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System Builder Marathon, Q3 2013: $350 Bonus Entry-Level PC

What Can You Expect From A Budget Box?

Built To Address Two Completely Different Needs

Today we compared two very different entry-level machines, exposing the strengths and weaknesses of each. When I calculate average performance, I typical evaluate my budget builds based on their gaming potential. This time, I’m pulling native-resolution gaming out of the equation entirely, focusing on overall gaming and application performance. Since these machines were built for two totally different purposes, I won't chart a total, either. Honestly, I could put either system to very good use, though neither would satisfy all of my computing needs.

With hardly any tweaking, AMD’s A10-5800K easily bolstered application performance by over one-third. In some threaded workloads, it delivered more than a 70% improvement. However, it only delivered about half of the framerate in our game tests. Often, it fell before the $400 PC even broke a sweat.

But many folks who enjoy games on a daily basis only play casual titles, where an APU has no trouble at all. There's a good chance that this rig could breeze through much of my Steam library. What's more, we found that as long as you're willing to push those detail sliders to the left, accept low resolutions, and turn off anti-aliasing, our $350 PC can survive a number of newer AAA titles, too.

One way to extract more potential from an APU is to increase memory frequency. DDR3-1600 somewhat cripples the A10's potential. By overclocking the GPU to 950 MHz, we only saw 3-5% gains. In fact, we sometimes saw better performance from the stock 800 MHz clock rate with DDR3-1866 data rates. We also found that the on-die Radeon HD 7660D engine scales well with memory bandwidth. If you study this chart closely, you’ll see relative gains from GPU and memory overclocking is up to 2% higher than those parts on their own.

Conclusion

Tom’s Hardware readers are typically drawn to higher-end parts. But I must confess that I enjoyed building budget-oriented bonus PCs the last two quarters. If you tailor the parts to match your needs, and don’t hold onto unrealistic expectations, the results are exactly why we call ourselves enthusiasts in the first place.

Sure, I’d prefer a processor able to juggle four threads in my gaming PC. Who wouldn't? But Intel’s affordable Pentiums (like the G2120) handle most games well enough to easily complement AMD’s Radeon HD 7700-series add-in cards. So, even if you only have $350-$400, you can still build a fairly decent gaming PC.

If you're even shorter on cash, or if gaming isn't your top priority, AMD's affordable APUs might be more apropos. Capitalizing on Newegg discounts, I chopped this quarter's official $650 starting budget in half and still built a general-purpose machine with a quad-core processor, on-die Radeon graphics, 8 GB of RAM, and a healthy terabyte of storage. Not bad at all.

  • slomo4sho
    Nice choice in parts (unlike their mid/high end counterparts, the low end MSI boards continue to disappoint. Maybe consider Biostar, ECS, or ASRock in future low end builds) . However, those wanting to cheat can pickup a 750K with 7770 within $20-30 of the price of the APU for overall improved gaming performance. It is interesting what $40-50 can accomplish in these low budget builds :)
    Reply
  • internetlad
    Have to admit, I like where this went. This is a little higher than a similarly priced build I was looking at for my brother in law about a year ago
    Reply
  • rolli59
    Well throw in a HD7750 (can be had for $50 after MIR) and it will keep up with the $400 system in gaming. Since MIR do not count reduce the ram to 2x2GB (Q2 $400build) to offset the cost.
    Reply
  • pauldh
    The promo is now back, so the A10-5800K was (for us) and is once again $110 from Newegg no rebates. We can't match that price too easy with HD7750/7770. Although as rolli said $50 after $30 mail-in rebate + a Pentium gets close (AR).


    EDIT: My mistake! Actually this is a different promo. A $20 gift card. When we chose this part, the savings instantly removed $20 from the shopping cart total.
    Reply
  • sicom
    So a $350 PC has better performance than an Xbox 360, and a $400 PC blows it clear out of the water. Cost of operating system not withstanding. I realize this console generation is nearly ancient history by now, but I still find that interesting, and perhaps because it's not ancient history yet.

    Note of reference: BF3 plays at 720p @ 30 FPS at about medium'ish settings on 360/PS3.
    Reply
  • pauldh
    11609414 said:
    Nice choice in parts. However, those wanting to cheat can pickup a 750K with 7770 within $20-30 of the price of the APU for overall improved gaming performance. It is interesting what $40-50 can accomplish in these low budget builds :)

    That must be a pretty big cheat. ;) But that pairing sure stymies the 6800K's appeal doesn't it.

    You are so right, $40-50 more does wonders. We could make a fun poor man's marathon out of exploring that alone.$400/450/500 gaming faceoff? :D
    Reply
  • aggroboy
    11609551 said:
    So a $350 PC has better performance than an Xbox 360, and a $400 PC blows it clear out of the water. Cost of operating system not withstanding. I realize this console generation is nearly ancient history by now, but I still find that interesting, and perhaps because it's not ancient history yet.

    Note of reference: BF3 plays at 720p @ 30 FPS at about medium'ish settings on 360/PS3.
    You're using 2012-2013 components to compare against a 2005 console.
    Reply
  • itzsnypah
    750K HD7750 4GB RAM and you have much better computer (overall and gaming) for the same price.

    750K vs A10-5800K (CPU wise)
    The same (except 750K no graphics to cool)

    7750 vs 7660D
    512 vs 384 shaders
    GDDR5 vs DDR3
    800Mhz vs 800Mhz

    Did you even consider this or did you go into this budget with your heart set on an APU?
    Reply
  • pauldh
    11609701 said:
    750K HD7750 4GB RAM and you have much better computer (overall and gaming) for the same price.

    750K vs A10-5800K (CPU wise)
    The same (except 750K no graphics to cool)

    7750 vs 7660D
    512 vs 384 shaders
    GDDR5 vs DDR3
    800Mhz vs 800Mhz

    Did you even consider this or did you go into this budget with your heart set on an APU?

    That's an easy answer. The math simply didn't (and still doesn't) add up.

    The cheapest 7750 was $85, the 750K was also $85. That's $170 when the 5800K was $110 with a promo code anyone buying one would have used to save instantly before checking out. The goal was $325 factoring that promotional instant savings.

    And as mentioned in the text on page one, a 4GB mem kit saved only $10, meaning 750K+7750 was still $50 over, which is huge on a $325 budget.

    Although, I knew before order time playing by the rules we'd call this a $350 PC. Hope that all makes sense.
    Reply
  • Memnarchon
    The current APU costs $130. And the memory costs $50. Total: $180.
    Now if you place an Athlon X4 750K 3,4Ghz for $80 or an Ivybridge Pentium G2120 3,1Ghz $70, using a HD 7770 for $90 and for memory 4GB (2 x 2GB) for $35 it will be total: Intel: $195 ($15 more) and AMD:$205 ($25 more).

    Now for $15/$25 you can have double or more performance on games. Why to go with an APU???

    edit: I actually read the article and didn't read all the comments.
    But even if you choose not to go with 7750, according to Tom's hierrarchy chart the 6670 (even the DDR3 version) is still two tiers faster. And I can't remember even prvious month the 6670DDR3 to cost more than $60 (maybe less with some AR) So a 750K or a G2120 (or a bit lower) will still offer better performance at almost same price (the pentium will be the same price) with 4GB RAM.
    Reply