System Builder Marathon, Q1 2013: System Value Compared

Where's The Value Sweet Spot?

Based on our past experience, the cheapest system doesn’t always prevail in this price-per-performance paradigm. We've even seen a $1,000 machine top the value standings in our past three System Builder Marathons. But those competitions were based on budgets between $500 and $2,000. This time around, we went in search of the best possible value and narrowed that range from $600 to $1,000. Don's $800 machine fills the middle spot where I've traditionally found the best value.

This time around, my $1,000 machine only tops the value chart when we make our comparison at stock clock rates. Unfortunately, I don't pick up enough performance from overclocking to maintain a lead. The most likely explanation is that the SSD in my system does plenty to boost baseline performance, but cannot be overclocked. So, its impact tapers off when we overclock. When it comes right down to tweaking, the $600 machine offers a value lead of 1%.

A lead that small won’t matter to anyone who wants to game at high resolutions, and the extra memory capacity available in both the $800 and $1,000 machines is probably more important in a real-world, multi-tasked environment, even if it has little impact on our benchmarks.

However, anyone in the market for a big monitor probably won't be shopping around for a $600 PC. Furthermore, anyone looking for a gaming PC priced at $600 should be willing to give up a little productivity-oriented performance in the interest of spending as much of the budget as possible on a competent CPU and GPU. Paul Henningsen deserves full credit for a win that breaks the mid-priced PC’s winning streak.

Anyone who can afford a big monitor probably expected to see the $800 and $1,000 machines, which coincidentally employ similar hardware, achieve similar performance, giving the less expensive build a better gaming value outcome. Really, though, that's only true if you're able to tolerate slower boot-up, shutdown, and level load times.

Paul's $600 machine wins the value contest by a small margin when it's overclocked, the $800 box becomes a far more compelling value proposition when you're gaming at high resolutions, and my $1,000 system becomes the best overall value among the three stock configurations. Aside from rejecting the notion of value superiority at $800, today's results don't get us any closer to finding a performance per dollar sweet spot. It now appears to be somewhere around $600 for PCs without SSDs and $1,000 for more enthusiast-oriented setups with solid-state storage, though there’s enough flexibility between all three builds to come up with an SSD-equipped $750 machine that could turn our findings upside-down.

With this many options available, we’ll leave it to you to decide whether the next System Builder Marathon should return to the broad budget ranges of our previous efforts, center around the $600 price point, center around the $1000 price point, or...?

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  • 13thmonkey
    thomas, your assertion that you'd expect an overall power drop as a result of the SSD is utter rubbish, the difference in power draw between an ssd and a hdd is perhaps 5W (at the outside?) whilst this is measurable for a drive on its own, any minor variations in other components, a better mobo, an extra fan (as you pointed out) and just general noise (what is idle really) will mask that benefit.

    Yes SSD's are more power efficient but you should only expect to see the benefit when you have optimised the whole build for lower power levels. Its a bit of a marketing ploy really, 7W or 2W doesn't really matter if your total system load is 150-400W, don't fall for the marketing, we need our reviewers to be immune to that and to cut through the BS.
  • Anonymous
    excellent very interesting i enjoyed reading every bit of it!
    I personally would like to take your conclusions and suspicions and see them followed through it would be nice to see a system builder marathon with the same price points but have each team given a standard ssd to start their build with. i think this would give us a good idea of the additional performance of ssd and prevent the compromise we see every time with storage vs cpu/gpu
  • Steveymoo
    Another experiment in system building. I'm guessing 90% of people that visit this site are PC gamers, and every single time I read these system builder marathons, I see poorly balanced builds. Never enough money spent on the GPU, or a single GPU option when dual GPUs would have kicked much more ass.

    Though, in absolute fairness, games are so graphically none intensive now, I don't suppose there's much point blowing a wad on GPUs.
  • Kef
    Interesting, but how about a test based around something we would prefer to live with (semi enthusiast level). The marathon series has been much of a muchness for quite a while, so I'd like to see something investigating price points. How about all three investigate at a specific price point with a list of objectives at that value - (say 600, 1000, 1300, 1800)
    1. Say all three get an 1300 budget
    2. each toss a coin between AMD/NVIDIA single card setups (some variation please)
    3. All systems should have an SSD boot drive + separate storage drive
    4. Air cooled vs water cooled vs stock cooling
    5. Would be nice to have a case that wouldn't frighten the pets.
    6. Gaming and video encoding as the objectives

    other variations might include a HTPC challenge

    A couple of these until the next big jump in GPU's / CPU's would be nice.
  • MajinCry
    Many systems built here!

    But wait, there seems to be a SMALL issue here...

    "" | "$600 Gaming PC $800 Enthusiast PC $1000 Performance PC"

  • SchizoFrog
    Just looking at the % of the price levels and who ever is working out the sums needs to go back to school. $800 is 1 third of $600 on top, which should be 133.3% not 132.5% and as for $1000, well that is 2 thirds of $600 on top so it should be 166.6% and not 163.3%. Not nearly, not about, without going in to infinite decimals it is exactly that. If they can't even get these basic sums right then how can we trust any of the figures given here?
  • moberr
    When do tomshardware.CO.UK plan to hand out Pounds?