Component prices haven't changed much over the last week, so there's no changes to the PC Gamer Rig to write about. Instead of taking a few days off from scouring shopping sites, however, I've put together something a bit different.
Inspired by Alienware's launch of its lounge friendly X51 console sized PC and a feature I'm writing for the mag, this week's post is about a second system I'm going to try and keep up to date: The PC Gamer Media Centre-cum-Occassional-Games-Rig-With-Console-Beating-Games-Ability. Or, as I like to call it, Son of Rig.
I find putting together a spec for a living room machine much more challenging than building a static desktop PC. For a start, it has to be small enough and quiet enough to be unobtrusive by the TV. And it also has to be very cheap, and yet capable of gaming at 1080p resolutions.
Why bother when consoles are so cheap? Well, for a start your games will look better than on a console: most Xbox and PlayStation games are actually running at an upscaled 720p resolution, and I'm tired of watching Assassin's Creed's vast cityscapes get ruined by the Xbox's blocky mess. With a PC you can game natively at 1080p on a HDTV.
Then there's the hidden costs of running a console – subscribing to an online service to access other, free, online services really bugs me.
The much vaunted apps of the Xbox 360's new dash were the final straw for me – there's an on demand video service in the UK called Blinkbox (owned by Tesco) which isn't brilliant, but has the appealing selling point of being a service you only pay for what you watch, there's no monthly sub on top. Until you try and use it on Xbox, where you need to pay for Xbox Live to use it.
Plus, Xbox is still noisy for watching videos on, and no console has the kind of codec support built in for smooth streaming around the home.
Straight off, I've ruled out any of the nifty little Atom-based net-tops that are kicking around, like Sapphire's Wii-sized Edge-HD , because not only are they not quite powerful enough, they can also be quite noisy and don't have essential features like audio line out or SPDIF.
The mission I've set myself is to build a system as cheaply as possible. It's strictly a second PC as far as games are concerned, so there's no point spending loads on fully featured CPUs and GPUs. That makes the choice between AMD's Fusion processors and an Intel Core i3.
As far as the AMD chips are concerned, I like these new hybrid chips a lot. You can just about game at 720p without any other hardware, and a cheap AMD GPUs can bolster them in Crossfire mode for up to double performance. The problem is that 'Asymmetrical Crossfire' is unreliable at the moment, only works with DX10 and thanks to the peculiarities of the platform, can be slower than simply using one card.
Intel's Core i3s are better overal gaming processors, and while the quad core Llanos are better at media encoding on the CPU, Intel's QuickSync video system makes up the difference.
In the end, I opted for Fusion. I'm not 100% behind the decision, though, and there's a lot of customisation you could do to the base spec here to make a much better system if you want. You could save money or spend on better components by opting for a micro-ATX chassis rather than the pricey mini-ITX one here (my personal media box is in a lovely Lian Li PCV-300 chassis which has sadly been discontinued) - but I've opted to go for the most discrete size and sacrifice elsewhere. For example, a larger case with a bigger PSU would allow you to go for a Core i3 and a discrete GTX 550Ti. It'll cost cost about £50-£70 more, but give you better and more consistent framerates.
Is Son of the Rig better than the X51? Without one here to benchmark against I can't actually say for sure - certainly not when compared to the two more expensive models, but I'm fairly sure it'll give the basic £699/$699 one a run for its money. I'm also confident that you could spend about £30 more on the GPU and comfortably beat the X51.
I haven't had time to benchmark this rig properly at 1080p either, thanks to a technical problem in the office. But here's the bare minimum you'll be able to get at 720p, medium settings.
- Assassin's Creed Revelations: 47.37 FPS
- Shogun 2: 53.43 FPS
- Skyrim: 60+ FPS
I'll update these as I get more time.
What's in Son of the Rig?
As far as quiet, budget gaming goes this is pretty unbeatable. Comes with an unlocked core, so the first thing to do is accelerate it to 3GHz for the CPU and 600MHz for the graphics, adding £20 to its value.
Zotac A75-ITX WiFi
Tiny, but can take an extra graphics card and has optical sound out and support for unlocked processors.
4GB Corsair Vengeance Low Profile
You're not going to need much, and this has the advantage of sneaking comfortably under the heatsink.
Sapphire Radeon HD6670
Adding a cheap card for CrossfireX gives the Fusion processor enough of a kick to get games running. It's not foolproof though: DX9 games get no benefit from CFX at all. You can spend more on a HD6670 with GDDR5, I'm not convinced it will make enough of a difference. A fully silent one, on the other hand, would be worth paying more for.
Silverstone Sugo SG06B
A tiny and gorgeous little miniITX case that'll look good by the TV. Plus it has a built in PSU that'll cover what we need. Just.
Shagon Auras ARC-118
Seagate Barracuda 1TB
it pushes the price up a bit, but we'll match the 1TB drive in the X51. Seagate's hybrid Momentous XT would also be a good choice if you don't mind sacrificing a bit of space.
You'll need a slimline DVD burner for the Sugo case. It's worth considering a Blu-ray drive for movies too.
Windows 7 Home Professional
Of course, if it was a real media centre we'd run Linux. And there's some good Unigine based games over there now.
In sterling, you can save quite a bit over the X51, then. In dollars, not so much - looks like the Alienware machine is pretty good value after all.