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Performance Summary, Efficiency, And Conclusion

System Builder Marathon, Sept. 2011: $500 Gaming PC

We’ll summarize performance and efficiency using June’s stock $500 system as a baseline.

Performance Summary

This quarter's PC wins in our gaming tests. But that's attributable to more powerful graphics hardware, and not its Phenom II processor. Once again we're forced to conclude that AMD is just not able to match the per-clock performance of Intel’s Sandy Bridge offerings.

It still remains to be seen how things pan out with Zambezi, of course. Today, though, the conclusion is an easy one to draw.

Even when overclocked to a much higher frequency, the September 2011 $500 Gaming PC lags behind June’s Core i3 configuration in single-threaded audio and compression tasks, as well as in CPU-limited game benchmarks. In the rest of our productivity-oriented applications, however, the Core i3-2100’s four logical cores are simply no match for the Phenom II’s four physical cores.


While today's Phenom II-based build matched or exceeded the overall performance of the former Core i3 system, its far higher power use indeed spells major defeat in terms of efficiency.


When it comes to maximizing eye candy at the highest playable quality settings, our mid-range graphics cards (not the processors) hold these systems back. There's no question which box had the most powerful GPU, so this comparison basically comes down to the processor and motherboard that serves your purpose the  best.

If Intel would give us a competitively priced K-series Core i3, with a fully unlocked multiplier, then we would give a dual-core CPU another look. But while this is a gaming PC, first and foremost, it also has to perform well in all other disciplines to be considered a successful SBM build. Two 3.1 GHz Hyper-Threaded cores are sufficient for most gaming needs. However, they aren't enough to compete when we squeeze out additional performance through overclocking. For this reason, our value-oriented System Builder Marathon machine is better served by a Black Edition Phenom II X4 processor.

The $5 difference separating the two CPUs we've been testing isn't too big of a deal. Motherboard selection could have a bigger impact on your budget, though. You'll find numerous solutions in the $60 range for either option, with more scalability and on-board features as you stretch up to $100. We'd argue that any platform savings should be repurposed for aftermarket cooling. Although the boxed model gives us great performance, it's far too loud in the process.

While both processor options give us good bang for the buck, we know there's an elevated performance level just out of reach. We can't fit a Core i5-2400 or -2500K into a gaming machine at this budget. Jumping back up to the old $625 pricing point would allow us to explore many new performance options and features, though. We certainly appreciate reader feedback concerning this current build, and would value input in what direction you’d like us to take next time around.

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