Cheap Desktop Computer Battle

Kaya Systems

Battle of the $750 budget PCs

We’ve always said that building on a budget takes far more skill and savvy than building without financial constraints. Every single component choice has to be carefully weighed for its potential benefits and drawbacks. As if that weren’t enough, budget builders have to decide between three prospective platforms: Intel ’s LGA1155, and AMD ’s AM3+ and FM2. With so many permutations possible, and so much room for error, a cash-strapped builder’s got to wonder which thrifty path offers the best all-around performance. We can think of no better way to answer this important question than with a down-and-dirty DIY dust-up.

Three Maximum PC editors duke it out to build the best cheap computer.

Yes, we set three staffers loose in the Lab to battle it out build-it style. For ground rules, each was assigned one of the three competing platforms and given a hard limit of $750. Since prices shift from day to day, or even hour to hour, all of the competing configurations were priced with the popular PCPartPicker.com tool and the specs were all finalized at 6:00 p.m. of the same day. Since rebates also change daily, they weren’t factored into the total cost.

Editors were allowed the freedom of using personal knowledge and the Internets to inform their picks, but since many of the components used in these builds aren’t typically on our “enthusiast” radar, none of the editors really knew for certain if one part was faster than another. And like most buyers screwing together parts from a shopping list, they didn’t know if everything would actually work together in the end, either.

You must be dying to know how this all plays out, how the builds perform in the benchmarks against each other as well as against our house Budget box (Blueprint), and which of the budget builds gets the ultimate nod from our panel of judges.

The contestants have their tools drawn, so let the battle begin!

FM2 Build: Choose Your Battle

Can a GTX 670 ride this rig all the way to victory?

Chris Zele's Plan

I was given the task of creating an AMD FM2 system, so my initial plan was to build a hybrid CrossFire AMD A10-5800K box, leveraging the integrated graphics to assist a discrete GPU in graphics chores. I planned to use the quad-core part coupled with a Radeon HD 6670 and overclock them both. That whole plan went out the window, though, when I learned that Tom and Gordon were going to use GPUs that were far faster than a hybrid CrossFire setup. I had to zig instead of zag, so I decided to go for broke on the graphics side, spending half my budget on the GPU. I had to rob Peter to pay Paul, so my quad-core A10-5800K was swapped out for a dual-core A6-5400K. This might seem foolish, but it was a calculated risk. Both of my competitors have CPU platforms with chip options far faster than FM2. The Piledriver cores in FM2 CPUs can’t really compete with six-core FX chips or any LGA1155 quad part, so I conceded the CPU tests. I figured that if I was going to lose in CPU benchmarks I may as well try to win all of the GPU benchmarks. I just hoped that the A6-5400K I selected wouldn’t hold back the video card’s performance too much.

After Gordon saw my build, he dubbed it the “Scud Missile,” as it had a bunch of low-end parts flanked by a kick-ass GPU.

The CPU and Cooler

This is a category where FM2 can be easily outclassed by the other two sockets. On the AM3+ build, Tom could scale all the way up to eight cores. And since both the FM2 and AM3+ parts use the same Piledriver cores on the latest CPUs, there’s just no way to beat the FX-6300 CPU in Tom’s rig. I knew if I wanted to win any of the benchmark rounds I would have to downgrade my CPU to a dual-core A6 5400K. I considered an overclock but settled on the stock cooler. The best part is it’s free and I saw no point in overclocking my wimpy dual-core—it still wouldn’t win any computing chores. The AMD 5400K comes with a stock clock of 3.6GHz and a Turbo Boost of 3.8GHz, which I thought would be more than enough for some of our GPU-heavy benchmarks.

Parts list
CPU AMD 3.8GHz A6-5400K
www.amd.com $75
Motherboard MSI FM2-A55M-E33 www.msi.com $49
RAM
Kingston Black 8GB/1600
www.kingston.com
$37
HDD
HGST 500GB www.hgst.com
$55
GPU MSI N670GTX-PM2D2GD5/OC
www.msi.com $349
Case Corsair 200R www.corsair.com $50
PSU Corsair CX430 www.corsair.com $45
OS Windows 8 www.microsoft.com $90
Total $750

The Motherboard

Despite its budget persona, the FM2 platform actually offers some very nicely outfitted dual-GPU motherboards. My build, though, would have none of that. I wanted to save money for my other parts, which is why I picked a budget microATX board: MSI’s FM2-A55M-E33. The inexpensive mobo comes with four SATA ports, one x16 PCIe slot, and four USB 2.0 ports. Yup, no USB 3.0. The board has two DIMM slots but they support up to 16GB of DDR3/1866. It may be basic, but at least it’s only $49.

RAM

My FM2 box needed to make up ground wherever possible, so as a result, I went with a pair of Kingston Black 4GB DDR3/1600 modules for $37. I hoped that by having slightly faster RAM and more of it I would get a small edge in performance against Gordon and Tom, as they both chose lesser amounts of 1,333MHz RAM. Tom’s box is even running in single-channel mode, too.

The GPU

After Tom and Gordon revealed their respective plans for the beefier Radeon HD 7870 and GeForce GTX 660 boards, I knew I had to get something that would trounce them in performance. I decided to go with a GeForce GTX 670 from MSI, which would easily outperform the GPUs they selected. With a strong GPU to counter-balance my low-end processor, my goal was to win out on the gaming benchmarks, as half of the benchmarks we chose to determine performance were GPU-based.

The Case

For my case, I wanted something that would give me tool-less drive bays, cable-routing accommodations, and a clean design, all for $50. As luck would have it, the Corsair 200R was on sale for that price. The 200R offers everything I was after, plus sports two fans along with front-panel USB 3.0 ports. Sadly, my mobo doesn’t support USB 3.0, but I could still make use of the ports using the USB 2.0–to–USB 3.0 adapter that came with the case.

The Storage

My primary storage for this build was a HGST 7,200rpm 500GB mechanical hard drive. I decided to forgo an SSD because it would blow out my budget. I also figured an SSD wasn’t imperative with Windows 8 , which is very quick and responsive even on mechanical hard drives.

The PSU

Like Gordon, I gambled a little on my PSU choice. The GeForce GTX 670 needs dual 6-pin connectors to power up. As my Corsair CX430 V2 has only one 6-pin, I had to use a Molex-to-6-pin adapter to power my GPU, and I wasn’t 100 percent certain it would work. Luckily for me, it did, and I had no problems using the adapter.

Yes, I took a chance with the PSU, but not like Gordon who opted for a “free” PSU with a warranty period shorter than the expiration of a gallon of milk—30 days. That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. My CX430 V2 does, though. It has a 3-year warranty and I’m pretty certain it’ll handle the 170-watt needs of the MSI GTX 670 card.

The Benchmarks

Despite my best efforts, my rig got the crap kicked out of it in the benchmarks. It was like a ragdoll being ripped to shreds by rabid pit bulls. Yeah, not pretty. And I’m not just talking about the two other builds in this competition, either. The A6-5400K couldn’t even hang in some CPU-bound tests with the Phenom II X4 965 from our Budget Blueprint. But hey, we’re talking a dual-core with shared resources versus a quad-core with four actual separate cores. What’s interesting is how much better the Piledriver cores are over the Phenom II in some encoding tests. The little A6-5400K actually beat the Phenom II X4 in ProShow Producer, which is optimized for four threads. (Encoding has long been a weakness in the old Phenom II.) I’m also surprised the A6 did as well against the Phenom II 965 in Stitch.Efx 2.0 and x264 encoding. The results may look ugly, but remember, it’s only a dual-core and it even shares resources, too.

In gaming, the GeForce GTX 670 easily made mincemeat pie out of the Radeon HD 7770 card in the Budget build, but that’s to be expected. Unfortunately, that card didn’t give me the advantage I was counting on against Tom and Gordon’s builds.

Benchmarks
Zero-point

Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec) 1,813 2,665 (-32%)
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec) 3,127 2,973
x264 HD 5.0 (fps)
8
3.5 (-56%)
STALKER: CoP (fps)
29.9 58.1
Hitman: Absolution (fps) 14 19.1
3DMark 11 Performance 3,983 4,096

Our current Budget build uses a Phenom II X4 965 BE, a Gigabyte GA-970A-UD3, 4GB of DDR3/1333, an Asus Radeon HD 7770, a 120GB Samsung 840, and WD Caviar Blue 1TB HDD. All tests were run on Windows 8.

AM3+ Build: A Hex on the Competition

Made from parts you’d actually want to buy

Tom McNamara's Plan

Intel's Ivy Bridge provides a lot of value, but I thought we needed an AMD system to keep things interesting. I could have just dropped in a Phenom II X4 965 for $100, but I can have intelligible conversations with people who are younger than that CPU. I managed to wedge in an FX-6300, which is based on AMD's newer Vishera microarchitecture. Combine it with a Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo cooler and an ASRock 970 Extreme3 motherboard, and we should have some overclocking headroom to shorten the distance between this chip and Gordon's quad-core Intel system. I briefly considered jamming in an eight-core FX-8320, but I would have had to make some ugly sacrifices. My goal was to build a respectable machine that a person might want to buy, made of parts with a greater reputation for reliability. I'll leave it to my competition to strap a rocket to a roller skate, even if it means losing on a few benchmarks.

The CPU and Cooler

The FX-6300 is officially a hexa-core CPU, although its cores share three floating-point units when the conventional math would, well, call for six of them. At stock, it runs at 3.5GHz, but its microarchitecture is different enough from Intel’s (and even the Phenom II) that you can't make direct comparisons. Either way, it's a very solid unit for the price, and pairing it with a Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo allows me to overclock to 4GHz easily, so it’s worth the extra expense.

Sure, I could have spent that $30 or so on an optical drive or another 4GB of RAM, but I also wanted a system that would not sound too loud under load. 4GB is a fine starting point for a general-purpose system. And once your system is installed, it's a heck of a lot easier to snap in another stick of RAM than it is to replace a stock CPU cooler. It would also be a shame to yoke a nice CPU and motherboard to a stock heatsink. And unlike the Phenom II 965, FX chips have support for AVX and FMA calculations, so they'll be better at stuff that requires lots of floating-point operations.

Parts list
CPU AMD 3.5GHz FX-6300
www.amd.com $130
Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo www.coolermaster.com $33
Motherboard
ASRock 970 Extreme3
www.asrock.com
$85
RAM
Kingston Value 4GB DDR3/1333 www.kingston.com
$19
HDD WD Caviar Blue 500GB
www.wd.com $55
GPU MSI Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition www.amd.com $230
Case NZXT 210 Elite www.nzxt.com $50
PSU Corsair CX500 www.corsair.com $58
OS Windows 8 www.microsoft.com $90
Total $750

The Motherboard

I chose ASRock's 970 Extreme3 primarily for two reasons. One, it's one of the cheapest motherboards you can get that has heatsinks on the voltage regulator modules. This feature is critical for overclocking and recommended for general stability. Two, it has four RAM slots thanks to its full ATX form factor. So although there's 4GB in there now, you can easily have up to 16GB without having to swap anything. And it'll take up to 32GB clocked up to 2,100MHz; both features are actually pretty handy for encoding HD video. Its additional PCI Express Slot, five SATA 6Gb/s ports, eSATA, UEFI BIOS, optical and coaxial audio, and Japanese-manufactured capacitors are just gravy, in my opinion.

The RAM

Yes, it would have been nice to have 8GB of RAM, or even two 2GB sticks to at least have dual channels. But both options carried a premium that would have busted my budget. Such is the price of including high-quality parts elsewhere. In fact, the day after we ordered our parts, the price of DDR3 began to creep up across the board, so we dodged that bullet. At least I have a common 1,333MHz stick branded by Kingston, so getting a genuinely matching stick later on should not be too difficult.

The Storage

I took the most conservative option here. I thought that an SSD worth buying wasn't really in the cards, and I could do without an optical drive. It's going to cost me some performance, but I was determined to have uniformly recommendable parts in my build. Since Windows can be installed from a USB stick, and there isn't much else that truly requires an optical drive, I didn't feel too bad about my decision, even if it meant having fewer lasers involved.

The GPU

Since I'd already gone AMD with the CPU, I liked the idea of sticking with the brand for my video card. And the MSI Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition is no slouch. It will perform roughly the same as Gordon's
Nvidia GTX 660. I also overclocked the core to 1,100MHz and the memory to 1,400MHz.

The Case

The NZXT 210 Elite has a front USB 3.0 port, lots of room for long video cards, a painted interior, tool-free drive cages, two bundled fans (12cm and 14cm), a bottom PSU mount with external ventilation, and seven fan mounts. It's the kind of product that you can keep between builds, rather than donating it to someone or stowing it in a basement. Being able to use a case like this multiple times offsets its higher cost in the long run. Like the power supply, its benefits will not be reflected in the benchmarks. Like Gordon's caching SSD, it's a thing you have to see and feel firsthand to appreciate. Once you've assembled a computer with a solid case like this one, it's hard to go back to a generic box.

The PSU

This was the other half of what I sacrificed for. The Corsair CX500 might not be the flashiest unit in its class, but with 80-Plus Bronze efficiency, a single 12-volt rail, two 8-pin PCIe cables, a thermally controlled fan, sleeved cables, and a respectable 3-year warranty, it's also the kind of product you can use with confidence for several years of moderate-to-heavy usage. I would have preferred a modular unit, but the 210 Elite has enough room for me to tuck the extra cables out of the way.

The Benchmarks

The zero-point's Phenom II X4 965 can't keep up with a modern hexa-core CPU. But the Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition makes by far the biggest difference versus a Radeon HD 7770, with its greater bandwidth, additional video memory and shaders, and higher clock speeds. These two cards are more like cousins than siblings. Overclock the FX-6300 to 4GHz, and the difference in overall system speed becomes even more apparent; we dominate in every game benchmark and rock the multithreaded apps for good measure. The zero-point's Samsung 840 solid-state drive will make the desktop experience feel much snappier overall, but the expense of this storage device clearly doesn't end at the cash register, as that system sacrifices GPU and CPU horsepower to stay within budget.

Benchmarks
Zero-point

Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec) 1,813 1,640
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec) 3,127 1,950
x264 HD 5.0 (fps)
8
11.4
STALKER: CoP (fps)
29.9 54.9
Hitman: Absolution (fps) 14 28
3DMark 11 Performance 3,983 6,671

Our current Budget build uses a Phenom II X4 965 BE, a Gigabyte GA-970A-UD3, 4GB of DDR3/1333, an Asus Radeon HD 7770, a 120GB Samsung 840, and WD Caviar Blue 1TB HDD. All tests were run on Windows 8.

LGA1155 Build: Quad-Core Curveball

Intel parts can’t compete on price, or can they?

Gordon Ung's Plan

Once I was assigned with building a budget box around LGA1155, I originally sketched out a sedate dual-core Ivy Bridge machine (Core i3 or Pentium G) using the Corsair Carbide 200R, upgradeable motherboard, and a quality PSU. Yes, the Honda Civic of budget boxes. It gets your computing done in a reliable and boring fashion. In a drag race of budget rigs, though, and up against overclocked FX and A-series chips with more cores, I don’t believe a non-overclocking i3 has what it takes. But to even get into an overclocking part for Intel breaks my budget, too, so I figured there was no way LGA1155 could possibly win at $750 with OS. Once I sat down and started running the numbers, though, I decided I didn’t want to go down without a fight. And to quote Admiral James Tiberius Kirk, “I don’t like to lose.”

But would my curveball strategy really upstage the other rigs with their cost advantage, or would I be marooned for an eternity on dead, nonfunctional PC island? In essence, buried alive. Buried alive.

The CPU and Cooler

Rather than a predictable dual-core CPU, I decided to bet the farm that a quad-core Ivy Bridge part would give me an advantage over the overclocked A-series and FX chips I expected to face. For that, I turned to the Core i5-3350P. This 22nm CPU is a full-on quad-core Ivy Bridge part. It lacks Hyper-Threading but has a mild Turbo Boost mode. There’s a modest overclock available but as a non-K part, it ain’t much, and only on Z-series chipsets. The Core i5-3350P graphics core is disabled but it’s actually 100MHz faster than the pricier Core i5-3330. Besides the clocks, spec-for-spec it’s the same as the Core i5-3570K. The chip comes with a stock cooler that’s not horrible, either, with its copper slug.

I think this highlights a weakness in Intel’s lineup: There’s no unlocked part to be had for less than $200. Ideally, I would have used a modern version of the old Core i5-655K chip.

Could I have sacrificed a couple of the other “luxuries” in the rig to get a Core i5-3570K and cheap cooler, so I could overclock, too? Perhaps, but I thought going that far would seriously compromise the machine beyond actual usefulness.

Parts list
CPU Intel 3.1GHz Core i5-3350P
www.intel.com $176
Motherboard ECS H77H2-M3 www.ecsusa.com $65
RAM
Kingston Value 4GB DDR3/1333
www.kingston.com
$26
ODD Lite-On iHas IHAS 124-04 www.liteonit.com $16
SSD
A-Data Premiere Pro SP600 32GB www.adata-group.com
$45
HDD WD Caviar Blue 500GB www.wd.com $55
GPU Gigabyte GV-N660OC-2GD
www.gigabyte.us
$216
Case Rosewill R218 w/450W PSU www.rosewill.com $61
OS Windows 8 www.microsoft.com $90
Total $750

The Motherboard

Besides socket, my motherboard decision was dictated primarily by price and also by chipset selection. As Intel only offers its RST SSD caching (more on that later) on 7-series boards, I knew the minimum I could run is the H77 chipset. There’s no top-shelf luxury brand here, either, for my budget. No, it’s a basic ECS H77H2-M3 in microATX trim. It’s pretty bare-bones with its two DIMM slots and one x16 PCIe slot but at least I get two SATA 6Gb/s ports, and two USB 3.0 ports, plus the SSD caching that will have my mechanical drive hopefully singing like an SSD. ECS isn’t a brand too familiar to enthusiasts but it’s well known in budget circles. In fact, I turned to ECS back when I gave former editor Dave Murphy a sound thrashing on a budget build challenge in 2007 (read it at: http://bit.ly/a3ipW4 ).

The RAM

I originally considered running a single 4GB DIMM in single-channel mode to save funds, as few apps are actually bandwidth-sensitive, but I decided that I didn’t want to take the hit on any transcoding or encoding tests; so as much as it pains me, I filled the only two DIMM slots with a pair of 2GB Kingston DDR3/1333 modules. I decided 8GB was too pricey and Windows 8 runs fairly nicely on 4GB of RAM.

The Storage

I could have taken the easy way out and stripped out the optical drive and gone mechanical-only. But enough readers have convinced me that the optical is still needed—for now. So $16 went to the Lite-On iHas IHAS 124-04. I also really wanted to give the machine the luxurious feel of an SSD. One way to do that on the cheap is with Intel’s Storage Response Technology, aka SSD caching software. It allowed me to pair the cheapest SSD I could find, A-Data’s 32GB Premier Pro SP600, with a Western Digital 7,200rpm Caviar Blue 500GB drive. The Premier Pro SP600 is no Samsung 840 Pro, but with sequential reads of about 363MB/s and writes of 136MB/s it should give the rig a peppiness the other boxes won’t have.

The GPU

I originally planned to use a hotter GPU but then realized that I’d not only pay extra for a Radeon HD 7870, but for a fatter PSU, too. Then I really thought about how much of an actual increase in performance I would see. Maybe 5 to 10 percent? Should I really throw the optical drive and SSD-like feel of my system overboard just to go from 23fps to 28fps in a game? No. In the end, Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 660 OC would fit the bill. The card has the same memory interface as the pricier 660 Ti, 2GB of RAM, and more importantly, it runs on a single PCIe 6-pin power plug.

The Case

Rosewill’s R218 has long been a means to an end for budget builds. It’s not sturdy, doesn’t have the latest bells and whistles such as front USB 3.0 ports, but it’s low-cost and it comes complete with a 450W PSU. I admit, this enclosure is a compromise, but I’ll also say that once it’s tucked far enough under my desk and has attracted enough dust, I won’t even notice.

The PSU

The freebie 450W PSU that comes with my R218 case was the biggest gamble. Would it have the cojones to run the GeForce 660 and my quad Ivy Bridge? I didn’t know going into this. One thing that does make me feel better is that Rosewill is Newegg’s house brand, so technically, recourse is possible if something goes awry.

The Benchmarks

There’s no surprises here. You can’t put an Ivy Bridge quad-core against an AMD Phenom II X4 965 and expect anything except a total beat-down in anything that’s CPU-heavy. The same can be said of the budget Radeon HD 7770 against the GeForce GTX 660. I will say one thing about our current Budget rig, it at least has an optical drive and a luxurious Samsung 840 aboard, which boosts its pleasure factor as well as its performance in disk-heavy tests. I could go on ad nauseum about this benchmark or that, but I’m more concerned about the other two rigs here, not our old budget build.

Benchmarks
Zero-point

Stitch.Efx 2.0 (sec) 1,813 1,197
ProShow Producer 5.0 (sec) 3,127 1,802
x264 HD 5.0 (fps)
8
10.2
STALKER: CoP (fps)
29.9 57
Hitman: Absolution (fps) 14 23.4
3DMark 11 Performance 3,983 6,148

Our current Budget build uses a Phenom II X4 965 BE, a Gigabyte GA-970A-UD3, 4GB of DDR3/1333, an Asus Radeon HD 7770, a 120GB Samsung 840, and WD Caviar Blue 1TB HDD. All tests were run on Windows 8.

The Closing Arguments

Each editor makes a final case for his config

My system might be unbalanced, but it has the video chops to do every GPU task imaginable.

Members of the Maximum PC court, let me start by stating that almost everything that a PC enthusiast does on his or her desktop uses the GPU in one way or another—from using multiple monitors to gaming. If you set your video encode to run on the GPU, the GeForce GTX 670 would easily smoke the Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition chosen by Tom and the GTX 660 selected by Gordon. Those who have high-res panels of 2560x1600 will also benefit from the 670, as it outperform the other video cards at higher resolutions. My processor might not have as much oomph as an FX part or an Ivy Bridge chip, but it gets the job done well enough while my GPU handles the brunt of my PC’s load.

Helping to get these video tasks done is 8GB of Kingston Black DDR3/1600 RAM, which will more than suffice for your multitasking needs. The RAM is clocked higher than my competitors’ and should give an edge when running multiple programs, too.

Something I found to be interesting is that every part I used in my system came with a manufacturer warranty of two or more years. Gordon, on the other hand, has a case and PSU covered for an almost insulting 30 days. The rig I put together might be lopsided when it comes to my CPU and GPU, but at least it’s graphically appealing inside and out.

AM3+: Future Shock

At this budget level, the quality of individual components can be unreliable. Since a person spending this kind of money probably can't afford many replacement parts or major upgrades, it's better to start with the bar set as high as possible. The places you cut corners can end up costing you double when they break down unexpectedly. And you don't want to have to buy a whole new motherboard just to upgrade your CPU or add more RAM. Boards are a pain to replace, and if you have an OEM version of Windows, it's usually a violation of the user license to reinstall the OS on a system that has a different board.

My 970 Extreme3 has heatsinks on the voltage regulators, high-quality capacitors, four RAM slots, several PCI slots, five SATA 6Gb/s ports, three audio outputs, and an eSATA port. And the AM3+ socket should stay relevant for a few more years. None of this shows up directly on a benchmark, but there is high value for a builder who wants reliability, expansion, and adaptation.

The CX500's dual 8-pin PCIe cables can take every single-GPU card available, too. The Evo 212 cooler will allow big overclocks and should be compatible with the next couple of iterations of FX CPUs. The 210 Elite case can take a 24cm radiator despite costing about 50 bucks, and you don't need a modular power supply to keep the insides tidy, thanks to some generous space for cable management. My system may not win every benchmark, but I can say that it's built to last.

LGA1155: Looks Ain’t Everything

Your honors, let me first state that I intended to present my argument for winning by using a short movie produced and written by Steven Spielberg and directed by J.J. Abrams with Tom Hanks playing my role. That idea was canned when I realized my competitors had no ability to play a DVD, much less burn a CD.

I will instead state my case like so: What matters most? How “pretty” a case is or whether your photo chores take twice as long as the box next to it? Sure, you might get a few more frames at a still unplayable frame rate (is 28fps vs. 23.4fps really something to crow about when you’re actually playing the game?), but what about the extra 15 seconds it takes to launch the game or your favorite app? Yes, Windows 8 does indeed have speedier launch times, but it ain’t as speedy as you’d expect on a 7,200rpm low-areal-density drive. The LGA1155 truly gives you the luxurious feel of a rig with an SSD.

And lest anyone play the “upgrade” card by saying LGA1155 is a dead man walking, let me remind the judges that there is indeed a healthy upgrade path for this system, as you could drop in a Core i7-3770K tomorrow, if you could afford that luxury chip.

So to reiterate: This is the only balanced system here offering top-of-the-line performance in all categories while giving you smooth, SSD-like responsiveness and an optical drive so you don’t have to panhandle a drive or USB stick from your buddy just to install the OS.

Taking It to the Benchmarks

The test scores tell the story of where each rig succeeds and fails

To evaluate the performance of our systems, we pitted them against our current Budget Blueprint, a Phenom II X4 965 box with a fresh install of Windows 8, in a subset of our system benchmarks, in addition to a couple of games run at 1920x1080 rather than the typical nut-busting 2560x1600 we use to test $5,000 boxes. We also ran an additional set of benchmarks to increase our data. You can see the full suite of test results at  MaximumPC.com when the story is posted online.

The benchmarks you see here held the most sway over our panel of judges. The results were a bit eye-opening.

First up, our CPU benchmarks. TechArp.com’s x264 5.01 encoding test is heavily multithreaded and if you have eight cores, it’ll use them. ProShow Producer 5.0 is optimized for four cores and Stitch.EFx 2.0 is a combination: The first two-thirds of the run is single-threaded with the last third exploiting multiple threads. The FM2-based A6 CPU gets destroyed by the FX and Core i5 parts. It even gets pummeled by the Phenom II in x264 and Stich.Efx, but shockingly beats the quad-core Phenom II in ProShow Producer. Between the FX and Core i5, the more efficient i5 easily trounces the FX in Stitch. The spread came as a surprise since we didn’t think the relatively low clocks of the Core i5 would spank the FX part so badly, especially with the overclock Tom put on the FX CPU. The overclock definitely helped the FX in ProShow, too. It didn’t win, but it came surprisingly close to the Ivy Bridge quad CPU. Finally, in the second pass of x264, the six cores of the FX put it on top—and we expected the Core i5 to take top honors.

Moving on to gaming, we had expected the FM2 platform to spank both other boxes with its $350 GPU, but the dual-core/shared-core design of the CPU put it at a severe disadvantage in 3DMark 11 and Hitman: Absolution. Both feature physics tests, which are CPU-heavy, and the dual-core severely sags. The good news for the FM2 box is that it did manage to win the STALKER: CoP test, but if you look at the numbers, it’s not what you’d expect of a $350 GPU. We’ve long said that gaming is 90 percent GPU, but seeing this data, we’re inclined to revise that to 75 percent—but only when coupled with a decent quad-core chip.

And the Best Budget Build Is….

To pick our winner, each PC was presented to an independent panel of Maximum PC editors not involved in the contest.

The FM2 system was almost immediately eliminated from contention. Yes, it did have the highest score in STALKER: CoP, but that’s it, and it wasn’t exactly by a large margin. The overall thrashing it took from the LGA1155 and the AM3+ as well as the older Phenom II 965 relegated it to a distant third place in all three judge’s eyes.

That made it a two-horse race between the AM3+ and LGA1155 system. After seeing the benchmark data and poking around the interiors of the systems, Judge Josh Norem selected the AM3+ as the winner. Norem said the arguments were pretty clear-cut: The AM3+ has easy upgrade options in the empty DIMM slots, a full ATX motherboard, and a case that’s far superior to the LGA1155’s Rosewill enclosure for enthusiasts.

Judge Katherine Stevenson, however, sided against Judge Norem, arguing that the better CPU performance and the close-enough gaming performance (Gordon’s “28fps vs. 23fps—big whoop” argument obviously worked) put the LGA1155 ahead. She also said the SSD caching was a persuasive factor in her pick, as 500GB HDD performance is nothing anyone wants to be stuck with, even if the case is prettier. Judge Stevenson even did some mouse driving on both systems and timed how long it took to launch games and apps and boot the systems. The results only cemented her belief that the LGA1155, though ugly as hell, was the winner.

The swing vote on the panel was Judge Jimmy Thang. Judge Thang crunched the benchmark numbers and decided that the LGA1155 was the overall better system. Judge Thang felt the CPU-heavy wins were more persuasive than the GPU wins, which were pretty close when you look at the frame rates. He also said the caching SSD proved to be a critical advantage in performance and agreed that the ability to cut application and launch times outweighed a sturdier PSU or case since those don’t impact felt performance.

It’s not a unanimous decision, but the judges have ruled: The LGA1155 system is the Budget Build winner.

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