Up until a few years ago, the value king for gaming was the Intel i5 processor. More recently, AMD’s Ryzen APUs have stolen the show at the low tiers, and we all know that no integrated graphics from Intel can currently compete with AMD’s Vega 8 and Vega 11 iGPUs. So it’s a no-brainer for gaming builders at very low budgets (who are entirely skipping graphics cards) to go with Ryzen APUs.
But outside of such head-to-head CPU comparisons, a broader value question remains for upper-low-tier (and lower-mid-tier) builders: how would a self-built system balanced around AMD’s newest R3 (including a discrete graphics card) compare to a highly discounted prebuilt system with a few key upgrades?
Intel vs. AMD (Again)
As I said above, the i5 lineup was once the top recommendation for gaming builders looking for value. There were several variants, but they all came with four cores and had four threads (due to lack of Hyperthreading) for around $200—depending on their base and turbo frequency, and whether they could be overclocked.
In those days, people who wanted more performance (and/or a bit of future-proofing) could upgrade to the Intel i7 processors. More expensive (close to $350) and still quad-cores, they had eight threads (thanks to Hyperthreading) and often had higher turbo frequencies.
The last quad-core i5 and i7 processors were released in Q1 2017. (Intel has bumped things up to 6 or more cores since then.)
In Q1 2018, AMD released their $99 Ryzen 3 2200G, a quad-core with four threads, and their $149 Ryzen 5 2400G, a quad-core with eight threads—effectively matching Intel’s earlier quad-core products for around half the price.
In mid-2019, AMD updated their budget CPUs and released the Ryzen 3 3200G and the Ryzen 5 3400G.
But, were they any good? UserBenchmark has the performance of the Ryzen 3 3200G ahead of the i5 7500. Additionally, according to several websites such as Techspot and Guru3D, the Ryzen 5 3400G trades blows with the i7-7700K in Cinebench and puts up a respectable fight in most multi-threaded games when using a dedicated GPU.
So, in summary, the Ryzen 3 3200G or Ryzen 5 3400G has almost the same level of performance as a 2017 Intel i5 or i7 CPU. That’s a great win for a $99 and $149 processor. But can you get the same performance for cheaper? What if you got a discounted Intel system from 2017 or earlier, and built a gaming computer from that?
The Other Option (Dell/Intel):
Amazon, eBay, Gumtree, and numerous other websites have hundreds of “obsolete” computer systems from large businesses and government offices that are sold for dirt cheap as they upgrade to newer, faster systems.
That leaves a smorgasbord of old, cheap computers all looking for good homes. But just because they’re old, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve lost all their potency. Often, they’re complete and competent systems. They have the CPU, motherboard, PSU, case, and RAM. Perhaps the only thing they lack is an SSD and a dedicated graphics card—but it shouldn’t cost too much to add those in.
What I’m planning on showing you is whether an eBay business system with a minor upgrade is a better or worse option than buying a new, comparable system with a Ryzen 3 processor. I’m using this listing on eBay as a reference: Dell Optiplex 7050. As you can see, I’ve chosen a system with an i5-6500 as it is cheaper and easier to find than an i5-7500 system, yet still very close in performance.
Our aim is to get performance parity. That is, we’re going to try to add a GPU to the Optiplex, and also put together an example build with similar parts and performance, then see which one is cheaper. For the purposes of this comparison, I want to see what the price difference will be if we use the same GPU between the two systems.
The Self-built vs. Pre-built Comparison:
So, let’s compare the features and prices between the two, and add a graphics card to the eBay system to get a solid low-tier gaming computer:
New Self-built R3 System
eBay Dell OptiPlex 7050 ($368)
|CPU||Ryzen 3 3200G ($99)||Intel Core i5-6500|
|Motherboard||ASRock B450M-HDV ($60)||Dell 0XHGV1|
|GPU||Gigabyte GTX 1650 ($160)||Gigabyte GTX 1650 ($160)|
|HDD||1TB Western Digital HDD ($45)||1TB Western Digital HDD|
|RAM||Dual-channel 8GB DDR4-2666 ($35)||Single-channel 8GB DDR4-2400|
|Optical Drive||None||DVD-RW Drive|
|Case||Thermaltake Versa H22 ($47)||Optiplex Mid-tower Case|
|PSU||Seasonic S12III 450W ($46)||Dell ~250 Watt PSU|
|Operating System||Non-activated Windows||Windows 10 Pro|
As you can see, the self-built system is about $35 less expensive despite having a more powerful CPU and using only brand new parts.
Some of those savings in the R3 3200G computer, to be sure, come from us cutting out features (that are unnecessary for gaming) which are present in the Dell Optiplex: an optical drive and a Windows 10 Pro license. In fact, not only are we not getting a Pro license of Windows, we’re not getting a license at all in the example! This is because Microsoft lets you install and use Windows 10 without a license, and only withholds a few minor customization features under those circumstances.
But it is worth pointing out that there is also cost-cutting in the prebuilt that may not be readily apparent to the buyer: slower single-channel RAM, a restrictive low-wattage PSU, an inferior CPU Cooler, a low-quality motherboard, and (almost a guarantee) bloatware in the pre-installed copy of Windows. So even if it seems that we’re being unfair by skipping the optical drive and OS, in actuality we’re balancing things back out by insisting on higher-quality parts in the self-built PC almost across the board (the exception being the same GPU in both columns).
Why the GTX 1650? Why not the RX 570? And no SSD?
In actuality, the situation for the prebuilt system is even worse than it may seem in our comparison above, and telling you why involves explaining why we’re using the GTX 1650 in this article (despite its famously poor price-to-performance ratio).
The issue is the power delivery system of the Dell computer. The PSU in the prebuilt has no PCIe power connector, and almost certainly delivers less than 300 Watts. Without a separate PCIe power cable, the system can not accept the (less expensive, more powerful) RX 570, which requires its own cable. But we also can not upgrade the Dell system to have a PSU with a PCIe cable and higher Wattage, because the Optiplex’s motherboard uses a proprietary 6-pin connector instead of a standard 24-pin connector.
So we’ve elected to use the best GPU available that runs at such low power draw that it requires no separate PCIe power cable: the GTX 1650 (which is right on the cusp of what is possible in this regard, with some models of 1650 actually requiring the separate cable anyway). There is no such restriction, however, on the self-built R3 system. So if we throw performance parity (and thus our arguably misguided attempt at ‘fairness’) out the window, we can replace the GTX 1650 in the self-built PC with an RX 570 for an even cheaper build that is better for gaming!
Another side effect of this situation is that the Dell system can’t accept a SATA SSD without first removing its installed SATA HDD, which would’ve been very cumbersome to explain in the chart. But once again, this is a restriction not shared by the self-built computer.
Setting aside PSU issues, general power usage may be a concern for you—again the newer chip is in the lead, as the Ryzen 3 processors are more efficient than the Skylake i5 processors. However, both processors have a TDP of 65W, and even though one processor may use slightly more power than the other, the difference is incredibly miniscule—to the tune of maybe $10 per year if the PC runs daily.
Warranty is another factor, and customer support is yet another. Building a new system through Newegg or Amazon means that (if there are any issues) you can call up the manufacturer support of your part sometimes even years down the line. After the first month of buyer protection, though, you can’t do that so easily with the eBay computer. Now, except for those caused by gradual wear, most hardware issues will crop up within the first month of ownership, so this may not be that big of a concern to most users.
The Ryzen 3 system is a solid, dependable piece of kit. It’s more poweful for a lower cost; it comes with a warranty and customer support; and you can be assured you’re the first one to use the system.
On the other hand, if you’re absolutely dedicated to building a system with the exact features of the Dell, you’d end up spending over $200 to add a Windows 10 Pro license and an optical drive to your self-built system, and $200 can go a long way. That’s enough money to replace the 1TB HDD in the Dell with a 2TB SSD, and add a second stick of DDR4-2400 RAM for 16GB!
Even just getting a Windows 10 Home license could eat the $35 price difference between the systems (for an OEM license) or tip the scales in favor of the Dell (for a retail user license purchased directly from Microsoft). But then, there is still component quality and customization/upgrade potential to consider—both categories where the self-built PC takes an easy win.
So ultimately, as with most topics in PC building, it really comes down to the needs and preferences of the individual builder.