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

Meet This Month's Components

System Builder Marathon, December 2008: 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).


Intel's Core i7 (Nehalem) has arrived, but is it really a cost-effective CPU? Most new technology is overpriced on release, but the i7 920 processor looks like it might have a lot of stock and overclocked performance potential. Is the extra expense worth the performance gain?

This is where we’ll find out. In last month’s system builder marathon (SBM), we built a $1,250 enthusiast PC based on the X38 platform using an E8500 CPU and we paired it with AMD’s flagship Radeon 4870 X2 card. For about the same amount of money, we’re going to compare it to an X58 platform using the Core i7 920 CPU paired to a Radeon 4850 X2.

Staying in the same price range wasn’t the easiest thing to do when upgrading to the relatively expensive X58 platform and Core i7 CPU, so how did we do it? Well, the first major compromise was settling for the Radeon HD 4850 X2 instead of the 4870 X2. Other than that, we had to employ the stock-bundled cooler that came with the i7 920 instead of a nice aftermarket job like the Xigmatek HDT-S1283 that we used in last month’s enthusiast PC.

Will these cooling and video card compromises reduce the system’s performance enough so that the X38/E8500/4870 X2 package remains an attractive option? Or will the X58/i7 combo best the older technology and overclock well despite the stock cooler? We’re as interested as you are to find out, but first, let’s look at our chosen components in detail:

Swipe to scroll horizontally
ComponentModelPrice (USD)
CPUIntel Core i7 920$300
CPU CoolerBundled retail CPU cooler0
MotherboardGIGABYTE GA-EX58-DS4$245
RAMCrucial PC3-8500 CT3KIT12864BA1067 triple-channel memory kit$79
GraphicsSapphire Radeon 4850 X2 2 GB$330
Hard DrivesWestern Digital Caviar black 640GD 32 MB cache$85
NetworkIntegrated Gigabit Networking0
CaseCooler Master Centurion 534$50
PowerCorsair 650TX$100
OpticalLG 20X DVD±R DVD Burner SATA Model GH20NS15$23
Total PriceRow 11 - Cell 1 $1,212

Note that updated pricing has now put us below the cost of last month's Core 2 Duo system. If we would have known prices would have fallen so quickly, we would have definitely gotten an aftermarket cooler for the Core i7. On the plus side, this review will give us an opportunity to see how far we can go with the stock cooler.

  • 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