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System Builder Marathon, June 2011: $500 Gaming PC

Entry-Level Sandy Bridge

System Builder Marathon, June 2011: The Articles

Here are links to each of the five articles in this month’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please fill out this Google form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $2000 Performance PC
Day 2: The $1000 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $500 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected
Day 5: Tom's Hand-Picked SuperCombo

Introduction

In the first quarter of this year, we went a bit over budget on our $500 Gaming PC, squeezing in both a quad-core AMD Phenom II processor and Radeon HD 6850 graphics. The resulting build, which did leave some room for improvements, still packed serious punch for the money we spent.

Additional price drops over the past three months mean we could have taken that same configuration and jumped up to an even more attractive Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition (BE). The 955 BE would have not only given us a nice frequency increase across its four physical cores, but also the flexibility of a fully unlocked CPU multiplier, and even a better cooling solution for overclocking. Of course, overclockability plays heavily into component selection for our System Builder Marathons (SBMs), typically providing the benchmark data set we value the most.

And here's the point where some folks are going to be disappointed, because this lead-up depicts what we need to compete against, and not what we actually built. This month’s $500 gaming rig departs from the norm by centering on a budget-oriented Intel Sandy Bridge-based platform that cannot be overclocked at all, really. It'll either stand or fall based on its out-of-box performance.

ComponentModelPrice (in dollars)
CPUIntel Core i3-2100$125
CPU CoolerIntel boxed heatsink/fan$0
MotherboardASRock H61M-VS$60
RAMCrucial 4 GB (2 x 2 GB) DDR3-1333 CT2KIT25664BA1339$40
GraphicsSapphire 100315L Radeon HD 6850 1 GB$170
Hard DriveSeagate Barracuda ST3500413AS 500 GB, SATA 6Gb/s$40
CaseXigmatek Asgard II B/S CPC-T45UE-U01$30
PowerAntec EarthWatts Green EA380D 380 W$40
OpticalAsus 24X DVD Burner SATA Model DRW-24B1ST/BLK/B/AS$21
Total Price$526

Attempting a Sandy Bridge-based gaming PC was contingent on two self-set stipulations. First, I already broke the bank last round, and had to draw a line somewhere on spending. So, it was imperative to avoid outspending last quarter's PC. Second, an even more demanding suite of 3D titles meant that graphics horsepower couldn't be sacrificed.

The only way to achieve both goals was starting with the cheapest available platform possible, a feature-stripped ASRock H61M-VS microATX motherboard and Core i3-2100 processor. Apart from a couple of insignificant difference, we ended with component prices almost exactly the same as this machine's predecessor. Higher-capacity storage was three dollars cheaper than our previous 320 GB drive, but securing a DVD burner ate up a couple of those bills.

Now, we already know from stories like Don Woligroski’s Who's Got Game? Twelve Sub-$200 CPUs compared that the stock Core i3-2100 is a capable gaming processor. In fact, by avoiding some low-resolution CPU limitations, we should easily be able to set a new bar for the $500 SBM build in terms of frame rates at stock settings. But with 70% of the overall performance evaluation weighted outside of games, will a lack of overclocking become a deal-breaker for this machine, preventing us from reusing Intel's severely-limited entry-level parts in future Marathons?

  • Zero_
    Is it just me or does anyone get a feeling that the SBM rigs are being sold for advertising? :kaola:

    The X4 955 costs $15 less like you said, and allows overclocking even with stock, and $60 would buy a much better equipped AMD board. Also, $185 gets you a HD6870 these days.

    Result? Better FPS per $ for the same price. TBH, that's what I was expecting. I am disappoint.
    Reply
  • spotminer
    Seagate Barracuda ST3500413AS 500 GB, SATA 6Gb/s

    yet the motherboard has only 4 x SATA2 3.0 Gb/s connectors.

    How would you utilize the maximum potential of the hard disk then?
    Reply
  • striker410
    spotminerSeagate Barracuda ST3500413AS 500 GB, SATA 6Gb/s yet the motherboard has only 4 x SATA2 3.0 Gb/s connectors.How would you utilize the maximum potential of the hard disk then?Because HDD's cannot saturate even the Sata 3.0Gb/s line. They run at around 120MB/s, but sata II can handle up to 280MB/s or so. It's a cash grab. Means nothing for HDD's.
    Reply
  • spotminer
    striker410Because HDD's cannot saturate even the Sata 3.0Gb/s line. They run at around 120MB/s, but sata II can handle up to 280MB/s or so. It's a cash grab. Means nothing for HDD's.
    I see thanks.
    Reply
  • compton
    I can only hope that the rumor that Intel is currently prepping a K series i3 is true. I'm using a 2500k now, but I think an i3-k would kick ass in the spare 1155 board I've got laying around.

    As far as the June budget build goes, it's really just an alternated Intel flavored version of the March build. As such, some hopeful budget builders may find reasons to go either route. Maybe the best argument against going AMD for the $500 build is the impending release of Llano and Bulldozer. It doesn't make much sense to put together an AMD system at this time -- even if you're looking at the budget area. The Phenom II will continue to be a good value especially if you're updating an older AMD system. It's not that the Phenom/Athlon is so slow as much as Intel's SB is just plain fast and efficient.

    I want an unlocked i3 Intel... please make it happen.
    Reply
  • buzznut
    An unlocked i3, that would be cool. I might even buy one, AMD fan that I am!
    Reply
  • lott11
    It looks like someone was doing a all Intel promo.
    What software can utilize hyper threaded cores.
    Not on any gamers PC'S much less on MS 64 bit at an entry level.
    Granted at high end, they do make a great deal of difference but not at entry level.
    And since when is power conservation a consideration for a gamer.
    Reply
  • Zero_
    An i3 k model coming out about now would effectively kill AMD at this price point. If you get a good OC'able processor now, odds are you wont be changing platforms in a couple of months.
    Reply
  • mightymaxio
    lott11It looks like someone was doing a all Intel promo.What software can utilize hyper threaded cores.Not on any gamers PC'S much less on MS 64 bit at an entry level.Granted at high end, they do make a great deal of difference but not at entry level.And since when is power conservation a consideration for a gamer.
    Um lets see, unreal 3 can use hyperthreading, battlefield bad company 2 and battlefield 3 take advantage of hyperthreading, many games such as wow now take advantage of it. Need i go on.
    Reply
  • dragonsqrrl
    zero_Is it just me or does anyone get a feeling that the SBM rigs are being sold for advertising? The X4 955 costs $15 less like you said, and allows overclocking even with stock, and $60 would buy a much better equipped AMD board. Also, $185 gets you a HD6870 these days.Result? Better FPS per $ for the same price. TBH, that's what I was expecting. I am disappoint.I still think the i3-2100 was the right choice...

    http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/best-gaming-cpu-core-i3-2100-phenom-ii-x6-1075t,2859-10.html
    For a gaming oriented build at this price point, these lower end Sandy Bridge processors can't be beat. Even when you factor in the overclocking potential of similarly priced AMD processors (Phenom II X4 955 or 965) I don't think it's enough to defeat the i3-2100 in the games where it matters most. Even when it comes to multitasking and and multithreaded workloads, the dual-core Sandy Bridge is still very performance competitive, which is kind of sad from an architectural standpoint (quad-thread i3 vs quad-core Phenom II).

    If this build were targeted at workstation applications however, I think you could definitely make the argument that AMD offers a viable alternative with the additional cores. But again, this is a gaming oriented build.
    Reply