Tom's Intl. $750 Cheap Computing Challenge

Many computer enthusiasts have the funds to build cutting-edge machines, but the majority are probably faced with the same financial pressure being exerted worldwide right now. Naturally, picking PC components that offer the best price to performance ratio is a smart play. As evidenced by all of the “green” and “energy-saving” marketing going on, an increasing number of power users are setting aside their need for speed in favor of protecting their pocketbooks.

Thus, we were presented with a challenge to start off 2009: build a desktop PC for less than $750. Achieve the best performance possible while using the least amount of power, yielding optimized performance per watt. The challenge was not only to the US team, but also to the Tom's Hardware Germany, France, and Italy, making this a bit of a competition.

With each of the three criteria weighted equally, winning wasn't going to be an easy task, though. Finding the best blend of speed and power consumption would mean any component chosen must not increase energy usage at a higher ratio than it increases performance.

Keeping this goal in mind, we set out to gather the best components for this challenge.  We felt the key to success would be striving for performance, but avoiding quad-core CPU’s and dual-GPU graphics cards, suspecting that neither would shine consistently enough to justify the added power consumption. Let’s take a look our selected components, and then we’ll follow up with a closer look why each was chosen.

 USA System Components
Component Model Price (USD)
CPU Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 @ 3.16 GHz188
CPU Cooler Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro19
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3L100
RAM G.SKILL PI Black 4GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR2 800 (PC2 6400)50
GraphicsSapphire 100245L Radeon HD 4850 512 MB150
Hard Drives Western Digital Caviar Green WD10EADS 1TB 32 MB cache
110
Sound Integrated HD Audio0
Network Integrated Gigabit Networking0
Case Antec Three Hundred50
Power Antec EarthWatts EA 380 380W ATX12V40
Optical LITE-ON 20X DVD±R SATA Model iHAS120-0422

 Total Price:
$729
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  • xx12amanxx
    The Phenom 940 uses less power than your chosen cpu when cool and quiet is enabled at idle and it only cost's a tad bit more.

    Difference of opinion but i think quad's are now cheap enough that not considering one to get maximum life and performance is a bad mistake.

    Dual''s will go the way of single cores soon.
    0
  • kirvinb
    I totally agree with 12aman....the quads can outperform duals in anything that takes full advantage of their cores...pretty soo it will be everything!...8500 still is a good cpu...if you had to go dual i think that was the best choice...still you could of grabbed a amd 920 for under 200 now and get fantastic results.1
    2
  • Noya
    This article it lame. The corporate world cares about server energy use, the home PC user/gamer could give a s**t.
    -16
  • dirtmountain
    1.2 watts of consumption by disabling the 140mm fan? Give me a break.
    7
  • Son_of_Blob
    This article is way past its use by date.

    What's needed now is a bang for buck review of a basic but powerful Core i7 versus Phenom II quad core rig....and then some game loving overclocks to see what can be done....with a comparison of stock coolers versus 3rd party air cooling too.

    Something like this for the Intel side:

    i7 920
    Asus P6T non deluxe mobo (or decent equivalent).
    3GB DDR3 triple channel Kingston Value RAM with XP Pro(not overpriced 6 GB on a Vista 64 bit OS..let's wait for Windows 7).
    GTX260(216 version) or a 4870 1GB, say.
    Decent 750watt PSU, i.e. a Zalman, to allow possible 2 way SLI or CF.

    That's the current sweet spot for people on a budget who want to get the best way forward at the moment.
    -5
  • enewmen
    I don't know why THG uses Vista 32 so much?? Even 8 megs of DDR2-1066 RAM is getting cheap now.
    This makes me think 64 bit apps made to use more than 4 gigs won't take off for a LONG time or people just don't want it (like the new curved screen iPod).
    I also agree with most posters the days of dual-cores are very limited even though most apps can't use 4 cores yet. Personally I think a cheap E0 Yorkfield or Phenom-II makes much more sense in this case..
    1 TB hard-drive? I like big drives. But, that's 10x more storage than then average econo user will use. Unless future apps will actually efficiently use lots of drive space like the 64bit apps can address & use 8+ gigs of RAM.

    SonOfBlob, it seems to me the Intel system your describing is will cost way more than $750.
    2
  • Anonymous
    Why use the WD Green Drive? The WD Black or Hitachi 7K1000.B are much better choices for Mainstream/ all-round usage according to Tom’s Winter 2008 Hard Drive Guide. They both can be had for less than $115.
    0
  • Siffy
    Why use a rotating drive at all if performance + low power is the goal? An OCZ Core V2 or Solid would provide better throughput and access times for less than half the wattage draw of even a 5400rpm disk. And you can pick up a 60GB Solid for
    -8
  • Onus
    Well Noya, I think that's a problem; people ought to care more. Just my opinion, but why pay for something you don't need? The choice to buy or build a low-energy PC is not an isolated decision; the same guy probably uses CFL bulbs, drives a fuel-efficient car (and doesn't take many short trips in it), keeps his thermostat on reasonable settings (75F in summer), runs only full loads of laundry, etc. Any one of those may not make a huge difference, but they add up.
    3
  • pauldh
    xx12amanxxThe Phenom 940 uses less power than your chosen cpu when cool and quiet is enabled at idle and it only cost's a tad bit more.Difference of opinion but i think quad's are now cheap enough that not considering one to get maximum life and performance is a bad mistake.Dual''s will go the way of single cores soon.

    Phenom II's were not an option as component selections were prior to NDA and as a requirement needed to be readily available in retail.

    Other Quad core's in general were avoided for our system as looking over the benchmark suite, they just don't currently win enough to warrant the consumption. There will be no bonus points awarded for a possible advantage in future aps/benches. But, we'll soon find out if any of the other countries went the quad route.

    For now, take a look back at this article.
    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/e8500-phenom-9350e,2010.html
    1
  • Pei-chen
    xx12amanxxThe Phenom 940 uses less power than your chosen cpu when cool and quiet is enabled at idle and it only cost's a tad bit more.

    Citation please

    NoyaThis article it lame. The corporate world cares about server energy use, the home PC user/gamer could give a s**t.

    And I thought the “How Much Power Does Your Graphics Card Need?” article taught people the meaning of efficiency? Let me guess, the literacy rates of your neighborhood is 40%.

    dirtmountain1.2 watts of consumption by disabling the 140mm fan? Give me a break.

    I guess you are the kind of people that buys Ford Excursion gasoline to drive your 2 person family to work/school.

    Son_of_BlobThis article is way past its use by date.What's needed now is a bang for buck review of a basic but powerful Core i7 versus Phenom II quad core rig....

    Did you notice the number after the $ on the title?

    SiffyWhy use a rotating drive at all if performance + low power is the goal? An OCZ Core V2 or Solid would provide better throughput and access times for less than half the wattage draw of even a 5400rpm disk. And you can pick up a 60GB Solid for

    GTA4 is around 15GB in size. Enough said.

    jtt283Well Noya, I think that's a problem; people ought to care more. Just my opinion, but why pay for something you don't need? The choice to buy or build a low-energy PC is not an isolated decision; the same guy probably uses CFL bulbs, drives a fuel-efficient car (and doesn't take many short trips in it), keeps his thermostat on reasonable settings (75F in summer), runs only full loads of laundry, etc. Any one of those may not make a huge difference, but they add up.

    Totally agree.
    2
  • pauldh
    dirtmountain1.2 watts of consumption by disabling the 140mm fan? Give me a break.

    Yes, the measured difference between running the Antec 140mm fan at it's lowest speed, vs. just unplugging it altogether. The added airflow wasn't needed, so shaving 1.2W could make a difference come the final comparison day. Again, the SLK 4480 case would have done the job for $20 less and eliminated the need to do this.
    0
  • pauldh
    SiffyWhy use a rotating drive at all if performance + low power is the goal? An OCZ Core V2 or Solid would provide better throughput and access times for less than half the wattage draw of even a 5400rpm disk. And you can pick up a 60GB Solid for

    Problem is, we couldn't even install the test suite on a 60GB drive. Could have trimmed this down, but there was about 150GB used on the test drive, and if keeping the system for daily use, how much more would we need? I wouldn't have even considered less than 250GB of storage, but even that many readers would chew up instantly. 500GB would have been fine, but only if performance per watt made it beneficial.

    @enewman, Matadon - This WD green drive consumed less and outperformed some other smaller "low energy" drives(look at the review linked in the description). We had plenty of room in the budget for it, and didn't see a need for increased budget in other areas. For a Black drive(and any other performance upgrade), you have to ask yourself if the performance gained would outweigh the extra energy consumed...it was a real challenge. Stay tuned for the other three systems and the final comparison.
    0
  • jtypeb
    I've been looking for the e8500 with e0 stepping. All the online places I shop have the c0 model. Doesn't seem all that commom to me. Where to buy in US? How much does it matter?
    -2
  • jthorn
    The results from the article might be long-in-tooth considering the recently announced Intel price drops. The E8500 could now be upgraded to Q9400 and OC'd to 3.6GHZ. With the Q9XXX you gain longer life, future proof, etc. And imagine the performance per watt for encoding app's as well as games . . . . .
    0
  • Onus
    I've been pondering this article some more, and I think it is very good, in context. There is one thing "missing", and likely beyond the scope of the competition, and that is the dollar value on time to complete tasks. This applies less to gamer builds, but it does to home and office systems, or those intended for specific tasks. The chosen CPU is just fine, unless its performance has no dollar value. In that case, a 45W CPU like an AMD 4850e will be a much better choice. If the performance of a CPU like that is "good enough" for the intended tasks, in terms of energy efficiency it does not matter if a more power-hungry chip is disproportionately faster. The same is true of graphics cards. As long as an acceptable performance level is achieved, the minimum power draw becomes the best choice.
    3
  • roofus
    i think the quad mantra is way over-simplified. that e8600 would do fine for gaming for a couple years on the flood of console ports that make up the majority of our selections to purchase. yes i know there are whole 5 or 6 that benefit from a quad (most of them are crap BTW)but i like the CPU choice. in most every game, that e8600 will bully most quads all over the place in gaming and definitely can be overclocked to negate most gains that a quad currently has with the exception of the i7 scaling with multiple GPU's.
    0
  • roofus
    jtt283I've been pondering this article some more, and I think it is very good, in context. There is one thing "missing", and likely beyond the scope of the competition, and that is the dollar value on time to complete tasks. This applies less to gamer builds, but it does to home and office systems, or those intended for specific tasks. The chosen CPU is just fine, unless its performance has no dollar value. In that case, a 45W CPU like an AMD 4850e will be a much better choice. If the performance of a CPU like that is "good enough" for the intended tasks, in terms of energy efficiency it does not matter if a more power-hungry chip is disproportionately faster. The same is true of graphics cards. As long as an acceptable performance level is achieved, the minimum power draw becomes the best choice.


    if the article wasn't about a gaming computer, i would agree but since that is the primary purpose for this build, the 4850e shouldn't be mentioned in the same sentence as the e8600.
    0
  • Teamtalon
    Would it not be more advantageous to use two 4830's in Xfire at the cost of 168$ on the ASrock P45XE, running 95$?
    0
  • squatchman
    These system builder articles aren't bad and I can see that they're popular enough with the degree-less armchair computer engineers, but can we try to keep them down to one per month?
    -9