The $500 PC Build-Off

Nathan Edwards

Hot on the heels of our annual Dream Machine—arguably the best hand-built rig that money can buy—two of our editors face a far more difficult undertaking: building a desktop system where money is an object and sacrifice is the name of the game.
Our intrepid staffers—Senior Editor Gordon Mah Ung and Associate Editor David Murphy—must navigate these unfamiliar waters with just $500 apiece. Let loose in a local electronics store, they’ll be given just 90 minutes to choose all the parts they need (other than tools) to build their respective budget boxes. We’re graciously allowing them to transfer a Windows XP license from a retired machine, so they can save some dough on the OS.

Assuming they survive the purchasing phase of the challenge, the editors will have a single afternoon in which to build their PCs, load the OS, and ensure their rigs’ stability. Then it’s on to the final phase: Each editor must benchmark and review his competitor’s finished product.

There are so many opportunities for mishaps and mayhem that we can barely stand the suspense. Let’s get started!

The 90-Minute Shopping Spree

Neither editor expected to use the full time allotted to them, but the vast selection of parts had both guys mentally mixing and matching possible configs, recalculating their price lists, and waiting on pokey sales clerks until the very last minutes.

Gordon's Purchases

Gordon's Rig
Part Price
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E4300
RAM: 1GB Crucial DDR2/667 $39.99
VIDEOCARD: EVGA e-GeForce 8500GT $113.99
OPTICAL DRIVE: Hewlett-Packard DVD840ri (refurb)
CASE: Raidmax ATX528B
MISC: Ghirardelli chocolate bar $2.99
SALES TAX (8.25%) $37.82

Graphics: With just three minutes left to grab a GPU and get to the checkout line, Gordon reached for a rock-bottom GeForce card, which actually offers DirectX 10 capability! His big worry is that DX10 support is nothing more than a checkbox feature, due to the budget card’s low clock speeds.

CPU: Intel’s budget Allendale CPU core features 2MB of L2 cache and an 800MHz front-side bus (down from the Conroe’s 1,066MHz FSB). But it still rocks the Celeron D’s world.

Power Supply: Gordon immediately thought, “Let’s hope we don’t have a burnout,” when he considered running this bargain-bin system on the free 380-watt power supply that Raidmax includes with its case. But, hey, at least Gordon thought to buy a case....

Dave's Purchases

Dave's Rig
Part Price
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo E4300
CPU COOLER: Cooler Master X Dream P775 $17.99
MOBO: ECS RC410L/800-M
$47.40 *
RAM: Kingston DDR2 IGB (2 x 512MB) PC5300


OPTICAL DRIVE: HP DVD740 External 16x LightScribe (refurb)
PSU: 400w Ultra V Series
SALES TAX (8.25%) $39.50
*Initially Dave was within the budget, but a major oversight had him doing a parts exchange that would cost him money . . . as well as his pride.

CPU: Dave chose the Core 2 Duo E4300 because of its reputation as an insane overclocker. He planned to take the proc to 3GHz and possibly beyond. That’s a far cry from its stock speed of 1.8GHz, and the reason he splurged on an aftermarket cooler. “I’m going to try and crank this baby,” says young Murphy.

Motherboard: Dual core, Core 2 Duo, what’s the diff? That’s what Dave thought when he picked up an ECS RC410L/800-M motherboard on his first trip to the store. That mobo supports an Intel dual-core chipset compatible with the Pentium D, not the Core 2 Duo he bought. “I’d like to blame the speed of purchasing and the English language for this screwup,” he says; “Dual core means two cores, regardless of the CPU generation.” His motherboard begged to differ.

Case: What, no case? In a frantic effort to save money and impress Maximum PC readers with his mad scissor skills, Dave chose to do without a standard computer case. Since the rules require the PCs to be both functional and moveable, his mad scheme is to fashion an enclosure out of the very cardboard boxes that contain his purchases. Utter brilliance? Pointless stupidity? A complete waste of packing tape? We’ll soon find out.

Next: Gordon's Budget Box!

Gordon's Budget Box

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.

What I’d Do Differently

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.

Next: Dave's Low-Cost Creation!

Dave's Low-Cost Creation

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.

What I’d Do Differently

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.

Next: Dave and Gordon review each other's rigs! Plus: Benchmarking the Beasts!

Gordon's Rig

Dave weighs in on the merits of his competitor's machine

If only Maximum PC put a lot of stock in aesthetics, Gordon’s machine might earn a more favorable review. But, alas, we’re all about performance when it comes to PCs. And Gordon’s rig functions just a tad better than a graphing calculator on the ol’ benchmarks.

Strangely, Gordon opted not to overclock his machine in the slightest, which comes as a wonder considering the unholy combination of his slowest parts, a 1.8GHz Core 2 Duo and a horrific 8500 Nvidia card. How bad does it get? If you want to turn FEAR into a turn-based 12fps first-person shooter, then by all means, follow Gordon’s lead. Quake doesn’t fare much better, offering a paltry 19fps.

The real deal-breakers for Gordon’s “rig” are the workhorse CPU benchmarks—our Premiere and Nero tests. In the time it took to run both benchmarks, I could have cooked and eaten two frozen pizzas, consecutively. I could have watched a single episode of 24. I even could have taken a nap. I suppose the machine earns points for finishing the tests within the span of an eight-hour workday; I had my doubts, but that’s hardly a consolation for this horrifically slow machine.

I’ll be the first to say that a crap machine is a crap machine. But Gordon could have at least made a passing attempt to pull as much performance as possible out of his little computer that couldn’t. He didn’t, instead opting to throw this poor PC to the wolves. I suppose we’ll never know how fast Gordon’s beyond-lean machine could have been.

Dave's Rig

Tell us what you really think of this PC, Gordon

Think of the most incredible, luxurious, badass system that you have ever seen. Now think of the polar opposite and then jog another 200 yards past that and you get the Dave Murphy $500 Hobo Special. Straight out of Bum Junction and perfectly suited for hopping a hot-shot Santa Fe train, the only thing this cardboard wonder lacks is the manual bundled up on the end of Dave’s bindle.

First, there’s no power or reset switch. Hell, there’s no frigging front panel. To power up this abomination, you have to panhandle a dime so you can short the power switch jumpers and boot the ugly bastard. But be careful you don’t jiggle the GeForce 7600 GS or you may blow up the whole contraption. In fact, don’t touch it at all, lest the cardboard box burst into flames.

While the Hobo Special has the same HD, amount of RAM, and CPU as my $500 beauty, it lacks upgrade options. Where are the empty RAM slots to go beyond 1GB of memory? Where are the DirectX 10 graphics? What about CrossFire or SLI support? And a VIA chipset versus my Intel P965?! Pee on you, mister.

Its benchmarks are nothing to brag about either. We wouldn’t boast about these scores to that crazy old guy who keeps talking about how awesome the Amiga was. It’s best to just skulk away and live in a Unabomber-style shed for the next 12 years. What’s incredible, however, is the fact that a $500 hobo playpen is nearly as fast as our once state-of-the-art Athlon 64 FX-60 box. How the mighty have fallen.

Despite what Murphy might say, the only area in which his “rig” bests my PC is gaming. Of course, even his “winning” scores don’t really represent playable frame rates here. And when DX10 catches on, that piddly frame-rate advantage drops to zero, rookie.

Zero-Point Scores
Gordon's Budget Box
Dave's Low-cost Creation
SYSmark2004 SE 275 N/A N/A
Premiere Pro 2.0 3,000 sec 3,000 sec
3,024 sec
Photoshop CS2 295 sec
319.3 sec
324 sec
Recode H.264 2,648 sec
3,173 sec
3,212 sec
FEAR 1.07 80 fps
12 fps 19 fps
Quake 4 110.5 19 fps
23 fps
Best budget scores are bolded. Our current desktop test bed is a Windows XP SP2 machine, using a dual-core 2.6GHz Athlon 64 FX-60, 2GB of Corsair DDR400 RAM on an Asus A8N32-SLI motherboard, two GeForce 7900 GTX videocards in SLI mode, a Western Digital 4000KD hard drive, a Sound Blaster X-Fi soundcard, and a PC Power and Cooling Turbo Cool 850 PSU.

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