System Builder Marathon: Low-Cost System

Test System & Benchmarks

Although we've just had a detailed analysis of the components we chose, let's scrutinize them one last time before moving on:

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SBM Low-Cost PC System Hardware
ProcessorAMD Phenom 9500, 2.2 GHz, 1800 FSB, 2 MB Cache
MotherboardGigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H, BIOS F3 (03/03/2008)
RAMWintec Ampo PC2-6400, 2x 1024 MB, CAS 5.0-5-5-16
Hard DriveWestern Digital Caviar WD5000AAJS500 GB, 7200 RPM, 8 MB Cache, SATA 300
NetworkingIntegrated Realtek RTL8111C - Gigabit Ethernet
Graphics CardsHIS ICE-Q Turbo Radeon 3870, 1000 MB RAM850 MHz GPU, 2.38 GHz RAM Data Rate
Power SupplyNZXT PP600W (600W, ATX12V)
System Software & Drivers
OSWindows Vista Ultimate 6.0.6000 (Vista Retail)
DirectX VersionDirectX 10.0
Platform DriverAMD Chipset Driver 8.432rc2
Graphics DriverAti CATALYST 8.3

We experienced a few peculiarities when putting the low-cost system together. Nothing earth shattering, but we'd like to share them with you.

First, Windows Vista installed, but the system entered an infinite loop on the first boot, with Vista displaying the crawling loading bar at the bottom of the screen. This problem disappeared when we set the SATA boot drive to IDE mode.

Second, we weren't interested in lowered performance, so we turned off the 'Phenom TLB Erratum patch' in the BIOS. For those of you who don't know, AMD's first batch of Phenom processors have a bug that, in extremely rare conditions, can manifest itself in a crash. This bug is called the 'Phenom TLB Erratum', and has been fixed with a patch in the BIOS of most Phenom motherboards. Unfortunately, since the patch shuts off the Phenom's important L2 cache it results in a notable performance drop.

On some boards - like our Gigabyte MA78GM - this patch can easily be turned off in the BIOS, allowing the Phenom to work at its full potential, which is what we did. Those of you who find this disturbing should know that the Phenom's TLB erratum is so rare that we've never seen it manifest itself in testing, and the system never crashed once while we subjected it to our punishing benchmark suite.

The closest thing we found to a problem that with the system was that when AMD's Cool & Quiet technology was enabled in the BIOS, it didn't seem to work properly. Cool & Quiet is supposed to lower CPU clock speeds when the system is idle to reduce power consumption and heat output, which is great, but after a great deal of testing we realized that Cool & Quiet was not ramping CPU speed properly under load. In some cases we ran encoding benchmarks and noticed that the CPU was running at half the advertised 2.2 GHz speed under load! The fix for this was to simply shut off the 'Cool & Quiet' feature in the BIOS, which resulted in over 30% faster performance in most of the benchmarks we had already taken.

Below are the test settings we've used for our myriad benchmarks and tests. We have completely revamped our test suite this time, so unfortunately we won't be comparing results with the previous builds until the next system builder marathon. However, all of the systems in this marathon will be using the same benches and settings so we can compare the results between PCs later in the week:

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Benchmarks and Settings
CrysisVersion: 1.1Video Quality 1: High Details No Anti-AliasingVideo Quality 2: Very High Details, 4x Anti-AliasingBenchmark: Benchmark_CPU.bat
PreyVersion: 1.3Video Quality 1: Default (No AA, 8x AF)Video Quality 2: High Quality, 4x AABenchmark: THG-Demo
Supreme CommanderVersion: 3.220Video Quality 1: DefaultVideo Quality 2: High Fidelity, High Shadow, 4x AABenchmark: Real 60 Game
Unreal Tournament 3Version: RetailTexture Detail: 5World Detail: 5Field of View: 100Benchmark: Botmatch (WAR-Torlan, 12 bots, 1 Minute)
Warhammer Mark of ChaosVersion: 1.6Video Quality:Default (Highest Settings)Demo: THG Timedemo (1 Minute)
iTunes 7.2Version: CD "Terminator II SE", 53 minHigh Quality (160kb/s)
Lame MP3Version: 3.98 Beta 3 (05-22-2007)Audio CD "Terminator II SE", 53 minwave to MP3160kb/s
TMPEGEnc 4.0 XpressVersion: File: Terminator 2 SE DVD (2 Minutes)Resolution: 720x576 (PAL) 16:9Audio: Dolby Digital, 48000 Hz, 6-Channel, EnglishAdvanced Acoustic Engine MP3 Encoder (160kb/s)
DivX 6.6Version: 6.6.1Profile: Home Theater Profile (720 x 576)1-pass, 780 kb/sEncoding mode: Insane QualityEnhanced multithreading
XviD 1.1.2Version: 1.1.2Target quantizer: 1.00 (maximum quality)
Adobe Photoshop CS3Version: 10.0x20070321Filtering 69 MB TIF PhotoBenchmark: Tom's Guide-Benchmark V1.0.0.4
Autodesk 3D Studio MaxVersion: 9.0Rendering One Video FrameQuality: HTDV 1920x1080 & 1280x720
Grisoft AVG Anti-VirusVersion: 7.5.467Virus Base: 269.6.1/776Benchmark: Scanning 3.82 GB Application Folder
Maxon Cinema 4DVersion: 10.008Resolution: 1280 x 1024Benchmark: Rose Drop, 8-bits (50 Frames)
Rarlab WinrarVersion 3.70 BETA 8Compression = BestDictionary = 4096 kBUncompressed Folder Size: 642 MB
SPECviewperf 9Version: 9.0.3
PCMark05 ProVersion: 1.1.0System, CPU and Memory TestsWindows Media Player 11.0.6000.6324Windows Media Encoder
Futuremark 3DMark 2006Version 1.10System Test Only
SiSoftware Sandra XIIVersion 2007.5.11.40CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic, MultimediaMemory Test = Bandwidth Benchmark

Now that we know what settings we've used, let's have a look at the results. These will become even more interesting when we have results from mid- and high-end systems later this week.

  • romulus47plus1
    Paying $230 for a 3870?
    Get the 8800GT for that price!
  • Retrogame
    The $500-$700 system is more important than you realize: it's an extremely important price point in the "Consoles vs. PC wars"

    For about $500, you can buy a top of the line current generation PS3 or XBox 360 with a few accessories.

    Of course, there are always games better on one platform than the other; and naturally, your PC is a lot more versatile; i.e. it's a "REAL COMPUTER!" Even so, it's nice to know that you can actually put together a low cost machine, overclock it a smidgen, and still run this games representative of this year's crop of PC titles... and if you were to actually scale down the graphics settings to the same level that the consoles would be running things at, probably end up with better frame rates and the advantage of using a nice monitor instead of a TV.