We like big explosions, the bigger the better, in fact. We also like smoke effects, water
ripples, dappled lighting filtering through jungle canopies and creeping up silently behind people, before murdering them to death with our bare hands. But enough about our weekend pastimes. What we really, really like is the fantastic visuals DX10 gaming offers.
If you listen to most people, they will tell you that you need a quad-core, DDR3, triple-SLI setup to play Crysis. The sort of setup that requires you to re-mortgage your house to own. These people are wrong, and we’re going to show you why.
Would you believe us if we told you that it’s possible to build a DX10 capable rig for well under $400? Well, it’s true. Of course you can’t connect it to a 22-inch wide screen monitor without the frame rates dropping faster than Paris Hilton’s panties, but if you’re on that tight a budget, a big monitor is probably the least of your concerns.
Whenever you work to such a tight budget, something has to give and this project will be no exception. We need to prioritize in certain areas, while others can be largely ignored. Yes, a case is important to stop your gear being an untidy heap of electronics on the floor, but really you just need a metal box to screw things onto. Optical drives are dirt cheap, and with memory stick capacities being what they are, hardly anyone burns DVDs, so we only need a DVD ROM. It also means no quad-core and no SLi. But dual-core chips are surprisingly cheap, and we’ll see just how well a budget DX10 card performs. Don’t forget that if you have any parts available from an existing PC, such as cases and drives, you can reuse them and put the money towards a higher-end CPU or graphics card.
Quad-core might get all the attention, but in all honesty, it literally is a load of hot air. Windows XP was never designed with multiple CPUs in mind and even Vista doesn’t take full advantage of multiple cores. Add this to the fact that many games are still not coded for quad-core, then the advantages are limited. Sure, a quad-core CPU will generally run apps faster than a dual-core CPU, but it certainly won’t be twice as fast.
Dual-core chips are the norm now, and although Intel has made great strides with the Core2 Duo platform, they are not the cheapest of chips. AMD was, of course, the first to bring us dual-core CPUs, and it has a healthy range of CPUs to choose from. While AMD might be in the process of being mugged down a dark alley by Intel on the performance front, when it comes to the budget-end of the spectrum, things are less clear-cut. In addition, with the release of Phenom, many of AMD’s older chips are being slashed in price. A few months ago, it was no contest; Intel would have been the first choice, no matter what your budget. Thankfully, the market never stands still and at this point in time, some AMD chips offer exceedingly good value for money.
If we were to spend around a third of our budget on the CPU, then Intel’s dual-core l.8GHz Pentium D E2160, at $l00 would be a good choice. However, for $30 less, you can buy an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4400+, which runs at 2.3GHz. In performance terms, the AMD chip is slightly ahead of the E2160 in most areas, and consuming only 65W is going to run cooler, as well as use less power. The Athlon also has twice the Li cache of the Pentium, which gives it another advantage. The only area the Athlon will really fall down is in video encoding, but unless you’re intending to rip lots of DVDs, it’s not particularly a huge issue. Spend another $20 and you can pick up the Athlon 64 X2 4800+, running at 2.5GHz for $90. As all these CPUs are boxed retail products, you don’t need to worry about buying a cooler either, as one is supplied.
If the CPU is the brain of your PC, then the motherboard is the body, and everyone wants the best body they can get. However, when you spend less than $l20, you aren’t going to get the best features. On the other hand, you don’t want to go for a $30 board, which will hamper your CPU and graphics card. The $70 mark seems to be a good starting point. As you may have noticed, while Intel tends to keep one socket for some time, AMD changes sockets more often than Jacob Zuma appears in court. So, we want something with a little future proofing, which leaves us with the AM2+ socket. There are a couple of decent boards that fit the bill, the Asus M2N- MX SE Plus and the Abit A-N68SV both
They are both well priced, and should you suddenly find a roll of $100 notes stuffed down the back of the sofa, will take the latest AMD Phenom CPUs. Okay, you don’t get SLI, and the chipsets may lack some of the top-end features, but it’s what’s supported that counts.
Out of the two boards, the Abit A-N68SV has the better chipset and is the one we decided to use. The AM2+ socket enables us to use both the older AM2 and newer AM2+ chips. The mobo chipset is the nForce 630a, which while not the latest generation, is more than sufficient It supports dual-channel memory (533/667800MHz), 3GB SATA II including RAID 0,1 and 5 and has onboard, 5.1 HD surround sound. As a micro-ATX board, there’s only one PCI-e slot for graphics, but there are two PC I slots for any other cards you may want to add. The board does have integrated DirectX 9 graphics, courtesy of the GeForce 7025 chipset, but that’s easy enough to turn off in the BIOS. With four USB ports on the back plate, and the option to connect six more, you’re not short of connectivity either.
If there’s one thing that’ll start a punch-up, it’s a debate about which brand of graphics card is best. Over the years the balance has swung from one to the other, sometimes NVIDIA has the best cards, sometimes it’s ATI (now AMD). Just like Intel and AMD, both companies had a product that does the basic job, the real difference tends to be in performance or features at a certain price point. Having said that, NVIDIA has been giving ATI a bit of a kicking in the last few years, and has carpet bombed the market with a vast array of models, from cheap integrated graphics to wallet-busting, discrete power-houses. If we look at the budget-end of the range, then NVIDIA has more to offer.
As a general rule of thumb, better tends to be more expensive, but you can get a surprisingly good card without breaking the bank. One of the best cards for your money is, of course, the 8800GT, but at $250 this is way beyond our budget. Reducing our expectations a little, we find the 8400GS is an extremely pleasing $50. Now while it’s true that this is a DX10 capable card, let’s be a little realistic here. At one sixth the price of the 8800GT, you sure ain’t going to be playing Crysis on a 24-inch widescreen monitor, with all the effects turned on. Then again, that’s a struggle for some SLI setups. However, it should be able to run a reasonable resoultion of 1024×768, without too many hiccups.
Spend a few dollars more, and you have the choice of the 8500GT at around $80, or if you really want to splash out, there’s the 8600GT for $l00. At each level you will get better performance, but you need to keep your expectations in check.
Memory prices have tumbled recently and the old rule applies: buy as much as
you can afford. While the biggest, baddest games rigs on sale might all be using DDR3, at the moment, it’s massively over-priced for the performance gain. DDR2 still rules the roost and it’s absolutely dirt cheap. If you’re running XP you could probably get away with 1GB, but we’d recommend 2GB for best performance. If you’re unlucky enough to be running Vista, then 2GB is essential. If your motherboard supports dual channel, and most of them do, then buying two 1GB sticks will give you better performance than a single 2GB stick.
Forget all the gimmicks, such as heatsinks and flashing lights, and get the fastest memory your budget can stand, and which your motherboard supports. With this system we’ve gone for DDR5300 (667MHz), which can be picked up for just over $25 per 1GB stick. It’s always been said that the more memory you fit, the better, which while true when prices were high, is no longer the case. If you are running a 32-bit version of Windows, then the maximum amount of memory that Windows can address is around 35GB. If you buy 4GB, you’re wasting your money. However, the 64-bit versions of Windows can use the full 4GB and more, but if you go down this path you will probably find yourself in a world of driver incompatibility pain, which we wouldn’t wish on anyone.
Hard Drive & Optical Drive
Of course, playing lots of games means you need something to install them with, because despite Valve’s best efforts, not everything is available through Steam (yet). A hard drive will also be handy. Despite Blu-ray winning the HD war, no one actually cares. If you want to fit a HD drive to your PC, then you are clearly mentally challenged. Not only are they over-priced, few people are actually going to watch HD movies on a piddly little computer screen, when there’s a large HD TV in the living room. In addition, memory sticks have such large capacities, that burning DVDs is pretty pointless these days, although CDs do still have their uses. So, we’ve chosen a DVD-ROM drive that will read, but not record DVDs and which will happily burn every CD format. Of course, this had nothing to do with the price being a measly $25. If you really need DVD writing capabilities, then you can get this by spending just $5 more.
If you read the Hard Drive Round-up last issue, you would have seen that in terms of performance, many SATA II drives are pretty even. Even if you pick a slow drive, it won’t affect your actual game play. It will just slow down the loading times a tad, but that’s hardly a major issue. We reckon Samsung are among the most reliable drives, and although they normally command a premium, you can pick up this 250GB drive for well under $70, which is an absolute bargain.
Case & PSU
If you want a well-designed case, with plenty of fans, numerous ports and plenty of up-gradability, then it’s easily possible to spend more than our entire budget on such a beast. Likewise, if you want a 1KwPSU that supports things like SLI, then it’s going to cost a fair amount of cash. At the other end of the spectrum is the all-in-one case and PSU deal. We found one for just $30, which includes a 400WPSU. This may not sound like a lot of power, but it’s more than enough to run our setup.
When spending such a small amount of money on a case, you’d expect it to be quite horrific, but it’s surprisingly well featured. It has a matt-black finish, which helps on the looks front, and the front panel has USB and audio ports. Most of the internals can be fitted without much hassle. Sure, it isn’t the best-looking or quietest case we’ve ever seen, but for this sort of money, we’re not complaining.
As the most basic DX10 card available from NVIDIA, it comes as no surprise that the performance of the 8400 is not the best. However, at $50 it still does pretty well, as long as you keep the resolution realistic. Okay, not everyone wants to play at 800×600, or even 1024×768, but then you shouldn’t be so cheap, should you? Surprisingly, Crysis gave some of the best results, although BioShock achieves the best framerates of all. Using the Optimal settings button, Crysis did set all the detail level to low, but the results still looked pretty good.
However, if you’re going to be realistic about playing DirectX10 games, then you are going to have to find a little more money in your budget. Hooking the 9600GT up to our budget CPU worked absolute miracles, and at around $l60 extra is an absolute steal. Not only could we turn the detail right up, but we could run a higher resolution and still get twice the framerates of the 8400GS. Surprisingly, adding a high-end quad-core CPU doesn’t give much of an increase, with either the 8400 or 9600GT. In conjunction with the 8400Gs, the Phemom 9550 does give you some extra fps over the Athlon X2 4400+, but with when it comes to the 9600GT, the difference over the 4400+ setup is marginal.
So, if you want the best performance, and can spend a little extra, buying the 9600GT is the logical choice. You know it makes sense.