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


This month's SBM was a lot of fun, as I was very interested in seeing how a $1,200 Core 2 Duo system would stand against a similarly priced Core i7 system. The lower price of the Core 2 Duo system allowed us to be able to afford the most powerful video card available, while the Core i7 system had to settle for second best.

Before going into specifics, let's look at an average performance summary:

From this chart you'd assume it was a clean sweep for the Core i7, wouldn't you? But the numbers are a bit misleading as the gaming benchmarks contain the Unreal Tournament 3 results, which skew extremely high in favor of the Core i7. In reality, the E8500 and 4870 X2 combo were much more compelling components for a gaming machine, because they afforded very playable frame rates in UT3, but held the lead in all of the real difficult titles (Crysis and Supreme Commander to be specific). A difference of 10 FPS is significant when your frame rates are as low as 20 or 30 FPS, and that's where the 4870 X2 delivered.

For productivity software like encoding, rendering, and general use applications, the Core i7 was the obvious winner. Why? Because it either lost to the E8500 by a small margin or beat it by leaps and bounds. The i7 920 also really strutted its stuff in some of the benchmarks.

But once again, are we being mislead by the numbers? It seems likely that the cases where the Core i7 920 really pull ahead are greatly affected by the software's ability to take advantage of quad-core architecture. We have to wonder how the i7 920 would fare against the Core 2 Quad Q9550, which has a slightly higher stock speed. It costs $20 or more, but the motherboard could be much cheaper. Maybe we'll select this CPU in our next SBM for comparative purposes. Let us know your feedback in the comments section below.

In any case, our conclusion is that the i7 920 is a great CPU to build a PC around, and that serious gamers who have to choose one or the other should favor putting money into the video card instead of the CPU and settle on the cheap-but-fast E8500 to run their rig.

Ideally, if you could have your cake and eat it too, a Core i7 920 paired with a Radeon 4870 X2 would make a formidable system indeed.

  • Hellcatm
    Personally I'd get a cheaper processor and motherboard and go with a Gforce 280 video card. You can get a $180 processor and a $145 motherboard and the 280 card has PhysX built in which is really nice.
  • enewmen
    I will hope to see how a high-clocked q9550/q9650 E0 will compare with a i7 920. The Motherboard and RAM will be cheaper. So, you can also get more RAM and faster RAM with the q9550 than the i7 920 with the same cash. Or the high-bandwidth/ lower total memory DDR3 tri-channel might actually do better?
    I don't think a i7 920 /w 3 gigs RAM will work as quickly as a q9550 @ 4.0Ghz with a 470mhz fsb and 4+ gigs RAM -even with quad-core supported apps.
    Anyway, I think the outcome will be hard to predict.
  • one-shot
    I think the Q9550/i7 920 comparison would be very informative. I have been considering purchasing a Q9950 in the near future. Let's see it happen.
  • chriscusano
    I agree with I'd agree with trying to run a comparison with the Q9550. Throwing in an nvidia card would also prove interesting.
  • pcgamer12
    Very good article. I just want to say that the Crucial 3GB triple-channel DDR3 1066 kit costs only $73.99; its price surprised me. Go Crucial! I'm definitely looking into a Crucial memory kit for my next upgrade or build, which might or might not be Core i7, depending how the price wars progress between nVidia and ATI (saying AMD still feels wierd to me when referring to video cards). I noticed how the budget had to "settle" for a 4850 X2 when they Core 2 Duo build had money for a 4870 X2. Hopefully, prices will go down faster, and soon.
  • Pei-chen
    Page 2 - E8500 has 6MB L2 cache, not 4MB.
  • Yes, please try the next system with the Q9550! I would love to see how this processor compares again the new kid on the block. Of course this is the processor I have and also want to see what you get out of it. It would be nice if you chose another Gigabyte board as well to get a more apples to apples comparison with this month's build.
  • Huttfuzz
    Yes we want to see Q9550 against Core i7 920. Both overclocked at the same speed. Let's say 3.8 or something like that.
  • JeanLuc
    Good article, well done. At first I was a bit worried for the Core i7 was going to get humiliated against the higher clocked E8500 but you summary shows just how much progress has been made with developing software that can take advantage of multiple cores.

    The Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance benchmark was surprising out of all the games you tested I expected that game to be the one which showed off what quad cores can do for games. Perhaps you could add in GTA IV into your future benchmarks as that games seems to love quad cores?

    The temps were a little worrying but the Intel Stock cooler isn’t designed with overclocking in mind and you can pretty much guarantee a decent 3rd party cooler will slash those temps by a third.

    One last thing it might be an idea to compare your very first mid range build to your current mid range build, it would give the readers an idea as to how much more bang for buck we get now days.
  • kelfen
    well 4850x2 there is only two in newegg 2gb and 1gb which not sure if ATI rly supported as far as drivers compared to its bigger brother