Ivy Bridge. Piledriver. Kepler. 20nm NAND. A long-awaited new generation of Xeon processors.
A lot has happened since the last update of the System Guide.
With such significant changes across the board, performance jumps up throughout all three System Guide boxes. Performance benefits are huge in some areas, modest in others, purely cost-saving in still others. Power consumption is further refined in this generation, particularly with video cards, and additional improvements in power supply efficiency never hurts.
From old to new
New/updated CPU architectures from Intel (Ivy Bridge) and AMD (Piledriver) grace the System Guide. Updated graphics card architectures from Nvidia (Kepler) and AMD (Southern Islands) improve both performance and power consumption. Smaller, cheaper flash memory now exists (newer, smaller 20nm NAND, vs. older 25nm and 34nm NAND). And Xeons based on Sandy Bridge-E/EN/EP are included here as opposed to the older Gulftown/Westmere-EP chips.
Other articles cover these changes in-depth, particularly in areas such as CPU microarchitecture and graphics card design. Flash memory and solid state drives now occupy entire sections on major tech websites, with pages and pages written about flash controllers, performance, reliability, and all sort of other things.
We’ll focus more on the tangible benefits for the System Guide: better overall performance and performance for your dollar (aka value), while trying to stay within the average enthusiast’s budget for a new system.
System Guide Basics
The main Ars System Guide is a three-system affair, with the traditional Budget Box, Hot Rod, and God Box addressing three different price points in the market from modest to a little crazy. The main System Guide’s boxes are general-purpose systems with a strong gaming focus, which results in fairly well-rounded boxes suitable for most enthusiast use or as a solid starting point to spin off into a variety of configurations.
Previous Ars system guides
The low end of the scale, the Budget Box, is still a capable gaming machine despite its reasonable price tag ($600-$800). A capable discrete video card gives it reasonable punch for gaming, while sufficient CPU power and memory ensure it’s good for everything else. The Hot Rod represents what we think is a reasonable higher-end general-purpose computer that packs plenty of gaming performance. We’ve adjusted the price tag a few times recently, from $1400-1600 down to $1200-1400… and now, perhaps back up to the old point to reflect new capabilities and jumps in performance. The God Box remains a showcase or a starting point for workstation builders or enthusiasts who believe in overkill with a capital “O.” It may not do exactly what you want, but it should be an excellent starting point for anyone with a good idea of their truly high-end computing needs—be it gaming to excess after winning the lottery, taking advantage of GPU computing, or storing and editing tons of HD video.
The short take would be: the Budget Box is for those who are seeking the most bang for their buck. The Hot Rod is for enthusiasts with a larger budget, but who still know that there’s a sweet spot between performance and price. The God Box, as excessive as it is, always has a slight dose of moderation (mentioned in previous guides as “God wouldn’t be a glutton”).
Each box is set up with a full set of recommendations, down to mouse, keyboard, and speakers. As these are general-purpose boxes, we skip things like game controllers and $100 gaming mice, although the God Box does get something a bit nicer. We also discuss alternative configurations and upgrades.
But today’s guide reflects the appearance of affordable SSDs and the recent spike in hard disk prices, the video card battle between AMD and Nvidia, and the plethora of monitor choices if you have a little more money to spend.
As a side note, we do address other systems in our occasional Specialty System Guides. Green computing, more gaming-focused setups at slightly different price points, an even lower-cost office/”mom” box known as the Ultimate Budget Box, HTPCs, and others. A particularly large gap exists between the Hot Rod and God Box, which is filled by the occasional Gaming Boxes. If you don’t see anything that interests you here, please feel free to check them out.
The big changes
Big changes since the last update seem to fit into three major areas: new GPUs, new CPUs, and cheaper SSDs.
The last few generations of video cards have brought fairly significant gains and occasionally lower power consumption. AMD’s Southern Islands GPU family, represented by the Radeon HD 7700/7800/7900-series cards, and Nvidia’s Kepler GPU in the GTX 600-series all bring performance improvements over their older counterparts. Recent releases of the lower-end Kepler GPUs have given some much-needed competition in the Budget Box and slightly above, too, forcing price cuts from AMD to match.
Intel’s new Ivy Bridge CPUs bring better performance and lower power consumption at similar price-points to the older Sandy Bridge chips. Extreme overclockers dealing with Intel’s new 22nm manufacturing process may prefer to stick to Sandy Bridge (on Intel’s more mature 32nm process), while the budget-priced dual-core Ivy Bridge chips have yet to come out.
AMD remains less competitive than some would hope, with their latest Piledriver update looking good but not good enough to beat Ivy Bridge at higher price points. Piledriver makes an appearance in AMD’s low-cost Trinity APU, though, where it looks much more competitive. It should make for an interesting Budget Box.
As a significant note for the God Box, Intel has finally updated their Xeons to the Sandy Bridge-E processors, a very welcome if somewhat belated update.
Finally, SSDs (solid-state drives) continue to get cheaper and cheaper, cracking the $1/GB barrier and even the $0.85/GB barrier with regularity. Even getting down to $0.50/GB after rebate is happening for patient shoppers. This kind of storage performance improvement is a rare thing, and at this price, an SSD is a serious consideration for every box in the main System Guide.
And with all that, on to the Budget Box.
Listing image by Aurich Lawson