The Processors: Pentium, Core i3, Core i5, and Core i7

The least expensive Sandy Bridge processors continue to be the venerable Pentium line. These are the newest Sandy Bridge CPUs and are currently available at clock speeds of 2.6GHz (the Pentium G620), 2.8GHz (Pentium G840), and 2.9GHz (Pentium G850), as well as a low-power (35W TDP) 2.2GHz variant (Pentium G620T). The Sandy Bridge Pentiums are very similar to the Core i3 CPUs: they’re all dual-core chips fabricated on Intel’s 32nm process. They come with 3MB of L3 cache, lack Turbo Boost, and have Intel HD integrated graphics. While the i3s have “Intel HD 2000” graphics and the Pentiums have “Intel HD” graphics, both IGPs feature 6 EUs (Execution Units) that can turbo up to 1100MHz and thus perform very similarly, including support for dual displays. Unlike the Core i3 models, however, the Sandy Bridge Pentiums do not support Intel’s Quick Sync Video technology or DDR3-1333 RAM; perhaps most importantly, the Pentiums do not feature Hyper-Threading.  Outside of the low-power G620T, they come with a 65W TDP (35W on the G620T). Subjective performance of the G620 for general office productivity tasks and web browsing is, in my estimation, broadly similar to the older Core 2 Duo E8400 CPU and current AMD Athlon II X2 260.

There are now four Sandy Bridge Core i3 CPUs ready for purchase in North American retail channels. These are all dual-core CPUs that feature Hyper-Threading, support for Intel Quick Sync technology, and Intel HD 2000 graphics (save the Core i3-2105). The chips are the Core i3-2100 (3.1GHz), i3-2100T (2.5GHz and featuring a 35W TDP), i3-2105 (3.1GHz but featuring Intel HD 3000 graphics), and i3-2120 (3.3GHz). The i3s do not support Turbo Boost, nor are there any ‘-K’ models for easy overclocking (though an unlocked i3 is rumored to be available eventually).

The 2nd Generation Core i5 processors (with one exception) are all quad-core CPUs that feature Turbo Boost but without Hyper-Threading, and they come with 6MB of L3 cache. All support Intel Quick Sync, and most have a TDP of 95W and feature Intel HD 2000 graphics. The 2500K model is fully unlocked, facilitating extremely easy overclocking, and it comes with HD 3000 graphics. The ‘-S’ models are lower-powered chips featuring a 65W TDP, and the Core i5-2405S includes Intel HD 3000 graphics. The exception to the above is the i5-2390T, which is a dual-core 2.7GHz part with Turbo Boost up to 3.5GHz, a 35W TDP, and 3MB L3 cache—basically a souped up, low-power i3. The entire line of Core i5s fit within about a $50 range—from about $175 to $225.

The Core i7 Sandy Bridges currently comes in only three variants: the i7-2600, its unlocked counterpart the i7-2600K, and the low-power i7-2600S. The 2600K enables all the bells and whistles: 3.4GHz base with up to 3.8GHz Turbo Boost, Hyper-Threading, HD 3000 graphics, 8MB of L3 cache, 95W TDP, and an unlocked multiplier. The Core i7-2600 is the same, except without the fully unlocked multiplier and with HD 2000 graphics. The 2600S is clocked at 2.8GHz with up to 3.8GHz Turbo Boost, HD 2000 graphics, and it has a 65W TDP. The 2600K is the fastest mainstream desktop CPU currently available at retail. We provided a very thorough, comprehensive review of the Core i3, i5, and i7 CPUs back in January; if you are considering building a second-gen Core system, it’s an invaluable resource.

The Chipsets: H61, H67, P67, and Z68

Simply put, in order from least to most expensive (in general), as well as least to most feature-rich, the Cougar Point hierarchy is: H61, H67, P67, and Z68. (We’ll go ahead and skip over the business-centric B65, Q65, and Q67.) While there are far more differences than those discussed here, a few variations are worth noting for the purposes of this guide. You can read more about the chipsets on AnandTech in our ASRock P67 review, H67 motherboard roundup, and ASUS Z68 review.

The H61 chipset does not support CPU multiplier overclocking, has no SATA 6.0Gbps ports, and features the fewest USB 2.0 ports (‘only’ 10). Intel’s Sandy Bridge CPUs feature on-die graphics processors, and the H61 does not support overclocking the GPU. The H67 chipset is similar in that it doesn’t support CPU multiplier overclocking, but it does support GPU overclocking. It also has two SATA 6.0Gbps ports. These chipsets also let you use Intel’s Quick Sync technology, since they provide access to the IGP block. The P67 chipset is the reverse of the H67 and targets the enthusiast segment, with support for CPU multiplier overclocking and two SATA 6.0Gbps ports. However, P67 does not utilize the on-die graphics and thus requires a discrete GPU. That means you also lose out on support for Quick Sync.

Since H67 and P67 both have desirable elements—Quick Sync on the one hand and overclocking on the other—there was clearly a gap in the chipset lineup. The Z68 chipset fills that gap, supporting both CPU multiplier overclocking and IGP overclocking, Quick Sync, and SATA 6.0Gbps. It also supports Intel Virtu Technology, which uses the on-die GPU for less demanding tasks and the discrete GPU for more intensive applications, which potentially saves energy but more importantly allows the use of a dGPU while still providing Quick Sync support. Finally, Intel introduced their Smart Response Technology (SSD caching) with Z68; it’s just software that could work with other chipsets, but right now it remains a Z68 exclusive. At the risk of sounding flippant, Z68 is what P67 should have been, and aside from the fact that Z68 boards are typically a bit more expensive than P67 boards, there aren’t many (any?) compelling reasons to buy a P67 motherboard now that Z68 is out.

With the overview of the CPUs and chipsets out of the way, this guide outlines a budget (<$500) Core i3-based computer, a $1000 Core i5 midrange system, and a $2000 Core i7 gaming monster. Keep in mind that prices on components frequently fluctuate and that these guides might be a bit over or under budget when you read them. It’s always a good idea to shop around and watch for particularly low prices (AnandTech’s Hot Deals forum is full of useful information). Now let’s get to the system builds.

Sandy Bridge and Cougar Point Sandy Bridge on a <$500 Budget
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  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    Fixed. We had initially put 6950 CF in the build, but Ryan talked us out of that. It's still an alternative, though, so now it's "graphics card(s)". :-)
  • Mcgoober - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    Umm...problem. The Antec HCG 400 has only 1 pci-e connector. All GTX 460s need 2 pci-e connectors and using a molex adapter on that PS isn't going to work but I'll let you figure out why. Not to mention 400 watts for that build is probably the worst advice ever.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    I've updated the text slightly to address your question. You'll need a Molex to PCIe for the second PEG connector, but trust me: you're not going to use 400W with the components we've listed. We already mentioned that adding a second GPU would need a larger PSU, but I was running 5850 CrossFire off of a 450W PSU (using Molex to PEG adapters on the second card) for about a year without problems. So why am I not running that anymore? Simply put, a single 5870 2GB card is proving to be a better experience overall.
  • bl4C - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    Jarred, are you a gamer or a casual gamer ?
    i find it strange that you're almost "recommending" a 450W PSU for a 5850 CF setup ... the total system power draw under full load could/would be well over 450W

    maybe you're only a causal gamer ?
    in that case you probably won't be stressing you graphic cards that much, but then there wouldn't have been any need to go CF ... and that might explain also why the single 5870 is a better experience for you

    anyway, your comment puzzles me, as it is coming from a writer for the (personally respected) Anandtech site ... it sounds almost like an argument from a salesman: "this is a great piece of hardware ... i have one at home myself", trying to pesuade you into buying :D
    no offense, but puzzling ... why would you be using a 450 PSU for a CF setup ? (in the context of somebody who works for Anandtech :D ... )

    about the article itself, probably the title says it all:
    "Sandy Bridge Buyer’s Guide"
    it's just that, and if you look it it like that, and beyond the components-price tables (actually read it :) ), it can be helpful for people just wanting to buy a Sandy Bridge system (emphasis on "a")
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    I beat Crysis and Crysis: Warhead, Mass Effect 2, and several other games on the 5850 CrossFire setups. I'm currently playing through Crysis 2 with the 5870 (it's part of why I switched; CrossFire was broken for over a month after release), I play Left 4 Dead 2 on occasion, and I'm working on Dragon Age (never did beat it) so that I can play Dragon Age 2, along with playing Fallout: New Vegas. I've played other games as well (Trine, Shadowgrounds, Shadowgrounds Survivor recently) as well. If that's only a "casual" gamer, well, I'd like you to talk to my wife.

    Why only a 450W PSU? Because when I'm not gaming, my overclocked Core i7-965 idles at around 170W (and it was around 125W with 5850 CF). Since there are many hours in a day where I'm not gaming, maximum efficiency comes into play. A 750W PSU is generally less efficient at ~150W load than a 450W PSU. Actually, I even have a 750W PSU I'm going to swap in at some point, but only so I can go to 5870 CrossFire. Until I make that upgrade, the current PSU is running perfectly fine.

    IMO, there are far too many people who remain convinced that just because NVIDIA and AMD generally say you need at least 650W for SLI/CF, it's true. AMD and NVIDIA need to worry about people buying a cheap 500W PSU and having it die and kill their GPUs and other components because it really couldn't handle a 500W load (or even 400W). My current PSU is actually a Thermaltake LightPower 450W -- not even SLI or CF certified! The horror! Again, I've tested a variety of games and apps, and under load with 5850 CrossFire I never managed to exceed 400W at the wall; as an 80 Plus Bronze PSU, it's likely running at 83-85% efficiency, so the highest load I measured (using a Kill-A-Watt) was 385W, which translates to a PSU output of around 320-325W. I suppose if I were to load up Furmark and run Cinebench at the same time, I could draw more power, but I'm still 125W south of the rated output.
  • DanNeely - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link

    Efficiency curves tend to be more or less flat between 20 and 80% load. 1 or 2% variation is negligible. My preference for a PSU that exceeds maximum load by 200-300W is driven by noise considerations. It's only the last few hundred watts of load that cause the PSU fan to spin up above idle, so my overprovisioned PSUs never switch out of all but silent mode. My CPU is water cooled and uses quiet 1350 RPM fans. The GPU is currently an issue; but my planned fall build will include a larger rad so I can bring it into the loop as well.
  • toyota - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link

    its still a bad idea recommending just a 400 watt psu for that level of pc. 360 watts MAX on the 12v line is not a lot to work with and if you oc that i5 and gtx460 significantly you will be asking for it. it also limits upgrades because if you decide you want something that uses more power you will need a new psu. 500-550 watt psus with around 40 amps should be the recommendation for a system of that level.
  • just4U - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link

    I think they were making a point with the inclusion of the 400W PSU. Alot of enthusiasts would be surprised at what you can get up and running on 400-500W units if they are of good quality. Most of us are not PSU experts afterall and tend to opt out for beefier units which are more often then not overkill.
  • BernardP - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    "... right now is an especially wise time to buy into a Sandy Bridge system..."

    I would respectfully beg to differ. If one doesn't absolutely have to buy now, it seems safer to wait at most a couple of months to see what Bulldozer has to offer before buying. We already have credible leaks abour BD pricing, and it should be competitive with SB. Relative performance info is what is missing now.
  • GullLars - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    A posibble alternative to the 510 is Crucial M4, the 128GB versions of both are different from the 256GB ones performance wise, and it makes the M4 look better. I'd only advice 510 over 320 for scratch-disk duty, or heavy sequential loads. The vertex 3 is also a better choice than 510 IMO for boot drive on such a build, if you're not building it for someone else who require stability without ever getting support from you again.

    A nice way to waste/spend money past what you have put up there is RAID-0 of 2x 128GB SSDs, be that 510, M4, or Vertex 3. The 67 motherboards have 2x 6Gbps ports, and can handle 1000MB/s of bandwidth and >100K IOPS.

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