Back in April, before Microsoft announced that it would start selling Kinect-less Xbox Ones for $400, we built two gaming PCs for $550--roughly the cost of an Xbox One after taxes in North America, at the time. One PC was derived from AMD parts, and the other was a mix of Intel and Nvidia hardware. We put these machines up against the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, using cross-platform games as our benchmark, to see which platform offered the best performance per dollar. If you think capable gaming PCs are inherently expensive, the results might surprise you: for $550, you can build a gaming PC that outperforms both consoles, albeit ever so slightly in some cases.
Now that Watch Dogs is out, we figured this was a good opportunity to test our machines once again. Immediately, there was a problem: neither our AMD PC nor our Intel/Nvidia PC met the game's minimum requirements. The minimum hardware requirements for Watch Dogs weren't known by the time we got to work on the first project, and as it turned out, they are relatively lofty compared to other cross-platform games:
- Graphics: DirectX 11 GPU with 1GB VRAM
- Processor: Quad-core CPU
- Memory: 6GB RAM
Watch Dogs ran on our machines as they were, but it wasn't pretty, so we had to consider upgrading their components. In keeping with our goal to spend as little money as possible, we upgraded the RAM in each machine and put our slightly enhanced rigs to the test. The results were a bit surprising.
Low-Cost AMD PC - Mark Walton
It's no secret that AMD users haven't had the best luck with Watch Dogs. Regardless of whether the company's comments about the inclusion of Nvidia's Gameworks technology and its effect on performance are true or not, it's clear from early benchmarks that comparable AMD hardware isn't performing as well as Nvidia's. It's also worth noting that the minimum specs for the game call for at least 6GB of RAM, so we had to drop in an extra 4GB stick to make sure we hit the spec.
Running the game on our budget AMD rig at 1080p with the standard drivers, we saw a real performance hit stepping up to anything above the medium settings preset. At high, the game is just about playable, while switching up to ultra results in one heck of a slide show.
Moving to the updated beta driver--released to relieve some of the issues--we see an improvement at high and ultra settings, although the latter still isn't smooth enough for Watch Dogs to be playable. Interestingly, using the beta driver at medium settings resulted in worse performance than with the official driver.
Clearly, there are still optimization issues to overcome, which will hopefully be resolved when the new driver gets a full release. Until then, if you can stomach a game that doesn't look as good as the next-gen console versions, the best 60fps performance on our budget rig came from the older driver at medium.
Low-Cost Intel PC - Peter Brown
The Pentium Dual-Core CPU that we chose for our Intel PC put it at a serious disadvantage when the time came to test Watch Dogs, and it didn't help that we were short on RAM, either. So we threw in another 4GB of RAM, but considering that we're trying to stay competitive with consoles, and the price of the Xbox One is no longer as high as it once was, we deemed it unreasonable to spend another $100-$200 to replace the CPU. That means that we went into this test without meeting the minimum hardware requirements for Watch Dogs, which didn't give us high hopes for the performance, but it solidified the conclusion that a $400 next-gen console is a great value.
Lo and behold, Watch Dogs runs on our modest Intel PC, even with the lackluster dual-core CPU. But even though it's playable, the results were underwhelming. Never mind the ultra graphics test; Watch Dogs dips below 20fps on low settings. It's telling, as demonstrated in the video above, that there wasn't a dramatic difference in performance between low, medium, and high presets. One look at the Windows task manager illustrates that the CPU, which was always pushing 98 percent or more of its power, is the obvious culprit here. Sure, the GTX 750 Ti isn't a powerhouse, but it's not as flimsy as the Pentium CPU.
At the moment, Watch Dogs has a reputation for being poorly optimized, but in this case, we can only point our finger at our hardware.
What About Other Games?
If you're curious about what's inside these PCs, and how they handle other cross-platform games, check out our original story from April. Like in this test, we found that AMD has the advantage in the low-cost gaming PC space, but the difference in performance was far less pronounced with those games than it was with Watch Dogs. Regardless, now that both consoles are priced at $400 (before taxes), it's hard to beat the value of an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 where in-game performance is concerned.