Summary: It's that time of the year again – another system building article. We can't really build a killer system for $400, but our gimmick this time is setting a $400 limit per component. That way, even if you've only got $400 to upgrade your existing PC, you can get a sense of what options are out there.
The last time we did our system building articles, dual-core CPUs were brand-new, and the GeForce 6 was the flagship GPU on the market. Much has changed in the last half-year and so it's time for us to do another ultimate system building guide. In the past, we've done things like the "no-budget but don't waste money" approach as well as the $1000 budget PC. We've built servers, workstations, and even high-definition home theater PCs.
So for this article, I'm placing the following constraint: No component can cost more than $400. This will prevent us from going overboard with something like SLI 7800GTX's or an Athlon FX-57. More importantly, the advantage of putting this limit is that it'll show you how you can spend $400 on a single component and get really cool stuff. Of course, putting a $400 limit per component still allows us to build a stunning system – think about what kind of PC case $400 can buy you! It just means that we won't spend quite so much on our CPU or graphics system. The other goal we have for this system is to keep the noise level down. While we aren't going to the extreme with a fanless setup, we are going to be choosing components that tend to be on the quiet side and use passive cooling whenever feasible. Of course, system stability is paramount.
In a way, we're still building the "no-budget but don't waste money" system. It's just more fun that way. We're still going only for the very best components and the point isn't for you to replicate the exact system we're describing. The goal is to give you a sense of how the FiringSquad staff ends up choosing the components that we use in our own personal systems. We actually use the products we discuss in these articles. In fact, I'm typing this up on the Ultimate Workstation built during the Summer…
So without further ado, I present you January's Super PC.
We always start off by talking about the CPU of choice. With the Xbox 360 out and developers beginning to focus their attention on multi-core programming, we clearly had to go with a dual core CPU. The discussion of whether dual core or single core CPUs are better for gaming has been resolved. Both ATI and NVIDIA have released drivers that work with multiple CPUs and this is just the beginning of what multi-core processors will have to offer in 2006. In fact, this is exactly what I predicted last year in my original Dual-Core AMD Opteron article.
Our pick for the best "under $400" dual-core CPU is the Socket 939 Opteron 165.
AMD Opteron 165 retail boxed
$350 - http://www.amd.com
At less than $400, you could also buy the entry-level Athlon64 X2 3800+ which runs at 2GHz. The difference is that the Opteron 165 offers a full 1MB cache per core instead of the 512KB of the 3800+. This improves the performance of the Opteron in traditional applications. It also turns out that the Toledo core is exceptionally robust meaning that it's possible to overclock the Opteron 165 while using air cooling. Most users are reporting overclocks to about 2.4GHz.
What about Pentium D 830?
We actually started our system building article using a Pentium D 830 that we had purchased at retail. After all, we've been using AMD processors in virtually all of our system building guides. The last time we used Intel was in our storage server, at a time then the i875P chipset was king. Unfortunately, our hands-on experience with the Pentium D was so disappointing that we felt unable to recommend it as a platform. The most striking difference between Intel and AMD is the heat and power consumption. With the Pentium D and the Intel boxed heatsink, running the CPU at full load produces a blow-dryer like effect. Not only does the CPU fan become annoyingly loud, but the air that it pushed out of the case is just as hot as the Xbox 360. In fact, before our Arctic Silver 5 reached its final equilibrium consistency with the Pentium D, we were getting constant data corruption and system lock-ups! CPU temperatures hovered in the high 60's initially (Celsius) and then dropped into the 50's. In contrast, the Opteron 165 was incredibly cool. Full load produced temperatures in the high 40's when using the stock heatsink and idle temperatures in the 30's.
Traditionally, we have used the Zalman CNPS-7000B-AlCu in our system builds. This 90mm aluminum-copper hybrid is a true workhorse, providing exceptional cooling in one of the easiest installation methods I've ever encountered. It continues to be a highly recommended component. That said, these System Building Articles are also a good way for FiringSquad to perform long-term tests of components. If we always used the CNPS-7000B-AlCu, we'd never have an opportunity to find out if something else was any good!
ASUS A8N Premium SLI
$170 – http://www.asus.com
FiringSquad strongly recommends the use of brand-name memory in your system builds. Although performance differences "day 1" may not be noticeable, we consistently experience better long-term stability with RAM from companies such as from Corsair and OCZ. While we are comfortable saying that there are several manufacturers with high-quality memory products, at the end of the day, we have to pick one manufacturer to use in one system. Alexis and I tend to use Corsair RAM in the systems we build for ourselves and when building for others. In fact, FiringSquad's web and database servers run Corsair as well. That said, I used OCZ's flagship RAM in the last DFI system build and had great results too. Brandon uses OCZ RAM the last time I checked too. I have nothing but good results with OCZ memory, but if I had to say on record what brand of memory is in most of the PCs that I build or recommend to others, the answer is Corsair. I think fundamentally the reason for choosing Corsair is that the price is pretty similar among all flagship memory manufacturers, and if I know that Corsair works well, why should I try a different brand? It's not like power supplies where I'm trying to find something as good as a PC Power & Cooling PSU for less money or heatsinks where I'm trying to find better performance.
The decision between which video card to get is even harder this year. Never before have ATI and NVIDIA had such "non-overlapping" talents. On NVIDIA's side, the best gaming value comes from the GeForce 7800GT and on the ATI side, it's the All-in-Wonder X1800 XL. If you're just looking for video only, your best option is probably an X1600 XL provided that it has the display connectors you need.
In the $300 price range, you have the GeForce 7800GT. It offers exceptional 3D performance and if you buy the card from XFX or eVGA, you get a free copy of Call of Duty 2 or an nForce4 SLI motherboard. The problem is that since CoD2 is a great game, many of you already have a copy. Likewise, although the free nForce4 SLI is an excellent value, the motherboard isn't as high-quality as what you'd get from a gaming-oriented board from ASUS, MSI, or DFI. If you buy an ASUS GPU (either ATI or NVIDIA), you get a copy of Peter Jackson's King Kong: The Official Game of the Movie. While it's not the super-high resolution Gamer's edition, it's still a FiringSquad Ricochet Award winner and if you already had CoD2, maybe the ASUS would be a better choice.
The last several builds, we've picked NVIDIA GPUs – sometimes it was because we've needed good Linux drivers, other times it was because NVIDIA was the only manufacturer with dual GPUs, and in the last HTPC article it was because NVIDIA had HD deinterlacing. This system isn't going to run Linux, and Catalyst 5.13 has pushed ATI ahead of NVIDIA in video, and although we're not planning to run dual GPU this system, ATI Crossfire is finally available in the hands of consumers.
One thing to keep in mind about the AIW X1800XL (and any other card with dual coaxial connectors on the backplane) is that it's physically incompatible with some Lian-Li cases. You'll need to remove the backplane from the card to seat it in, and then screw the backplane back on. An additional detail is that for dual monitor support, we've experienced poor image quality on the analog VGA out with the AIW X1800XL when using a CRT monitor with a DVI LCD panel. It's not a problem that I've seen on the GeForce cards.
For those of you who aren't interested in an AIW, an interesting GPU would be the ASUS EN7800GT TOP Silent. This is a fully passively cooled GeForce 7800GT that can be found for about $400. At idle, the GPU core temperature is equivalent to that of a standard NVIDIA GeForce 7800GT. In our test system, the Nitrogon CPU cooler was too tall, prevent us from positioning the heatsink fins in the area of optimal airflow. Even so, peak GPU core temperatures with the passive solution were only about 15 degrees hotter than the conventional 7800GT. If we had a different CPU cooler, the difference would be even less.
Usually, passive cooling requires manufacturers to reduce the clockspeed. You're not going to see a passively cooled 7800GTX 512MB. In the case of the ASUS EN7800GT however, ASUS has used higher-end 1.6ns GDDR3 memory modules. This gives the fanless EN7800GT a core clock of 420MHz and an effective memory clock of 1240 MHz. Most 7800GT's only ship with 400MHz core clock and a 1GHz memory cock. Even BFG's "7800GT OC" only uses a 1050 MHz memory clock and a 425MHz core clock. This translates into about a 100 point increase on each of the SM2.0 and SM3.0/HDR tests in 3DMark 06.
In addition, the ASUS EN7800GT TOP Silent is also one of the few 7800GT’s with video input.
3DMark 06 – Direct3D
ASUS EN7800GT TOP Silent
$400 – http://www.asus.com
Good alternatives would have been the Western Digital Caviar RE2, however despite their nearline reliability claims there seem to be more reports of failure in comparison to the WD Raptor. The RE2 is clearly attractive for its price/performance ratio, but we'll still be conservative and recommend the Raptor line for mission-critical SATA drives. SCSI continue to set the standard for reliability and I would expect this trend to continue with Serial-Attached-SCSI drives. We have a T7K250 as a long-term reference and we'll be adding these 7K500 drives to our long-term reference test equipment as well.
Hitachi 7K500 #1
$400 – http://www.hgst.com
Hitachi 7K500 #2
$400 – http://www.hgst.com
SiSoft Sandra 2005
In our last ultimate system build, we loved the PC-V1000, PC-V1200, and PC-V2000 chassis from Lian-Li. It had the proven Lian-Li fit and finish with the novel inverted design that provided excellent cooling. The problem is that the proven Lian-Li fit ended up failing.
While the Lian-Li continues to be the case that's used in my current workhorse system, one of the side panels has begun to warp and change its shape. While the panel still looks perfect, and most consumers won't even notice a difference, I'm having a much tougher time getting the panel to fit in properly. It's true that I open and close my case more frequently than a typical PC user, but it's still disappointing to see such an expensive case have panel fit issues. If the Lian Li is stable, it'll keep its Editor's Choice award. If the amount of warping increases in the next 6 months, we'll probably have to be more cautious in the future. With the need for in mind, the decision was made to go with the Silverstone Temjin TJ-07. This case reflects the next flagship for the industry.
At first glance, the TJ-07 looks like a Lian-Li clone. There's the use of aluminum and the same inverted motherboard design. Look a little closer and you see that Silverstone has used traditional 3.5" drive cages instead of the rail system that Lian-Li used and that the basic Lian-Li designed was improved by the addition of a removable motherboard tray, two 120mm fans on the top, and two 120mm fans on the side instead of the front.
Look even closer and then your jaw will drop.
The TJ-07 is built as an aluminum unibody frame which means it's built like an Acura NSX. Instead of riveting or welding multiple pieces of aluminum together, Silverstone takes a solid piece of aluminum that's 5.3 feet in length and 4 to 8 mm in thickness. The company then folds the aluminum at two spots using automotive press machines to create a piece of aluminum representing the top, front, and bottom of the case. Since the weight bearing portions of the case are built from a single piece of aluminum, the TJ-07 should be exceptionally rigid.
Silverstone claims that this rigidity gave their engineers to place more 120mm fans in the case to improve airflow without generating the noise and vibration that would have occurred. We'd be just as happy knowing that the aluminum unibody design means that the panels should retain their fit better in the long-run. The panels themselves are actually quite flimsy, but because they're not carrying the weight as they do with typical cases, we think everything will work. Of course, a case like this is fairly pricey. Street prices are expected in the range of $350 to $400 and Silverstone isn't making very many of these cases. Silverstone already sold out their entire first batch of TJ-07s to retailers.
Silverstone Temjin TJ-07
$400 – http://www.silverstonetek.com
For this system, we wanted to try another Silverstone PSU. We know that PC Power & Cooling Turbo-Cool PSUs are the gold-standard, but we want to find cheaper alternatives. The Silverstone Zeus ST65ZF proved to be a good alternative as a workstation power supply. This time, because we wanted something quieter, we went with the Silverstone ST56F.
This is a 560W power supply with a single 120mm fan. The unique feature is that it is more than 80% efficient, much like the Seasonic S12's that we've enjoyed using. This means that there is less heat production and less waste of electricity. Importantly, the Silverstone ST56F isn't a re-badged Seasonic. It's manufactured by the same factory that produces the Silverstone Zeus ST65ZF so we anticipate very good long-term stability with this PSU. It's not that much cheaper than the ST65ZF, but it certainly is quieter.
Silverstone Strider ST56F
$125 – http://www.silverstonetek.com
The total cost for this machine? $2545 in core hardware components. Add another $50 for a DVD burner, $100 for a licensed copy of Windows, and another $100 for a high-end keyboard/mouse combo and you’re looking at $2800 for a machine. Clearly, our money went into the terabyte of storage in two Hitachi 500GB drives, the stunning Silverstone Temjin TJ-07 case, and the ASUS EN7800GT TOP Silent, the fastest passive cooled GPU in the world. We’ve hardly gone for the best value products in this machine, but there’s no doubt that the quiet, yet exceptionally fast and robust system has been a pleasure to use.
The one area where there’s still innovation is the system chassis. I know what you’re thinking. $400 was a ridiculous amount to spend on a system chassis. That said, this is where the future lies. Not only are GPUs and CPUs drawing more and more power (and therefore producing more and more heat), we’re starting to add pairs of GPUs, pairs of CPUs, and pairs of HDDs into a “enthusiast level system.” Add the beefy power supply that needs to power all of this equipment and it’s pretty clear that thermal management is going to be the main issue of the technology industry in the second half of this decade.
In fact, if you talk with the engineers focused on the 5 year roadmaps for 1U servers, there is some buzz about bringing liquid cooling technology to the mainstream. We’ve already seen heatpipes, once the bastion of the extreme overclocker, become standard practice. The dual 2.5GHz Apple G5’s shipped with a liquid cooling system a year ago. In 5 years, Dell PCs will come with liquid cooling
BTX died as an initiative because it didn’t offer the improvement that would be needed in the long-term. There are only two ways to combat heat. First, is to focus on the heat production. Improvements in fabrication technology will certainly play a key role here. The second is to improve heat transfer. Bigger heatsinks and more fans with greater airflow seems to be the theme for the moment but the future will involve more elegant solutions. Up until now, the fundamental approach to system design has been the same: a big motherboard with several daughterboards. The design of supercomputers has always been more creative – they’ve looked at thermal management in three dimensions. As the average cost of a system chassis continues to increase, we’re eventually going to reach a point where it becomes more cost effective to design specific motherboard/case combinations that break the ATX standard in order to provide optimal system cooling.
FiringSquad’s Editor’s Choice awards
SilverStone Temjin TJ-07
Although few PC enthusiasts will ever have the opportunity to own such a system chassis, it is such a leap forward in PC chassis design that it would remiss not to recognize it for its innovation. It is the “halo” chassis that all other manufacturers can aspire to.
ASUS EN7800GT Top Silent
Although it’s pricier than most 7800GT GPUs, it’s the only choice for a fully passive GeForce 7800GT. Compared to a BFG 7800GT OC, you’re spending about an extra $50 to get a fanless cooling system and faster 1.6ns GDDR3 memory. ASUS’s 420/1240 MHz clockspeed puts it right next to a low-end 7800GTX; Albatron’s 7800GTX is 430/1200MHz.
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