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System Builder Marathon, Sept. '09: $650 Gaming PC


Given the 3.1 GHz CPU core speed of the stock $650 PC, an average performance gain of 14% isn’t bad, especially considering the overclock was capped by the AMD boxed cooler.

* note: The gaming % only includes the normal three resolutions and not 2560x1600 results. 

Little increase in voltages during our overclocking efforts even led to a small increase in efficiency over the stock system. 

If you look over our SBM articles from the past year, you’ll notice we continually strive to add more graphics muscle to our budget gaming rig. As prices drop, we have stepped up from the GeForce 8800 GT to the Radeon HD 4850, the Radeon HD 4870 512MB, and the GeForce GTX 260 Core 216, and now finally to a pair of HD 4850 512MB cards. While we did see instances where more graphics memory would have been useful, this was still by far the most potent graphics solution we have squeezed into our lowest SBM budget. 

On the processor end, it’s been all dual-cores thus far at this budget. Our Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition managed an impressive core speed for such low voltage and its boxed cooler. Had we been able to step up to an aftermarket air cooler, we likely would have been able to push another 200-300 MHz on the CPU core and a higher northbridge speed.

We really can’t directly compare the CPU performance in games, but in terms of overclocked performance in applications, it seems the pricier Phenom II dual-core has its hands full competing with the Pentium E5200 on a clock-for-clock basis--never mind if both were pushed to their maximum potential. Dethroning the E5200 in bang-for-buck overclocking performance with a Phenom II will probably have to be done with more than two processing cores. 

Still, given the massive increase in stock performance, easy overclocking, and even potential to unlock cores, the AMD Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition made for a fine choice in accomplishing our goals. The September $650 gaming PC may have fallen short of sweeping all benchmarks, but it’s still the best stock-clocked machine to date at this budget, and one that set a whole new bar in overall gaming performance.

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