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System Builder Marathon, August 2012: $500 Gaming PC

Serious Gaming, On The Cheap

System Builder Marathon, August 2012: The Articles

Here are links to each of the five articles in this quarter’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 SurveyGizmo form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $500 Gaming PC
Day 2: The $1000 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $2000 Performance PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected
Day 5: The Surprise $2000 Alternative Build


Last quarter, I was faced with a $150 budget cut. And yet, I made an all-out attempt to maintain the same playable game performance at 1920x1080 as our previous efforts.

So, for a goal requiring as much 3D might as possible, a rather entry-level $290 general computing machine was outfitted with disproportionately massive graphics hardware.

We're well aware of how important a balanced platform is to gaming performance. It goes without saying that our experimental use of a $50 dual-core processor locked at 2.4 GHz shows how much respect we have for Intel’s Sandy Bridge architecture.

It might have surprised many of you, but last quarter's machine delivered playable performance in every single combination of settings through our four-game test suite, including Battlefield 3’s demanding Ultra quality preset.

However, we couldn't recommend that configuration without clear caveats about its limitations. As we expected, the benchmark results recorded from threaded productivity and content creation applications were abysmal for a modern PC. But the real deal-breaker was a platform bottleneck that surfaced in older game titles, such as Just Cause 2, Crysis, and Metro 2033.

With no path available to overclock our Celeron, we knew it wouldn't be long before we'd need to upgrade this machine's processor or dial-down the quality settings in CPU-intensive games. We were impressed with the Celeron G530's price point, but ended up disappointed by the chip's long-term viability.

$500 Gaming PC System Components
CPUIntel Pentium G860 (Sandy Bridge), 3 GHz, Dual-Core, 65 W$90
CPU CoolerIntel Boxed Heat Sink And Fan0
MotherboardGigabyte GA-B75M-D3V, Intel B75 Express, LGA 1155$70
RAMG.Skill NS 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR3-1333 F3-10600CL9D-4GBNS Memory Kit$24
GraphicsMSI N560GTX-M2D1GD5 GeForce GTX 560$170
Hard DriveWestern Digital WD5000AAKX 500 GB SATA 6Gb/s$65
CaseRosewill R218-P-BK ATX Mid-Tower$30
PowerAntec VP-450 450 W$38
OpticalSamsung 22x DVD Burner Model SH-222BB/BEBE-OEM$14
Total Price$501

Obviously, this quarter we wanted to try shifting funding away from the graphics subsystem in order to improve the machine's general alacrity in desktop applications. We wanted this to remain a pure gaming rig, though, so we looked to the Radeon HD 6870 or GeForce GTX 560 for ample graphics performance. Both boards started at $170, representing a $40 cut from the previous GPU budget.

Picking supporting components, such as a case, storage, and a trustworthy power supply, helped determine just how much money was left over for the platform's true guts. Everything came together nicely at the end of the day. A 10-20% price increase for basic 4 GB memory kits was offset by the most affordable DVD burner we’ve used to date. Best of all, perhaps, was an opportunity to increase storage capacity to 500 GB for $10 less than our previous 320 GB drive. At this point, we've trimmed off $50 to put towards this quarter's motherboard and processor.

A desire to buy the fastest gaming-oriented processor within reach again drew us to Intel's dual-core Sandy Bridge-based offerings. Specifically, we set our sights on the Pentium G8xx family, featuring respectable clock rates and DDR3-1333 memory support. At 3 GHz, the Pentium G860 proved to be the sweet spot in a trio of 100 MHz speed bumps, priced just a couple bucks above the G850, but $10 less than the G870.

Remaining funds were then used to grab an affordable 7-series LGA 1155-based motherboard. Its in-cart price rose $5 on order day, putting us just over budget. However, we've seen other prices adjust since then, too.