Gaming Machine: Part the First

I have decided to build myself a gaming computer.

This decision was spurred on by three factors: (1) I want to know what happens in StarCraft 2, and my current computer can’t run it, (2) I want to play Skyrim, and my current computer would probably die a horrible death before messily regurgitating that disc, and (3) I don’t want to pay a ton of money.

It’s been interesting to discover that, with the ability for me to decide exactly what goes into my computer and what doesn’t, I can get a good performance machine without spending more than about $1000 on the PC hardware. This article has been extremely helpful as an example.

For example, it seems pretty clear that Intel processors dominate the performance market. Lots of commercial gaming or performance PCs are all racing along on Intel Core i7 CPUs, which run up to $1000 by themselves – but everything I’ve read suggests that a $210 Core i5-2500 is superb for gaming and that anything more expensive is way beyond the point of diminishing returns in terms of cost for performance. The resulting price difference between the Core i5 and the i7  from a commercial gaming system can then go towards a higher-power graphics card, which has much more of an impact on game performance.

Of course, to balance out the relatively easy decision on the CPU, graphics cards seem like much more of a muddle. I’m going for a gaming card, but I decided not to look at the absolute top-tier simply because those cards are $600 plus. Mostly, I’m looking at the GeForce GTX 570 and the Radeon 6970. It seems like neither Nvidia nor ATI is a clear brand leader, but the GTX 570 edges out the Radeon in performance just a bit. When I started this project a few weeks ago, I was disappointed to see that both those cards are members of series that are just over a year old at this point – meaning that it’s likely that there will be new cards coming out soon. In other words: now is not the time when a graphics card consumer is in the best buying position. ATI proved my point just recently by announcing the Radeon 7970, which is their new high-end card. It’s above my target price point, sadly – but the still-rumored 7950 would be just about perfect for me if it had been announced at the same time. Darn!

However, something that makes the graphics-card situation particularly interesting to me is that, since the last time I was looking at computer components, the video card manufacturers developed technologies to allow similar graphics cards to work in parallel. I was interested to find that, on benchmarks, the gain of adding a second card can be up to almost an additional 80% of graphics power. I didn’t expect that to be an additional 100%, but neither did I expect it to be much more than, say, 30-50%. So I have an interesting possibility: I could get one graphics card now, and if this year’s releases blow it out of the water, I can buy a second one at a discounted price and boost my system performance substantially.

Other things are less important to me: The case isn’t a big deal as long as it holds all my stuff. I know about how much RAM I want, but I don’t want to fill all my DIMMs up so I can upgrade later if I desire. The game with motherboards seems to be making sure the board supports all the other components, and the power supply should have well more than enough capacity to handle everything else. I’ve seen articles that benchmark different motherboards or RAM packages, but they have such a tiny effect compared to the processor and graphics card that I’m not worried about that. (I’m also not thinking of overclocking, which is where more of the RAM and motherboard issues seem to matter.) The one thing that I keep finding puzzling is that RAM splits pretty neatly into “budget” vs. “high-end” memory – but I struggle to find what sort of impact that has, other than dramatically designed heat sinks on the high-end stuff, that makes those DIMMs look like Klingon weaponry. That seems like a cosmetic thing to me, but many users and reviews seem to prefer the high-end stuff without explaining too much about why.

I’m looking forward to piecing everything together. For one thing, I like the idea of assembling all the components. But for another, it seems like the world of computer games is a more lively forum for science fiction plots than movies and TV, and I want to get in on that.

Now if only Star Wars: The Old Republic wasn’t an MMO…I know it will all devolve into repetitive dungeon raids, but it just looks so awesome

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4 Responses to Gaming Machine: Part the First

  1. Lee says:

    The thing about upgrading now, before the 2012 releases, is that a lot of the tech is still full price despite being a year old. If you can wait ’til April, the new Ivy Bridge CPUs will replace the 2nd gen Sandy Bridge CPUs as the latest-and-greatest (top-line versions have already been released). So prices should drop on the Sandy Bridge units (and more mainstream LGA2011 socket motherboards should be released too). That being said, I find that the 2nd gen Sandy Bridge quad-core CPUs are perfectly adequate for gaming (e.g. ST-TOR plays fine on max settings & HD resolution with my i5 2500K and nVidia GTX 560 Ti…ST-TOR was designed to be scaled to different system specs, so it can play on older and/or less robust hardware with game settings cranked down). I’m less clear on when the next-gen cards will be released, and manufacturers seem be re-releasing overclocked versions of the early-2011 crop of cards, so I don’t know if that means a longer wait for new hardware.

  2. Wes says:

    My rig sports the Sandy Bridge 2500K, and a NVidia 560Ti SOC and I am able to play Skyrim maxed out on my 22″ monitor (although I would avoid the SOC GPUs by Gigabyte as mine has been an unstable nightmare. Have RMA’d it twice already).

    Don’t sweat the higher end RAM. It’s only good for the faster timings, and for overclocking which you stated you are not interested in. The faster timings will deliver a smidgeon faster machine, but not anything you would notice normally.

    As for something new being released… you will never escape that treadmill. Just buy what you think is best, and don’t worry about it until it’s time to upgrade or build a new machine.

    Buy your hardware from Newegg.com. Best computer site ever, and I have shopped from a lot.

    And most important of all… create a Steam account. Steam is one of the best things ever to happen to computer gaming, and one of the worst things for my wallet. Wait until you see one of their large sales where most of the game catalog is on sale from 25% up to 75% off. There is nothing like buying Far Cry 2 for 5 bucks or Portal 2 for 10 bucks.

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