System Builder Marathon, March 2012: $650 Gaming PC

A Pure Gaming Machine

System Builder Marathon, March 2012: 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, including the Bonus Customer Choice PC, which we picked out using the highest-rated components in Newegg's feedback system.

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 $1250 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $2600 Performance PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected
Day 5: Bonus Newegg Customer Choice PC


Our last System Builder Marathon confirmed the awesomeness of Intel’s Core-i5 2400, at least in comparison to less expensive processors available within our smallest system’s budget. Although we had to use an H61-based motherboard, which completely neutered overclocking, the $600 Gaming PC swept the prior quarter’s best efforts in every single performance test, while offering outstanding efficiency and even delivering more overall value in the face of a higher price tag. That's an impressive list of accomplishments we credit to a more expensive processor.

Truth be told, if we were looking for the best overall system performance this quarter, retaining as much of the gaming acumen as possible, we would have used the same basic configuration. We're not convinced that would have been the best distribution of funding, though. When it comes to cranking up eye candy at the highest quality settings, a single mid-range graphics card is the biggest performance inhibitor, not the processor. For many folks, a great gaming experience at a native 1920x1080 resolution is all that matters.

Optimally, we would have retained our Core i5-2400, swapping in a more powerful graphics card able to run games at our desired settings. But that’s not how the System Builder Marathon works, and it's not how things in the real world work, either. Instead, limited funds meant we had to make sacrifices, and the mighty second-gen Core i5 had to go. This quarter, we're willing to preemptively accept embarrassing defeat, both to last quarter's exceptional $600 build and the other PCs in this quarter's series, in order to focus on a better native resolution gaming experience.

Although our previous system ducked in under $600 with a small promotional savings factored in, duplicating our efforts when the series went live required more than $650 as a result of steep price hikes on mechanical storage. Consequently, we bumped the official budget up to $650 this quarter, keeping a level playing field with the prior config. We understand that this ventures above the point of affordability for many folks. No doubt, times are tough. So, we intend to cut the budget back to $500 in future System Builder Marathons. But before we go there, we want to explore the benefits of more sophisticated gaming hardware.

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$650 Gaming PC System Components
ComponentModelPrice (U.S.D.)
CPUIntel Core i3-2120$128
CPU CoolerIntel Boxed Heatsink/Fan$0
MotherboardGigabyte GA-H61MA-D3V$70
RAMTeam Elite 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR3-1333 TED34096M1333C9DC$20
GraphicsXFX HD-695X-ZNFC Radeon HD 6950 1 GB$240
Hard DriveSeagate Barracuda ST500DM002 500 GB SATA 6Gb/s$85
CaseRosewill FBM-01 MicroATX Mini Tower$30
PowerRosewill Green Series RG630-S12 630 W$60
OpticalLG 22x DVD Burner SATA Model GH22NS90B-OEM$16
Total PriceRow 10 - Cell 1 $649

When we made our purchase, there were only two worthy GPU upgrades within reach: Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 560 Ti starting at $210 and AMD’s Radeon HD 6950 1 GB at $240. Naturally, we set our sights on the more powerful board. Raising our graphics budget by $70 meant knocking that amount off somewhere else, which isn't easy since we never have room to spend frivolously. So, the entire sum was cut from our processor's price tag. Running 200 MHz faster than a Core i3-2100, an extra $3 meant the i3-2120 was the best gaming processor within reach. Other (less expensive) options were AMD’s overclockable FX-4100 and Intel’s Sandy Bridge-based Pentiums. However, we wanted to give the Radeon HD 6950 every possible opportunity to out-game our previous efforts, so we picked the CPU with the most potential.

Power demands often add cost to a graphics upgrade. XFX recommends at least a 500 W PSU for this card, though we know that number leaves room for a more demanding platform, too. The simple truth is that not all power supplies are created equally. We’d take a quality 400 W unit with stable voltages, low ripple and noise, and a strong +12 V rail any day over a cheap unit touting 600 W. The Antec EarthWatts EA430D, a 430 W supply that powered our previous two rigs, was on sale for $40 when we made our Newegg purchase. Sporting a maximum +12 V rating of 32 A, it would have done the trick nicely. However, it also would have generated negative feedback from the crowd that believes bigger is better.

Really, our problem was that the Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 cards purchased in the past included +12 V Molex to six-pin power adapters. XFX didn't bundle one with our Radeon HD 6950. Rather than spend another $5 on an adapter, we looked for power supplies that came with the two six-pin leads we'd need. Rosewill's 80 PLUS-certified Green Series 630 W has one 50 A, +12 V rail, which is honestly overkill for our application. But there weren't any other PSUs that achieved the quality we'd recommend for less than $60 with at least 30 A of +12 V power and a pair of six-pin leads.

Aside from our Gigabyte microATX-based board, the rest of our parts should look pretty familiar. Coming in just one dollar under budget left little room to deviate from the formula used last quarter. And although we didn't base any of our buying decisions on these factors, shipping charges would add $11 to the total system cost, and a DiRT 3 game coupon and $15 mail-in rebate were available with the graphics card. The system cost is now down $14, and that's a pleasantry we rarely see from our lowest-priced build.

  • yukijin
    so now that all the 6950's are deactivated or $289+, is this build invalid? because a 7850 is looking really good right now...
  • tristan_b
    What yukijin said.
  • whysobluepandabear
    I appreciate what they're doing, but at some points, I can't help but feel like a cheap bitch.

    Making decisions overly measly amounts of money ($10) is just dumb. Work an extra day and just get the hardware you want. Or, don't go to the movies or out to eat for a few weeks.

    To me, there's a certain area, at which being cheap, just rips you off - you'd be better off spending a little more, and getting a much better item.
  • How do I win this????
  • mortsmi7
    Let me get this straight... you raised the budget $150 "as a result of steep price hikes on mechanical storage", then only spent $85 on a HDD. You really just wanted a more expensive graphics card. You could have taken the $70 processor savings and the $65 under-budget HDD savings and nearly have had a $500 build.
  • de5_Roy
    very good read.
    nice to see where core i3's limits lie.
    i wonder if you guys will consider amd's new fx 6200 or fx 8120 for the $1200 build, with 78xx series in cfx.
  • serhat359
    if I had $600 for a PC, I would go with i3-21xx, 6870, a better mobo and a better case.
    it is probably the best thing to do
  • SpadeM
    whysobluepandabearI appreciate what they're doing, but at some points, I can't help but feel like a cheap bitch. Making decisions overly measly amounts of money ($10) is just dumb. Work an extra day and just get the hardware you want. Or, don't go to the movies or out to eat for a few weeks. To me, there's a certain area, at which being cheap, just rips you off - you'd be better off spending a little more, and getting a much better item.It's not an issues of whether they had the money or not, it's a matter of principle, you set your budget and goals at a certain point and then you make choices. Sure, not everyone will be happy with what they chose but that's what forums are for.

    Anyways, anything a bit over 60fps (on a 60hz monitor) really isn't that bad, i mean you might lack the bragging rights but at the end of the day, it's about gaming and feeling satisfied that you shot enough monsters. To further empathize that having 70 fps constant is not total shit because another GPU can serve you 130 (as if you're going to notice without watching the fps counter) my one suggestion for this SBM would be to introduce a different style of graphs. Below 30fps all the colors of the bars to be grey and over 60 the same thing. This to focus the attention on most relevant (to my opinion) segment. I've seen a lot of ppl chase those fps numbers, buying expensive GPUs only to have them sit in a bad enclosure, sub par motherboard or weak CPU.
    Even in gaming, i believe balance is key.
  • confish21
    Great Job! These builds keep me at Tomshardware!

    Only thing 1 thing, you said an I3 was used instead of an I5 on this page...,3159-8.html
    You can check the 600 dec build here...,3097.html
    Pretty sure an I5-2400 was used.
  • jerreddredd
    I'm glad they used a i3 2120 for the CPU, but I wish they would have used some of the newer cards like the HD 7950 or the GTX 560 Ti 448. these are roughly the same price. Spending and extra $20 on a PSU was a waste. the EA430D and 380W are the core of the budget build. I would like to see some testing of a few of the less expensive PSU ($50 or less) to see which are junk and which aren't bad.