Sandy Bridge on a <$500 Budget

Benchmarks for the newer Sandy Bridge-based Pentium CPUs are not widely available; however, in my experience the Pentium G620 is broadly equivalent to the older Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 and current AMD Athlon II X2 260 CPUs—at least in terms of web browsing, office productivity, moderate multitasking, and light gaming (e.g. Left 4 Dead, StarCraft 2). Though the Intel Pentium CPUs’ HD 2000 graphics are often superior to the Radeon HD 4250 IGP found on most AM3 motherboards, both are capable of handling HD video but neither are gaming-grade. The Pentium G620 is inferior to the AMD Athlon II X3 line—and since it is either about the same price or even more expensive, I do not recommend the Sandy Bridge Pentiums right now unless you are interested in upgrading the CPU itself later to a more powerful Core i5 or i7 model. The Core i3-2100, on the other hand, performs about the same as the AMD Phenom II X4 940, so that’s what we’ve used. Here are the full specs.

Budget Core i3-2100 System
Part Description Price Rebate
Processor Intel Core i3-2100 $125  
Motherboard MSI H61M-E33 (B3) LGA 1155 $70 -$10
Memory Patriot 4GB (2x2GB) PSD34G1333K $40  
Storage Western Digital Caviar Blue WD5000AAKS 500GB HDD $44  
Optical LITE-ON iHAS124-04 DVD Burner $25  
Power Supply Antec EarthWatts EA-380D PSU $40  
Case Antec Three Hundred $55 -$10
OS Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $100  
System Total $499 $479
Graphics XFX HD-657X-ZHF2 Radeon HD 6570 1GB DDR3 $80 -$10
System Total with Dedicated Graphics $579 $549

I recently had an AMD Phenom II X4 945 (C3 revision) system side by side with an Intel Core i3-2100 system; in my experience, the two systems performed so similarly I could not tell them apart for daily computing tasks. (Both rigs had an 80GB Intel G2 SSD, ATI Radeon HD 5550 GPUs, and 4GB DDR3-1333 in them.) The Core i3-2100 rig was slightly faster (<10%) in some DNA analysis tasks that are computationally demanding, but even then you’d need to run a specific benchmark to notice the difference. Something else worth noting is that the Core i3 system used less power than the Phenom II X4 system. Admittedly, I was taken aback by the Core i3’s performance—it really is powerful enough to take on a current, midrange AMD quad-core CPU. Given that, the Core i3-2100 is almost overkill for most desktop users. (Enthusiasts who read AnandTech sometimes lose sight of the average user’s truly modest needs!) The on-die HD 2000 graphics processor is not a gaming GPU, but it is fine for 1080p HD video playback, Windows 7’s Aero interface, web browsing, and office productivity. It really is remarkable that such a powerful computer can be assembled for less than $500.

The remaining parts are standard budget fare. The MSI motherboard uses the H61 chipset, as that's the least expensive way to get into an SNB setup. There’s a vanilla 500GB hard drive that remains inexpensive and has enough storage and performance for the majority of desktop users. (Note that they regularly go on sale for $35 or less if you’re willing to shop around/wait.) 4GB of DDR3 is plenty for Windows 7 and allows for multitasking and most other needs. The Antec Three Hundred remains a favorite of mine, with its muted aesthetics, excellent airflow, good build quality, and capacious, easy to work with interior. It’s not the quietest case on the market, but it’s not terrible either. Similarly, the Antec Earthwatts 380W provides ample power for this system, and can easily accommodate both a CPU upgrade to a 95W quad-core Sandy Bridge and a more powerful GPU in the future. Stock case fans and the stock Intel CPU cooler are also sufficient, though spending maybe $25-50 on aftermarket fans will reduce system noise noticeably.

The above system is more than able to handle just about any task; the one area where it would fall short is in gaming. For that, you really need a discrete GPU, so to go with our budget recommendations we’re including the AMD Radeon HD 6570 as an optional extra. It’s often available for around $70, especially if you’re willing to play the mail-in rebate game. If you’re interested in something faster, the next step up that would be worth taking is the Radeon HD 5770 (note that the 6770 is literally the same GPU with a new name and a $10 premium, so don’t bother). If you’d prefer an NVIDIA GPU, there’s the GTS 450, but the 5770 generally offers equivalent or better performance. Idle power is in NVIDIA’s favor by a few watts, but we’d really be splitting hairs to complain about an extra 6W of power draw. If you need other GPU alternatives, turn the page….

CPU and Chipset Overview The $1000 Midrange Sandy Bridge Build
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  • fic2 - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    I thought the top end Llano was rumored to be $170. Also pretty sure that an i3-2100 would beat it in most things except software that could use all 4 cores of the high end Llano. Plus, with the Llano you really have no place to go upwards without buying a new mb. With i3 at least you could get an i5 or i7 next year for a speed boost. Probably also find the i5 or i7 used once the Ivy Bridges start coming out.
  • TrackSmart - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    That's the kind of tone I expect from the 14 year-olds who post at Engadget (the comments there are incredibly obnoxious). Would it have been possible to make your point without being a jerk about it?

    Regarding the actual content of your post (as opposed to tone), have you seen this?
    It seems unlikely that Llano will have better gaming performance than the 6570 (given that it performs a little worse than a 5570 which is slower than the 6570). And the i3-2100 will

    And have you seen this? Except for highly threaded workloads, the i3-2100 is generally faster than Llano.

    So indeed, it might be a good time to buy. While it's possible that Llano will be cheap enough that it will be a better value proposition, you won't be kicking yourself about the performance differential.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    We already have a pretty good idea of what Llano has to offer: slower CPU but faster IGP. If you care about gaming, as mentioned in this very guide, you'll want to add a discrete GPU regardless. Llano's IGP might look pretty good on a 1366x768 laptop, which is where we praised the performance. On a 1680x1050 or more likely 1920x1080 desktop, if you're playing any games you'll want a lot more than 6550D.
  • just4U - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link

    The article also makes an interesting note that for everyday use you'd be hard pressed to notice much of a difference between the i3 and lower priced AMD proccessors. This is key for just about everyone outside of enthusiasts I think as we have hit a bit of a wall with even the cheapest cpu's being "good enough" "fast enough" for the masses on most applications.
  • mczak - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    I say it's not good value, get a HD6670 instead.
    All reviews of HD6570 I've seen were using gddr5, and guess what every single one you can buy is using ddr3 (some even with lower than reference memory clock) - just like HD6450. BUT some of the HD6670 are using ddr3 too actually (especially the cheaper ones, I don't think AMD even told anyone ddr3 cards of HD6670 would exist) looks like the real cards are all at least 95$ which moves them close to HD5750/HD6750 levels unfortunately. So if you're going for best performance/price you're probably looking at HD5750/HD6750 from the red team (the HD5770/6770 are no doubt faster but pretty much the same perf/price wise).
    Or if you really want to get a cheaper card, just step down to HD5570, which is only 65$ instead of 80$ (it's got some less alus but with that low memory bandwidth it probably won't make much difference anyway - just be careful and don't get a HD5570 with ddr2(!!!) memory).
  • TrackSmart - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    I agree. Also, if you want to game, it's worth spending just a few dollars more for much better performance. Especially when the 5770 is often on sale for around $100. Sometimes under $100 with rebates.
  • duploxxx - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    Now I have read and loved lots of info from anandtech site for years, but this must be one of THE MOST STUPID buyers guide I have ever seen.

    Do we realy need to start believing that for every review Anandtech is posting on the Intel part's you get a kind of bonus, it was already horrible on the computex time, but what happend here? to much AMD lately so you got kicked by Intel Marketing guys to do something in favor??? for every build created you need to downplay AMD for everything????

    Succinctly, the second-gen Core CPUs are astonishingly powerful and sip electricity.
    I been so impressed by a new CPU as I have by
    It’s also a great time to build an Intel-based
    if you buy a Core i7-2600K now, you’ll be at the near pinnacle of desktop computing for at least 5-6 months.
    It really is remarkable that such a powerful computer can be assembled for less than $500.....but you only have a cpu :)
    cuts through genomic datasets like a hot knife through butter, and it noticeably reduced the time it takes me to get answers to my research questions
    Video encoders and gamers alike will see remarkably improved results versus even the first-gen Core i5-750. Oh, and rare is the Core i5-2500K that can’t overclock to 4.4GHz on air, with the stock cooler.

    WTF is this kind of guide I only smoke SNB, don't wait for BD and x79 guide, if BD can compete your magical 2600K might drop in price or get replaced by just another day.... how does that feel after such an anandtech remarkable praise to buy this stuff NOW, not to mention the additional parts... like an old outdated NV460 ???? or a 580 that really nobody needs unless you have a high-end large screen which is not even within the guide???? low budget antec and biostar just to be able to scratch the expensive 2500K in a 1000$ build and so on....

    damn how the hell did you ever get to post reviews in the first place.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    How much will 2600K drop in price if Bulldozer is actually competitive? $100? Intel doesn't sell Core i3 parts for less than about $130, Core i5 stops at about $185, and Core i7 currently starts at around $250 (i7-950). So IF you wait 2.5 months, and IF Bulldozer is competitive, you can save yourself $50 to $100. Generally speaking, if you wait three months, you'll always get at least a $100 increase in performance or decrease in price.

    Tell me this: what is wrong with GTX 460? It's not as shiny and new as GTX 560! It uses an "old" die spin that results in yields not being as good and clocking not being as high. I suppose we should all throw out anything that isn't less than six months old while we're at it? We apparently shouldn't look at GTX 580 either, even though the text spent 500 words discussing why we selected that GPU. Why? Ryan has tested more GPUs that you're likely to see, and I've used CF and SLI enough to agree, that for $450 I'd rather have a single GTX 580 than any CF or SLI setup. It won't be faster in some games, but the headaches of CF/SLI often aren't worth the performance increases you get when it works right.

    But, if you read that paragraph, we already spelled all of this out, including links to where you can buy the alternatives. So, what is your rationale for not wanting a 580 in there? The lack of a large screen? Wait, let me see... "and really you should have at least a 27” WQHD panel if you’re looking at this sort of graphics setup." Wow. Your complaint was addressed right there. And the opening paragraph on the high end helps as well: "If you’re looking for all that gaming performance without dropping two grand, take the midrange build and add the GPU(s) and power supply from the list below."

    Sorry you didn't like Zach's review, or apparently any of my editing. I am still in full agreement with Zach: right now is an AWESOME time to buy an Intel desktop, because there's nothing coming out in the next three months on the Intel side that will really make it outdated. Ivy Bridge is the next major revision, and that's still 6 months out. LGA 2011 is not for the mainstream users. Will AMD have something to entice people away? Llano can do something on the low-end (which we already acknowledged in the intro), and Bulldozer might do something at the mid- and high-end, but we won't know until September. For those that don't even care what AMD releases (I know plenty of businesses and users that won't even consider a non-Intel PC), this guide has them covered.
  • ckryan - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    Thank you, Jarred.

    Hell, I'm on my second iteration of my 2500k build -- and my system is basically the $1000 system. My MSI Cyclone GTX 460 is superb for me as a "medium" gamer at 1900x1200. Mine also has an absurd amount of headroom in the tank for those times when a 25+% clock boost is called for. Your conclusions are very much on point. Migrating to SB from a quad core Phenom/Athlon II is worth just for the smile it puts on your face. Apparently some people like to take the fun out of everything -- it is supposed to be fun, isn't it?
  • marc1000 - Friday, June 17, 2011 - link

    yeah, we will always have someone complaining about ANY buyers guide. don't bother with them. I have an old c2duo e7200 (oc to 3.16ghz) and was impressed with the performance of an i3-530 on a notebook. I'm just waiting for some ca$h to buy my i5-2500k....

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