System Builder Marathon, Sept. 2010: $400 Gaming PC

System Builder Marathon, September 2010: The Articles

Here are links to each of the four articles in this month’s System Builder Marathon (we’ll update them as each story is published). And remember, these systems are all being given away at the end of the marathon.

To enter the giveaway, please check out this Google form, and be sure to read the complete rules before entering!

Day 1: The $2,000 Performance PC
Day 2: The $1,000 Enthusiast PC
Day 3: The $400 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected


Our $550 PC from June struck a balance between tough economic times and one of the latest trends in gaming by stretching our low budget to include a DirectX 11-class Radeon HD 5770 graphics card.

This month, we cap our entry-level build at $400 max to address the lingering question readers continue to ask in the comments section: “How low can you go?”

There are two basic approaches we have to choose between when limited funds are in play. First, we could build a pure gaming box. Or, we could build a more well-rounded system.

More often than not, living up to the gaming requirements of our SBM (System Builder Marathon) 3D test suite forces graphics to be the top priority, leaving processing power a distant second consideration. But rather than trying to excel in just one area, this $400 build will attempt to do all things well, representing the platform balance many readers prefer when building for more than just gaming.

$400 Gaming PC System Components

Price (U.S.D.)
AMD Athlon II X3 440
CPU Cooler
AMD boxed heatsink & fan
ASRock M3A770DE
Crucial 2 GB (2 x 1 GB) DDR3-1333 (PC3 10600) Model CTKIT12864BA1339
PowerColor AX5670 512MD5-H Radeon HD 5670
Hard Drive
Western Digital Caviar Blue WD2500AAJS 250 GB SATA 3Gb/s
Rosewill Blackbone
Cooler Master Elite 460 RS-460-PSAR-J3 460 W
Samsung Black 22x DVD Burner SATA Model SH-S223C
Total Price


We set our sights on a standard ATX-based Socket AM3 build sporting either a dual- or triple-core AMD Athlon II processor. Given the fact that two-thirds of our value weighting is based on a well-threaded applications suite, spending an extra $13 on an Athlon II X3 440 was a good decision in constructing a potent little machine. Even if our always-ambitious unlocking efforts failed, we still had three threads to count on.

We do face a few disadvantages compared to the other builders perusing Newegg for deals, though. To begin, we do not capitalize on combo deals, coupon codes, or mail-in rebates. So much planning goes into these Marathons that it'd almost be impossible to count on those deals still being available on publishing day. Plus, we all synchronize our purchases. Just a few days before go-time, our top choice, AMD's Radeon HD 4850, was available for $90. On ordering day, the price had jumped $10 to $100, exceeding the budget. 

Also on the short list was Nvidia's GeForce 9800GT (once known as the 8800 GT). This card was a legend in its day. It delivered solid gaming performance in the October 2008 $500 Gaming PC. It's a little unsettling then, that two years later, this rebadged card has only dropped $20 in price. At around the same cost, sporting a more modern feature set, a drastic cut to power consumption, but also less raw 3D horsepower, is the AMD Radeon HD 5670. We did consider lower-end discrete cards like the GeForce GT 240 and Radeon HD 5570. But with a $400 budget available, the only real reason to step back would be to spend somewhere in the $3xx neighborhood.

A last-minute switch from 320 GB of hard drive space to 250 GB and a small cut to our PSU budget put our system pennies under $400 using the least-expensive Radeon HD 5670. It went $1 over-budget if we substituted in a GeForce 9800 GT. We were also $11 shy of revisiting the Radeon HD 4850.

Cheaper cases, including models with bundled power supplies, were also taken into consideration. All of them represented compromises, though. Rosewill's Blackbone was a genuine step higher than the other options in terms of quality, ventilation, and value. Once again, our direction came down to the gamer route with an Athlon II X2 250 and Radeon HD 4850, or staying focused on overall performance. Leaning the latter route, we then had to decide whether to go over-budget with the GeForce 9800 GT or allow AMD's Radeon HD 5670 to do its best in a very demanding gaming suite.

The choice to use the Radeon HD 5670 of course means that this budget box can be compared, apples-to-apples, with the more expensive rigs, since this month's trio of builds includes DirectX 11-class graphics cards.

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  • simon12
    If it was built for games I would have gone for a bigger 3 core overclock and definitely tried to get a TX3 or something to allow a reasonable overclock
  • mojito_619
    I think it's amazing as to what you can do with 400 bucks.
  • seejay
    What about an OS? That pushes it to $500 =\
    You cant really run games without an OS i think.
  • duffymoon
    If you look at it that way, you are going to need a monitor, keyboard, mouse and power to run the thing as well! They always assume you have the other necessities as they are just looking at the box.
  • wild9
    Very interesting read.

    Quite a nice rig there, considering the budget. Even on a budget board that Athlon II x3 has unlocked to a Phenom II x4, running at a speed that would be more than enough for the vast majority of games and Windows applications. Not saying all Athlon's will do that, but it sure is tempting especially if you're watching every penny.

    The only grey area for me personally, is the you need PC3-10600/ DDR3-1333 for games, or could you squeeze more, slower memory? This even opens up the debate about AM2+ vs AM3.

    All in all a nice rig there.
  • fishyfinners
    thats obseen 5 years ago that would have cost how much
  • silverblue
    If we were going the AM2+ route, CAS4 memory is the least I'd go for (my current setup uses DDR2-6400 4-4-4-12).

    Such a huge shame about the 4850; sure, it'd result in higher power consumption, but the performance increase would certainly be tangible (with the exception of Far Cry 2), if people aren't so fixated on DX11.
  • mynewitguys
    Yeah this deal rocks out loud. That crucial memory is crucial for a system like this. And if y'all ever have any questions about repairing computers, check out Computer Repair Boulder