Squeezing Performance from Pennies

The debates about which CPU, graphics card, motherboard, etc. are the best options for each price point are seemingly endless. Even when there appears to be a clear-cut winner, price cuts, new products, and platform changes can shake things up. With AMD's launch of the unified AM2 platform, both AMD and Intel now have motherboards that can run everything from their lowliest budget processors up through the fastest dual core offerings. We haven't taken a serious look at benchmarking any budget offerings in a while, so this article is part Buyers Guide, part benchmarks, with a dash of overclocking thrown in for good measure. We'll save the recommendations for after the benchmarks, as that will hopefully provide us with the necessary information to make an informed decision on which budget platform is best.

There are of course a few things that will change in another month or two. First, we have AMD's processor price cuts, which will finally bring Athlon X2 chips down to prices that people can actually consider for a moderate budget. We've also got the upcoming Core 2 Duo launch, and we expect to see budget variants of the Core 2 architecture at some point as well (likely not until 2007, though, according to current roadmaps). Let's not forget about the older platforms, the Sempron chips for socket 754 and the Celeron D chips. We won't even bother with the latter, as the low-priced Pentium D 805 is simply far too attractive to pass up. However, we are a bit curious as to how the new Sempron chips compare to the older models, so we will include both AMD Sempron options. (Technically, Sempron was also available for socket 939, but you could only get the CPUs with OEM systems, so they never really caught on with the DIY market.)

In something of a break from tradition, we're going to focus on creating a budget computer and benchmarking each platform. If you aren't interested in gaming, you can of course choose to purchase a much cheaper graphics card or a motherboard with integrated graphics. However, we are building a budget gaming system, so we're going to choose a reasonable "budget gaming GPU". No, we're not talking about the X1300 or GeForce 7300, as those simply lack the power to properly run many games without severely reducing image quality. We also aren't going to cut every single corner possible, so our budget is going to be about $650 without a monitor, speakers, or other peripherals (use what you have unless it's severely outdated). In most areas, we will attempt to make the systems as equal as possible, though there may be minor differences.

So what did we choose for the various parts? We tried to stick with reasonable quality in most areas, which means we're looking at $70-$90 motherboards as the foundation of each platform. We also wanted to make sure we could get some systems that would overclock a decent amount, and we will be including results for both the stock and overclocked configurations in our benchmarks. We've thrown in a more expensive AM2 motherboard option as well, and you'll see why later. We'll start with the components we chose for each system, followed by the benchmarks, and we will conclude with some lessons learned and final recommendations.

System Configurations
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