Sunday, October 9, 2016

PC Gaming VS. Console Gaming / My $1000 HTPC Build for 2016

The age old debate.

Hey all, Nocturnal Gamer here, I know it's been a while and I'm doing fine thank you. You know over the past year I've had the displeasure of seeing all manner of video commentary on YouTube trying to sell people on the idea that, "you too can be a PC gamer", and "you can build a PC for under $500 that will outperform a console". Now I'm not trying to say that these statements aren't true, however as I looked at these videos and the subsequent machines that ended up getting built, I had to ask myself...would (I) be happy with a PC like this, or would (I) rather just stay with my console?

Many of the reviews do indeed prove their superficial point, if ever so scarcely. Yes, you can indeed build a better mousetrap...but when all's said and done the real question should be "should you". Not to mention after you do are you really going to be happy with what a 400-500 dollar PC is going to provide? Instead of just simply posing this question to my audience this time I decided to undertake the experiment myself as I just happen to be in the market for a new PC.   
The only time I'm happy to be in the mall...

So armed with my smartphone (for online purchases), as well as my car (to drive to my local MicroCenter), I was off to buy and build my next "Great Gaming PC". OK, so with that said let's lay out the parameters for this experiment...I mean purchase. First off, let me premise this by saying, I'm not trying to necessarily prove a point, or win anyone over one way or another. At the end of the day I (do need a new PC). My question is this, for a hardcore gamer like myself how much PC is enough? What are the minimum specs that will enable me to have an awesome time gaming, video editing, and just simply using my PC.

Yes folks, my wife and I are getting a little "long in the tooth".
That said, I don't have a lot of $$$ to spend so this experiment will bear fruit as I must keep my spending to a negligible amount. I am a college grad with a degree in computer science, that said, I always instruct novice builders to "build out from the PSU". You see what I have done for years, and it's never done me wrong by the way, is to first figure out what type of PSU I am going to need. How this is done is by first going to a handy, dandy little site by the name of PSU Calculator. It is here that you can take the list of hardware that you have no doubt amassed, and then enter it in here. 
Just select the hardware from the drop downs and it's all pretty straightforward.

The end result will be the approximate amount of wattage that you will need in order to run your next killer PC. Here is the results of my most recent build.
The PSU calculator is a must have for anyone building a modern PC.

This is one of the oldest tricks in the book when it comes to system building, and the reason why I never mess up when it comes to providing my customers with just the right amount of power. When it comes to the discussion of how much power you should have at your disposal as a general rule of thumb, you should have the power necessary to run your PC plus an extra 150-200 watts. I know there are people who would argue that, however I bet you they haven't been building / repairing PC's for the last 25 years (enough said).

So which PSU should you buy? This can be a really confusing topic however armed with the information provided to you by the the PSU calculator you should have no issues. Simply buy the PSU that is recommended, if for some reason however that particular unit isn't available then here are some tips. 

1. I'm not going to get into the specifics because 100 other people already have all over the net, just suffice it to say when looking for a PSU you want to buy one with a (single 12v rail), multiple 12v rails can be very problematic especially for first time builders. 

2. You're going to want a PSU with some type of 80+ rating, they will usually say 80+, 80+ Bronze, Silver, Gold and the ever coveted Platinum. The 80+ classification is a measure of how efficient the PSU in question is, the higher the rating, the more efficient the power supply...and the more expensive!  

3. Modular, Semi-Modular & Non-Modular PSU's: At the end of the day it really doesn't matter which one of these you get. It all comes down to preference, and how much money you have to spend. Other than the ability to reduce clutter inside your PC by eliminating unnecessary wires, modular PSU's don't provide any other benefits. That said I am in NO WAY trying to imply that you shouldn't get one, reducing clutter inside your rig will allow for better air flow, which will in turn give you lower temps. This will be of paramount importance if you are (like me) building a mini-itx PC with little space for your components to breath. As a rule you should purchase from one of these manufacturers: EVGA, Corsair, Thermaltake, Antec, Silverstone etc., there are many others out there worthy of note but if you get your hands on one of these you'll be good to go!

Ok, so now that we have covered the PSU and how to purchase a quality unit let's now talk about CPU's, once again I'm not here to get sucked into the age old debate of who is better, Intel or AMD. At the end of the day both manufacturers do a fine job, with AMD recently making some serious gains in the world of processor design / performance. That said, my advice to you would be to simply buy what your wallet can afford...just that simple. Stop listening to a bunch of (overprivileged) jerk-offs trying to tell you how to spend your hard earned $$$!   

With that said I am, and always will be an AMD guy. AMD hardware is reasonably priced, and what you'll end up with is a system that might not break any world records, but will give you rock solid performance across the board. With that in mind I chose to go with an AMD A10 APU, specifically the 7870k. With a TDP of 95w it's not the most efficient processor but it's not the worst either. I could have opted for the 7860k with a 65w TDP however I would have taken a sizable hit when it comes to performance. Finally, with the APU I can use the FM2+ socket which supports mini-itx motherboards (a must for this build).

Next comes the motherboard, for the purpose of this build I needed a mini-itx board and I needed it to have built in WiFi and bluetooth (what's the point of building one without it). That said there aren't a large number of (quality) boards for AMD in the mini-itx form factor. With that said two that do come to mind are the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI and the ASRock A88M-ITX/ac FM2+ mITX both boards are competent mini-itx motherboards which will allow for some performance computing, and even leave some room for a little overclocking.

You would be fine with either of these boards, that said Gigabyte has a much better track record when it comes to QC.

Next thing you should be thinking about is system memory, unlike many so called PC builders I actually check compatibility between different memory modules. Nothing could be more frustrating than getting your memory in the mail only to find out that it's not compatible with your motherboard. With that I settled on memory by PNY and their Anarchy line of performance memory. Those of you who aren't aware this manufacturer has been around pretty much since the beginning. They make really good, stable memory that is generally compatible with a large range of AMD and Intel boards. Pricing is also very competitive and I picked up a 16GB DDR3 2400mhz kit for under 70 dollars.

 OK now onto storage, an SSD is practically a must have for a system like this, with that in mind I was fortunate to have a 480GB SSD lying around. But for the sake of being transparent I will let you know that it would cost you around $100 to pick this up. For years I actually refused to buy an SSD due to the fact that they were just too expensive for what you ended up getting. Nowadays however prices have dropped to very reasonable levels and a 480GB SSD is truly a must have. Especially if you're building a gaming rig. OCZ and their Trion 150 series SSD are quality drives and boast some impressive read / write speeds. 

You are also going to need a HDD for all your storage needs and if you don't already have one of these laying around you can get one from Amazon for around 32 dollars.

Ahh the GPU, the moment many of you have been waiting for! I already stated "I'm an AMD GUY" so it should come as no surprise that I went with the RX 470 4GB, or more specifically the MSI variant. My experience with these cards over the years has been nothing but an absolute pleasure. Whether you want to overclock, or simply run the card stock, you will get a quiet card that just does what it's supposed to do...plain and simple. The built in OC setting also ensures you that you can push a little bit more out of these over achievers without running the risk of damaging your expensive investment. You also don't need to worry about cooling as this card comes with the legendary zero frozer cooling solution.

Update: I have decided to return this card and opt for the XFX Radeon RX 480 8GB, it will only set me back an additional $49.99 USD and will provide me with the type of performance that will allow me to continue to game with this rig easily for the next 3 years. I'm in no way trying to say that the RX 470 would not allow for this as well, but I wanted just a bit more performance. The type which will allow me to literally MAX out all my games without issue, the 470 got me close but the 480 totally gets the job done and will continue to for the next 3+ years!

 As far as the case is concerned, you go with what you like. Just make sure you can keep the hardware inside cool. For this I went with the CoolerMaster 130 Elite. It's priced right and has enough features to satisfy a picky builder like myself.

I'm not going to get into keyboards and mice, just get what you like and can afford. In my case they needed to be wireless. I also found a set of bluetooth headphones to finish up my wireless setup.

My display is being handled by my Samsung 5 series smart TV which I picked up from my local pawn shop (new in the box) FOR $300 USD. A steal when you take into consideration it sells for around $500 new!

And to finish this build off we go back to the power supply, I found a refurbished 500w PSU from Corsair the CX500m (semi-modular) PSU. I picked this up from MicroCenter for $35! 

When all was said and done the build ran me about $1060, about $360 more than I wanted to spend but remember my original statement...I wanted a PC I could be happy with. So realistically a 400-500 dollar PC is not going to get the job done. In all reality you could (basically) build the same PC minus a few niceties that I added in for like 700 dollars.That said PC's are still far more superior than a console will ever be. And with the revelation of Sony and Microsoft gearing up to charge you even more money for (upgraded) versions of their current devices at a $300 additional price tag makes NOW the very best time to tell them to take those under performing pieces of junk and stick them where the sun don't shine! 

Once you factor in the extra 300 on top of the 400-500 you originally spent now you've invested 700-800 dollars in a subpar console. In closing NO, you can't build a gaming PC for 400-500 dollars that you will actually be happy with. However for around 600-700 you most definitely can, and take it from me, you will be MUCH happier with the decision to do so!    

Update 01: 10/05/2016
I had to end up adding a CORSAIR H55 water cooler as the temps in this case became higher than I would have liked. I kind of expected this to be an issue but since the addition of this cooler it has been nothing but a pleasure to use this PC. It is every bit a console killer PC! 

Update 02: 10/23/2016
Ok, I just got through an issue with the PC; it kept shutting down during (intense) gaming sessions playing "The Witcher 3" & "Grim Dawn". After pulling my hair out for a few days I finally found my culprit...memory! My PNY Anarchy memory @ 2400MHz was not "playing well" with the motherboard. A simple fix as I turned down the speed to 1600MHz. After that I've had no more issues however, I want to test for a few more days just to make sure. That said, I still love this board, it is my strong opinion that the Gigabyte GA-F2A88XN-WIFI  is still the best option if you want to build an AMD based FM2+ ITX PC. And yes, I did check for compatibility however it was only guaranteed to run at the 1600MHz speed, a calculated risk that I was willing to take. I don't actually NEED 2400MHz speeds anyway as I am running this APU with a DGPU (dedicated graphics card). 

Update 03: 10/30/2016
Ok, I just returned my RX 470 4GB for the RX 480 8GB, I was planning on doing this from the start as the card was out of stock when I first built the PC. I am really happy with my decision to do it and the performance boost I got is killer! If you're in the market for a new GPU and don't want to spend a ton of $$$ GET THIS CARD! You wont regret it!