System Builder Marathon, Q2 2013: $650 Gaming PC

Colliding Interests Shape Our Mini-ITX Effort

System Builder Marathon, Q2 2013: The Articles

Here are links to each of the four articles in this quarter’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please fill out this SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $650 Mini-ITX Gaming PC
Day 2: The $1300 Mini-ITX Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $2500 Mini-Performance PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected
Day 5: The $400 "True Spirit of Mini-ITX" PC


At the very heart of our System Builder Marathon series, the embers of competition glow hotly. Each builder has an obligation to squeeze the most performance possible from his budget, or else be prepared to defend his alternate path.

But staff and readers alike also hold our builds to various other standards. Thomas' high-end rig undergoes the most scrutiny. It's expected to not only perform exceptionally well, but to also look and feel the part. Don’s enthusiast-oriented PC gets away with more sacrifices, and its lower price might even justify somewhat flat performance right out of the box. However, it still has to be tweaking-friendly and put up big numbers when it gets overclocked. As for my budget-oriented build, I try to earn that gaming PC moniker first and foremost, rather than trying to compete across the productivity-oriented apps that push my less expensive hardware around.

Last quarter, we upped the stakes in our first System Builder Marathon of 2013, by pursuing the most performance possible from three tightly-grouped budgets: $600, $800, and $1000. In essence, we were looking to identify the sweet spot where bang-for-the-buck value is maximized. Surprisingly, the early favorite and reigning champion, Don's mid-priced enthusiast PC, wound up in last place overall, despite winning the hearts of gamers with an unlocked Core i5-3570K processor and powerful Tahiti LE-based Radeon HD 7870 graphics card. On the other hand, my $600 gaming PC successfully captured the overall gold medal once I overclocked it. 

But keeping the mainstream Radeon HD 7850 graphics card from the previous two $500 efforts was a disappointment to many, who expected a more generous $600 budget to pack more graphics muscle.

Convinced that a Core i5-3350P a Radeon HD 7850 was a winning combo for overall value, this round I justified shifting funds from the CPU to graphics to see how much better a more focused $600 machine might game. At the same time, we'd also figure out how much performance we'd lose in threaded content creation and productivity apps.

Thoughts of pairing AMD’s FX-6300 with the biggest and baddest GPU I could afford ended when the crew started talking about mini-ITX configurations. As a personal fan of small form factor systems, I was immediately on-board. But I also expressed my concern about the premiums on small parts, along with a desire to make optical drives optional. Some of the most attractive cases, such as Fractal Design's Node 304, don't even include an external drive bay, while many smaller enclosures require a pricier slim drive.

As I waited for the team's input, I priced out a mini-ITX gaming box with a Core i3-3220 and the least-expensive 7-series motherboard, GeForce GTX 660, and 4 GB kit I could find. I would have loved to go even smaller, but I just couldn't deny that Cooler Master's $40 Elite 120 chassis met our value expectations best, while allowing enough left over for a 430 W modular power supply. The build rounded up to exactly $600, shedding the optical drive many folks consider optional anyway.

The talks evolved, though, and in the end we settled on $650, $1300, and $2600 as our final budgets. With an extra $50 burning a hole in my pocket, I was torn between conflicting interests. How would we judge what makes the best mini-ITX gaming box? Should I stay true to the roots of our SBM and augment performance, or build something a little more in tune with what I'd personally want to own? The ultimate small form factor box would either be hidden or attractive enough for my family room. Of course I'd still want it to deliver a solid 1920x1080 gaming experience. I could now shrink down to a SilverStone Sugo SG05 with its 450 W SFX power supply, and use the leftover budget to double my system memory. Or, some folks might add back the optical drive. But I knew that neither route would bolster performance.

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$650 Gaming PC System Components
ComponentPurchase Price
CPUIntel Core i3-3220$130
CPU CoolerIntel boxed heatsink/fan-
MotherboardASRock B75M-ITX$90
RAMCrucial Ballistix Tactical Tracer 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR3-1600 BLT2KIT2G3D1608DT2TXRG$33
GraphicsPowerColor PCS+ AX7870 Myst Radeon HD 7870 2 GB$250
Hard DriveWestern Digital WD Blue WD5000AAKX 500 GB$60
CaseCooler Master Elite 120 Mini-ITX Tower$40
PowerCorsair Builder Series CX500 500 W ATX12V v2.3$50
Row 10 - Cell 0 Total Price$653

A $10 price increase on the GTX 660, coupled with the least-expensive 8 GB memory kit disappearing, narrowed my upgrade options to a Pitcairn- or Tahiti LE-based Radeon HD 7870 card. The former would run cooler, consume less power, and leave enough left over for a Rosewill Capstone 80 PLUS Gold modular power supply.

In the end, staying true to the SBM at this budget meant a performance-oriented build. And, in this competition, I still hoped to game right up there with the big boys. Knowing that my machine would have to benchmark at 4800x900 across three screens, it was obvious that a Tahiti-based Radeon HD 7870 gave me the best bang within my price range. From there, the choice was simple. Only one model was in stock and the lack of a bundled power adapter forced me away from the module power supply in favor of a more potent unit.

  • Madn3ss795
    Just 1 question: Why not a 4gb ram stick instead? That board only has 2 RAM slots, so wouldn't it be better to use just one and save another for upgrading later?
  • nokiddingboss
    a great starting build at a very reasonable cost. it was a good read mate. gotta <3 the 7870xt for gaming. best bang for the buck. if only the i5's are a little cheaper... next quarter perhaps?
  • sbudbud
    10984766 said:
    Just 1 question: Why not a 4gb ram stick instead? That board only has 2 RAM slots, so wouldn't it be better to use just one and save another for upgrading later?
    I think this is for performance reasons, dual channel memory beats single channel in performance but more memory is better. I guess the reason is that 4gb is the sweet spot in terms of what is recommended and that going single channel 4gb for future upgrade to 8gb dual channel will has diminishing returns..
  • thasan1
    ahh finally, i was wondering what happened to system builder marathon..
  • thasan1
    but why mini ITX rigs?
  • sarinaide
    $650 called budget, clearly my definition and the going opinion is far from budget, with it possible to build a ATX Intel or AMD system for a little extra but a lot more performance. I did see the Day5 $400 Ultimate Purist M-ATX, this I gotta see, my guess is another Intel build.
  • jestersage
    Thank you for acceding to reader requests for an itx based SBM!

    I have similar preferences as the author when it comes to what I'd change here... a step down in graphics, a step up in CPU performance and bring up RAM to 8gb. I'm not very concerned about noise. I almost always put on a headset when I game.
  • MuadDibTM
    Great job on the build and the article. Would have liked a noise comparison as well. Just so we'd know what we're talking about when going for a mini-ITX build.
  • bigshootr8
    Yea I'm a bit confused why you wouldn't go down to a 7850 2 gigabyte model and then spend the extra money on 8 gigabytes of memory instead ><
  • ARICH5
    jeez, it sounds like your face-palming yourself for getting the i3 through this whole article.