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System Builder Marathon, Q3 2013: $350 Bonus Entry-Level PC

What Can You Expect From A Budget Box?

Built To Address Two Completely Different Needs

Today we compared two very different entry-level machines, exposing the strengths and weaknesses of each. When I calculate average performance, I typical evaluate my budget builds based on their gaming potential. This time, I’m pulling native-resolution gaming out of the equation entirely, focusing on overall gaming and application performance. Since these machines were built for two totally different purposes, I won't chart a total, either. Honestly, I could put either system to very good use, though neither would satisfy all of my computing needs.

With hardly any tweaking, AMD’s A10-5800K easily bolstered application performance by over one-third. In some threaded workloads, it delivered more than a 70% improvement. However, it only delivered about half of the framerate in our game tests. Often, it fell before the $400 PC even broke a sweat.

But many folks who enjoy games on a daily basis only play casual titles, where an APU has no trouble at all. There's a good chance that this rig could breeze through much of my Steam library. What's more, we found that as long as you're willing to push those detail sliders to the left, accept low resolutions, and turn off anti-aliasing, our $350 PC can survive a number of newer AAA titles, too.

One way to extract more potential from an APU is to increase memory frequency. DDR3-1600 somewhat cripples the A10's potential. By overclocking the GPU to 950 MHz, we only saw 3-5% gains. In fact, we sometimes saw better performance from the stock 800 MHz clock rate with DDR3-1866 data rates. We also found that the on-die Radeon HD 7660D engine scales well with memory bandwidth. If you study this chart closely, you’ll see relative gains from GPU and memory overclocking is up to 2% higher than those parts on their own.

Conclusion

Tom’s Hardware readers are typically drawn to higher-end parts. But I must confess that I enjoyed building budget-oriented bonus PCs the last two quarters. If you tailor the parts to match your needs, and don’t hold onto unrealistic expectations, the results are exactly why we call ourselves enthusiasts in the first place.

Sure, I’d prefer a processor able to juggle four threads in my gaming PC. Who wouldn't? But Intel’s affordable Pentiums (like the G2120) handle most games well enough to easily complement AMD’s Radeon HD 7700-series add-in cards. So, even if you only have $350-$400, you can still build a fairly decent gaming PC.

If you're even shorter on cash, or if gaming isn't your top priority, AMD's affordable APUs might be more apropos. Capitalizing on Newegg discounts, I chopped this quarter's official $650 starting budget in half and still built a general-purpose machine with a quad-core processor, on-die Radeon graphics, 8 GB of RAM, and a healthy terabyte of storage. Not bad at all.