TR’s September 2007 system guide

With so many pricing changes hitting the processor market over the past couple of months, a new system guide is overdue. As we were busy updating TR’s look and feel, Intel and AMD lowered prices across their respective processor lineups and, in doing so, created two new trends: the effective disappearance of premium dual-core CPUs, and the democratization of quad-core chips.

Indeed, both Intel’s speediest dual-core processor and its most affordable quad-core chip are now available for less than $300. AMD’s fastest dual-core desktop chip also costs less than $300, although the world’s number two processor maker has yet to roll out a quad-core desktop offering.

Join us as we outfit four recommended system builds with these recently-discounted CPUs and provide our take on what parts best complement them.

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Rules and regulations

Before tackling our recommended systems, we should explain some of the rules and guidelines we used to select components. The guiding philosophy behind our choices was to seek the best bang for the buck. That means we avoided recommending super-cheap parts that are barely capable of performing their jobs, just as we avoided breathtakingly expensive products that carry a hefty price premium for features or performance you probably don’t need. Instead, we looked to that mythical “sweet spot” where price and performance meet up in a pleasant, harmonic convergence. We also sought balance within each system configuration, choosing components that make sense together, so that a fast processor won’t be bottlenecked by a skimpy graphics card or too little system memory, for instance. The end result, we hope, is a series of balanced systems that offer decent performance as configured and provide ample room for future expandability.

We confined our selections to components that are currently available online. Paper launches and preorders don’t count, for obvious reasons. We also tried to stick to $500, $1000, and $1500 budgets for our desktop systems. Those budgets are loose guidelines rather than hard limits, to allow us some wiggle room for deals that may stretch the budget a little but are too good to resist.

We’ve continued our tradition of basing the guide’s component prices on listings at Newegg. We’ve found that sourcing prices from one large reseller allows us to maintain a more realistic sense of street prices than price search engine listings, which are sometimes artificially low. In the few cases where Newegg doesn’t have an item in stock, we’ll fall back to our trusty price search engine rather than limit our options.

Finally, price wasn’t the top factor in our component choices. Our own experiences with individual components weighed heavily on our decisions, and we’ve provided links to our own reviews of many of the products we’re recommending. We’ve also tried to confine our selections to name-brand rather than generic products, and to manufacturers with solid reputations for reliability. Warranty coverage was an important consideration, as well.

Even with the most informed part selections, one can still run into snags when assembling a system. In fact, one of our previous guides recommended a motherboard and memory combination that didn’t play nicely together, affecting system stability and even the ability to POST. Such issues are usually caused by a motherboard BIOS’s defaults not setting the correct timings or voltage for the memory used in the system. Because it tends to adhere to base JEDEC standards, “value” RAM usually gets along with even the most obscure motherboards. However, enthusiast-oriented memory designed to run at nonstandard voltage or latency settings can be more problematic.

Resolving memory compatibility issues is usually easy: one needs only to pop into the BIOS and manually set the correct timings and voltages prescribed by the DIMM’s manufacturer. If a particular motherboard and memory combo won’t POST, though, you’re out of luck unless you have another set of memory modules lying around. To avoid such show-stopping problems, we aim to perform basic memory compatibility testing for our recommended systems. Memory and motherboard combos will be tested to ensure that they boot with the BIOS defaults, and that they’re stable once correct timings and voltages have been set in the BIOS. We can’t verify compatibility between each and every component in our recommended systems and still provide timely guide updates, so testing will be limited to the most common source of problems—motherboards and memory.

We haven’t yet completed our first round of verification testing for the components in this guide. Notes on compatibility verification for specific system builds will be added as we complete our testing.

The Econobox
Because speed doesn’t have to cost a fortuneOur low-end Econobox isn’t designed to be the cheapest possible combination of parts. Instead, it’s a solid and affordable foundation for enthusiasts on a budget. We’ve avoided cutting corners in ways that would have limited future upgrade options, and at the same time, we’ve tried to ensure that the system doesn’t actually need any upgrades to deliver relatively peppy performance as it is.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Pentium E2160 $85.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-965P-S3 $102.99
Memory Corsair 2GB ValueSelect DDR2-667 $73.99
Graphics eVGA GeForce 8600 GT $114.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 320GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S203B $31.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480 w/380W PSU $84.95
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $569.89

Processor

For the first time ever, we’ve selected an Intel processor as the main recommendation for our Econobox. It’s not that AMD doesn’t offer any good sub-$100 chips anymore—even with the Athlon 64 X2 3600+ now discontinued, the faster Athlon 64 X2 4000+ is still a fine budget contender. However, with Intel’s Pentium E2160 now available for just $85.99, there’s little incentive to stick with AMD. Judging by the numbers we’ve seen around the ‘net, the E2160 should not only be faster overall than the 4000+, but it should be a better overclocker, as well. An LGA775-based system also offers a more attractive upgrade path than one based on Socket AM2; Intel plans to introduce desktop 45nm Core 2 chips in November, and the first glimpse we’ve had of the performance of AMD’s quad-core processors doesn’t suggest it will retake the performance lead.

The Pentium 2160’s only real downside is the “Pentium” name, which evokes slow and power-hungry chips of old. Fortunately, the E2160 is essentially a Core 2 Duo with less L2 cache than usual, so there’s no need to worry about the Pentium name’s Netburst-plagued pedigree.

Motherboard

We’ve selected Gigabyte’s GA-965P-S3 motherboard to go with our Intel processor. This board costs just $102.99, but it packs an Intel P965 Express chipset and has a fairly solid reputation as far as overclocking goes. We’d be happier if the GA-965P-S3 offered chipset-level RAID support, but that’s an omission we’re inclined to forgive considering the price tag and the fact that this is a budget system.

Chipset and overclocking aside, the GA-965P-S3 delivers passive chipset cooling, six 300MB/s Serial ATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet, and a full array of PCI Express and 32-bit PCI slots.

Memory
Corsair’s 2GB ValueSelect DDR2-667 kit makes a comeback in this build. At $74.99 for 2GB of RAM, this kit is an absolute bargain. DDR2-667 is plenty fast for this system, too, and it shouldn’t impede overclocking provided you make use of the Gigabyte GA-965P-S3’s memory dividers.

Graphics

Nvidia’s GeForce 8600 GT graphics card launched with a recommended price range of $149-159 five months ago, but now eVGA’s 256-P2-N751-TR GeForce 8600 GT is available for just $114.99 (or $99.99, if you don’t mind mail-in rebates). This isn’t some crippled version with GDDR2 memory and a heatsink made out of tinfoil, either; it’s a full-blown reference card running at Nvidia’s specified clock speeds with the customary 256MB of GDDR3 RAM. eVGA hasn’t “factory overclocked” this particular model, but considering the price and the fact that it’s covered by a lifetime warranty, we gladly forgive them.

Storage

Western Digital’s 320GB Caviar SE16 hard drive is our recommendation for the Econobox. We’re still passing on Seagate, since the Caviar has a lower price tag, higher performance, and lower noise levels than Seagate’s 320GB Barracuda 7200.10. The only tradeoff is in the warranty, where Seagate delivers five years of coverage and Western Digital offers only three. We don’t think a warranty alone is worth going with a more expensive, slower, and louder drive, though, so the Caviar SE16 has become our primary selection. If you favor longer warranties above all else, the 7200.10 is still listed in our alternatives section on the next page.

For our optical drive, the Samsung SH-183L model we recommended last time seems to have disappeared, so we’re going with Samsung’s SH-S203B. This drive is both cheaper and faster than our old recommendation, and it sports a Serial ATA interface, so it looks like a great choice.

Enclosure and power

We recommended Antec’s NSK 4400 case and power supply bundle last time, but it, too, seems to have been discontinued. In its stead, we’ve selected the NSK 4480. Like its predecessor, the NSK 4480 includes three 5.25″ bays, two 3.5″ bays, three hard drive bays with rubber mounting grommets, and a speed-adjustable 120mm exhaust fan. As far as we can tell, the only difference between the two cases is that the NSK 4480 comes with a high-efficiency EarthWatts power supply, whereas its predecessor was outfitted with a less efficient New Solution-series model. The EarthWatts is rated for 17A of power delivery on each of its two +12V rails—1A more than the New Solution model. That’s only a minor upgrade for the NSK 4480, but it’s nonetheless an improvement over the already solid NSK 4400.

As always, the price of our recommended case and PSU bundle may seem like a lot to spend on what seems like accessories in a budget system. However, a good power supply is an invaluable asset to system stability. You could get a $30 case/PSU bundle from a no-name manufacturer, and you might even end up with a halfway decent case out of the deal. PSUs bundled with inexpensive cases tend to be built from cheap, low-quality components, though, and that often translates into low power delivery, voltage fluctuations, poor stress tolerance, and short life spans.

Cheap PSUs can jeopardize system stability, damage sensitive components over time, and potentially even flame out in spectacular fashion, taking several system components with them in the process. For an extra $55, the added peace of mind is definitely worth it.

Econobox alternativesThe preceding selections round out our low-end system, but we’ve come up with a couple of suggested alternatives, should you wish to tweak the formula a little bit. These alternatives will allow you to step up to better performance for a little bit more money or save a little without too much pain.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+ $66.99
Motherboard Asus M2NE-SLI $89.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 320GB $79.99
Audio Chaintech AV-710 $23.99

Processor

As we said on the previous page, AMD’s Athlon 64 X2 3600+ has been discontinued. The next step up, the Athlon 64 X2 4000+, is also a fine budget chip. It may not be as fast as the Pentium E2160 overall, but it is cheaper.

Motherboard

We recommended Asus’ M2N4-SLI motherboard for our last Econobox, but it has since been discontinued, so we’ve now switched to the M2NE-SLI. The two boards are essentially the same, but the M2NE-SLI has a FireWire port and a black PCB. It also sports a full ATX layout and support for Nvidia SLI multi-GPU setups (albeit in a x8/x8 lane configuration), an nForce 500 core logic chipset with two ATA channels, four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports with RAID support, Gigabit Ethernet, and passive chipset cooling.

Storage

Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.10 320GB hard drive is back in our alternatives list. If you’re prepared to spend slightly more for five years of warranty coverage and don’t mind having slower performance and higher noise levels than with our primary recommendation, this is the drive for you.

Sound card

The trusty Chaintech AV-710 is back once again, since we reckon some users might want better sound quality than what onboard audio tends to provide. The AV-710 won’t give you perfect surround sound or 3D audio acceleration in games, but it does combine a low price tag with the ability to route stereo output through a high-quality Wolfson DAC. This last feat translates into stereo sound quality that’s worthy of much more expensive cards and far superior to most onboard audio—perfect for users with decent headphones or stereo speakers.

The Grand Experiment
The sweet spot for the budget-consciousOur 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 E6750 $194.99
Motherboard Asus P5N-E SLI $116.99
Memory Corsair ValueSelect 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR2-667 $73.99
Graphics eVGA GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB $289.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 500GB $114.99
Samsung SH-S203B $31.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $79.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $129.95
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1032.88

Processor

Thanks to Intel’s latest round of price cuts, it’s now possible to nab Intel’s Core 2 Duo E6750 for less than $200. The chip is clocked at 2.66GHz, packs 4MB of shared L2 cache, and is outfitted with a 1333MHz front-side bus. Considering the last chip we selected for our Grand Experiment build was the 2.13GHz Core 2 Duo E6420, this new E6750 model is a nice upgrade indeed.

As always—or at least since the Core 2 Duo launch a year ago—we’re keeping AMD out of our primary recommendation for this system. The best AMD can muster in the same price range as the E6750 is the Athlon 64 X2 6000+, which consistently falls short of its Intel rival while drawing considerably more power and providing less overclocking headroom. Should you wish to go with the AMD chip anyway, we’ve featured it in our alternatives section on the next page.

Motherboard

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 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 E6750 to 4.7GHz.

Memory

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 1333MHz bus has to squeeze both memory and I/O through the same amount of bandwidth. In a system like this, money is better spent elsewhere.

Graphics

Our choice of graphics card for the Grand Experiment 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 a big step down in terms of performance and a little slower than what we’d recommend for a serious gaming system. The final quarter of this year may 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.

Storage

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-S203B. It’s a fine DVD burner that should be a good match for this system.

Audio

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 that can be hooked up to front panel ports in many cases, though.

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 workaround available.

Enclosure and power

Our recommended Sonata III delivers everything we need for this system: a beefy 500W power supply with an 80% efficiency rating, a clean layout with sideways-mounted hard drive bays, and a host of noise reduction features, including a speed-adjustable, rubber-damped 120mm exhaust fan. It even has an eSATA port on its front bezel, should you wish to plug in a speedy external hard drive.

$130 is a fair amount of money to spend on a case, but the Sonata III is actually a rather nice deal when you take into account its PSU, which is worth $90 on its own. You’d be hard pressed to find a standalone case with the same noise reduction features and finish as the Sonata III for significantly less than $40.

Grand Experiment alternativesAs with our Econobox, we have a few alternative component suggestions for our mid-range build, should you wish to move up or down in price a little bit.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon 64 X2 6000+ $164.99
Motherboard Abit KN9 SLI $109.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 500GB $119.99

Processor

As we mentioned on the previous page, Intel’s Core 2 Duo E6750 processor trumps the Athlon 64 X2 6000+. Still, some folks might want to go with the AMD chip anyway, if only because it manages to beat its Intel rival in a few tasks, such as Cinebench and POV-Ray 3D rendering.

Motherboard

Our alternative mobo, the Abit KN9 SLI, is a great little board. Despite a $109.99 price tag, it offers SLI capability, six Serial ATA ports with all kinds of RAID support, dual Gigabit LAN with TCP/IP offloading, and passive chipset cooling that also takes care of the processor’s power regulation circuitry. What’s more, the KN9 SLI includes plenty of overclocking and fan speed options in its BIOS.

Storage

We’re again suggesting a Seagate hard drive as an alternative for folks who really want a five-year warranty. Do keep in mind that the Barracuda 7200.10 500GB costs $5 more than the Western Digital drive in our main recommendations, and that it’s slower and louder.

The Sweet Spot
Excess—with a healthy dose of prudenceThe Grand Experiment is a solid system that should be able to handle a little bit of everything, but its specs aren’t exactly drool-inducing. For that, we have our high-end build, a machine that avoids hefty price premiums while still packing enough hardware to make you the envy of the next LAN party.

This build is probably closest to what TR’s editors would choose for themselves in order to get the most value for the dollar in an enthusiast’s PC. Most of the components are chosen because they’re in that proverbial “sweet spot” for price and performance—hence the name.

Component Item Price
Processor Core 2 Quad Q6600 $279.99
Motherboard Abit IP35 Pro $184.99
Memory Corsair XMS2 DDR2-800 DDR2 SDRAM (2 x 1GB) $87.00
Graphics XFX GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB $369.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 500GB $114.99
Samsung SH-S203B $31.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $79.99
Power supply OCZ StealthXStream 600W $89.99
Enclosure Antec P180 $119.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1358.92

Processor

With Intel’s new pricing scheme, it’s now easy to slip a quad-core chip into our Sweet Spot system. The Core 2 Quad Q6600 only costs $50 more than our previous processor recommendation (the Core 2 Duo E6600), and it runs at the same clock speed while packing two extra cores.

Those additional cores deliver substantial performance benefits in applications optimized to take advantage of them, such as Cinebench, POV-Ray, or Windows Media Encoder. In such apps, the Q6600 trumps even the fastest dual-core chips. Since the industry is moving toward parallelism, we think a quad-core solution is your best bet for the Sweet Spot. Should you rather spend your money on a dual-core model, though, we’ve selected one for our alternatives list on the next page.

Motherboard

The Abit IP35 Pro features official support for 1333MHz front-side bus speeds and for Intel’s upcoming 45nm Penryn chips, which is nice if you intend to upgrade this system down the line.

We were pretty happy with the IP35 Pro when we reviewed it back in June. It packs two PCI Express x16 slots (in a x4/x16 lane setup) with CrossFire support, eight Serial ATA ports (including two eSATA ports at the back), two Gigabit Ethernet ports, and passive, heat pipe-based chipset/voltage circuitry cooling. Overclockers will also enjoy the board’s µGuru overclocking, tweaking, and fan monitoring tools.

Memory

Value DDR2-667 memory is just fine for our Grand Experiment machine, but we want to give this system a little extra performance and overclocking headroom. Our recommended 2GB Corsair XMS DDR2-800 modules are rated for operation at a speedier 800MHz, and they’re very competitively priced. If you’re into mail-in rebates, Newegg currently offers one that lowers the kit’s price to just $57, as well.

Graphics

We used to recommended the GeForce 8800 GTS 320MB for this system, but since our July guide, we’ve been going with the pricier 640MB model. Considering the flurry of new games coming out later this year that should have larger textures and more shader effects than ever before, the extra memory should come in handy. This particular card includes a free copy of Company of Heroes, too—one of the first games to jump on the DirectX 10 bandwagon.

Storage

We’re sticking with Western Digital’s Caviar SE16 500GB for this machine. The price and feature set are just right, and you’d have to spend nearly twice as much to get a higher-capacity model with the same perks.

As for the optical drive, we’re picking the Samsung SH-S203B. More expensive SATA drives don’t have anything particularly worthwhile to offer, and we wouldn’t want to move over to an IDE model, anyway.

Audio

We picked Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer in our Grand Experiment, and we’re doing the same here. The card provides excellent sound quality as well as 3D effects and acceleration features in games for a very attractive price. More expensive models don’t offer a significantly different formula, so we see no reason to pony up the extra cash. That said, folks who are big into audio editing or who require a gaggle of additional input and output ports would be better served by sound cards geared towards audio professionals.

Power Supply

An all-in-one case and power supply bundle is great if you’re on a relatively tight budget, but The Sweet Spot has both a bigger budget and more power-hungry components, so discrete solutions make more sense here.

We use OCZ’s GameXStream power supplies extensively in our test labs, and here we’re recommending the 600W StealthXStream. Branding and pricing aside, this is essentially the same unit as the 600W GameXStream: it has the same four +12V rails with combined power output of 580W, the same quiet 120mm fan, the same 80% efficiency rating, and active power factor correction. The only difference appears to be that the StealthXStream lacks its cousin’s blue LED, but we’re happy to trade that in for the lower price tag.

Enclosure
Antec’s P180 case has been a star of our high-end selections in the system guide for a while now. Coupled with quiet enough components, this enclosure can provide exceptionally low noise levels thanks to its composite panels, adjustable-speed 120mm fans, and partitioned cooling zones.

Everything about this case oozes quality and polish, except, perhaps, for an upside-down design that can make cable management a pain. That’s easily remedied by extensions like this +12V processor power cable extension, though.

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

Component Item Price
Processor Core 2 Duo E6850 $299.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 2900 XT 512MB $389.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 500GB $119.99
Storage Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $184.99

Processor

The Core 2 Quad Q6600 effortlessly outdoes dual-core solutions in applications optimized to take advantage more than two cores, but plenty of apps don’t benefit from more than one or two cores. For users who need top performance in those apps, the Core 2 Duo E6850 is a good alternative to the Q6600. With its 3GHz clock speed, the E6850 has a good 600MHz on the Q6600, and Intel has also outfitted the dual-core chip with a speedier 1333MHz front-side bus. (The Q6600, by contrast, still has a 1066MHz FSB).

You might have noticed we’re no longer recommending an AMD alternative for this system. The sad truth is that AMD really has nothing to compete against either the Core 2 Duo E6850 or the Core 2 Quad Q6600. Until AMD rolls out its dual- and quad-core Phenom processors, Intel may have a lock on this price range.

Graphics card

It’s no secret that AMD’s first effort in the DirectX 10 world has fallen short of expectations. Nonetheless, the Radeon HD 2900 XT is a decent alternative to the GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB. The Radeon offers roughly equivalent performance, and we’re fond of its CFAA tent-filtered antialiasing modes. Of course, the 2900 XT does cost more than the 8800 GTS, and it also has higher power consumption and noise levels.

Storage

We have two storage suggestions in our alternatives list. The first is Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.10 500GB, which is our recommendation for users who care more about a long warranty than higher performance, lower noise levels, and a lower price tag.

The second is Western Digital’s 150GB Raptor. We don’t expect you to trade either of our recommended 500GB drives for a speedier drive that only has 150GB of capacity, but we do think the Raptor can be a good complement to either the SE16 or the 7200.10. 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, making it an ideal operating system and application drive. The extra performance could come in handy for storage-intensive applications like video editing, too. With both 500GB and 150GB drives in one machine, you’ll enjoy the best of both worlds: high speed where needed with high capacity riding shotgun.

The Double-Stuff Workstation
Perfect parallelismAs always, our Double-Stuff system includes some of the fastest components available, often paired up in an ode to parallelism, without squandering cash on unnecessary extras.

Component Item Price
Processor Core 2 Quad Q6700 $549.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6 $228.99
Memory OCZ Vista Upgrade DDR2-800 RAM (2 x 2GB) $230.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 2900 XT 512MB $389.99
Sapphire Radeon HD 2900 XT 512MB $389.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 750GB $199.99
Western Digital Caviar SE16 750GB $199.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $184.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $184.99
Samsung SH-203B $31.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $79.99
Enclosure Antec P190 w/ 650W and 550W PS $399.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $3071.88

Processor

Intel’s price cuts have also allowed us to upgrade our workstation’s processor from the Core 2 Quad Q6600 to the new Core 2 Quad Q6700. The Q6700 is essentially a re-badged version of the older Core 2 Extreme QX6700, and as such, it has the same 2.66GHz clock speed—266MHz faster than the Q6600—with the same 8MB of total cache and 1066MHz front-side bus. Since the Q6700’s price is still reasonable, and since we have an ample budget for the Double-Stuff, we think the upgrade is worth it.

As in our previous guides, we’re avoiding AMD’s Quad FX platform. Not only do Quad FX processors offer slower overall performance at higher prices than even the Core 2 Quad Q6600, AMD’s solution also presents two further disadvantages. First, Quad FX has formidable power consumption. The extra power draw requires both a beefier power supply and increased cooling, which won’t be kind to either your ears or your power bill. Another problem with Quad FX is pricing: its lone motherboard at present, the Asus L1N64-SLI WS, costs over $300 on Newegg. We don’t think dealing with higher prices, more power consumption, and higher noise output to end up with lower overall performance makes any sense, so we still see no reason to recommend Quad FX.

Motherboard

We’re sticking with our Intel motherboard and AMD graphics cards this time. Our reasons for that are straightforward: we want to cut costs a little, and in Windows Vista, AMD’s Radeon HD 2900 XT performs better overall in multi-GPU configurations than Nvidia’s GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB.

We’ll get into all that in more detail in a minute, but in the meantime, let’s have a look at our recommended motherboard: Gigabyte’s GA-P35-DQ6. This is a top-of-the-line offering based on Intel’s P35 chipset. It sports dual PCI Express x16 slots (in a x4/x16 lane setup) with CrossFire support, eight 300MB/s Serial ATA ports, an elaborate heat pipe-based chipset/voltage circuitry cooler, and overclocking features aplenty. The GA-P35-DQ6 earned an editor’s choice award in our P35 comparative review, so it’s a fine match for this system. The x4/x16 lane configuration may hurt the performance of our dual Radeon HD 2900 XTs slightly, but from what we’ve seen, the performance penalty isn’t too harsh.

Memory

We’ve changed our memory recommendation for this system to a 4GB kit of OCZ’s Vista Upgrade DDR2-800 RAM. Naming aside, this is one of the cheapest 4GB DDR2-800 kits around offered by a major brand and made up of two 2GB modules. OCZ offers U.S.-based technical support and a lifetime warranty, and the high-density modules should also give you room to upgrade to 8GB of memory somewhere down the line.

Do bear in mind, however, that getting applications to use 4GB or 8GB of memory with a 32-bit version of Windows Vista (or Windows XP) will be tricky. The way recent 32-bit Windows operating systems handle that amount of memory is a little peculiar. Suffice it to say that you’ll want to install a 64-bit version of Vista to take full advantage of our memory recommendation. See our operating system selection page for details.

Graphics

The performance advantage enjoyed by dual Radeon HD 2900 XTs over dual GeForce 8800 GTS 640MBs can be chalked up in part to Nvidia’s less mature multi-GPU drivers for Vista. Those drivers sometimes even hold back a dual GeForce 8800 GTX config from besting a pair of Radeon HD 2900 XTs in CrossFire. We assume this discrepancy will eventually be resolved through driver updates, but in the meantime, AMD seems to be the better choice in the high-end multi-GPU arena. For that reason, we’ve selected a pair of Radeon HD 2900 XT cards from Sapphire that run at stock speeds and are available for around $390. These will run hotter and draw more power than equivalent Nvidia offerings, but our recommended case/PSU combo can handle it.

As always, you’ll want a large display with support for very high resolutions if you want to come anywhere close to using these cards to their full potential in today’s games. We cover displays more thoroughly in our accessories section, but Dell’s 30″ UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC is a pretty good bet in this case. Dual Radeon HD 2900 XTs can run nearly any game at the monitor’s native resolution of 2560×1600 without breaking a sweat, and it simply looks gorgeous.

Storage

Our storage recommendations cover a whopping 1.65TB of capacity split between two 7,200RPM Western Digital Caviar SE16s and two 10,000RPM Raptors. These drives can be run in either RAID 0 or RAID 1 arrays (or a combination of the two) for improved storage speed or redundancy. RAID 0 may increase the chance of data loss without doing much for overall system performance, but it should still help in particularly storage-intensive tasks. If you’d like to improve both performance and redundancy, you can also assign four of either drive to a RAID 0+1 array.

On the optical drive front, the Samsung SH-S203B has made it all this way from our Econobox to the fastest machine in our system guide. This drive is perfectly capable, though, and the fact that it uses Serial ATA connectivity makes it a good addition to a state-of-the-art box.

Audio

The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer sound card is also back from the Grand Experiment and Sweet Spot builds. Creative makes pricier versions of the card with built-in “X-RAM,” but as we saw in our review of the X-Fi Fatal1ty, the added memory does little for performance in the few games that support it. Creative also offers even fancier versions of the X-Fi with support for break-out boxes, but we think users who really need a gazillion audio inputs and outputs would rather look at true professional offerings from M-Audio or E-MU. Otherwise, feel free to have a look at the X-Fi XtremeGamer Fatal1ty Professional or the X-Fi Elite.

Enclosure and power supply

Choosing an enclosure and power supply combo seems odd considering our budget, but the Antec P190 isn’t your run-of-the-mill case bundle. It comes with two Neo Power power supplies that can output 650W and 550W, adding up to a combined 1.2kW of power delivery. You also get two 140mm top fans, one side 200mm fan, one 120mm exhaust fan, and yet another 120mm fan for the lower chamber. The case can accommodate an Extended ATX motherboard, six hard drives, and four 5.25″ optical drives. For $400, it’s really not that expensive considering the cost of comparable power supplies and cases.

Workstation alternativesWe also have additional suggestions for our workstation build.

Component Item Price
Processor Core 2 Quad Q6600 $279.99
Motherboard eVGA 122-CK-NF68-A1 nForce 680i SLI $219.99
Graphics eVGA GeForce 8800 GTX $529.99
eVGA GeForce 8800 GTX $529.99

Processor

The next step up from the Core 2 Quad Q6700 in our primary recommendations is the Core 2 Extreme QX6800, which costs nearly twice as much for a 266MHz clock speed boost. We may have an ample budget for the Double-Stuff, but even that is pushing it. Instead, we’ve picked the Core 2 Quad Q6600 as our alternative. The Q6600 was our primary selection for the Double-Stuff in our July guide, and with its 2.4GHz clock speed and four cores, it’s a more than capable workstation CPU.

Motherboard

The eVGA 122-CK-NF68-A1 should allow you to go (almost) all-out with the workstation’s graphics. This board is based on a reference design by Nvidia, complete with SLI compatibility, a very tweakable BIOS, and full support for Nvidia’s nTune tweaking and monitoring software. There are plenty of other high-end motherboards to choose from, including those based on Intel’s P35, P965, and 975X chipsets, but none combine the 680i’s SLI support with the array of tweaking and overclocking features available with the Nvidia board design being offered by its partners.

Graphics cards

Dual GeForce 8800 GTXs are more expensive than the dual Radeons in our main recommendations, and occasionally their performance falls short of the AMD alternative. Nonetheless, the GTXs are tough to beat in many games, and future Vista drivers will hopefully improve SLI performance. These are the cards to get if you’d rather have an Nvidia solution. We’d recommend dual GeForce 8800 Ultras, but over $1200 for a graphics setup is really pushing it, especially considering the relatively slight differences between the performance of Ultra and GTX cards.

The operating system
Which Vista is right for you?With the advent of Windows Vista, we’ve decided to put our operating system section on a separate page. Microsoft’s new operating system comes in an even greater number of flavors than Windows XP, and we couldn’t really explain all those choices in a handful of paragraphs.

Before we begin, some of you may be wondering whether Vista is really worth it in the first place. After all, Windows XP still works, and from a distance, Vista looks like little more than a prettied-up version of the same old operating system. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and Windows Vista is really far more than Windows XP with a new user interface.

For one, Microsoft has completely overhauled the OS’s kernel with an emphasis on security, stability, power management, and performance. Because of those changes, Vista makes it much more difficult for malicious software or poorly-crafted drivers to wreak havoc on the operating system. Vista’s built-in Windows Defender application and User Account Control mechanism both work to prevent malware and spyware infections. (Although we’ve found UAC to be a little annoying in practice, the extra hassle may be worth the peace of mind given the severity of the spyware/malware phenomenon.) Also, most device drivers no longer run at the kernel level, so if they crash, the effects should be no worse than if any random application were to take a dive.

Along with superior stability and security, Vista boasts system-wide instant search, a new networking stack, a new audio architecture with per-application volume control, and DirectX 10. If you want to take full advantage of a shiny new GeForce 8800 graphics card in upcoming DX10 games like Crytek’s Crysis, then you’ll want Vista. Really, the folks at Microsoft haven’t been sitting around twiddling their thumbs in the five years since Windows XP’s release, and if you’re building a new PC now, Vista looks like the way to go.

Which edition?

So if Vista is the right OS, which version should you get? To make things simple, here’s a chart that lists the four retail Vista editions and the major features they include for desktop systems:

As you can see, Windows Vista Home Basic is stripped to the bone and doesn’t come with any of the goodies the more expensive editions offer. Since it costs just $70 less than Vista Home Premium, we think it’s a pretty poor deal. Besides, this edition lacks the Aero graphical user interface, and Vista just isn’t Vista without shiny transparent windows and live thumbnails.

With the pricier Home Premium version of Vista, Microsoft has essentially produced a successor to Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 that’s intended to be more of a jack-of-all-trades for home desktops than an OS aimed squarely at home theater PCs. Home Premium includes Microsoft’s Windows Media Center software, which rolls PVR and media playback functionality into an attractive GUI optimized for display on a television. That media-centric functionality is bolstered by Windows Media Extender, which allows you to access movies and music stored on your PC via compatible Media Center Extenders like set-top boxes and even the Xbox 360. You also get backup scheduling tools, as well as software to burn your own DVDs and make high-definition movies. This version of Vista would get our vote if it weren’t for the lack of Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) software.

RDC allows you to connect to your home PC remotely, and it’s not included in Vista Home Premium. Several of TR’s editors use RDC extensively in order to control their main PCs from their laptop computers. Thanks to RDC, there’s no need to install every last program on a mobile computer or to sync all data between one’s desktop and laptop systems. This is a great option, whether on the road or from the couch, so it’s not a capability we’d write off lightly.

Your least expensive option with RDC support is Vista Business. As its name implies, this version of Vista is designed mainly for professional users. Vista Business lacks media center functionality, but makes up for it with industrial-strength backup and networking tools. If you couldn’t care less about turning your PC into an entertainment center, coughing up the extra $40 for Windows Vista Business is probably your best bet.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s Vista Ultimate. Fragmented features sets may save you some cash, but there are some who just want it all. This edition contains all the features from the Home Premium and Business versions plus BitLocker, a real-time hard drive encryption tool that helps keep your data safe from prying eyes. Unless you really need everything in one package or regularly blow your nose with $100 bills, though, the cheaper Home Premium and Business editions are probably more sensible choices.

32-bit or 64-bit?

The x64 version of Windows XP was somewhat of a dead end because of limited third-party support, but all retail editions of Windows Vista offer a license for one installation of the OS in either 32-bit or 64-bit form. (You’ll probably need to hit Microsoft’s website and cough up a $10 fee to get the actual 64-bit installation disc, though.) You therefore have the option of installing whichever version you please, and most companies releasing Vista drivers have done so in both 32-bit and 64-bit formats. Since all of the processors we recommend in this guide are 64-bit capable, the 64-bit version of Windows Vista seems like a pretty compelling choice. (For some background on what makes 64-bit computing different at a hardware level, have a look at our take on the subject.)

Vista x64 also offers some security features the 32-bit version lacks. According to this article by Paul Thurrott, Vista x64 will “virtually eliminate” remote system attacks, prevent malicious software from patching the operating system kernel, and support the security features inside AMD’s and Intel’s latest processors at the hardware level. And of course, having a 64-bit operating system means you can use more than 4GB of system memory without any convoluted workarounds.

There are a couple of caveats, though.

For one, Vista x64 presents some device driver challenges. Older 32-bit drivers won’t work on this OS, so your hardware will either need to be supported by Vista’s built-in set of drivers or the device manufacturer will have to offer 64-bit Vista drivers. Most of the core system components we’ve recommended already have 64-bit Vista drivers, but if you’re carrying over peripherals like printers and scanners, you’ll want to look into drivers for them. Also, Vista x64 requires all drivers to be signed. Since bad drivers are frequently the culprit in an unstable system, this requirement makes sense in environments where stability is crucial. It’s not so great, though, if you’re the type to run user-customized graphics drivers or the like.

Also, the x64 edition of Vista breaks compatibility with older applications in a couple of ways. Vista x64 can’t run 16-bit software, which will matter to those folks who are attached to a really old application for some reason. Also, Thurrott points out that 64-bit versions of Vista lack automatic registry and file redirection, a key element of Vista’s backward-compatibility provisions. As a result, more recent 32-bit and even 64-bit applications written for Windows XP may not run properly under Vista x64.

We’re not quite sure where PC enthusiasts will go on this issue. There may be something of a split between the gaming-oriented enthusiasts who pick the 32-bit version of Vista for minimum hassle and the computer propellerheads who go the x64 route for maximum performance and security. As for us, we’re tentatively recommending the x64 version of Vista here, since our system guide is oriented toward those building themselves brand-new PCs. By and large, the newer hardware recommended here ought to have 64-bit drivers ready, and the x64 version’s improvements in memory support, security and the like are probably worth the hassle, so long as you can successfully navigate the hardware and app-level incompatibilities. With a retail version of Vista, nothing should stop you from giving Vista x64 a go and reformatting and installing the 32-bit version if you run into problems.

OEM or retail?

Just like Windows XP, Vista is offered in both OEM and retail versions. The retail versions are intended for consumers, while the OEM versions are officially intended for use by PC system builders. You can get a nice discount by going with an OEM version of Windows, but you’ll be making some compromises in the process.

For one, the retail versions of Vista ship with both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) edition DVDs in the box, but the OEM versions require one to choose up front, because they come with only one of the two.

Additionally, Microsoft has stated that its licensing terms won’t stop enthusiasts who run retail versions of Windows Vista from changing major hardware components regularly or from transferring the OS installation to another PC. However, OEM versions are technically tied to the first systems on which they’re installed, and Microsoft may choose to enforce that limitation via its software activation scheme at any time. If all of this sounds confusing to you, that’s because it is. For more on Vista OEM and upgrade licensing issues, see our article on the subject. The bottom line here is that you’re taking a risk when buying an OEM version of Vista, and it may come back to bite you if Microsoft invalidates your software license after a hardware upgrade. If you’re likely to upgrade your PC before Microsoft releases the next version of Windows, you should probably get a retail copy of Vista. Then again, we don’t yet know how strictly Microsoft will enforce the OEM transfer limits. The gamble could pay off.

If you do choose to gamble on the OEM version of Vista, you will be saving some money up front. Here’s how the OEM and retail pricing compare.

Vista Home Basic

Vista Home Premium

Vista Business

Vista Ultimate

OEM price (32-bit) $94.99 $111.99 $139.99 $179.99
OEM price (64-bit) $94.99 $111.99 $149.99 $179.99
Retail price $149.99 $219.99 $259.99 $319.99

We aren’t keen on paying Microsoft’s retail prices when OEM versions are this much more affordable, but we dislike the limitations that the OEM versions of Vista impose, so our nod goes provisionally to retail. If you’ve already decided the 32-bit versus 64-bit question and you’re willing to risk it, though, the OEM discount might be worth taking.

Peripherals, accessories, and extras
Matters of religion and taste
Now that we’ve examined operating system choices in detail, let’s have a look at some accessories, such as displays and peripherals. We don’t have a full set of recommendations at multiple price levels in each of these categories, but we can make some general observations and point out a few specific products that are worthy of your consideration. What you ultimately choose in these areas will probably depend heavily your own personal preferences.

Displays

The world of monitors has enough scope and variety that we can’t keep track of it all, especially because we don’t often review monitors around here. However, we do appreciate a good display—or two or three of them, since several of us are multi-monitor fanatics—so we can offer a few pieces of advice.

First, CRTs are dead, and LCDs are the new king. This may be obvious to most folks, but in case you’ve been frozen in stasis since 1995, we thought we’d mention it outright.

Next, like many PC enthusiasts, we have become fans of Dell’s LCD monitors. They’re typically quite nice, and several models have been especially popular around here. If you’re looking for a standard-issue 4:3 aspect ratio at a decent size and resolution, have a look at the Dell UltraSharp 2007FP 20″ monitor. The 2007FP is the successor to the widely heralded 2001FP, and the new model offers even more brightness and better color reproduction. It pivots on its stand to become a 1200×1600 display, if you’d like, too. With two or three of these babies side by side, you’d really have something. We haven’t tried this one ourselves, but if you prefer a wider angle on the world, the wide-aspect version of the same display is the UltraSharp 2007WFP. With a 16:10 aspect ratio and 1680×1050 resolution, this screen should be excellent for watching DVDs and for wide-screen gaming. Both of these 20″ monitors can be had for just under $400. Dell also offers more expensive wide-aspect models at 24″ and above.

If you’re building one of our high-end rigs like the Double Stuff Workstation, you’re going to want to up the ante to the big momma, Dell’s glorious UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC 30″ monitor. We’ve already sung its praises from the rooftops here, so we won’t rehash things. But we will say that this is a new, higher-color version of the same display that offers even better color reproduction. This four-megapixel, 2560×1600 beauty is worth every cent of its prodigious $1300-ish price tag. You can’t really make use of the Double Stuff’s dual Radeon HD 2900 XT graphics cards if you’re not driving a display like this one. And even if you’re not plunking down that kind of cash on a new system, you may want to reconsider how you spend your PC budget in order to accommodate this thing. We’d gladly skimp a bit on the CPU and hard drive if it meant we could have one of these on our desk.

You may also want to consider another big 30″ display, the HP LP3065, which is based on the same LCD panel as the Dell. The HP typically costs a little more, but it comes with three DVI inputs and the ability to switch between them, while the Dell is limited to one input. If you need those extra inputs, do spend the extra dough; the world of dual-link DVI KVM switches is a cold and scary place.

Oh, and avoid Dell’s cheaper E-series monitors, which have lower color precision than Dell’s other LCDs.

We should also mention that a number of our forum readers have taken a liking to the Westinghouse LVM-37W3 37″ LCD TV for use as a computer monitor. As a 1080p display, it has a native resolution 1920×1080, about half that of the Dell and HP 30″ panels, but it has two big advantages: being versatile enough to serve as a high-def television or game console display, and being fricking huge. We’d rather have a 30″ Dell or HP panel ourselves, but we can’t argue with this puppy’s virtues.

Keyboards and mice

In order to beef up our mouse and keyboard recs, we recently started trying out some different mice and keyboards around here. As part of that effort, we outfitted the latest iteration of the Kitchen PC with the Logitech Cordless Desktop LX710 Laser keyboard and mouse combo. The keyboard won praise for its sturdy feel, medium key travel distance, and soft but accurate positive feedback. However, we found that the goofy auxiliary buttons on the edges of the keyboard were way too easy to bump inadvertently—not the best placement. We had a split over the included wireless laser mouse. Its tilt scroll wheel and laser sensor were excellent, all agreed. But Scott found the mouse’s shape to be too narrow to grip comfortably, while it fit his wife’s smaller hands much better than her previous Logitech MX500.

Scott also tried out the corded version of the same mouse, the LX3 Optical. Predictably, he found it to be too narrow for his average-sized-guy hands, though he did appreciate the fact that the shape is ambidextrous.

A new entrant from Microsoft, the Natural Mouse 6000, also caught Scott’s eye. The shape is unconventionally “tall,” and places one’s hand at a very different angle than other mice, which makes it very comfortable and a nice ergonomic variation from the norm. This mouse is cordless and has lasers, too, so it’s a veritable killing machine. The only downside is that it’s decidedly right-handed, so lefties need not apply.

As TR’s resident Neanderthal, Geoff tends to have a different opinion on input peripherals than some of our other staffers. His hands are like giant paddles—large palms with short, stubby fingers—so getting peripherals that feel right can be a challenge. He’s one of probably only a, er, handful of people who actually prefers the original Xbox’s bear-sized controller to the smaller “S” unit that eventually replaced it.

For years, Geoff has found Microsoft’s mice to be the most comfortable under massive palms. Their shape just works for him, and the Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is no exception. There’s more to the mouse than just its shape, though. The 6000 has all-important horizontal scrolling for those with massive Excel spreadsheets, and the wheel’s vertical scrolling is silky smooth. That almost lubricated smoothness is great for web pages and zooming, but the lack of tactile “clicks” does make it less suitable for gamers looking to scroll precisely through available weapons. Wireless mice tend not to be the most responsive options for gamers, either, although the 6000 is plenty precise for age-impaired reflexes.

The Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is often bundled with Microsoft’s Comfort Curve keyboards, and the combo’s usually pretty cheap. We like the idea behind the Comfort Curve, too: just enough shape to allow your hands to sit at a more comfortable angle while typing without completely separating the keyboard into a “natural” design that feels anything but. Unfortunately, the Comfort Curve isn’t the sturdiest keyboard we’ve used; the keys have a little too much play for those who prefer a more solid feel, and you certainly don’t get much in the way of clickety clack. But there are plenty of extra buttons, including a few programmable ones, and Geoff’s been using one for a while now with few complaints.

Of course, both Microsoft and Logitech have a host of laser optical mice available at relatively low prices, so you can pick one to suit your tastes. Logitech’s G7 and G5 are popular choices for gamers. The Logitech G7 is a wireless model with a high-precision laser optical engine, tilt wheel, quick-swap battery packs, and buttons for in-game sensitivity switching. The G7 is plenty responsive, but hard-core gamers may nonetheless prefer its wired cousin, the Logitech G5. The G5 sports the same design but uses a good old-fashioned mouse cord, and it features adjustable weighted cartridges.

Incidentally, if you’re buying a mouse to play games, you might want to have a look at the following article on ESReality. Old-school Quake star Sujoy Roy has fashioned a benchmarking system for mice, and his resulting analysis should give you a good idea of which mouse is likely to get you the most kills in fast-paced action shooters.

There are at least two major schools of thought on keyboards. Some users will prefer the latest and fanciest offerings from Logitech and Microsoft, with their smorgasbord of media keys, sliders, knobs, scroll wheels, and even built-in LCD displays. Other users like their keyboards loud, clicky, and heavy enough to beat a man to death with. If you’re one of the old-school types, you may want to try a Unicomp Customizer 101/104 or an original vintage-dated IBM Model M. Fifty bucks is a lot to put down for a keyboard, but these beasts can easily last a couple of decades.

Floppy drive/card reader combo

Since the advent of cheap USB drive keys and broadband Internet access, floppy drives have essentially been rendered obsolete. They can still come in handy in a few instances, though, like when you’re installing Windows to a system with an unsupported Serial ATA controller. You could just spend $10 on a run-of-the-mill internal floppy drive, but we prefer to opt for a floppy/7-in-1 flash card reader combo like this Mitsumi model instead. You’re still getting a floppy drive, but the added flash card reading functionality will probably prove more useful over the long run, and it only ups the price another $10.

Cooling

We’re recommending retail processors in all of our configs because they come with longer warranties. Those CPUs also come bundled with stock cooling units that, these days, are usually reasonably good in terms of cooling capability and noise levels. However, if you want to have an even quieter system or to buy yourself a bit of overclocking headroom (or both), you may want to look into an aftermarket CPU cooler. Our slam-dunk favorite is Zalman’s CNPS9500 LED (and the CNPS9500 AM2 for AMD Socket AM2 processors.) As we noted in our review, the CNPS9500 offers excellent cooling performance and is whisper-quiet at its lowest fan setting. This cooler is a particularly good match for our Sweet Spot system, which already features a quiet graphics card, a quiet case, and a quiet power supply.

Conclusions

The price war currently raging in the CPU market may be causing AMD to lose huge amounts of money, but it’s definitely a blessing for consumers. As we’ve seen, it’s now possible to build a system with both a quad-core processor and a high-end graphics card for less than $1,400, and folks who spend less can still get their hands on speedy, overclockable dual-core chips at bargain prices.

Looking towards the end of the year, AMD is readying its own Phenom X4 quad-core processors, and Intel is planning a riposte in the form of 45nm versions of its existing quad-core Core 2 chips. The battle can only intensify from there, although we don’t necessarily recommend waiting—performance results from AMD’s first quad-core efforts aren’t particularly encouraging, and Intel’s existing selection is already excellent. On the graphics front, Nvidia told us at Computex that it would have a next-gen GPU ready for the fourth quarter, and AMD is expected have something new, as well. Waiting on a graphics card purchase may be a good idea, but it’s hard to say for sure.

In the meantime, feel free to take a stroll down to the System Builders Anonymous section of our forums if you’re in need of further assistance. That forum is teeming with users asking for help either building new machines or upgrading old ones, so you’ll find plenty of company—and assistance—if you’re not feeling particularly confident about a new build.

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