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Holiday Build-Off: Two $1500 Gaming PCs go Head-to-Head

Technology article by William Garcia on January 1, 2015 at 11:00 AM
Feature

We (Alex Baldwin and William Garcia) are here today with a different spin on the usual weekly PC build. As Ben was unable to put together a build this week due to his busy festive calendar, its down to us slightly less social hardware nerds to put together something.

As we are less imaginative than Ben, the inspiration for these builds came from a guy we’ll call Matt, who wanted a $1500 gaming PC that will also be used for streaming. He doesn’t care much for overclocking, but emphasized that he wanted LEDs, a GTX 970, and great cooling.

With this in mind, I created...

Will’s Build: Red Alert Graphics Card

MSI GTX 970 Gaming GPU and Box

MSI GeForce GTX 970 4GB Twin Frozr V Video Card ($350 at Newegg)

(Note: Prices in this build guide are from the time of writing and are subject to change.)

I always start gaming builds with the GPU and then focus on building around that. Games are almost always GPU-intensive, and while new/upcoming technologies like Mantle and DirectX 12 may improve the utilization of other components, in the DX11-present, the GPU is king.

Matt already made an excellent choice in targeting NVidia’s GTX 970 GPU (the R9 290 and 290X would have also worked great as Team Red equivalents), so it was up to me to wade through the dozens of 970s and pick the right card for Matt’s rig.

With Matt’s emphasis on quality case cooling, I knew that I wanted an open-air cooler as opposed to a “reference” blower design, as there would be more than enough airflow in the case to accommodate the excess case heat that open-air coolers bring. This would make the benefits of open-air cooling, namely a quieter system and a cooler GPU, come at less of a cost, especially considering the high energy efficiency and low heat output of the 970.

With this in mind, I chose MSI’s Gaming series 970 graphics card with the revamped Twin Frozr V cooler for several reasons. For one, as Ryan Shrout from PC Perspective notes, the card runs exceptionally cool and quiet.  Additionally, at a mere 269mm (10.6 inches), it will be able to fit in most mid-tower cases (including the Fractal Arc Midi R2 used in this build) without removing any drive cages, something that cannot be said about similarly performing competitors.

Plus, for $350 with your choice of Assassin's Creed: Unity, Far Cry 4, or The Crew, it’s needless to say that this card is an absolute steal for what it provides, and is more than suitable as the heart and soul of a beefed-up gaming rig.

CPU Intel Xeon E3-1231 V3 3.4GHz Quad-Core Processor ($243 at SuperBiiz) A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, and an i7 by any other name would dominate benchmarks and games just as...uh...dominantly.

The Xeon E3-1231 V3 is a locked quad-core, hyperthreaded processor based on Intel’s Haswell Refresh architecture. It clocks in at 3.4 GHz with a 3.8 GHz Turbo frequency and comes equipped with 8MB of cache.

If this sounds like a slightly underclocked i7 4790, that’s because it is a slightly underclocked i7 4790, but with two caveats: a lack of an integrated GPU and being $50 cheaper.

For the purposes of this build, the 970 should have things covered in the GPU department, so the 1231 V3 fits the bill just fine.

Motherboard

MSI Z97-G45 Gaming Motherboard and Box MSI Z97-G45 Gaming ATX LGA1150 Motherboard ($141 at B&H Photo and Video) When the budget is well above $1,000, building a PC becomes largely about getting the little things right. Diminishing returns on performance will have started to set in a few hundred bones ago, so doing something ridiculous like getting a gaming motherboard for a CPU that literally cannot overclock actually begins to make a twisted bit of sense.

There are some legitimate reasons to look into the Z97-G45 for this build. For one, it has a dragon on the heatsink! All joking aside, the board packs a serious punch feature-wise, sporting a Killer NIC with network prioritization for games, AMD Crossfire and NVidia SLI multi-GPU support (something that a lot of low-end Z97 boards lack), and an actually-black PCB (nothing makes a build look tackier than a dark-brown motherboard). Plus, the motherboard will mesh well visually with its MSI Gaming 970 GPU sibling, creating a black/red color scheme that will be re-used throughout the build.

Again, it’s about the little things.

Memory Team Zeus Red 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 Memory ($70 at Newegg)

8GB of DDR3 1600 MHz memory is the de facto standard for gaming builds these days, and for good reason: an overwhelming majority of games still do not take advantage of higher capacities or speeds.

Fortunately, this makes purchasing RAM pretty simple. The Team Zeus Red memory is affordable, fits the color scheme, comes from a reliable manufacturer with a lifetime warranty, and hits the 1600 MHz/CL9/1.5V numbers that I like seeing.

With the Team kit being low-profile, it will be easy to install and remove while building/upgrading; memory with a higher heatsink tends to be either difficult or impossible to swap out with tall CPU coolers getting in the way.

Storage

Sandisk Ultra II 240GB 2.5" Solid State Drive ($95 at Amazon)

Sandisk stepped up their game in a major way with the release of their TLC-based Ultra II SSDs. nCache 2.0, an SLC caching technology, increases both the lifespan and performance of the drive, and Sandisk’s “SSD Dashboard” software is one of the easier software toolkits to navigate.

In the Ultra II, Sandisk released a solid SSD that is highly affordable for its capacity, making it a great choice for a gaming build.

Other solid choices would include the Crucial MX100, the Samsung 840 EVO, the Kingston HyperX, and the Intel 730.

Seagate Barracuda 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($54 at Amazon)

The typical approach to buying mechanical storage for a gaming build has been to look at the WD Blue drives, but look at the Seagate Barracuda drives, and see what’s cheaper.

Right now, it’s the ‘Cuda.

Power Supply

XFX XTR 650W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular ATX Power Supply ($109 before $20 rebate at Newegg)

The fact that a 650 watt power supply can power a $1500 gaming rig with almost 300 watts to spare (if PCPartPicker is to be believed) says a lot about the incredible work that Intel and NVidia have done on the energy-efficiency front.

In fact, this middling-wattage power supply winds up being total overkill. PSUs are at their most efficient at around 50% load, and with this unit only hitting around 360 watts at full capacity, it’s entirely possible that this rig ends up on the eco-friendly side of 200 watts during gameplay, especially considering that it will not be overclocked.

Having said that, the XTR is a power supply worth going overboard for.

Based on the Seasonic G platform used in the Corsair HX series and some of Seasonic’s own units, the XTR features high energy efficiency (at least 90% efficiency at a 325 watt load), a fully modular interface for easier cable management, and a semi-passive mode that turns off the PSU’s fan during light loads for quieter operation. Coupling these selling points with XFX’s 5-year warranty, and the XTR shows why it’s worth its hefty price tag.

Case

Fractal Design Arc Midi R2 Windowed Case

Fractal Design Arc Midi R2 Black Steel Windowed Mid-Tower Case ($90 at Newegg)

With the hyped release of the new Define R5 case, Fractal Design’s Arc series seems to have gone under the radar a bit. As an owner of the internally identical Define R4, however, I can say from first-hand experience that the airflow-optimized Arc Midi R2 is a joy to build in and an excellent case.

With a wide variety of cooling options (including support for 280mm radiators in the front and top), integrated 3-speed fan controller, robust cable management system (Fractal has some of the best rubber grommets in the business and always leaves plenty of space behind the motherboard tray), and arguably the best looking side panel window in any case ever, the Arc Midi has a bevy of compelling features that set it apart from its competitors and should put Matt’s cooling concerns at ease.

CPU Cooling Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus 76.8 CFM Sleeve Bearing CPU Cooler ($30 before $10 rebate at Newegg)

Corsair SP120 57.2 CFM 120mm Fan ($15 at Newegg)

Speaking of cooling, that Intel stock CPU cooler isn’t going to cut the mustard.

The Cooler Master 212 and its successors are the most popular aftermarket CPU coolers on the market, and for good reason: they’re reasonably quiet, overclock reasonably well, and are (very) reasonably priced.

Having said that, and with no disrespect to Cooler Master, the 212 Plus is a bit boiler-plate in the looks department. Fortunately, this is where an aftermarket fan, like Corsair’s radiator/heatsink optimized SP120, can come and work magic. In addition to having sound-isolating rubber corners and performing like absolute champ on heatsinks like the 212 Plus, this SP120 has red LEDs that fit in perfectly with the rest of the parts in the rig.

Aftermarket Case Fans

BitFenix Spectre LED Red 140mm Case Fan (x4)  ($13 ea. at SuperBiiz)

Aftermarket fans often help with cooling and reducing noise, but my motivation for including the Spectre LED fans is simpler than that: they look great.

The LEDs are actually red (with sloppier fans, it can easily end up pink-ish or orange-red), and while the light emitted is clearly visible, Bitfenix bucked the trend of having your LEDs go as bright as possible, which will fit with the craftsmanship of the Arc Midi R2 without getting overly “blingy”.

Two of these fans can be put in the front and controlled by the R2’s internal fan controller (I would probably set them at the middle setting: 5 volts), leaving the remaining two Spectres up top and a stock rear fan to be controlled by the three internal motherboard headers.

OS

Windows 8.1 Pro Student License ($70 at Microsoft Store)

Windows 8.1 is the standard for gaming builds in 2014 and into 2015, and unless Linux miraculously gets some much-needed port support, this trend is going to continue.

Matt  is a student, so he qualifies for Microsoft’s student discount on Windows 8.1 Pro, which cuts the price down to $70. Additionally, I highly recommend that both college/university and high school students speak with their schools’  IT departments to see if they qualify for free Microsoft products, including Windows, through Microsoft’s DreamSpark program.

For non-students, the price hovers at around $90 for a standard 8.1 license.

Keyboard Corsair Vengeance® K60 Performance FPS Mechanical Gaming Keyboard (Refurbished) ($39 at Corsair Shop) This is a Cherry MX Red mechanical keyboard for $39.

If that wasn’t enough, the K60 comes with a brushed aluminum chassis, a rear USB passthrough, dedicated multimedia controls, and a soft-touch wrist rest.

Even as a refurbished unit, getting a well-built, reasonably-featured Cherry MX Red keyboard for less than the price of a new game is a phenomenal deal, especially considering that new keyboards with this feature set tend to be in the $80-$110 range.

Monitor

Refurbished ACHIEVA SHIMIAN QH270 27" LED 2560x1440 QHD S-IPS PC Monitor ($179 from GreenSum via eBay)

It’s New Years, so it’s only fitting that the monitor for this build is all about the resolution.

(Sorry. I’ll stop.) South Korean brands like Achieva, Qnix, X-Star, and Wasabi Mango (Yes, you read that last one correctly) have been selling affordable 1440p monitors worldwide for several years now.

A rig like this one will be able to play most games on high or ultra settings at 1440p and at least 60fps, so limiting it to a 1080p/60 Hz monitor wasn’t going to fly.

At 1440p, the QH270 has the resolution necessary to deliver a sharp 27” image at close distances, something that can’t be said about similar-sized 1080p monitors. Additionally, its IPS panel translates to great color accuracy and viewing angles when compared to standard TN panel displays.

$180 for the QH270 is a complete bargain, even after considering that it’s refurbished. Additionally, the display can currently be purchased for $199 refurbished through Amazon.

All-in-all, this build came to roughly $1510 before rebates and shipping, and while it is slightly over budget, I think that it’s more than worth its cost.

Besides, it has a dragon on the heatsink, and we all know that dragons make things go super-fast!

Go to page 2 to check out Alex's build!

Alex’s Build: Blue Lagoon

Graphics Card

Zotac GTX 970 Graphics Card and Box

Zotac GeForce GTX 970 4GB Video Card

As requested I went with the GTX 970, a GPU that can handle almost any game you can throw at it on the highest graphics settings whilst maintaining a smooth 60fps at 1080p. The 970 even has the power behind it to give reasonable performance at 1440p and even 4k, still managing a 50-60fps average on games like Metro Last Light at medium settings. The Zotac 970 comes in at only 233mm in length meaning it can fit happily in my chosen case without even having to remove the drive bays. Not only that, but it also comes with a 300 mHz overclock out of the box.

CPU

Intel Xeon E3-1231 V3 3.4GHz Quad-Core Processor

Again, we were both set on the Xeon E3-1231 V3. While many people don’t seem to recommend Xeons for gaming builds, it doesn’t make them any less of a viable option for potential builders who want i7 features closer to an i5 price tag. As Matt will be watching a lot of streams, the Xeon should be more than competent for running streams and a game simultaneously.

The only thing sacrificed here is an integrated graphics solution, a slightly higher clock speed and the ability to overclock. As Matt has a fantastic dedicated GPU for his gaming needs and no knowledge or interest in overclocking, the Xeon E3-1231 V3 really is a no brainer.

Motherboard

ASRock H97M Pro4 Motherboard and Box

ASRock H97M PRO4 ATX LGA1150 Motherboard ($79 at SuperBiiz)

As we will not be overclocking, I opted for the H97M PRO4. This is a decent motherboard that, while not packed with features, still does everything we need it to for the purposes of this build. The black and blue colour scheme played a large part of choosing this motherboard over other similarly priced mATX H97 boards. What else can I say? It does the job and looks the part.

RAM

Avexir Core 8gb 1600mhz DDR3 RAM (with Blue LEDs) ($73 at Newegg)

A standard set of 8gb 1600mhz RAM in-keeping with the blue and black colour scheme. Owning this RAM personally, I can attest to its quality. Meeting all the technical requirements to qualify as decent memory (as outlined above by Will), the Avexir Core series also comes with the added benefits of a nice blue LED and decent overclocking potential. In my opinion, this is some of the best RAM you’ll find for the price.

Storage

Samsung 840 EVO 120GB 2.5" Solid State Drive ($80 at OutletPC)

One of the most renowned  SSD models around and for good reason. While the standard 840 models had issues with slowdown, the EVO models came onto the market and gave us one of the best bang for buck SSDs around. While others might decide to go for a 240gb+ SSD, I find 120gb more than suitable for running the OS, main programs and maybe the occasional game that will benefit from the faster read times… Or if you're just sick of Skyrim’s load times.

Western Digital Caviar Blue 1TB 3.5" 7200RPM Internal Hard Drive ($57 at OutletPC)

A tried and tested 1TB Hard Drive that has become the standard for many PC builds. To be honest, this and the Seagate Barracuda are interchangeable.

Case

SONY DSC

Nanoxia NXDS4B MicroATX Mini Tower Case ($80 at MicroCenter)

This case was a hard choice for me. In the end, I thought id propose an MATX Form factor to Matt. However, I didn’t want to skimp on features that might be lost in using a smaller case. The Nanoxia NXDS4B provides exactly what I was looking for and more.

With a design very similar to the Fractal design define R4, the Nanoxia sure is a looker. It adopts the minimal aesthetic that made such cases as the R4, 750D and H440 so popular, and like those cases it is certainly not sacrificing any functionality to achieve its aesthetic. Opening the 2 door panels on the front reveals 2x 5.25 toolless drive bays, a basic fan controller, sound absorbing insulation and a 120mm fan mount. This isn’t even mentioning the water hose guides, 15+ inch max GPU length, rubberised grommets etc. The only real downside to this case that I can think of is lack of any support for over a 140mm radiator. However, this isn’t really an issue in our case.

Cooling

Corsair H60 54.0 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler ($65 at NCIX before $10 rebate)

2x NZXT FZ-120mm LED 59.1 CFM 120mm Fan ($11 ea. at OutletPC)

Matts request for a super cool cooling setup could have been interpreted in many different ways. When I think of a cool cooling, a nice all in one water cooler is what first pops into my head. While a lot of water cooling solutions are designed to cool overclocked CPUs, the H60 strikes a nice middle ground, providing more than adequate cooling for any CPU at stock speed without the higher price of a lot of other water coolers. The H60 comes in at a nice low price of $54.99 after rebate, making it one of the cheapest water cooling solutions available.

Also, as Matt is in his own words ‘a huge sucker for LEDs’, I opted in to replace the Nanoxia stock fans with the blue NZXT FZ-120mm LED case fans. Not only do the fans fit with the Black/Blue colour scheme of my build, they are pretty efficient with a decent noise level of 26.8 dba and an effective airflow of 59.1 cfm. Couple this with the dead quiet Nanoxia case, Matt can expect a cool and reasonably quiet system.

PSU

SeaSonic G 550W 80+ Gold Certified Semi-Modular ATX Power Supply ($85 at Amazon)

At this budget, potential builders really should be looking towards the higher end of PSU. This is a fantastic Gold standard PSU from Seasonic. The 550w will be more than enough to handle this system at full load with room left to spare for extra drives as well as being able to be reused in  many other future builds. As Will explains above, the Seasonic G platform provides everything you could expect from such a reputable manufacturer.

Optical Drive

Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer ($14 at Newegg after $6 promotional code)

A Standard DVD drive whose main purpose is to install windows. Optical drives aren’t the absolute necessary components they used to but on the rare time where you might need one, whether that be burning any old CDs, creating a Linux boot CD, emulating your old collection of console discs or (if you're feeling brave) try to get your old PC CDs to install and function on a modern day OS. For me, the few uses of a DVD drive today, with optical media representing old technology, are enough to still warrant a purchase.

Keyboard

Cooler Master Storm QuickFire Rapid Wired Gaming Keyboard ($73 at NCIX)

Matt specified a ‘Clickity clack’ in his original /r/BuildaPCforme post so I had to abide by providing a nice mechanical keyboard. I personally am not a big mech guy, but the Quickfire series always seems like a safe bet for the cheaper mechanical keyboards. Clocking in at just over $70 and with a plethora of good reviews to back it up, you can’t really go wrong. I went with MX Blues as they are the most popular and widely adopted switches.

Monitor

BenQ RL2455HM Gaming Monitor

BenQ RL2455HM Gaming Monitor ($190 at Amazon)

While Will went for 1440p, I thought id hold back and choose a very decent 1080p monitor. 1440p is on the rise, but unless you go Korean, you’ll be paying a substantial amount more than 1080p. With a budget of $1500 you could go either way. I decided to stick with the usual and go for pure gaming monitor, featuring a TN panel, 1ms response time, Smart Scaling, Black eQualizer, AMA, and Instant Modes. This all allows for a high level of image customisation in games and out. The USP of this monitor is the RTS picture mode calibrations, providing the best calibrations possible for either DOTA 2 or Starcraft. As Matt mentioned he played DOTA im sure he’ll appreciate this. OS

Windows 8.1 Pro Student License ($70 at Microsoft Store)

A nice, reasonably cheap copy of windows 8.1 as requested.

That’s it. Two hardware nerds battling out to build the best hypothetical PC for a person they don’t even know. Who do you think won the build off? What would you have done differently? If anything jumps out at you let us know in the comment section below; maybe suggest what you’d build for Matt yourself.

About the Author

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William Garcia

Contributes to TechRaptor, primarily focusing on enthusiast PC hardware, but dabbling in anything with buttons that bleeps and bloops.