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Performance Summary, Efficiency, And Conclusion

System Builder Marathon, March 2011: $500 Gaming PC
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We’ll summarize performance and efficiency using December’s stock $500 PC as a base.

Performance Summary

On average, the overall performance of the stock March PC equals the significantly-overclocked December PC. This month’s fairly tame overclock still manages to deliver sizeable performance gains.

Efficiency

More impressive than performance alone is the March PC’s low power consumption, and resulting efficiency gains!

Conclusion

AMD’s triple-core Athlon II holds the crown among sub-$80 gaming processors. In fact, all four SBM budget gaming machines built in 2010 featured an Athlon II X3-based processor. Half of them rewarded us with four fully-stable cores, while the other two failed to unlock and came up a bit short in our threaded encoding and productivity benchmarks. But there is more and more evidence, such as today’s F1 2010 data, in support of splurging on four cores right out of the gate, even on a pure gaming rig.

This March 2011 gaming PC offers impressive performance and efficiency, but the question still remains: was it worth breaking the bank for a Phenom II, in essence spending an extra $25 for 6 MB of L3 cache, while giving up 200 MHz of frequency? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer. There are too many variables in play here, such as changes in graphics cards and the benchmark suite itself. Even future gaming comparisons may be hampered due to poor overclocking headroom from this month's Sapphire Radeon HD 6850. We do know the Phenom II’s gobs of L3 cache can make a difference in some applications and games.

While I believe exploring AMD’s Phenom II X4 925 was the right call, pricing determines whether we’d recommend it or use one again. For the recent $10-$20 difference, the retail boxed Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition is clearly a better package. If this is too steep, $100 buys an Athlon II X4 640. These offer more value, while leaving around $20 for aftermarket cooling, should lower temperatures, quieter operation, or higher-voltage overclocks be what your heart desires.

Intel’s Sandy Bridge-based platform is all the rage now, and for good reason considering what it brings to the table. While a Core i5 is beyond our tight budget, I’ll certainly entertain the possibility of Intel’s newly-available Core i3-2100 for the next SBM. But the attractiveness of what AMD continues to offer the budget-minded gamer is undeniable. Take our $100 motherboard and RAM combo. From there, regardless of whether you choose the affordable Athlon II X4 640, the enthusiast’s Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition, or something in between, you have the makings of a very value-oriented gaming platform.

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