It's astonishing what a difference 15 months makes.
That's how long it's been since we last built a gaming rig for $800. Since then, the price war between AMD's ATI division and Nvidia has become a pyre upon which Nvidia's profits have been sacrificed. AMD's CPU group and Intel have duked it out, too, with the low and midrange of the processor lines undergoing a price war.
Meanwhile, the price of storage and memory has also plummeted. About the only thing that hasn't dropped much is the cost of the case and power supply. That all means that this year's edition of the $800 gaming PC comes pretty close to being a no-compromises system, particularly if you're running on a 20- or 22-inch, 1680x1050 display.
As with all our recommended configurations, we've built and tested the system. The system does not include a mouse, keyboard, or display. You probably already have that gear. All the components work together. Prices are the best we could find at a given moment in time through Internet shopping sources, and prices may vary when you check them. Also, we don't take into account shipping charges and sales tax, as those can vary widely.
Note that we do include the price of the operating system. If you're willing to take a (slight) risk, and use the freely downloadable Windows 7 release candidate, you can either save $100 or add some beefier components. As with all our systems, if you don't completely agree with our component choices, that's fine—consider this a working template for the system
want to build.
With these notes in mind, let's look at the system.
CPU and Motherboard
Perhaps our most controversial choice this time around is the CPU. An $800 system is necessarily constrained in each of its components. Our CPU budget was around $180—$190. For that price, we could have chosen a fast dual-core CPU or a somewhat lower-clocked quad-core processor.
This time around, we picked the quad-core Intel Core 2 Quad Q8400. Clocking at 2.66GHz, this 45nm CPU offers only 4MB of L2 cache (2MB per core). While this is a gaming rig, it's likely to end up doing other work, too, as most users don't have the luxury of having different systems for different purposes. Note that a Core 2 Quad Q9400, with 2MB more L2 cache, costs a little over $30 more; a Q9550, with a full 8MB of L2 cache and running 166MHz higher, will set you back about $80 over the Q8400.
Why didn't we pick an AMD CPU? Our two AMD systems have been somewhat glitchy—more a platform issue than the processor, so we're a little skittish about making a hard recommendation. Also, the Phenom II 940 generates more heat and consumes more power under load. Given our power supply budget, that's a pretty serious constraint.
Another alternative would have been a Core 2 Duo E8500. That's a perfectly fine choice if you're focused only on gaming, but even at 3.16GHz, the E8500 gives up a little to the quad-core CPUs in other applications, like photo editing or video transcoding.
The motherboard was a much easier choice: the ASUS P5Q SE Plus.
One important aspect of this motherboard is the existence of three fan headers: one for the CPU and two more for case fans. The case we used had a pair of 120mm fans, one rear mounted and one side mounted. Both had three-pin motherboard connectors, enabling BIOS control of the cooling fans.
Graphics and Memory
What a difference a price war makes.
Fifteen months ago, the best we could do with our $800 PC was an overclocked Nvidia GeForce 9600 GT, which cost $180 back then. This year, we went with the proven EVGA GeForce 260 GTS Core 216 SSC, which offers a core clock of 675MHz—nearly 20% higher than the stock Core 216. The memory clock is higher, too, at 2.16GHz versus 1.98GHz.
At a retail price of $239, we've found this card in a couple of places for $235. It's just about as fast as the original 280 GTX, so it's no slouch in performance.
The memory we're using is a cut above generic memory: OCZ's 4GB DDR2-800 kit, often labeled as a "Vista Upgrade Kit." It can be found quite affordably, and boosts the memory of our rig to 4GB—which allows us to move to a 64-bit operating system.
Note that we were able to get this combo up to a 375MHz front side bus clock, enabling the CPU to run at 3.01GHz using the stock Intel CPU cooler. We'll talk a bit more about overclocking shortly.
Case, Power Supply, and Storage
Some things never change, or so it seems. This time around, we stuck with the Cooler Master RC-534 chassis, complete with 460W PSU—the same case and power supply used in our last $800 rig. We initially had a few concerns about the power supply, given the beefier components, but even when we overclocked the CPU, the air coming out of the PSU was only somewhat warm. More importantly, the power supply delivered during our stress test at 3.01GHz.
The price of this particular case has come down slightly in 15 months—instead of $80, we were able to find it online for $74.
Storage was a little easier. On the particular day we were searching, we found the 320GB Western Digital WD3200AAJS for $43. Note that this particular model only has an 8MB buffer, but 320GB for $43 is irresistible. Similarly, we found the Sony Optiarc DVD burner for $25, so that's the optical drive in the build.
Bear in mind that prices for storage devices fluctuate on almost a daily basis, so you can find better or worse deals, seemingly at random. Overall, however, it's a good storage setup, particularly for an $800 PC.
Overclocking and Performance
We decided to find a stable clock speed higher than the default 2.66GHz, and stick with that for our performance testing. We had several goals:
It had to be dead simple, so no voltage tweaking. We allowed ourselves to only tweak a single parameter, the front side bus clock.
The system had to be stable at that clock speed while running our stress test.
If we hit anything above 3GHz, we'd stop there—the PSU isn't the most robust available, and the voltage regulation on the P5Q SE Plus motherboard is somewhat limited (there's only a 4-pin ATX12V power connector).
We played it safe with memory clocks, keeping the settings at "auto." That meant our DDR2-800 was actually running at "DDR2-751" speed.
The good news is that we hit 3.01GHz. Our stress test consisted of running four Prime 95 threads plus the Furmark graphics stress test at 1680x1050 with 4x AA and postprocessing enabled. The stress test ran for a solid hour, with no glitches, reboots, or other anomalies. However, the stock Intel CPU fan did spin up pretty loudly. One thing we might invest in would be another $27 for an Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro, but that would push us over our budget.
It was impressively easy, with this budget motherboard and low cost quad-core CPU, to hit 3.01 GHz. We were able to pump up the front side bus clock by 12.6%, gaining a concomitant increase in CPU speed. We did let our memory clock drop by 6%, but that proved to be of little consequence. We managed all this by changing one parameter, without tweaking voltages.
Based on that experience, we decided to run all our benchmarks at 3.01GHz.
We ran the same set of benchmarks at the same resolutions as our older $800 PC. We also ran some newer tests as well, and compared that to a pair of systems that cost more. One is based on the AMD Phenom X4 955, while the other uses the Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550. First, let's compare the old with the new.
Old Versus New
Let's first compare our shiny new $800 PC with the $800 rig from fifteen months back. As you might imagine, the added CPU and graphics horsepower can make a substantial difference.
There's no question the new system simply spanks the old one. We've got more cores, running at a higher clock speed. We've got a substantially better graphics card. We've got more disk capacity and better areal density. It all comes together to create one sweet little system.
Note that we would have lost only a few percentage points if we'd dropped the CPU clock back down to 2.66GHz. The CPU has some impact on gaming—probably more at 1280x1024 than the two higher resolutions. But the beefier graphics card and increase in memory clock back to DDR2-800 speed, would help keep frame rates relatively high.
Now that we see how the new compares with the old, let's check out how it compares to the pricier spread.
New Versus New
When we benchmarked the Phenom II X4 955, we tested it against the Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550. Both those systems were running the identical EVGA GeForce GTX Core 216 SSC graphics card, and both were running 64-bit Vista. Since we ran a number of game benchmarks at 1680x1050, with eye candy cranked up (but AA and AF off), we can compare the results. What we found was something of an eye opener.
If we look at the PCMark Vantage scores, we can see our $800 system doesn't quite measure up to the pricier spread. Both the Phenom II X4 955 and the Core 2 Quad 9550 are in the $250–$270 range, as opposed to the $185 you'd pay for the Core 2 Quad Q8400. Even overclocked, the Q8400 can't quite keep up, though it's not far behind. This is likely the impact of the relatively meager L2 cache on the Q8400.
The 3DMark Vantage score is close to a dead heat with the Phenom II X4 955, which runs at 3.2GHz. Note that the Q8400 and X4 955 trade wins. While the Q8400 is running overclocked, it's still running at a lower clock speed than the AMD CPU and costs less to boot. When you pump up the quality level (running the benchmark at "high" mode), the scores tighten up even more.
Games are a somewhat different story. Here, our overclocked Q8400, coupled with the EVGA Core 216 SSC, generally holds its own. It's a bit slower in some games, even in others. The real outlier here—and we re-ran the tests multiple times to be sure—is the Crysis DX10 score. Crysis ran at 28fps on our $800 rig, as opposed to 22–23fps. That's a significant difference. Perhaps the Crysis benchmark streams data constantly, and doesn't make effective use of a large cache.
Note that we use Far Cry 2's "Action" scene, which is part of the game's benchmark test tool. That particular scene wasn't available in the initial release of the game; it was delivered during one of the game's updates. It's also more CPU-intensive than the other scenes.
Still, we don't expect an $800 PC to keep up with systems built on pricier CPUs, so we're pretty satisfied. With just a few minor tweaks that would have a minimum impact on visual fidelity, we should be able to hit close to 60fps in most current games and easily exceed that in older or less demanding titles.
Alternatives and the Bill of Materials
As we noted in the opening section, this $800 PC would make a good template. Perhaps you'd prefer a faster dual-core CPU. In that case, drop in a Core 2 Duo E8500. If you're willing to push the cost up a few dollars, an E8600 dual core or Q9550 quad core would set you back an additional $65 or so.
Another alternative is to go all AMD. You could build an $800 gaming rig based on a Phenom II X4 840 and 1GB Radeon HD 4870. That would be close in performance to our $800 system, but would probably fall just a little short overall.
Let's take a quick look at our final bill of materials:
What would we add? If you don't already have a display, a solid 22-inch, 1680x1050 display would be a good match, or even a 23/24-inch 1080p monitor, as is becoming common. Expect to pay under $300 for a display of reasonable quality. A good keyboard and mouse combo for gaming shouldn't cost more than about $50. Finally, a good headset or pair of speakers would round out the system nicely.
As we've seen, our $800 system is a substantial improvement over our last system. Given the rate of change in the industry, we'll be sure to update this system much sooner than in the past. We're particularly interested in the upcoming mainstream processor line built on Intel's latest Core architecture. Both motherboards and CPUs will likely be more affordable than the current Core i7, but it's anyone's guess as to whether or not performance will exceed the current Core 2 Quad line.
In the meantime, we've got an $800 system that's stable, runs games at relatively high quality levels and resolutions. That's as much as we can expect.