Squeezing Performance from Pennies

The debates about which CPU, graphics card, motherboard, etc. are the best options for each price point are seemingly endless. Even when there appears to be a clear-cut winner, price cuts, new products, and platform changes can shake things up. With AMD's launch of the unified AM2 platform, both AMD and Intel now have motherboards that can run everything from their lowliest budget processors up through the fastest dual core offerings. We haven't taken a serious look at benchmarking any budget offerings in a while, so this article is part Buyers Guide, part benchmarks, with a dash of overclocking thrown in for good measure. We'll save the recommendations for after the benchmarks, as that will hopefully provide us with the necessary information to make an informed decision on which budget platform is best.

There are of course a few things that will change in another month or two. First, we have AMD's processor price cuts, which will finally bring Athlon X2 chips down to prices that people can actually consider for a moderate budget. We've also got the upcoming Core 2 Duo launch, and we expect to see budget variants of the Core 2 architecture at some point as well (likely not until 2007, though, according to current roadmaps). Let's not forget about the older platforms, the Sempron chips for socket 754 and the Celeron D chips. We won't even bother with the latter, as the low-priced Pentium D 805 is simply far too attractive to pass up. However, we are a bit curious as to how the new Sempron chips compare to the older models, so we will include both AMD Sempron options. (Technically, Sempron was also available for socket 939, but you could only get the CPUs with OEM systems, so they never really caught on with the DIY market.)

In something of a break from tradition, we're going to focus on creating a budget computer and benchmarking each platform. If you aren't interested in gaming, you can of course choose to purchase a much cheaper graphics card or a motherboard with integrated graphics. However, we are building a budget gaming system, so we're going to choose a reasonable "budget gaming GPU". No, we're not talking about the X1300 or GeForce 7300, as those simply lack the power to properly run many games without severely reducing image quality. We also aren't going to cut every single corner possible, so our budget is going to be about $650 without a monitor, speakers, or other peripherals (use what you have unless it's severely outdated). In most areas, we will attempt to make the systems as equal as possible, though there may be minor differences.

So what did we choose for the various parts? We tried to stick with reasonable quality in most areas, which means we're looking at $70-$90 motherboards as the foundation of each platform. We also wanted to make sure we could get some systems that would overclock a decent amount, and we will be including results for both the stock and overclocked configurations in our benchmarks. We've thrown in a more expensive AM2 motherboard option as well, and you'll see why later. We'll start with the components we chose for each system, followed by the benchmarks, and we will conclude with some lessons learned and final recommendations.

System Configurations
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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, July 18, 2006 - link

    I thought about it, but figured for true budget I would go as low as I felt was possible without completely crippling the systems. :)
  • Ealdric - Thursday, July 13, 2006 - link

    I would be interested in some more recommmendations for socket 775 mobos with integrated graphics. I don't play gamnes at all, but I will be doing some video editing. I gather what I need is cpu speed and ram. I would like to be able to add a graphics card when/if Vista ever comes along, without having to replace the mobo.

  • mindless1 - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    The article makes some rather contrived presumptions about what a budget PC is, or forgot to put the word "gaming" in the article title.

    Many don't consider a $200 video card even a budget gaming card so the overall system config looks like a sacrifice of overall system specs and higher price just to game... which is fine if that's what you want but again it's not a budget system, rather a cost-optimized gaming system.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    Page 3:

    "If you're thinking that $140-$195 on a graphics card is far from being a "budget" selection, our reasoning is that you're building a budget PC, but you also want to be able to play games. We assume that most people need a PC in their home these days, so when people consider a gaming PC versus one of the consoles like an Xbox 360, they often end up concluding that the consoles cost a lot less. We figure you're already spending about $500 for a PC whether or not you have a gaming console, so really you're only spending another $150 to turn your PC into something that can play most of today's games. If you would like better video performance, of course, you could also go with a faster graphics card and spend more money. Prices on the 7900 GT cards have dropped to $265 before rebates (about $240 after rebate), so graphics performance scales almost linearly with additional money. If you don't need graphics performance at all, you can of course go with an integrated graphics solution or something cheaper."

    I tried to make it clear that the GPU isn't required unless you plan on gaming, though Vista will certainly change things in another 6-8 months. This is one option, and I expect people to read the whole article as advice rather than a firm recommendation. You can use different HDDs (I used WD becuase I had a couple available for benchmarks), GPUs (I had two XFX XXX cards), case, PSU, mobo, etc. In general performance will be similar, so this is a look at what performance you can get for $650 in games... or $500 if you drop the GPU and don't bother with games.
  • Paladin165 - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    Everyone here seems to be mentioning WD hard drives, but I just had one fail on me after barely more than one year. It was one of their 1 year warranty drives too =(. So I replaced it with the Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 ST3320620AS 320GB with perpendicular recording. In reviews it has very high peak data transfer rates, and its only about $20 more than the WD 250 GB mentioned in the article, and it has a 5 year warranty.

    Also I was wondering if anyone had any ideas about how to build a case like Dell's big Optiplex cases. They are set up where the whole front and back of the case is perforated, the HS on the CPU is huge and has a 120mm fan on the side which pulls air right in the front of the case and right out the back. These things don't make a whisper, we have whole labs full of them at my university and they are completely silent. Does anyone know of a cheap case and HS with this kind of design?
  • DrMrLordX - Tuesday, July 11, 2006 - link

    Not a bad article, but I don't understand the point. This is about the worst possible time to be building a new system, much less speccing one out with available parts. Unless that motherboard on the 805 system is Conroe-ready, I would't touch it with a 10-foot pole. Buying an 805 now is foolish on many different levels. The 915 is coming, and the 805 will be getting a price cut. X2s will be getting price cuts, too.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, July 11, 2006 - link

    Part of the idea is to cover X2 performance prior to the price cut. 915 isn't dramatically different (a bit faster, but really a budget PC is rarely bottlenecked by CPU unless you are doing serious number crunching). I'm certainly not suggesting people go out and buy right now, but given that we will be putting out reviews of Core 2 Duo soon, I figured a nice non-NDA look at the budget sector might be interesting. Anyway, Intel isn't really coming out with any truly *new* budget chips (i.e. based off of Core architecture) for a while, and the only thing on the horizon for AMD budget right now is price cuts (AFAIK).
  • Calin - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    I agree with that - the only thing that will change for the sample systems will be the price (maybe better mainboards). As Intel will have little production (about 30% of total) of the new microprocessors, they will probably be reserved to the likes of Dell, and retail market will see little availability and higher prices. Not at all something for the budget machines.
  • Mozee - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    Recently I've done a little looking around to see what kind of a budget gaming system I could build relatively cheap. Take a look at this little setup:
    (All parts priced at Newegg.com, except optical drive and case borrowed from article)

    Processor: AMD Athlon 64 - 3800+ (2.4ghz/512k) Socket AM2 $141.99
    Motherboard: MSI K9N NEO-F Socket AM2 (AMD 550 Chipset) $ 78.99
    Graphics Card: eVGA e-GeForce 7600GT PCI-e 256MB $169.99
    Hard Drive: Western Digital Caviar RE WD2500YD 250GB $ 84.99
    Memory: GeiL GX21GB5300LDC DDR2-667 Dual Channel Kit $ 91.29
    2x512MB 4-4-4-12
    Optic Drive: NEC 3550A 16X DVD+/-RW $ 35.00
    Case/PSU: Generic case with iCute 400W PSU $ 50.00

    Total Cost: $652.25

    I picked the WD hard drive after the strong showing it had in a recent Anandtech article. The eVGA card wasn't the absolute cheapest 7600GT I found, but with a listed stock speed of 780/1560 nothing cheaper offered better than 700/1400 stock. If you would rather pick DDR2-800, I found Patriot eXtreme PDC21G6400LLK DDR2-800 1GB 4-4-4-12 sticks at NewEgg.com for $112.99, or the same in a 2x512MB kit for $117.99

    Just some food for thought for anyone looking to build a budget gaming box.
  • kmmatney - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    That's a pretty good setup. I'd save $30 or so and get an Athlon 64 3500+ Orleans, which only runs 200 MHz slower and can easily overclock. If you go down to a 3200+ in the cpu, you could possibly save enough money to get to a better class of graphics card - too bad there's no upgrade you can go to in the $200 price range (maybe the X1800GTO).

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