Which Components Have Hit The Sweet Spot? (Part 2)

1/19/2013 3:40:50 PM

Intel Socket 1155 Chips

Whether you’re buying new or upgrading an old system, you’re likely to be looking for an Intel Socket 1155 chip. That’s because both the last generation Sandy Bridge and current generation Ivy Bridge platforms use the same, mutually compatible socket.

In absolute terms, Intel CPUs invariably perform far better than AMD’s for the same money, especially in real-world situations like gaming. The multi-core design of AMD chips mean benchmarks results often look higher than they are, because benchmarks can use more than four cores together in ways that ‘real’ software doesn’t. If you’re building a high-end system, you should automatically disregard AMD chips because even the best can’t really compete with Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 lines, whether Sandy or Ivy Bridge.

The i5 3570K, an overclocker’s dream

The i5 3570K, an overclocker’s dream

At the high-end of the market, Intel’s Core i7 line is fairly evenly matched for value. The Core i7-3770K, Core i7-3770 and i7-2700K are priced at $401, $377 and $361 respectively, and the decline in performance is indexed almost exactly to their prices.

Personally, we’d immediately disregard the i7-3770, because its locked multiplier means you won’t be able to overclock it, and the prodigious overclocking capabilities of Intel’s K chips are what really sell the Sandy & Ivy Bridge lines. The question is then up to you as to whether you’d rather have an Ivy Bridge chip or a Sandy Bridge chip. If you don’t have an Ivy Bridge motherboard, go for the i7-2700K. If you do, get the i7-3770K.

However, it’s the mid-range of the market is where the real bargains can be had. When you look at Intel’s Core i5 line, creative overclocking and cooling can elicit performances equivalent to the levels of the best Core i7’s, so there’s even more reason to spend your money on them.

The best i5 on the market at the moment, the Core i5-3570K ($280) isn’t especially good or bad value - but it has real potential. If you’re not planning to overclock, then its close competitor, the Core i5-3550 ($248) is the second best i5 on price and value as well as performance. However, neither it, nor the best value i5 chip out-of the box (the i5-3470, at $232) are overclockable, which severely impacts their desirability for those hoping to get excellent performance at low prices. Interestingly, the multiplier-unlocked Sandy Bridge i5s, such as the i5-2550k and i5-2500k, are both more expensive at retail than the competing Ivy Bridge chips, because their architecture means they run slightly cooler and are more desirable to overclockers.

With these factors taken into account, we’d advise bargain-hunters to go for the i5-3570K. While it’s the most expensive in absolute terms, and ‘only’ middle of the road in terms of retail value, with a decent cooler you can overclock it to extremes that are so much fun, the price hardly matters. The caveat we’d offer is that if you’re not the sort of person who likes to stretch your hardware, buy an i5-3470 instead not only is it the best value Intel CPU out of the box (from any line), but it performs well against all of the other i5 chips except the i5-3570K (which outperforms them all).

And finally, if you’re looking for a lower-end chip, you’ll obviously want to try out a Core i3, and in that case the best options are either an i3-3220 ($152) or an i3-2120 ($141). Both 3.3GHz CPUs are substantially better performing than the i3 chips around them, and there’s very little between them. At this price level, you’re not going to be doing huge amounts of gaming with either chip, so we’re tempted to recommend the cheaper Core i3-2120 outright – but the fact that the i3-3220 is an Ivy Bridge chip with Intel HD Graphics 2500 (compared to the i3-2120’s Intel HD Graphics 2000) means that it just about edges the latter out with its slightly superior graphics capabilities, which matter a lot in low-end systems that don’t have their own graphics cards.


High-End: Intel Core i7-3770K (or Intel Core i7-2700K)

Low-End: Intel Core i3-3220

Overall: Intel Core i5-3570K

Graphics Cards

If you’re a gamer, the one thing in a computer which matters more than the CPU is the graphics card. While desktop and workstation users can get away with the onboard graphics provided by modern processors, if you want a game to look good, you have to use a dedicated card. Even a low-end one will result in huge visual improvements and, if you already have a reasonably fast CPU, then a new graphics card is the most affordable way to up your framerates.

AMD Radeon HD 7970 graphics card

AMD Radeon HD 7970 graphics card

Although the graphics cards market can superficially be divided up into AMD’s Radeon line and Nvidia’s GeForce line, this doesn’t strike us as particularly helpful -after all, unlike the CPU market, there’s no huge division between the performance and pricing of AMD and Nvidia graphics cards and no real barriers to buying either, other than ill-advised loyalty. Instead, we’ve sub-divided them by price bracket and, rather than make this a game about raw specs, we’ve once again used the results available from PassMark. We’ve settled on what we believe is a clear of how a graphics card is performing: dividing the PassMark score by the price to give us a rating for how good value each card was for its power. By comparing that number to those generated by rivals that retail within the same price bands; we can once again see which peripheral gets you the most power for the least money.

Sub-$160 Graphics Cards

Although this position was hotly-challenged by the Radeon HD 7770, the eventual winner was the GeForce GTX 650 (1GB version) which can be picked up for as little as $138, a decent chunk cheaper than the Radeon’s $152.

The two cards aren’t hugely dissimilar: they’re both latest generation models at the lower-end of their range, both contain 28nm chips, and both use 1GB of RAM. However, while the Radeon HD 7770 was very slightly better value in terms of its benchmark results, the cheaper absolute price of the GeForce GTX 650, considered alongside its slightly lower power consumption and its support for OpenGL 4.3 makes it the one we’d recommend for people shopping at this level.

GeForce GTX 650

GeForce GTX 650 graphics card

In all fairness, many of these benefits only exist because the card is some six months newer than its Radeon-based rival but they also mean it has a longer life ahead of it, another factor that ultimately makes it the better choice.


$160-$319 Graphics Cards

This time there were three cards vying for the position of best value, all priced between $240 and $289. The Radeon HD 7870 ($289) is one of the company’s top cards, and the one with the highest benchmark score in PassMark’s listings. It’s also the most expensive. Like its rivals, it has 2GB of RAM, and uses the latest generation technology. The problem is, it’s really trying to compete with those a level above this price point, and that means AMD has sacrificed much of the card’s value for a performance increase.

AMD Radeon HD 7850.

AMD Radeon HD 7850

The slightly cheaper Radeon HD 7850 ($240) turned out to be better value than its 7000-series sibling, despite poorer performance overall. It also edged out the GeForce GTX 660 (the non-Ti version) which, at $272, performed better, but sacrificed a little more value to do so. If you can find a GeForce 660 for less than $260, it’d be a clear, easy choice – we couldn’t, unfortunately.


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