How Low Can You Go? Budget Gaming PC Test

LZ7 Tested with Fallout 4 and an Xbox One Elite Controller

I’ve wanted to play Battlefield 1 and Fallout 4 since they came out but I’ve just been too busy. With the Christmas holidays upon on us it was the ideal opportunity for some well earned gaming time!

Unfortunately I’ve not got access to my main gaming system (LZ7 with i5 and GTX 1070), however I do have a spare GTX 960 without a home. In desperation I’ve had to try and re-purpose some older parts to build some kind of machine that can run these games.

 

Here is the GTX 960 Graphics Card that I’m going to use:

Gigabyte GTX 960 4Gb OC
Gigabyte GTX 960 4Gb OC

The only problem is the spare processors I have are lacking in power compared to modern desktop CPU’s, this gave me the idea to run an experiment whilst trying to enjoy the games (if this was possible with low-end CPUs).

This is what I aim to find out:

  • Can you play modern games on old or low powered hardware when using a modern Graphics Card?
  • How much CPU power do you need to get a playable experience?
  • Can you build a cheap (console price) gaming PC to play the latest games?

Hopefully these questions can be answered in the article below.

TEST SYSTEM 1 – AMD ATHLON 5350 + GTX 960

First up is a 25W TDP quad core Athlon 5350 with a very slight overclock at 2.1Ghz running on an MSI AM1i with 8Gb of (Single Channel) DDR3 1600 RAM and the GTX 960 sat snug in an LZ7 on my desk:

LZ7 tested with GTX 960 and Battlefield 1

You may notice the cup of tea and Mince Pie, how very British!

But probably more interesting is the Xbox One Elite Controller, this was a really cool Christmas present off……. myself!  On a serious note though, this controller feels absolutely amazing to hold, the quality is off the chart incredible. From a looks and feel perspective this is by far the best controller I’ve ever seen or held.  But that’s exactly what you would expect given its high price tag, I wonder if it performs as well as its built:

LZ7 Tested with Fallout 4 and an Xbox One Elite Controller

TEST SYSTEM 2 – INTEL i3-3240 + GTX 960

The second system is a 55W Intel Core i3-3240 running at 3.4Ghz on an Asrock B75 motherboard with 8Gb of (Dual Channel) DDR3 1600 RAM.

This system is my server PC which was already built up, I just dropped in the same GTX 960 for the purpose of this testing.  Excuse the messy cable management, its usually sat out of sight in a cupboard:

Intel i3-3240 and GTX 960 tested with Battlefield 1
Headphones for scale! Intel i3-3240 and GTX 960

RESULTS – BATTLEFIELD 1

GTX 960 + AMD Athlon 5350 @ 2.1Ghz Quad Core:

Single Player @ 1080p

  • Low Settings           = 30 FPS (Average)
  • Medium Settings   = 27 FPS (Average)
  • High Settings         = 23 FPS (Average)
  • Ultra Settings        = 21 FPS (Average)

Multiplayer @ 1080p

  • Low Settings           = 15 FPS (Average)
  • Medium Settings   = 14 FPS (Average)
  • High Settings         = 14 FPS (Average)
  • Ultra Settings        = 13 FPS (Average)

 

GTX 960 + Intel Core i3-3240 @ 3.4GHz Dual Core:

Single Player @ 1080p

  • Low Settings           = 60 FPS (Average)
  • Medium Settings   = 58 FPS (Average)
  • High Settings         = 49 FPS (Average)
  • Ultra Settings        = 44 FPS (Average)

Multiplayer @ 1080p

  • Low Settings           = 53 FPS (Average)
  • Medium Settings   = 49 FPS (Average)
  • High Settings         = 45 FPS (Average)
  • Ultra Settings        = 42 FPS (Average)

 

RESULTS – FALLOUT 4

 

GTX 960 + AMD Athlon 5350 @ 2.1Ghz Quad Core:

Campaign @ 1080p

  • Low Settings           = 45 FPS (Average)
  • Medium Settings   = 43 FPS (Average)
  • High Settings         = 37 FPS (Average)
  • Ultra Settings        = 35 FPS (Average)

 

GTX 960 + Intel Core i3-3240 @ 3.4GHz Dual Core:

Campaign @ 1080p

  • Low Settings           = 60 FPS (Average)
  • Medium Settings   = 60 FPS (Average)
  • High Settings         = 60 FPS (Average)
  • Ultra Settings        = 60 FPS (Average)

 

 

PERFORMANCE SUMMARY

To put things into context here are some comparative CPU benchmark scores which can be found on the Passmark website. I’ve dropped in a few modern (Skylake) processors for reference as well:

PASSMARK SCORES

  • AMD Athlon 5350       (25W – 2.0Ghz Quad Core)              = 2,563 (807 Single Thread)
  • Intel i3-3240                (55W – 3.4Ghz Dual Core)               = 4,293 (1810 Single Thread)
  • Intel Pentium G4500 (55W – 3.5Ghz Dual Core)               = 3,971 (1977 Single Thread)
  • Intel Core i3-6100       (54W – 3.7Ghz Dual Core)               = 5,442 (2104 Single Thread)
  • Intel Core i5-6500       (65W – up to 3.6GHz Quad Core)  =  7,124 (1947 Single Thread
  • Intel Core i7-6700       (65W – up to 4.0Ghz Quad Core)   = 10,024 (2157 Single Thread)

As you would expect for its low price and low power draw, the Athlon 5350 is significantly slower compared to modern desktop class processors, especially when you look at the single thread performance.  However, the 5350 still managed to to run the 2 modern games I tested with some OK results, all things considered.

The Intel Core 55W i3-3240 isn’t quite up to the same performance levels as the newer Skylake i3-6100, it falls short by around 15% in the single threaded performance scores, but it has more than double the performance per core over the 25W Athlon 5350, this difference is evident when you compare the FPS of each processor.

BATTLEFIELD 1

Playing Battlefield 1 on the Athlon 5350 was a mixed bag, the Single player campaign was able to run at around 30 FPS @ 1080p with the details set to low, this was definitely a playable experience and the graphics still looked pretty good, however it did suffer from frequent frame rate drops into the low 20’s which got a little annoying, but not to the point of being unplayable.  Swapping to the Intel i3-3240, the GTX 960 doubled in FPS achieving a stable 60 FPS @ 1080p with details set to low and 49 FPS with the details set to High.

Multiplayer was a different story, the Athlon 5350 simply isn’t powerful enough to run the game and limits the performance of the GTX 960, achieving 15 FPS average @ 1080p on low settings, this is far below acceptable levels for online play and was not an enjoyable experience.  Again moving to the i3-3240 resulted in a much more playable frame-rate, upwards of 40 FPS with the settings turned up, not too bad for a state of the art game running on a 5 year old Core i3.

FALLOUT 4

Moving on to Fallout 4, surprisingly the Athlon 5350 put in a good performance averaging 37 FPS on High settings @ 1080p, this felt smooth enough to play the game properly and didn’t dip below 30 FPS very often.  However when the GTX 960 is paired with the more powerful i3-3240 the frame rate is consistently above 60 FPS at the same resolution and detail settings, allowing you to turn the settings right up to Ultra level for the full graphical experience.

CONCLUSION

On both games you can see that the Athlon 5350 is limiting the overall capability of the Graphics Card, it is a bottleneck.  During BF1 gameplay the Gigabyte software was reporting that the GTX 960 was using less than 40% of its graphics processing capability, whereas when used with the i3-3240 utilisation was above 80%.  This shows there is still some bottle-necking happening even with the i3, but no where near as much.

Pairing the 5350 with a lower powered GPU such as the GTX 950 or R7 360 would result in a much more balanced system at a lower price.

It is difficult to recommend the 5350 as a gaming CPU even when you consider its high value for money, it simply isn’t powerful enough for the latest CPU hungry games.  If you spend around £25 more you can pick up a much more capable desktop grade Intel Core-i3 and motherboard.  At this end of the budget spectrum that extra £25 makes a huge difference in performance, allowing you to play modern games more comfortably.

A CPU with a Passmark score above 3,500 and a Single Thread score of 1,500 or above should be sufficient to play the latest games at 1080p.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

 

IS BUDGET PC GAMING WORTH IT?

Can you build a gaming PC that can play the latest games for the equivalent price of an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 console?

The parts used in the systems from this article can be purchased second hand on sites such as EBay at good prices, so if you don’t mind using pre-owned stuff you can build a potent gaming PC for a couple hundred pound/euros/dollars equivalent to what I have been testing today:

SYSTEM 1

  • AMD Athlon 5350 CPU (£25)
  • AM1 Motherboard (£20)
  • 8Gb DDR3 RAM (£20)
  • SFX PSU (£15)
  • 500Gb HDD (£20)
  • GTX 960 (£90)
  • Case (£10)

TOTAL COST = £200

 This configuration is limited by the power of the CPU, but it still manages to deliver playable gaming in modern titles if you don’t mind dialling down the settings.

Lowering the GPU to a GTX 950 will give a more balanced system and reduce the price further.  At £200 its a nice budget friendly system, ideal as a first gaming PC for younger family members, or great for playing games from a few years ago with the settings turned up!

Would I recommend this particular system over a current gen console?  Not if you want to play the latest games, for around the same £200 price point you can purchase a brand new entry level 500Gb PlayStation 4.  A console offers simple and effective hassle free gaming, perhaps not the best graphics, but at this end of the budget spectrum a Gaming PC requires compromise and lots of time tweaking settings to get a smooth playable experience in new games.

Spend a bit more money on the CPU and your PC gaming experience will become much more enjoyable.

 

SYSTEM 2

  • Intel i3-3240 (£35)
  • Socket 1150 Motherboard (£40)
  • 8Gb DDR3 RAM (£20)
  • ATX PSU (£10)
  • 500Gb HDD (£20)
  • GTX 960 (£90)
  • Case (£10)

TOTAL COST = £225

For under £250 you could build an Intel Ivy Bridge powered system.  Even though the i3-3240 is only a dual core chip (2 threads per core), the cores are clocked high and delivery very fast single core performance, this benefits modern titles more than a quad core with low single thread performance such as the Athlon 5350.

The step up in CPU performance led to a much smoother experience all round, not only in terms of being able to turn up the detail settings but also the fact that you could just fire up a game and jump straight into playing with minimal fuss and a much smoother overall experience.

Would I recommend this particular system over a current gen games console?  Yes, If you don’t mind the odd bit of tinkering.  Pairing the GTX 960 with a high clock speed CPU allows the Graphics Card to use its full potential and extract the full value of the system.

Although priced slightly higher than a 500Gb PlayStation 4, this configuration has stronger graphical capability offering a smooth Full HD experience which the latest consoles can struggle with, often resorting to a lower screen resolution to achieve stable frame-rates.

MODERN ENTRY LEVEL GAMING PC

If you want to build a 1080p (Full HD) capable SFF (small form factor) gaming PC using modern budget friendly components, then I would recommend something along these lines:

  • Intel Pentium G4500 CPU (£64)
  • Asus H110I-PLUS ITX Motherboard (£71)
  • 8Gb DDR4 2133 RAM (£58)
  • Silverstone ST30SF SFX PSU (£45)
  • 500Gb HDD (£35)
  • NVidia GTX 1050 (£120)
  • LZ7 Case (£110)

TOTAL COST = £503

The Pentium G4500 has a Passmark score of 3,971 and a single threaded score slightly higher than the i3-3240 tested above, therefore you can expect similar gaming performance from the Pentium G4500 with the added benefit of lower power consumption.

The GTX 1050 is a solid 1080p graphics card with around the same performance as a previous gen GTX 960, capable of delivering smooth frame-rates in the latest games on mid to high settings, easily outgunning a current gen games console in the graphical firepower department.

All of this can fit nicely inside the LZ7 case which measures just 7 liters in volume. For a console style user experience you can install software such as Steam with its Big Picture mode, add a wireless controller and you’ve got yourself a very capable gaming system with the size and convenience of a console,  but the practicality and customisation of a PC.  Once you factor in the accessories and software the price should come in around £600.

 

Leave a Reply