Digital Foundry: Let's build a 1080p60 gaming PC
New consoles are targeting 4K gaming - but what if we want higher frame-rates instead?
Editor's Note: This build guide was put together in August 2016, but the build process and the components chosen are still just as potent in 2017. However, Intel has released a new Kaby Lake line of processors, and in place of the Core i5 6600K, we would recommend its successor - the Core i5 7600K. It's essentially the same thing, but is a touch faster out of the box and overclocks better. The Z170 board utilised here is still excellent, but there is a MSI Z270 Gaming Pro Carbon successor that's well worth checking out.
It's been a while since we put one of these together but on the prelude of a new console generation, perhaps it's time. A while back, we asked the question - are ever-higher resolutions truly the best use for next-gen console technology? The response from you was emphatic - no, you'd prefer to stick to 1080p and improve frame-rates and visual fidelity. And that's why we've put together a PC gaming build specifically designed to deliver excellent 1080p60 performance.
First up, let's be clear about the parameters here. We're looking to double console performance, bringing us up from 30fps to 60fps and while improved visual quality is nice, we consider that a bonus. What you shouldn't expect is a machine to offer a 60fps lock with everything ramped up to ultra - in many cases, this will result in depressed performance. The truth is, you're sacrificing frame-rate for a very limited return. It's nice if you can run those settings, but the reality is that 'one notch down' generally tends to look superb, matching or indeed exceeding console-level presets.
We've been planning this feature for a while, but the timing is right now in the wake of Nvidia's unveiling of the three gig version of the GTX 1060. This marks the final potential card that should be assessed for a build of this nature. And this is important as the arrival of FinFET technology means great things for GPU performance. But the thing is, those older GPUs don't suddenly become obsolete overnight. They still perform well, they still offer excellent 1080p60 gameplay and maybe - just maybe - you'll find them aggressively discounted too.
And assessing a wide range of GPU tech forms a crucial part of this feature - whether it's old or new cards, you're spoilt for choice. However, elsewhere in the build, choices are fundamentally limited. In the here and now, with AMD's Zen CPUs still months away from release, virtually all non-GPU aspects of our build are essentially no-brainers. With no effective competition on the market, you're looking at an Intel-based system, with a K chip the best option for future-proofing. If you want an overclockable processor (and you do), choices are further limited as a motherboard based on the Z170 chipset is essential.
Beyond that, choices for surrounding components are basically up to you - though we do recommend investing a little more money in faster DDR4 memory - it does help in CPU-bound scenarios, and helps to get the most out of your overclock in bandwidth-intensive games. Here's a breakdown of the components we chose, and why:
The core: MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon, Core i5 6600K, 16GB Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4
Out of the box, the Intel Core i5 6600K is fast. It may lack the hyper-threading of the i7, but a 4.4-4.5GHz overclock should be sustainable, as long as you can keep temperatures down. Bumping all cores up to 4GHz is a walk in the park and shouldn't impact your thermals. The i7 is faster and a minority of games will benefit in certain areas, but for hitting 60fps on most titles, the i5 will do just fine and it should have the legs to keep you future-proofed for a long while.
If there's one piece of advice we have for ensuring longevity on a gaming PC build, it's not to skimp on the motherboard. We've opted for a MSI Z170A Gaming Pro Carbon board here. Most, if not all, Z170 boards enable a healthy overclock for your K chip and will operate overclockable RAM at their rated speeds. Our build is going to have a clear side-panel, so it doesn't hurt to have a good-looking board with customisable RGB lighting. M.2 SSD support and USB 3.1 Type-C and Type-A functionality is helpful, along with CrossFire and SLI support. It might sound a little nuts, but we really like MSI's LED lighting for rear ports.
In terms of memory, we'd recommend spending a little extra on fast DDR4. In CPU-bound scenarios, the faster your memory, the less constricted your processor is. This goes against the conventional wisdom that 'any RAM will do' but you can see the evidence in the Core i5 2500K video embedded further down in this piece. The 3000MHz-rated Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4 is fast enough but overclocks to 3200MHz with laughable ease. Beyond that, additional DDR4 bandwidth offers limited returns based on our testing. Eight gigs of DDR4 will do for now, but 16GB is the more future-proof option. Pro-tip: don't forget to enable XMP in the BIOS to actually enable your faster RAM.
Cooling, power, storage - and the case
It's no secret at this point that a good mid-range heatsink and fan offers comparable results to a closed loop water coolers. However, we like the Corsair H60 for its aesthetics here; the internals look clean and it's very quiet. We stuck with the same firm for our power supply, opting for a Corsair CX600M. It's semi-modular, so the only cables coming out are the main power input for the motherboard and CPU power. This allows you to add further cables as you need them. Modern CPUs and GPUs are very power-efficient: our final build draws just 220W at max gaming load (even with a 4GHz overclock in place on the i5!) so we have plenty of capacity here.
In terms of storage, by all means add a mechanical drive as a secondary backup, but with SSD prices collapsing, we highly recommend a decent-sized solid state solution for gaming. It's not just frame-rates and quality settings we can improve here - loading times are a major bugbear on consoles and they're much reduced on PC. We're using an OCZ Trion 150 SSD in our build and it performs well, but most cheap 480/500/512GB SSDs work great for gaming and have capacity for a reasonable bunch of games.
And finally, we've opted for the Corsair Carbide 400C for our case - it's beautifully designed with a full-size side window, great cooling and some really nice touches - we particularly liked the SSD bays under the motherboard for hiding your storage - just slide them in and you're good to go. Cable management is a breeze here and we also liked the cut-away beneath the CPU socket for easily installing custom coolers that utilise bespoke mounting brackets.
Which graphics card should you buy for 1080p60 gameplay?
When we started to plan this article, the selection of graphics cards we wanted to test was limited - and obvious. MSI supplied us with GTX 970, GTX 980, R9 390 and R9 390X. Generally speaking, the GTX 970 and R9 390 provided the best bang for the buck, while the GTX 980 and 390X offered a relatively small boost for a larger amount of cash (much larger in the case of the GTX 980 - prices fell nicely on the 390X).
However, what's clear is that the colossal success of the GTX 970 has resulted in many, many more products to replace it, with the arrival of the next generation of GPUs. These undercut it in terms of both price and often exceed it in performance. AMD has three products: RX 470 4GB and two RX 480s (4GB/8GB), while Nvidia has two GTX 1060s (3GB/6GB). All of these cards represent a significant leap over the current-gen consoles, to the point where the Polaris 10 chip in the AMD cards is the core GPU component of the PlayStation Neo's new processor.
Prices start at $180/£180 for the RX 470, reaching $250/£240 for the six gig GTX 1060. There are no GTX 980 and R9 390X equivalents now (GTX 1070 is on a completely different level really) - everything is slotted into a very tight price range. So here's a look at how the benchmarks for each of them stack up. To be frank, there's not much in it, but generally speaking, it's the GTX 1060 that is the faster card. If you have an existing PC and are looking to upgrade on a tight budget, the RX 470 and the cheaper 480 and 1060 may have merit, but when building a PC from scratch, it just makes sense to spend the extra $50 on the cards with more VRAM.
|1920x1080 (1080p)||GTX 1060 3GB||GTX 1060 6GB||RX 480 4GB||RX 480 8GB||RX 470 4GB|
|Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA||55.2||58.2||50.4||50.8||48.8|
|Ashes of the Singularity, Extreme, 0x MSAA, DX12||46.8||45.9||45.9||47.7||45.2|
|Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA T2x||74.8||78.7||68.8||70.1||68.0|
|The Division, Ultra, SMAA||54.3||56.6||53.6||54.8||51.3|
|Far Cry Primal, Ultra, SMAA||63.1||65.6||54.7||57.1||58.7|
|Hitman, Ultra, SMAA, DX12||57.7||65.8||71.4||73.2||68.6|
|Rise of the Tomb Raider, Very High, High Textures, SMAA, DX12||74.2||75.1||65.4||66.0||64.1|
|The Witcher 3, Ultra, Post AA, No HairWorks||64.7||68.4||60.5||61.2||57.9|
There's one thing to point out with regards to benchmarks - they are not representative of the gameplay experience. All of these titles are running at ultra settings or equivalent, but they are tested fully unlocked, with results that present as averages. Their purpose is in assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the hardware by judging relative performance. During actual gameplay, your aim should be to target 1080p60 for the vast majority of gameplay and that requires making trades in terms of quality levels. Those compromises needn't impact the quality of your experience unduly, and they stabilise performance - which is of more importance.
Generally speaking, 60fps console titles can run at 1080p60 on these cards with ultra settings (think: Star Wars Battlefront, Doom 2016, Mirror's Edge Catalyst etc) or close to it but 30fps games tend to require dropping down to high presets and often a degree of further tweaking is required. For example, running The Witcher 3 at 1080p60 involves dropping the most taxing settings down to high and turning off the wasteful HairWorks feature. Deus Ex: Mankind Divided? It's a classic case of simply dropping down to high and letting the GPU do its thing.
We'd be quite happy with either the Radeon RX 480 8GB or GeForce GTX 1060 6GB for our build, but titles such as No Man's Sky do still seem to suggest that AMD's single-threaded OpenGL and DX11 drivers can still hold back the generally excellent hardware in certain titles. Combine Nvidia's driver advantage here with its small speed bump and right now, we'd be opting for the higher-specced GTX 1060 as the GPU of choice. So how do the latest and greatest mainstream AMD and Nvidia cards stack up against their predecessors? What if an older card is available at a temptingly low price? The table below should give you an outlook on relative performance if you spot a bargain.
|1920x1080 (1080p)||GTX 1060 6GB||RX 480 8GB||GTX 970 4GB||GTX 980 4GB||R9 390 8GB||R9 390X 8GB|
|Assassin's Creed Unity, Ultra High, FXAA||58.2||50.8||51.3||58.7||48.6||52.7|
|Ashes of the Singularity, Extreme, 0x MSAA, DX12||45.9||47.7||40.5||48.3||52.1||55.8|
|Crysis 3, Very High, SMAA T2x||78.7||70.1||72.5||83.7||75.4||81.4|
|The Division, Ultra, SMAA||56.6||54.8||50.2||57.8||49.8||53.5|
|Far Cry Primal, Ultra, SMAA||65.6||57.1||56.2||63.3||65.1||67.8|
|Hitman, Ultra, SMAA, DX12||65.8||73.2||59.0||66.9||75.6||81.9|
|Rise of the Tomb Raider, Very High, High Textures, SMAA, DX12||75.1||66.0||69.7||80.4||66.6||71.7|
|The Witcher 3, Ultra, Post AA, No HairWorks||68.4||61.2||60.7||65.6||55.6||60.2|
Overall, there's not really a massive amount in it. The GTX 980 remains a highly potent force and overclocks significantly beyond GTX 1060, but the more modern Nvidia card offers a generally equivalent experience at stock in most cases and has an additional two gigs of VRAM. On top of that, the simultaneous multi-projection tech in Nvidia's Pascal line could offer a big, big boost to VR performance, assuming developer support. Generally speaking, the GTX 970 is out-performed by the GTX 1060 - but it can still do the job required in delivering 1080p60 gameplay, and it overclocks like a demon - but we'd only recommend one if you can find it at a seriously good price.
On the AMD side, the RX 480 can beat its predecessor - the R9 390 - in several titles, but it's actually a touch slower in some cases. However, in terms of form factor and power efficiency, the new Polaris card is light years ahead of its predecessors. The R9 390 was a great performer for its time, and its eight gigs of VRAM was always 'nice to have', but the lack of power efficiency and the resultant heat generation was a real issue that always made us feel a little concerned. The R9 390X was actually hotter and thirstier still, so we find it hard to recommend these when much more refined designs are available.
Our conclusions here are pretty straightforward - both Nvidia and AMD have worked hard to bring GTX 970/980 performance to a mainstream price-point. The old guard were great for their time and still hold up well today (particularly the GTX 980) but for a new PC, a modern GPU with more VRAM and more focused driver support makes more sense.
Hands-on testing: does our system meet expectations?
The first order of business on any higher-end gaming system is to enter the BIOS and turn on XMP - a process that enables your overclockable RAM to operate at its rated speed. It's remarkable how many people buy premium RAM but forget to actually run it beyond stock speeds. We also jump into the MSI overclocking menu and change 'CPU ratio' from Auto to 40. This locks our 6600K to 4.0GHz on all four cores, significantly faster than any locked i5 on the market. The 6600K should overclock significantly higher, but pushing harder involves voltage increases that may impact processor longevity owing to much greater heat generation. That said, once we get going, we find that CPU temperatures barely break 40 degrees Celsius, even when the CPU is under heavy gaming load - the Corsair H60 water-cooler is doing a great job here, even in a room with 27 degree ambient temperatures.
As you can see in the hands-on video below, we achieve some sterling results from our Core i5/GTX 1060 combo. Turning off HairWorks and cutting a couple of settings down from ultra to high gives us a 1080p60 lock in The Witcher 3. Both Star Wars Battlefront and Mirror's Edge Catalyst also stick doggedly to 1080p60 on ultra settings (and on the latter, we have the VRAM available to invoke hyper quality textures). Doom 2016 didn't waver in our testing, even with all settings pushed to the limit. We could push beyond ultra here with 16x anisotropic filtering and nightmare-level texture paging.
Grand Theft Auto 5 - leaving aside the advanced graphics settings for a moment, 1080p60 with all standard settings bar MSAA maxed gave a completely locked experience, even with the challenging grass setting pushed up to ultra. However, Io Interactive's Hitman dipped to a meagre 36-38fps in its taxing Paris stage. The console version operates at medium quality levels with high textures. We locked to 60fps by following that template, though we found that we could raise level of detail up to the high level. Even with these compromises, the game still looks great and silky smooth gameplay is clearly preferable to visual improvements that are only relatively minor in nature.
The Core i5 6600K is a great chip, but we did find some scenarios where an i7 would improve performance. Crysis 3 on very high settings (shadows dropped to high) could still stutter below 60fps in the jungle areas, or when heavy alpha and intense physics were deployed. Even with the i5 at 4.0GHz, the vintage 2013 title still causes issues for modern hardware. We've played this game a lot, and even older generation i7s hand in smoother performance on the very high preset. We also noted that the village stage in Rise of the Tomb Raider could max out the i5, causing stutter (a touch reduced in DX12), while galloping through Novigrad City could also tap out the i5 to its limits (though the 60fps lock remained intact).
The big question: how long will this PC last?
The aim with this build isn't to skimp on quality, we want to produce a PC with plenty of longevity here - and realistically we should expect to see several GPU upgrades before we touch anything else in the system. In terms of just how long-lived this PC could be, check out our article on whether it's time for existing PC owners to upgrade from the classic Core i5 2500K - a vintage 2011 processor still widely in use today and still performing fairly well. This is a frankly remarkable state of affairs bearing in mind that virtually every other five-year-old PC component is now virtually obsolete.
The reality is that buying a K chip and an overclock-capable board to run it is the gateway for keeping your PC viable for years to come, via extra performance gleaned by combining CPU overclocking with faster memory. In the case of the 2500K, overclocking it to 4.6GHz and pairing it with 2133MHz DDR3 gives performance in the same ballpark as a modern Core i5 6500 running at 3.2GHz in tandem with 2666MHz DDR4. Obviously it's nowhere near as power efficient, but it's certainly more economical than junking an entire system.
Helping to prolong the life of PCs past, present and future is the fact that current - and indeed, future - consoles are based on relatively weak AMD CPU cores designed primarily for mobile applications. PlayStation Neo features the exact same CPU set-up, albeit with a 31 per cent clock-speed increase. We feel fairly confident that an i5 6600K can keep up for a good few years yet. On top of that, the Z170 board should be compatible with the future Intel Kaby Lake CPUs, plus you can upgrade from an i5 to an i7 for further gaming performance. Again, that's something we covered for 2500K owners, who can conceivably upgrade to an i7 3770K from the next Intel generation - Ivy Bridge.
In short, the core of this PC should have plenty of longevity. However, what's clear - and we'll stress it once again - is that the key to a long-lived system is investing in that all-important K chip and an overclock compatible board. Clearly, this does add significantly to the initial build cost. However, it's fair to say that we've been fairly lavish with some of the kit we've put together here - and in terms of the motherboard, chassis and cooler in particular, there are significantly cheaper options. However, the overclockable nature of the CPU and the all-important Z170 chipset motherboard are non-negotiable.
The core component you should expect to upgrade every couple of years will be the graphics card - realistically, you can look towards the GeForce GTX 1070 to get an idea of what next year's sub-£200/$200 GPU will offer and towards the epic Titan X Pascal for a similar preview for mainstream graphics power a couple of years from now. If the future is indeed 4K in nature, as Sony and Microsoft believe, the good news is that this PC is one upgrade away from supporting that at 60fps too.