The Intel Core i5-2500K CPU

Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture based Core i5-2500K needs little introduction at this time. Almost a year after its release, it remains unrivaled in terms of performance, power consumption, enthusiast-friendly overclockability, and price. Anand reviewed the CPU earlier this year, and I summarized the Sandy Bridge CPU and chipsets in a previous buyer's guide. You can also check Bench for detailed metrics on the 2500K's performance. Simply put, you can't buy a better processor for the money, and its performance for its cost makes it a tremendous value.

The components

I've recommended the Biostar TZ68A+ in previous guides and it continues to be my go-to Z68 chipset-based LGA 1155 motherboard. I continue to have great experiences with it (like no DOA boards, knock on wood), and the many I've put in systems continue running without issue. Its feature set is good, its performance is great, and its cost is comparatively low. Perhaps its only negative is that it has fewer than average rear USB ports; you might need a USB port dock if you'll be attaching a lot of peripherals to it.

For the graphics card, we're highlighting the Radeon HD 6850. Prices of cards based on this GPU have fallen over the last few months to lows of around $130 after rebate, where it offers unbeatable performance for the price. The GTX 460 1GB is its closest NVIDIA competitor, performance-wise, as you can see from Bench. The two cards are very evenly matched, but the Radeon HD 6850's lower power consumption and lower price tag make it the better buy. Succinctly, it can play even the most demanding games at high resolutions at acceptable frame rates. AMD's HD 7000 series should come out in the not-too-distant future, but we can't share any details on where those will rank right now.

Because Sandy Bridge CPUs are less responsive to faster RAM than AMD's Llano APUs, the Core i5-2500K system requires nothing more than standard budget DDR3, in this case, an 8GB kit. For storage, we've opted to go with a slightly less expensive but still solid performing SSD, OCZ's Vertex 3. 60GB is enough space for your OS and applications, and like the $800 AMD build, the Samsung F3 1TB HDD is a lot of space for big game and media libraries.

Though neither the i5-2500K nor the Radeon HD 6850 are power hogs, Corsair's Builder Series CX500 offers a lot of value for midrange builders at the $50 (after rebate) price point. It's more than capable of powering this system, and leaves room for future upgrades that might be more demanding on the power supply (e.g. a Core i7 CPU, faster video card, or a second Radeon HD 6850 for CrossFire). Dustin reviewed the Corsair Carbide 500R recently and after getting my own hands on one, I agree with his conclusions: it has excellent thermals and acoustics, it's extremely easy to work with, and it's well-built. Note that the white version is in the components list below, but it's also available in black.

Component Product Price Rebate
Processor Intel Core i5-2500K $220  
Motherboard Biostar TZ68A+ $95  
Video card Gigabyte Radeon HD 6850 $150 -$20
RAM Kingston 8GB DDR3 1333 $35  
SSD OCZ Vertex 3 $100 -$20
HDD Samsung F3 1TB $150  
Power supply Corsair Builder Series CX500 $60 -$10
Case Corsair Carbide Series 500R $140 -$10
Optical drive LITE-ON iHAS324-98B $20  
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit (OEM) $100  
  Total: $1070 $1010


The Intel system outlined above is about $200 more expensive than the AMD system on the previous page. That's a 25% cost increase from the A8-3850 APU rig. Is it worth it? As you can see from the Bench comparison, the only aspects of performance where the A8 wins are idle and load power consumption. As for actual computing performance, it's not even close. Similarly, the discrete Radeon HD 6850 is leagues ahead of the on-die APU's graphics. But it is critically important to understand what the benchmark numbers mean in reality. For a casual computer user, the A8-3850 is more than adequate. However, it is not an enthusiast's chip, whereas the i5-2500K is essentially the entry-level enthusiast's processor. If you perform more demanding tasks like pro-am or professional graphics or video editing, or you're a hardcore gamer, you should spend the extra $200 and go with the Core i5-2500K system.

For those who use their PC to work hard and prefer to play elsewhere, and don't want to break the bank on near-bleeding edge performance, we've got you covered on the next page.


$800 AMD Llano A8-3850 System $1200 Intel Core i7-2600K System
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  • aznofazns - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    "I don't consider this an "ass-whoopin". That would be considerably faster (50% or more) on all benchmarks. The i3 isn't even close to that."

    You're entitled to your definition of the term, but I consider anywhere from 25-50% better IPC an ass-whoopin. Take a look at Cinebench, Mediaespresso, and Photoshop benchmarks results (not just on Anandtech, but other reviews too).

    In the multi-threaded situations in which the A8 takes the lead, it only wins by 10-15%. If you primarily use your PC for these types of workloads, the A8 may be worthwhile. But I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume the majority of users this build is designed for will gladly trade 10-15% multi-threaded performance for 25-50% higher IPC.

    "One place where the i3 clearly shines over the A8 is gaming performance (assuming that both systems are using dedicated cards, which really isn't fair to the A8 since its integrated graphics are so good), but seriously, who even cares about gaming performance of PCs anymore?"

    Tell that to all the hardcore PC gamers out there. With recent titles like BF3 and Skyrim, PC gaming is still very relevant. If you're not breaking that magical 60fps barrier in most games, you will notice. Also, with 120Hz monitors becoming more prevalent, don't you think gamers would find it worthwhile to invest in a faster CPU?

    "It depends on workload and for most casual users, the differences would never be noticed anyway."

    This is completely true, but what percentage of casual users would be spec-ing out and building a custom desktop like this in the first place? The argument that "you wouldn't notice anyway" doesn't justify spending the same amount of money on a CPU that performs worse in most situations.
  • bji - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    Your points are all good and well taken. I personally happily trade per-core IPC for greater multithreaded efficiency because I have no single-threaded tasks that I need better performance on, but do have multithreaded tasks (parallel compiles of large software) that benefit immensely from multi core. But not everyone has the same needs as me, which was kind of my point; you can't say that one chip is objectively better than the other, it depends on your workload.

    I think that perhaps the real problem here is that there is some inconsistency between the concept of a build-it-yourself low-end system and the target audience.

    Only enthusiasts are qualified to take the advice of a build-it-yourself article, and enthusiasts almost always will have requirements that take them out of the low-end system market.

    And those enthusiasts who actually do need a low-end system probably have a better idea of the specific requirements that would guide their decisions on topics such as CPU choice better than the article writer ever could, so trying to create a one-size-fits-all CPU choice for the enthusiast is an exercise in futility.
  • aznofazns - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    You definitely have a point here. Enthusiasts probably would not build a low-end machine like this to serve as their primary PC. And a "one-size-fits-all CPU" is definitely an exercise in futility, as you mentioned.

    I still like to think that *most* enthusiasts looking to build a budget rig like this (for basic gaming, HTPC, whatever) will be more satisfied with the i3 Sandy Bridge + HD6670 configuration.

    It's always down to the individual user, but I think the Llano A8 chip would serve a better purpose in a slightly different type of system, like a low-profile mini-ITX HTPC.

    Regardless, I think your arguments are valid, and your comment on the target audience is one that didn't really cross my mind.
  • xgrifter - Wednesday, December 7, 2011 - link

    The A8 beats the i3 in gaming should just look at the article at pc perspective
  • aznofazns - Thursday, December 8, 2011 - link

    That's looking at the integrated graphics performance of both chips. Pair each one with a mid to high end GPU and the picture changes completely.
  • DanNeely - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    For a lower level system mAtx makes a lot of sense; except that it should've been bundled with an mAtx case as well if not at a half width SFF one. It's target audience is unlikely to ever use an expansion card at all, except perhaps if they decide to go with internal wifi so they don't have to worry about the USB dongle falling off. Less space on the desk OTOH is always a bonus.
  • FATCamaro - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    I like your opinions & alternatives. You should write some articles yourself.
  • medi01 - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    It's funny to read about "superior gaming systems" without discrete graphic card.

    For this review to be honest, it had to include A3850 + discrete graphic card configuration. (which would still be cheaper than Intel config).

    AMD motherboard costing more than Intel's look strange, to say the least.
  • Z Throckmorton - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    Hi Mathieu - Thank you very much for your thorough, informative, and polite post! I very much appreciate it.

    I recognize that an i3-2100+6670 combination is in many ways superior to the A8-3850 I outlined in the guide. However, having assembled many of both systems, for the average user, it really is, in my opinion, a wash. Especially if you're not using a 1080P monitor, as I mentioned in the text of the guide. In my experience the i3 is better under lighter usage scenarios but the A8 wins in more involved multitasking scenarios. This isn't something that can be illustrated with benchmarks, it's really something you have to experience in person performing a familiar workflow. That, and the fact that the A8 idles and loads at a lower power draw are the primary reasons I gave it the nod in the guide. While the upgradeability of an i5 or i7 is definitely a bonus for an i3 rig, the primary intent of this article was to outline systems that will last for five years as they are described. And while enthusiasts have no trouble swapping CPUs and such, adding components as I mentioned in the other builds is always easier than swapping parts.

    I do disagree with your assertion that a PCIe x4 slot will bottleneck a 6850. Poke around online and there are numerous articles illustrating that it will not.

    Your point about mentioning where additional cables are necessary is appreciated - I've forgotten that in a previous guide - hopefully it won't take more than twice for me to learn my lesson.

    Thanks again for your comments!
  • fmofmofmo - Tuesday, December 6, 2011 - link

    But according to this site, Liano is more then 39x faster then core i3-2100

    I'm bit sarcastic to post this link because the site is so amd-biased that it's funny.

    AMD FX 8150 clearly beats Sandy Bridge i7-2700K

    AMD FX does frag Sandy Bridge after all

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