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Did We Spend Our Money Wisely?

System Builder Marathon, August 2012: $500 Gaming PC
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We're presenting another PC designed purely for playable performance in demanding games. But today's machine is tuned more in favor of a balanced platform. Forty dollars was reallocated from our graphics budget toward a more powerful CPU. After all, we suspected that our Celeron processor was negatively impacting the potential of Nvidia's GeForce GTX 560 Ti.

Last quarter's build was specifically designed to serve up the graphics might needed to game at 1920x1080. The following chart drops the influence of CPU-limited low-resolution tests and allows us to focus purely on the more interesting settings.

Comparing only the highest detail settings, where you'd expect graphics to play the biggest role, our efforts still yield an average 7% higher frame rates at 1680x1050, and 5% at 1920x1080. Judging by averages, today's stock machine appears on par with last quarter's overclocking setup. Once we're able to overclock the GeForce GTX 560, performance simply takes off.

Averages can be deceiving, though. Huge gains in StarCraft II mask a 10% deficit in Battlefield 3. And our remaining two games, DiRT 3 and Skyrim, were basically a dead heat until we took graphics overclocking into consideration. While the Pentium upgrade proves itself worthwhile, shifting $40 away from the graphics budget compromised one playable resolution in Battlefield 3 using Ultra quality details.

Looking at Just Cause 2, specifically, frame rates at 1920x1080 in our Concrete Jungle benchmark increase by about 20% over the CPU-limited results generated last quarter. Overall, the game runs well 98% of the time. However I was able to find areas within heavy foliage where the stock GeForce GTX 560 only managed frame rates in the low 20s. Even if we ignore hardware bullies like Metro 2033, we still have to admit that $500 just isn't quite enough for a consistent experience at 1920x1080 with the quality dials cranked all of the way up.

There is no clear winner today. As is often the case, the better platform is largely dependent on what you're playing and what else you're using your PC to do. We'd be inclined to give the nod to today’s more balanced configuration, if only because it's the more future-proof option. Locked at 2.4 GHz, we're just not sure that the Celeron G530 in last quarter's box will handle the next AAA title you're hoping to play. It's almost always possible to drop resolutions or graphics detail to go easier on our GPUs. In some games, though, especially lazy console ports, there aren't many ways to alleviate CPU demands.

Of course, it's always possible to upgrade either of these low-cost sleepers with a third-gen Core processor in the future.

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