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:

SBM Low-Cost PC System Hardware
Processor AMD Phenom 9500, 2.2 GHz, 1800 FSB, 2 MB Cache
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H, BIOS F3 (03/03/2008)
RAM Wintec Ampo PC2-6400, 2x 1024 MB, CAS 5.0-5-5-16
Hard Drive Western Digital Caviar WD5000AAJS
500 GB, 7200 RPM, 8 MB Cache, SATA 300
Networking Integrated Realtek RTL8111C - Gigabit Ethernet
Graphics Cards HIS ICE-Q Turbo Radeon 3870, 1000 MB RAM
850 MHz GPU, 2.38 GHz RAM Data Rate
Power Supply NZXT PP600W (600W, ATX12V)
System Software & Drivers
OS Windows Vista Ultimate 6.0.6000 (Vista Retail)
DirectX Version DirectX 10.0
Platform Driver AMD Chipset Driver 8.432rc2
Graphics Driver Ati 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:

Benchmarks and Settings
Crysis Version: 1.1
Video Quality 1: High Details No Anti-Aliasing
Video Quality 2: Very High Details, 4x Anti-Aliasing
Benchmark: Benchmark_CPU.bat
Prey Version: 1.3
Video Quality 1: Default (No AA, 8x AF)
Video Quality 2: High Quality, 4x AA
Benchmark: THG-Demo
Supreme Commander Version: 3.220
Video Quality 1: Default
Video Quality 2: High Fidelity, High Shadow, 4x AA
Benchmark: Real 60 Game
Unreal Tournament 3 Version: Retail
Texture Detail: 5
World Detail: 5
Field of View: 100
Benchmark: Botmatch (WAR-Torlan, 12 bots, 1 Minute)
Warhammer Mark of Chaos Version: 1.6
Video Quality:Default (Highest Settings)
Demo: THG Timedemo (1 Minute)
iTunes 7.2 Version:
Audio CD "Terminator II SE", 53 min
High Quality (160kb/s)
Lame MP3 Version: 3.98 Beta 3 (05-22-2007)
Audio CD "Terminator II SE", 53 min
wave to MP3
TMPEGEnc 4.0 Xpress Version:
Import File: Terminator 2 SE DVD (2 Minutes)
Resolution: 720x576 (PAL) 16:9
Audio: Dolby Digital, 48000 Hz, 6-Channel, English
Advanced Acoustic Engine MP3 Encoder (160kb/s)
DivX 6.6 Version: 6.6.1
Profile: Home Theater Profile (720 x 576)
1-pass, 780 kb/s
Encoding mode: Insane Quality
Enhanced multithreading
XviD 1.1.2 Version: 1.1.2
Target quantizer: 1.00 (maximum quality)
Adobe Photoshop CS3 Version: 10.0x20070321
Filtering 69 MB TIF Photo
Benchmark: Tom's Guide-Benchmark V1.0.0.4
Autodesk 3D Studio Max Version: 9.0
Rendering One Video Frame
Quality: HTDV 1920x1080 & 1280x720
Grisoft AVG Anti-Virus Version: 7.5.467
Virus Base: 269.6.1/776
Benchmark: Scanning 3.82 GB Application Folder
Maxon Cinema 4D Version: 10.008
Resolution: 1280 x 1024
Benchmark: Rose Drop, 8-bits (50 Frames)
Rarlab Winrar Version 3.70 BETA 8
Compression = Best
Dictionary = 4096 kB
Uncompressed Folder Size: 642 MB
SPECviewperf 9 Version: 9.0.3
PCMark05 Pro Version: 1.1.0
System, CPU and Memory Tests
Windows Media Player 11.0.6000.6324
Windows Media Encoder
Futuremark 3DMark 2006 Version 1.10
System Test Only
SiSoftware Sandra XII Version 2007.5.11.40
CPU Test = CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia
Memory 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.

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  • 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.