Two Builds Call For Two Winners
We have a clear winner, but it's different depending on the build you prefer most.
Generally, we find that older games are often playable without a discrete graphics card. The current trend of game developers releasing straight console ports to the PC makes it easier for lower-performance hardware to keep up.
Gaming Without Discrete Graphics: AMD, Obviously
To that end, if you're willing to go light on graphics performance and live life without a discrete GPU, you only have two real choices right now: AMD's A8-3850 and the slightly faster A8-3870. Neither the AMD A6-3650 nor Intel's CPUs with HD Graphics are good enough to play the titles with which we test, but the quicker A8s do make due with their on-die Radeon engines. Seeing that there’s not much of a price difference between AMD’s APU models, but a massive performance jump that takes games all the way from unplayable to playable, we really don’t see any reason to buy the A6-3650.
For exactly $403, our AMD A8-3850-based build provides a lot of performance. And although we don't expect your kids to compile code, transcode movies, or render graphics in 3ds Max, we know there are plenty of threaded productivity apps that favor four of AMD's x86 cores over two of Intel's. In those environments, a quad-core APU wins every time, as we saw in Battle At $140: Can An APU Beat An Intel CPU And Add-In Graphics?
We do have to mention the APU's ability to host an add-in card of comparable performance and operate in Dual Graphics mode, though. Even though this looks like a good idea on paper and in our benchmark results, in practice, we did see a lot of stuttering with both graphics processors rendering cooperatively.
Gaming with Discrete Graphics: Intel
If you’re willing to spend a little more on a discrete graphics card, Intel's Pentium G620 is the way to go. It dominates in CPU-bound games and in productivity-oriented applications optimized for one or two threads.
The two slower processors from Intel and AMD perform far worse than their slightly-cheaper price tags might otherwise indicate. They're surely ample for a pure office-oriented machine, but not for any sort of gaming.
AMD's A8-3850 makes sense if you start down the path of our discrete GPU-less basic build. As a means for saving money, it performs well enough. If you shoot straight for the more advanced build, though, there's no way around Intel's Pentium G620 and an affordable Radeon HD 6670. That combination of parts, though notably faster in CPU-dependent gaming workloads, only costs about $20 more than the basic configuration, totaling $421.
Our Finished PC
We finished our build under the guidance of our client, an 11-year-old. A sound-activated cold cathode light, a better fan for the CPU, and a few stickers we had lying around made his eyes shine a little brighter. And making him happy was the point of the whole exercise. We also couldn't resist handing him a little surprise after finding a Radeon HD 7750 on sale. All told, the machine we built set us back roughly $460.
A flashy PC like this isn’t everybody’s preference, but it sure looks cool in the dark. And if there's one thing we've learned about kids of all ages, it's that they sure like flashy things.
There's a solid alternative to dropping a gaming console into your kid's room. A much more versatile PC can be had for just over $400, or even less if you have some older components gathering dust somewhere. Do you pick an APU or a CPU? Do you install discrete graphics or not? Whichever way you go, it's possible to build an adequately powerful system for a modest price.