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Our associate editor tackled his tasks with some controversial choices.
Sadly, the process of building a $500 rig was more a battle of shopping know-how than computer savvy. I had a feeling Gordon and I would be stuck with nearly identical parts, as there’s not much wiggle room once you deduct $40 from the total for sales tax and plunk down cash for a generic power supply, optical drive, and hard drive. I correctly assumed we’d be purchasing the same CPU, the much-overclockable E4300, but I thought we’d at least see a bit of a shoot-out in videocards—at the $100 level there are some options.
ATI cards ended up being too expensive for consideration in this challenge, so I went with an Nvidia-based 7600 GS. It’s not the best card on the market, but I was relatively confident I’d be able to get decent performance out of it. If I remember correctly, I did see a cheaper 8500 when shopping. But for my money, the 7600 is the better choice—no DirectX 10 support, but let’s be honest: The very few DX10 titles available right now bring even 8800-model cards to their knees. There’s no way an 8500 would ever be able to run a DX10 game, so I’d rather bank on a solid DX9 card.
It didn’t take long at all for me to assemble my PC—a big advantage to working without a case—and load the OS, but it would be hours before my machine was truly finished. After several failed attempts at booting, I realized that my mobo was incompatible with my CPU, and I had to drive back to the store for a replacement. And while the new mobo was able to boot just fine, it proved virtually worthless at overclocking. I was only able to push the CPU to 1.99GHz, a far cry from the potential 2.5GHz + I was envisioning during the initial checkout. This cheap motherboard absolutely destroyed my plan and has firmly convinced me to not skimp when it comes to mobos—not if I want to tweak my system to awesome levels, that is.
The videocard overclocked nicely, but when I say nicely, it’s like the difference between fourth and inches and fourth and a few more inches. Sure, my rig destroyed Gordon’s in the graphics-heavy tests. But that freaking motherboard and its horrible VIA chipset ended up counterbalancing any performance gains I expected from an overclocked processor. This motherboard was the gatekeeper to my grand design. Of course, in this case, it’s more a flaming bridge between the rock and the proverbial hard place.
Did I learn anything from the building experience? Yeah, don’t build a PC for $500. Would I do anything differently? I’d stick with a stock cooler and save myself a whopping $10. As for the case, I still wouldn’t bother. You just can’t dress a turd. Putting these parts into a chassis implies that what’s inside is a functional computer. A cardboard enclosure is perfectly fitting for the performance you get from a $500 train wreck.