System Builder Marathon: $1,250 Mid-Range PC

System Builder Marathon, February 2009: 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).

Introduction

Our second-to-the-last System Builder Marathon (SBM) enthusiast PC had the tried-and-true Core 2 Duo E8500 and our last system was equipped with the brand-new Core i7 920, so we have a really good idea of the strengths and weaknesses when comparing these two CPU architectures in similarly-priced systems. The short version of the conclusion is that the inexpensive and highly overclockable Core 2 Duo E8500 is still a great value choice when overclocked, as it leaves a lot of room in the budget for an expensive video card. While the Core i7 920 is the better choice for most CPU-oriented tasks, the relatively expensive processor and X58-based platform doesn't leave a lot of room for a high-end video card. 

This month, we explore where the Core 2 Quad fits into the scheme of things. While Core 2 Quad processors can be just as expensive as the Core i7 920, there is an abundance of inexpensive motherboards with which to pair the processor. This leaves a lot of wiggle room for a better graphics card, among other things.

Before we go over the components, please note that, since the SBMs take a few weeks to execute, Nvidia's new GeForce GTX 295 was not yet available for purchase when we ordered the components (Ed.: tomorrow, you'll see that we cheated a little after ordering the parts right before the GTX 295 launched). Swapping out the Radeon HD 4870 X2 for a tasty new GeForce GTX 295 for the same price would have been a no-brainer, but the Radeon HD 4870 X2 will allow us to get a better apples-to-apples comparison with the E8500/4870 X2 system we built in November.

Let's look at the components. First, keep in mind that only a few weeks ago all of these components spec'd out at $1,244, which was close to our $1,250 limit. Today, the components add up to about $100 less, at $1,150. Primarily, we can thank the price drops of the Q9550 ($310 down to $274) and the Sapphire Radeon 4870 X2 ($490 down to $449) for the huge savings. It goes to show you how quickly prices can drop in the computer industry, especially when new products are launched.

$1,250 Mid-Range System Components
Component
Model Price (USD)
CPU Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 $274
CPU Cooler Xigmatek HDT-S1283 (& ACK-I7751 Retention Bracket) $46
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-UD3LR $103
RAM G.Skill HK 2 x 2GB $50
Graphics Sapphire Radeon 4870 X2 $449
Hard Drives Western Digital Caviar Black 640 GB 32 MB cache $80
Sound Integrated 0
Network Integrated Gigabit Networking 0
Case Rosewill Wind Ryder RZLS142A-P YE $30
Power Corsair 650TX $100
Optical Lite-On 20X DVD±R SATA Model iHAS120-04 $22

Total Price $1,154
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84 comments
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  • johnyeah
    I just checked, I was wondering if the HD 4850 x2 (2x1gb) was a better choice at only $240? That would cut the cost by an additional.
  • xx12amanxx
    Phenom 2 940 is 40$ dollars cheaper overclock's to 3.7-3.9 on air runs cooler and performs the same. Not sure why you went with an equal performing lower overclocking higher power using and almost 40$ more expensive cpu.
  • Tindytim
    You're $96 under budget, but you couldn't splurge on a better case?

    Unless you made a Typo on one of those prices, they all add up to the 1154 total. So why are you so under budget?
  • Crashman
    xx12amanxxPhenom 2 940 is 40$ dollars cheaper overclock's to 3.7-3.9 on air runs cooler and performs the same. Not sure why you went with an equal performing lower overclocking higher power using and almost 40$ more expensive cpu.


    Can't use a processor that doesn't exist. They weren't on the market when the parts were ordered...what, you thought these articles were produced overnight?

    TindytimYou're $96 under budget, but you couldn't splurge on a better case?Unless you made a Typo on one of those prices, they all add up to the 1154 total. So why are you so under budget?


    Prices dropped after the parts were ordered: The same thing happens to EVERY builder, the system loses value almost as soon as you can click the "buy" icon.
  • Tindytim
    CrashmanPrices dropped after the parts were ordered: The same thing happens to EVERY builder, the system loses value almost as soon as you can click the "buy" icon.

    Wait, wait, wait.

    You mention that in the $625 article, but those were the prices at purchase. Why the inconsistency?
  • Crashman
    TindytimWait, wait, wait.You mention that in the $625 article, but those were the prices at purchase. Why the inconsistency?


    Ask the author of the other article? I only know that the more expensive a part is, the more money you loose when the price drops.
  • maxwellsmart_80
    *SIGH* Yet ANOHTER "Intel System Build Marathon" machine...just kidding - I understand what you are saying about the Phenom II 940 not being available at the time of component purchase - It would be nice to see some AMD in next months articles though!

    P.S. - you were under budget, why not go w/ the Antec Three Hundred Case - it's 1000% nicer than the Rosewill Piece 'o Junk you picked, and would have cooled your Overclock a lot better IMHO...just a thought - it's a killer case for the money - have you ever used it in a system build?
  • yellowfever
    This is my first time commenting on any article at Tom's after reading everyday for 6+ years, but seeing the UD3LR motherboard pick instead of the equally priced UD3R ($2 more after rebate) or UD3P($12 more after rebate) is ridiculous for a computer hardware website. Both boards would let you do 24/7 clocks of 4+ at decent voltages on air for an E0 stepping Q9550. Gigabyte isn't going to iron out bios wrinkles on their cheapest UD3, don't forget even the UD3R was easilly beaten in stability against the UD3P until two to three months ago when better bioses started popping up. Maybe it's late, but some strange hardware gets picked on this site to save $12.
  • SlyNine
    I would have thought your OC would have been more limited by the 4pin CPU Power on the motherboard
  • _horse
    Im diggin' the build here, regardless of newer hardware being available later, and prices dropping after purchase.

    Suggestion: Why not split these articles up into two forms? Why not submit an "initial/at time of order" article and have that listed first to let people argue, then do all the benchmarking and submit a followup article later, attached to the initial article?

    People can still bicker over price range and stuff before the benchmarks even come out, that way you know what/when the article is being based off of.

    I know, Im the new guy and Im probably spitting in to the wind here, but...

    :)

    -Horse
  • yoda8232
    Tom's could of went i7 for that price. -_-
  • Hothr
    The colors of the bar graphs were so much easier to follow in this article than in previous months. Thanks for that.
  • Known2Bone
    i wonder if the psu could have been part of the oc limit(in addition to the mobo)... if the temps in the case were high it could cause the psu to come up shorter than it would at lower temps..... it would be really nice for some am3 junk next month.... i think that being 90 bones under budget is ok because if i were building i would want the most bang for buck as possible
  • heltoupee
    yellowfeverMaybe it's late, but some strange hardware gets picked on this site to save $12.


    Yes, it sure does. Just take a look at that case. Holy fugly crap, Batman! And that Rosewill POS they picked for the $625 build? They freely admitted that it held back their performance. They would have been better off shoving the parts together on a tabletop and holding it all together with duct tape.

    Seriously, guys. When you're building a machine, the case costs $50. It's called an Antec Three Hundred. Learn it, know it, love it. I can't fathom how you're justifying tossing $1200 worth of components into the cheapest damn case you can find. Listen, if you're ever 20 bucks over budget again and are thinking about skimping on the case, call me. I'll pony up the $20 so your SBM computers look like a professional designed them.
  • dirtmountain
    Good article and shows good comparisons between the 3 Intel options that are out right now, core2 duo, core2 quad and i7. I'm glad to see other budget case options being used and would be glad to see other cooling solutions being compared (sunbeam core contact,Zalman etc.) Like all builders you have to order what's available and not wait the 2-4 weeks till prices come down on various parts. Good work.
  • cleeve
    Some answers from the author:

    "Phenom 2 940 is 40$ dollars cheaper"

    Wasn't available at the time of testing. And if you'll read the last $1250 marathon comments, forum users asked for an E8500/i7/Q9550 comparison, which we supplied.


    "You're $96 under budget, but you couldn't splurge on a better case?"

    READ THE ARTICLE. We explain that when we purchased the Rosewill was the only case that kept us in the budget at the time of purchase, our budget dropped as prices took a massive hit over the course of the month.
    And you know what? It's a fine case. I try not to assume any hardware is crappy before trying it myself just because it's not a particular name brand. The Rosewill did the job.


    "but seeing the UD3LR motherboard pick instead of the equally priced UD3R ($2 more after rebate) or UD3P($12 more after rebate) is ridiculous for a computer hardware website."

    We don't use rebates, plan and simple. And we have to stick to our budgets. As well, I personally don't think the UD3R or UD3P would have made the massive diffrence you're assuming it would.

    But more importantly, you did read the article and notice that I limited the OC because of the CPU temp - not a mobo limitation - right?


    "Tom's could of went i7 for that price."

    *sigh*. Please read the article before commenting. We did an i7 last time, and went with the Q9550 to compare at the request of the forum readers. We've been over and over this, dude.
  • cleeve
    heltoupeeWhen you're building a machine, the case costs $50. It's called an Antec Three Hundred. Learn it, know it, love it.


    Yeah, the thing is I'm just not one of those people who assumes that only name brands have exclusive rights to make anything worthwhile.

    I guess I'm not 'leet' enough for you, but you know what? I liked the Rosewill. Thought it was a damn fine case, and it didn't even have an 'Antec' sticker on it. Blasphemy!

    Just my opinion, but if it holds the components (the important part IMHO), cools them properly, has decent build quality, and does it for cheap, it's a good case.

    You know what? My watch isn't a Rolex, either. ***GASP***! ;)
  • cleeve
    Known2Bonei wonder if the psu could have been part of the oc limit(in addition to the mobo)...


    PLEASE READ THE ARTICLE. I limited the overclock because of the load temps. Not the PSU, case, or anything else...
  • enewmen
    Great article! Answered many quesions with different CPU/video card combinations. The Gigabyte GA-EP45, q9550 o/c, & 4870X2 were all good choices. This system "could" have gotten 8 gigs with a stretch. Not sure if that will help any in 2009, even with a 64bit OS.
    Thanks :)
  • billiardicus
    Toms,
    Nice article I always read these. A few thoughts:
    - I don't think most readers care if you spend $1250 or $1275. I think the point is to build a bag/buck system within a certain range. In real life, no one is going to miss a grat component on a ~$1200 build because they can't find $12, etc.
    - I personally believe you should always buy the cheapest case that WORKS. I've been using the Centurion CAC5 ($50). Question: Does the Rosewell case work well? You said some good things about it...would you recommend the case? 'Cause if I can save $20 on a case I will.

    - Lastly, although I enjoyed the article, I didn't learn anything. I already knew the i7 is the best CPU for that price range (although I think an i7 build needs closer to a $1500 budget), and Techreport.com already has lots of testing showing CPU scaling across different video cards (and the i7 always wins; quads and duo's trade blows with the winner often being decided by the highest clock frequency).

    Anyway, I love the site. I hope my feedback is helpful.
  • heltoupee
    cleeveYeah, the thing is I'm just not one of those people who assumes that only name brands have exclusive rights to make anything worthwhile.


    You missed my point, and went for the cheap shot, assuming I'm a brainless fanboy. I am not. The Antec case has been tested, reviewed, and put through numerous builds multiple times. This is the first time I've heard of this Rosewill case on a website that writes reputable reviews of computer equipment. When the difference in price is as small as this (right now, the Rosewill case is 39.99 on newegg, the Antec is $64.99). For my $25, I'm going to go with the case that reviews well, that I've built in numerous times before, and that I know will perform well. I don't have $40 to blow hoping for a pleasant surprise.

    Now, I don't, and probably never will, wear a Rolex. The extra bit of quality you get is definitely not worth the extra cost. The Three Hundred is hardly the 'Rolex' of cases. Read around the Internet for a bit, and you'll see that Antec is known for it's value and low cost, and the Three Hundred is one of their lower cost cases. I couldn't give a flying f*** what brand the case is, just so long as several reputable individuals have good things to say about it. I've used Kingwin cases (when they did OEM work for Antec). If I tried to recommend Lian Li, or something, then you'd have every right to chide me the way you have, but, we're going for best bang-for-buck, right? In my mind, the Three Hundred is the right choice.

    Go back and read the latest $625 system build writeup. Look here: http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/overclock-e5200-radeon,2144-6.html
    TFAremoving the side panel of the case dropped CPU load temperature as much as eight degrees. It seemed that our budget case didn’t have sufficient and proper airflow for this level of overclocking and it simply paled in comparison to the Antec Three Hundred we’d been using.

    So, they took 2 shots with budget cases of unknown quality. One was somewhat of a failure (they recommend adding another intake fan. That's eating right into the money you save by going with the cheapest option - a coworker of mine would call this "polishing a turd".) I'm saying that, for my money, I'm going to buy something I know will perform well. $25 extra on a $1,250 build is hardly pandering to the overpriced brand names.
  • cleeve
    - I hear you about the budget, but it's a slippery slope. I don't mind going over by $15 or so, but it was a $30 spread.

    In fact, I look forward to being forced within a budget because it makes me consider components I otherwise would ignore. Would I have an opportunity to try anything new if I had that extra $30 in the budget? Would I ever learn if anything other than the Antec 300 might have something to offer?

    And honestly, is anybody who values one case over another going to blindly follow a recommendation they don't like. You guys have your own minds, you know what you want. Since the case doesn't have any affect on benchmark results, I really don't understand the outrage.


    - I honestly liked the Rosewill Wind Ryder a *LOT* more than I figured I would. Two 120mm fans, enough space to easily fit a 4870 X2, and good build quality for $20... I mean, c'mon. What's to dislike?

    - Well, I don't know if it's possible to write an article that *everyone* can't take something from. But our readers wanted a C2D/i7/C2Q comparo, so I gave it to them.
  • cleeve
    heltoupeeFor my $25, I'm going to go with the case that reviews well, that I've built in numerous times before, and that I know will perform well.


    And you should. With your money, you should do whatever you want.

    However, just because you find something good, that doesn't mean you stop looking for other good options. I wouldn't go far as a hardware reviewer if from this point on I never tried any other graphics card than the GTX 295 because it's the best right now.

    I try new hardware on principle, because if we don't, we don't learn anything.

    In my opinion, trying Rosewills in the $625 and $1250 budgets taught us a lot that we wouldn't learn by going with three hundreds. The Wind Ryder turned out to be a great little case for super cheap; the R222-P-BK, not so much. And I'm happier knowing that, I already know the 300 is good. Hell, I used in in the past two $1250 marathons.

    You certainly have the right to disagree, but so do I. Those are my reasons, and I think they're valid - even if you personally wouldn't have chosen them yourself.

    A final thought; how would you know the Antec 300 was any good if nobody tried it out?
  • jthorn
    Great articles discussing mid-range duo, core 2 quad, and I7 builds. Personally, I see an obvious winner when the criteria is most bang for the buck. Like it or not, mid-range I7 systems are already for sale in this price range.