System Builder Marathon, March 2011: $500 Gaming PC

Performance Summary, Efficiency, And Conclusion

We’ll summarize performance and efficiency using December’s stock $500 PC as a base.

Performance Summary

On average, the overall performance of the stock March PC equals the significantly-overclocked December PC. This month’s fairly tame overclock still manages to deliver sizeable performance gains.


More impressive than performance alone is the March PC’s low power consumption, and resulting efficiency gains!


AMD’s triple-core Athlon II holds the crown among sub-$80 gaming processors. In fact, all four SBM budget gaming machines built in 2010 featured an Athlon II X3-based processor. Half of them rewarded us with four fully-stable cores, while the other two failed to unlock and came up a bit short in our threaded encoding and productivity benchmarks. But there is more and more evidence, such as today’s F1 2010 data, in support of splurging on four cores right out of the gate, even on a pure gaming rig.

This March 2011 gaming PC offers impressive performance and efficiency, but the question still remains: was it worth breaking the bank for a Phenom II, in essence spending an extra $25 for 6 MB of L3 cache, while giving up 200 MHz of frequency? Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer. There are too many variables in play here, such as changes in graphics cards and the benchmark suite itself. Even future gaming comparisons may be hampered due to poor overclocking headroom from this month's Sapphire Radeon HD 6850. We do know the Phenom II’s gobs of L3 cache can make a difference in some applications and games.

While I believe exploring AMD’s Phenom II X4 925 was the right call, pricing determines whether we’d recommend it or use one again. For the recent $10-$20 difference, the retail boxed Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition is clearly a better package. If this is too steep, $100 buys an Athlon II X4 640. These offer more value, while leaving around $20 for aftermarket cooling, should lower temperatures, quieter operation, or higher-voltage overclocks be what your heart desires.

Intel’s Sandy Bridge-based platform is all the rage now, and for good reason considering what it brings to the table. While a Core i5 is beyond our tight budget, I’ll certainly entertain the possibility of Intel’s newly-available Core i3-2100 for the next SBM. But the attractiveness of what AMD continues to offer the budget-minded gamer is undeniable. Take our $100 motherboard and RAM combo. From there, regardless of whether you choose the affordable Athlon II X4 640, the enthusiast’s Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition, or something in between, you have the makings of a very value-oriented gaming platform.

  • tacoslave
    i think orange looks spiffy
  • abswindows7
    worst case in the world.
  • LuckyDucky7
    "I’ll certainly entertain the possibility of Intel’s newly-available Core i3-2100 for the next SBM."

    Have fun overclocking that rig!

    I'd choose my O/C'd i3-530 @ 3.75 GHz (stock, air-cooled) over any of the new Sandy Bridge offerings any day.
    The 2100 just cannot compete with that- it's marginally better than a first-gen i3, and it cannot be pushed harder.

    *Hopes Bulldozer will be ready by that time*
  • wolfram23
    Pretty darn good for $500!
  • Judguh
    Good Build!
  • hmp_goose
    Need the optical drive?
  • haplo602
    now finaly a low SBM build I like.

    ++ on the PSU (finaly not a 500W+ waste)
    + on the case (looks decent)
  • lunyone
    Pretty good build for the $. I would've gone with the Athlon x4 or x3 to keep things under budget, but that is just me. There are plenty of GPU options in the ~$170 price range. I think you might've got one of "those" GPU's that you read about. This is why "expecting" OC'ing abilities with whatever part you buy, shouldn't be taken for granted. Buy what you can afford and if you get a good OC on your parts, feel blessed:)
  • lunyone
    I would've taken the savings on the CPU and bought better RAM or maybe even a different case, but that is just nit picking a bit :)
  • one-shot
    Would someone please explain the point of comparing the old SBM to the new one if there isn't a list of the parts from the SBM done in the past? These have always been annoying when the reader is forced to look back to December for a detailed list of parts. This has been practiced for years here. It makes no sense comparing to something the reader has no idea as to the parts being used in the past. Seriously....

    Edit: Why Did I get a Minus one the second after my post was submitted?