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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 E8400 $239.99
Motherboard Asus P5N-E SLI $114.99
Memory Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $88.99
Graphics XFX GeForce 8800 GT 512MB $239.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 500GB $104.99
Samsung SH-S203B $29.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $80.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $129.95
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1029.88

We've splurged a teeny bit on our processor recommendation for the Grand Experiment, but with good reason. Prices for other components have gone down, and the Core 2 Duo E8400 is a significant step up from any of Intel's Core 2 Duo E6000 series models for one simple reason: it's based on the new Penryn core. Penryn brings 45nm process technology, architectural enhancements, clock-for-clock speed improvements, and incredible overclocking headroom. We're seeing numerous reports of users overclocking the E8400 from its default speed of 3GHz to the neighborhood of 4GHz with nothing but the stock air cooler. For a machine like the Grand Experiment, the E8400 is a no-brainer.

Keeping in mind the E8400's price, some might say the Core 2 Quad Q6600 would be a more sensible choice, since it packs two extra cores and only costs an extra $30 or so. The long and short of it is that the E8400 has a 600MHz clock speed edge and a clock-for-clock performance advantage over the Q6600, which makes the E8400 considerably faster in all but a handful of tasks optimized to take full advantage of more than two processor cores (and there aren't that many of those). We might reconsider when Intel releases 45nm Core 2 Quads, but right now, we think the E8400 is a better overall choice than the Q6600 for a desktop machine.

A word of caution, though. Availability on the E8400 is currently tight, and the chip seems to go in and out of stock at Newegg and other e-tailers. We suggest hitting our price search engine to find one in stock if Newegg doesn't have any available.

For the Grand Experiment, we've picked the Asus P5N-E SLI once again. Nvidia's nForce 650i SLI chipset is a worthy alternative to Intel's latest offerings, and it has the advantage of supporting both new 45nm Core 2 chips with 1333MHz front-side buses (like the Core 2 Duo E8400) and SLI multi-GPU configurations. SLI functionality is a nice plus should you wish to add an extra GeForce 8800 GT to boost gaming performance, a compelling option at current prices for those who play games on large monitors.

The P5N-E SLI also features four Serial ATA ports with RAID support, one eSATA port, two IDE channels, Gigabit Ethernet, and FireWire. You get fewer Serial ATA ports on this board than on the latest offerings based on Intel chipsets, but the P5N-E SLI makes up for that shortcoming with its 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 E8400 to 4.23GHz.

Last time, we upgraded the Grand Experiment to DDR2-800 RAM. Now we're bumping up the memory amount from 2GB to 4GB with one of Mushkin's 4GB DDR2-800 kits. The increase only adds around $40 to the price of the Grand Experiment, and the extra headroom is definitely valuable for gamers and heavy multitaskers who've made the jump to Windows Vista. Other users will likely enjoy the additional capacity one or two years down the line, so we think this is a good investment.

As we point out each time we recommend 4GB of RAM, you'll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of it. 32-bit OSes do have enough address space for 4GB of memory, but that figure is an upper limit for all memory in a system, including video RAM. In practice, a 32-bit OS will only be able to use 3 to 3.5GB of actual system RAM, and it'll also limit the amount of memory each application can use. That's not quite the end of the world, and there are workarounds like Physical Address Extension in place. However, Microsoft says PAE causes compatibility problems, and it recommends that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. Since Windows Vista x64 is quite mature at this point, we suggest installing that. You'll find more details in our operating system section on the second-to-last page of this guide.

The GeForce 8800 GT is a very straightforward choice for this machine, especially given its recent migration back into Nvidia's intended price range. As we saw in our review, the GT's performance rivals that of the pricier GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB for around $100 less, and its G92 graphics processor has some extra goodies like better high-definition video decoding. Our recommendation is XFX's PVT88PYDE4 GeForce 8800 GT, which is both very affordable and well furnished in terms of extra features and warranty coverage. XFX "factory overclocks" the card to a 640MHz core speed and 950MHz memory speed, and covers it with a "double lifetime" warranty that extends to second-hand cards.

We're selecting Western Digital's Caviar SE16 500GB hard drive over the Seagate alternative for the same reasons as in our Econobox: the WD drive is simply cheaper, quieter, and faster. We don't think Seagate's five-year warranty is enough to tip the odds in favor of Seagate's Barracuda 7100.11 500GB. Again, though, we've featured the Seagate drive in our alternatives for this system.

On the optical front, we're sticking with the Samsung SH-S203B, a decent DVD burner that should be a good match for this system.

Creative's Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer gets our vote as the primary choice here. We used to recommend the X-Fi XtremeMusic for the Grand Experiment, but as we said on the previous page, the XtremeGamer is the XtremeMusic's replacement. The two cards are similar, with the XtremeGamer using a smaller form factor and missing an AD-Link connector for the break-out X-Fi I/O console. The XtremeGamer does have excellent sound quality, though, and it features an HD Audio-compatible front-panel connector. Again, Vista users who want 3D sound acceleration in all their games will want to use Creative's ALchemy software.

Enclosure and power
Our recommended Antec 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. This case even has an eSATA port on its front bezel, should you wish to plug in a speedy external hard drive.

This case may seem a little expensive for a $1,000 system, but it's actually a pretty sweet deal. The bundled power supply is worth around $70 on its own, and you'd be hard pressed to find a stand-alone case with the same noise reduction features and finish as the Sonata III for much less than $60.