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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  • GullLars - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    I agree on the 2500K + GTX 460 being a great build for "medium" gamers, so don't take the next part as an attack on that system.

    Regarding the last part of your post, if you already have a quad Phenom II / Athlon II, migrating to a LGA 1155 build will require you to get both a motherboard and CPU, combined cost ~$300-350. If you don't already have an SSD, a 128GB Vertex 3, M4, or 510 will give you a noticably better improvement than going to the 2500K system outside number crunching.

    For gaming, an Athlon/Phenom II x4 >2,5GHz won't slow down a 460 noticably at 1900x1200 medium. There may be a few FPS difference, but both will be perfectly playable, and the GPU will be the determining factor.
  • marc1000 - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    for light use my c2duo is perfectly fine. I even do "almost medium" gaming because I invested in a radeon 5770 (it goes fine with my 1680x1050 monitor). but when I need to convert a blu-ray disc (legally bought), my system goes to its knees... it takes 5 to 6 hours for a single disk. at this task the sandy bridge cpus are faster than phenom II, and for anyone with even older hardware like me, it's about 5 times faster...
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    True. If you're upgrading a PC as opposed to buying new, the point at which it becomes important varies from individual to individual. I'm still running a Core 2 Quad desktop, and my wife is on Core 2 Duo -- only my gaming rig is running Core i7 (Bloomfield). My current go-to laptop is a Sandy Bridge quad-core that's actually faster than my Core 2 Quad desktop, but all my apps are still running happily on the C2Q.

    If you are already running in an AMD ecosystem, there's really no point to upgrading to Llano right now. Even if it's compatible with your motherboard, all you'd really get is lower power draw and a faster IGP. Considering you can get a much faster dGPU for $50, why bother? And as far as power goes, let's say Llano saves you 20W on average; at $0.15 per kWh (which is actually more than a lot of people in the US pay), you'd need to run 24/7 for five years to recoup the cost of a $100 investment. In five years, I can pretty much guarantee you'd have upgraded at least once if not twice from Llano.
  • ckryan - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    I decided to build a new system based on SB in part pretty much just cause I wanted to. A quad core Athlon/Phenom II isn't exactly feeble and it wasn't "holding me back". I didn't need to upgrade, I just wanted to upgrade. The 2500k/2600k might be a great deal ahead of the K10.5 architecture but it's not like AMDs are obsolete. Part of my decision to upgrade was based on the fact that I needed to build a system for a family member -- so I just upgraded my system and handed down my AMD system -- which is still way more powerful a system than was necessary. I bought an H67 and a 2500k which was great, but then I decided to get a P67 board. To be clear, in the few games I do play I get better framerates... but it's largely academic. I say if you're building a system for someone else, esp. if they're not a gamer than an H67/Core i3 is a great way to go. Which is what I'm planning to do with my "old" Biostar TH67+.
  • marc1000 - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link

    yeah, giving away our older parts is a great reason to upgrade! =D

    I guess that this "upgrading cycle" is more of an addiction than a necessity. I'm planning to whom I will give my old system as soon as I buy that 2500k!
  • jjj - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    "an AWESOME time to buy an Intel desktop, because there's nothing coming out in the next three months on the Intel side "

    Why would anyone sane buy based on brand name,how does it matter if it's Intel or AMD side and how is 3 MONTHS !?! a significant period of time?

    We have BD coming soon,you say september and it would be nice to tell us what makes you think it is september and not august since all public info suggests august,.There is SB-E this year and i guess we can hope BD will force Intel to price it better than it was planned and then Ivy Bridge could arrive in 7-10 months.It's maybe the worst time to buy a new desktop in YEARS.

    That aside,there are a lot of "best Intel something" articles lately on the internets,i really do hope this wasn't a payed article,or written at Intel's request. You guys are already almost never criticizing any products you review,always looking for the upside and that's starting to be annoying.You might need to keep good relations with hardware makers but objectivity is way more important or you'll end up being the next THG.
  • marc1000 - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    I don't agree with you. I don't believe they are saying any of this because of brand names. It's because of real performance. See, I'm an AMD supporter - each and every GPU I used is ATI/AMD (since the times of geforce2mx ruling the market, I was buying the radeon9000). I even bought an Athlon 64 system when it was faster than any Pentium. but since the core2duo, the intel CPU's are the best performers. I really hope that AMD will deliver a capable CPU with the next iteration of bulldozer, but right now you can't go wrong when buying any of the new sandy bridge cpus.
  • duploxxx - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    difference between initail buyers guide and this version :)

    In the end it's all about levelling a build, first of all you mention a pricerange, but you forget to add kyb-mouse-speakers and screens, so to what extend does a buyer only assign parts to the case and content..... never they look at the full picture.

    THe budget 500$ is off for a SNB anyhow right now, it is totally out of balance, you have more then CPU power enough for general usage and you get an IGP that is worth é&é&é&é sure general desktop usage is fine, but not meant to play any decent game at all, so you need a GPU anyhow.

    a very low budget mobo, the MSI -e35 has at least USB3 support....
    the caviar blue is slow against black series and others like spinpoint....

    THe 1000$ build is also not balanced. there is no need for the 2500K a 2400 will do more then ok for such a rig, for the difference in price you get a 6870 from asus or the his also in rebate with much better price/performance/power ratio then this 460. THe antec psu i would trade it in for a corsair anyday. cheap case that ain't really that looking unless you have a -25j old public. While the 60GB SSD does serve it's purpose here it is narrow on size and performance.... again balance the needs

    The 2000$ build well nothing to add, but then again select all major parts doesn't always provide the best ratio price/perf/power. you could easily take the 2500K here (no need for those HT cores anyway in daily usage), go with a 570 or 6970. buy a faster and better ssd, intel 68 chipset that isn' t really added value beside higher price.... throwing with money but forget for a total complete build you actually need 500$ more for the peripherals at the same level.

    last thing.... its nice searching for the cheapest prices everywhere on the net, but the chances that buyers actually go search for 3 different sites for the lowest $ cost for each part is hardly the case.

    Sure you can mention the fact that AMD has nothing new to offer right now so you don't throw them in, but the 500-1000$ range is still a valid range to compare both where they will do more then well for any user. The non-intel PC users is just lack of IT mind, old school ready for retirement in this branche.....

  • hi87 - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    You're a joke Duploxx. Just stfu. Anything that is not pro-AMD you hate on.

    I'm not a fanboy, I'm just sick of your trolling on anything that's about Intel. Damn, how childish are you?
  • Broheim - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link


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