When you buy a system for $500, you're going to get a mixed experience. On one hand, it's always nice to pay for a solution and have it delivered, just as you expected. On the other, don't be surprised when the convenience of having someone else do the job results in a relatively modest performer.
Ideally, we could take a nicely-packaged system and dress it up with our own components after getting tired of its idiosyncrasies. However, it's clear that most of these low-dollar configurations aren't really meant to be manhandled at all. Even a graphics upgrade is out of the question on most of them.
If gaming is on your priority list, there's no doubt that building a machine like Paul Henningsen's most recent $500 gaming build is the way to go.
|Component||March $500 Gaming PC||Dell i560-565NBK with graphics upgrade|
|CPU||AMD Phenom II X4 925||Intel Pentium E5800|
|CPU Cooler||AMD boxed heatsink/fan||-|
|RAM||G.Skill 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR3-1333 (PC3 10600) Model F3-10666CL9D-4GBNS||3 GB DDR3-1333|
|Graphics||Sapphire 100315L Radeon HD 6850 1 GB||AMD Radeon HD 6670|
|Hard Drive||Samsung Spinpoint F4 HD322GJ/U 320 GB SATA 3Gb/s||500 GB 7200 RPM|
|Case||Xigmatek Asgard II B/O CPC-T45UE-U01||-|
|Power||Antec EarthWatts Green EA380D 380 W||300 W|
|Optical||Lite-On 24x DVD Burner SATA iHAS 124-04||8x DVD+R DVD Burner|
|3DMark11 Performance Preset||4670 3DMarks (Overclocked: 5015 3DMarks)||1615 3DMarks|
|Just Cause 28xAF/16xAA1280x720||40.6 FPS (Overclocked: 45.1 FPS)||25.5 FPS|
Now, we're leaving out a couple of very important variables here. The systems we bought include a mouse and keyboard. Those are relatively inexpensive items though, and we won't make a big deal about them in the line item chart above. The glaring omission in our itemized list is the cost of an operating system, which our SBM config doesn't include. A copy of Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit runs about $70.
That's roughly the difference between upgrading a pre-built system with an entry-level graphics card and building a new machine from scratch. If you consider that a more apples-to-apples comparison, the conclusion here is pretty obvious. Though it uses more power, Paul's AMD-based configuration is so much faster than any of the five store-bought units that there's no way we'd orphan a quintet of Benjamins on an inflexible, manufactured system.
We've all seen how much more scalable higher-end boutique builds can be. But if you're operating on a limited budget, "doing it" yourself simply cannot be beat.