It’s working, IT”S WORKING!
It’s been too long since I published an article and way too long since I published a PC building article. I take pride in my system building skills and I frequently put my results to the test against pricier systems. The mission this time is to maximize the margin between part cost and final performance. Whereas past guides have focused on hitting a specific price point or performance level, this goal is different. The idea is to find the parts that can unlock, flash and overclock the highest for the price paid. The final build cost a little under $400, but I’m skimping on the HDD to wait for prices to drop from the current high mark and replace it.
This build is all AMD. Once again not a bias. The Sandy Bridge CPUs are pretty locked up, so not much to play with there. nVidia GPUs rarely allow you to gain much from BIOS flashing (as stock is often best), so once again AMD meets my purposes.
Nuts and Bolts
If this isn’t your first time reading a Bleeding Edge guide, you know I always get the best of the cheap for the parts that don’t matter as much. I went for a cheap 880G board so that I would have a NB that could fully use the additional CPU cores I would unlock. Always keep in mind that unlocking more cores means the CPU will use additional Hypertransport and Wattage equal to the part it unlocks to. It also often unlocks to the same cache size as the higher part too, so important to keep that bottleneck as wide as possible. Cheapest possible case and power supply that could be called decent and reviewed well on Newegg. I only threw 4GB of RAM in at the start since most games won’t address more anyway. The stars are of course the CPU and GPU so all of those other things just need to function. The saddest part is the 80GB HDD I bought as a band-aid. This isn’t a system booting or game loading test, so it will have to wait for an SSD and RAID setup.
I would say that the Phenom II X2 560 Black Edition is arguably the best “mechanic’s special” in history. While many AMD chips have unlockable cores, the 560 is a bargain $90 part that can potentially become indistinguishable from a $140 part. With the right motherboard (read:almost any motherboard), the 560 unlocks two additional cores and an additional 1mB of L2 cache to be effectively 860 (identified as b60). A few people report being unable to unlock the extra cores, but in almost all cases it works effortlessly. The CPU still be overclocked as well, which I’ll cover in the next section.
Speaking of overclocking, I went with an ATi HD 5750, which I got for $90. The 5700 and 5800 series are pretty notorious for being easy to BIOS flash and tinker with, and this one is no different. The stock clocks seem a little low now at 700MHz core and 1050MHz VRAM, when compared to current midrange GPUs. With an easy BIOS flash, those clocks can get into the performance range of a much pricier card. Make sure to read a guide for your exact GPU before attempting yourself, but the process is actually amazingly easy.
One thing I have always loved about AMD is their attitude of “if you know what you’re doing, tweak away.” Your average sub-$100 MoBo will have a plethora of options for overclocking your CPU and RAM. Since I’m working with a Black Edition CPU, the multipliers are unlocked so finding a speed at which my CPU and RAM are happy (without even worrying about my USB) is practically a non-issue. The b60 could theoretically go well over 4GHz, but clocks above 3.7 yield no performance increase, as the Northbridge is full. At this speed the CPU is functionally a Phenom II X4 970 BE which costs $140. One thing I always spend a little extra on is an upgraded CPU cooler as overclocking is only safe with good cooling. As far as RAM goes, I never buy any fancy gaming RAM for a budget build. I just look up the customer reviews to find out how well it overclocks and buy the best cheap sticks that will meet the levels I want. This DDR3 goes up to 2166MHz perfectly stable.
When it comes to the graphics card, you have to overclock in Windows with any number of programs. With the upgraded BIOS, the CCC is as good as any, so no need to download more software. Once again always look up someone else’s results to see what settings work best. Many cards can go ridiculously high and the 5750 is no exception. With a BIOS from a 5770 or 6770 (both share the same chip), you can safely reach the max speeds of those cards. So at around 960MHz core and 1450MHz VRAM, the 5750 benchmarks between a stock 6770 and 6850. Needless to say that when gaming on a single monitor you will never see fps below 60 at those speeds. Unfortunately there is no way to unlock the few extra shader cores the 5/6770 have over the 5750, but the performance increase is still dramatic.
She’ll do .5 past light speed.
Most people would not consider a PC built for around $400 to be a gaming beast. I laugh regularly at PC magazines’ “Budget PC Guides” that always total over $500 and would not even touch my benchmarks. Sure an i3 or i5 around $200 would beat the Phenom dual-core easily, but it’s pretty sad that it spits on them with a few mods a child could do. The HD5750 is by no means a high-end GPU, but with a little tweaking, it puts out the fastest frames I have ever seen out of a sub-$100 GPU. Hell, even a $150 GPU. All together this is a system that can hang with ones I regularly see others buy for three times the price. Supposedly the economy is recovering, but I still don’t have over $1000 to spend on a system that can max SWTOR. If you do, feel free to scorn my $371 4000+ mark, WPI maxing, 100+fps generating beast.