System Builder Marathon, Q2 2013: $650 Gaming PC

Can We Really Call This Better For Gaming?

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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147 comments
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  • Madn3ss795
    Just 1 question: Why not a 4gb ram stick instead? That board only has 2 RAM slots, so wouldn't it be better to use just one and save another for upgrading later?
    1
  • nokiddingboss
    a great starting build at a very reasonable cost. it was a good read mate. gotta <3 the 7870xt for gaming. best bang for the buck. if only the i5's are a little cheaper... next quarter perhaps?
    2
  • sbudbud
    Anonymous said:
    Just 1 question: Why not a 4gb ram stick instead? That board only has 2 RAM slots, so wouldn't it be better to use just one and save another for upgrading later?

    I think this is for performance reasons, dual channel memory beats single channel in performance but more memory is better. I guess the reason is that 4gb is the sweet spot in terms of what is recommended and that going single channel 4gb for future upgrade to 8gb dual channel will has diminishing returns..
    2
  • thasan1
    ahh finally, i was wondering what happened to system builder marathon..
    2
  • thasan1
    but why mini ITX rigs?
    -2
  • sarinaide
    $650 called budget, clearly my definition and the going opinion is far from budget, with it possible to build a ATX Intel or AMD system for a little extra but a lot more performance. I did see the Day5 $400 Ultimate Purist M-ATX, this I gotta see, my guess is another Intel build.
    -3
  • jestersage
    Thank you for acceding to reader requests for an itx based SBM!

    I have similar preferences as the author when it comes to what I'd change here... a step down in graphics, a step up in CPU performance and bring up RAM to 8gb. I'm not very concerned about noise. I almost always put on a headset when I game.
    -2
  • MuadDibTM
    Great job on the build and the article. Would have liked a noise comparison as well. Just so we'd know what we're talking about when going for a mini-ITX build.
    0
  • bigshootr8
    Yea I'm a bit confused why you wouldn't go down to a 7850 2 gigabyte model and then spend the extra money on 8 gigabytes of memory instead ><
    -3
  • ARICH5
    jeez, it sounds like your face-palming yourself for getting the i3 through this whole article.
    2
  • Larry Bob
    You should have gone with the Sapphire 7870 XT instead for the cooler.
    -3
  • ojas
    Anonymous said:
    Just 1 question: Why not a 4gb ram stick instead? That board only has 2 RAM slots, so wouldn't it be better to use just one and save another for upgrading later?

    Guessing dual channel mode.

    Anonymous said:
    but why mini ITX rigs?

    Um why not?

    Anonymous said:
    $650 called budget, clearly my definition and the going opinion is far from budget, with it possible to build a ATX Intel or AMD system for a little extra but a lot more performance. I did see the Day5 $400 Ultimate Purist M-ATX, this I gotta see, my guess is another Intel build.

    Yes, lets not read the article at all and rush to the comments section. SBM defeats its purpose if we're going to stick to the same old stuff. What you're looking for has already been covered many, many times before in previous SBMs.

    Anonymous said:
    Yea I'm a bit confused why you wouldn't go down to a 7850 2 gigabyte model and then spend the extra money on 8 gigabytes of memory instead ><

    Because there are more games that would benefit from a 7870 than 8GB of RAM? And anyway, 8 gigs is a relatively cheap upgrade, compared to the GPU.
    3
  • pauldh
    Anonymous said:
    jeez, it sounds like your face-palming yourself for getting the i3 through this whole article.


    No, not at all. Just contrasting the shift in platform balance from CPU to GPU. i3-3220 was perfect for this high-res mini-ITX gaming PC. Wouldn't have changed that up at all at this budget.

    However, it's not the way to go for winning the SBM (overall performance/value), factoring the 60% applications weighting. With an upwardly locked multiplier, we knew exactly how this i3 would rate there (been there, done that already).
    2
  • ryanrich83
    I have a build with the same Cooler Master Elite 120 case. Good to finally see it included in a SBM article.

    For the money, it is hard to beat in an ITX case. There are better options, like the BitFenix Prodigy, but they cost almost twice as much.

    Only downside to the case is the noise. Fans are running at near max to keep temps tolerable.
    0
  • Killroyjenkins
    If you were going to leave the cpu at stock frequency, why not then undervolt it too? Certainly that would reduce heat a bit and could help with the graphics card issue.
    0
  • airborn824
    a budget PC with i3 instead of AMD? o find that odd. anytime you get a CPU under 200 its obvious to go AMD.. Isnt it? or is society blinded by shiny s?
    -1
  • ojas
    Anonymous said:
    a budget PC with i3 instead of AMD? o find that odd. anytime you get a CPU under 200 its obvious to go AMD.. Isnt it? or is society blinded by shiny s?

    1st thing: when gaming is priority, go Intel

    2nd thing: Below $200, look at the i5s. There isn't much point to lots of GPU muscle if you're going to be held back by a CPU bottleneck.

    3rd thing: The moment you hit thermally constrained spaces, Intel is the company of choice.
    2
  • David Siebert
    I could not help myself so I built my own version of this on PC parts picker.
    I used a different case and power supply and bumped the ram up to 8Gb and swapped the 500GB hard drive for a 120GB SSD. I can in under 650 after shipping and rebates.
    You could do a 64GB SSD and the 500GB drive for the same price but I figured Hard Drives are cheap and you might have one sitting around that you could add if you did this build or add one when you find a good deal.
    0
  • David Siebert
    Here is my version of the $1200 itx build.
    http://pcpartpicker.com/user/lwatcdr/saved/1MTa
    0