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Sweet Spot alternatives

As with the other configs, we have some additional suggestions for modifying our Sweet Spot spec.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition $235.00
Motherboard MSI K9A2 Platinum $154.99
Graphics
HIS Radeon HD 3850 $154.99
HIS Radeon HD 3850 $154.99
Storage
Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $109.99
Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $109.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $169.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $179.99
Sound Asus Xonar D2 $169.99

Processor
AMD's Phenom processor manages to sneak into our Sweet Spot alternatives, although we'd probably still get the Core 2 Quad Q9300 (or the cheaper Core 2 Quad Q6600) for ourselves. Nevertheless, the Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition's low price makes it a decent alternative to Intel's quad-core CPUs, and its unlocked multiplier makes overclocking a snap. AMD's OverDrive utility, which is compatible with our recommended 790FX-based motherboard, even lets you run Phenom's four cores at different speeds via independent multipliers for each core.

Motherboard
MSI's K9A2 Platinum is one of the cheapest motherboards based on AMD's 790FX enthusiast chipset, and we've had a good experience with it in our labs. The 790FX chipset offers full support for PCI Express 2.0, HyperTransport 3.0, and all of the Phenom's fancy power management features. This mobo's two PCI Express x16 slots also makes it a good match for our alternative graphics recommendation. The K9A2 Platinum's BIOS overclocking options aren't as extensive as we'd prefer, but that doesn't matter much so long as you're using a CPU with an unlocked upper multiplier.

Graphics card
Much like the Phenom, these dual Radeon HD 3850s aren't quite the best you can do in this price range. Still, they offer competitive performance and some features the competition lacks. One of the biggest difference between SLI and CrossFire is that the former forces users to disable auxiliary displays to run games, while AMD offers seamless multi-GPU support across two monitors. Dual Radeon HD 3850s will also outperform single-GPU offerings in the same price range.

We've picked this HIS Radeon HD 3850 model because it's "factory overclocked" comfortably beyond stock specs and it has a relatively quiet dual-slot cooler that exhausts hot air from the case.

Storage
We have three storage suggestions in our alternatives list. The first isn't so much a different product as a different configuration. Instead of spending all that money on dual graphics cards, we reckon some folks would rather invest in a pair hard drives for a RAID 1 array. RAID 1 can improve read performance, but more importantly, it offers a measure of redundancy, allowing a system to survive a single drive failure with no data loss. Having a real-time mirror of the contents of your system's hard drive is a potentially huge time saver in the event of a drive failure, and at least two of TR's editors run RAID 1 in their primary desktops.

Our second storage alternative is Western Digital's 150GB Raptor. We don't expect you to trade our recommended 640GB drive(s) for a speedier one that only has 150GB of capacity, but we do think the Raptor is a good complementary option. Thanks to its 10,000-RPM spindle speed, the Raptor provides the best performance with random I/O seek loads of any Serial ATA drive out today (at least until WD's newly released VelociRaptor VR150 starts hitting stores), making it an ideal operating system and application drive. With 640GB and 150GB drives in one machine, you'll enjoy the best of both worlds: high speed where needed with high capacity riding shotgun.

LG's GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive wraps up our storage alternatives, combining Blu-ray reading and DVD burning capabilities at a fairly reasonable price (for a high-definition drive, anyway). The GGC-H20L has excellent reviews on Newegg, and now that Blu-ray has won the format war, we feel safe in recommending a high-definition drive.

Sound
Asus' Xonar D2 is a nice step up from the Xonar DX for audiophiles with a little more cash to spend. Both cards use essentially the same audio chip, so they have similar capabilities. However, the D2 features higher quality DACs and ADCs, LED-backlit ports, and it comes with a truckload of extra cables. The D2 also has a standard PCI interface, but if you prefer PCI Express, you can opt for the D2X for $20 more.