Red Team rocking: Build the ultimate AMD gaming PC

pcw amd build primary
Credit: Marco Chiappetta

There’s never been a better time to be a PC gamer, with an abundance of excellent hardware available. Intel recently refreshed its flagship and mainstream processor lines, and AMD and Nvidia both have killer graphics cards on the market—some of which are going for ridiculously low prices.

As part of a weeklong celebration of glorious PC excess, we’ve recently put together a pair of ultra-powerful Intel-based systems using that very hardware: An insane Intel Haswell-E Core i7-5960X build featuring Nvidia’s powerful new GTX 980, and a drool-worthy Devil’s Canyon Core i7-4970K PC paired with a monstrous AMD Radeon R9 295X2 graphics card with not one, but two top-tier graphics processors. Two systems powered by Intel’s top chips will get any DIYers juices flowing—but now it’s time to give AMD its due.

Intel’s processors have been the mainstay of the enthusiast community ever since the company’s Conroe architecture hit the scene in 2006 and knocked AMD’s Athlon off the top of the desktop processor heap. But while years have passed since AMD's had a desktop CPU that could compete with Intel’s best in terms of pure performance, AMD’s chips remain competitive further down the line.

amd fx cpu

Case in point: the AMD FX-9590. The FX-9590 is an 8-core processor, with a base clock of 4.7GHz and a turbo boost clock of 5.0GHz, making it the first desktop processor to officially hit 5.0GHz. In a different time, a chip like the FX-9590 would probably cost a cool grand—and it used to—but in the current landscape, the FX-9590 is only $260. At that price, you can grab the processor and a top-end Radeon R9 290X graphics card for roughly the same price an Intel's eight-core Core i7-5930K 'Haswell-E' processor alone. 

So we did. Let’s get cracking.

Component selection

Our plan was to use AMD’s fastest desktop processor available, so the FX-9590 was a lock from the get-go. The 220-watt processor is a beast in the power department, however, which required some careful build planning.

amd fx cpu 2 Marco Chiappetta

The AMD FX-9590 eight-core processor.

Using the FX-9590 meant finding a board with support for 220W socket AM3+ processors. AMD hasn’t updated its core logic chipsets in quite a while, however, and we didn’t want an aging board with outdated technology. Thankfully, MSI recently released a new socket AM3+ motherboard—the MSI 970 Gaming—that’s loaded up with 7.1 channel audio, a Killer E2205 Gigabit LAN controller, and USB 3.0. And at $99, the MSI 970 Gaming’s price was right. 

The FX-9590 will push the limits of this motherboard’s VRM, but we aren’t planning to overclock the PC and we’ll install plenty of cooling to keep the CPU and motherboard temperatures in check. To keep the CPU cool while riding along in the motherboard, we opted for a $79.99 Cooler Master Seidon 120XL liquid cooler. AMD once sold a liquid-cooled FX-9590 bundle, and this was the cooler in the package.

video card

The Powercolor PCS+ AXR9 290X 4GB graphics card.

Thanks to some recent price cuts, our GPU selection for this build couldn’t have been any easier. Sticking with the AMD theme, we opted for a Powercolor PCS+ AXR9 290X 4GB, which was available for $359. This card is powered by AMD’s Radeon R9 290X “Hawaii” GPU and is outfitted with a huge triple-fan cooling solution. The cooler allows the GPU to operate at higher speeds than reference R9 290X cards, and it’s quieter, too. The only AMD-based graphics card that’s more powerful is the Radeon R9 295X2 featured in yesterday’s build.

storage Marco Chiappetta

The Radeon R7 series SSD and Lite-On optical drive.

We also turned to AMD for PC’s storage—sort of. AMD Radeon R7 series solid state drives are built by OCZ and available for fairly competitive prices. Their overall performance is good too, so we picked up a 240GB model for about $145. To complement the SSD, we snagged a 1TB Seagate Barracuda 7200RPM hard drive for 60 bucks and threw in a cheap LG DVD-R optical drive on the off chance we’d need to use a CD or DVD at some point.

We had initially planned to use AMD-branded memory in this build as well, but when we saw Corsair’s Vengeance Pro DDR3-1866 16GB kit, our minds changed instantly. The kit consists of a pair of 8GB DDR3-1866 DIMMs, which would be a good match for the FX-9590. They even sport black-and-red heat spreaders that go perfectly with the MSI 970 Gaming’s color scheme. Corsair is also one of the most trusted names in system memory, so the $175 asking price for the kit was no problem.

We also turned to Corsair to power and house the rig. The Corsair Graphite 600T was one of my personal-favorite cases. When the company recently updated the Graphite line with a newer 780T model with features better suited to today’s hardware, I was intrigued. The Corsair Graphite 780T isn’t cheap at about $180, but it’s absolutely worth the asking price. The case is spacious, with plenty of mounting locations for both 2.5-inch and 3.5-inch internal drives. Even better, the windowed case sports a tool-less design and a trio of quiet fans. And hey, it looks good, too. About the only things missing from this case are a switch to turn off its integrated lighting, and a hiding spot to store all of the spare screws and connectors it includes.

psu Marco Chiappetta

The Corsair HX750i power supply.

As for the power supply, the Corsair HX750i was a good fit. We planned to use only one GPU in the rig, so its 750W capacity was fine, and we also liked that it's fully modular and operates silently under low loads.

For those of you keeping track, the complete parts breakdown for the system is as follows:

  • CPU: AMD FX-9590 - $259.99
  • Motherboard: MSI 970 Gaming AM3+ - $99.99
  • Memory: Corsair Vengeance Pro 16GB DDR3-1866 - $174.99
  • Graphics card: Powercolor PCS+ AXR9 290X 4GB - $359.99
  • Storage: AMD Radeon R7 SSD 240GB - $144.99
  • Storage: Seagate Barracuda 7200RPM HDD 1TB - $59.99
  • Optical drive: LG SATA DVD-R - $17.99
  • Chassis: Corsair Graphite Series 780T - $179.99
  • Power supply: Corsair HXi HX750i 750W PSU - $169.99
  • CPU cooler: Cooler Master Seidon 120XL - $79.99
  • Operating system: Windows 8.1 OEM - $99

All told, the system cost rings in at $1,646.90.

Though you don’t necessarily have to put Windows on the system, we also accounted for an OEM copy of Windows 8.1 here. If you’ve already got a Windows license available or plan to use an alternative free OS, knock $100 from that total price.

At about $1,646, this system isn’t exactly cheap—despite costing about half as much as our previous two Intel-based builds—but it does represent one of the most powerful, single-GPU all-AMD systems you can build today.

Turning the screws

Although it may seem daunting to the uninitiated, building a PC is actually pretty easy. Virtually every part of the system is keyed to fit into their respective sockets, connectors, and slots only one way. For the most part—save for the odd electrical shock—you’d have to be a brute and force something in the wrong way to actually break something. Just follow the directions in the manual and you’ll be OK, we swear!

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The assembled motherboard with installed RAM, CPU, and graphics card.

If you’d prefer to dive a little deeper with more detailed, visual steps on actually assembling a PC, check out a couple of PCWorld’s past articles. Our PC building best practices can walk you through piecing together a system, and our instructions on how to properly install a CPU cooler will help with that somewhat tricky process. Of course, there’s plenty of variation with products from different manufacturers, but if you get the fundamentals down, assembling any system is a piece of cake.

We didn’t run into any particular issues with this build, but some of our component choices—like the cooler—did require some additional work to install. A couple of the Corsair Graphite 780T case’s features were a bit unusual, too.

Installing the Cooler Master Seidon 120XL liquid cooler took a few special steps. First, the stock cooler mounts had to be removed from the motherboard to make way for a metal mounting bracket that sits behind the motherboard and holds the cooler’s CPU water block securely in place. The cooler’s fans and radiator also required mounting in the case.

cooler 1 Marco Chiappetta

Installing the radiator fans.

Removing the stock mounts from the motherboard was as simple as disengaging a few screws and popping them off the board. Mounting the radiator and fans, however, was a bit of a puzzle. The Cooler Master Seidon 120XL’s fans should be configured in a push-pull arrangement—one fan pushes air through the radiator, while the other pulls it. We first had to position the fan properly in an available 120mm mount at the top of the Graphite 780T and then feed the included long-screws through the fan, while holding the radiator underneath. Then we had to tighten the screws to hold the radiator in place. The second fan was mounted to the bottom side of the radiator. A couple of brackets also had to be screwed to the water block, which in turn, get screwed into the metal mount positioned behind the motherboard.

The process is certainly more complex than snapping an air cooler in place, but the assembly looks nice and clean when finished. It’s also much sturdier than most air coolers and won’t jostle out of place when moving the system.

cooler 2 Marco Chiappetta

The final, assembled cooler assembly.

The Corsair Graphite 780T also had some funky 2.5-inch drive mounts that required installing the SSD vertically, adjacent to the motherboard tray. It was a theoretically simple matter of mounting the drive to a tray that snaps into place, but the positioning was somewhat unique and forced us to route cables differently than usual.

Other than that, the build was pretty standard fare. The Corsair Graphite 780T was spacious and had a multitude of areas to route and tie-down cables, so assembling this one and making it look good was relatively simple.

The end result

We used a handful of readily available benchmarks to quantify the performance of our AMD FX 9590-based rig.

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The all-AMD beast, finished.

In the 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme benchmark, our system put up a very strong score of 4,995, which was higher than 63 percent of the systems in Futuremark’s database. In the Unigine Heaven benchmark (v4.0), with Ultra quality settings at a resolution of 2560x1600 with 4X anti-aliasing and maximum tessellation enabled, the system scored 845 (with an average frame rate of 33.5 FPS)—another strong showing for a single-GPU setup. In the heavily threaded Cinebench R15 benchmark, the system put up 94.44 frames per second in the OpenGL test and scored a decent 698 points in the multi-threaded CPU test. In terms of overall system performance, our AMD FX-9590 build scored 5,547 PCMarks with the latest build of PCMark 7, and its storage score was a speedy 5,296.

We should also mention power consumption, considering the FX-9590 is a 220W CPU and its power use and heat output may be a concern for some of you. While idling at the Windows desktop, this system pulled a relatively modest 80 watts from the wall. If we let the GPU go to sleep (with the monitor dimmed), that idle number dropped to only 69 watts. Under stress, the effects of the FX-9590 are apparent: The system pulled 338 watts with the processor under a full load, and that’s not even factoring in the Radeon card’s power draw.

With a CPU like the FX-9590 at the heart of this system, you may assume it'll be fairly loud—but that’s far from the case. The Corsair Graphite 780T and 750HXi combo are nice and quiet, especially with the case’s fans set to their lowest speed.

pcw amd build primary Marco Chiappetta

A glimpse inside.

Benchmarks tell part of this system’s story, but the user experience matters, too. Quite frankly, I was pleasantly surprised by this build’s performance. Intel has been giving AMD processors a drubbing in terms of single-threaded performance, IPC, and multi-threaded performance for years now. The scales have tipped so far in Intel’s favor that lower-clocked, quad-core Intel processors can often outpace octa-core AMD processors in the vast majority of benchmarks, and the Intel processors consume less power too.

But that doesn’t mean AMD’s processor can’t compete overall. 

Dollar for dollar, there’s still a strong argument to be made for AMD processors. Although the FX-9590 is a power-hungry, relatively inefficient CPU, its high frequencies give this PC some major oomph. This all-AMD rig would make any single-display PC gamer happy—and it costs a mere fraction of the Intel-powered world-beaters we highlighted earlier this week.

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