The Private Build

 
by and  •  Oct 16, 2013

Your a new military member, you’ve finally reached a stable destination and during the day you’re a military sponge soaking up the info and doing all the dirtiest of jobs. After your duty day is over you return to your room and try to game on your tired old PC and as fewer and fewer games are able to run and newer more exciting games are on the horizon you realize that the PC has to change. With about $1500 a month, you don’t have a whole lot to work with and it is not in a Private’s nature to wait and save (if you’ve ever seen the often humorous amount of new guy motorcycles, you’ll understand) and you’ve been reading about all the great graphics cards on the market but many of them would put you back a third or more of your pay alone!

privatebuild

What’s a Private to do?

2013 US Pay for a new enlisted recruit is $1516.20 a month. This rank is known in the U.S. military as a Private (Army/Marines), Seaman Recruit (Navy/Coast Guard), Airman Basic (Air Force) and worldwide as NATO rank code OR-1. Regardless of the country or service this is where a lot of service begins and represents new experiences with every day in the military (not all of them good mind you) and so we here at Off Duty Gamers are featuring some areas of focus in order to squeeze more out of that meager pay so these troops can make the most of off duty gaming time they have.

The Mission Brief

Utilize the scrounging skills of the military for a rebuilt machine, that has you back up and running as quickly as possible and offers enough performance to get through today’s regular tasks and can begin to tackle current and upcoming games. The system needs to squeeze out what power it can from the budget of an E-1 and doesn’t have to run games at the highest level but should allow games to be run at sufficient quality and performance that games are able to be enjoyed. The new machine should allow for expansion and upgrades in order to put your future paychecks to use in order to complete and compete with higher end machines.

The Scrounge! Using what you’ve got on hand

Given the situation, the best option is to scrounge and leverage which IS something that a good military member becomes highly proficient at doing. Back in the ODG barracks room we have an few years old machine in a mid tower ATX case with a 750w power supply, a serviceable DVD-drive, Windows 7 on a 1TB SATA drive but the motherboard is old, the CPU is tired, ram is topped out at 8gb and our video card which was once the pride of chewing through frame rates is now presenting like an officer’s power point slide show. We can leverage the case, power supply, hard drive and DVD-drive but the core of this thing has to go and that means new motherboard, processor, ram and video.

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COST: $0

Video Games without Video isn’t a Game!

Ok so as we’ve pointed out earlier, our pocket isn’t deep and our challenge is tall. We need to build a rig that gives us the power we need with the scalability to grow. Our next decision is the CPU because that is the decision that will drive the motherboard and here is what we had in mind.

We had been talking to some friends over at AMD about how our military PC users could stretch a military paycheck and keep from getting locked into something off the rack and likely not able to be upgraded. They responded by telling us about a CPU and GPU in one chip that they call the APU. This little combo unit is important since our end goal is to lay hands on one of the current generation of video cards but most will render our budget combat ineffective with all the other things we have to get done so we need to have something to build on.

AMD Accelerated Processing Unit (APU)

19-113-331-TSWe’re featuring the AMD APU as the core of our rebuild because we can get a CPU and AMD Radeon Graphics at the same time. The A-Series processor of choice is the A10 32 nm Richland 100W 4MB L2 Cache AMD Radeon HD 8670D

By the numbers:

  • CPU Socket Type: Socket FM2
  • Core: Richland
  • Multi-Core: Quad-Core
  • Name: A10-6800K
  • Operating Frequency: 4.1GHz
  • L2 Cache: 4MB
  • Manufacturing Tech: 32 nm
  • 64 bit Support: Yes
  • Integrated Memory Controller Speed: DDR3
  • Virtualization Technology Support: Yes
  • Integrated Graphics: AMD Radeon HD 8670D
  • Thermal Design Power: 100W

Spend $149.99

Intelligence: http://www.amd.com/us/products/desktop/processors/a-series/Pages/a-series-pib.aspx

Source: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16819113331

*Though we had the older 750w PSU on hand, AMD stated you could get by with a 300-350w, with better performance for tweaking using somewhere around 450.

Motherboard

Since we were settled with the APU our attention turned to a motherboard and our sources recommended the MSI FM2-A85XA-G65 and who wouldn’t like a board with a lot of solid features that is listed as MILITARY CLASS right on the box!

IMG_5416

13-big-msi-fm2-a85xa-g65 MSI FM2-A85XA-G65 Oblique

 

The future of computer connectivity is here with mini-USB cables from Cables To Go. These fully rated universal serial bus cables provide transfer rates up to 480Mbps, depending on USB version, and easily attach to any mini-USB device. Mini USB cables are designed to connect from your USB port on Hub, PC or Mac to your USB device, including cellular phones and PDAs. Foil and braid shielding reduces EMI/RFI interference, and twisted-pair construction helps reduce cross talk thus ensuring high-speed, error-free data transfer. Meets all the UL requirements for communication cabling, and is compatible with USB 1.0, 1.1, and 2.0.
Features:
Connector: USB Type A Male to Type Mini B 5-pin Male (MD Type)
Transfer rates up to 480Mbps depending on USB version
Make plug and play connections with cellular phones, MP3 players, digital cameras and PDAs
PC and Mac compatible
Connect a peripheral with a 5-pin mini usb port to an USB Hub or USB port on PC/Mac
Compatible with USB specifications 1.0, 1.1, and 2.0
Technical Information:

Product Description – USB cable – 6.6 ft
Type – USB cable
Length – 6.6 ft
Connector(s) – 1 x 4 pin USB Type A – female
Connector(s) (Other Side) – 1 x 5 pin mini-USB Type B – male
Compliant Standards – USB / Hi-Speed USB
Package Type – Retail

Cost: $89.99 – 109.99

Source: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813130663 or shave off a little more at http://www.tigerdirect.com/applications/SearchTools/item-details.asp?EdpNo=4953873

Intelligence: http://www.msi.com/product/mb/FM2-A85XA-G65.html

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RAM

If we’re leveraging the APU then we want to make sure that we not only have the memory to use but we give it the most speed we can. AMD helped us out and pointed us to it’s own memory for a couple different reasons, obviously playing nice with other core components is always a great thing and reduces the performance issues and hiccups. In this case we parked 16gb of  AMD Radeon RG2133 ‘Gamer Series’ RAM in our system.

Faster memory with increased bandwidth for the enthusiast gamer
Enjoy running your memory beyond standard JEDEC settings with speeds up to 2133MHz with enhanced profiles supporting AMD and Intel platforms.

Anodized black heat shield coloring offers superior radiation performance
High-purity aluminum enables thermal conductivity up to 165W and enhanced heat dissipation. Low profile heat shield design offers easy integration into small form factor PCs

  • DDR3 2133 (PC3 17000)
  • Timing 10-11-11-30
  • Cas Latency 10
  • Voltage 1.65V
  • Compatible with AMD and Intel processors

Cost: $199.99

Source: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820403002&Tpk=AMD%20Radeon%20RG2133

Intelligence: http://www.amd.com/us/products/desktop/radeon-memory/Pages/system-memory.aspx#5
AMD Radeon RG2133

The AMD Gamer Series RAM is nice, and is fully compatible with AMD’s new RAMDisk technology, which uses a portion of your RAM as a sort of Solid State Drive. Using various profiles, you can preload applications to use the RAM as their primary storage space. Until the RAMDisk profile is activated, the RAM performs at full capacity, and only uses the amount you dedicate to it once the profile is activated.

RAM is pricey, no matter how you look at it, you can max it out from the onset my advice is to go for it. You can however, opt for other alternatives, or a lower speed/capacity. Buy the product that fits into your budget, but remember the adage “You get what you pay for.”

2013-08-20 13.16.00CPU Cooler

Since we’ll be putting this APU through the effort of both processing and graphic, keeping it cool is important but inexpensive. We located and secured a Hyper 212 EVO CPU Cooler from Coolermaster at our local MicroCenter and shaved a few bucks off.

Well-balanced cooling performance provides fin optimizations with perfect balance between high and low speed operations. Wide-range PWM fan with unique wave-shaped blade design for excellent airflow. 4 Direct Contact heat pipes with the patented (Continuous Direct Contact) technology – creating a perfect, sleek surface for heat conduction CDC. Versatile all-in-one mounting solution supporting the latest Intel LGA 2011/ 1366 /1155 and AMD FM1 / AM3+.

Cost: $29.99

Source: http://www.microcenter.com/product/373900/Hyper_212_EVO_Universal_CPU_Cooler

Intelligence: http://www.coolermaster.com/product/Detail/cooling/cpu-air-cooler/hyper-212-evo.html

Where we Stand

Here we are at $489.96 spent on our build and for $500 our newly refurbished box stands like the following:

  • Mid Tower ATX Case
  • APEX 750w Power Supply
  • DVD Drive
  • 1TB Hitachi HDT721010SLA360 SATA Disk
  • MSI FM2-A85XA-G65 Motherboard
  • AMD A10 32 nm Richland APU
  • 16GB of AMD Radeon RG2133 Gamer Series
  •  Hyper 212 EVO CPU Cooler
  • 64-bit Windows 7
  • Keyboard/Mouse and hooked to a 50″ HDTV as a monitor via DVI

Please note that the only way you are going to get the RAM bang for your buck is to already have on hand or invest in a copy of Windows 7 64 bit. If you’re only able to lay hands on 32 bit then you’re going to be stuck with the 4gb limitation. If that is the case, then add 64 bit OS to your future purchase plans.

PERFORMANCE

Because you’re going to be using this as a regular PC system you need to get your average home and maybe even some work related items done, we ran PCMark8 on this new system so you could see how it performed.

Windows 7 Rating: 5.9

FutureMark PCMark8 Home Test scored a 2812 View Results

FutureMark PCMark8 WORK Test scored a 2819 View Results

Gaming is the idea behind this build so we ran 3DMark on this new box and here’s what we found (Click for full details)

The Cloud Gate Testing

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The Fire Strike Test

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While the numbers are not the Earth shattering levels of a full gaming PC, they are higher than most computers on the market. In the price for performance comparison, it is no doubt that our Frankenstein’s Monster exceeds our expectation for less money than you can buy a ready built machine.

Practical Application

We took the system for a spin and just tried to do the things we know others do with a regular use PC.

As a day to day system the system ran like a champ, smooth and easy, applications run great and the graphics are solid featuring all the regular settings of the AMD Catalyst drivers and pushing 1920×1080 to our home TV screen/monitor.

We’ve pushed this system into service as a bit of an HTPC figuring your average Private will spend a fair bit of time living in the barracks it makes sense to leverage a little TV Tuner, Windows Media Center and use it for a DVR. The system viewed, recorded and replayed all our tests, the video doesnt miss a beat and we didnt note any problems.

We have streamed live video from Netflix for the better part of a month on this system and again, utilizing a high speed internet connection we got smooth high quality performance.

Gaming is where we pressed the system and where your going to be the most critical

Battlefield 3 – Multiplayer gameplay (while playing as a 32 bit Windows 7)

AMD Option Bonus

So with the AMD APU and the AMD memory in concert you have an additional option we hadn’t really explored but now becomes available as an added bonus, the AMD Radeon RAMDisk which can take the high speed and plentiful RAM that you have now installed and utilize it as a lightning fast hard drive.

AMD Radeon™ RAMDisk was designed to take advantage of your system memory to create a virtual drive enabling additional performance enhancements to your PC.

  • Load your games faster than before
  • Experience lightning fast reading and writing capabilities
  • Get a more responsive and reliable web experience with faster page loads
  • Easily protect your privacy with auto-delete on boot or protect your data with auto-save on shutdown

Learn more about AMD Radeon RamDisk

Planning for the Future

The great part of this system is that for a few hundred dollars you’re retiring an old tired system and putting the pieces together to grow upon. The next targets for your budgeted paycheck (after you pay your chosen vehicle payment and other bills) should focus on:

Dedicated Video Card

The target for many PC gamers is to get into a high end dedicated video card. These powerful GPUs offer gamers amazing depth and quality. Your investment here will pay off in spades when your next paycheck or two come in, put a little aside and rather than having had to waste money on a lower end card than you wanted, you can now jump up to something bigger and badder.

Performance increase will be noticeable if you are using a current generation graphics card, but for less than $100 you can opt for one of the older graphics cards still sold by AMD partners. In our specific case, the A10 pairs up with the AMD Radeon HD 6670 in a solution called Dual Graphics, in which the dedicated card and the APU’s Graphics chip work in tandem. According to AMD, you can set either the APU graphics or the GPU as the main performer, with the secondary taking up a bit of the slack.

One thing to take note of is the Never Settle Forever promotion from AMD, where you can receive one or more free games by purchasing one of their graphics cards.

SSD and/or SSD Cache

Solid State Drives and Solid State Cache Drives are getting cheaper by the day. These drives offer amazing speed in booting, load times and system work. Adding one to your new system will immediately improve performance.

Believe it or not, the Windows Index Score was low not because of the graphics, but because of the Hard Drive. Adding a Solid Sate Drive to your rig will make the performance jump tremendously, just pay attention to what you are installing on it. My current rig with an 8 core 8350 AMD CPU, 32 Gigs of RAM and an overclocked AMD HD 7870 scored identically to the APU. The Index takes the gear that performs the lowest, and uses that as the base score, so don’t be put off by the results.

Overclocking

Unfortunately our system’s PSU is missing the couplings that we need to feel confident about hitting the MSI Overclocking but stay tuned, that project is underway and we’ll be bringing you that feedback soon. Considering with the application of a little liquid nitrogen (skin and eye protection people… safety first!) this exact same motherboard and APU was clocked at 7.38 GHz. For our purposes and we expect yours, we’ll be looking into pressing the bounds of this setup very soon but in a more user friendly and reasonable fashion. The excitement however is in knowing that again, your investment has some solid performance already built in that you can take advantage of.

For those of you that want to know a little more, on a standard cooler you can ramp up the voltage to about 1.425v and on larger coolers, like the one we have here, up to 1.5. Their are a few other settings you can play with, and we will get into that later on (AMD flat out challenged us to try and burn up the chip, so I need to play).

We are not going to get into the fundamentals of overclocking here. Quite frankly, if you have not done it before, don’t do it now. Some of you however will not heed this advice, so AMD has a nice little handy tool that takes out some of the occult science. Within Catalyst, the GPU control software that comes standard with AMD graphics, there is a setting called overdrive. Here you can control some of the settings and voltages on your GPU. A small section is listed for the CPU as well, but I have never touched that. Regardless, read up on your particular model of GPU before you go pushing sliders all the way to the left. It won’t end well.

Another program is AMD Overdrive, found on the Downloads Page for AMD. This tool allows you to fine tune your settings even more, without delving into the BIOS, and even control some of your fans. Again, Reading, Research and Reason will keep you from melting your chips.

Forward Compatibility

The next step for the APU socket will beFM2+. Having spoken with AMD, I’ve learned that this new socket will be compatible with the current FM2 APUs, as is with their current generation of standard desktop CPUs. This means if you buy a new FM2+ APU, that you won’t have to buy a new motherboard, conversely you can keep the same APU and upgrade the motherboard. As anyone who has ever built a system will tell you, these are always the prime concerns when building and upgrading.

Final Words, Caveats

I was honestly surprised at the performance of the AMD APU; when it first came out, I could only think of it as another method of integrated graphics. It wasn’t until going hands on that I came to appreciate it as a worthy addition to the PC arena, not only for versatility and its multifunctional role, but also as a damn fine competitor against any CPU out there.

We’ve tested this the build with various games, ranging from League of Legends to Battlefield 3, Sim City and many more. For not having a dedicated graphics card, it performed amazingly well, with no noticeable lag, and as a HTPC it has done exceptionally well. There is no doubt in my mind that this build will keep you in the sweet spot for quite a while.

While we were successful in our scrounge, you should always take stock of what you have and potential compatibility issues. If you start to put together a machine, and see that you don’t have what you need, consider bringing some of your specs down. Do you really need 16Gb of RAM? Probably not, but don’t opt for lower quality. Instead of buying 4 sticks of RAM, consider only buyng two, for example. Instead of the Blue Ray Burner, look at a standard DVD Burner.

Also, we were able to transfer the Hard Drive with the Windows Activation intact, but it took some wrestling. Before you plug that old Hard Drive into that new motherboard and power it on, do a little research and save yourself about $300 for a new Windows key.

To Be Continued…

This is a work in progress, we will be occasionally building more and more into this little rig and creating more articles on it’s progress, statistics and featuring some new tech from your favorite hardware and software companies.