An Upgrade Project

Can you take an off the shelf OEM system and using only a GeForce GTX 750 Ti, make it a capable gaming PC?

When NVIDIA started talking to us about the new GeForce GTX 750 Ti graphics card, one of the key points they emphasized was the potential use for this first-generation Maxwell GPU to be used in the upgrade process of smaller form factor or OEM PCs. Without the need for an external power connector, the GTX 750 Ti provided a clear performance delta from integrated graphics with minimal cost and minimal power consumption, so the story went.

Eager to put this theory to the test, we decided to put together a project looking at the upgrade potential of off the shelf OEM computers purchased locally.  A quick trip down the road to Best Buy revealed a PC sales section that was dominated by laptops and all-in-ones, but with quite a few "tower" style desktop computers available as well.  We purchased three different machines, each at a different price point, and with different primary processor configurations.

The lucky winners included a Gateway DX4885, an ASUS M11BB, and a Lenovo H520.

  Gateway DX4885 ASUS M11BB Lenovo H520
Processor Core i5-4440 A10-6700 Pentium G2030
Cores / Threads 4 / 4 4 / 4 2 / 2
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4600 AMD Radeon HD 8670D Intel HD Graphics
System Memory 8GB DDR3-1600 8GB DDR3-1600 4GB DDR3-1333
Hard Drive 1TB 1TB 1TB
Power Supply  300 watt 350 watt 250 watt
Operating System Windows 8 Windows 8 Windows 8
Price $570 $440 $340

With prices ranging from $570 down to $340, our desktop selections cover a wide range of available user options.  The Gateway system has the fastest primary processor with the Haswell-based Core i5-4440 (HD 4600 graphics) at its core.  However, the ASUS PC has the best out-of-the-box gaming performance with the inclusion of an A10-6700 APU (though not by as large a performance margin as one might expect).  The low man on the totem pole is definitely the Pentium G2030 based machine with a dual-core (no HyperThreading) processor and unlabeled integrated HD graphics.  A 12 FPS average frame rate on Bioshock Infinite at the "Very Low" preset is clearly nothing to get excited about.

CPU-Z Data on the Core i5-4440, A10-6700, and Pentium G2030

Another aspect worth noting on these systems is the power supply provided in each chassis.  The ASUS system included a 350 watt power supply that left only one unused 4-pin Molex power connector.  Both the Lenovo (250 watt) and the Gateway (300 watt) systems had power supplies without any additional power connectors at all.  That makes upgrading the graphics on such a system nearly impossible as cards like the Radeon R7 260X and the GeForce GTX 650 Ti require a 6-pin PCIE power connection to run.

As it just so happens though, the new GeForce GTX 750 Ti does not.  

Based on the new Maxwell architecture from NVIDIA, the GeForce GTX 750 Ti is easily the most power efficient GPU was have tested to date and the performance at resolutions like 1920x1080 is nothing short of impressive as well.  You can see in our initial review of the reference card that it was able to demonstrate a clear performance advantage over the Radeon R7 260X while using 35 watts less power and eschewing the need for an external power.

Rather that get into a complicated debate about different graphics card comparisons for this purpose, like including cards like the Radeon R7 250 or the GeForce GTX 650, we decided to solely demonstrate to our readers what kind of performance gains you can get by upgrading from integrated graphics to the latest in mainstream discrete graphics solutions.  

For each of the three test systems mentioned above we installed and ran five different popular PC games at 1920x1080 and rather low image quality settings.  I wanted to get a feel for what kind of experience the end user would get by just downloading Steam and installing Skyrim, for example.  The truth is the actually quite disheartening and it's easy to see why some people would quickly become disenchanted with the PC as a gaming platform.  Games were running in the single digit frame rates. For example, the 6 FPS average for Metro: Last Light and 10 FPS average for Skyrim are experiences that would drive people away from our hobby, not bring them into it.

Each of the five games (Bioshock Infinite, Crysis 3, GRID 2, Metro: Last Light, and Skyrim) were tested at unique image quality settings on each individual system, but all were run at 1920x1080 resolution.  Integrated game presets were used and are mentioned on each graph on the following page.

The upgrade process could not have been much easier for all three of the OEM systems we picked up.  Side doors were quickly removed, spare full-length PCI Express slots were located, and cards were easily locked into place.  Without the need to locate an external power connection, that is really all there was to it.  All three PCs booted into Windows 8 without complaint when the display connection was moved from the integrated graphics output to the discrete card's output and installing the NVIDIA 334.69 drivers went off without a hiccup.  

Even if you have no experience building a computer, anyone that is capable of using a screw driver should be able to add a graphics card upgrade to their PC.

With the test process determined, we ran 5 different games on each of the 3 systems; once with integrated graphics only and once more with the GeForce GTX 750 Ti installed.  The differences, as you will see, are stunning.

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