3.1GHz Quad Core System on the Cheap: $200

The need for cheap speed!

Yesterday I read a nice little article over at Anandtech about unlocking the extra two cores in AMD Phenom II X2 555 CPUs. This lets you take a  dual core CPU and turn it into a quad core CPU*.

*The extra two cores aren’t guaranteed to unlock and be 100% reliable, but it’s easy to stress test and see if your particular CPU can handle it. Reading other people’s experiences it looks like the success rate is 70%+ which is good enough for me to give it a shot. Worst case I’m left with a nice dual core system that could still be overclocked even if it couldn’t be unlocked.

I’ve been wanting to build a nice little system when I return from Hawaii, but I didn’t want to spend much money on it. This build looked perfect so I decided to bite the bullet!

Phenom II 550 X4!CPU: X2 550 $90.99

I couldn’t find the X2 555 anywhere so I went with the AMD Phenom II X2 550 from NewEgg. That CPU is one step down from the 555, so  a 3.1GHz CPU instead of 3.2GHz. The cooling fan was a bundle special on NewEgg, ending up only being $4.99

Memory: DDR2 $0 (already owned this)

I’m using spare DDR2 RAM that I already have at home. I should have at least 4GB and maybe even 8GB.

Motherboard: ASRock for $69.99

This was the toughest choice. I wanted cheap, reliable, and compact. I think I found all three :-). The ASRock A785GMH/128M. It supports a wide variety of AMD CPUs: AM3/AM2+/AM2 AMD 785G, has HDMI out (with audio passed through I believe), and is a nice small Micro ATX format.

It was a tough choice between integrated graphics or discrete (add on) graphics. I decided to get a board with integrated b/c it would cut costs and I can always disable it if I need more power. The built in HD 4200 graphics are actually decent enough for modern 3D games at lower resolutions: Sims 3, World of Warcraft (WoW) [29.4 FPS at 1280×1024 Source: AMD PDF], Left 4 Dead, etc.  You can find some more gaming benchmarks here. I don’t do much hardcore gaming so this should do just fine for now :-).

Storage: SSD $0 (already owned this)

I’ll be putting a spare 80GB X-25M SSD in this machine, it should scream!

Case: ASUS TM-211 $25 (300 watt power supply included)



I used some spare “eBay bucks” to get a case and power supply for $25. I would have liked to add a nice super-efficient power supply, but for now this one will do (and there’s a chance I already have a spare high efficiency PS at home). Plus I’ll be running it off of solar energy so there won’t be any adverse environmental effects if it sucks a little extra juice.

Total cost: $198.52

The total (including case) should be about $198.53. Of course I’m using RAM and a storage device that I already had. If you didn’t have those on hand then you could probably get RAM & HD for $50-$100 bucks. So you’re looking at $250-$300, still not bad for a pretty darn fast system!

Order Date: 2010.01.29

Order Summary

Qty Product Description Price
Shipped from TN, USA
Rosewill RCX-Z4 120mm 2 Ball CPU Cooler – Retail
Item #: N82E16835200015
AMD Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition Callisto 3.1GHz Socket AM3 80W Dual-Core Processor Model HDZ550WFGIBOX – Retail
Item #: N82E16819103680
ASRock A785GMH/128M AM3/AM2+/AM2 AMD 785G HDMI Micro ATX AMD Motherboard – Retail
Item #: N82E16813157177
BELKIN F5D7010 Wireless G Notebook Card – Retail
Item #: N82E16833314306 (free after auto discount)
Subtotal $165.97
Tax $0.00
UPS Ground $7.56
Order Total $173.53


  • Padre Juan

    I just ordered a similar build. Same proc, different mobo (Asus M4A785TV-V EVO with a 710 SB). I had been planning this order before I read Anand’s article. If this works, it will be icing on the cake. Mmmm, delicious cake. I assume you will be posting the results of your attempt to unlock all four cores of the 550. Good luck!

  • paperwastage

    I got a Phenom II X2 550BE ($90), MSI 785G-E65 mATX($90), Corsair 400W 80+ PSU($35), OCZ 2x2GB DDR3 1333($80), existing mATX case, existing 1TB HDD… $295 for a near-complete system ($60 for a medium gaming ATI 1GB 4670)… $400 for a medium gaming computer isn’t bad… unlocked my 550BE to a quad core (40C idle, getting a good CPU cooler soon)…

  • J.D.

    Padre Juan: Very cool! The Asus M4A785TV-V EVO looks like a nice motherboard, people seem to have good success unlocking with it. I will definitely be posting my results as soon as I can! PS please feel free to post your results once you get it built :-).

    paperwastage: Very nice build! That MSI motherboard was one of my very top contenders, it looks like a screamer. I’m ended up going the cheaper route just to see “how low I can go”, but the MSI looks really hard to beat! Glad to hear another unlock success story :-). PS how do yuo like the 4670?

  • You probably could have gone with the GA-MA785GM ( see http://twitter.com/NeweggHotDeals ) with the $10 off promocode from Twitter brings it down to the same price as the ASRock board (plus it has free shipping, so you’d save that $7.56 🙂 ). It has more USB ports, a firewire port, and an eSATA port (one less internal SATA, but I doubt you’ll have more than 5 SATA devices inside that case with a 300W PSU)

  • I should also add that I don’t really have an itch to get a quad core box yet. Getting a 5870 or 5850, however, is on the list of things to buy when the price is right (hopefully in March their price will be more attractive).

  • J.D.

    Shucks, I wish I had seen that before I ordered! That is a really good deal after the promo code. I didn’t even know that NewEgg had their hotdeals on twitter.

    Ohh well, I’m kind of excited to try a less well known board just for the fun of it :-).

    Also, I’m in the market for a good USB 3.0 PCIe card if you know of any. I’d like to find one for less than $30.

    I used some of my other eBay bucks to get 2.5″ USB 3.0 enclosure and an expresscard USB 3.0 adapter (for my laptop). Humm, perhaps a PCIe to expresscard adapter for using it in this new machine? Of course performance wouldn’t be ideal but it would be better than USB 2.0!

  • paperwastage

    @J.D. I haven’t yet got the 4670 (waiting for a cheap deal), but will get it soon enough… the onboard IGP is decent right now(more powerful than the 8400M GS I have on my Dell M1330 laptop)

    I got the MSI 785G b/c I like the layout and ports(6 usb ports yay) provided… been looking at it at $99 until amazon offered it at $90 received in 2 days w/ amazon prime… missed the time newegg sold it for $70 AR in october….

  • The problem with USB 3.0 (and SATA 3), at the moment, is that a 1x PCIe slot does not provide enough bandwidth for 2 ports (we’re suddenly back to the situation we had ~10 years ago when PCI was bottlenecking NICs and early SATA controllers). AMD and Intel don’t have USB 3.0 in their chipset lineup roadmaps for this year (though AMD does have SATA 3 coming in March). And, TBH, Intel can’t support USB 3.0 or SATA 3 kind of bandwidth off of its southbridges (not enough bandwidth between the SB and the NB/CPU depending on your setup). It’ll be 2011 to 2012, with Sandy Bridges, before Intel has SATA 3 and USB 3.0.

    Also, I don’t see USB 3.0 as being necessary at the moment, maybe in 3 to 5 years we’ll be to the point that we will need it (unlike 10 years ago when we really did need USB 2.0). That is unless you plan on putting a SSD inside of that 2.5″ enclosure 🙂

  • Sgt

    Cool i did the same thing but only just had to buy a Phenom II X4 955 but it really don’t need to be overclocked but i did just to 3.5Ghz

  • J.D.

    Sounds like a nice system Sgt 🙂 that’s a lot of GHz!!!

  • Oh, and I thought that I should comment that having the RAM for it before hand is probably saving you at least $10 per GiB of ram you use (see the price graph of the memory I have in my desktop: http://camelegg.com/product/N82E16820145176 I got it for about $80 over a year ago, now it’s at $122, yikes!)

  • J.D.

    Good point John! It stinks that memory prices are headed back up :-(. Ohh well, it was nice while it lasted!

  • Padre Juan

    RE: Comment #1
    Just a quick follow-up. I received my shipment from Newegg and did the build. Sadly, the new motherboard BIOS would not respond to the keyboard. I tries four different KB’s (both USB and PS/2) with no success. Oddly, I could boot from a Linux LiveCD and use the keyboard in Linux. Go figure. Asus tech support was very nice but could offer no solution. I am returning the mobo and getting a different one. Stay tuned.

  • J.D.

    Wow, that is really weird! It’s always super-frustrating when there’s a non-responsive input device, especially in this case a motherboard that causes the problem :-(.

    Thanks for the follow up and make sure to let us know which new motherboard you end up choosing!

    PS I ended up ordering a used Radeon 4670 512MB GDDR3 video card from eBay for $45. I’m planning on three monitors (old ones) all DVI and the IGP couldn’t handle that all on its own, thus adding the video card :-). We’ll see how it goes!

  • maddy143ded

    hey i have a GIGABYTE GA-MA785GM-US2H with 2gb pc26400 ram. i need to know weather i should buy the AMD Phenom II X2 550 now
    or wait a month or so for AMD Phenom II X2 555?
    i currently run Athlon X2 3600+ AM2 socket in my mobo at 2.4 GHz @ 1.2v. (1.8 GHz at stock) air cooled. its a stable build and cpu has run out of warranty so i experiment with it for overclocking.
    lets see how Phenom II compares with it later on..
    so should i wait for 555 or spend the money on 550? and i am going to buying it here in Mumbai, India. 550 costs somewhere around 115$.

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