System Roundup: What Do You Get?
Building a system can be a complex process, especially if it's one of your first. That's why Thomas Soderstrom recently updated his classic How To Build A PC guide.
Doing it yourself isn't just about picking components and slapping them together. You can narrow down the processor interface you want to use. Then you have to pick the right complementary chipset. From there, it's all about comparing motherboards based on that platform and deciding which features are most important. The choices go on and on and on. And it's not just motherboards affected, either. Graphics cards, memory, and power supplies; they can all be found with similar specs and a handful of slight differentiators that require a fair bit of research.
In an ideal world, where system builders always had their customers' best interests in mind (rather than the highest-margin parts), pre-configured setups would include smartly-picked combinations of hardware, taking the guesswork out of the construction process.
We only managed to find five different systems available under that sensitive $500 price point. Bear in mind that this was during an online shopping trip to Best Buy, too. We're not saying there isn't more selection out there, but our goal was to pull systems off the shelf in order to get a real buying experience.
|Header Cell - Column 0||Compaq CQ5700Y||Dell i560-565NBK||eMachines EL1352-23e||eMachines EL1850-01e||HP s5704y|
|Processor||2.0 GHz Athlon II 170||3.2 GHz Pentium E5800||2.2 GHz Celeron 450||3.1 GHz Athlon II X2 255||3.0 GHz Athlon II X2 250|
|Graphics||Radeon HD 3000||GMA X4500HD||GMA X4500HD||nForce 6150SE||Radeon HD 3000|
|Optical Drive||12x DVD+R DVD Burner||8x DVD+R DVD Burner||8x DVD+R DVD Burner||8x DVD+R DVD Burner||12x DVD+R DVD Burner|
|Hard Drive||500 GB 7200 RPM||500 GB 7200 RPM||500 GB 7200 RPM||500 GB 7200 RPM||500 GB 7200 RPM|
|Memory||1 x 2 GB DDR3-1333||1 x 1 GB DDR3-13331 x 2 GB DDR3-1333||2 x 1 GB DDR3-1333||2 x 2 GB DDR3-1333||1 x 1 GB DDR3-1333 1 x 2 GB DDR3-1333|
|OS||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit||Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit|
|PSU||250 W||300 W||220 W||220 W||220 W|
|USB||6||6||7||Row 9 - Cell 4||6|
The most obvious deficiency in those systems is graphics performance. Meanwhile, Paul managed to work in a Radeon HD 6850 into his System Builder Marathon setup.
Unfortunately, within this price range, you’re only going to find integrated graphics on the built-up machines. If you want to turn a brand name system into a cheap gaming PC, you need to plan for a graphics card upgrade. Five-hundred dollars doesn't go very far, but if you cap the rest of your system purchase to about $425, you should have enough to buy a Radeon HD 6670.
Since we ordered these systems online, we didn’t realize that the eMachines and HP desktops were microATX until after we picked them up. Online artwork isn't the best representation of scale, so it’s an unavoidable variable in our story. Fortunately, form factor alone doesn't prevent us from adding a graphics upgrade. The real problem is when top-tier manufacturers try to get fancy with their case designs. Even when we removed the brackets on AMD's Radeon HD 6670 so that we could use it in a half-height configuration, we couldn’t get the graphics card to fit in the microATX systems due to a lack of fan clearance.
While Compaq's CQ5700Y is a full ATX system, it can't take an add-in graphics card because it lacks a PCIe x16 slot entirely. It does offer two PCIe x1 slots, but that's of little consolation to anyone looking for better gaming performance.
Right off the bat, Dell's offering is the only one we're able to upgrade. But even then our prospects aren't very promising. The $399 Dell i560 leaves you about $100 for a graphics card, and since the i560 uses a 300 W PSU that lacks auxiliary PCI Express power connectors, your choices narrow down to only a handful of entry-level cards unless you're also willing to buy a new power supply.