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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  • Calin - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    We were promised reviews of micro ATX mainboards a while back (hopefully with integrated video performance too, dual and single channel :) ). The article should be in the works now.
    Anyway, none of the integrated graphics/microATX boards I looked upon (from MSI, Asus etc) did have anything in the way of overclocking/overvolting/undervolting/...

    I'm waiting, thanks
  • Rix2357 - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    Most of these motherboards are decently cheap, but I wonder if they are as stable as some more well established brands. Of course, I go way back and a mantra that I've heard over and over, for stability Asus and Intel motherboards are the only way to go. While the DFI board in the test could be reasonably expected to be relatively stable, I am unsure about the biostar motherboard.

    My case in point from way back. The ECS K7S5A motherboard for a Socket A Athlon motherboard was supposedly one of the best, but it still had it's quirks. It's no where near as stable as the Asus Williamete motherboard at that time. It also has cold boot issues that numerous different bioses have never fixed. Hard drive detection with a third party IDE controller could be problematic at best.
  • Calin - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    I have an ECS K7S5A mainboard, and its stability was good. Anyway, that was around the time when even top mainboards had one or two errors in 72 hours of benchmarks/stability checks.
    I would say Gigabyte boards are good too - I've had not so positive experiences with Foxconn boards.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    The Biostar + PD805 has been in use for roughly six months, without any noticeable problems. The DFI Infinity has also been in use for a while without problems. AM2 is too new to say how it is in terms of stability, but I definitely enjoy the extra features (because I am one of those people that has GbE running through the house). If your primary concern is stability, you'd probably want to skip out on overclocking anyway. One of the biggest difficulties in overclocking is determining long-term "stable" settings. It can take months to get what you feel is an optimally stable system, and minor tweaks to voltages, memory timings, bus speeds, etc. can turn a crash-prone system fully stable (or vice versa).
  • Avalon - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    If these are budget considerations, why is 2-2-2 DDR memory and an XXX XFX listed in there? You can get an eVGA 7600GT CO for less than $150AR from time to time, and 1GB of CAS 2.5 memory will only set you back $90 and be practically as fast. That's $60 saved.
  • Gary Key - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link


    If these are budget considerations, why is 2-2-2 DDR memory and an XXX XFX listed in there? You can get an eVGA 7600GT CO for less than $150AR from time to time, and 1GB of CAS 2.5 memory will only set you back $90 and be practically as fast. That's $60 saved.

    Jarred explained this on page 2. The memory selected for the S754 system is what we had available at the time for 2-2-2 operation. You are right that additional money could be saved for a minor performance delta. Since this article was looking at budget gaming performance, the XFX video card was chosen since it was still in our price range and is factory overclocked allowing a small increase in performance for those uncomfortable with overclocking the GPU. We mentioned that with rebates just about any of the 7600GT cards could be had for around $140~$160.

    This article was designed to provide an umbrella look at what is available in the $650 price range and how it performs with today's game titles. We certainly understand that additional money could be saved or could be spent depending upon the individual's objective in building a system. As an example, on the S754 system you could have spent a little less on the memory but could have taken those savings and applied them to a better audio solution resulting in the same end figure. Some people would rather have the improved memory performance and live with the on-board audio. In the end, for about $650 you can build a decent machine today and there are an incredible amount of component choices that allow you to do this.

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