Ultimate AMD PC: what to buy and how to build it

Are AMD CPU's really the weak link we've been led to believe?

Upping the ante to six cores and Radeon HD 7 Series graphics

mid-range rig

Enough is enough. That's the philosophy underpinning this entire AMD escapade. Forget about performance for performance's sake. Don't go chasing 150 frames per second when 50 feels fine.

Of course, you can overdo the penny pinching too. In that context, it's this mid-range solution that really nails it on paper. For starters, we've added an extra Bulldozer CPU module courtesy of a six-core FX 6000 series CPU. Given that the Bulldozer design is all about efficient performance scaling with multiple threads, it makes sense to up the core count a bit.

In the process we've lost a little in the sheer frequency stakes compared with the dual-module, four-core FX 4170 from the budget rig. But we're still talking more than 4GHz in Turbo mode. The FX 6200 is no slouch.

If our argument makes any sense, however, even more significant is the upgrade from last-generation AMD Radeon HD 6850 graphics to a board sporting a spangly new Radeon HD 7000 series GPU. As this is a mid-range setup, maximum bang for buck is what it's all about, and the second-tier GPU in second string trim is where it's almost always at. Enter a Radeon HD 7850, right?

Actually, no. A brief perusal of prevailing pricing revealed that the gap twixt the HD 7850 and the slightly superior 7870 was only slim. Critically, we're talking about the comparison between boards with 2GB of memory. There are some super-cheap 1GB 7850s out there, but in our view, they're very much a false economy. A mere 1GB of memory isn't enough to run the latest games at high detail settings and full HD 1080p. You run out of memory and end up swapping graphics data over the PCI Express. And that absolutely hammers your frame rates, and in turn blows this whole AMD argument apart.

A Radeon HD 7870 with 2GB of memory it is, then. Again, we're mostly interested with performance in isolation. But in comparison terms, the yardsticks are the entry level AMD rig overleaf and an Intel platform powered by the more expensive combo of an Intel Core i5-3570K CPU and a Z77 chipset.

Real performance

Straight out of the blocks, it's apparent that the FX 6200 chip and 7870 graphics are operating on a higher level than the cheaper AMD platform. With one exception, the games in our test suite are slick, smooth and playable at 1080p with the eye candy maxed out and 4x anti-aliasing.

Take Max Payne 3. It steps up from 29 frames per second with the FX 4170 and Radeon HD 6850 to 42 frames per second. Even more impressive, DiRT: Showdown ticks along at fully 38 frames per second, even with global illumination enabled.

As for Just Cause, this mid-range machine gives it a solid 74fps spanking. The only snag is the beautiful but demanding Metro 2033. An average of 25 frames per second isn't good enough. Step down from very high detail to high detail, turn off anti-aliasing and the result is a much more palatable 37 frames per second and genuine playability, though you can still expect the odd stutter and stall when things get really messy on screen.

In isolation then, this setup doesn't quite achieve the Holy Grail of no-worries gaming. Put another way, you can't fire up any game, set everything to maximum and know you're going to get playable frame rates. That will work most of the time, but just occasionally, you'll be disappointed.

But what if the same is true of the Intel platform? Well, guess, what? It actually is. We ran that Core i5-3570K and Z77 chipset with precisely the same Radeon HD 7870 board. And get this. It was only one frame per second faster at maximum. One pathetic frame. It's not a lot considering the Intel combo will cost you well in excess of an extra £100.

Admittedly, the gap in Max Payne 3 was bigger. Intel's 52 frames per second plays AMD's 42fps, but as we keep saying, it's not the digits that matter, it's the experience. And in all likelihood you'd no more notice 52 versus 42 than 26 versus 25. In both cases, Intel's victory is purely academic and doesn't justify the price differential.

That's an absolutely fascinating result when you bear in mind that the Core i5-3570K annihilates the FX 6200 in traditional CPU tests. Cinebench 11 is a nice example. Intel scores just over six points. AMD can only manage 3.76.

It's a similar (if slightly less extreme) story with x264 HD video encoding, with Intel cranking out 34 frames per second to AMD's 27. Unless you have a habit of sitting there and watching rendering or encode jobs do their thing, however, how much does that matter?

Whatever, the comparison between the Core i5 and AMD FX here proves that your money is better spent on graphics than CPU power. There's a £60 price gap between those two chips and given a limited budget, we're completely convinced you'll get more gaming mileage piling that money into the best graphics card you can manage.

At this stage we probably need to emphasise once again that we're not saying there's no difference between the AMD and Intel CPUs here. Our benchmarks of recent years have not been wrong. We've not uncovered a hideous flaw in Intel's CPU architecture. All we've shown is that the difference is mostly, if not entirely, inconsequential when it comes to the experience.

It's thoroughly liberating to be able to say that. Trust us, year after year of predictable CPU reviews with the same company winning over and over is no fun. If you've got the money, Intel is a great choice, but it's not the only choice. And that's probably something we haven't emphasised enough.

Motherboard

MSI 990XA-GD55

Vital statistics
Price: £83
Manufacturer: MSI
Web: http://uk.msi.com
Socket: AM3+
Chipset: AMD 990X with SB950
Storage: 6x SATA 6Gbps USB 8x USB 2.0, 2x USB 3.0
Memory: DDR3 up to 1,866MHz
Graphics: 1x PCIe 2.0 x16, 1x PCIe 2.0 x8

Make no mistake. In pure performance terms, you'll get away with a cheaper motherboard based on the 970 chipset, like Gigabyte's GA-970A-UD3. In fact, you'd be just fine with an even cheaper 970 for around £65. But for less than £20 extra, this 990X is certainly worth a look.

The extra cash buys you MSI's Military Class components throughout, including solid capacitors and super ferrite chokes. If that means nothing to you, the bottom line is improved stability and reliability. What's more, you also get MSI OC Genie auto-overclocking utility, albeit without an easy-access button.

Oh, and there's support for both CrossFire and SLI in dual-card mode courtesy of the x16 and x8 PCI Express 2.0 ports. The latter means you've got all the major bases covered in terms of features and technology. That's got to be worth a few extra quid.

Verdict: 4.5/5

Graphics card

AMD RADEON HD 7870 GE

Vital statistics
Price: £180
Manufacturer: AMD
Web: www.amd.com
Chipset: AMD Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition
Memory: 2GB GDDR
Memory bus: 256-bit
Core clock: 1,000MHz
Stream shaders: 1,280
Process technology: 28nm

We're in reference card territory here in terms of our test board. But for the record, you can snag a 2GB Radeon HD 7870 board with a core clock in excess of 1GHz for just under £180.

For that you get a 256-bit beast that can very nearly handle anything you bung at it. Hang it all out at 1080p and this card just delivers. With one exception: it couldn't quite stomach our challenging Metro 2033 benchmark. Not at full detail with anti-aliasing enabled.

That said, the 7870's most impressive showing is in DiRT Showdown with global illumination enabled. The supposedly mighty combo of Intel Core i5-3570K and NVIDIA GeForce GTX 670 crumbled in the face of that test. But the little old 7870? Paired up with an AMD FX 6200 six-core CPU, it absolutely flies.

Verdict: 4.5/5

CPU

AMD FX 6200

Vital statistics
Price: £101
Manufacturer: AMD
Web: www.amd.com
Clockspeed: 3.8GHz, 4.1GHz
Turbo Cache: 4MB L2, 8MB L3
Socket: AM3+
Process technology: 32nm
Memory: DDR3 up to 1,866MHz
TDP: 125W

Most games don't scale well when you add CPU cores. We didn't think we'd be saying that in late 2012, and yet the brave new world of massively multi-core computing we were promised by Intel and others as long as five years ago still hasn't turned up.

In that context, you might not fancy this six-core AMD FX's chances. But here's the thing. Some games do scale beyond four threads. Then factor in a mere £20 price gap between this chip and the four-core FX 4170 and there's really no decision to be made. You want the 6200.

Arguably even more surprising is that on the evidence of this test, you won't get a tangible benefit from an upgrade to something much more expensive from Intel. Yup, the benchmark numbers will be better. But that's about it.

Verdict: 4.5/5

Overall

The AMD mid-range option comes awfully close to delivering flawless gaming performance, and excellent all-round value. This setup balances price and performance without sacrificing either.

Final verdict: 4.5/5