Building my new Computer, Part 1c: Boredom, Benchmarks, (Example) Builds

This is working out fine. As I mentioned last time, my plan right now is to wait for GTX 1070 graphics cards to hit the market, choose one, and buy all my parts. This is easier said than done. The GTX 1070 models are trickling onto the market with all the dynamism of frozen molasses, and supply can’t keep up with demand. Situation right now: Few cards available and prices are high.

However, I did more reading and pondering in the mean time:

Power Supply Reconsiderations

My earlier plan was to go for the 80+ Bronze-rated Seasonic s12-II 520W. I have since had a pang of ecological conscience and figured I owe it to the environment (and my power bill) to get something more efficient instead. My computer is running fairly close to 24/7, so more efficient power use is scarcely a luxury.

More reading around in the Tom’s Hardware Tier List lead me to the Seasonic G-Series 550W (~80 EUR) and the Super Flower Golden Green HX 550W (75 EUR). Both are a step up in price (20–25 EUR more expensive than the Seasonic s12-II), but they both have an 80+ Gold rating. The Seasonic seems to score slightly better in reviews, so that’s my current item of choice.

I’m telling you this to illustrate that making a parts list is a process. Self-doubt and re-evaluation are inevitable. Like artwork, a parts list is never finished, just abandoned bought and assembled.

My hardware plan suffered some more alterations, but I’ll tell you about those in the (hopefully) final parts list blog post.

More Useful Links and Thoughts For Fledgling Computer Builders

Several sites have been posting useful things for people looking to get into building computers. Tom’s Hardware had a mainboard buying guide, as well as a very interesting segment on how store-bought desktop PCs often lag behind notebooks in hard disk technology by not including an SSD (and Anandtech helps out by telling you about the best SSDs in Q2 2016). Games journalism stalwart Rock, Paper, Shotgun encouraged computer users to try self-building at least once, and follows up with a multi-page article on how to actually do the deed.

But let’s face it: many people don’t even use desktop computers and go straight for a notebook instead. So, if I am to make a point for self-building, I’ll have to tell you a bit more than ‘Well, most store-bought desktop PCs kinda do suck orc balls, but if you build one yourself, it won’t be as bad’ or ‘Hey, this is something you really should have done once. If only to tell your grandkids.’

So let’s have a look at the ‘competition.’

Notebook vs Desktop CPUs

A whim of my bored mind (and the fact that a surprising amount of uni colleagues own notebooks with Intel i7 CPUs while my old desktop PC chugs along with an i5) made me wonder how notebook CPUs compare to what we put into desktop systems. To keep power consumption & heat under control, mobile processors run at lower voltage and clock frequency, so there must be some performance penalty.

Getting comparable CPU performance measurements isn’t a trivial task to begin with, and even more so when we’re talking CPUs from different hardware ecosystems (you can’t put a notebook CPU into a desktop system). That’s why I quickly gave up on benchmark scores from places like CPUBoss.com.

Instead, I went for the opposite methodological route: Collecting benchmark measurements from as many different systems as possible, and see where they average out across a (hopefully) large number of diverse builds. This is what UserBenchmark.com does. While the method, like any form of statistics, isn’t close to exact, it might be enough to give us a rough idea.

i7-6500U

The cheapest i7 CPU my colleagues could have in their notebooks is the i7-6500U, a 2.5GHz hyperthreaded dual-core affair (hyperthreaded means it can do smart scheduling magic and run four computing threads in parallel on only two physical computer cores).

Userbenchmarks shows that the desktop CPU this i7 trades blows with is the Pentium G4400, with the mobile CPU leading a 2% margin on effective speed, and 5% on average user benchmark scores. The comparison isn’t entirely fair – while both CPUs are built with two computing cores, the mobile i7’s hyperthreading allows it to run four threads, while the Pentium can only run two. In exchange, the Pentium runs at higher clock speeds, scoring victories in single-core performance, but obviously losing at everything that uses several cores in parallel.

When we choose the cheapest four threads/two cores desktop CPU, the i3-6100, the desktop chip leads its mobile cousin by ~30% in every benchmark.

Budget wise, the cheapest laptop sporting the i7-6500U I could find at the time of writing is the Lenovo IdeaPad 300-15ISK at 477 EUR. The Pentium G4400 can be had for 55 EUR right now, while the i3-6100 sets you back 111 EUR. Feature-comparable desktop systems come out at 430 EUR for the Pentium and 486 EUR for the much faster i3. (See below for details on these builds and how to make them less shitty.)

i7-6700HQ

The i7-6500U is billed by Intel as a ‘mainstream’ class CPU. On desktops, i7s typically mark the transition from ‘mainstream’ to ‘performance’ class, so let’s look at the cheapest ‘performance’ class mobile i7 as well. That would be the i7-6700HQ (are you getting confused with the numbering schemes already? I sure am.), a hyperthreaded quad-core (i.e. four cores running eight threads) clocked at 2.6 GHz.

It is matched almost eerily by the desktop i3-6300, the bigger brother of the i3-6100 from a few paragraphs above: the i3 is clocked higher (3.8GHz), but can only run four threads on its two cores. Predictably, it outruns the mobile CPU in single-core performance, they match evenly when comparing loads across four threads, and the mobile CPU can pull ahead when using all its eight threads parallel versus the i3’s four.

Choosing the cheapest desktop CPU that matches the i7-6500HQ’s four cores, the i5-6400 (four threads on four cores, 2.7GHz), the mobile i7 is beaten in quad-core performance as well, only retaining its all-cores win.

Looking at the cheapest desktop CPU to match four cores/eight threads, the ‘performance’ class desktop i7-6700 obliterates its mobile cousin with a 25% lead across all benchmarks.

With the i7-6700HQ’s ‘performance’ rating comes a good price hike: The cheapest i7-6700HQ-equipped notebook I could find is the Acer Aspire V5-591G-76R6 for 850 EUR. The desktop CPUs can be had for 140 EUR (i3-6300), 167 EUR (i5-6400), and 295 EUR (i7-6700) respectively. Feature-comparable desktop systems will cost you 614 EUR (i3-6300) and 641 EUR (i5-6400) respectively. Note that the ~300 EUR desktop i7 also outruns the more expensive mobile i7 models, and you can’t even have one of those unless you put at least 1777 EUR on the counter for the Lenovo ThinkPad T460p.

Conclusion

I think I see a pattern here: The notebook CPUs are running slower than their desktop equivalents, so you can either get something a few steps down the technology ladder that performs about the same on average, while the notebook chips retain some advantages from their more complex technology. Or you match technological make-up, where the desktop chips run circles around their notebook counterparts.

Example Builds in Detail

Just so you don’t have to take my word for the complete system prices, here’s how they happened:

First is a set of peripherals you need with every desktop computer: A screen, input devices, and speakers. We’ll add the sum of these to every build.

needed peripherals:

cheap 1920×1080 screen          ~110 eur
cheap mouse and keyboard         ~20 eur
cheap speakers                   ~15 eur
----------------------------------------
peripherals total               ~145 eur

Let’s see the two builds to compare against the cheaper i7-6500U notebook, the Lenovo IdeaPad 300-15ISK. First, one using the Pentium G4400, then with the i3-6100.

i7-6500U equal-punch budget build:

cpu:  pentium g4400                55 eur
mobo: asrock h110m-dvs/d3          48 eur
ram:  8gb ddr3l                    35 eur
storage:
      seagate desktop 500gb hdd    32 eur
      dvd-rw drive                 10 eur
case: cheap-ass whatever           20 eur
psu:  not-irresponsible 300w psu   35 eur
-----------------------------------------
hardware total                    235 eur
+ peripherals                     145 eur
+ windows 10 home                  50 eur
-----------------------------------------
sum total                         430 eur

Compared to the notebook’s 477 EUR, we’re coming out almost 100 EUR cheaper on the hardware, plus some 50 EUR for Windows 10. And while this build is mostly cheap-ass parts, you’re still getting a better screen, more memory, and more USB ports. (It’s not like you get quality components in a cheap notebook either.)

i7-6500U comparable-tech budget build:

cpu:  i3-6100                     111 eur  (+56 eur)
mobo: asrock h110m-dvs/d3          48 eur
ram:  8gb ddr3l                    35 eur
storage:
      seagate desktop 500gb hdd    32 eur
      dvd-rw drive                 10 eur
case: cheap-ass whatever           20 eur
psu:  not-irresponsible 300w psu   35 eur
-----------------------------------------
hardware total                    291 eur  (+56 eur)
+ peripherals                     145 eur
+ windows 10 home                  50 eur
-----------------------------------------
sum total                         486 eur  (+56 eur)

the i3 only added a bit more than 50 EUR to the list and didn’t require any other changes, so we’re still ahead of the notebook’s hardware while now on a 30% faster CPU. Adding Windows 10 makes it roughly match the notebook’s fiscal footprint.

Let’s see what we can do with the Acer Aspire V5-591G-76R6’s 850 EUR budget. I’ll use the i5-6400 for the comparable-tech build since using 8 threads is a rather specialised and rare occurrence. (Think video editing, running multiple virtual machines, etc.)

i7-6700HQ equal-punch budget build:

cpu:  i3-6300                     140 eur
mobo: msi h110m pro-d              50 eur
ram:  8gb ddr4                     30 eur
gpu:  amd radeon r7 260           100 eur
storage:
      seagate desktop hdd 1tb      44 eur
case: cheap-ass whatever           20 eur
psu:  not-irresponsible 300w psu   35 eur
-----------------------------------------
hardware total:                   419 eur
+ peripherals                     145 eur
+ windows 10 home                  50 eur
-----------------------------------------
sum total:                        614 eur

Choosing the graphics card was a heavy bit of guesswork, since mobile GPUs are notoriously slower than their desktop counterparts. If this was to be a realistic build, i’d just advocate either spending more of the price difference on the graphics card, or leaving it out if you don’t plan on gaming. 50 EUR more already gets you a GTX 950, and 150 EUR more puts you in the market for the AMD Radeon RX480 and the upcoming GTX 1060. Both outrun the notebook’s GPU by miles. Let’s see what things look like when we go for the more powerful i5 CPU:

i7-6700HQ comparable-tech budget build:

cpu:  i5-6400                     167 eur  (+27 eur)
mobo: msi h110m pro-d              50 eur
ram:  8gb ddr4                     30 eur
gpu:  amd radeon r7 260           100 eur
storage:
      seagate desktop hdd 1tb      44 eur
case: cheap-ass whatever           20 eur
psu:  not-irresponsible 300w psu   35 eur
-----------------------------------------
hardware total:                   446 eur  (+27 eur)
+ peripherals                     145 eur
+ windows 10 home                  50 eur
-----------------------------------------
sum total:                        641 eur  (+27 eur)

Ok, this makes a negligible price difference, so the i3 wasn’t an economically sensible choice to begin with. We could probably slap the i7-6700 in there and come out way ahead in performance at still comparable prices. It would be a lopsided build, though, with the graphics card holding it back in games, a lousy storage situation, etc.

Also, I don’t really like these example builds with the many cheap & shitty parts. Building a computer yourself is about choice, so let’s choose a little more responsibly.

kinda responsible graduating-from-notebook build

cpu:  i3-6100                     111 eur
mobo: msi h110m pro-d              50 eur
ram:  corsair vengeance lpx 2×4gb  40 eur
gpu:  amd radeon rx480 4gb        220 eur
storage:
      samsung 850 evo 120gb        70 eur
      western digital 1tb blue     50 eur
case: fractal design core 1500     50 eur
psu:  be quiet! pure power 9 400w  50 eur
-----------------------------------------
hardware total                    641 eur

This, to me, looks like something fairly ok to build for ‘graduating’ from a notebook: No part here sets the world on fire, but there’s no obvious cheap crap either, and it shouldn’t serve you too bad if you don’t need to play every AAA game on high details. Way better than a notebook you’d get for the money, at the very least.

The SSD for installing the operating system & programs on will make the computer boot & feel much faster than either of the notebooks, or the previous builds. Because big SSDs are expensive, we buy a small one and pair it with 1TB of traditional HDD storage for keeping all your stuff.

Plus, the Fractal Design case is a sturdy, well-designed, and quite feature-rich box for mainboards up to µATX size. It comes with two fans for moving air through the case and plenty of room to put more stuff in – this is an investment you’ll keep around for many future builds, as are the SSD and hard disk. The power supply should have enough headroom that you can swap a component for a bigger one later without worry.

Easy tweaks:

  • swap the CPU for an i5-6400 (+56 EUR) or i5-6500 (+84 EUR) for more computing power
  • get an H170 µATX mainboard (+30 EUR or more) for more USB ports (external HDDs, scanners, printers, etc) or other features you might like
  • get 16 GB RAM because 16 is better than 8 (+20 EUR)
  • maybe wait a little on the RX480 – right now, it’s a strong contender at its price point, but nVIDIA’s just-announced GTX 1060 (~250 USD announced price) will likely give it hell while drawing less power.
  • if games aren’t interesting for you, drop the graphics card, spend some of the leftovers on CPU/RAM/mainboard and scale down the power supply accordingly. Then, save an additional 50 EUR by installing Linux Mint or Ubuntu instead of Windows.

Bottom Line

Sacrificing the notebook’s portability gets you more bang for the buck: Either you don’t do anything that requires much computing power and get by with a cheaper system that performs no worse, or the same money gets you something significantly more powerful.

These margins are getting larger the more powerful the notebooks become. So there is a point to portable low-horsepower systems that you don’t have to break the bank for – but please do so informedly. Know what you gain and what you lose, and go for it if that fits your needs. The more you want both power and portability, the higher the premium you’re going to have to pay.

When considering games, notebooks don’t do you any favours, period. You’re stuck with mobile CPUs and GPUs that will limit you to fractions of even a modest desktop system’s power. While up front investment into a desktop system is likely to be higher, don’t forget how much more value you are buying by being able to switch out single parts or keep reusing serviceable ones in future builds.

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