Note: This article originally ran in the May 2012 issue of Maximum PC--some pricing information may have changed since.
We won’t blow smoke up your PSU: Spending more money on a PC generally gives you a better computing experience. But that doesn’t mean that anything short of an exotic $7,000 PC can’t be fun and fulfilling, and it doesn’t mean that folks on a very lean budget are doomed to a piss-poor computing experience. So for anyone who isn’t flush with cash, we’ve laid out three nicely configured PCs—one for every budget.
The first is a sub-$500 rig that offers more gaming performance than a top-of-the-line gaming GPU... from 2007. The second PC, for just $1,300, is an everyman’s PC that’s sure to make Joe the Nerd a happy camper. The third PC is an honest-to-goodness enthusiast-class PC at the down-to-earth price of $2,100.
If you’re itching to build a rig, the time to do it is now!
The beauty of a PC is scale—in both performance and price
We all have friends who will stand in line for hours and lay down top dollar for the latest brushed-aluminum gadget, but the truth is, for a lot of people, the recovery ain’t here—not by a long shot.
The light at the end of the economic tunnel might just be a train.
For these folks, every dollar is precious and even a $700 PC seems extravagant. But we didn’t want tough times to quash the hopes of an aspiring PC builder. Thus we set out to see what’s possible at the $500 mark. Mind you, this would be the second-cheapest PC we’ve ever spec’d out. The cheapest was the $340 Ultra Budget PC from the September 2011 issue, but that was essentially a calculator on steroids. For this box, we wanted better‑than‑integrated graphics, if possible. We’ll admit right now that hitting our goal was a tall task given today’s hard drive prices and the cost of the OS, but we thought it a worthy effort. What’s interesting is that once you get into the $500 range, every component has to be weighed carefully and justified. Were there corners cut and risks taken? Certainly. You can’t eat Doritos without getting synthetic cheese all over your hands, but the final product ain’t bad.
Have you heard of that PC hacker named Goldilocks? She wandered into the Maximum PC Lab one day when no one was around, started using the What Recovery?! box, and immediately proclaimed it was “too damned low-budget for her needs.” She then wandered over to the high-end Tax Refund PC and again turned up her nose in disapproval. “Why the hell would I pay a premium for LGA2011 when I’m never going to need quad-channel memory or buy a $600 hexa-core chip?!?”
As Goldilocks would say, "It's just right...."
Well G-locks, the Sweet Spot PC is just the right PC for you, and most enthusiasts, for that matter. At roughly $1,300, it’s fast without being overkill, it’s stylish without being ostentatious. It also hits all the modern enthusiast must-haves: must have super-fast SSD, must have upgrade path to next-generation CPUs, and must have support for a future multi-GPU upgrade. Hell, it even overclocks nicely without disturbing the church-mouse‑quiet nature of the box. This is a sweet box for the price and probably enough machine for 80 percent of folks. It’s so nice, in fact, that most of you probably don’t need to look at the Tax Refund PC at all.
We didn’t know when we started spec’ing out our high-end build that the average tax refund in the United States is $2,100. So when our PC ended up at that price point, we knew the configuration was right on target. Sure, those of you whose heads were turned by the promise of our Sweet Spot PC are scoffing at the frivolity of the extra cubits we dropped on this box. But we actually think of the Tax Refund PC not as the PC you need, but the PC you want.
The PC you want, not the PC you need.
First, it’s faster. From compute-bound chores to gaming, that extra $800 gets you eight threads instead of four, the current reigning champ in single-GPU graphics, and the ability to play and burn Blu-rays. This is also the only machine here that will let you run more than four cores. Granted, not everyone needs six cores, but if you’re the kind of person whose livelihood relies on a speedy PC, having the ability to upgrade to a six-core Sandy Bridge-E processor today or even an eight- or 10-core with Ivy Bridge-E tomorrow, makes this box worth its weight in silicon. If that’s not enough… it’s red!
Keep reading for full parts lists, our decision making process, and the benchmarks!
At this price, most people expect sucktastic integrated graphics, but we prove you can get your (moderate) game on for less than five Benjies.
The first compromise you always make with any budget box is the PSU. Here, we go with a bundled Rosewill 450‑watt PSU that came free with the Rosewill R218 case. We don’t normally trust free power supplies, but we’re comforted by the fact that the unit carries a one-year warranty and the website is based in the U.S.
To get below $500, a budget CPU was key. For that, we turned to Intel’s 2.4GHz Celeron G530. We know, you’re thinking, “Celeron! Whaa?” Relax, this isn’t a warmed-over Pentium III core; it’s actually a Sandy Bridge chip. Well, a Sandy Bridge chip with a lot switched off—there’s no Hyper-Threading, no QuickSync, and no Turbo Boost 2.0. The cache is also a bit smaller at 2MB vs. 3MB for a standard dual-core SNB part, but it’s not a bad CPU.
Integrated graphics is normally a typical component of ultra-budget boxes. While Intel and AMD’s integrated graphics have come a long way, they still, well, stink when compared to a discrete card. Gigabyte’s HD 7750 easily makes a monkey out of any integrated graphics out today—and it sips power, which is crucial given our freebie PSU.
We had to make a compromise with our Gigabyte GA-H61 mobo, but it’s probably fine. The problem relates to Intel’s H61 chipset, which deletes support for SATA 6Gb/s speeds (thanks, Intel!). However, the board does get us into LGA1155 for $54, and is someone with an ultra-budget box really going to buy a $200 SSD, anyway? Probably not.
A pair of 2GB Kingston DDR3/1333 DIMMs does the job. The Celeron actually throttles the RAM to DDR3/1066, but it’s tough to even find that clock RAM today.
For $20, we could have doubled our capacity with a WD Caviar Green, but we opted for a 500GB WD Caviar Blue because we believe that having a 5,400rpm primary boot drive is too painful. No, it’s not a Black drive, but at least it runs at 7,200rpm.
Today’s youths probably wonder why the tech world once trembled at the mere mention of Microsoft’s name. Our budget build lays it out nicely, though: When broken out as a percentage, the $99 spent on Windows 7 Home Premium is 20 percent of the system budget.
Keep reading for the Sweet Spot PC, the Tax Refund PC and the benchmarks!
This rig is just right for most people’s budgets, offers just the right amount of performance, and just the right acoustics, too
Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Evo continues to offer the best cooling at a price that doesn’t break the bank, or the ears, and lets us maintain our 4GHz overclock in peace and quiet.
On Valentine’s Day we sent flowers and chocolate to Intel’s 3.3GHz Core i5-2500K. Yes, we love it that much for giving us so much joy and happiness for so little money. We took the chip from its stock 3.3GHz to a very moderate overclock of 4GHz to keep within our plan for a fast and quiet PC.
News flash: You can get a cheap LGA1155 board, but you can’t get a cheap board that supports SLI and CrossFireX. Gigabyte’s GA-Z68XP-UD3 is about the lowest-cost board around that still gives us the capability to run SLI or CrossFireX while offering all of the Z68-goodness such as QuickSync and SSD caching.
EVGA’s GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448 is perhaps the best bang for the buck right now without leaping beyond $300 for a GPU. Ours, for example, can be found on sale or with rebates for $269. Don’t confuse it with the FTW or Classified editions, which fetch a bit more.
Corsair’s TX750M gives us enough juice to support a second GPU in the future, and with rebates it’s a darn good deal.
A pair of 4GB Patriot DDR3/1600 DIMMs hits the price/performance ratio for us and is low‑profile enough to fit under the cooler.
What’s not to love about the OCZ Agility 3 drive? It packs 120GB of MLC NAND, has a SandForce 2 controller, and can be found for a mere $130 after rebates.
With the OS running off of our speedy SSD, we fell back on an affordable and quiet 2TB WD Caviar Green drive for storage duties.
It used to be that $99 got you a razor blade shaped like a case, but Fractal Design’s R3 (on sale from $109) is simply an amazingly well-designed, elegant case that’s quiet as hell.
For this config, we’re going to save $30 by buying 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium, but anyone who expects to run more than 16GB should buy Windows 7 Professional instead.
Keep reading for the Tax Refund PC and the benchmarks!
They say money won is sweeter than money earned. If that’s true, then any tax “refund” is about as tasty as okra covered in cod liver oil. Still, we can’t complain about the PC we get out of it.
The push-pull configuration of NZXT’s Havik 120 gives our Tax Refund PC top-notch cooling at an affordable price. With the auxiliary cooling we’re running, we pushed our Core i7-3820 to 4.7GHz effortlessly.
Intel’s 3.6GHz Core i7-3820 gets us to LGA2011-land without having to sell pints of blood, and despite its lack of a “K” or “X” designator, it still overclocks nicely. We took our chip from its stock 3.6GHz to 4.7GHz on air with no issues in our benchmarks at all.
X79-based motherboards aren’t cheap, but at least you get features. Asus’s Sabertooth X79 gives us multi-GPU support, a nifty BIOS update feature that doesn’t require a CPU, and a ton of thermal sensors.
AMD’s Radeon HD 7970 gives us the single-fastest GPU in the Tri-state area, is the first to offer native PCIe 3.0 speeds and DX11.1 support, and can even be considered power-friendly for its class.
It’s hard not to see the NZXT Phantom 410 and think of the Emperor’s badass Royal Guard. A Royal Guard who doesn’t take a coffee break while he’s being thrown down an exhaust shaft, that is. The Phantom offers front-panel USB support, fan options galore, and tidy cable routing, too.
If you spend more than 2K for a box, it would be a shame not to be able to play Blu-ray discs; this LG drive lets us do that, and burn BD-Rs at 12x and DVDs at 16x.
In a really fun world, we’d be running 32GB using four 8GB DIMMs, but 8GB DIMMs have pulled a Where’s Waldo act on us. Until they surface, we’ll settle for the 16GB of Corsair DDR3/1600 Vengeance RAM using four 4GB DIMMs.
To keep our budget within reason, we simply cloned the storage options from our Sweet Spot PC. Yes, a much larger SSD would be attractive, but we think the 120GB SSD plus 2TB HDD combo is pretty tough to beat for the cash today.
Corsair’s new 850HX is a single-rail design, offers 80 Plus Silver certification, and, more importantly, should provide enough horsepower to run two Radeon HD 7970 cards if you ever want to up your frame rate.
Both of the lower-end rigs tap 64-bit Windows 7 Home Premium, but for any eight-DIMM motherboard, we recommend investing a bit more for 64-bit Windows 7 Professional, which doesn’t have an artificial limit of 16GB. With 4GB DIMMs and eight DIMM slots, we don't want to leave memory capacity on the table.
Read on for the benchmarks!
Price lists are all well and good, but performance is where a config pays off
First, let’s talk about how we priced our PCs. The figures we used are not made up. They were live prices from various etailers at the time of purchase. We also factored in rebate savings. Yes, some of you may cry foul at that, but if you do your part, rebates can actually save you money. The prices will also vary. For example, the Fractal Design R3 was on sale at a certain web store for $99. In fact, it’s often on sale, but by the time you read this, it’s possible it could have climbed up by $10. The prices of hard drives, too, can fluctuate greatly from day to day, and sometimes hour to hour. Still, the pricing templates are pretty close to what you can get and you can perhaps do even better.
For performance, we ran our standard system benchmark suite against all the PCs and also ran an additional battery of tests on the low-end PC so we could compare it to the more economical builds we’ve done over the last year or so.
Of the three boxes here, the lowest-cost PC was the most challenging. There are simply so many compromises made to get it under $500 that most would say it’s almost not worth the sacrifice in features. In fact, for many folks, taking our $667 PC from the August 2011 issue and upgrading it with a Radeon HD 6850 and an Asus P8H67-M (the original Gigabyte board is no longer offered) will yield better general performance for just a couple hundred bucks more than this budget box. You should also take a good look at our AMD-based machine from the March 2012 issue, which takes the budget to about $830 for a very respectable PC. But recognize that $830 is a world away from $480 to many people.
For what it’s worth, our sub-$500 PC ain’t bad. It slaps around the $340 box we built in September 2011—if you think $500 is tough, $340 is a serious kick in the performance nads. The Sandy Bridge-based Celeron G530 eats the $340 machine’s Fusion APU as an appetizer and uses its single stick of RAM as a toothpick. In encoding, the Celeron G530 takes a quarter of the time as the $340 box, and in gaming it saw about eight times the performance as the integrated chip. But how does WR?! compare against something stouter? Say, the Core i3 2100-based $667 PC? Not exactly great. The Celeron G530 is about 30 to 50 percent slower than a Core i3 part in most of our application and encoding tests, and its lack of Hyper-Threading hurts it. You've got to take the Celeron for what it is: It isn’t agonizingly Atom-slow, but it’s certainly no Core ix chip. If we had more cash to spend, that would be one of our first upgrades.
If you’re wondering whether an integrated GPU would make more sense, we’d say it depends on your needs. AMD’s A8 X4 3850 probably has the best IGP out today, yet it still only hits 3,702 in 3DMark Vantage. The HD 7750 spits out 8,664, which puts it in a better ballpark for light-duty gaming. For comparison, we dug around on the Internet and found people with scores of 7,000 using overclocked Core 2 Quads and Radeon HD 3870 x2 cards. We also found people reporting 3DMark Vantage scores in the 5,500 range with GeForce 8800 GTX cards.
Yes, a fatter GPU almost always helps, but it’s not always that simple. Dropping in a fatter GPU means having to think about a fatter PSU, too. Once you’ve crossed that line, you start to upgrade the case, the motherboard, and, well, you might as well build our Sweet Spot PC instead, or the $830 PC from our March 2012 issue.
Don’t let this totally get you down. We ran our normal benchmarks on this budget box and were frankly surprised we could run everything. Both of our gaming benchmarks, for example—Far Cry 2 and STALKER: CoP—are run at 2560x1600. The HD 7750 managed both—not with stellar frame rates, mind you, but managed nonetheless. We don’t even attempt these tests on machines with integrated graphics.
This PC is pretty much perfect just as it is. Sure, a 480GB SSD would be nice, as would a 7,200rpm drive, but this machine is just right for most enthusiasts who don’t want to sink two paychecks into a PC. OK, if we had to throw a bit more cash at it, a Core i7-2600K/2700K and its extra threads would really help with the multithreaded task battle. Lack of Hyper-Threading, in fact, is probably the main contributor to the performance delta between this machine and the Tax Refund, and the reason even our elderly (but admittedly far more expensive) zero-point box holds its own in some tests against the Sweet Spot. As it is, the Sweet Spot is from 11 percent to 32 percent slower than the Tax Refund PC in our application tests. The biggest gap is in Sony Vegas, which is a thread monster.
In gaming, it’s also a given that a $270 GPU is not going to outbox a $570 GPU. In our STALKER: CoP test, the GeForce 560 Ti 448 was at a 41 percent disadvantage. In Far Cry 2, where it’s more about the CPU, the GeForce 560 Ti 448 was only 27 percent slower. What would be a nice step up in graphics for this moderate machine? We’d probably spring for the Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 OC card that’s reviewed on page 80. At $480, it’s the cheaper alternative to Nvidia’s top-end GeForce GTX 580 and not as cost-prohibitive as a full-tilt Radeon HD 7970 card. Beyond that, we’d probably look at amenities such as the same Blu-ray burner used in the Tax Refund PC.
There is no free lunch, and getting performance costs money. If you want a faster computer, you have to pay for it. Thus, it’s no surprise that the fastest PC here also happens to be the most expensive. But how much faster?
Compared to the Sweet Spot, the Tax Refund PC gave us up to 47 percent faster rendering times in Sony Vegas Pro 9, as well as 33 percent more speed in Lightroom and 31 percent more out of MainConcept in video encoding. In gaming we saw a 69 percent bump in STALKER: CoP and 38 percent in the more CPU-limited Far Cry 2 benchmark. We also ran an overall 3DMark 2011 on Xtreme and the Tax Refund PC produced 44 percent higher frame rates. Heaven 2.5 saw a 144 percent boost in frame rates. But you know this, man: More money spent on hardware means more performance.
We know what you’re thinking, though: What else would we do with this box? Since anyone interested in the Tax Refund PC is already pushing his or her PC pretty hard in content creation tasks, a natural step would be to reach for a six-core Core i7-3930K chip. The only reason we didn’t run with it now is because of the price premium it’s fetching today. The chip would normally be less than $600 but a mysterious shortage of the CPUs has seen the 3930K selling for more than $725 on the few stores you can even find it. The usual storage updates also apply here, such as a 480GB SSD and 7,200rpm HDD, but those are mostly personal choices. If you’re looking for pure fun, filling all eight DIMM slots with 32GB of RAM and running a 24GB RAM disk isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds. Those bent on high-resolution gaming at 2560x1600 may want to consider dropping in a second Radeon HD 7970 card.