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System Builder Marathon: $1,250 Mid-Range PC

This month's SBM was a lot of fun, as I was very interested in seeing how a $1,200 Core 2 Duo system would stand against a similarly priced Core i7 system. The lower price of the Core 2 Duo system allowed us to be able to afford the most powerful video card available, while the Core i7 system had to settle for second best.

Before going into specifics, let's look at an average performance summary:

From this chart you'd assume it was a clean sweep for the Core i7, wouldn't you? But the numbers are a bit misleading as the gaming benchmarks contain the Unreal Tournament 3 results, which skew extremely high in favor of the Core i7. In reality, the E8500 and 4870 X2 combo were much more compelling components for a gaming machine, because they afforded very playable frame rates in UT3, but held the lead in all of the real difficult titles (Crysis and Supreme Commander to be specific). A difference of 10 FPS is significant when your frame rates are as low as 20 or 30 FPS, and that's where the 4870 X2 delivered.

For productivity software like encoding, rendering, and general use applications, the Core i7 was the obvious winner. Why? Because it either lost to the E8500 by a small margin or beat it by leaps and bounds. The i7 920 also really strutted its stuff in some of the benchmarks.

But once again, are we being mislead by the numbers? It seems likely that the cases where the Core i7 920 really pull ahead are greatly affected by the software's ability to take advantage of quad-core architecture. We have to wonder how the i7 920 would fare against the Core 2 Quad Q9550, which has a slightly higher stock speed. It costs $20 or more, but the motherboard could be much cheaper. Maybe we'll select this CPU in our next SBM for comparative purposes. Let us know your feedback in the comments section below.

In any case, our conclusion is that the i7 920 is a great CPU to build a PC around, and that serious gamers who have to choose one or the other should favor putting money into the video card instead of the CPU and settle on the cheap-but-fast E8500 to run their rig.

Ideally, if you could have your cake and eat it too, a Core i7 920 paired with a Radeon 4870 X2 would make a formidable system indeed.

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