Using standard components, we put together attractive, mini-gaming PCs that pack more punch than Sony and Microsoft's next-gen offerings.
By James Pinnell on November 27, 2013 at 12:03 pm
Full disclosure: I’m the enthusiastic and (reasonably) happy owner of a Xbox One, picked up on a midnight launch like the gadget-crazy, games-obsessed sap I am.
I’ve always split my allegiances from a young age, flirting with the full breadth of the various, continued offerings from each major player throughout the last few decades. For me, it’s all about the games, and while the PC will always take pole position as the primary point of call (hell, I’m writing this on my desktop aren’t I?) every now and again there’s something I just had to have.
But it doesn’t mean that things are all roses, lollipops and enormous steins of golden German ale, however — the hiccups that come with a new console launch tend to put a bit of a dull edge on the party. So if you’re ready to take the leap away from your PS3, Wii or 360 – why not head towards the platform that has over two decades of backwards compatibility, free multiplayer, *incredible* indie support and an active, burgeoning marketplace of new titles? The master race, as it has become known, welcomes all newcomers.
About a month ago, my intrepid editor provided me with a task — create two PC systems that either matched or surpassed both new consoles in terms of power, storage, speed and flexibility, while still managing to stay within the price points of both. This was never going to be easy — both the Xbox One and the PS4 are loss leaders for their respective benefactors, relying on a combination of software sales and subscriptions to make up their bottom lines.
So with that in mind, I’ve taken a few liberties with pricing. The RRP of the Xbox One is $599, and includes all the respective cables and controller(s). I’ve also added 2 years of XBox LIVE Gold for $160, since it’s needed to play online and have access to apps like Internet Explorer, Netflix, YouTube and SBS on Demand. The PS4 escapes a little better, with an RRP of $549, I’ve also added 2 years of PS Plus for $140 but omitted the cost for the optional camera since it’s not required for play. That leaves me with $759 and $689 respectively. They also need to offer 1080P @ 60FPS at a decent visual level for at least 3 years.
Yikes. Let’s do this.
The Shared Components
When you’re doing a build on a budget, much of what’s available fits a specific purpose across speed, price and reliability. On that note, I focused the build differences around the big three — CPU, GPU and Motherboard. These were the three elements that most impact price, performance and longevity. As a result, the following are the components I added to both builds.
Western Digital Blue 500 GB SATA3 HDD Caviar Blue: $55
Steam games are compressed and don’t require 30-40 GB, meaning that space will not be a premium. You can replace it, add another, or expand with a NAS or external storage. Entirely your choice. Both the XB1 and PS4 use standard SATA drives, which is a pretty sound decision as high storage SSD components are still ridiculously expensive. I have a set of Caviar Blues in my NAS.
G Skill 8 GB Single DDR3 1333 PC10600: $85
GSkill RAM has built a great reputation for being well priced, reliable, fast and compatible. I didn’t have to think hard about this choice. 8 GB matches both consoles, and is what I would generally recommend for a medium spec gaming build.
Silverstone SG02B-F Black Micro ATX USB 3.0: $59
The SG02B is a nifty little Micro-ATX case that doesn’t look entirely out of place on, in, or around an entertainment unit. Sure, it doesn’t have the curves, matte or gloss of a finely crafted machine, but it fits all of the components inside a neat and tidy chassis that doesn’t look entirely out of place. There’s enough room for a few extra components for future performance or storage boosts and it’s been intelligently designed to maximise airflow in a smaller space. Plus, it’s black — just like each of the consoles. ACHIEVEMENT MET.
Big Ant 500W Power Supply: $39
The Big Ant is a basic PSU, no more so than the one in either console, although it has a silent fan which is really an added bonus.
Logitech Gamepad F310 USB: $21.80 OR Logitech MK120 Desktop Combo: $19 (Most expensive price added to total)
Almost every single novelty build I’ve read thus far has effectively cheated, and ignored the fact that a machine is useless without a basic input device. Neither set of devices is luxurious, but both of them provide the direct facility to control the games you wish to play. That said, the F310 is probably the only non-360 gamepad worth purchasing for playing anything from Big Picture, especially if you’re one of those insane people who actually like symmetric analog sticks (what is wrong with you?).
The Alt-Xbox: Less Cores, More Gertz
The Xbox One isn’t really all that exotic under the glossy black veneer of its frankly enormous, heavy set shell — a far cry from the curious, proprietary PowerPC architecture of its predecessor, the One features some reasonably off the shelf components.
The first is a custom hybrid of the AMD Jaguar architecture that was originally destined for small PCs, notebooks and tablets: four cores per unit, with a shared LVL 2 cache and a focus on lower power consumption and heat generation. Basically, it’s a SOAC — combining two of the Jaguar CPUs (8 cores running at 1.75Mhz) with a single 853Mhz (yep, you read that right) modified Radeon 7xxx series GPU.
The key here was to improve unified memory addressing and ensure that everything worked together as efficiently and stably as possible. Interestingly, the default configurations of Jaguar, and likely the versions the XB1 was based on (A6-6400/A8-6600) originally included 8xxx series Mobile GPUs. There’s also 8 GB of DDR3 Ram, with 5 GB dedicated to games. The One also runs a hybrid OS of Windows 8 and various Hyper-V processes, likely spawned from Server 2012.
Since what’s in the box is entirely proprietary, and very likely more powerful than what the bare specs assume, I will work with what is publically available. AMD’s cheaper price point also likely contributed to the selection of the company over Intel, and I would be stupid not to make the same choices if I’m to compete on price. I’m also not going to take the bait and go eight cores for the sake of an easy comparison - currently, more than four is largely pointless for most games on PC, many of which can’t handle the distribution of resources across multiple cores properly away, nor does Windows 8 really take advantage (yet).
Personally, a decent four-core CPU with stronger external graphics support and a higher clock speed would be a much better, more cost effective, option. After all, we’re looking to not only match the beast, but thoroughly beat it without throwing the price way out. Hell, we’ll even put it in a small black box too. Take that, Microsoft design team.
AMD FX-6300 Vishera 6 Core 3.5GHz (AM3+ Socket): $129
When it comes to a straight comparison of the FX-6300 and the CPU element of the highest end Jaguar architecture, there isn’t even a competition. The new Vishera FX processors are designed for pure performance, delivering benchmarks on par with current generation i5 and i7 processors, as opposed to something more on par with an i3 or high end celeron. We’re talking quadruple both the L1 and L2 cache, per core, 8 MB of L3 cache (which does not exist on Jaguar) as well as a 200% increase in overall clock speed. Then there’s the 30+ GB/s of overall processor-to-system bandwidth. Folks, we’re not even working in the same city, let alone ballpark. This CPU will be mopping the floor with HD gaming for a very long time.
ASUS M5A78L-M-USB3 (AM3+ Socket) (Micro ATX): $60
10 USB 2.0 ports, 2 USB 3 ports, 6 SATA slots, 4 DIMM slots. Micro ATX. Hyper Transport support. Powerful enough to keep everything working together.
GIGABYTE R927OC-2GD 2GB: $224
The selection of this particular video card was easily the hardest decision I made across this entire build, and you’ll notice I also chose it for the Anti-PS4 as well. The reasoning is far from exciting or creative — the R9 270 OC met (and exceeded) the requirements of being able to run both current and future titles on a bare minimum of 60FPS across a 1080P resolution. The upside is that, on most benchmarks, it well and truly exceeds it — this badboy cracks an average of 65.3 AFPS on Battlefield 4 (High/High), 67 AFPS on BioShock Infinite and 61.4 AFPS on GOD: Ghosts.
Windows 8.1 OEM: $98
Love it or hate it, Windows 8 dominates the desktop environment. Thankfully, 8.1 has made huge strides in clawing back the desktop, allowing almost all of Metro to be removed and strengthening many of the improvements to performance, file transfer, multi-monitor support and DirectX.
The Alt-PS4: Leaner and Cooler
Much of the discussion around the various differences between the Xbox One and the PS4 has been focused on which console is more powerful. The answer? The PS4 essentially, but this is due less to raw brute force power and more about the memory bandwidth and how the secondary custom chips are used to handle various functions. While the XBox One uses software to manage most of its multi-tasking, utilizing the various cores to handle various elements of the OS tree, the PS4 uses various parts of the chipset within its proprietary OS (nicknamed Orbis, based on FreeBSD 9) to do things like record video, upload/download and manage social networks.
On the hardware side, AMD again modified its Jaguar architecture to create a Sony Special, although it was made clear that the tech inside the PS4 was designed to be generically “more powerful” than the Xbox. Teardowns by Ars Technica and others have found that this tends to be more about how the various components of each system are utilised, rather than a clear straightforward victory – as the PS3 was generally considered to be leaps and bounds more gutsy than its competitors.
So to mix things up a bit, I’ve decided to drop AMD and go for a nVidia build for my Alt-PS4 – although I can sense already that this may be a little more likely to break the bank. That said, in honor of the Playstation’s various Open Source inclusions, I’ve gone with a SteamOS/Linux option here.
Intel Core i5-4440 3.1GHz Quad-Core Processor: $203
This i5 sits in my own rig and does an absolutely stellar job at bringing down any challenge that runs in front of it. Expensive, yes, but runs cooler than a Toyota Prius and still manages to triumph over the FX6300 in PassMark benchmarking with two less cores — if only by a 66 point shaving. This is on top of drastic power saving benefits from the new Haswell architecture, added (albeit, reasonably redundant) graphics support, although there is a lack of Hyper Threading.
Comparing the i5 to the CPU component of the PS4 is radically difficult — but the additional L3 cache benefits are noticeable as well as the addition, as with the Alt-XBox, of a standalone graphics card.
GIGABYTE GA-H81M-S2PH Micro ATX LGA1150 Motherboard: $62
There’s less support for additional RAM with only two slots and a cap-out of 16 GB, but there’s still 8 USB ports, 4 SATA connectors and a host of available expansion options. In this case, affordability triumphed over expansion and overclocking.
MSI GeForce GTX 660 2GB Video Card: $215
It’s aged like a fine wine, but last year’s effort still manages to pack an extraordinary punch. This card was able to stand tall against the original 7xxx Radeons and is still capable of smashing above 60 FPS on all of the latest and greatest titles. Like its Alt-XBox counterpart, we’ve got 2GB of Ram, a similar clock speed and the benefits of ShadowPlay alongside all the usual Geforce bells and whistles. A fordable competitor.
Ubuntu 13.10 OS: FREE
It’s Steam’s preferred partner in crime, and probably the most stable desktop operating system around. Until SteamOS graces our greeny blue earth, this is the next best thing to PC gaming on the cheap.
I can already hear what you are thinking — I failed! It’s $11 more expensive for the my alternative Xbox, and $48 for the PseudoStation 4. I’ll agree with you — on base hardware and software alone, it’s very tough to compete with these mass-produced, loss-leading behemoths. Even with a few years of subscription payments, (neither of which Windows nor Linux require, however), consoles drive a hard bargain.
Until you start looking at the second most important part of the whole equation — the games.
There are two ways to buy games on these new consoles. The first is to buy retail — average prices (outside of launch deals) range from $78 to $99, with the higher tier for digital downloads. Assassin’s Creed 4 and Battlefield 4, two in-demand titles that cross all platforms, cost $158 to buy from JB Hifi. On their digital download stores, it’s closer to $200!
Unlike Steam or Origin, there is limited support for activating offline purchases, thus no unofficial or third party marketplaces for cheaper copies of these titles, nor does their region free status draw benefits ordering from Amazon ($162.18) or bastion of cheapness OZGameShop ($144~).
To be fair, the PC does not usually bode well at retail either — both titles were either the same price or only a few dollars cheaper. OZGameShop was the exception, selling both for $109.98, a $31 saving over the console editions. But most PC gamers know that the savings are even better when you apply the codes. G2Play is one of the most well known, reliable and well stocked code retailers online — generally a good barometer of the code marketplace.
When their standard 5% discount code is applied (CDKEY5PRICES), both titles can be bought for $91.22 — a $53 discount for a legal, supported, and Origin/uPlay ready version of the title.
Frankly, the more games you buy, the larger the savings, and the more that can be poured into upgrades for your rig. The builds I provided were just examples of the possibilities — the raw RRP of each console does not represent how much you will spend on it, over time. I bought an extra controller, 1 year of XBL and 2 retail games, all with discounts and I still spent $850.
This doesn’t even take into account the free games that usually come with most graphics cards nowadays, nor the plethora of dirt cheap AAA games from fortnight-long steam sales, GOG.com, Humble Bundles and the metric ton of fantastic F2P titles like Neverwinter or Dota 2.
If you were on the fence, hopefully I’ve swayed you to dip your toes in the water. To enter the realm of PC Gaming is to play the long game — incremental upgrades spread over many years tend to be significantly cheaper and can offer a much more redeeming, flexible and fun experience, if you’re willing to take the jump.