System Builder Marathon, Q3 2013: $650 Gaming PC

A Lofty Goal: Achieving Perfect SBM Balance

System Builder Marathon, Q3 2013: The Articles

Here are links to each of the five 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 Gaming PC
Day 2: The $1300 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $2550 Performance PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected
Day 5: The $350 Bonus Entry-Level PC


If you follow our System Builder Marathon series closely, then you know that the ultimate goal is securing the best all-around performance and value given limited budgets, out of the box and after our best tweaking efforts. Of course, lacking the funds to do all things well, I tend to vary the specific goals for each gaming PC I build. We want to improve, after all, and we can't do that unless we also experiment. Switching things up lets me cover more hardware and learn from the impact each change makes on performance.

Sometimes my goals involve a machine that better competes across a broad range of workloads, matching the previous quarter's performance at lower cost. Other times I gun for the best purely-gaming machine at my price point. Assuming I get somewhere between $500 and $650 for hardware, the Tom's Hardware audience expects my machine to game well, while my colleagues ultimately judge it based on how well it competes in overall value. 

When I specifically target 1920x1080 gaming, I often assemble a configuration that sports big graphics and a dual-core processor. Quite frankly, it usually falls flat in our productivity and content creation workloads. And when I’ve attempted to win the overall competition by sourcing a more potent processor, the graphics budget takes a hit, taking our high-resolution gaming potential with it. Ultimately I want an inexpensive processor able to excel in work and play. That's a pretty tall order. Among the contenders, AMD’s FX-6300 appears to pack the most promise. Ever since it dropped to $120, I've been itching to incorporate it into one of my gaming boxes.

We already know from AMD's Piledriver and K10 CPU Architectures Face Off and Is This Even Fair? Budget Ivy Bridge Takes On Core 2 Duo And Quad that Vishera in its three-module, six-core form is quite a force in threaded applications. Outfitted with an enthusiast-friendly unlocked CPU multiplier, it also has the potential to scale way ahead of similarly-priced (but frequency-locked) Core i3 in many games, too. All this suggests to me that the FX-6300 is the crème de la crème of affordable SBM processors.

Officially, I was given the same $650 hardware budget as last quarter. But freed of that round's mini-ITX theme restrictions, I could re-build something comparable for far less money. Thirty bucks could be shed on the B75-based motherboard alone. So, I wasn’t looking to stack today's AMD-based system with performance parts. Instead, I sought to spend less than $200 on the processor, cooler, and motherboard, just as I would do if I was building a machine using Core i3. The savings would address compromises I made last time around (namely, securing 8 GB of RAM and adding back an internal DVD burner).

I have another ace up my sleeve, though. The $250 graphics allotment from last quarter now gives me the freedom to step up from a Tahiti LE-based Radeon HD 7870 to the newer GeForce GTX 760. Even the Radeon HD 7950 Boost is selling for less than $250 these days!

Swipe to scroll horizontally
ComponentModelPurchase Price
CPUAMD FX-6300$120
CPU CoolerAMD boxed heatsink/fan0
MotherboardMSI 970A-G43 ATX$70
RAMKingston HyperX XMP Blu Red Series KHX16C9B1RK2/8X 8 GB (2 x 4 GB) DDR3-1600$57
GraphicsEVGA GeForce GTX 760 2 GB 02G-P4-2760-KR$250
Hard DriveWD Blue WD10EZEX 1 TB$57
CaseNZXT Tempest 210 CA-TP210-01$40
PowerAntec VP-450 450 W ATX12V v2.3$40
OpticalSamsung 24x DVD Burner SATA Model SH-224DB/RSBS$16
Row 9 - Cell 0 Total Price$650

Keeping a six-core FX processor and the surrounding motherboard components cool was a primary concern for me. I couldn’t afford a decent aftermarket cooler without cheating on my budget. Instead, I wanted to tackle the entrance fee by testing AMD's bundled cooler. To help bring temperatures down, I chose a roomy and heavily-ventilated enclosure with two exhaust fans, plus a blower-style graphics cooler that removes GPU heat from the rear I/O bracket. A 12 V power adapter bundled with the card meant we could lean on Antec’s value-oriented VP-450 power supply, and a few remaining dollars let us spring for a WD 1 TB disk drive, landing us exactly on our budget ceiling back when the parts were ordered.

  • Darkerson
    Not a bad little entry system. Im sure it will get picked apart here in the comments soon, but for the price, its not that bad at all.
  • iam2thecrowe
    I think this time you chose the perfect balance of cpu and gpu at this price point. The Athlon 750k is far too weak, please don't use it next month, even an fx41xx or 43xx would be a better choice. The Haswell i3 would be interesting as we might be able to get some overclocking wby increasing base clock strap settings
  • Onus
    It looked great until I saw the mobo, then I thought "oops..."
    Based on and I would have gone with instead; it has a heatsink on its VRMs, and it currently offers free shipping and is $2 less (it's been that way for a while now; I've had my eye on it for recommendations). I'm concerned that the cheap MSI will pop in the middle of a long gaming session. Did you by chance point an IR thermometer at its VRMs during your testing?
    Otherwise, it's nice to see the FX-6300 get a workout in which it performs in the same ballpark as its competition, maybe a little less "raw," but with higher bang/buck.
  • noob2222
    its crazy how fast memory prices change, that kingston kit is now $84 and the team vulcan 2133 and 2400 are <60.
  • designasaurus
    I'd be interested in seeing an FX 8-core more than the FM2 Athlons. In general though, it would be nice to see an AMD processor in these quarterly builds more regularly. I know you guys treat it as a competition, but, for readers like me, it's more informative to see how the competition shapes up rather than seeing 5% boosts from the latest Ivy-to-Haswell iteration. The higher budget guys are pretty much exclusively using Intel these days (I'll get my Haswell comparisons there), so your lower budget builds are the only place to reasonably see how a good AMD build stacks up. FX-6300 is definitely the best value AMD processor though, so it's going to be tough for you to beat this if you go up or down in cpu budget to get the Athlon or octocore.
  • Novuake
    Yeah, I would not touch that board...
  • m32
    I would have to put an fan over the VRMs to feel safe. That is just me. designasaurus, nice read and I agree.
  • ingtar33
    nice build. though i probably would have went with a 7950, and took the $50 saved to get a cpu cooler like the hyper evo 212, and a better overclocking motherboard like the m5a97 R2.0... you probably would have been able to give that fx a bit better of a chance to hit mid to high 4s on the overclock then. if you can get a 6300 up around 4.7-4.9 (obviously not all of them can get there) you can pace an i5 pretty easily... so spending a little on the board and cpu cooler is a good option.

    the 8 core 8320 is getting pretty cheap. the problem is in order to unleash that type of power you're probably going to NEED to go with a hefty cpu cooler and hefty overclocking board. so for the future i suggest you keep with the fx 6300 unless the prices on the 8320 come down a little more.
  • Lee Yong Quan
    would love to see how well does the $350 pc compare with the Q2 $400 PC! then i would know how well my pc would perform when gta 5 is out!
  • bemused_fred
    Why is everyone saying "go with the HD 7950" when they clearly said in the article that it only became cheaper after they finished the build?
    "AMD's Radeon HD 7950 now sells for even less. But at the time we picked our parts, the GeForce GTX 760 was more affordable."

    Honestly, read the article before commenting!