Which Platform Is Best for Building a Budget Gaming PC? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Where do you start with a budget gaming PC build? It seems like, for many builders, one of the first parts to pick, more than a CPU, is a system board. But picking that means choosing a platform, which then dictates your CPU options, your RAM options, your SSD / HDD options... a great deal depends on this choice. So, for budget gaming, what's the right choice?
What does budget gaming mean?
This is a really important thing to define because different price points mean different approaches to solving the same sort of problem. In general when I talk about budget builds I'm talking about:
- Under $1,000 USD
- Plays games on high / ultra setting at 1080p resolution
- Will last a user 3-5 years with minimal maintenance or upgrade
Some people may disagree with that for a definition but to me, the important thing about budget building isn't to race to the bottom of the cheapest thing you can possibly build. Cheap systems have problems and fail... they cost you more over the life of the system. Budget oriented systems that focus on high value, components that will last and a reasonable amount of headroom to meet future needs result in spending less money over the life of a system.
There's one other disclaimer I need to mention here: Local market conditions can move the winning platform significantly. As an example, in the US, I can buy a FM2+ Athlon X4 860K for about the same price as a Pentium G3258. In India, the Athlon X4 860K costs almost as much as an i3 which really shifts the value proposition. In the UK, AM3+ system boards are frequently available at better prices than FM2+ boards and again, this changes the equation. Because the readership on Quora is global, I don't think I can declare a winner that's universal, but rather I'd like to talk about pros and cons so that you the consumer / builder can find what works for you.
With that said, let's dive in:
Platform Round up: Who are the players and what are the pros and cons?
We're living in an odd moment right now where we have several different platforms competing for our attention. Intel is supporting both Socket LGA 1150 systems for 4th and 5th generation processors, and Socket LGA 1151 systems for 6th generation chips. Delays in getting Broadwell to market have put them in this position where they're still actually producing 5th gen processors that are available for last year's platforms. Meanwhile, AMD has heaped all of their R&D into One Socket to Rule Them All with AM4 releasing later this year which means that we've got some AMD platforms like AM3+ which have been hanging out for longer than they usually would, and write downs of those older platforms have moved things that were once enthusiast grade into the budget space.
It means a lot of platforms to choose from and all of them have benefits and trade offs.
I like FM2+. It's actually one of my go-to platforms when I need to deliver customer builds under $800. It's also AMD's most up to date platform having launched mid 2014.
- The Athlon X4 860K is noteworthy all by itself. As I mentioned above, in the US, this chip sells for Pentium pricing (frequently around $70 USD) but truthfully it delivers i3 like performance. Important for budget gamers: Games like Far Cry 4 that require more than 2 execution threads will run on this chip while they won't run on things like a Pentium G3258.
- Up to date system boards. FM2+ is the only AMD platform that currently supports PCIe 3.0 and while that's not critical at the moment, it means that FM2+ users can leverage things like PCIe SSDs to greater effect and still have bandwidth for their GPUs. This isn't usually a concern for the budget builder but remember what I said about a system lasting for 3-5 years.
- CPUs on this platform generally have a lower TDP than AMD's other chips so we need less robust cooling solutions and these are frequently well suited to MicroATX builds where smaller enclosures can hamper heat dissipation from more powerful CPUs.
- Exceptionally limited upgrade options for the CPU. The truth is, AMD's more expensive APUs don't actually give any better CPU performance than the $70 Athlon. Since gaming builds will always have a discrete graphics card, there's literally nothing to upgrade to. If your other uses of the computer are CPU intensive at all, this is a real dud.
This is one of my least favorite platforms in part because it's also the oldest. AMD's FX line is plagued with problems and while the real solution to many of them is for AMD to get Zen out the door, AMD has had to continue to push out bandaids for this platform to stay in this market place. I tend to recommend AM3+ systems to people who are only looking for 2-3 years of use out of the system before replacing it almost entirely.
- Inexpensive performance CPUs. CPUs like the AMD FX-6300 retail for under $100 in the US and will blow any comparably priced Intel chip out of the water for pure CPU performance.
- More upgradeability than FM2+. A budget build might start out on an FX-6300 (or even FX-4300) and still have upgrade options further down the road to things like an FX-8350 or even a FX-9590 (depending on the board.)
- Age. Because of it's age, a majority of AM3+ boards don't support PCIe 3.0. While AIB partners like Asus, MSI and Gigabyte have refreshed AM3+ boards to have features like USB 3.1 and M.2, the M.2 support is capped at PCIe 2.0 x2 speeds and it puts in a more difficult spot if our upgrade plans involve SLI with multiple Nvidia GPUs.
- Hotter CPUs. The AMD FX line runs hot. Hotter than just about any Intel chip you'd buy, and hotter in general than the FM2+ chips you'd get from AMD. AMD has refreshed the line with a low-power version of many of these chips, my personal favorite being the FX-8320E but these chips sacrifice performance to get their temperatures in line.
- More power use. These chips aren't just hotter, they use more electricity. Your savings in system build costs can, depending on your use, vanish entirely into your electric bill over the life of the system.
Intel LGA 1150
Intel's latest round of systems for socket LGA 1150 launched around the same time as AMD's FM2+ series. It features the first implementations of M.2 and SATA Express, and supports Intel's overclocking enthusiast targeted "Devil's Canyon" refresh of Hasswell chips. I don't tend to reach for these in budget oriented builds often because in the market I'm in, I can usually do better with AMD systems in the budget space, but because it's one generation back, retailers may be motivated to clear inventory of older product and you can find some amazing sales.
- Modern and reasonably up to date. We get PCIe 3.0 support, USB 3.1 support, virtually all the goodies we'd want.
- The upgrade path is fairly good. Intel is still producing some Broadwell socket LGA 1150 chips but even Intel's previous flagship consumer chip the i7-4790K is still likely to be relevant for quite a while.
- One generation back from current, you may get good sales.
- Higher cost of materials. The budget chip of yesteryear, the Pentium G3258 (also called the Pentium K or the Pentium Anniversary Edition) is rapidly fading from favor as games require more than 2 execution threads to run. That means we're looking at more expensive CPUs to get access to all of the recent games me way want. Not only that, but system boards on this platform tend to be more expensive than the AMD boards we'd bee looking at to get all of the same features that we would get on a budget AMD board.
- The M.2 implementation is inconsistent. M.2 was required for Z97 and H97 system boards but not every board implemented it with PCIe 3.0 x4 so you need to read between the lines.
Intel LGA 1151 (Skylake)
This is one of the newest platforms I'm going to touch on. It features Intel's current generation of CPU, support for DDR4 and, on Z170, 4 extra PCIe 3.0 lanes (total of 20) for GPUs + M.2 support. Costs however, make it difficult for me to recommend this to budget builders.
- Newest platform with all the features.
- Z170 has extra PCIe lanes for more expandability
- It's expensive. I mean, really expensive. The flagship chip for this platform, the i7-6700K has shot up in price because availability is low and currently in some markets is selling for a higher price than the i7-5820K that marks the entry point into Intel's current premium X99 platform. Additionally, some Skylake CPUs ship without a stock cooler so your costs to implement are even higher. In addition to expensive CPUs the boards are more expensive, and DDR4 RAM is more expensive per GB than DDR3.
- None of the goodies really help budget gamers. DDR4 RAM doesn't deliver a performance advantage (it consumes less power and modules can be more dense... neither of which matter much to the budget builder.) M.2 support is nice in theory for the life of the system but M.2 drives like Samsung's Evo 950 Pro are tremendously more expensive than the SATA III SSDs that many builders are familiar with. In short, there are lots of goodies here but you have to spend enough to have them that it moves you out of the budget world.
Intel C232 Xeon Systems
If you've managed to hang with me this far, I wanted to share something that is, depending on where you live, an amazingly odd development in response to the tremendous expense of Intel's consumer oriented Skylake chips. Why don't we build a gaming rig with Skylake Xeon E3s?
What you're looking at is the Asus E3 Pro Gaming, a system board developed specifically to bring Xeon horsepower to the gaming enthusiast. And Asus isn't the only one cranking out these boards.
Demand for Skylake CPUs has exceeded supply leading to some wonky prices that pull Skylake out of the budget market but many gamers have found that Intel's Skylake Xeon E3s produce all the horsepower they need at a lower cost. Building on a server or workstation board would negate the savings but board manufacturers have stepped in to fill that gap. The board pictured above launched in the UK for £118, in the US for $145. Paired with a Xeon E3 1220 V5, many gamers are finding that they get a better bang for the buck in a gaming system than they would have on Intel's more mainstream platforms.
So which one is right for you?
I wish I could say there was a single right answer I could heartily recommend. The truth is, there's no perfect one size fits all answer. I really like FM2+ and I use it frequently for ultra-budget solutions but if you live somewhere that you can get an i3 cheaper than an Athlon X4 860K it just doesn't make as much sense. C232 and Z170 are comparably expensive in some places and in others you can save significantly by grabbing a Xeon. Some people don't need a system to last for five years and are perfectly happy with an AMD AM3+ system because it's the best bang for the buck today.
My hope is that the guide above gives you an idea what each of these platforms has to offer and where they all come up a bit short. If the cons I've listed for any of these feel like exceptional pain points, give that platform a pass. If the pros feel compelling and the cons don't seem like a big deal then jump in with both feet.
In PC building there isn't a singular right answer but instead a plethora of choices which have pros and cons, and different things will matter to different people. Find the one that works for you.