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

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:

$1,250 Mid-Range System Components
ComponentModel Price (USD)
Intel Core i7 920$300
CPU Cooler
Bundled retail CPU cooler0
Crucial PC3-8500 CT3KIT12864BA1067 triple-channel memory kit$79
Sapphire Radeon 4850 X2 2 GB$330
Hard Drives
Western Digital Caviar black 640GD 32 MB cache$85
Integrated Gigabit Networking0
Cooler Master Centurion 534$50
Corsair 650TX$100
LG 20X DVD±R DVD Burner SATA Model GH20NS15$23
Total Price


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.

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  • 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
  • I read this and I suddenly start to cry ... you may have read before that figures in Euros are equal to figures in Dollars ... but things got worse and worse.

    The current prices in an average shop in Spain:

    Intel Core i7 920 : 293 EUR = 413 USD
    GIGABYTE GA-EX58-DS4 : 219 EUR = 308 USD
    Sapphire Radeon 4850 X2 2 GB : 349 EUR = 492 USD
    6 GB Patriot DDR3-1333 CL7 Kit : 259 EUR = 365 USD
  • kelfen
    spain lol
  • Pei-chen
    And yes, please include a GTA 4 benchmark. I got more FPS from overclock my C2D 700MHz than overclock my 9800GT 100Mhz.
  • bvbellomo
    The Q9550 would be interesting because it would show how much gain is from the change from Dual to Quad core and how much is gain from the new i7 architecture. This comparison is very relevant to everyone buying/building a new quad core system right now, especially around this price range.

    What I would really like to see is the new i7s on the CPU charts.
  • cah027
    I think it would have been cool if you would have used two 512mb 4870's in crossfire instead of the 4850 X2. I think there would have been a different trade off in memory amount but I think the added speed of the i7 might have offset it nicely.
  • I guess core i7 is strictly suited for high end systems ($2000+), where the added costs of memory, mobo and cpu are justified. for low to mid range systems it is too much to bare.
  • trabello
    In the next SBM we should watch the brand new GTX 295, keep it in mind, folks ;)
  • jerreece
    I'm kind of surprised that you folks chose a new i7 for a "Mid Level" system.

    You've upgraded the processor, but downgraded the video cards from last month.

    "Not really. The i7/4850 X2 still performs at about 80% of the level that the E8500/4870 X2 is managing to achieve."

    Of course this new system performs less than the November one.
  • Roland00
    I understand you keep Vista 32 to make it easier to compare to the previous systems, but in reality you should really upgrade to vista 64.

    You have a total of 3.5 gigs of memory to play with in vista 32. Since you only put in a graphic card with 2gigs of video memory that leaves 1.5 gigs of memory for normal applications and the OS. Anybody that reads these system builder marathons are going to put vista 64 on their computer if they are going to use vista.
  • terr281
    Your chart regarding the base and overclock settings of the Dec. pc on page 7 is inaccurate. (Ram and Graphics card.)
  • Gascogne
    A test with Q9550 vs I7 920 at similiar clockspeed and same graphiccard would be very intresting.
  • Gascogne
    A test with Q9550 vs i7 920 with similiar clockspeed and same graphiccard would be very intresting. =)
  • DXRick
    If anyone wants to compare the Q9550 to the i7 920, all they have to do is look at THG's latest CPU charts.

  • coopchennick
    Somebody mentioned keeping the Q9550 at a similar clock speed to this i7 (~3.8). If you guys decide to use the Q9550 next month, I say kick the speeds up as high as you can since after all the point of these articles is to find the best bang for the buck, not how the processors stack up at similar clock speeds. If the Q9550 has some extra performance in there, let it out! I want to see the best my money can buy.