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

Performance Summary, Efficiency, And Conclusion

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.

Efficiency

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.

Conclusion

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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    Top Comments
  • slicedtoad
    very nice article, i was wondering how the 955 oced would do against the i3.

    While there are many unthinkable things in this build, the low price of $500 is also unthinkable. That's less than an ipad....
    23
  • alchemy69
    Time to bring on the usual motley crew of fanboys and everyone who just knows that they could do better.
    17
  • Outlander_04
    Its a good $500 build .except it cost $520 and the motherboard is a dead end part .
    For another $30 you can include an AM3+ board with the latest 970 series chip set that is fully compatible with Bulldozer.
    As it is this build is a dead end , and its out of date in 3 weeks

    But its still a better computer than the previous intel build
    17
  • Other Comments
  • alchemy69
    Time to bring on the usual motley crew of fanboys and everyone who just knows that they could do better.
    17
  • Anonymous
    Ugly case! I know I am stating the obvious, but seriously...
    4
  • Outlander_04
    The i3 2100 is a remarkable cpu , but it just cant beat 4 physical cores and a bit of overclocking .
    13
  • slicedtoad
    very nice article, i was wondering how the 955 oced would do against the i3.

    While there are many unthinkable things in this build, the low price of $500 is also unthinkable. That's less than an ipad....
    23
  • Anonymous
    Why have the charts reduced to an unreadable size for this article?
    6
  • Zero_
    Nice. Finally someone who knows how to get value for money. I approve :P
    12
  • zooted
    This is my favorite build this sbm. I just love the fact that you can have a true 1080p gaming experience for $500 bucks.
    16
  • mayankleoboy1
    whats with the fuzzy and unreadable charts?
    7
  • bobfrys
    This is a tad bit better then the one I built off of the earlier build i used from toms. (Built it soon after school ended).
    -2
  • lunyone
    This is probably the ONLY $500 build (except for the very 1st one) that I've agreed on mostly (not liking the case too much, but it works in this budget).

    The last $500 build just was crap generally (micro-ATX and not many options on the mobo, IMHO).

    This budget gaming rig is really close to what I'd build for a friend/family member that wanted to have a gaming rig. I'd change a few things, of coarse, but the overall direction (and selection of parts) is SPOT ON, IMHO!! Good job guys at TH!!!
    11
  • hmp_goose
    What's that? The Surprise Fourth Build will not be the $2k version? Someone's going to poke around in the grey area between the i3-2100 and the i5-2500? How much extra cash will be allowed?

    Why do posts like this "sound" like the something from the '60s Batman TV show?

    Tune in tomorrow! :-P
    2
  • Tijok
    First off, great build, the balance of parts is great, and almost exactly what I would recommend to someone in this budget area.

    But seriously, what is going on with the small/ low res charts?
    3
  • _Pez_
    This Rig Rocks ! I would only change the case :) maybe a cooler master storm.
    4
  • Rizlla
    The first of this months builds that are great and you can see there is a budget that was thought of.
    1
  • Outlander_04
    Its a good $500 build .except it cost $520 and the motherboard is a dead end part .
    For another $30 you can include an AM3+ board with the latest 970 series chip set that is fully compatible with Bulldozer.
    As it is this build is a dead end , and its out of date in 3 weeks

    But its still a better computer than the previous intel build
    17
  • Proximon
    It was a good comparison, and the right build to do, because we got an honest look at the differences and advantages to each platform.
    That said, I would have to say that it's not the right $500 system for most gamers. The P II X2 555BE would perhaps let you get a better board, making it a smarter buy at $520, and of course some excellent Rosewill combo deals (that are always on) would help out with the case and PSU.
    1
  • cobra5000
    Nice to see the 955 finally get to stick it to the i-3. That and the old boy is what, two years old? Way to go AMD! Its a shame Tom's could'nt point that out. Not really surprising though, with the tiny charts hiding how the 955, DOMINATED, the i-3 at high resolution.
    -4
  • cmcghee358
    Nicely done. I can atest to the volume of that freaking stock fan too. I had mine up to 7000 RPM on my HTPC. I HAD to replace it, it sounded like an old ventalation fan in a bathroom
    0
  • Martell77
    @Cobra5000 - Are you really that happy that a stock SB I3 is beaten by a P-II x4 OC'd just past the AMD X4 top end proc? Ya, its 2 years old but the I3 isn't exactly a high end part. If the P-II had kept up or beaten a I5, then you should be cheering. I think you meant "the tiny charts hiding how the 6780, DOMINATED, the 6850 at high resolutions." The wins the 955 got were in productivity apps due to its 4 physical cores.

    I'm hoping that bulldozer will finally give Intel something to worry about. Some pricing wars would be really nice. But I'm not holding my breath.

    I think it would be interesting if they changed the video card to a 6850 and show how much the processor change actually made a difference.
    4
  • cypeq
    mayankleoboy1whats with the fuzzy and unreadable charts?


    Toms is saving up bandwidth by annoying readers.
    2