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How Gordon built his box of modest means, with enough cash left over for candy.
My original strategy going into the challenge was to forgo graphics performance for greater CPU power. But when I dug up an ad from a competing store that had a GeForce 8600 GT for $130 ($70 less than Fry’s), I started to seriously consider the possibility of a more balanced box. My strategy was contingent on the store price-matching, but it still wasn’t a lead-pipe cinch. I’d have to cut corners elsewhere.
I briefly considered cutting the RAM from 1GB to 512MB but feared the hit I’d take in our Photoshop CS2 test. And since I was already opting for single-channel RAM over dual channel to save $10 and using DDR2/667, I realized I couldn’t risk it.
As the clock ticked on, I found myself repeatedly rethinking and recomputing my configuration. Then another wrinkle arose: If I went with the 8600 GT, I’d need a PSU with a six-pin PCI-E power plug, something my $40 case/PSU combo certainly didn’t offer. Thus, I’d need an additional $3.99 converter. Plus, I wondered, would the PSU have the chops to run the 8600 GT?
All such questions became moot. With a mere 10 minutes left on the clock, I realized there wasn’t enough time to price match (which could easily take 20 minutes of haggling), so I ditched plan A and went with an all-around moderate system using a GeForce 8500 GT. Good for applications, good for gaming—at least if you’re playing two-year-old games at low resolutions.
Building the system was a snap; it posted on the first boot and I had the OS installed inside of 20 minutes. The ECS P965T-A motherboard, however, lived up to its poor reputation. The NIC was flaky, and worst of all, I couldn’t reliably overclock. I was confident the E4300 could run at 2.4GHz or 3GHz, but the mobo wouldn’t cooperate. Since the NIC was defective, our rules allowed me to exchange the board for another one that would potentially overclock, but another $60 mobo wouldn’t salve my overclocking woes; I remembered why I love premium $250 motherboards so much: They just work. To be fair to ECS, the board I bought was a return (which saved me $10). On the other hand, half the boards on the shelf were returned.
Despite the problems, this is a decent system for a newb. It has a dual-layer 16x DVD burner, supports quad-core processors, and is DirectX 10 ready. Not bad for $500. And since it’s in a case, it won’t get accidentally recycled by your mom.
First, I would have shaved more money from my graphics card purchase to buy a better mobo. That would have let me overclock the E4300 to 3GHz and would have given me the edge in our CPU-intensive applications tests. This would be a calculated risk, since I’d certainly lose the gaming benchmarks, but they wouldn’t be spectacular in a $500 box anyway. The ultimate solution, but one that’s difficult to come by, would have been to locate Intel’s new Pentium Dual Core procs. Basically, declawed Core 2 chips, those puppies should overclock as well as an E4300 for the price of a Celeron D.