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System Builder Marathon: Performance And Value Compared

Conclusion

We didn’t need to build compact systems to know that cooling limits translate into overclocking limits, but we were shocked to find that the $2,500 system’s case didn’t provide enough ventilation, even at default CPU settings. The distance between the motherboard and power supply is inadequate to support a high-performance cooler, and the stock Intel fan was too weak to function properly within the low-pressure area below the power supply fan. The only solution we could immediately find was to reduce CPU core voltage below the default setting.

An alternative solution is to start the build with a lower-wattage processor, and the results from our $625 system’s E5200 were phenomenal for its price class. Efficiency wasn’t the only strength of this low-cost system, as it even won a performance benchmark and was fast enough to power through games at a 1680x1050 pixel resolution. At 3.50 GHz, we’re sure the overclocked dual-core processor was strong enough to support an even better graphics solution, although finding the limit of CPU power across multiple graphics configurations is beyond the scope of today’s competition.

The $1,250 build offers a second solution to the CPU-cooling conundrum in its tried-and-true combination of a larger case and cooler. The fact that this overclocked configuration won today’s performance shootout is enough to diminish builder complaints about inadequate space, especially since Micro-ATX supports the same area around the CPU as the full-ATX standard does. Blame Xigmatek for the CPU cooler clearance problem, since the chipset sink is far enough away from the socket to support Intel’s large-round boxed cooler. We even test mounted the similarly-monstrous Cogage True Spirit to confirm that Xigmatek shouldn't have encountered such serious mounting issues, and the True Spirit fits in the proper orientation with around 6 mm clearance. A change from Xigmatek to Cogage cooling would be enough for us to recommend the remaining parts to anyone who can live with a mid-sized mini-tower system.

While inadequate cooling beset our $2,500 build, we can still endorse the use of compact cases with some performance processors, but they should be limited to  dual-core versions. Rather than build a box that can do everything, a viable compact performance system could focus on gaming by maximizing graphics power within the limits of Intel’s Core 2 architecture. Anyone seeking even more CPU power should choose either a larger case or one with an integrated cooling system that functions better in tight constraints than Intel’s boxed cooler.

But heat management wasn’t the biggest disappointment of the $2,500 build. Instead, it was the inability of its Quad-SLI graphics to pull ahead at resolutions below 1920x1200 pixels. This combination of cards really only leads at 2560x1600 pixels, with the exception of an AA issue at this resolution in Crysis and S.T.A.L.K.E.R. And while most gamers probably don’t need AA at such high graphics resolutions, the fact that other systems were tested only up to 1920x1200 pixels means that Quad-SLI’s raison d’être was never examined in this Day 4 comparison. Thus, while some users will demand that we put the most powerful graphics solution in our most powerful system, this author is seriously considering dropping it from our next SBM. Your thoughts are welcome.

  • IzzyCraft
    Watt consumption on the 2.5k build is scary i wouldn't make that build just out of fear of my electric bill :) ofc if i'm slapping down just 2.5k on the computer nothing on things like monitors maybe i could afford the $400 dollar electric bill a month i'd imaged.
    Reply
  • IronRyan21
    Thus, while some users will demand that we put the most powerful graphics solution in our most powerful system, this author is seriously considering dropping it from our next SBM. Your thoughts are welcome.

    Yeah, I wonder if this is a fluke? or reality with these kind of expensive builds. This article really opens my eyes to how powerful any1 can make a budget gamer pc really perform. I still wouldnt mind winnng the 2,500 build. I'll just get a new case and pop on a real cpu cooler.
    Reply
  • Proximon
    Noted :) With the clear performance superiority I can no longer complain about the cramped space of the $1300 build. Can I still worry about longevity? I'd like to know the PSU exhaust temps on these guys too. I know there have been a lot of complaints about the choices in this series, but we've explored some new territory and it's been a good ride.
    Reply
  • Crashman
    IronRyan21Yeah, I wonder if this is a fluke? or reality with these kind of expensive builds. This article really opens my eyes to how powerful any1 can make a budget gamer pc really perform. I still wouldnt mind winnng the 2,500 build. I'll just get a new case and pop on a real cpu cooler.
    It really looks like a bunch of graphics tests were CPU bound with the $2500 PC, and you see that start to go away at higher resolutions and graphics details. But if the competition doesn't include 2560x1600, it seems almost pointless to build for that resolution.

    The worst part is that the bulk of improvements to the $2500 PC are the graphics, and the bigger power supply needed for those graphics cards.

    Other losses for the $2500 PC were caused by its lack of overclocking capability. The two problems there are a case with limitted space around the CPU, and a CPU cooler that was too small. Also, the power supply pulls against the CPU fan, but replacing it with a straight-through flow power supply eliminates most of the ventilation around the CPU socket.

    What we really learned here is that, lacking any special cooler to get the heat away from the CPU area, the case was too small for the CPU. We thought it would be "barely big enough" for that CPU and had already accepted that going small would limit overclocking capability.

    One might also learn from this is that comparing a mid-sized Micro ATX mini-tower ($1300 PC) and a small Micro ATX micro tower ($2500 PC) is apples-to-oranges. Tom's already knew that, but its builders weren't going to fight over it.
    Reply
  • SpadeM
    Well the core i7 does live up to it's name and price tag, it sure is a true quadcore, with a memory controller, etc ... but with it's performance per clock similar to that of a wolfdale chip (see itunes) I must give credit to Intel and it's marketing department. They do a better job selling similar performance with the past generation, for top dollar, then Steve Jobs selling iphones. The moral of the article in my opinion is:

    1. DON'T buy or USE an i7 or high end graphics in a SFF case unless u plan ahead and check clearance issues with your components so u won't have to chop and mutilate your newly bought case. (That is not case modding)
    2. If u're poor, great news! Buy a Q9550 and you'll have the same performance in most applications as a i7 for less $
    3. The AMD issue ... u know, who cares anyways. At the end of the day this SBM is a guide of some sorts, we can choose to pay attention to it or not if we consider we know what's best. Even if Intel paid bribes to Tom's or didn't, who cares, even a trained monkey can compare benchmark scores from other sites and see the truth for themselves.

    Cudos for this months SBM, it was interesting. My only suggestion is ... if u want to include case modding, start with a cheap ass case and a low priced computer.
    Reply
  • presidenteody
    Blue river all the way, down with the green field?
    Reply
  • Crashman
    SpadeMWell the core i7 does live up to it's name and price tag, it sure is a true quadcore, with a memory controller, etc ... but with it's performance per clock similar to that of a wolfdale chip (see itunes) I must give credit to Intel and it's marketing department. They do a better job selling similar performance with the past generation, for top dollar, then Steve Jobs selling iphones. The moral of the article in my opinion is:1. DON'T buy or USE an i7 or high end graphics in a SFF case unless u plan ahead and check clearance issues with your components so u won't have to chop and mutilate your newly bought case. (That is not case modding)2. If u're poor, great news! Buy a Q9550 and you'll have the same performance in most applications as a i7 for less $3. The AMD issue ... u know, who cares anyways. At the end of the day this SBM is a guide of some sorts, we can choose to pay attention to it or not if we consider we know what's best. Even if Intel paid bribes to Tom's or didn't, who cares, even a trained monkey can compare benchmark scores from other sites and see the truth for themselves.Cudos for this months SBM, it was interesting. My only suggestion is ... if u want to include case modding, start with a cheap ass case and a low priced computer.
    Ah, you make it sound so simple, but here's an SFF PC with Core i7 and high-end graphics that works well:

    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/overclocking-guide-part-1,1379.html

    It was even retested with a GTX 295 at the end, just to make sure it would support it.

    Of course, that's because SFF systems have special CPU coolers that increase airflow while ridding the system of that hot pocket of air that normally surrounds the CPU.

    So, SFF supports Core i7 and high-end graphics better than Micro ATX based mini-pc's.
    Reply
  • DjEaZy
    ... the 2,5k system seems to be a waste of money... not just, that there is no big difference in performance from 1,25k system, but the cost of ownership... the electrical bill must be sky high...
    Reply
  • Sihastru
    "...we were shocked to find that the $2,500 system’s case didn’t provide enough ventilation..."

    How can you be shocked? You have the PSU blocking the air from a boxed cooler. Not to mention FOUR GT200's spilling most of the hot air inside the case. There are ventilation holes, but this doesn't mean all the air escapes through them. It's like a nuclear reactor on meltdown sequence. ;)
    Reply
  • anamaniac
    Thanks for the read Tom.

    I think a i7 will still work in a SFF, but a dual-slot card(s) may not.
    A single gtx 195 may have been suited better. Though possibly 2x 285 may have done better, allowing budget for water cooling also to compensate for the lack of space for a CPU cooler.

    That c2d build looks mighty tempting, it really blazed through for something portable.
    Reply