System Builder Marathon, Sept. 2010: Value Compared

System Builder Marathon, September 2010: The Articles

Here are links to each of the four articles in this month’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 check out this Google form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $2,000 Performance PC
Day 2: The $1,000 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $400 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected


Enthusiasts have a different mindset from the general public with regard to performance. While Joe down the street equates value with how cheap his PC is, real power users know that performance defines what their PC is worth. It doesn’t matter how inexpensive something is if it doesn’t work well, and a functional product certainly has no value if it isn't fast enough to perform its intended task.

While Joe certainly wouldn’t be foolish enough to put his child on the freeway with a moped, he might be tempted to buy that $300 discount PC for his little-Joe-gamer. Enthusiasts know better.

This month saw budget-builder Paul Henningsen attempt to provide little-Joe-gamer a convincing counter-offer, in a true gaming system that ran him only $400. Of course, the builder who follows in Paul's footsteps still has to find his own peripherals and operating system, but we hope he is able to reclaim much of that stuff from the waste of purchases past.  Discontinued discounts have since pushed his system cost up to a still-acceptable $409.

Our mid-budget build followed a more conventional enthusiast-class plan, beginning with Intel’s popular, mid-range Core i5. Builder Don Woligroski nearly broke the bank with his choice of graphics card, but recent price cuts and limited-time discounts brought his system price back under the limit.

Our high-end build took a completely different direction when its builder caved to reader requests from System Builder Marathons past, fitting a six-core processor and two GeForce GTX 480 graphics cards within his $2000 budget. High GPU-oriented costs limited our six-core options to AMD’s cheapest Phenom II X6, in turn forcing the unconventional choice of Nvidia’s previous-generation SLI chipset to make it all work.

September 2010 System Builder Marathon Components 
 $400 Budget PC$1000 Budget PC$2000 Budget PC
MotherboardASRock M3A770DE
Chipset: AMD 770/SB710
Asus P7P55D-E LX
Chipset: Intel P55 Express
MSI NF980-G65
Nvidia nForce 980a SLI
ProcessorAMD Athlon II X3 440
3.0 GHz, Three Cores
1.5 MB L2 Cache, Socket AM3
Intel Core i5-750
2.66 GHz, Four Cores
8 MB L3 Cache, LGA 1156
AMD Phenom II X6 1055T
2.8 GHz, Six Cores
6 MB L3 Cache, Socket AM3
MemoryCrucial CT2KIT12864BA1339
2 x 1 GB (2 GB Total)
DDR3-1333 CAS 9-9-9-24
Crucial CT2KIT25664BA1339
2 x 2 GB (4 GB Total)
DDR3-1333 CAS 9-9-9-24
G.Skill F3-10666CL9D-8GBRL
2 x 4 GB (8 GB Total)
DDR3-1333 CAS 9-9-9-24
GraphicsPowerColor AX5670 512MD5-H
512 MB GDDR5-4000
HD 5670 GPU at 775 MHz
1.2 GB GDDR5-3348
GTX 470 GPU at 607 MHz
2 x MSI N480GTX-M2D15-B
2 x 1.5 GB GDDR5-3696
2 x GTX 480 GPU at 700 MHz
Hard DriveWestern Digital WD2500AAJS
250 GB, 7200 RPM, 8 MB Cache, SATA 3Gb/s
Western Digital WD36401AALS
640 GB, 7200 RPM, 32 MB Cache, SATA 3Gb/s
Samsung F3 HD103SJ
1.0 TB, 7200 RPM, 32 MB Cache, SATA 3Gb/s 
OpticalSamsung SH-S223C
22x DVD±R, 48X CD-R
Lite-On iHAS124
24x DVD±R, 48X CD-R
Lite-On iHAS124
24x DVD±R, 48X CD-R
CaseRosewill BlackboneAntec Three HundredSilverStone Raven RV02-BW
PowerCooler Master Ext. Pwr. Plus
500 W, ~70% Efficiency
Corsair CMPSU-650TX
650 W, 80 PLUS Standard
Cooler Master Silent Pro

1000 W, Modular, 80 PLUS Bronze
CPU CoolerAMD boxed heat sink & fanCooler Master Hyper TX3
Scythe Mugen 2 Rev. B
Total Cost $409 $993 $1,885

Huge reductions in the budget-build’s price are almost certain to increase its value rating, but will that machine still perform adequately throughout our entire benchmark set?

Conversely, will AMD’s lower performance-per-clock throughput combine with the poorly-threaded nature of many desktop applications to sabotage our high-priced machine?

Before anyone assumes a big win for the mid-priced system, let’s take a closer look at the benchmark data.

This thread is closed for comments
    Your comment
  • karma831
    oops double post...

    Anyways, I didn't really like the builds this SBM but I learned quite a bit. Thanks for the great read.
  • Yeah the $2000 system did not make much sense. Only spending 10% of your build money on the CPU seems wrong. The two GTX480s and Nvidia mobo was bizarre. I guess they felt they had to throw the AMD CPU guys a bone. The lack of a solid state drive in a $2000 build was also odd to me. Which could be explained if your going after raw gaming power, where they did with the dual 480s, but then they gimped it with that AMD cpu. Why pair dual GTX 480s with a Phenom Hexacore; which are subpar for anything that uses 4 threads or less. For the same $2000, I think you would get a much better system with a core i7 950, 6gb of ddr3 1600, a 120gb SSD, and 2 GTX 460 1gb.
  • HibyPrime
    I usually skip over the power and efficiency pages of the high-end SBM build, because the power usage is mostly irrelevant for such a high-end build... but when I saw it in the efficiency comparison...

    ONE KILOWATT? seriously!?
  • Crashman
    stm1185For the same $2000, I think you would get a much better system with a core i7 950, 6gb of ddr3 1600, a 120gb SSD, and 2 GTX 460 1gb.
    -1 for the SSD comments since these have always hurt the system's overall score in the benchmark-based value analysis.
  • avatar_raq
    One of the odd things encountered in the $2000 build is the results of Dirt2. This game bears the AMD logo, and in one benchmark the intel system scored almost double!! OMG!! AMD guys really need to do something about their CPUs and their relations to game developers.
  • SLI does not seems to work in AMD system or it is throttling.
  • Crashman
    MayPSLI does not seems to work in AMD system or it is throttling.
    The CPU is throttling the rest of the system. Most of the benchmarks show a CPU-capped pattern.
  • I'd like to have seen CS5 tests rather than CS4, considering you're using a Win 7 x64 build.
  • "The CPU is throttling the rest of the system. Most of the benchmarks show a CPU-capped pattern."

    There is noway i5 can be twice as fast as x6. Simply no way. Something is wrong. Unless there is an artificial limitation in the SLI board to prevent it running faster than that. Even 5670 is closer to SLI 480. Simply Dirt2 benchmark is wrong. And I sense SLI is not working. Better to try with Cross Fire setup.
  • avatar_raq
    TheCapulet it's just plain unbelievable that the builder didn't do his homework.

    If you read the article thoroughly you would know the reasons behind the CPU choice! And Thomas was honest about the results and he clearly said 'we failed'. Besides it IS nice to see someone try that and inform us so that we don't repeat the same, or similar, mistakes!

    TheCapulet This will be the first month that people sign up hoping to win the 1k machine instead of the 2k.

    Free is always good! For me, I wish I win the $2000 build, simply because the 2 gfx cards alone worth almost as the mid-priced build ($920 vs $1000)!
  • SpadeM
    I do understand that the staff hears what the community has to say about how the next builds should look like, but really, if you spend money on 2 x 480 and you know beforehand that the performance will be limited by your choice of cpu (since benchmarks of it existed before the build was done)then it's up to you to make that weird combination work. I know, the standard cooling on the mobo wasn't great so NB overclocking was out of the question, but still an after market cooler, a simple fan pointed at the chipset could have made a difference. Just to build a 2000$ system to see it fail isn't being responsible with your money and doesn't make any sense (maybe in the "we told you it would kind of way"). As for the rest, i only have one question ... what were the bios settings for the SpeedStep and C1E on the intel side .. since the x6 had it's C&Q disabled.

    All in all this was the most ... weird .. SBM to date.
    PS: kudos to Paul Henningsen, his build/review takes the cake this round.
  • sincreator
    In Dirt 2 I get the same results, and I only have 1 HD5870. My 1090T is clocked at 4.2ghz and I have the NB/HT OC'ed as well. 2x GTX480 should of been alot faster, at least thats what I would of thought. At 1920x1080 and above with anti alising I thought the load was more on the GPU/GPUs. Something seems strange to me. What happens when you use one card? Do the FPS stay the same at 2560x1600 with AA also? I'm just curious, that's all. The FPS didn't even go up when you lowered the resolution. Weird stuff for sure.
  • SSBrando
    Why didn't they bump up the Six core Phenom to it's big brother. you get 400 more MHz and an unlocked multiplier. I looked it up on newegg and they could have stayed in the $2000 limit. There's my two cents.
  • IWC Member 23495867
    Can't say that I'm surprised with the results. Thanks again Tom for another SBM!
  • Mottamort
    Wow. a few months ago I built a +-$400 equivalent budget-gaming box for someone and I used exactly the same stuff....scary
  • cknobman
    I hope I win the 2000 build!!! Worst high performance build yet on Toms but best situation for whoever wins it.

    Strip out the power hungry 480's and sell them for a grand and buy a 5850 or 460 for 300 bucks.

    Brand new system and $700 in my pocket, what can be better than that!!!!!!!!
  • Peciura
    THG have test results tat nVidia graphic cards are sensitive to CPU computation power (unlike Radeon). In fact AMD 6 core CPU is of very limited use (if any). General rule is : if you on tight budget buy AMD system if you need high end computer stick to Intel and nVidia.

    It would be very interesting to have a tool to compare any 2-3years old SBM systems among themselves with current newegg prices. This way it would be clear that any SBM system is just part of bigger picture and is not necessarily the best choice for the money.
  • Jzcaesar
    Hmm, wow, to think about a month ago I thought all games were GPU limited. This certainly opens my eyes.
  • plznote
    cknobmanI hope I win the 2000 build!!! Worst high performance build yet on Toms but best situation for whoever wins it. Strip out the power hungry 480's and sell them for a grand and buy a 5850 or 460 for 300 bucks.Brand new system and $700 in my pocket, what can be better than that!!!!!!!!

    That was a unit line in WarCraft 3!!
  • Onus
    This was a very interesting SBM series, with lessons to be learned at each price point. Knowing what NOT to do can be as useful as knowing what TO do. I'd love to win any of them, with these results:
    1. $2K PC: I'd remove and sell the two GPUs (my games don't need them), and add a single GTX460 or HD5850 and a SSD. Would become my primary system.
    2. $1K PC: I'd just add a SSD. Would also become my primary system.
    3. $400 PC: I'd toss the junk PSU and install a 380W Earthwatts, and probably add a quiet after-market CPU HSF. I'd probably swap the GPU for my HD4850, add a second larger HDD, then it would become a Christmas gift for my sister's family.
  • vvhocare5
    I for one will be glad when this series is over. I just dont think this effort is relevant to the majority of PC builders - and trying to educate the crowds that are inept is pointless. Any one set of choices leaves questions for the other set of choices not used.

    The forums are full of people who cannot figure out how to make a system choice (what speed RAM, what GPU, what CPU, how much to spend, etc) and then once they build it and it doesnt work, are back asking how to make it all work, why is it overheating, why does it crash and so on.

    Im not sure what this accomplishes - the ones who can build dont need this series and the ones who cant build will mess it up anyhow - even if you give them a complete parts list.

    This site continues to slide backward trying to increase its readership by reaching the lowest person instead of setting a high water mark with compelling articles (like the 2D video acceleration issue with AMD - now that was good).

  • marraco
    for the next round:

    if the cheapest build don't have a decent video card, should spend more.

    the midle budget at least need a GTX 460 1GB SLI.

    the expensive budget needs SSD.
  • RazberyBandit
    What I don't get is why the budget PC is called "Gaming PC" and still has to go through the non-gaming benchmark suite. The more expensive builds are never labeled "Gaming" at all. The benchmark suite is not strictly a gaming suite. Sure, they're there, but the productivity tests are there too. And without the focus on overall performance, the $400 PC could have focused purely on gaming - an area where 3 faster cores might have offered better performance than 4 slower ones. (Or was the Gamers: Do You Need More Than An Athlon II X3? article simply a fluke?

    Anyway, I'd just like to see the productivity and gaming portions separated into two distinct competitions. This would allow users to see each build compared from whichever perspective is more important to them.
  • triculious
    TheCapuletAnd honestly, it's just plain unbelievable that the builder didn't do his homework.

    I think mostly it was done as a crowd pleaser... I've seen several posts stating such-and-such build would be so much better if a phenom II X6 was used instead of anything else... it's proven (again) that an AMD hexa-core is not that good for a gaming machine and probably an intel hexa-core is not a very good value either

    an ssd wouldn't add any performance benefit yet it still would improve the experience of lower boot times, I personally see it as a frivolity... one which I'll allow myself come December =P

    I liked the marathon this time... showing BAD build decisions is very valuable to me as a consumer and gives me reference material to show clients about what makes a good one and what a bad one as well... thanks a lot (now just make the giveaway worldwide available and we'll be cool =P)