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Can We Really Call This Better For Gaming?

System Builder Marathon, Q2 2013: $650 Gaming PC
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As we saw on the preceding pages, there's no denying that PowerColor's Tahiti-powered Radeon HD 7870 offers lots of bang for your buck, along with a killer three-game (now four-game) bundle to make the deal even sweeter. So, it's really no surprise that the PowerColor AX7870 Myst Edition and (supposedly quieter) Sapphire HD 7870 XT are in hot demand and often sold-out on Newegg. All things considered, though, have we made the right decisions to satisfy the spirit of this competition?

Anyone left who still believed that the Core i5-3350P wasn’t right for last quarter's $600 build has to concede that, when it comes to overall system cost (not just the price of a CPU), Intel's Core i3 simply cannot compete throughout our benchmark suite.

Officially, the machine is judged on a scale where 60% of its performance weight comes from desktop apps and only 30% is derived from gaming. Under those rules, the value of this quarter's build goes down. Its big-ticket item, the Tahiti-powered Radeon HD 7870, only helps push us forward in the most taxing gaming tests. The Core i5-3350P was the right call for overall performance, though we might also argue a case for AMD’s FX 6300 family.

Of course, as you already know, I prefer comparing my System Builder Marathon efforts based on how they behave in games. 

My goal this quarter was to show you more gaming performance from a smaller form factor. In that regard, this $650 build is successful in delivering the smoothest 1920x1080 gaming experience we've ever derived from a budget-oriented build. But in order to accomplish this, I made some sacrifices along the way. We already nudged the budgets up a bit to cover the cost of mini-ITX motherboards and allow some wiggle room for the enclosures. Even so, I left out an optical drive, making life a little more difficult for installing Windows. And I still crested the allotted $650 by $3. Unable to secure 8 GB of RAM and saving very little desktop real estate (measured in square inches), I’m left feeling a little hollow about this one. I would have liked an even larger budget, giving me more access to the engineering that many boutique builders have at their disposal.

At the end of the day, though, my $650 mini-ITX PC is a true gaming rig, packing the graphics muscle enthusiasts need for a fluid experience in today's top titles at 1920x1080. If you can, toss in 8 GB of RAM and maybe a small SSD. The result would be a beast indeed.

Other folks are going to find this setup's biggest strength to also be its deal-breaking weakness. As a PC gamer, I want to praise this highly-capable box. But I'd personally give up a little of its graphics performance for a cheaper Pitcairn-based Radeon HD 7870 or GeForce GTX 660 packing a less abrasive cooling solution. That savings would get me the extra memory or a smaller enclosure. While Cooler Master's Elite 120 is a bargain at $40, it also takes up more room than I've allowed for my own mini-ITX builds.

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