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

How Low Can You Go?

System Builder Marathon, September 2010: 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). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please check out this Google form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $2,000 Performance PC
Day 2: The $1,000 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $400 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected


Our $550 PC from June struck a balance between tough economic times and one of the latest trends in gaming by stretching our low budget to include a DirectX 11-class Radeon HD 5770 graphics card.

This month, we cap our entry-level build at $400 max to address the lingering question readers continue to ask in the comments section: “How low can you go?”

There are two basic approaches we have to choose between when limited funds are in play. First, we could build a pure gaming box. Or, we could build a more well-rounded system.

More often than not, living up to the gaming requirements of our SBM (System Builder Marathon) 3D test suite forces graphics to be the top priority, leaving processing power a distant second consideration. But rather than trying to excel in just one area, this $400 build will attempt to do all things well, representing the platform balance many readers prefer when building for more than just gaming.

$400 Gaming PC System Components

Swipe to scroll horizontally
ComponentModelPrice (U.S.D.)
CPUAMD Athlon II X3 440$75
CPU CoolerAMD boxed heatsink & fan0
MotherboardASRock M3A770DE$60
RAMCrucial 2 GB (2 x 1 GB) DDR3-1333 (PC3 10600) Model CTKIT12864BA1339$48
GraphicsPowerColor AX5670 512MD5-H Radeon HD 5670$89
Hard DriveWestern Digital Caviar Blue WD2500AAJS 250 GB SATA 3Gb/s$45
CaseRosewill Blackbone$35
PowerCooler Master Elite 460 RS-460-PSAR-J3 460 W$30
OpticalSamsung Black 22x DVD Burner SATA Model SH-S223C$18
Total PriceRow 9 - Cell 1 $400

We set our sights on a standard ATX-based Socket AM3 build sporting either a dual- or triple-core AMD Athlon II processor. Given the fact that two-thirds of our value weighting is based on a well-threaded applications suite, spending an extra $13 on an Athlon II X3 440 was a good decision in constructing a potent little machine. Even if our always-ambitious unlocking efforts failed, we still had three threads to count on.

We do face a few disadvantages compared to the other builders perusing Newegg for deals, though. To begin, we do not capitalize on combo deals, coupon codes, or mail-in rebates. So much planning goes into these Marathons that it'd almost be impossible to count on those deals still being available on publishing day. Plus, we all synchronize our purchases. Just a few days before go-time, our top choice, AMD's Radeon HD 4850, was available for $90. On ordering day, the price had jumped $10 to $100, exceeding the budget. 

Also on the short list was Nvidia's GeForce 9800GT (once known as the 8800 GT). This card was a legend in its day. It delivered solid gaming performance in the October 2008 $500 Gaming PC. It's a little unsettling then, that two years later, this rebadged card has only dropped $20 in price. At around the same cost, sporting a more modern feature set, a drastic cut to power consumption, but also less raw 3D horsepower, is the AMD Radeon HD 5670. We did consider lower-end discrete cards like the GeForce GT 240 and Radeon HD 5570. But with a $400 budget available, the only real reason to step back would be to spend somewhere in the $3xx neighborhood.

A last-minute switch from 320 GB of hard drive space to 250 GB and a small cut to our PSU budget put our system pennies under $400 using the least-expensive Radeon HD 5670. It went $1 over-budget if we substituted in a GeForce 9800 GT. We were also $11 shy of revisiting the Radeon HD 4850.

Cheaper cases, including models with bundled power supplies, were also taken into consideration. All of them represented compromises, though. Rosewill's Blackbone was a genuine step higher than the other options in terms of quality, ventilation, and value. Once again, our direction came down to the gamer route with an Athlon II X2 250 and Radeon HD 4850, or staying focused on overall performance. Leaning the latter route, we then had to decide whether to go over-budget with the GeForce 9800 GT or allow AMD's Radeon HD 5670 to do its best in a very demanding gaming suite.

The choice to use the Radeon HD 5670 of course means that this budget box can be compared, apples-to-apples, with the more expensive rigs, since this month's trio of builds includes DirectX 11-class graphics cards.

  • 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?