So you think you know everything about building budget gaming rigs?

Posted: May 6, 2012 by ryanlecocq in Features, Technology

Anyone who has been following the last two years of articles I’ve been writing on cheap gaming PCs could reasonably consider themselves a pro.  My own knowledge has grown several times over since I’ve been doing it and I’ve passed that knowledge on to BE readers.  So if you can put together a system that will play SWTOR or Diablo 3 with ease for less than the cost of an Xbox w/ Kinect, this is the guide for you.  These are the ultimate master tricks that I would only recommend to a true budget power-user.

Like any of the other information on BE, you could find it about the internet.  The difference is that from me you get an objective view of what really makes sense for you.  Most forums discussing these tricks contain mostly non-fact-based information, so it can be hard to decide if something really makes sense.   Read on for the real story on things like the SLI hack, dedicated PhysX cards, hybrid Crossfire/SLI and more.


The SLI Hack: Because it’s cheaper to run your GeForce on an AMD chipset.

In many price brackets, nVidia provides the superior card to AMD when it comes to mid-range GPUs.  When it comes to motherboards though, you will almost always get more features per dollar with an AMD chipset.  An excellent example is the Crosshair4 Formula board I’m using for my 1055T.  It has 2 PCI-e slots at x16, another at x8 and yet another at x4.  Also USB 3.0 and a bunch of other features you really expect in a mid-range board.  The problem is that most of the AMD boards before the current generation only support AMD’s own Crossfire and not SLI with multiple nVidia GPUs.  Although it’s understandable as both AMD and nVidia make chipsets and GPUs, but it’s nothing more than a software-based lockout.

With an app called the SLI hack (google it and get the current version, better than me posting a link that will get outdated), you can easily run as many nVidia cards as you would ATi cards on an AMD chipset.  Disregard any reports you may have heard that this is glitchy or inferior in performance.  Any glitches or performance issues could only be user induced as this does nothing more complicated than override an arbitrary lockout.  Controlling SLI is no more or less difficult for your motherboard than controlling Crossfire.

With the SLI hack I could potentially run 3-way SLI with a dedicated PhysX card in the fourth slot.  That would be extreme overkill, but I could do it.  A much more practical idea would be to put two mid-range cards in the x16 slots, a PhysX card in the x8 slot and leave the x4 for some other kind of useful card.


Dedicated PhysX Cards: A cheap upgrade for mid-range nVidia users and many ATi users.

There is a lot of misleading information on dedicated PhysX cards floating around.  The fact is that about 25-30 games use hardware-based PhysX.  The reason you should care is because some of them are cutting edge ones like Arkham City, which uses PhysX to do a lot more than any past games.  You may have been led to believe that you need another mid-high range card to do this, but that is not the case.  The Ideal cards for PhysX are 9800GTs and the like.  The reason for this is that PhysX only requires about 100 shader cores and nothing else.  Memory bandwidth, core speed and the rest of the specs do not matter.  The reason you would never need any more than this is because for a high end system you would want to just get a high-end nVidia GPU that easily handles PhysX within the game engine.  The other benefit is to ATi users.  You can get a 9800GT for about $25-35 and it will allow you to click that box that says “PhysX.”  I’m guessing that’s all I really need to tell you.  You just need a free PCI-e slot, doesn’t even need to be faster than x4 as once again you’re not using much bandwidth.

The reason this makes no sense to low end users is because they likely do not have extra wattage or a free PCI-e slot.  If you only have two GPU slots, I would recommend filling them with matching low-mid range GPUs.  Forget PhysX, it’s just eye candy.  You would do way better spending another $60-80 on another 5670 or 6570 or whatever you have rather than buying a PhysX card.  Turning on PhysX will stress the main GPU even with a dedicated card as it has to render the objects as well.  So you may find that using PhysX with a dedicated card would still give you lower framerates than not.  For someone with an 800-1200watt PSU and 4 PCI-e slots, a 30-50W upgrade is easy to justify.


Hybrid Crossfire/SLI/Optimus/Dual-Graphics:  Only for very, very special occasions.

Recently AMD and nVidia (and even Intel) have made a big deal about their hybrid graphics solutions.  I’m going to give it to you in a nutshell:  No integrated graphics core has ever done anything better than your dedicated and can help it in any way.  The reason is this: look how much power it uses, it’s probably much less than even the cheapest dedicated GPU.  It’s not magical, it doesn’t do miracles, so that means it has nowhere near the potential.  Like any rule there are exceptions of a sort, but you should keep that as a rule of thumb.

What I’m getting at is you should not use the onboard graphics for anything the GPU could do better.  Sure, it’s a great idea to have your GPU idle and let the iGPU handle web browsing, but using it as a PhysX card or a second GPU is foolishness.  I’ve heard accounts of madmen running Hybrid Crossfire with a 4250 and 4870, or using a GT 520M to do the PhysX when they have a GTX 570m dedicated.  The short version is this just plain doesn’t help and generally harms your performance.

The one exception is with an AMD A6 or A8 series APU.  The built-in graphics are still nothing to get excited about, but you’re basically paying $20 more for an Athlon II and getting a $50 GPU for it that doesn’t need it’s own memory, cooling or power.  The fact that the integrated GPU is only barely slower than an entry-level dedicated card makes this combination actually feasible.  If you bought an A8 desktop and then upgraded with a dedicated 6000 series card, there is no reason you should not click that “crossfire” option in your driver menu.  It suffers from minimal micro-stuttering and increases framerates an average of 15-30fps.  If you overclock the APU, you may get even better results.  I would not recommend buying an FS1 system just to try this, but if you have one already and are thinking of upgrading your graphics, it’s a no-brainer.


ReadyBoost:  See above.

So in a few tests I’ve used ReadyBoost! flash-drives to free up some RAM.  Let me just say that is not a trick recommended for general users.  I was only doing it because those were systems with integrated graphics which needed the limited main memory, so I was freeing up the small amount used by Windows for the games being tested.  Skyrim is a great example as you can run it on some pretty low end GPUs if you can give them lots of dynamically allocated memory.  ReadyBoost! is overall a giant useless pile of crap that will not make your system faster.  Even an IDE hard-drive is faster than a USB drive, so in general boost drives will not speed up booting or game loading.  On an SSD or fast HDD, assigning virtual memory would be far more effective than using even USB 3.0 ReadyBoost! drives.


What are the best gaming benchmarks and why?

The best benchmark is the one that shows how well your card will do in the games you are most likely to play.  Most websites make the mistake of thinking that the games that push the system the most are best, this is usually just because they are poorly coded.  Many games (think Red Dead Redemption) look far better than other games on comparable hardware just because of better design.  What will tell you the most about your new system’s potential is benchmarks representative of the newest, most popular games.  Here are a few examples of games that are well-optimized and give you a decent idea of what your hardware can do compared to other hardware.

For DirectX 11 nVidia optimized: Batman: Arkham City.  Uses all of the newest features and stresses high-end cards at max settings.

For DirectX 11 ATi optimized: Shogun 2: Total War.  Same as above, uses all of the newest GPU tech and has settings that can become very demanding at high levels.

For OpenGL 4.0: RAGE (duh).  Since it’s really the only truly-high end OpenGL game on the PC platform, easy win.

For DirectX 10 nVida or ATi:  The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim.  Though Metro 2033 is still the hardest pusher, that’s due to optimization.  Skyrim is the most mainstream game that fully utilizes DX10.

For DirectX 9 nVidia optimized: Alice: Madness Returns.  Full shader model 3.0+ utilization as well as hardware based PhysX up to high.  Not much competition in the last year or two.

For DirectX 9 ATi optimized:  Mass Effect 3.  Although Mass Effect 3 barely touches your GPU, it does use all of what shader model 3.0+ has to offer and runs very efficiently on older ATi cards.


That’s all for now.  Have fun, but not too much fun.



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