We review six cheap gaming PCs – three Intel-based and three AMD – to find the best desktop PC at three different price points.
AMD vs Intel is one of the technology world’s biggest and oldest battlegrounds, with the firms trading blows in the CPU arena for decades. Both have led the way, both have fallen behind, and both remain among the biggest players in the PC world.
The fight is as fierce as ever, so we’ve decided to have these two tech titans lock horns to find out which company has the best gear for your next gaming PC.
We’ve recruited six of Britain’s best PC firms and divided them into pairs, with two systems at £500, another couple at £600 and the final systems at £700. At each price we’ve made the companies pick sides, with AMD-based rigs squaring up against systems with Intel silicon.
The battle lines are drawn, and we’re determined to find out which firm’s CPUs are the best base for your next gaming rig. There are six systems to choose from and a huge amount of hardware on show – so there’s nothing left to do except get stuck in.
The £500 tier is occupied by Chillblast's Fusion Matrix and the CCL Cyrex machine. They cost little more than a new console and a handful of games, but both take aim at Full HD gaming. The former deploys an Nvidia GeForce GTX 960 and an AMD Athlon processor, while the latter relies on a Core i5 CPU and AMD Radeon R7 360 graphics card.
Our final tier sees the £780 Overclockers Kinetic H3 and £700 CyberPower Ultra Fusion 480 arriving for a battle between two more of AMD's new RX 480 cards. That GPU is billed as the best new option for 1080p and 1440p gaming, so I'm going to find out which system is most deserving of your cash.
Video: AMD Radeon RX 480 review
The battle between AMD and Intel has raged for years, but it’s rarely been a clean-cut case of CPU vs CPU for these huge tech firms.
AMD has led the way in the past, but Intel has spent the past decade on top of the heap – especially when it comes to high-end power. The status quo has prompted AMD to change tactics, and over the past few years it’s conceded the high end to Intel while developing a tempting range of more affordable processors.
The change in direction from AMD means there’s ample choice from both sides of the fence in this affordable PC group test – not least because none of the machines here have the budget to offer any of Intel’s high-end chips.
AMD’s processors are divided into two ranges, with APUs and FX-series chips available. The former parts are Accelerated Processing Units, which cram traditional processing cores and AMD Radeon graphics hardware into the same bit of silicon.
Most of them use a different architecture to AMD’s processors, with more concentration on efficiency, and they use a different kind of socket – so motherboard choice is important.
The amount of hardware inside these chips means that they don’t offer the same amount of processing power as pure CPUs, but they do have better integrated graphics than many traditional processors – and they’re cheaper than most, too.
AMD’s most powerful chips bear the FX brand. These CPUs differ from APUs because they don’t have integrated graphics, but they make up for that with a more muscular architecture – so they run at higher clock speeds and have more cores. That means they’re far more capable processors, with the top chips squaring up alongside Intel’s Core i3 and Core i5 chips in the middle of the market.
AMD’s use of APUs and CPUs makes plenty of sense, but the firm is undoubtedly lagging behind in some areas – not least the efficiency of its architectures. That means its chips usually generate more heat than their Intel counterparts, which makes them trickier to cool. That’ll change when new architectures are introduced later in 2016 or early 2017, but it’s something to bear in mind right now, especially when considering the cooling hardware and noise output of these affordable gaming desktops.
Intel doesn’t offer any kind of two-tiered system like AMD does with its APUs and CPUs. Instead, it deploys the same architecture across its consumer range, with prices and performance levels defined by the clock speed, cache and number of cores included with each chip.
Related: Intel Core i chips explained
Celeron and Pentium chips sit at the bottom of the market and are designed for basic computing tasks, but the first Intel hardware in this group test comes from the Core i3 range. These dual-core chips are the gatekeepers to mid-range power, and they tend to have more competitive clock speeds and cache levels.
Most of the Intel PCs in this group test use Core i5 CPUs. These parts are among the most popular processors on sale today, and with good reason – they have enough power to avoid bottlenecking games, but they won’t break the bank.
I touched on AMD’s efficiency issues, but Intel doesn’t face such challenges. Its Skylake architecture is far more efficient, which means that Intel PCs are easier to cool than their AMD counterparts – so they’re often quieter, too.
This is a gaming PC group test, so it's key to pay attention to the graphics cards deployed in these systems. It's important to examine key attributes such as clock speed and stream processors, but it's worth looking beyond those to ensure you're really getting the best graphics performance
Check out the manufacturing process, for instance, because a 14nm-process Radeon card will be more efficient than a 28nm GeForce GPU. Look at the memory, too: a card with 4GB rather than 2GB of memory will deliver better frame rates for longer as games become more demanding.
Related: AMD Radeon RX 480 review
The graphics card is inherently tied to the rest of the PC. Not only because it slots into the motherboard and interfaces with the processor – but also because our six systems are built to tight budgets.
As a result, spending a large sum on a graphics card can lead to performance issues elsewhere. Games won't run as quickly if a powerful GPU is undermined by a weak processor or sluggish memory, and it's no good if any expansion potential is hindered by a cheap motherboard.
You should also take care to ensure that any new PC has enough room for future upgrades. If you might add an SSD or a second hard disk somewhere down the line, check that the case has the space and that the motherboard has enough SATA connectors of ample bandwidth.
Make sure the motherboard has the right slots for wireless or audio cards, and that there are plentiful mounts to add additional cooling if the components begin to get toasty.
And, finally, there's the warranty. This is key, because it ensures that your PC is protected should anything go awry – but go further than just making sure you're covered.
Examine the kind of coverage included with a system: some will include a courier service to collect and return a faulty rig, while others will demand that you pay for transit yourself. Replacement parts will be covered by some warranties, but others will only pay for labour.
Warranties will often last different lengths of time, and most manufacturers will also upgrade your warranty for a fee if you're keen on some extra peace of mind.
I've put these six systems through a battery of benchmarks to find out which is best for gaming and general-purpose computing.
I use three titles to test each PC's gaming capability: DIRT Rally, GTA V and Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor. Each game is run at its maximum settings at Full HD. Those tests are augmented by 3DMark Fire Strike, which provides a solid baseline for graphical performance, while also illustrating which systems are hindered by underwhelming processors.
My first CPU test is Geekbench, which runs chips through a single- and multi-core suite of tasks that mirror real-world scenarios to test the single- and multi-threaded abilities of any processor. I use PCMark 8's Home and Creative suites to give each PC a proper workout: the first test simulates writing, web-browsing, light gaming and video chat; the second mimics video and photo editing, media transcoding and trickier gaming scenarios.
I test SSDs using AS SSD, and then run each PC through a stress-testing routine that uses Prime95 and Unigine Heaven 4.0 to run the CPU and GPU at 100% load. This test establishes whether each PC is stable, and if there are issues with heat or noise levels.
Double-check any prices before taking the plunge with the systems featured in this group test.
Every machine was sourced at £500, £600 and £700, but the extreme fluctuations in British exchange rates currently have seen computer component prices go haywire; in the vast majority of cases, it’s resulted in the price of components rising. The Overclockers PC is a prime example of this, more than £80 more expensive at the time of writing than the day it was sourced.
Several manufacturers had to tweak their prices before I finished testing the machines. It's an unfortunate and unavoidable fact right now, but check before placing an order.