System Builder Marathon, Sept. 2011: $500 Gaming PC


Our C3 revision Phenom II already has a high 1.4 V voltage ID, and, once again, the M3A77DE overvolts a bit beyond that figure. CPU-Z reports 1.416 V at idle and 1.448 V under load. The resulting core temperatures (under load) already push our comfort zone at 58 degrees Celsius. At that temperature, the CPU fan is disturbingly loud, buzzing along north of 6000 RPM.

The procedure for overclocking included dropping the voltage, raising the CPU multiplier a half step at a time, testing for stability, and keeping an eye on core temperatures. We found the best combination of stability, frequency, and heat at 1.3375 V in the BIOS, resulting in 1.352 V at idle and 1.384 V under load.

Here, our Phenom II did better than we anticipated, reaching 3.8 GHz, even as load temperatures dropped 1-2 degrees compared to the stock settings.

The memory was unwilling to overclock, failing at 1.65 V to reach 1600 MT/s at CAS 10 timings. In fact, we lost stability pushing beyond 1400 MT/s at CAS 9 timings, severely limiting the tweaking we could do by combining multiplier and reference clock overclocking. Instead, the CPU-NB frequency was bumped up a bit to 2200 MHz, and memory timings reduced to 8-8-8-22 1T.

The Sapphire Radeon HD 6870 had a decent amount of headroom, topping out at 965 MHz for the GPU, while the memory clocks were stable through our maximum tested 1200 MHz (4800 MT/s). We backed these down a bit and ran our second set of data with the core at 960 MHz and 1180 MHz (4720 MT/s) memory.

Before heading into our gaming benchmarks, we’ll take a look at the test system and benchmark configurations. Bear in mind that this quarter's system benefits from a more powerful graphics card and utilizes newer Catalyst graphics drivers, while the prior system's CPU was not overclocked at all.

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  • alchemy69
    Time to bring on the usual motley crew of fanboys and everyone who just knows that they could do better.
  • Ugly case! I know I am stating the obvious, but seriously...
  • Outlander_04
    The i3 2100 is a remarkable cpu , but it just cant beat 4 physical cores and a bit of overclocking .
  • slicedtoad
    very nice article, i was wondering how the 955 oced would do against the i3.

    While there are many unthinkable things in this build, the low price of $500 is also unthinkable. That's less than an ipad....
  • Why have the charts reduced to an unreadable size for this article?
  • Zero_
    Nice. Finally someone who knows how to get value for money. I approve :P
  • zooted
    This is my favorite build this sbm. I just love the fact that you can have a true 1080p gaming experience for $500 bucks.
  • mayankleoboy1
    whats with the fuzzy and unreadable charts?
  • bobfrys
    This is a tad bit better then the one I built off of the earlier build i used from toms. (Built it soon after school ended).
  • lunyone
    This is probably the ONLY $500 build (except for the very 1st one) that I've agreed on mostly (not liking the case too much, but it works in this budget).

    The last $500 build just was crap generally (micro-ATX and not many options on the mobo, IMHO).

    This budget gaming rig is really close to what I'd build for a friend/family member that wanted to have a gaming rig. I'd change a few things, of coarse, but the overall direction (and selection of parts) is SPOT ON, IMHO!! Good job guys at TH!!!
  • hmp_goose
    What's that? The Surprise Fourth Build will not be the $2k version? Someone's going to poke around in the grey area between the i3-2100 and the i5-2500? How much extra cash will be allowed?

    Why do posts like this "sound" like the something from the '60s Batman TV show?

    Tune in tomorrow! :-P
  • Tijok
    First off, great build, the balance of parts is great, and almost exactly what I would recommend to someone in this budget area.

    But seriously, what is going on with the small/ low res charts?
  • _Pez_
    This Rig Rocks ! I would only change the case :) maybe a cooler master storm.
  • Rizlla
    The first of this months builds that are great and you can see there is a budget that was thought of.
  • Outlander_04
    Its a good $500 build .except it cost $520 and the motherboard is a dead end part .
    For another $30 you can include an AM3+ board with the latest 970 series chip set that is fully compatible with Bulldozer.
    As it is this build is a dead end , and its out of date in 3 weeks

    But its still a better computer than the previous intel build
  • Proximon
    It was a good comparison, and the right build to do, because we got an honest look at the differences and advantages to each platform.
    That said, I would have to say that it's not the right $500 system for most gamers. The P II X2 555BE would perhaps let you get a better board, making it a smarter buy at $520, and of course some excellent Rosewill combo deals (that are always on) would help out with the case and PSU.
  • cobra5000
    Nice to see the 955 finally get to stick it to the i-3. That and the old boy is what, two years old? Way to go AMD! Its a shame Tom's could'nt point that out. Not really surprising though, with the tiny charts hiding how the 955, DOMINATED, the i-3 at high resolution.
  • cmcghee358
    Nicely done. I can atest to the volume of that freaking stock fan too. I had mine up to 7000 RPM on my HTPC. I HAD to replace it, it sounded like an old ventalation fan in a bathroom
  • Martell77
    @Cobra5000 - Are you really that happy that a stock SB I3 is beaten by a P-II x4 OC'd just past the AMD X4 top end proc? Ya, its 2 years old but the I3 isn't exactly a high end part. If the P-II had kept up or beaten a I5, then you should be cheering. I think you meant "the tiny charts hiding how the 6780, DOMINATED, the 6850 at high resolutions." The wins the 955 got were in productivity apps due to its 4 physical cores.

    I'm hoping that bulldozer will finally give Intel something to worry about. Some pricing wars would be really nice. But I'm not holding my breath.

    I think it would be interesting if they changed the video card to a 6850 and show how much the processor change actually made a difference.
  • cypeq
    mayankleoboy1whats with the fuzzy and unreadable charts?

    Toms is saving up bandwidth by annoying readers.
  • lunyone
    Are you really that happy that a stock SB I3 is beaten by a P-II x4 OC'd just past the AMD X4 top end proc? Ya, its 2 years old but the I3 isn't exactly a high end part. If the P-II had kept up or beaten a I5, then you should be cheering. I think you meant "the tiny charts hiding how the 6780, DOMINATED, the 6850 at high resolutions." The wins the 955 got were in productivity apps due to its 4 physical cores.

    I think the overall options that the AMD build for the $ is a much better build. Yes the PII x4 is older and doesn't dominate that much, but it's a smarter build for the $, IMHO. Yes the mobo is dated too, but it has much better options than the Intel based build last time. The 6870 does make a difference overall for gaming, so that should be no surprise. This is the main reason for going with a more economical and budget friendly AMD based build. The whole point of sticking to the budget (which this build went over the limit by $20) is what this build is about. I would GLADLY recommend the $20 more for a better GPU, than to give a customer a slightly gimped mobo (as the Intel build had). I don't know if it's just me, but this build is in line with what I think most people would build for a $500 build price (minus any OS prices/issues). I would probably get a AM3+ based mobo for possible upgrades later, but it all depends on the customer that would be getting this build.
  • koogco
    Ever since core 2 duo, AMD has only been able to compete on gang for the buck rather than raw performance, but they have been doing so quite well.
    And this is another example of that. It is a bit sad about the upgradeability going forwards however, I tend to prioritize a motherboard that will fit a much better CPU than what i am getting, that way one can easily upgrade CPU and GPU as appropriate.
    But this is a good build overall, definatly worth a think by anyone that is buying a system in this pricerange.
  • DSpider
    ~20% performance increase (overclocked) for close to double the power... Lets not forget that the CPU was released back in 2009.
  • JustPlainJef
    Jumping back up to the old $625 pricing point would allow us to explore many new performance options and features, though. We certainly appreciate reader feedback concerning this current build, and would value input in what direction you’d like us to take next time around.

    Personally, I'd really like to see multiple builds around a price point. I understand the budget, but if I can get 50% more performance out of another 25% on the cost, it's a worthy investment.

    What about having three people on staff pick different builds that all cost within $100 or $150 of each other. Comparing a $500 build to a $2000 build isn't very helpful. Three builds between $500 and $625 would be more helpful. Then, maybe 3 builds in the neighborhood of $1000, and three builds around $2000.

    Finally, I’d like to somehow factor in the longevity of these builds. How will the $500 build compare to the $1000 build in a year. Is it better to buy a new $500 PC every year, or get two years out of the $1000 PC? Maybe it’s best to dump $2000 into a new rig every 4 years!