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System Builder Marathon: Performance And Value Compared

No Small Sacrifice

System Builder Marathon, May 2009: The Articles

Here are links to each of the four articles in this month’s System Builder Marathon (which we'll update as each story is published).

The SBM contest is live! Enter to win one of our three systems right here.

Introduction

Following up on the portable desktop theme so often suggested for our System Builder Marathons (SBM), this month’s builds all used space-saving Micro-ATX motherboards. Our $600 PC follows the originally-suggested cube design perfectly, while the taller case of the $2,500 machine stays within 2% of the cube design’s volume by being much narrower. Measuring 25% larger than even the $2,500 PC, our $1,250 system attempts to prove the frivolity of tiny cases by applying ATX tower design to the Micro-ATX format.

The largest case in this month’s comparison has room for additional hardware, but budget constraints meant the extra space would be used for nothing more than a larger CPU cooler. Please note that while the $2,500 system’s price list below is based on the Silverstone SG04-H case (recommended for its portability-enhancing carrying handle), that enclosure being out of stock led us to substitute the SG03 shown above.

System Builder Marathon Components
Component$600 PC$1,300 PC$2,500 PC
CPUIntel Pentium E5200Intel Core i7 920Intel Core i7 920
CPU CoolerIntel boxed coolerXigmatek Dark Knight S1283Intel boxed cooler
MotherboardASRock G41M-LEDFI LANParty Jr X58-T3H6DFI LANParty Jr X58-T3H6
RAMG.Skill F2-6400CL4D-4GBHK DDR2-800 4.0 GB (2.0 GB x2)G.Skill 10666CL7T-6GBPK DDR3-1333 6.0 GB (2 GB x3)Mushkin 998679 DDR3-1600 6.0 GB (2.0 GB x3)
GraphicsXFX GeForce GTX 260-2162 x BFG GeForce GTX 260 OC2 x EVGA GeForce GTX 295
Hard DriveSeagate 7200.12 500 GBWD Caviar Black 640 GB2 x Western Digital RE3 500 GB
SoundIntegrated HD AudioIntegrated HD AudioIntegrated HD Audio
NetworkingIntegrated Gigabit LANIntegrated Gigabit LANIntegrated Gigabit LAN
ChassisSilverStone Sugo SG01-BFSilverStone TJ08-BSilverStone SG04B-H*
PowerOCZ Fatal1ty OCZ550FTYPC Power & Cooling S75QBCorsair CMPSU-1000HX
OpticalLITE-ON iHAS322-08 DVD±RWLITE-ON iHAS422-08 DVD±RWLG GGC-H20LK BD/HD-DVD
Total Price$593$1,296$2,440

The enormous CPU cooler is sure to give the mid-priced system a huge overclocking lead over its high-priced competitor, while the cheapest system relies on its low-wattage processor to keep overclocked temperatures down. With overclocking a big part of today’s value assessment, will the smaller systems remain competitive?

  • 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