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System Builder Marathon, June 2012: $500 Gaming PC

Did Our Gamble Pay Off?

Gaming performance capped by an entry-level CPU hurts the $500 PC’s overall showing in some of our favorite titles, pretty much assuring its downfall in any discussion of overall value.

But we built this rig specifically to target high-detail gaming at a 1920x1080 panel's native resolution. The following chart drops the influence of CPU-limited low-resolution tests, focusing purely on the highest playable settings.

At our target resolution, this seemingly unbalanced platform delivers a staggeringly impressive 87% of last quarter's frame rates at just 77% of its cost. Even more important than percentages is how successful our little gaming box is in facilitating playable experiences.

The stock $500 PC offers acceptable 1920x1080 performance throughout three of our four games, dipping to 1680x1050 only in Battlefield 3’s single-player campaign. A modest GPU overclock was enough to call this final resolution playable (an accomplishment neither of our previous two entry-level configurations achieved at 30% higher budgets). And, at this one questionable test setting, we proved that our bottleneck was insufficient graphics muscle, not our underpowered processor. I can’t help but to be impressed by the gaming alacrity of Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture, be it in a higher-end Core i7 or this little Celeron G530.

However, I could never endorse such a radical configuration without first confirming its abilities in a handful of other demanding games. I started with the highest settings in Just Cause 2, knowing that the Concrete Jungle benchmark we've used in the past would be a giant hurdle for the Celeron to overcome. Sure enough, average frame rates were under 30 FPS at all resolutions. An hour of actual gaming confirmed we needed to reduce in-game details to find acceptable performance in this title. At the highest settings, we were seeing performance in the 20 to 30 FPS range, with an occasional dip into the teens during intense combat. Although we had enough graphics muscle to handle this game, our CPU simply wasn't up to the task.

Because our goal of maxing out in-game detail settings at 1920x1080 left us with a processor unable to keep up with our GPU, we could only recommend this build to one specific type of gamer: if you want a stock Core i5 or Core i7 and a card like the GTX 560, but can't afford to put both together, a Celeron G530 is a super-affordable way of getting a machine up and running for now, with plans to perhaps upgrade later.

While the gaming potential of our entry-level dual-core chip is worthy of respect, it’s important to remember that its 2.4 GHz clock rate is all you'll ever get from it. Instead, we think that today’s build deserves, at the very least, a step up to Intel's Pentium G850. The extra $38 is a wise investment for anyone looking to duplicate out efforts.

  • cloakster
    It is just incredible how well the G530 performs in gaming.
    Reply
  • slomo4sho
    Would have liked to see Diablo 3 and SC 2 benchmarks for this build.
    Reply
  • mayankleoboy1
    why are you not increasing the voltages on the GPU to get more clocks ?
    any enthusiast with limited budget would want to maximize his core clocks with higher voltages.. the card can keep cool by increasing the fan speed.
    More noise for a gaming session is acceptable.
    Reply
  • mayankleoboy1
    Dumping the bulk of our funding into graphics is sure to spell disaster throughout the media encoding and productivity benchmarks. But it's time to face the music.

    pun intended ? ;)
    Reply
  • s3anister
    Celeron G530 is what I'm rocking in my gaming rig. It is definitely a capable processor, surprising given the legacy behind anything labeled Celeron.
    Reply
  • s3anister
    Slomo4shOWould have liked to see Diablo 3 and SC 2 benchmarks for this build.I can't give you exact fps rates, but my machine is very similar to this one (only difference is the GPU: 6950+Z68) and I get similar frame rates in all the tested games. So I'll infer to you what this rig would probably get close to.

    Diablo 3 maxes out at 60fps with occasional dips down to ~30fps when getting mobbed on hell. As for SC2, frame rates for me tended to be around 35fps on average with everything maxed out at 1920x1080 for both games.
    Reply
  • pauldh
    s3anisterCeleron G530 is what I'm rocking in my gaming rig. It is definitely a capable processor, surprising given the legacy behind anything labeled Celeron.Ah, but think way back.... slot 1, 440BX, and the Celeron 300A? I had a 266@412MHz, a 300A@464MHz, a 300A@450MHz, and a 333(that topped out down at an 83 MHz FSB).

    While not the first chips I had overclocked, those slot 1 Celeron's gave me the incurable OC bug! *dreams of G530K*
    Reply
  • jestersage
    Amazing! I never thought an SBM machine would ever come this close to my own rig. And confirm for me that my drooling over $200+ graphics cards is not an impractical fantasy for my current rig. I've been dreaming of retiring my old GT240 for a newer card and had the HD7850 (or comparable Nvidia counterpart when it comes out) in mind, or even an HD7770. I now feel justified and my wife will go nuts over the pc part purchase, again.

    I did notice one thing when I compared this build with my system - mine idles at 48-52 watts, too, and I use a 500W S12II. I think right-sizing the PSU will add to the efficiency. A 350w PSU is my bet for bringing the idle power draw closer to the 20% mark of the PSU rating where efficiency starts to pick up (as per 80plus requirements). I say 350w because whoever gets this will likely want to upgrade the CPU to something beefier sooner or later. Nah, sooner!

    Thanks, Paul! for tackling love and system-building with reckless abandon.
    Reply
  • bustapr
    i got a question. if I were to use a phenom 2x4 965 BE(3.4ghz) for a gaming rig on a similar budget to this, would it bottleneck me in gaming and other applications?
    Reply
  • pauldh
    mayankleoboy1why are you not increasing the voltages on the GPU to get more clocks ?any enthusiast with limited budget would want to maximize his core clocks with higher voltages.. the card can keep cool by increasing the fan speed.More noise for a gaming session is acceptable.As mentioned, it was maiinly a matter of consistency with the past few builds. Dealing with fixed CPU clocks and memory frequency, I just haven't been too aggresive with previous efforts with Radeons, and thus didn't want to boost voltage here with the GTX. Trying to play it fair, that's all. Maybe once we revisit overclockable platforms, and are already dealing with increaded noise, I'll get itchy to max-out the GPU.

    Thanks for the feedback though. I'm actually surprised given the balance of the system, that people would desire to see aggressive GPU overclocking.
    Reply