The Clarkdale Experiment

I’ve been waiting for Intel’s 32nm CPUs to arrive on the scene, because I’ve been wanting to build a small, but relatively potent, gaming system. Now, Anand wasn’t all that impressed with the price/performance ratio of the Intel Core i5 661, suggesting that Intel had priced the CPU too high relative to the competition.

Interestingly, Anand also found the power consumption to be a little iffy, noting that his system idled at around 110W (though he did suggest it was high partly due to the particular Asus motherboard he used in the CPU review.)

I saw an opportunity with Clarkdale to do a little experimenting. I wanted to build a small gaming system with low idle power, but capable of running high end games at high frame rates. The $205 Core i5 661 looked to be just the CPU for that – two cores, two more virtual cores seemed like a good fit for even modern game titles. All you need is a better GPU… and maybe a few other things.

For example, I’d need a good discrete graphics card. Storage was relatively important, but I could get by without dropping in a terabyte drive. This system wasn’t intended to be a repository for digital video. Even though modern PC games take up a lot of space, there even a 250 or 320GB drive is ample enough to hold quite a number of games. For example, I probably have a dozen current generation games installed using Steam, and my Steam folder is just 131GB.

So in my mind, Clarkdale can enable a different class of system. Right now, I’ve got a system running a different Asus motherboard (the P7H55D-M EVO). It’s also got a discrete graphics card in it. After I build a system, I always run 3DMark Vantage as a kind of sanity check to see if it's all working properly. This little monster generates a 3DMark Vantage score of 12,738.

Did I mention that it idles at just under 70W?

Let’s see exactly how I built this thing.

The Components
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  • pyrrhus819 - Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - link

    I liked this article. I've been considering building a compact, and efficient but powerful system. This article gives me some good leads.

    One thing that concerns me, how can you determine if a particular component will fit, especially video cards? Do you just cross you fingers and hope for the best? I'm aware of the fact that many video cards are quite long. What is the "normal" length for a video card?
  • austin133788 - Thursday, January 28, 2010 - link

    This is similar to I system I just recently built for myself at around the same price.
    -Shuttle SX58H7
    -Core i7 920 C0 stepping overclocked to 3.2
    -6 gigs 1600 Cas 6 memory
    -2 Intel SSDs in RAID 0 (Boot Drive)
    -WD Caviar Black 1TB (Storage)
    -Samsung IDE DVD drive
    -Radeon 5870 XXX Edition
    This rig is screaming fast and came in right at $2000.00 from NewEgg.
    I installed a 2 bay hot swap carriage for the SSDs to make it easier to upgrade in the future. Heck I love it so much I am contemplating building and selling these systems. I can even clock it at 3.4 and run the memory at 1700 CAS 7, but it's already plenty fast.
    I chose the Shuttle because in an article I read it scored within a couple percentage points as the top of the line board at the time.
  • strikeback03 - Thursday, January 28, 2010 - link

    Why the IDE drive?
  • austin133788 - Thursday, January 28, 2010 - link

    There are only 3 internal SATA connectors and 1 ESATA. I had already used the SATA connectors for the 2 SSDs and 1 HD.
  • nubie - Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - link

    Try a neater case for the same money, the GT3">

    It comes with a power supply as well, although I think you have to use a laptop-style optical drive.

    Bring on some more.

    In fact, I thought this might be a mini-itx build, but I can keep hoping. I want to see a straight gaming cube as small as possible, with intelligent design.

    You could cram a Core i5 and an ATI 5xxx in a Shuttle K45 (and yes there are power supplies that will power it safely, and the K45 comes with a place for a laptop optical drive) Just waiting on the motherboard I suppose, I hope they show up soon.
  • coachingjoy - Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - link

    Have been using SFF boxes for awhile now, Shuttles mostly. Let us know how it turns out for OC'ing and everyday usage. SFF's are habit forming, be careful.
  • LBID - Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - link

    In my experience with video cards, "quiet" and "XFX" are not two words that belong on the same page, let alone the same sentence. I'd suggest looking at the Sapphire Vapor-X line if you want really quiet Radeon cards.
  • fishbits - Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - link

    This is honestly amazing. You spent $2100 on a PC with a 64-bit OS and only walked away with 4GB RAM? And only a dual-core processor?

    The real kick in the pants is its being billed as a "gaming rig." Why? Because this invalidates a lot of the assumptions going into the project. The tower is billed as small enough to take to a LAN party. I've owned some big towers, but not one too big to put in a car and carry, barring physical disability. It has low idle power--- for a gaming rig with a top-notch GPU. Like a Ferrari with a low-power glove compartment light. And whisper quiet--- for a gaming rig. If you're not allowed to operate a computer in your house that is louder than a whisper, buy headphones. Otherwise use speakers. In either case, a gaming rig is, by definition, going to make plenty of noise. From the games.

    You could have gotten a better gaming rig for $1000 less, and hot-glued $100 bills to the case. You could have gotten better gaming rig AND a great laptop for the same price, if low sound levels and power consumption when not gaming were the priorities. It's almost as if the rationale was to bring a horribly bad build idea to life, or just to show that the builder can spend a lot of money. Heaven help Alienware for the thrashing they'd receive for offering up this level of performance at that price.
  • erple2 - Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - link

    Wow. I'd say chill out, but ... wow.

    The choices made made perfect sense once you accepted the premise of the build:
    1. Small and easily portable
    2. Efficient at idle
    3. Quiet
    4. Gaming centric

    None of your suggestions even qualify number 1, which was the most important qualification for this build. It's easily portable (not just "portable", as your suggestion is - though to be fair, even a Refrigerator is portable if you have a dolly). Your Ferrari analogy doesn't make any sense to me. This computer is supposed to be a small computer that is gaming focused. How does that compare to the efficiency of one minor component of that Ferrari?

    Low Noise is a good thing in any build, with or without speakers. I appreciate a quiet case when I'm gaming, or just plain listening to music with that computer. And no, the rig itself is not supposed to make noise. That adds to background that I don't want to hear.

    The choice of SSD was, as Loyd pointed out, a bit of an extravagance. In fact, he even suggested where you could reasonably trim down the cost a bit with some substitutions. However, each of those reduces the performance of the overall system, and sacrifices one of the key component of this build. I think Loyd made reasonable (other than the drive) choices for a very good gaming rig.
  • Finally - Wednesday, January 27, 2010 - link

    AnandTech will rather spend $2100 on a ridiculous Intel machine than on an equal-performing AMD one, because this is what AnandTech does...

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