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Is It Unbalanced, Or Right For Gaming?

System Builder Marathon, March 2012: $650 Gaming PC
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It’s no surprise that our new value-oriented PC got smoked by the System Build Marathon’s overall performance weighting, considering we built it purely to game at native resolutions. If you're buying an affordable gaming display today, it'd probably be a 1920x1080 display. If you're using something a few years old, it might be a 1680x1050 screen instead.

In that context, we're comfortable dropping the influence of our CPU-limited low-resolution tests in order to focus on the best playable settings at those more interesting settings. In the chart below, we average performance in our six comparable games, considering only the highest-quality results in all but one of them. Metro 2033 was unplayable on both systems using 4x MSAA and the DoF filter enabled. So, we instead count the lower-detail benchmark numbers in this title.

On average, today's stock platform outperforms last quarter's by 9% at 1680x1050 and 10% at 1920x1080. It comes out on top in five of the six titles, leading between 5-16% at 1680x1050 and 9-17% at 1920x1080. A lone defeat is suffered in StarCraft 2, where the lower-end CPU inhibits performance to the tune of 3% and 2%, respectively, at both of our important resolutions. That’s a fairly insignificant loss, though, when minimum frame rates didn't drop below a very-smooth 72 FPS. If you're not looking to tamper with overclocking, today's build certainly offers more raw potential for a better native-resolution gaming experience.

Combining a 10% graphics core clock increase, a 12.4% graphics memory overclock, and lower system RAM timings leads to 10% higher frame rates, on average, from last quarter's build. That’s amazing overclocking efficiency, which must have successfully targeted the platform's main bottlenecks. This month we only achieved one-half of the core overclock, and less than a third of the memory boost. Staying within the bounds of AMD's Overdrive applet certainly handicapped our overall potential. Yet, even this small boost was enough for this quarter's overclocked PC to secure quantifiable victories in Battlefield 3, Crysis, and Metro 2033.

In reality, both builds offer solid gaming at 1680x1050 and 1920x1080. While we hope game developers continue pushing the limits of PC hardware, a majority of popular games aren't as demanding as the titles we test. Often, the difference between a Radeon HD 6870 and 6950 come down to the amount of anti-aliasing you can apply and still see playable performance.

It takes an entire platform firing on all cylinders to deliver a smooth gaming experience. Beyond hardware, even the efficiency of game code or the maturity of graphics drivers need to be considered. Although we know how important a graphics card is for pushing high detail settings at native resolutions, we don't want to undermine the role a capable processor plays in games. The wrong CPU can artificially limit performance at low resolutions, and hold us back from seeing a GPU's maximum potential.

Today’s system accomplished its goal of providing a higher degree of raw muscle for 1920x1080-based gaming. How much you’d benefit from the decisions we made depends on the games you like to play, the resolutions you use, and the details settings you select. I'm a graphics fanatic, and always find a way to appreciate bigger and badder graphics subsystems. 

Our test suite makes it clear that last quarter's $600 PC, with its Core i5-2400 processor, better serves the demands of a broader audience. Today's Core i3-2120 falls flat in demanding productivity applications. We're just glad that it doesn’t throw our system out of balance for our intended purpose.

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Top Comments
  • 22 Hide
    yukijin , March 26, 2012 5:24 AM
    so now that all the 6950's are deactivated or $289+, is this build invalid? because a 7850 is looking really good right now...
  • 17 Hide
    SpadeM , March 26, 2012 6:54 AM
    whysobluepandabearI appreciate what they're doing, but at some points, I can't help but feel like a cheap bitch. Making decisions overly measly amounts of money ($10) is just dumb. Work an extra day and just get the hardware you want. Or, don't go to the movies or out to eat for a few weeks. To me, there's a certain area, at which being cheap, just rips you off - you'd be better off spending a little more, and getting a much better item.

    It's not an issues of whether they had the money or not, it's a matter of principle, you set your budget and goals at a certain point and then you make choices. Sure, not everyone will be happy with what they chose but that's what forums are for.

    Anyways, anything a bit over 60fps (on a 60hz monitor) really isn't that bad, i mean you might lack the bragging rights but at the end of the day, it's about gaming and feeling satisfied that you shot enough monsters. To further empathize that having 70 fps constant is not total shit because another GPU can serve you 130 (as if you're going to notice without watching the fps counter) my one suggestion for this SBM would be to introduce a different style of graphs. Below 30fps all the colors of the bars to be grey and over 60 the same thing. This to focus the attention on most relevant (to my opinion) segment. I've seen a lot of ppl chase those fps numbers, buying expensive GPUs only to have them sit in a bad enclosure, sub par motherboard or weak CPU.
    Even in gaming, i believe balance is key.
  • 16 Hide
    whysobluepandabear , March 26, 2012 5:45 AM
    I appreciate what they're doing, but at some points, I can't help but feel like a cheap bitch.

    Making decisions overly measly amounts of money ($10) is just dumb. Work an extra day and just get the hardware you want. Or, don't go to the movies or out to eat for a few weeks.

    To me, there's a certain area, at which being cheap, just rips you off - you'd be better off spending a little more, and getting a much better item.
Other Comments
  • 22 Hide
    yukijin , March 26, 2012 5:24 AM
    so now that all the 6950's are deactivated or $289+, is this build invalid? because a 7850 is looking really good right now...
  • 15 Hide
    tristan_b , March 26, 2012 5:43 AM
    What yukijin said.
  • 16 Hide
    whysobluepandabear , March 26, 2012 5:45 AM
    I appreciate what they're doing, but at some points, I can't help but feel like a cheap bitch.

    Making decisions overly measly amounts of money ($10) is just dumb. Work an extra day and just get the hardware you want. Or, don't go to the movies or out to eat for a few weeks.

    To me, there's a certain area, at which being cheap, just rips you off - you'd be better off spending a little more, and getting a much better item.
  • -3 Hide
    Anonymous , March 26, 2012 5:51 AM
    How do I win this????
  • 5 Hide
    mortsmi7 , March 26, 2012 5:55 AM
    Let me get this straight... you raised the budget $150 "as a result of steep price hikes on mechanical storage", then only spent $85 on a HDD. You really just wanted a more expensive graphics card. You could have taken the $70 processor savings and the $65 under-budget HDD savings and nearly have had a $500 build.
  • -8 Hide
    de5_Roy , March 26, 2012 6:37 AM
    very good read.
    nice to see where core i3's limits lie.
    i wonder if you guys will consider amd's new fx 6200 or fx 8120 for the $1200 build, with 78xx series in cfx.
  • -7 Hide
    serhat359 , March 26, 2012 6:45 AM
    if I had $600 for a PC, I would go with i3-21xx, 6870, a better mobo and a better case.
    it is probably the best thing to do
  • 17 Hide
    SpadeM , March 26, 2012 6:54 AM
    whysobluepandabearI appreciate what they're doing, but at some points, I can't help but feel like a cheap bitch. Making decisions overly measly amounts of money ($10) is just dumb. Work an extra day and just get the hardware you want. Or, don't go to the movies or out to eat for a few weeks. To me, there's a certain area, at which being cheap, just rips you off - you'd be better off spending a little more, and getting a much better item.

    It's not an issues of whether they had the money or not, it's a matter of principle, you set your budget and goals at a certain point and then you make choices. Sure, not everyone will be happy with what they chose but that's what forums are for.

    Anyways, anything a bit over 60fps (on a 60hz monitor) really isn't that bad, i mean you might lack the bragging rights but at the end of the day, it's about gaming and feeling satisfied that you shot enough monsters. To further empathize that having 70 fps constant is not total shit because another GPU can serve you 130 (as if you're going to notice without watching the fps counter) my one suggestion for this SBM would be to introduce a different style of graphs. Below 30fps all the colors of the bars to be grey and over 60 the same thing. This to focus the attention on most relevant (to my opinion) segment. I've seen a lot of ppl chase those fps numbers, buying expensive GPUs only to have them sit in a bad enclosure, sub par motherboard or weak CPU.
    Even in gaming, i believe balance is key.
  • 2 Hide
    confish21 , March 26, 2012 6:58 AM
    Great Job! These builds keep me at Tomshardware!

    Only thing 1 thing, you said an I3 was used instead of an I5 on this page...
    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/build-gaming-pc-overclock,3159-8.html
    You can check the 600 dec build here...
    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/core-i5-overclock-performance-gaming,3097.html
    Pretty sure an I5-2400 was used.
  • 4 Hide
    jerreddredd , March 26, 2012 7:46 AM
    I'm glad they used a i3 2120 for the CPU, but I wish they would have used some of the newer cards like the HD 7950 or the GTX 560 Ti 448. these are roughly the same price. Spending and extra $20 on a PSU was a waste. the EA430D and 380W are the core of the budget build. I would like to see some testing of a few of the less expensive PSU ($50 or less) to see which are junk and which aren't bad.
  • 10 Hide
    Crashman , March 26, 2012 8:33 AM
    SpadeMIt's not an issues of whether they had the money or not, it's a matter of principle, you set your budget and goals at a certain point and then you make choices. Sure, not everyone will be happy with what they chose but that's what forums are for.
    Exactly. These parts were picked 5 or 6 weeks ago and Paul wanted to get maximum gaming performance this time. I prefer balanced systems, but then again I don't build something called the "$xxx Gaming PC"
  • 9 Hide
    pauldh , March 26, 2012 8:39 AM
    mortsmi7Let me get this straight... you raised the budget $150 "as a result of steep price hikes on mechanical storage", then only spent $85 on a HDD. You really just wanted a more expensive graphics card. You could have taken the $70 processor savings and the $65 under-budget HDD savings and nearly have had a $500 build.

    $150? Check the text again. We raised it $50 (from $600). quote- "Although our previous system ducked in under $600 with a small promotional savings factored in, duplicating our efforts when the series went live required more than $650 as a result of steep price hikes on mechanical storage. Consequently, we bumped the official budget up to $650 this quarter, keeping a level playing field with the prior config."

    The $500 Gaming PC does in fact have a long history at Tom's Hardware, but during the past few years we've often raised that limit to explore more attractive (higher) levels of hardware such as the recent Core i5-2400 and HD 6950.
  • -1 Hide
    giovanni86 , March 26, 2012 9:32 AM
    Not a bad build, can't really recommend this to any of my buddies but i do look forward to the next build. Is it just me or like maybe 5 years ago these builds used to cost 2x what they cost today =P Like performance was 5-7k.
  • -8 Hide
    tmk221 , March 26, 2012 9:50 AM
    I don't like this build. I think they should use afterburner or some other software to overclock gpu. That card would go much further imo. Also I think that phenom 2 x4 965 BE would yield better performance as you can overclock to ~4ghz.
  • 9 Hide
    pauldh , March 26, 2012 10:03 AM
    yukijinso now that all the 6950's are deactivated or $289+, is this build invalid? because a 7850 is looking really good right now...

    The HD 7800 series was not available until weeks after our window of opportunity (for ordering) had expired. So you will not see 7800s (or the GTX 680) in any of this month’s builds.

    Sure, the 7850 is an option now if within budget. Although a firm $650 component cap would mean dropping to a Sandy Bridge Pentium, or AMD FX-4100 build. Otherwise, there’s the cheaper GTX 560 Ti, which could leave funding for a different case and/or mobo.

    Good catch, ALL 6950s had been deactivated, now there is a single 2GB in stock for $290. Not likely, but worth keeping an eye on, since last gen parts often drop in price to offer tremendous value (before drying up altogether).

    jerreddreddI'm glad they used a i3 2120 for the CPU, but I wish they would have used some of the newer cards like the HD 7950 or the GTX 560 Ti 448. these are roughly the same price. Spending and extra $20 on a PSU was a waste. the EA430D and 380W are the core of the budget build. I would like to see some testing of a few of the less expensive PSU ($50 or less) to see which are junk and which aren't bad.
    Thanks, yeah, the Core i3 is very attractive for gaming, but we see overall how much it gives up in productivity.

    On the GPU side - The HD 7950 is far more expensive, so I assume you meant the 7850. As stated above, those were unavailable for any of this month’s builds. The GTX 560 Ti 448 was of course available, but at a much higher cost. It was way out of reach (back then) for a $650 build.

    confish21Great Job! These builds keep me at Tomshardware!Only thing 1 thing, you said an I3 was used instead of an I5 on this page... http://www.tomshardware.com/review [...] 159-8.htmlYou can check the 600 dec build here...http://www.tomshardware.com/review [...] ,3097.htmlPretty sure an I5-2400 was used.

    Thanks! i3-2400 was a typo. Fixed!
  • 4 Hide
    molo9000 , March 26, 2012 10:20 AM
    I personally wouldn't buy or recommend to buy a dual-core processor in this day and age. Some gaming benchmarks look good, but most people would be better off with a similarly priced AMD quad-core or a higher priced Intel quad-core, especially if the system is meant to last a few years. (which it is. Budget gamers don't upgrade every 2 years)


    btw: Battlefield 3 singleplayer benchmarks are VERY misleading. Multiplayer is a completely different animal.
  • -4 Hide
    Anonymous , March 26, 2012 10:58 AM
    gtx 480 run at $250 much better than 695
  • -6 Hide
    edwinjr , March 26, 2012 11:18 AM
    Where is system builder marathon for $500?
  • 0 Hide
    Onus , March 26, 2012 12:20 PM
    This build does a lot to confirm the need for balance. Confirmation vs. revelation is not a bad thing; consider the "revelation" in that $1200 SBM of just how badly an FX-6100 sucks. I'm not going to niggle over the parts in this build; my niece has commented that the E4400 rig I built for her some 5 years ago is now somewhat sluggish, so I'd love to win this one as a solid upgrade for her.
    Incidentally, I appreciate the initial remarks about the budget in this one. While I would like to have seen an additional $500 build, I understand why you did it this way, and am glad to see that you'll be returning to that budget next time.
  • 0 Hide
    jaquith , March 26, 2012 12:32 PM
    Thanks for the article.

    I refer to these builds often, I have a terrible time choosing components with budget minded builds. It's easy to say i7-2600K, $200+ MOBO, 8GB+ DDR3-1600 RAM, $200+ SSD, etc.

    For the most part everything is very playable with the exception of Metro 2033 at higher details/etc, and as one person pointed-out the HD 7850 is the HD 6850 replacement it might give some extra oomph but from what I recall 2~4FPS which is still short of 35+FPS needed.

    Obviously, a (i5/i7) 4-core is going to aide in productivity and in some gaming.
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