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System Builder Marathon, Sept. 2010: $400 Gaming PC

System Builder Marathon, Sept. 2010: $400 Gaming PC
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System Builder Marathon, September 2010: The Articles

Here are links to each of the four articles in this month’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please check out this Google form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $2,000 Performance PC
Day 2: The $1,000 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $400 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected

Introduction

Our $550 PC from June struck a balance between tough economic times and one of the latest trends in gaming by stretching our low budget to include a DirectX 11-class Radeon HD 5770 graphics card.

This month, we cap our entry-level build at $400 max to address the lingering question readers continue to ask in the comments section: “How low can you go?”

There are two basic approaches we have to choose between when limited funds are in play. First, we could build a pure gaming box. Or, we could build a more well-rounded system.

More often than not, living up to the gaming requirements of our SBM (System Builder Marathon) 3D test suite forces graphics to be the top priority, leaving processing power a distant second consideration. But rather than trying to excel in just one area, this $400 build will attempt to do all things well, representing the platform balance many readers prefer when building for more than just gaming.

$400 Gaming PC System Components

Component
Model
Price (U.S.D.)
CPU
AMD Athlon II X3 440
$75
CPU Cooler
AMD boxed heatsink & fan
0
Motherboard
ASRock M3A770DE
$60
RAM
Crucial 2 GB (2 x 1 GB) DDR3-1333 (PC3 10600) Model CTKIT12864BA1339
$48
Graphics
PowerColor AX5670 512MD5-H Radeon HD 5670
$89
Hard Drive
Western Digital Caviar Blue WD2500AAJS 250 GB SATA 3Gb/s
$45
Case
Rosewill Blackbone
$35
Power
Cooler Master Elite 460 RS-460-PSAR-J3 460 W
$30
Optical
Samsung Black 22x DVD Burner SATA Model SH-S223C
$18
Total Price

$400


We set our sights on a standard ATX-based Socket AM3 build sporting either a dual- or triple-core AMD Athlon II processor. Given the fact that two-thirds of our value weighting is based on a well-threaded applications suite, spending an extra $13 on an Athlon II X3 440 was a good decision in constructing a potent little machine. Even if our always-ambitious unlocking efforts failed, we still had three threads to count on.

We do face a few disadvantages compared to the other builders perusing Newegg for deals, though. To begin, we do not capitalize on combo deals, coupon codes, or mail-in rebates. So much planning goes into these Marathons that it'd almost be impossible to count on those deals still being available on publishing day. Plus, we all synchronize our purchases. Just a few days before go-time, our top choice, AMD's Radeon HD 4850, was available for $90. On ordering day, the price had jumped $10 to $100, exceeding the budget. 

Also on the short list was Nvidia's GeForce 9800GT (once known as the 8800 GT). This card was a legend in its day. It delivered solid gaming performance in the October 2008 $500 Gaming PC. It's a little unsettling then, that two years later, this rebadged card has only dropped $20 in price. At around the same cost, sporting a more modern feature set, a drastic cut to power consumption, but also less raw 3D horsepower, is the AMD Radeon HD 5670. We did consider lower-end discrete cards like the GeForce GT 240 and Radeon HD 5570. But with a $400 budget available, the only real reason to step back would be to spend somewhere in the $3xx neighborhood.

A last-minute switch from 320 GB of hard drive space to 250 GB and a small cut to our PSU budget put our system pennies under $400 using the least-expensive Radeon HD 5670. It went $1 over-budget if we substituted in a GeForce 9800 GT. We were also $11 shy of revisiting the Radeon HD 4850.

Cheaper cases, including models with bundled power supplies, were also taken into consideration. All of them represented compromises, though. Rosewill's Blackbone was a genuine step higher than the other options in terms of quality, ventilation, and value. Once again, our direction came down to the gamer route with an Athlon II X2 250 and Radeon HD 4850, or staying focused on overall performance. Leaning the latter route, we then had to decide whether to go over-budget with the GeForce 9800 GT or allow AMD's Radeon HD 5670 to do its best in a very demanding gaming suite.

The choice to use the Radeon HD 5670 of course means that this budget box can be compared, apples-to-apples, with the more expensive rigs, since this month's trio of builds includes DirectX 11-class graphics cards.

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Top Comments
  • 15 Hide
    AMW1011 , September 8, 2010 6:26 AM
    I'll be honest, I think a $450 budget is a little more reasonable than a $400 budget. At that price a 5750 or even a 5770 can be had, which would have worked fine with all of the other parts and likely would have matched the $550 June build.

    Even this $400 build packs a punch, you can get one HELL of a rig for the money any more. It really is insane, and that's not even considering the used or refurb market!

    Awesome article, probably one of my favorite SBM, atleast the best I've seen in a long time.
  • 12 Hide
    SpadeM , September 8, 2010 6:17 AM
    Quote:
    Given the motherboard’s basic passive cooling measures, though, there was really no point in putting more time into lowering the CPU multiplier, pushing a high reference clock, and attempting to maximize northbridge and memory frequencies.


    +1 for making this statement, glad someone considered it at least. All in all decent build for the money.
  • 11 Hide
    cmcghee358 , September 8, 2010 10:00 AM
    Really good job. I also like the fact you pointed out that it doesn't include combo discounts, shell shockers or MIR.

    That tells me that it could of been an even better system for the same price. I understand that you couldn't, but it's a real eye opener for us folks in the System forum.

    I consider this to be a perfect benchmark system for the low budget build requests there.
Other Comments
  • 12 Hide
    SpadeM , September 8, 2010 6:17 AM
    Quote:
    Given the motherboard’s basic passive cooling measures, though, there was really no point in putting more time into lowering the CPU multiplier, pushing a high reference clock, and attempting to maximize northbridge and memory frequencies.


    +1 for making this statement, glad someone considered it at least. All in all decent build for the money.
  • 15 Hide
    AMW1011 , September 8, 2010 6:26 AM
    I'll be honest, I think a $450 budget is a little more reasonable than a $400 budget. At that price a 5750 or even a 5770 can be had, which would have worked fine with all of the other parts and likely would have matched the $550 June build.

    Even this $400 build packs a punch, you can get one HELL of a rig for the money any more. It really is insane, and that's not even considering the used or refurb market!

    Awesome article, probably one of my favorite SBM, atleast the best I've seen in a long time.
  • 5 Hide
    micr0be , September 8, 2010 6:29 AM
    very nice build, interesting to see how much performance can be squeezed out of the budget. i was expecting worse results.
  • -8 Hide
    nevertell , September 8, 2010 6:30 AM
    Conclusion ?

    150$ buys you a lot better gaming capabilities, and nothing else.
  • 9 Hide
    Gamer-girl , September 8, 2010 6:57 AM
    Quote:
    It went $1 over-budget if we substituted in a GeForce 9800 GT.


    I doubt someone spending $400 can't afford to add an extra dollar. although i realize that the point in these articles is to stay under the budget, it would have been interesting to see the price/perforamce difference.
  • 2 Hide
    haplo602 , September 8, 2010 7:01 AM
    nice case, looks very good ... pity that rosewill does not have a downloadable manual for it ...
  • 3 Hide
    HibyPrime , September 8, 2010 7:35 AM
    I'd be interested to know how much more overclocking headroom you could pull out of it if you left it at 3 cores - and would that net you more performance in most of the benchmarks?

    I'd bet if you could pull ~200 mhz more out of it, it would begin to match up with the missing core, and maybe start to pull away around 400mhz.
  • 11 Hide
    Proximon , September 8, 2010 8:11 AM
    The Cooler Master Elite 460 is a falsely labeled piece of crap. You can find the review (with proper testing) here: http://www.hardwaresecrets.com/article/1005/1

    You'll have to spend a little bit more there. Rosewill has a 430W (RG430 S12) unit or the Antec Neo 400W is almost the same price as the CM after a discount and rebate.
  • -6 Hide
    Proximon , September 8, 2010 8:11 AM
    Clicked once but got a double post somehow.
  • -6 Hide
    Anonymous , September 8, 2010 9:48 AM
    What do the best price/performance we can have?
  • 11 Hide
    cmcghee358 , September 8, 2010 10:00 AM
    Really good job. I also like the fact you pointed out that it doesn't include combo discounts, shell shockers or MIR.

    That tells me that it could of been an even better system for the same price. I understand that you couldn't, but it's a real eye opener for us folks in the System forum.

    I consider this to be a perfect benchmark system for the low budget build requests there.
  • 3 Hide
    Onus , September 8, 2010 10:11 AM
    While I agree with Proximon on the PSU, I also think this was an outstanding benchmark build. It's also clear where the next $50-$100 could go to improve it. Very nicely done.
  • 3 Hide
    Gulli , September 8, 2010 11:27 AM
    There really are cheaper cases and motherboards out there that would work just fine with this setup. The extra money could go to where it's really need: the graphics.
  • -1 Hide
    elbert , September 8, 2010 12:37 PM
    LunarianI am building a computer with this motherboard and processor also, well the X3 445 anyway. I want to install windows XP on to the operating system, but all my recent CD's were upgrades only. Can I start off with the Win95 CD and install that to the HDD, then upgrade to Win98 followed by Win XP?If anyone can answer this, thanks a lot.

    I installed an upgrade disk XP once and I think its asks you to insert the disk of the OS you want to upgrade. XP then checks the disk I guess to see if its an allowed upgrade.

    This was a great review. I would have when for a $450 range build with a 5770 and an X3 and got the mobo in the review. I would have gotten the $20 Gigabyte gz-ph1a3 and Antec 430W for $40. May have exceeded the price but would have been a great system.
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811233061
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817371023
  • 3 Hide
    pauldh , September 8, 2010 12:38 PM
    SpadeM+1 for making this statement, glad someone considered it at least. All in all decent build for the money.

    Thanks, yes felt it was worth mentioning this one wasn’t as tuned as other recent SBM budget builds. The 2140 MHz CPU-NB Frequency for this $400 OC is quite low versus 2540 MHz for the June $550 PC, and 2620 MHz for the March $750 build. I aim for 2400-2600 MHz CPU-NB, although realize many overclockers utilizing better cooling are willing to push this far higher.

    This lil’ box had a few strikes against it that (I felt) didn’t warrant the additional tuning time. The mobo’s design & tame passive cooling, the lack of CPU-NB Voltage control in BIOS, and the fact the boxed cooler’s abilities were already being taxed without increasing the memory controller and L3 cache frequency.
  • -5 Hide
    sublifer , September 8, 2010 12:40 PM
    I'd have rather seen a $500 system. ~$100 more into gfx would have been well spent. Maybe a better HSF too.
  • 8 Hide
    jonpaul37 , September 8, 2010 12:44 PM
    Agreed, kudos to the community for asking for this and kudos to Paul for making it happen, $400.00 seems to pack a decent punch!
  • 0 Hide
    pauldh , September 8, 2010 12:53 PM
    AMW1011I'll be honest, I think a $450 budget is a little more reasonable than a $400 budget. At that price a 5750 or even a 5770 can be had, which would have worked fine with all of the other parts and likely would have matched the $550 June build.Even this $400 build packs a punch, you can get one HELL of a rig for the money any more. It really is insane, and that's not even considering the used or refurb market!Awesome article, probably one of my favorite SBM, atleast the best I've seen in a long time.


    Agreed, every little bit helps. $411 alone added an HD 4850, so $450 would have been good for 1GB HD 5750 or maybe even a 5770. $500 then adds an aftermarket cooler, higher quality PSU, and doubles the storage capacity.
  • 0 Hide
    pauldh , September 8, 2010 1:02 PM
    HibyPrimeI'd be interested to know how much more overclocking headroom you could pull out of it if you left it at 3 cores - and would that net you more performance in most of the benchmarks?I'd bet if you could pull ~200 mhz more out of it, it would begin to match up with the missing core, and maybe start to pull away around 400mhz.

    The $550 overclocked June PC had a 350 MHz advantage plus further performance tuning, and it still fell shy of the $400 build in threaded-apps performance. Gaming, the system needs more GPU, so additional CPU frequency would not have a meaningful impact.

    FYI, we get curious too, just need to get the work done first. ;)  I pushed 3.5 GHz at 3-cores, but wouldn't stability test because of insufficeint cooling. Didn't take the time to push the ref. clock any higher than 235 MHz. 3.45 GHz required a voltage bump from 3.4 GHz for stability, and temps were a bit high even before CPU-NB frequency overclocking. SO, had unlocking failed, benchmarks would likely have been run with 3-cores @ 3.4 GHz.
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