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System Builder Marathon, June 2011: $500 Gaming PC

Entry-Level Sandy Bridge

System Builder Marathon, June 2011: The Articles

Here are links to each of the five 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 Google form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $2000 Performance PC
Day 2: The $1000 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $500 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected
Day 5: Tom's Hand-Picked SuperCombo


In the first quarter of this year, we went a bit over budget on our $500 Gaming PC, squeezing in both a quad-core AMD Phenom II processor and Radeon HD 6850 graphics. The resulting build, which did leave some room for improvements, still packed serious punch for the money we spent.

Additional price drops over the past three months mean we could have taken that same configuration and jumped up to an even more attractive Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition (BE). The 955 BE would have not only given us a nice frequency increase across its four physical cores, but also the flexibility of a fully unlocked CPU multiplier, and even a better cooling solution for overclocking. Of course, overclockability plays heavily into component selection for our System Builder Marathons (SBMs), typically providing the benchmark data set we value the most.

And here's the point where some folks are going to be disappointed, because this lead-up depicts what we need to compete against, and not what we actually built. This month’s $500 gaming rig departs from the norm by centering on a budget-oriented Intel Sandy Bridge-based platform that cannot be overclocked at all, really. It'll either stand or fall based on its out-of-box performance.

ComponentModelPrice (in dollars)
CPUIntel Core i3-2100$125
CPU CoolerIntel boxed heatsink/fan$0
MotherboardASRock H61M-VS$60
RAMCrucial 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR3-1333 CT2KIT25664BA1339$40
GraphicsSapphire 100315L Radeon HD 6850 1 GB$170
Hard DriveSeagate Barracuda ST3500413AS 500 GB, SATA 6Gb/s$40
CaseXigmatek Asgard II B/S CPC-T45UE-U01$30
PowerAntec EarthWatts Green EA380D 380 W$40
OpticalAsus 24X DVD Burner SATA Model DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS$21
Total Price$526

Attempting a Sandy Bridge-based gaming PC was contingent on two self-set stipulations. First, I already broke the bank last round, and had to draw a line somewhere on spending. So, it was imperative to avoid outspending last quarter's PC. Second, an even more demanding suite of 3D titles meant that graphics horsepower couldn't be sacrificed.

The only way to achieve both goals was starting with the cheapest available platform possible, a feature-stripped ASRock H61M-VS microATX motherboard and Core i3-2100 processor. Apart from a couple of insignificant difference, we ended with component prices almost exactly the same as this machine's predecessor. Higher-capacity storage was three dollars cheaper than our previous 320 GB drive, but securing a DVD burner ate up a couple of those bills.

Now, we already know from stories like Don Woligroski’s Who's Got Game? Twelve Sub-$200 CPUs compared that the stock Core i3-2100 is a capable gaming processor. In fact, by avoiding some low-resolution CPU limitations, we should easily be able to set a new bar for the $500 SBM build in terms of frame rates at stock settings. But with 70% of the overall performance evaluation weighted outside of games, will a lack of overclocking become a deal-breaker for this machine, preventing us from reusing Intel's severely-limited entry-level parts in future Marathons?