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CPU vs GPU for BigBox Build


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TL;DR:  IS CPU or GPU the more important factor for BigBox performance (interface, not emulation).  Seeking insight for new SFF PC.

So I'm looking for some informed advice or experiences.  I built my arcade machine about a year ago.  At the time I used an old AMD X4 SFF system (with GeForece 8200-series GPU and Windows 7) I had laying around.  It worked great for actual emulators and gameplay, and the Attract Mode front-end also performed well.  Then I found and fell in love with Launchbox's BigBox mode.  On this AMD system, performance was awful.  Scrolling through clear logos, video previews, and background video all lagged and stuttered horribly no matter what configuration I used.

To solve the problem, I bought a NUC Kit NUC5i7RYH (Dual-core i7 with Iris 6100 graphics).  This ran things pretty smoothly in BigBox.  Unfortunately, my wife's main PC died shortly thereafter, and with no cash to purchase something new so soon, she got the NUC.  Unwilling to return to the terrible performance of the AMD box, I took the gaming box that lives in my living room (to run Vive), and stuck it in the cabinet.  This thing runs great, and I have the Vive connected to it as well.  The only issue is that it is a massive tower with water-cooling, which just barely fits into the cabinet.  This makes it difficult to work with, and whenever I want to run VR, I have to reconfigure all the sound and monitor settings.

I really need a separate system just for the cabinet.  I'd like it to be as small as possible.  I considered another NUC, but they are terribly pricey.  So I guess the question is, where is my issue on performance.  What specs do I really need for perfect BigBox performance?  I've read many threads, and there seems to be differing opinions about what helps most in the regard.  Should I be using an i3 system with a beefier, non-integrated GPU, or is CPU the main thing?  To be clear, I have no interest in newer console emulation that might benefit from a beefy GPU.  I'm running exclusively MAME and Daphne.  I have maybe 550 total games setup in LaunchBox.  My  preferred configuration is the Critical Zone theme with Horizontal scrolling and the Hyperspin game vids.

I feel like I should be able to get admirable performance on something less bleeding-edge.  And insight is appreciated.

Edited by BadServo
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CPU is the most important factor for Emulation and LaunchBox / Big Box. LB Doesn't utilize the GPU much if at all. Big Box will utilize GPU, but it's still just as dependent on CPU.. Emulators will utilize GPU if they have those renderer's, like OpenGL, Vulkan, DirectX 9, 10, 11, 12, etc. The later emulators utilize it, unless you put them in to software mode, then it's all CPU.

If you want size but performance, look for Mini cases and not NUC's. They're gonna be more expensive because of their size, and still limited. If you're willing to go up a bit, you can find more performance at a cheaper price point if you look at small form factors. When it comes to the machine, I would never suggest anyone get an i3. The price difference to an i5 is minimal and a huge jump in performance. An i7 would be preferable. Be careful which i5 or i7 you get, some sku's don't come with integrated graphics. Even if what you're playing doesn't really utilize the GPU, what little it can, plus the OS utilizing it, can help offset. So even a cheaper GPU might be more beneficial then running integrated. If you're mostly running MAME, then a decent CPU can get you most of the way through the catalog. For any later games, or 3D intense games, later MAME, or if you might want to branch out to newer systems even (in the future), then a GPU would almost be a must. Again, it can help with the later 3D MAME titles, but otherwise it might not be a big factor. If you found an affordable 1GB or 2GB VRAM half sized GTX950 (or even lower, or even a GT(S) series card), it can just help with system stability as a whole, even if not directly helping emulation.

For some reason the market has tricked us in to thinking that GPU's are the most important thing. And while they are, especially for gaming, CPU's aren't seeing as many gains or performance increases iteration to iteration. People just assume that any CPU will do, and that's not true at all. Your entire system is a fine tuned package, and if anything slouches it doesn't matter how good the other parts are, the bad link brings them all down.

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New Nucs with USB-C Thunderbolt ports are not as limited as they now support external GPU's like this one https://www.amazon.com/Akitio-Node-Windows-Certified-Thunderbolt3/dp/B06XKKSNTS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1495822439&sr=8-1&keywords=egpu

Of course adding this increases the price exponentially since you need the box plus a GPU to go into it but basically you could run a 1080TI on a NUC i7 and it would be a beast.

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Thanks for the insight gentlemen.  I'm torn on what to order, having looked at several bare-bones mini PCs and SFF cases.  Yeah, the eGPUs are nice.  I saw the Akitio on a recent Lon.TV video (linked below) and was quite impressed.  Much cheaper than the Razer Core, although it's missing the USB and ethernet connections you get with that one.

I already have a GeForce 780ti sitting around gathering dust, so I guess I should bite the bullet and put together a mini tower.  But man I sure appreciated the compact nature of the NUC.  Barely added any weight to the cabinet at all.  Now I just have to decide one a CPU.  I'll do some more research.  Might ask some local peeps with i5s to run my LB/BB config and see how it fairs before I jump to a pricier i7.



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Cool stuff, seems useful for laptop owners :o... I'll stick to desktop builds.  Keep my laptop for surfing the web only :P.  Seems more practical to build a small desktop build then invest in the thunderbolt GPU setup from the start. :P 

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