System Builder Marathon, Sept. 2010: $400 Gaming PC


Your view of the $400 PC will likely be shaped by performance expectations, as well as budget interpretations. We certainly didn’t need to spend the entire $400 budget, so if you only really want an entry-level machine, the $75 triple-core AMD Athlon II processor, $35 Rosewill Blackbone case, and $89 Radeon HD 5670 graphics may seem a bit extravagant.

We call this build our “Gaming PC.” So, if this was really the case, and this box was built to maximize frame rates (or at least to handle the lowest resolution and settings of the official SBM gaming suite), then the machine might look like a failure sporting anything less than Radeon HD 4850-level graphics. And if you believe this budget build must win our friendly competition, using its low-price advantage to embarrass the big boys in terms of value, then a mildly overclocked Radeon HD 5670 must certainly seem to be a poor option versus a similarly-priced GeForce 9800 GT. If, instead of maximizing gaming, better all-around performance was the goal, shouldn’t the machine included 4 GB of system RAM? Sure. But then again, this is an expensive luxury, and it's tough to justify 25% of our budget on just memory.

On a slightly different note, if you’re new to Tom's Hardware's SBM series altogether, you may just be wondering, "Uh, where are the display, peripherals, and operating system?" All kidding aside, we’ve touched on some major disadvantages shouldered by this quarter's budget PC. So in what areas exactly did this little box actually excel?

First, when we decided on an absolute $400 limit for our components, the machine did come in a few pennies under four-large, at the same time sporting the most powerful processor our budget SBM build has ever contained. Stock A/V transcoding and productivity performance also raised the bar beyond any of the scores we've previously generated.

This is a System Builder Marathon. If anything, overclocked performance is even more important. Here, an attractively-priced motherboard from ASRock allowed us to unlock a dormant processing core. That, coupled with modest CPU, northbridge, and memory overclocking, helped generate performance numbers second only to the “unlocked” 3.6 GHz $750 PC from March of this year. Of course, unlocking is hit or miss. If we weren't as lucky, the resulting temperature-limited 3.4 GHz triple-core chip would not have delivered the same victories.

As demonstrated in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, this machine is even capable of hammering out high-detail graphics at 1080p in many popular titles. Dare we say, “Take that, consoles?” Being that we're part of a technology enthusiast crowd, we are a bit spoiled from exposure to cutting-edge hardware. Although it boasts closer to Home Theater PC-class vitals, this Radeon HD 5670-based box would still be quite an upgrade for many PC gamers.

Now, our overall impressions. This system was a pleasure to build, and it was absolutely stable during our time with it. Fit and finish weren’t compromised by an ugly, flimsy case, nor was reliability sacrificed by flaky power supply. There is room for improvement in the graphics department, memory capacity, overall power supply quality, and storage. Nevertheless, we hope you enjoyed seeing what our June 2010 $400 Gaming PC could do. It's a machine we’re proud to give away, tarnished only by the name given to it, smacked around a bit by a demanding 3D test suite.

  • SpadeM
    Given the motherboard’s basic passive cooling measures, though, there was really no point in putting more time into lowering the CPU multiplier, pushing a high reference clock, and attempting to maximize northbridge and memory frequencies.

    +1 for making this statement, glad someone considered it at least. All in all decent build for the money.
  • AMW1011
    I'll be honest, I think a $450 budget is a little more reasonable than a $400 budget. At that price a 5750 or even a 5770 can be had, which would have worked fine with all of the other parts and likely would have matched the $550 June build.

    Even this $400 build packs a punch, you can get one HELL of a rig for the money any more. It really is insane, and that's not even considering the used or refurb market!

    Awesome article, probably one of my favorite SBM, atleast the best I've seen in a long time.
  • micr0be
    very nice build, interesting to see how much performance can be squeezed out of the budget. i was expecting worse results.
  • nevertell
    Conclusion ?

    150$ buys you a lot better gaming capabilities, and nothing else.
  • Gamer-girl
    It went $1 over-budget if we substituted in a GeForce 9800 GT.

    I doubt someone spending $400 can't afford to add an extra dollar. although i realize that the point in these articles is to stay under the budget, it would have been interesting to see the price/perforamce difference.
  • haplo602
    nice case, looks very good ... pity that rosewill does not have a downloadable manual for it ...
  • HibyPrime
    I'd be interested to know how much more overclocking headroom you could pull out of it if you left it at 3 cores - and would that net you more performance in most of the benchmarks?

    I'd bet if you could pull ~200 mhz more out of it, it would begin to match up with the missing core, and maybe start to pull away around 400mhz.
  • Proximon
    The Cooler Master Elite 460 is a falsely labeled piece of crap. You can find the review (with proper testing) here:

    You'll have to spend a little bit more there. Rosewill has a 430W (RG430 S12) unit or the Antec Neo 400W is almost the same price as the CM after a discount and rebate.
  • Proximon
    Clicked once but got a double post somehow.
  • What do the best price/performance we can have?