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TR Awards 2006

The best hardware of the past year

ANOTHER YEAR HAS COME AND GONE, leaving a trail of phenomenal new hardware, disturbing and annoying trends, and disappointing flops and no-shows in its wake. All told, 2006 was a great year for PC enthusiasts, and a very busy one for us. An almost endless stream of new hardware passed through our labs, and most of it was pretty good. We also got to see dual-core processors really come into their own, Intel bounce back from the horrendous NetBurst era, and Nvidia shock the world with a unified shader architecture. Somewhere in the middle of all that, AMD surprised everyone by acquiring ATI.

Of course, 2006 was also dotted with events and trends that we'd just as soon forget. For every engineer working overtime on an innovative new product, there seemed to be at least one PR rep blowing smoke, one marketing team spinning hype, and one product manager making a poor design decision.

To send 2006 off in style, we've singled out the best enthusiast-oriented products of the year for our Best Hardware of 2006 awards. We've also whipped up a selection of unique awards to recognize some of the year's most interesting innovations and annoying trends. And there were plenty of each. Read on to see our picks for the best hardware of the year—and then some.

The best hardware of 2006
Every year we're inundated with new products, and although many are reasonably good, only a select few deserve special recognition. The winners of our Best Hardware of 2006 awards are the most compelling enthusiast-class products of the year, and not just because they nicely fill a spec sheet or price point. These products all have something special to offer, and in many cases, they break new ground where the competition fears to—or simply can't—tread.

They're all exceptional products, but our Best Hardware of 2006 award winners aren't necessarily the components we'd recommend for every enthusiast-oriented PC. For specific recommendations that take into account current street prices, I suggest you check out the latest revision of our system guide.

Best processor
Intel Core 2 Duo
The NetBurst era was not kind to Intel, and during that time, we saw little reason to recommend Pentium chips over AMD's Athlon designs. In fact, the market became so lopsided that we stopped reviewing LGA775 motherboards altogether—we just couldn't bring ourselves to recommend any desktop platform with an Intel processor. Continually losing the performance race to AMD couldn't have been a pleasant experience for Intel, and Prescott's power consumption must have been embarrassing. But Intel wouldn't be down for long.

At the beginning of 2006, Intel employees sounded positively giddy about the company's upcoming Core 2 Duo processor. They went on and on about the chip's performance and power efficiency, and at the time, it all sounded too good to be true. But it wasn't. Midway through 2006, Intel unleashed its Core 2 Duo on the world and changed the desktop processor landscape almost overnight.

Intel's Core 2 architecture was a stunning achievement, and really much more than a mobile chip re-spun for desktop applications. The chip was Intel's first four-issue design, and it offered incredible SSE throughput thanks to its ability to execute 128-bit SSE instructions in a single clock cycle. A technology called memory disambiguation—coupled with a monster L2 cache—allowed the Core 2 to offer blistering performance without an on-die memory controller, as well.

A picture of the Core 2 die. Source: Intel.

The Core 2's performance really was amazing, and power consumption was even more impressive, especially considering Intel's power-hungry Prescott history. At its launch, nothing AMD had in its stable could keep up with the Core 2 lineup. Intel hasn't increased clock speeds over the last six months, and AMD still hasn't been able to catch up. What Intel has done, however, is put two Core 2 Duo chips on a single package, creating the world's first quad-core desktop processor.

The quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX6700 might not be the most cost-effective chip in the Core 2 lineup, but it's a heck of a thing to behold. And while many have criticized the chip's two-die-per-package design as a kludge, the two-die approach allowed Intel to bring chips to market in volume before the year was out. In fact, it will probably be another six months before we see AMD release its first quad-core design.

Normally, if someone suggested that the Core 2 Duo was not the best processor of 2006, I'd be inclined to call them a hopeless fanboy. However, the Core 2's performance and power consumption were so impressive, and its dominance so utterly complete, that anyone who doesn't think the chip was the best processor of 2006 is more likely a madman.

Best graphics chip
Nvidia GeForce 8800
Nvidia's GeForce 8800 wasn't released until November of 2006, but this chip was far and away the best GPU of the year. For one, the GeForce 8800 was the first DirectX 10-compatible graphics card on the market. It was also the first unified shader design to be available on a consumer graphics card—a surprise to most of us considering how much Nvidia had downplayed the need for unified shaders in the past.

And then there was the GeForce 8800 series' performance, which was nothing short of jaw-dropping. We all assumed Nvidia's next-gen graphics chip would be faster than its previous flagship, of course, but I'm not sure anyone expected the GeForce 8800 to burst out of the gate with the ferocity that it did. Just a single GeForce 8800 GTX proved faster than a pair of GeForce 7900 GTXs running in SLI or two Radeon X1950 XTXs in CrossFire. And the GeForce 8800 did it with the best image quality of the lot.

The GeForce 8800 GPU

Nvidia's previous graphics chips haven't always had impeccable image quality, especially when anisotropic filtering and antialiasing are thrown into the mix. However, the GeForce 8800 raised the bar on that front thanks to effectively angle-independent aniso and coverage sampled antialiasing.

Apart from its awe-inspiring image quality and performance, the GeForce 8800 graphics chip is a rather impressive bit of engineering. The chip has eight groups of 16 generalized floating-point stream processors that can operate on vertex or pixel data, allowing for effective load balancing depending on the content of a given scene. Those stream processors run at a whopping 1.35GHz, too—more than twice the speed of the rest of the chip. Couple that with a 384-bit memory interface and up to 768MB of onboard memory running at an effective 1.8GHz, and you've got yourself one heck of a graphics card.

Of course, the GeForce 8800's mammoth processing power takes more than just a few transistors. The die is huge, and Nvidia estimates that there are 681 million transistors under the hood—twice as many as you'll find in the graphics chip that powers the GeForce 7900 GTX. Surprisingly, though, Nvidia did a remarkable job of keeping all those transistors from consuming too much power. The GeForce 8800 GTX consumes less power under load than the Radeon X1900 XTX, and Nvidia equipped cards with a whisper-quiet fan that makes less noise than just about everything else out there.

The GeForce 8800 is sort of the ultimate high-end exotic car; it has plenty of impressive engineering to geek out over, there's loads of power for a day at the track, and it's practical enough for the commute to work or short trips to the grocery store for a carton of milk. That makes it the best graphics chip of 2006, by a long shot.