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Did Our Gamble Pay Off?

System Builder Marathon, June 2012: $500 Gaming PC

Gaming performance capped by an entry-level CPU hurts the $500 PC’s overall showing in some of our favorite titles, pretty much assuring its downfall in any discussion of overall value.

But we built this rig specifically to target high-detail gaming at a 1920x1080 panel's native resolution. The following chart drops the influence of CPU-limited low-resolution tests, focusing purely on the highest playable settings.

At our target resolution, this seemingly unbalanced platform delivers a staggeringly impressive 87% of last quarter's frame rates at just 77% of its cost. Even more important than percentages is how successful our little gaming box is in facilitating playable experiences.

The stock $500 PC offers acceptable 1920x1080 performance throughout three of our four games, dipping to 1680x1050 only in Battlefield 3’s single-player campaign. A modest GPU overclock was enough to call this final resolution playable (an accomplishment neither of our previous two entry-level configurations achieved at 30% higher budgets). And, at this one questionable test setting, we proved that our bottleneck was insufficient graphics muscle, not our underpowered processor. I can’t help but to be impressed by the gaming alacrity of Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture, be it in a higher-end Core i7 or this little Celeron G530.

However, I could never endorse such a radical configuration without first confirming its abilities in a handful of other demanding games. I started with the highest settings in Just Cause 2, knowing that the Concrete Jungle benchmark we've used in the past would be a giant hurdle for the Celeron to overcome. Sure enough, average frame rates were under 30 FPS at all resolutions. An hour of actual gaming confirmed we needed to reduce in-game details to find acceptable performance in this title. At the highest settings, we were seeing performance in the 20 to 30 FPS range, with an occasional dip into the teens during intense combat. Although we had enough graphics muscle to handle this game, our CPU simply wasn't up to the task.

Because our goal of maxing out in-game detail settings at 1920x1080 left us with a processor unable to keep up with our GPU, we could only recommend this build to one specific type of gamer: if you want a stock Core i5 or Core i7 and a card like the GTX 560, but can't afford to put both together, a Celeron G530 is a super-affordable way of getting a machine up and running for now, with plans to perhaps upgrade later.

While the gaming potential of our entry-level dual-core chip is worthy of respect, it’s important to remember that its 2.4 GHz clock rate is all you'll ever get from it. Instead, we think that today’s build deserves, at the very least, a step up to Intel's Pentium G850. The extra $38 is a wise investment for anyone looking to duplicate out efforts.

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