Tying It All Together

By Jason Cross  |  Print this article Print


Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame

Build It: Last year's $800 gaming PC was a bargain, but had significant compromises. This year's model is an $800 hot-rod gaming rig that offers impressive performance. What a difference a year makes!

If you want to play games, the question is not whether or not to run Windows XP, it's which flavor of XP should you run? There's no need for XP Pro, since we're not running a dual-CPU system. Media Center Edition is an option, but with no TV tuner card and an 80GB hard drive, we wouldn't recommend it. We're trying to save as much money as we can, so it's Windows XP Home Edition for us. The OEM price never really changes much: You can find it for about $75. .

Specs aside, what we really want to know is how well this baby performs. Let's see exactly how much "bang" you can get for $800 worth of "buck." We'll compare this system, where possible, to our previous $800 Gaming PC .

Looking at the PCMark numbers, you can see that our raw CPU performance isn't much higher than the Athlon 64 2800+ in the old system. Don't let that fool you: We've got way more memory bandwidth, having moved from socket 754 to socket 939. Notice the vast difference in hard drive performance, too.

Because most media encoding tasks are CPU compute-bound operations, our slightly faster CPU only slightly improves media encoding times. Still, it burned through our test encodes at a pretty good clip, for such an inexpensive system.

The real meat is in the 3DMark and game scores. We're running 3DMark 03 52% faster than our old $800 system. Unfortunately, the old system didn't successfully complete 3DMark 05, so we can't give you a comparison there. For the record, the new system's 3DMark 05 score is 3536—not too shabby.

Game performance is far better, too. Unreal Tournament 2004 is generally CPU bound, but the additional bandwidth of our Socket 939 CPU gives it a big boost there anyway. Doom 3 runs more than twice as fast, as does the Source engine Video Stress Test. Half-Life 2, Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory

and Painkiller are too new for us to have benchmarks on the old $800 Gaming PC. They all run at perfectly smooth frame rates at 1024x768 with all the features cranked up. Splinter Cell is the slowest, but an average 45 fps isn't bad at all for the third-person stealth game. 

As you can see, you don't have to break the bank to build a quality gaming PC. Our system even includes a keyboard and mouse (albeit very inexpensive ones). If you're upgrading from an existing system, you can probably save yourself a bit of money there, and you might even be able to salvage your optical drive or hard drive.

With this system, we're quite happy with the performance we were able to achieve at such a low price point. The system's performance is only half the story, though. The real value of this system is actually that it's ready for the future. The modern motherboard will be good for another couple years of CPU upgrades, including dual-core Athlon 64 X2 CPUs. By making the leap to PCI Express, we're set for video card upgrades for the foreseeable future. Four SATA ports means plenty of room for storage expansion. Gigabit Ethernet gets us ready for the next step in home networking. Even the 400W power supply is enough to feed more-power-hungry CPUs and graphics cards, and the case has enough fan mounts to keep them cool.

After all, nothing is worse than that sinking feeling that your old PC is hopelessly obsolete and you need to start from scratch. Maybe our suggested build for an $800 Gaming PC will take some of the sting out of that. Even better, maybe its eye toward future upgrades will keep you from reaching that point so quickly the next time around.

If we had a slightly higher budget, we would certainly add a CD or DVD burner instead of a read-only drive. Beefing up the graphics card by another $100 would go a long way toward powering heavyweight upcoming games like F.E.A.R. and Age of Empires III too. Clearly, you can't have it all for only $800, but it's amazing how close you can get. This system is even ready to fully exploit Longhorn when it's released late next year. Leave comments in our discussion forum to let us know how you'd customize your own $800 Gaming PC to suit your tastes.

Jason Cross Jason was a certified computer geek at an early age, playing with his family's Apple II when he was still barely able to write. It didn't take long for him to start playing with the hardware, adding in 80-column cards and additional RAM as his family moved up through Apple II+, IIe, IIgs, and eventually the Macintosh. He was sucked into Intel based side of the PC world by his friend's 8088 (at the time, the height of sophisticated technology), and this kicked off a never-ending string of PC purchases and upgrades.

Through college, where he bounced among several different majors before earning a degree in Asian Studies, Jason started to pull down freelance assignments writing about his favorite hobby—,video and computer games. It was shortly after graduation that he found himself, a thin-blooded Floridian, freezing his face off at Computer Games Magazine in Vermont, where he founded the hardware and technology section and built it up over five years before joining the ranks at ExtremeTech and moving out to beautiful northern California. When not scraping up his hands on the inside of a PC case, you can invariably find Jason knee-deep in a PC game, engrossed in the latest console title, or at the movie theater.


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