We've often talked amongst ourselves about what the difference is between a super high-end system and one that's much more affordable, especially for gaming. One of the major things we've spoken of when reviewing graphics cards is that the speed and capabilities of the processor doesn't make that much difference when compared to the abilities of the card.
Obviously if you're going to spend your life editing video or doing an independent version of a Pixar film then you'll need all the power that you can get your hands on. But what if you just want to have a standard PC and use it for standard things, with the occasional game thrown in?
One of the great little processors we've reviewed in recent months was the Intel i3 and so having a good look around and talking to some of the companies who are kind enough to keep in contact with us, we discovered that Aria have a pre-overclocked bundle that's hugely popular and just £220, pre-built too.
So we've got a good base to work from and could add enough bits and bobs to put together what we feel would be a superb gaming rig for around £380, leaving us about £220 to buy a graphics card and still get under budget. Before we move on to what we've chosen, let's look at the basis for our sub-£600 gaming system.
The Main Platform
The foundation for our system is the Aria Gladiator i3 540 pre-overclocked and pre-built system bundle. For only £220 you get the following parts :
• Intel® Core™ i3-540 Dual Core CPU - Overclocked @ 4.20GHz
• 4GB Mushkin Silverline 1333MHz 9-9-9-24
• MSI H55M-ED55 Micro-ATX Motherboard
• Coolermaster Hyper TX3 CPU Cooler
• Arctic Silver 5 Thermal Compound
• Pre-Assembled & Tested
• 1 Years Warranty
As you can see that's a huge amount of stuff for the price of a sole i7-930. We've often reviewed Mushkin RAM recently and we know how good that performs. MSI produce some of the best motherboards available so we should be fine there too, and of course the excellent Core i3 from Intel at a stonking 4.2 GHz.
Usually there is a hefty premium to pay for any pre-built system, and a further one if that is overclocked. However here we find the bundle comes in right at where you'd be able to purchase the parts separately, but without any of the hassles of building it yourself, or finding a good overclock, or even the dreaded nightmare of a DOA part.
The Aria 540 Bundle
As we've just mentioned, the bundle comes pre-built. Although we're always wary of transporting motherboards with heatsinks attached to them, Aria package the 540 bundle so well that there is absolutely no danger of any stress being placed upon the mounting.
RAM is covered by 4GB of Mushkin Silverline. This is rated at 1333MHz which is plenty quick enough for a budget system, but thanks to the excellent overclocking capabilities of Mushkin will run at 1600MHz should you desire it, although Aria supply it at 1333 MHz.
If you purely want to use this as a internet PC the benefit of the MSI Motherboard is that, as an H55 model, you have integrated graphics should you choose to use them.
This is no cut-down board either as it comes with the excellent OC Genie button which, earlier this year, won an innovation award from us.
Now we've had a good go over the Aria 540 bundle that forms the foundation of our bargain gaming rig, let's have a look at what else we've got. We think you'll be surprised.
The Rest of the Parts
Obviously there is a danger when you're building to a budget to end up with parts that aren't as good as they should be, or will end up being a false economy. We all know that anything is only as strong as its weakest link and so we've made sure everything is up to scratch.
To this end we're powering the system with the excellent Corsair TX650 PSU. This is more than enough oomph to power everything in our system and has the reliability we know from Corsair.
Storage is provided by the super-fast Samsung Spinpoint F3, here a 500GB model which will provide plenty of capacity. For a tenner over our budget you could have a small SSD for the OS and use the Samsung purely for storage, but we all know that "if I just spend another" is a slippery slope and soon you'll be re-mortgaging your house.
For our graphics we've chosen the PowerColor HD6870 which gives us a great balance between power and price. If you wanted to have less of a gaming orientated system and something that was merely alright, then you could switch this out for a GTX460, but you would compromise gaming performance and that's the key we're going for, hence the use of the HD6870.
Whilst we could stick this in a cardboard box or nail it to a plank of wood, we'd much rather use a case. There are countless ones available with our remaining budget of about £70. NZXT have produced some fine cases lately, greatly improving upon their earlier efforts. As we wanted a case that looked nice without being huge, but also provided good airflow the NZXT Vulcan seemed like a great choice.
As you can see everything fits into it nicely, we've got plenty of airflow and the all-black internals belie the affordable nature of the case.
A Core-i3 4.2GHz, 4GB, HD6870 equipped PC for around £570. Sounds good to us. Let's see what it's up against and run it through some benchmarks.
Intel® Core™ i3-540 Dual Core CPU - Overclocked @ 4.20GHz
4GB Mushkin Silverline 1333MHz 9-9-9-24
MSI H55M-ED55 Micro-ATX Motherboard
Coolermaster Hyper TX3 CPU Cooler
Arctic Silver 5 Thermal Compound
Corsair TX650 PSU
Samsung Spinpoint F3 500GB
Of course we need a system to run it up against. We could dig around in the cupboard and build a similar spec system but that really wouldn't prove anything. So to really get a feel for how much juice we have available to us we're going to put it up against the standard OC3D test rig.
ASUS Rampage III Extreme
Intel i7 950 @ 4GHz
6GB Mushkin Redline RAM
Corsair AX1200 PSU
Kingston SSD Now V+ 256GB
Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit
Now you don't need me to tell you that our test rig weighs in at a serious wedge. Especially when compared to our 'affordable' gaming rig. So obviously dual-core vs quad-core wont show up well in CPU based benchmarks but gaming will really show if you need a mental system to get playable frame-rates.
Naturally this is overclocking, hence the sub-title, but the cool thing is that Aria have done all the work for us. As you can see the i3 540 has got a pumping overclock all the way from 3.07GHz up to 4.2GHz.
Contrary to many pre-overclocked kits available, Aria haven't given everything for a big "number" that looks good on the adverts without considering its usability.
8 hours of Prime95 thrashing away gave us a maximum temperature 69°C. Considering the Coolermaster is a 92mm fan and very quiet we were impressed indeed.
PC Mark Vantage
Obviously there is a major difference in available power here as the i3 is a dual-core and our test rig is a i7 quad. However once you accept this huge variance in potential CPU cycles you realise that our £600 Gaming Rig based on the Aria 540 bundle performs surprisingly well. As you can see on the video it handles internet duties with aplomb.
Again the i7-950 bludgeons the i3 into submission when it comes to overall performance, but the "Per CPU" score is surprisingly close with the i3 being only 39 Pixels Per Second behind in rendering speed.
However this isn't really about the ability of our rig to render Ray-Traced images with lightning speed. It's all about polygon crunching. So let's go there.
3D Mark Vantage
Beautiful. We said in the intro that our testing over the years has shown the importance of a good graphics card over a bonkers CPU, and so it proves here. Basically identical GPUs performing identically enough. Sure the P-Score rocks harder on the i7 but that's at such a low resolution the CPU has a greater effect. The moment we up the ante to something you'd actually play at the affordable gaming rig makes a mockery of its price-tag.
Well how about this then? Unigine definitely pays a heavy price at the minimum frame-rate level as the i3 CPU struggles to keep everything running. However thanks to the extra oomph at the top end of the CPU and the improved performance of the latest drivers, at both maximum and average frame-rates, even with 8xAA, our budget rig is a bargain.
Alien vs Predator
Away from synthetic benchmarking applications the ease of the performance from the i3 becomes clear. Of course 1.4 FPS isn't loads, but it shows that GPU is, within reason, more important than the CPU.
We've long known that Crysis Warhead needs the ultimate hardware to make the most of, but we see here the proof in the old argument that once you're past two cores a game will no longer take advantage of them. Although when it comes to pure maximum frame-rate the extra power available in our OC3D Test Rig takes a big chunk out our sub-£600 gaming rig, at average rate which is the important one there is half a frame in it.
Tom Clancys HAWX 2 isn't the toughest test of a system out there, and so it proves as the increased horsepower available from our i7-950 manages to push it ahead of the i3-540 based budget gaming rig. Of course both systems smash the 100 FPS bracket and so any differences are meaningless.
Metro is the harshest game we've got in our bench-suite at the moment. Or at least so it's proved so far. At minimum and maximum the performance of the Catalyst 10.11 is enough to gain the odd frame, but overall they are inseparable. A tenth of a frame apart
Medal of Honor
When we first tested the latest in the Medal of Honor series we found the console roots of it were a pain for our benchmarking purposes. However, as we've got a dual-core here we dusted it off and sure enough there is just enough of a difference between the two systems that whilst the i7-950 manages to keep us over the magical 60 FPS mark, the i3 can't quite get there.
Resident Evil 5 DX10
Finally we look at Capcoms fine port of the last in the Resident Evil series. Similarly to HAWX 2 both of the systems manage to blitz 60 FPS and so any excess frames wont ever be noticed at the end-user level. However once again when you require pure power our i7 understandably comes out ahead.
This has been a really enjoyable review, as ones that start unexpectedly often are.
It's such a common thought amongst almost everyone that you need to spend big money to get any kind of gaming performance from a PC. Sub-£1000 PCs are generally considered to be "internet" or "home office" PCs and when you look at the price of a serious CPU and GPU combination it makes perfect sense.
A GTX580 and i7-950 would be £700 before you factor in any other hardware at all, whereas our budget system here rocks up at the checkout shy of £600.
Clearly though this is in no way a system limited to merely browsing your local web-based emporium. Although it's perfectly capable of doing so without a hitch and having used it for a while I could barely notice the difference between it and my normal 980X based system for daily tasks. Only the very CPU intensive things such as video editing did the dual-core nature of the i3-540 rear its head.
Gaming is what we're here for and gaming it does with some vigour. As the graphs on the preceding pages demonstrate, in nearly every game we could find the Aria 540 bundle based system kept right up with the official OC3D test rig. One or two frames here or there are nothing to quibble about and certainly in gameplay terms aren't noticeable.
With the AMD HD6870 in both systems it's worth noting the performance here if you're looking at your own system and wondering about what to upgrade. Rather than looking at your CPU, clearly the first port of call should be a new graphics card. Assuming that you're not running a GTX580 SLI system on a Pentium III.
Special mention has to be made of the underlying system we have here, courtesy of the pre-overclocked, pre-built bundle from Aria. The benefits of having a pre-built system are obvious to anyone who either doesn't wish to build their own rig, or those of us who've found themselves at 6PM with a dead bit of hardware stopping their build in its tracks and leading to a lengthy RMA procedure.
When this pre-built nature is coupled to a hefty overclock that Aria supply it with we just have to love everything about it. The famous silicon-lottery we all have to contend with that can leave us with a CPU that requires 1.4v just to get a 500MHz overclock are eliminated with the combination of the great Core i3 processors from Intel, but also the quality control from Aria.
It's not even as if we had to compromise vastly the rest of the hardware to get some big numbers. A Corsair PSU and Samsung drive in a NZXT case aren't poor choices at any budget, much less down at this point.
Probably best of all though is the variations possible. Certainly we've used a HD6870 here, but you could just as easily go down to a HD6850 or perhaps a GTX460 should your budget require it. You could also, as the GPU is such a large part of the equation, go up to a GTX570 which is the best performing card on the market, short of dropping a huge wedge on its bigger brother. Having spent £53 on a case, but with £30 of our budget still available, the choice of case is seemingly infinite if you want something a little larger, or flashier, or stealthier or, well it's up to you.
So can you buy a brand-new gaming-class PC for £600? Thanks to the pre-overclocked bundle from Aria and some careful selection of your components the answer is clearly yes.
This wouldn't be a review without a score though. We can't score our own choice of system, that would be narcissistic and we've no need to be self-serving.
However we can score the bundle that underpins our choice here, and a 4.2GHz pre-built system that rocks as hard as this does, for £220, makes for an easy winner of the OC3D Gold and Value awards.
Thanks to Aria for their help with this review. Discuss in our forums.