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The Grand Experiment
The sweet spot for the budget-conscious

Our Econobox is suitable for budding enthusiasts, but its budget only allows for so many goodies. That budget gets doubled for our mid-range build, allowing us to assemble a pretty powerful box while keeping the total cost close to a grand.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo E6420 $186.00
Motherboard Asus P5N-E SLI $126.99
Memory Corsair ValueSelect 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR2-667 $79.99
Graphics eVGA GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB $279.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 500GB $109.99
Samsung SH-S183L $37.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $90.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $149.95
Buy this complete system at Newegg


The new Core 2 Duo E6420 is basically the same chip as the Core 2 Duo E6400 we suggested last time, but it has twice the cache, which should give it a little extra oomph in some tasks. We did find in our examination of the value of today's processors that AMD's Athlon 64 X2 5600+ offers slightly superior overall value than the Core 2 Duo E6400. However, the extra cache in the E6420 might be enough to tip the odds in Intel's favor, and the new Intel chip has two other advantages over the Athlon: lower power consumption and potentially higher overclocking headroom. The Athlon puts up a good fight, but we think this Core 2 Duo is the more sensible choice.

For the Grand Experiment, we've picked the Asus P5N-E SLI once again. Nvidia has finally succeeded in producing a decent mainstream nForce chipset for Intel processors—the nForce 650i SLI—and boards based on that chipset are a good deal cheaper than equivalent Intel P965-based offerings with ICH8R south bridge chips. The P5N-E SLI has dual PCI Express x16 slots with support for SLI multi-GPU configurations, four Serial ATA ports with RAID support, one external eSATA port, two IDE channels, Gigabit Ethernet, and FireWire. It does have fewer Serial ATA ports than some P965 boards, but it more than makes up for those shortcomings with excellent overclocking potential. In our labs, we've been able to crank the P5N-E SLI up to a front-side bus speed of 470MHz—enough to push our recommended Core 2 Duo E6420 to almost 3.8GHz.

As before, we're sticking with Corsair's 2GB kit of DDR2-667 ValueSelect memory. We could bump our recommendation to DDR2-800, but the Grand Experiment lacks integrated graphics that could benefit from faster RAM. If anything, our recommended processor is more limited by its front-side bus than by memory speed. Dual channels of DDR2-667 RAM can push a maximum of 10.7GB/s of bandwidth, while the Core 2 Duo's 1066MHz bus has to squeeze both memory and I/O through just 8.5GB/s. In a system like this, money is better spent elsewhere.

Our choice of graphics card for the Grand Expriment remains eVGA's GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB. This card is admittedly a little expensive for this machine, but the next step down on the price ladder—Nvidia's own GeForce 8600 GTS—is much slower and not really what we'd recommend for a serious gaming system. Perhaps the second half of this year will eventually yield more attractive DirectX 10 graphics cards in the $200-250 range, but for now, the GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB is as good as it gets if you don't want to have to turn down the resolution and/or disable antialiasing to get acceptable frame rates.

500GB hard drives have dropped significantly in price since our last system guide, so we've gone with one of Western Digital's Caviar SE16 500GB drives for this build. We're selecting it over the Seagate alternative for the same reason as in our Econobox: the WD drive is simply cheaper, quieter, and faster, and we don't think the five-year warranty is enough to tip the odds in favor of Seagate's Barracuda 7100.10 500GB. Again, though, we've featured the Seagate drive as an alternative.

On the optical front, we're sticking with the Samsung SH-S183L. It's a fine DVD burner that should be a good match for this system.

Creative's Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer gets our vote for this build. We used to recommend the X-Fi XtremeMusic, but Creative has discontinued that card and effectively replaced it with the XtremeGamer. Both cards are essentially identical, although the XtremeGamer has a smaller form factor and lacks an AD-Link connector for the break-out X-Fi I/O console. The XtremeGamer does have an Intel HD Audio-compatible front panel connector, though, which can be hooked up to many cases' front panel connectors.

Vista support note: Creative has Vista drivers out for this card, but because of Vista's new audio pipeline, there's no audio acceleration support in games that implement EAX via DirectSound. Luckily, Creative does have a beta workaround available.

Enclosure and power
We recommended Antec's Sonata II case for many of our Grand Experiment builds, but we've opted for the newly released Sonata III this time. Compared to the Sonata II, the new version has a beefier power supply rated for 500W of output and 80% efficiency. The Sonata III also has a redesigned front panel with an external Serial ATA (eSATA) port, should you wish to quickly connect an external hard drive to your PC. Otherwise, the internal layout is the same, and both cases feature sideways-mounted hard drive trays with noise-reducing grommets as well as a speed-adjustable, rubber-damped 120mm exhaust fan.

$150 is a fair amount of money to spend on a case, but Newegg offers it with free shipping, so the difference between the Sonata II and the Sonata III doesn't amount to much. The Sonata III's PSU is also worth nearly $100 on its own, and you'd be hard pressed to find a separate case with the same noise reduction features as the Sonata III for less than $50.