Which components have hit the sweet spot?

Features James Hunt Jan 15, 2013

Sometimes, getting the best system is about spending smart, not spending lots

Whether you’re looking to buy upgrades or pricing up an entire system, the final say usually comes courtesy of your wallet. Unless you’re part of the small percentage of society who can buy things without having to worry about their price, you’re always going to reach a point where you have to trade off the performance of hardware against its cost.

However, making that compromise isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There’s still plenty of opportunity to spend your money wisely, meaning that you can get the best performance for the best prices, rather than the best performance overall. All you have to do is look for hardware that has reached the ‘sweet spot’ - a point where, in pound-for-performance terms, it’s essentially the best on the market.
Usually, these products are in the middle of their life cycles - old enough to have shed their high introductory prices, but new enough that you can feel comfortable investing in them as products with a fairly hefty lifespan ahead of them. It’s quite simply the smartest place to spend your money.

Of course, with the holiday sales about to hit, there’s never been a better time to know which hardware is worth keeping an eye on for even further discounts. That’s why in this guide, we’ll show you which high-performance hardware has reached its financial sweet spot.
Buying this hardware doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily end up with the best - nor that you’ll end up with the cheapest hardware on the market. However, you will know you’ve got the absolute most for your money - and ultimately, that’s a feeling that can’t be bought.

CPUs

CPUs are often the most expensive components in a PC, so it’s quite probably the most important place to make sure that your money gets stretched the furthest. Determining the “best” processor depends on several factors, but benchmarking is reasonably sane way to do it – if nothing else, it’s hard to compare most processors in terms of raw specs, especially between manufacturers.

Because CPUs are also dependent on compatibility with your motherboard, we’ve divided our CPUs category into several different sections - one for those with an Intel Socket 1155 motherboard, and two more for those with AMD FM2 or AM3+ motherboards. We’ve calculated how good value each chip is by dividing its PassMark benchmark score by its price so that we can compare how much power you get for every pound you spend, and thus determine which is the best value. Although, where relevant, we’ve considered other factors before coming to our final conclusion.

AMD Socket FM2 Chip

AMD’s fusion architecture is designed to house a gaming-capable GPU as well as a formidable CPU. They get it at least half-right, because while the processors are consistently outperformed by Intel’s mid- and high-range Core line, they’re typically more capable of gaming than lower-priced Intel chips are - and recent price reductions mean that they’re actually slightly better value, too.

The release of AMD’s Trinity chips has caused the FM1 socket to reach the end of its lifespan, so if you’re building an AMD system from scratch and have the liberty of basing your motherboard purchase on the processor you want, we have to recommend the AMD A8-5500, which is a socket FM2 model. The eight-core, 3.2GHz chip has Radeon HD 7560D graphics, making it a good choice for gamers, although sadly it has a locked multiplier, meaning it can’t really be overclocked if you’re into that.

At the moment it retails around £80. PassMark scores it only a sliver beneath the Ivy Bridge Core i3-3220, which is £20 more expensive, and a reasonable amount above the Sandy Bridge Core i3-2130, which is £25 more expensive. The next FM2 chip up, the AMD A10-5700, is also worse value in terms of price-to-performance, and the next AMD chip down, the FM1-based A8-3850, is roughly as good value as the A8-5500, but it’s also running on an older socket and is slower in absolute terms, so if you buy that, you’re buying into a product line with a shorter life ahead of it.

Final Recommendation: AMD A8-5500

AMD Socket AM3+ Chip

If you want to upgrade your existing AMD system with a new chip, it’s a safe bet you’re currently running on an AM3+ compatible motherboard. Naturally, it doesn’t make much sense to tell you that the best way to save money is to buy a new chip and motherboard and get an A8-5500, so instead, let’s assume you want to upgrade your computer without replacing 50% of it. Which chip should you buy then?

In our view, it’s the AMD FX-8320, an eight-core socket AM3+ chip that runs at 3.5GHz. It’s expensive for an AMD chip, priced at £140, but it’s one of the few high-end CPUs the company has that’ll compete with Intel’s Core line in anything approaching a convincing way.

PassMark benches it at 8,297, compared to the Ivy Bridge Core i5-3570K’s 7,139. While the latter chip performs better in games and can be hugely overclocked, it also costs £175.It’s also better value than its own line-mates - the slightly-better AMD FX-8350, and the slightly-worse AMD FX-8150, so if you’re looking for a high-end chip to upgrade your current AMD system, there’s no question that the FX-8320 is the one to go for.

Final Recommendation: AMD FX-8320

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.

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 £250, £235 and £225 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 (£175) 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 (£155) 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 £145) 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 (£95) or an i3-2120 (£88). 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.

Final Recommendations: 
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.

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 gave 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-£100 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 £86, a decent chunk cheaper than the Radeon’s £95.

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.

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.

Final Recommendation: GeForce GTX 650

£100-£199 graphics cards

This time there were three cards vying for the position of best value, all priced between £150 and £180. The Radeon HD 7870 (£180) 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.

The slightly cheaper Radeon HD 7850 (£150) 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 £170, performed better, but sacrificed a little more value to do so. If you can find a GeForce 660 for less than £162, it’d be a clear, easy choice - we couldn’t, unfortunately.

Final Recommendation: Radeon HD 7850

£200+ graphics cards

Remember how we said the Radeon HD 7870 was competing with cards above its grade? Well, in that sense, it’s a good value purchase for the £200 level, not least because it costs £180. That said, it benchmarks some 400 points lower than the nearest current-gen competition so, while it’s too powerful to be good value for a mid-range card, it’s not powerful enough to be a viable alternative to high-end cards. Shame.

Luckily for Radeon, the best value card over £200 turns out to be the Radeon HD 7950, which is a 3GB card running at 1.4GHz - far more convincing than the HD 7870, which was 2GB running at 1GHz. At £209.99 it’s only a shade more expensive than a mid-range card, but once you get beyond it, each pound nets you diminishing amounts of additional power. GeForce’s GTX 660 Ti and GTX 670 come second and third, while the Radeon HD 7970 and GTX 680 (both over £300) are strictly for people who care more about actual speeds than cost-effective use of a budget.

Final Recommendation: Radeon HD 7950

Storage

One thing everyone cares about is making sure their system has enough space. When you’re investing in storage components, you’re looking for two primary qualities: access speeds and capacity. The problem with trying to decide which storage component is the best value for both of these criteria is that there’s a huge gulf between high-capacity, low-speed mechanical drives and low-capacity, high-speed SSDs. There’s a yawning gulf between the two in terms of good value components, because high-speed mechanical drive solutions are costly, and so are high-capacity SSDs.

You might be tempted to think that the answer lies in hybrid technologies, but you’d be wrong. Hybrid drives, as well as being prone to faults, have mostly proven that combining two technologies doesn’t mean you automatically get the best of both worlds - sometimes you get the worst of both worlds instead.

With that in mind, we’ve taken the only sensible route and split this section into SSDs and HDDs. We’ll point you at the right models, but you’ll have to decide whether you’re looking for speed or capacity (but hey, why not buy one of each so that you can really experience the best storage has to offer?)

Mechanical hard drives (HDDs)

Sussing out the cheapest mechanical Hard Drive isn’t difficult. When looking for a standard 3.5” internal drive, Seagate consistently offer some of the lower prices, but most manufacturers are only a few pounds more expensive to the point where there’s little point quibbling over who actually made the drive. There are no particularly big problems with reliability or compatibility from any big-name manufacturer, and all modern drives support SATA-III (6GB/s) and run their platters at the same speed - 7200rpm. Specialist hardware with faster access is available, but it’s not worth the extra expense if you don’t have specialist needs, so we can simply disregard it for this test.Which leaves us with one question left to answer: what capacity offers the best value to the consumer?

500GB hard drives are more or less the cheapest you can currently buy, and they’re available for around £40 each if you shop about. At that price, you get roughly 12.5GB for each pound you spend.

One terabyte drives (1024GB) are easy to find priced around £60 (17GB per pound), but Seagate has more or less destroyed the competition at this price/capacity range. They currently offer a 1.5TB Barracuda for £54.99, which is a massive 27.9GB per pound. Whether this is a limited time or end-of-line offer isn’t clear, but it’s available at virtually every online store and is immensely good value.

However, that’s only worth going for if you don’t want to spend more than £55. If you can stretch a further £20, then there are two terabyte (2048GB) hard drives on the market for just £72.99, which breaks down as an even more impressive 28.1GB. That’s still not the best value, though! If you buy a 3TB drive (3072GB) you’ll pay as little as £96.99, which gets you a colossal 31.6GB for every pound you spend. Frankly, that’s amazing value.

Once you go beyond that point, the economics break down, and a 4TB (4096GB) drive will cost £159.99, netting you a poor value 25.6 GB for each pound you spend. The message here, then, is easy to interpret: whichever brand you look at, the closer you can get to 3TB without going over, the better value your hard drive purchase will be.

Final Recommendation: Seagate Barracuda 3TB (ST3000DM001)

Solid state drives (SSDs)

In terms of upgrades, Solid State Drives can offer a substantial boost to the performance of any system; you may be amazed what a bottleneck a mechanical hard drive can be. Although they still represent relatively new technology, solid state drives are plummeting in price and seem set to conquer the industry within a couple of years. So what’s the best value one out there at the moment?

Manufacturers aren’t a significant concern - any big name producer will offer hardware that works broadly as well as its competitors, not least because they all use similar controllers (i.e. Sandforce). The exception to this rule is the OCZ Vector - the first SSD made solely by OCZ, and widely recognised as the industry’s fastest.

With several generations of hardware to choose from, and the price of the storage space itself at a premium, there are a number of other, more significant, factors that make the price of SSD drives differ. The most expensive are actually some of the smallest, capacity-wise. At their cheapest level (32GB) solid state storage will cost you around 1GB per pound. Worse still, many smaller drives are holdovers, which means they only run SATA-II - a data transfer technology that can be maxed out by most SSDs. Since speed is why we want an SSD, high-performance SATA-III drives are the ones to go for.

That said, there are bargains to be found by opting for SATA-II. The OCZ Vertex Plus 240GB (a SATA-II drive) costs only £100 (or 2.4GB per pound) - not bad, if you can put up with transfer speeds roughly half that of the SATA-III alternatives (but also half as expensive - SATA-III drives fetch £100 for 120GB, or 1.2GB per pound).

The sweet spot for SSD capacity at the moment appears to be 256GB - at that level, SATA-III drives cost around £140 (1.8GB per pound), slightly better value than the highest capacity 512GB SATA-III drives, which are priced £300-£400 - as little as 1.7GB per pound. Still, the inconvenience of smaller capacities means it’s probably not worth buying a 256GB model purely to save money, and don’t feel bad if you can’t afford more.

As it is, the best deals right now are actually available on OCZ’s slightly older lines. The release of the OCZ Vector means the company is selling through its last-generation stock at lower prices. OCZ’s Pre-Vector stock is split into two main lines – the Agility and the Vertex – and while the latter is slightly quicker, it’s not the sort of speed home users would necessarily notice.

So in the end, the most competitively priced SSDs are the 512GB OCZ Agility 4 (£299.99) and the 256GB Agility 4 (£145), both of which get you 1.7GB for each pound spent, both with high SATA-III data rates. Be warned, though – if you pay extra to get a Vertex 4 (of either capacity) there’s only a very slight difference in value between those lines and the latest Vector drives – so if you think you can stretch to a Vertex, we recommend you stretch that inch further and get a Vector instead.

Final Recommendation: OCZ Agility 4 (256GB or 512GB)