System Builder Marathon, June 2010: $2,000 Performance PC

Tom’s Hardware takes a more frugal approach this month, with a high-end PC that fits within the budget of most folks who call themselves power users. Will recent advances in hardware allow this $2,000 build to beat our $3,000 system from March?

System Builder Marathon, June 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 $500 Gaming PC
Day 4: Performance And Value, Dissected


Our past System Builder Marathons (SBMs) have used various budgets for high-priced machines, culminating in a March $3,000 PC that we think hit the performance sweet spot, while leaving almost $100 in the budget for optional upgrades, such as redundant storage. However, our less-expensive systems did an even better job of proving value, and we’re always left to question whether we could have generated similar performance for a lower price.

The two technologies that had the biggest effect on our $3,000 machine’s prices were liquid cooling and solid-state drive (SSD) storage. While the liquid cooler itself wasn’t very expensive, added components, such as a special case (to hold the radiator internally) and a liquid-cooled graphics card, pushed the total expense for this upgrade beyond $500. Yet, the VGA cooler at least allowed us to overclock a reputedly ultra-hot pair of graphics processors, while the SSD drives had a negligible impact on the real-world benchmarks we use in the final value analysis. Our chosen $380 SSD configuration certainly sped up boot times, but superb performance that only occurs outside those benchmarks will always undermine the machine’s value score.

The biggest problem with those potential excesses could be that many high-end buyers are feeling the pinch of an unstable economy. As many begin to seriously consider paying off small debts and beefing up emergency funds, it appears almost frivolous to spend significant money on anything that doesn’t provide equally-significant improvements in performance or quality.

A well-built, mid-priced case is just the beginning of a carefully planned value assault on our previous project’s performance profile. Other cost-conscious changes include a switch from the previous system’s expensive X58A-UD7 motherboard to its award-winning -UD3R sibling. The switch to air cooling saves even more money, though the CPU heat sink we chose requires the additional expense of a separate fan.

$2,000 Performance PC Component Prices
MotherboardGigabyte GA-X58A-UD3R
Chipset: Intel X58 Express
ProcessorIntel Core i7-930 2.80 GHz
Four Cores, 8MB L3 Cache
MemoryCrucial 6GB DDR3-1333 Triple-Channel Kit
3 x 2GB (6GB Total), CAS 9-9-9-28
Graphics2 x Gigabyte GV-N470D5-13I-B in SLI
2 x 1.28GB GDDR5-3482
2 x GeForce GTX 470 GPU at 607 MHz
Hard DriveSamsung Spinpoint F3 HD103SJ
1TB, 7,200 RPM, 32MB Cache, SATA 3 Gb/s 
OpticalLite-On Blu-ray Disc Combo Model iHES208-08
CaseAntec Three Hundred Illusion    $70
PowerSilverStone DA750 750W Modular
ATX12V 2.2, EPS12V 2.91, 80-Plus Silver
CPU CoolerProlimatech Megahalems Rev.B    $62
CPU FanScythe Slip Stream SY1225SL12LM-P    $11
 Total Current Cost        $1,808

As with our previous month’s $3,000 machine, the builder took this month’s $2,000 budget as an absolute limit, and picked what he thought might be the best performance-value combination to approach that price threshold. Intended to address the higher expectations of high-end buyers, a Blu-ray combo drive is the only component in today’s build to add functionality without improving performance or reliability.

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  • banthracis
    Um you would have been better off not getting a blue ray burner and getting a cheap $20 optical instead. Use the $88 savings to upgrade to a G Skill Trident 6 GB kit ($32 more), and then put the rest of the savings + extra budget into a X25-M 80 GB ($225 more), and upgrade to a HAF 922($20 more) Case.

    Would have put final budget ~$1995 and would have been a better overall build.

    Granted, dropped the SSD and cheaper case helps your score when doing a performance per $ comparison, but given that people base actual builds on these articles, you should really make the best overall build the priority as opposed to best performance /$ build.
  • Redsnake77
    Wouldn't the $1000 you saved on the build go into you electricity bill? Thus negating the $ performance advantage?

    I would also say, it looks from the repeated degredation of the overclock on the graphics cards that the PSU has had it's life significantly shortened.
  • Anonymous
  • Silmarunya
    Redsnake77Wouldn't the $1000 you saved on the build go into you electricity bill? Thus negating the $ performance advantage?I would also say, it looks from the repeated degredation of the overclock on the graphics cards that the PSU has had it's life significantly shortened.

    Indeed. The PSU won't last as long as it could, the system is extremely noisy as far as I can tell from this component selection and performance isn't that stunning when compared to the last edition.

    Wouldn't dual 5850's or a single 5970 have offered cooler, quieter and less power hungry performance (higher performance too btw)? Of course, that would push budget up by quite a bit, but economies can be made (BluRay burner isn't needed for example) and the lower power consumption will earn it back in the long run.

    @banthracis: faster memory has absolutely zero impact in real world situations and very limited impact in synthetics. I wouldn't spend more on faster RAM. Agreed with the SSD suggestion.

    Simply put, I'm disappointed. In an effort to squeeze every last bit of performance, a lot of equally important factors were neglected. Noise, heat and power consumption are through the roof. There's no SSD.

    In all honesty, why don't you consider a $2000 AMD machine? Equal gaming performance, lower price. In synthetics and productivity a quad core AMD would suffer, but getting a 1055T CPU is cheaper and just as good in productivity benchmarks. Overclocking is excellent too. And don't complain about gaming performance, it's usually the GPU that bottlenecks. There is not a single modern mid-end CPU that cannot get the most out of a game. 1-2 FPS isn't worth talking about.
  • ksampanna
    Great Article. The reciever of the previous $3000 build must be feeling pretty looney now.
  • ksampanna
    Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD7

    That's a significant typo in "Test Settings"
  • mi1ez
    We wanted a pulse-width modulation (PWM) fan for its superior speed control, but were bummed to find that Newegg carried nothing in our preferred 2,000-2,500 RPM range. Fans faster than that are often inefficient at low RPMs, and we wanted a system that would remain quiet, except when placed under extreme loads. After careful consideration, we settled for a Scythe SY1225SL12LM-P.

    Surely after consideration you'd use a different retailer?
  • williehmmm
    This is a very similar build to what I have.

    i5-750 OC @ 4.0Ghz
    Sli GTX 470 stock
    4GB DDR3 1600
    x2 1TB

    My case is a thermaltake Element T (very similar to above), single front 120mm intake, rear 120mm exhaust and top 220mm exhaust. Having read all the reviews about the heat of the Fermi cards I also planned to fit a 220mm side intake to cool the GPU, in a previous 5970 build I used a 120mm, it seems I'd underestimated the space available and my 220mm fan was too large to fit on the inside of the case (depth was about 25mm, compared to the 10mm depth of the 120mm fan). A wee bit or lateral thinking later and I had installed the fan on the outside of the case.

    What strikes me first in my system is the Sli scaling. At least an 80% increase over a single GTX 470 in every game I've tried.

    Also worth noting and the reason for my system build, Nvidia 3D Vision. My previous Nvidia based system had x2 8800GT in Sli and could run most games at decent detail levels, (not as good as my x3 4850), but when 3D vision was enabled you took a 50% hit, no matter which game you tried. A game that was running smoothly at 50 - 60 fps suddenly became 25 - 30 fps and this choppy performance reduced the 3D effect and reduced the gaming experience.

    With the GTX 470 sli, I still take a performance hit and I was expecting this to be in the same 50% region, but no... I have found that I still retain around 70% of the performance in 3D mode and that was a very pleasant surprise. Obviously the titles running at 120fps still drop to 60fps, as is the limits of the monitor when it is in 3D mode. But when I'm getting 70 - 80 fps in 2D mode, the 3D mode still returns 50 - 60fps. Crysis at a typical 55 fps drops to 40 fps.

    Despite paying 'rip off Britain' prices, I was able to build my PC for around £1,000 ($1,500). I'll give the full price list below.
  • williehmmm
    Thermaltake VK90001N2Z Element T Case - £45

    An already owned a 750w PSU - £50

    Asrock P55 Extreme LGA1156 - £95

    i5-750 OEM - £139

    Alpenföhn Brocken CPU Cooler - £38

    OCZ 4GB KIT (2 x 2GB) DDR3 1600Mhz - £80

    x2 Gainward GTX470 1280MB GDDR5 - £610

    x2 1TB 3.5" SATA - £110

    Total - £1,167 ($1,750)
  • Redsnake77
    The thing is, I don't feel the 470 privides enough extra FPS over a 5850/5870 to justify the extra power it draws. SLI definately scales better than Xfire, which is something AMD must do something about. I went from a pair of 8800GTX OC2's in SLI on my old C2D to a pair of 5850 Toxics in crossfire with my new i7 rig. I just couldn't stomach such a ridiculous power draw for the Nvidia cards. I could add a third 5850 Toxic and it would probably draw less than a pair of 470s. That would be an intersting test actually Tom's. Power, heat and performance comparing 3 5850s to 2 470s.
  • mi1ez
    I agree with redsnake. it's all very well having extra FPS but much of the time extra FPS over playable still only equates to playable!
  • memeroot
    drop the BR and go for an i5 720, spend the savings on a 3rd gtx470

    same price and would clean up
  • memeroot
    correction - go amd and 3 gtx470's - forgot the lane restriction
  • williehmmm
    In terms of the extra cost in terms of power used in Nvidia over ATI at full GPU & CPU load, it costs about the same as it would have a lightbulb switched on whilt you're gaming. So hardly likely to break the bank.

    As for too much performance, just turn up the AA to x16 or x32 if you feel your framerates are going too high.

    If you're going down the 3D stereo route, you really can't have too much performance, my findings showed a 30% performance hit straight away, so I'd reckon an sli 470 is the minimum you'd want to go for.
  • memeroot
    I have a 9800 gx2 and it works quite well for 3d gaming - only have to turn the settings down a wee bit on some games.
  • williehmmm
    9800 gx2 should give the same performance as my x2 sli 8800gt gave. I found GTA IV unplayable, crysis really struggled, battlefield bad company 2 also really struggled. The only game I was happy with was left 4 dead, every other title had to be compromised to be playable and they all took a 50% hit on frame rates, my £600 GPU upgrade was a lot to justify but everything is smooth at max details and 60 fps in 3D mode with only a 30% hit on frame rates. When the 3d surround vision comes with the new drivers, and 3d bluray films get released, i'll feel a lot better about the relative value of what I've purchased, I hope.
  • xsamitt
    Wasn't there 2 pages"s of comments? Folks we are being censored I think.
  • mi1ez
    Anonymous said:
    Wasn't there 2 pages"s of comments? Folks we are being censored I think.

    There probably are on the US site...
  • mi1ez