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System Builder Marathon, March 2010: $750 Gaming PC

There were a number of goals in mind for building the March 2010 $750 SBM PC. The machine’s main purpose was to offer the best gaming experience possible, in the broadest number of games, all the way up to the native resolution of a 24” LCD. Very few value-oriented gamers interested in such a PC would likely spend over $1,000 on a 2560x1600 LCD, but it’s certainly within reason to set aim at the highest-possible details and IQ on an affordable 1080p display.

Next, the shortcomings of the previous SBM PC needed to be addressed and corrected. We hoped to build a more balanced system that 1) didn’t waste 3D graphics potential and 2) was more impressive in multi-threaded applications. Lastly, while not top priority, it would still be nice to boost stock performance back up to the level achieved with the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition in the September 2009 SBM PC.

Considering this system delivered playable 1080p performance through all reasonable tests, including Crysis DirectX 10 with very high details, we’d say it can successfully serve its main purpose. The only gaming shortfall came in the GPU-crushing, ultra-high-quality 4x AA tests run in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Call of Pripyat, settings far better left to our higher-budget machines. There is, of course, still room for improvement, as we are again using last-generation DirectX 10.1 graphics hardware in this build. But improving both performance and features will not be easy until competition in upper-end graphics hardware brings potent DirectX 11 goodness down to a price tag within our reach.

Was the PC more balanced? Having less money spent on graphics muscle and still delivering equal or better gaming performance would indicate it most definitely passes this requirement. How about performance in applications? Without a doubt, the unlocked fourth-core on the Athlon II X3 435 propels this system to a whole new level, leaving the former dual-core Intel champ far, far behind.

Of course, keep in mind core unlocking is hit or miss. There are also no guarantees in terms of overclocking headroom, although given the right hardware selection, some expectations are justifiable. We got lucky with a stable unlocked core, but, of course, recommend buying a higher-performance quad-core if, in the end, you will be disappointed by anything less.

Lastly, while unlocking and overclocking get all the attention here and may even help this value system stay within sight of the performance and enthusiast machines in this month's SBM, this March's value PC performs well right “out of the box,” so to speak. While past dual-core Intel Pentium systems often required overclocking (for which they're still well-known), sub-$100 AMD processors such as this deliver outstanding bang for little buck, even without any overclocking at all.

With a nice case, higher-capacity storage, more threads, better multi-tasking, increased productivity, and equal or better gaming, this machine certainly is a keeper (and will end up in the hands of one of our lucky readers). Whether stock, overclocked, or unlocked, the March 2010 $750 SBM PC sets a whole new bar on what to shoot for at this budget.

Now we need to turn to you, our readers. For our next SBM, should we stay at the $750 budget and attempt to topple this machine, possibly even with DirectX 11 graphics hardware? Or is it time we revisit a true budget system again, something in the $500-$600 range utilizing just a single GPU? Let us know in the comments section. And if you haven't yet entered to win one of our three System Builder Marathon systems, flip back to the first page of this story and fill out that Google form!

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