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

    Drop the $180 GPU and throw in a $50 GPU and you've got a non-gaming platform.
  • mino - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    i.e.: changes to make 754 config a good budget PC:
    drop DFI MB, drop the GPU, put in quality ATI Xpress200 or Geforce 6100 MB
    drop that dual channel Patriot nonsense for singel channel s754, put in Kinkston/
    Corsair 1GB stick of DDR400 CL3
    drop that insane 400W PSU(100W system), drop in budget case, drop in FSP300-60GLN

    CPU: Sempron 2800+ ~$50
    MB: JetWay A200GDMS ~$70 or some Geforce6100 board
    RAM: 1GB brand DDR400 ~$90
    HDD: any 250G ~$80
    DVD: NEC 4571 ~$35 or any you like
    case: ASUS TM250 ~$30 or any generic case without PSU
    PSU: FSP300-60GLN ~$30

    Final price: <= $400

    You can drop some better GPU later but such a system will be with you for a long time.

    As someone wrote above, your configs are good budget GAMER/OVERCLOCKER choices. Not budget PC choices.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    But I would quantify my system as a "better" budget system - the extra $200 or so goes a long ways towards improving features and performance. Again, you don't *have* to buy these systems, but they are what I had available and you can see performnace (stock and OC'ed). It's something a bit different from our regular budget buyers' guides.
  • mino - Thursday, July 13, 2006 - link

    Almost forgot,
    I really appreciated the review, realy.
    Just not for the text part, instead for the numbers and mostly the configs being tested.
  • mino - Thursday, July 13, 2006 - link

    IMHO we have a common attitude for system config creation. But a different view on what a budget PC is. For me, it is a -as cheap as possible- workhorse, for you, a gaming machine able to work.

    My intention was just to show off that it is not so simple - like change the GPU and it is a classic budget system. IMHO you know that it is more complicated, but many readers do not(an the article supports them here).

    the message:
    "To build a good, balanced PC is a system solution problem, not a component solution one."

    Best regards.
  • mino - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    i.e.: changes to make 754 config a good budget PC:
    drop DFI MB, drop the GPU, put in quality ATI Xpress200 or Geforce 6100 MB
    drop that dual channel Patriot nonsense for singel channel s754, put in Kinkston/
    Corsair 1GB stick of DDR400 CL3
    drop that insane 400W PSU(100W system), drop in budget case, drop in FSP300-60GLN

    you've got:
    CPU: Sempron 2800+ $50

  • mino - Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - link

    this post was unintentional, gog give us EDIT :)
  • Josh7289 - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    So, the Pentium D's are going even lower, when the X2's lower as well? What about the other single cores from Intel and AMD, are they lowering with Core 2 Duo's launch?

    Looking back at that article from one and a half years ago. it's pretty cool to see what one can get today for less money than what one could get back then. I remember reading that article last year shortly before I built the PC I use now and using it as a kind of guideline, even though it was a few months old then.

    Anyway, this spell check on Firefox 2.0 Beta 1 is freaking sweet. :)
  • PC Surgeon - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    The review overall was very good. But I do have one problem and it has to do with this statement:

    "Still, we're inclined to recommend socket AM2 right now, as we have yet to see any budget socket 775 motherboards available that will support Core 2 Duo chips.

    Oh yeah? Well what about this one?

    ASRock 775Dual-VSTA $58.99 www.newegg.com/Product/Product.asp?Item=N82E16813157092

    It supports Conroe, DDR, DDRII, AGP, PCI-e....which to me is somewhat the equevelent of the ASROCK 939DUAL SATAII. For people with older systems that have DDR, or AGP, the 775Dual-VSTA is the board that can make the transition a little cheaper.

    Why you guys didn't recommend this board I don't know...maybe you didnt know about it? Or worse (and I doubt this is true) it was showing AMD bias.

    That's my bone to pick....
  • JarredWalton - Monday, July 10, 2006 - link

    I will let Gary's review explore overclocking on the ASRock motherboard. I really have no idea how it will perform, and the truth is that I started working on this article several weeks ago. If I knew for sure which budget motherboards can run Core 2 Duo and overclock well, I would be happy to recommend such a motherboard. We'll probably have to wait a few more weeks to get a clear feel for that market.

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