System Builder Marathon, Dec. 2011: $600 Gaming PC

Profiting From A Pricier Processor

System Builder Marathon, December 2011: 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 fill out this SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $2400 Performance PC
Day 2: The $1200 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $600 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected


Our past two System Builder Marathon gaming rigs weighed in a few percentage points over our intended budget. Generally, about one-quarter of the build price was spent on a capable CPU. The angle we took two quarters ago centered on the stock performance, efficiency, and gaming alacrity of Intel’s locked-down Core i3-2100. Although it was quite a successful gaming solution, the machine’s overall value was deflated by the 3.1 GHz dual-core processor’s lackluster performance in our benchmark suite's threaded tests.

September's return to an emphasis on overclocking squeezed 3.8 GHz out of AMD’s Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition and bundled cooler. Performance in threaded applications increased substantially thanks to a quartet of physical processing cores. Furthermore, we capitalized on the plummeting prices of system memory to buy a more powerful graphics card, enabling better native resolution gaming at higher quality settings. While that system also served its purpose well, application performance still paled in comparison to the more expensive rigs, and its overclocked AMD processor was a clear limiting factor through a number of our gaming tests.

So, my goal for this quarter was to seek out a processor capable of overcoming the weaknesses encountered as we pieced together past $500 gaming systems. With an additional $100 approved, the decision was an easy one. Nothing less than a Sandy Bridge-based processor with four physical cores would suffice.

There are those of you who probably hoped for a Socket AM3+ platform in our cheapest rig, considering the Bulldozer architecture's entry-level manifestation as FX-4100 and the previous-generation's competitiveness at value-oriented prices. But AMD was pretty much out of the question for this build. The Phenom II failed to compete at 3.8 GHz, so there was little use dumping extra funds into that architecture. And while the FX-4100 sounded promising, it was simply unavailable during our window for placing orders. The FX-6100 was available, but inflated to the same exact $190 as Intel's Core i5-2400. No, if I was going to blow nearly one-third of the budget on a processor, it was most definitely going to be on a second-generation Intel Core i5.

The rest of the parts should look pretty familiar, as there simply wasn't much room to deviate from our past formula of necessities. Despite falling prices on the Radeon HD 6850, it was more important that we maintain this machine's gaming performance, compelling us to stick with the higher-end Radeon HD 6870.

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$600 Gaming PC System Components
CPUIntel Core i5-2400$190
CPU CoolerIntel Boxed Heat Sink and Fan$0
MotherboardMSI PH61A-P35$70
RAMWintec AMPO 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR3-1333 3AMD31333-4G2K-NHR$25
GraphicsSapphire 100314-3L Radeon HD 6870 1 GB$180
Hard DriveSeagate Barracuda ST3500413AS 500 GB SATA 6Gb/s$50
CaseXigmatek Asgard II B/B CPC-T45UC-U01$30
PowerAntec EarthWatts Green EA430D 430 W$45
OpticalSamsung 22x DVD Burner SATA Model SH-222AB$17
Total PriceRow 10 - Cell 1 $607

The table above doesn't reflect a $10 promo code on the graphics card, bringing the actual system just under our budget at $597, although shipping charges would add nine of those dollars back onto the cost. A $20 mail-in rebate from Sapphire was (and still is) available for those disciplined enough to pursue such offers. We don't count it here, though.

Unfortunately, we can not predict future pricing when components are ordered a month ahead of time; all we can do is shop as you would for the best prices on that given day. Some fluctuation is inevitable by the time the systems are built, tested, and written about. Usually, the discrepancies are quite small and can be overcome by a parallel substitution or two in hardware. This month was an exaggeration of the norm though, as disastrous flooding in Thailand kicked off the spike we’ve seen in hard drive prices. This same drive recently peaked at $115, dropping over a few days to $90. The other components are also bouncing around on a daily basis, leaving the total system between $645-700, depending on when you look. This is worth mentioning, because the increase is significant.

  • Probably the best bang for buck build compared to the $2400 and $1200 PC. I remember seeing Anandtech using the A8 series with integrated gpu for their $500/600 build. This looks much better for gaming.
  • compton
    The 2500K is really worth the extra cash over the 2400, but only if you purchase a Z68 or P67. For gaming, you might be better off with an i3 and putting the remainder towards a faster GPU as suggested in the conclusion.

    For the price, the 2500K + a P67 or Z68 is unbeatable and certainly worth breaking the budget over. But for SBM, I can see why going the 2400 plus H61 route makes sense.

    Personally, I would have preferred to see a cheaper motherboard and CPU config with an SSD (instead of the mechanical storage). It wouldn't have scored as well, but I can't get by without an SSD as easily as I could a slower processor.

    I wanted the $500 build to get bumped up to $600, but that was to add a SSD so that each SBM machine could have some solid state action.
  • slicedtoad
    i might be missing something but on the just cause 2 chart:
    Enabling 8xAA at the highest detail levels pushes our graphics hardware, and this quarter's machine is unable to beat the former rig running at 3.8 GHz, even at our lowest resolution.
    The chart seems to indicate that the current machine did beat the former... though perhaps not by alot.
  • nice all around build
  • joytech22
    I was waiting for this to come out. :)
  • slicedtoad
    Stepping down to a more affordable Sandy Bridge-based Pentium or Core i3-2100 would facilitate a GeForce GTX 560 Ti or Radeon HD 6950 at the same budget level.
    So would a 6950 + i3 give better performance in games @ 1080x1920 than this build?
  • hmp_goose
    Would a duel-core Celeron hurt gaming that much?
  • lancelot123
    I must be lucky that I can get 2500K for $180 around here. Cheaper than the 2400 they have in this.
  • mortsmi7
    I wonder how this compares to the $1200 fail rig?
  • doron
    in order to win, the December PC needs to make up for mark-ups on the hard drive and video card, as well as the additional cost of a more feature-rich motherboard.

    Definitely a kick-ass machine, but imo this line is simply wrong and misleading.
    If you factor out today's and September's cpu and motherboard, the difference between the rest of the parts is a mere 8$. Furthermore, with only 2 dimms and no overclocking capability whatsoever I really can't see how you can call this MSI board a more "feature-rich" than September's ASRock.

    The way I see it, today's and September's machines are in two different price segments, and at this low budget, pouring an extra ~90$ can actually give you a lot. For example, given today's system, if we take out the cpu, motherboard and gpu, we will be able to fit inside a Phenom II x4 960T (125$), some 60$-70$ motheboard, an hd6950 1gb gpu, and probably still have room for a 20$ HSF. Talk about value.

    I'm not trying to defend amd here or anything, It's just that a lot of times people come to me asking for advice on what computer to get, and I can fairly confidently say that when someone wants a 4 core sandy bridge at this budget, I'll say to him that I won't help and tell him to go find a deal somewhere because in my eyes, getting a cpu that's 1/3 of your budget only to be able to get an extra minute or two in every benchmark or getting high fps in low resolutions, is too much of a compromise in every other component.