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 - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    I'd be more inclined to drop to a 3200+ and spend the money for a 7900 GT if you're looking for gaming performance. Get that with one of the 570SLI boards (yeah, there goes the budget) and maybe 2x1024MB of DDR2-667. That'd be a nice mid-range config.
  • Avalon - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    I've also had good luck with Apex/Allied case/PSU combos. Bought several a couple years ago for some AXP systems, and they're still going strong. Generic isn't always bad. Just powmax ;)
  • DrMrLordX - Tuesday, July 11, 2006 - link

    Sadly, the Apex case + PSU combo I got for my current system didn't work out well at all PSU-wise. I got the Apex TU-124 and it came with a dinky little 350W PSU that I immediately removed from the case and replaced with my old Antec Smartpower 400W PSU. The Antec had previously been in my 1 ghz Tbird rig and is still running, while the PSU from the Apex case went into my Tbird rig when I upgraded. I later gave away the Tbird, only for the system to die after about 6-8 months of operation in new hands. The Tbird was put together in early 2001, and can you guess what component died after I gave it away? The PSU.

    I'm not sure what it was about that Tbird rig, but it killed two generic PSUs (the original that came with the case I bought for it and the one from the Apex case I bought in March 2005). The Antec PSU, however, worked just fine. I got that one back in 2004 or so when Antec was still putting out PSUs with high marks for reliability.
  • Operandi - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    "Generic case with iCute 400W PSU (Purchased Locally)"

    Generic PSUs and cases should never be recommended, particularly PSUs. Reliability is not something you can benchmark with one sample in six months time. If you can't afford a $50 InWin, Evercase, or entry level Antec case along with a $30-50 Forton-Source PSU you should probably be shopping at Dell or HP which will almost certainly get you more reliable machine.

    I believe AOpen cases are still shipping with Fortons built in, so that would be a very good choice. Antec case PSU/bundles while not the best are fairly decent and that really should be the entry level even for a low budget machine, not generic garbage.
  • johnsonx - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    I do grow tired of the Power Supply snobs. Yes, yes, we all know that there are some really lousy power supplies out there bundled with cheap cases. There are also many perfectly good power supplies bundled with cheap cases. For the purpose herein, *most* generic power supplies will work just fine.

    Anyone looking for a low-cost case that comes bundled with a reasonably good power supply, check out Athenatech:


    I've used several of these cases, including quite a number of the MicroATX cases which include Sparkle power supplies.
  • mindless1 - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    There are snobs and then there are SNOBS.

    Fact is, we dont' actually have sufficient data about longevity of generic PSU with modern, higher wattage system configs. That your 4 year old box has now 4 years running off a different generic is no evidence that another generic will run a modern system pulling 50% more current.
  • DrMrLordX - Tuesday, July 11, 2006 - link

    Sparkle is hardly generic, though. Those are rebranded Fortrons.
  • mesyn191 - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    Yup, FSP/Sparkle are quality PSU's that are cheap. Inwin aint' bad either.

    OP is really a PSU snob he just doesn't know it!!
  • JarredWalton - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    Cases are something you can go out and grab whatever you really want; I bought this locally because that was convenient 6 months ago. Sorry if this isn't clear, but the case/PSU was listed for disclosure purposes. Yes, there are better choices, but that's what was used for these benchmarks. Fotron Source would be a great choice for a 400W-500W PSU that would certainly be better than the iCute I used. I hoped people would understand that the configurations were a look at some available parts and not a specific recommendation, i.e. get a different GPU than the XFX, possibly different RAM, the Tforce 550 has some performance issues right now....

    Basically, I built three budget platforms that more or less were priced similarly, and looked at how they compare in terms of performance. Out of the three, I'd take the PD805 for my purposes. Makes a nice addition to a folding farm. :)
  • CSMR - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    The title says budget PC, but the article makes clear it is a "budget gaming system" that is being talked about. So the title should be changed to budget gaming system or budget gaming PC.

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