve fashioned best straddles the line between affordability and awesome gaming. And this is all without overclocking the system a single bit—I will leave the process of jacking up your CPU and GPU speeds to your capable hands. I just wanted to showcase the kind of out-of-the-box performance you can expect from such a rig.

Gaming-wise, you aren’t going to get much better than an ATI Radeon 6970 CrossFire setup unless you jump into the realm of tri-card packages or dual-GPU CrossFireX/quad-SLI configurations, and those don’t really bring the word “budget” to mind (which is also why I opted not to pack two Nvidia GTX 580 cards into this rig). While you might scoff at my decision to spend half this rig’s cost on its graphics, I think the benchmarks speak for themselves. It’s no small feat to max out the resolution and quality of the games I’ve picked, and my system delivered excellent frame rates on what I’d otherwise consider unthinkable playing situations.

Why’s that? It’s simple: I ran benchmarks that cranked antialiasing as high as it would possibly go on each game, a practice that’s all but unnecessary when you’re playing at a 2560x1600 resolution. You just aren’t going to need to maximize the visual-smoothing feature during common gaming. And as soon as you’ve turned that setting down a bit, boom—time to enjoy Crysis 2 in its raw, speedy glory. Wave goodbye to the 40 frames per second as reported by our maxed-out benchmark settings (including DirectX 11 and the high-resolution texture pack add-on; I’m not kidding when I say I tried to melt faces with this game).

Since every Build It invariably generates its share of “I could do that for cheaper” comments, here are some of the downgrades I’d consider if I really wanted to stick to a $1,500 price point. First off, there’s the case: You can always find a cheaper (albeit lamer) case, but it’s going to be a journey worthy of Indiana Jones to find an inexpensive one with USB 3.0 support that doesn’t stink. I might also drop down to ATI Radeon 6950 cards sprinkled with an overclock or a third-party firmware update that unlocks the cards’ shaders. If worse comes to worst, I could always drop the SSD and SRT. But that’s not very Maximum PC now, is it? Especially when all you’re left with is a fairly average, noneye- popping hard drive.

For a tad over $1,500, you now have a system that’s capable of rocking out on a monitor that costs just as much, if not more, than the system itself. God speed, gamer.

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