Summary: Planning to build or upgrade your existing PC and don't know what components to buy? Fear not, our Spring 2009 Buyer's Guide is here! In this article, Tom goes over price points of $500, $1,000, $1,500, and finally, the dream PC. See which parts made the list in today's article!
What to get, Why to get it, and Where to get it
Before you even begin to think about Intel or AMD or even NVIDIA or ATI, you need to find a good starting point. The best way to determine where to start looking is usually with how much money you are willing to spend. Knowing your budget can give you the proper frame of reference to help you decide the platform and accessories you can look at. It's also important to determine whether going outside your allotted budget is really worth it or not. While we'd all love to be rich enough to get the dream machine, more often than not our budgets just don't allow it. So it's important to note why one product is a better choice than another.
When your budget is limited, you have to start somewhat small. Here, we went with a Brisbane powered Athlon 64 X2 5050e and the AMD 780G-based Asus M3A78-EM. At a stock 2.6Ghz and coming in socket AM2, the 5050e is a proven performer, although it can't compete with Core 2 or i7 offerings clock for clock. What it may lack in stock performance can be made up via over clocking, as the Athlon 5050e has a lot of potential when paired with the right components, such as the OCZ Platinum 2GB memory kit.
2GB's of memory is the bare minimum we recommend for anyone attempting to run modern games, especially if their primary OS is Vista. Even though AM2 processors are limited to a FSB of 800Mhz, we went with 1066Mhz memory to allow some overhead should the user decide to overclock. And since there is literally a $2 difference in price between 800Mhz and 1066Mhz DIMMS, the decision is a no-brainer. Also, having 1066Mhz memory gives your build a little bit of future proofing should you decide to throw a Phenom II into the system later on.
Recent price cuts from ATI make their entire graphics line very cost effective, which is why we went with a Radeon 4830 from Asus. The EAH4830 not only comes from one of the best fab companies out there, but it also ships with a slightly over clocked memory clock at 2000Mhz versus the stock 1800Mhz. The 4830 will give you better price to performance when compared to its nearest competitor from Nvidia, the 9800 GT.
The rest of the components were chosen on a combination of their value and known reliability, such as the Lite-On DVDRW which is identical to the unit we have used in the past without issue. The Spinpoint series of hard drives supports SATA 3.0Gb/s and stores up to 500GB's, which is a decent sized amount of disk space for both games and multimedia files.
There are plenty of places you could go with this system should you have to extra cash to put into it. A 4850 can be had for about $30 more, which could easily net better graphical performance. Also, going with the G.Skill DDR2 1100 4GB memory kit would certainly help for an extra $45 and an aftermarket CPU heatsink like the Zalman CNPS9700 all-copper cooler can go a long way to get the most out of your processor.
When your budget doubles, you will find yourself in the territory where most of us currently reside: the mid-range. To start, we recommend the Core 2 Duo E8500 Wolfdale running at 3.16Ghz. Supporting a 1333Mhz front side bus, the E8500 gives the perfect ratio of price to performance. As the Core 2 line loves as much CPU cache as it can get, the 6MB of level 2 cache the E8500 sports is enough to keep the processor properly fed with data and prevent a bottleneck in the system.
Again, the recent price cuts by ATI puts their Radeon line slightly ahead of Nvidia with the 4870 1GB by Sapphire. The Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 features reference core, memory, and shader clocks, but it also sports 1GB's of memory making it tops in its price bracket. Extra video memory comes in handy when running higher resolutions, above 1600x1200, as well as when running high levels of anti-aliasing (8xAA) and anisotropic filtering.
We paired our Core 2 Duo CPU with the GA-EP45T-UD3P, a P45-based motherboard from Gigabyte, and a 4GB memory kit from G.Skill rated at 1100Mhz. The EP45T-UD3P also features a second x16 PCIe slot with CrossFireX support, giving you the option of adding an additional 4870 down the road extending the life of your rig. While the EP45T-UD3P also supports DDR2 speeds up to a 1333Mhz standard, memory manufacturers have been slow to release DDR2 modules rated above 1066Mhz. Even when they do later this year, the prices will most likely prohibit their usage in a mid-range system at this time.
We were able to get a 1TB Spinpoint drive from Samsung thanks to our increased budget, as well as a slightly bumped power supply from FSP at 700W. Our case is the excellent mid-tower Tempest from NZXT. We reviewed this case back in September and awarded it an Editor's Choice for its wonderful cooling, functionality, and low noise properties. At $109 dollars, it's practically a steal and one of the best cases at not only its price point, but in the mid-tower class.
You can get the 500GB Spinpoint featured in our entry level for $70, giving you a decent sized operating system drive in addition to a 1TB storage drive. Also, you could step up to the Quad Core Q8300 2.5Ghz for additional $2, although you only really gain performance if the applications you are running can take advantage of a quad core CPU. Right now, quad core applications are limited to a select few games, like Supreme Commander, and multimedia applications like Photoshop CS4. However, you save yourself upgrades later on as quad core becomes more prevalent with future game releases.
Our high-end system is for the non-discrimination gamer who wants to run at high resolutions and high levels of anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering.
At $1500, we enter the high-end segment of the market. A $1500 rig can handle almost any current release on high settings with both anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering enabled. The Core i7 is Intel's latest processor and currently holds the crown for fastest CPU on the market, so we went with their 2.66Ghz 920 Nehalem. Don't let the fact the 920 is Intel's entry-level i7 fool you; the 920 can scream thanks to its quad core and improved memory architecture. The quick path interconnect (QPI) replaces the front side bus on the Nehalem architecture, although their function is similar.
To keep the 920 i7 well fed, we gave it 6GB's of OCZ DDR3 1333Mhz memory running in triple channel. MSI's X58 Pro motherboard is the backbone of our system, as it is the most cost effective X58 board on the market. Also, the X58 Pro supports up to 24GB's of memory and ATI CrossFireX, helping to increase its longevity should you upgrade later on.
Our graphics card once again comes from ATI with the 4870 X2 2GB by Sapphire. Again, this came down to the best performance for the dollar and while the GeForce 295 GTX offers better performance in many applications, it comes at the extra cost of $70. The 4870 X2 is just a better deal since it only lags behind the 295 by a few percentage points in most applications. Sapphire follows ATI's reference design pretty closely with their 4870 X2.
A more powerful graphics card meant a more powerful power supply which is satisfied with Corsair's 850W. The Corsair is a single 12V rail design offering 70 amps, more than enough to power our system. We also decided to go with a Western Digital's Caviar Black 1TB hard drive as well due to their higher level of performance. Finally, our case is an all-aluminum Silverstone, the Temjin TJ05 full tower. The TJ05 features a removable fan filter and multiple positions for additional fans.
In this price bracket, you're options become somewhat limited due to the higher cost associated with upgrading. For instance, to jump to the Core i7 940, you will spend an additional $270. As previously stated, you could also go to a GeForce 295 GTX at an additional cost of $70. You could even add-in an extra hard drive for storage or a dedicated sound card, such as the X-Fi Titanium, although with Vista's audio subsystem the way it is, you are probably better off relying on the on-board unless you have a decent set of speakers or headphones.
Of course we had to go with the Core i7 965 Extreme Edition, the flagship of Intel's line. Boasting a 3.2Ghz stock speed and unlocked multiplier, the Core i7 965 is a performance enthusiast's wet dream. For our motherboard, we went with the Asus Rampage II Extreme, one of the fastest boards currently on the market. Since this is a complete fantasy, we also threw in a 12GB kit of G.Skill DDR3 1333Mhz to help with over clocking.
For graphics, you would be hard pressed to beat two GeForce 295 GTX video cards running in Quad SLI. This setup would be quite capable of handling resolutions above 2560 with maximum levels of AA and AF. These cards would take on any present and future game you threw at it at insane frame rates, all while churning out enough heat to cause a flash fire. Think of the heating bill savings alone!
Since these graphics cards would pull enough wattage to cause brown-outs, we had to go with PC Power & Cooling's 1200W Turbo Cool power supply. Also, since we are going for broke, we've included Intel's latest 160GB X25-M SSD. Our storage drive would be the Western Digital 1TB featured in the high-end build. This would give you a 160GB operating system drive, as well 1TB for storing all your music, movies, and files.
We kept our Lite-On DVD burner from previous builds, but added an LG 6x Blu-Ray drive for High Definition video playback. Finally, our case would be the Lian Li PC-P80 we reviewed in December. While the case we looked at was the CrossFireX Special Edition, Lian Li offers a vanilla black edition at only $400. The PC-P80 features all aluminum construction and a fan controller to keep noise levels down on the 5 case fans.
While there are varying levels of performance associated with the systems we presented today, one thing that is constant is their value in regard to their respective markets. There is also always room for improvement and customization to suite your specific tastes. One of the most important things to know when building a PC is where to go for good information, especially if you are new to the market or perhaps a former gamer looking to get back into the hobby. For instance, our forum provides a great area of knowledgeable regulars who are more than willing to give you advice to ensure you get the best performance for your hard earned dollars.
While we can never tell you what you want to get out of your PC, Firingsquad will always strive to give you the best information possible when it comes time to upgrade.
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