review the best hardware of 2004
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The best hardware of 2004

2004 HAS DRAWN to a close, leaving a year’s worth of memorable hardware in its wake. It was a good year for enthusiasts, and we’ve singled out a handful of products for our Best of 2004 awards. To be eligible for Best of 2004 distinction, a product had to be widely available for a reasonable portion of the year. Paper launches and limited or late-year releases didn’t qualify, although you might see some of those products pop up in next year’s awards.

Of course, our seal of approval doesn’t guarantee perfection. A product didn’t have to be flawless to be one of the Best of 2004, it just had to be better than the competition. We’re picky here at TR, so while we’re gushing over our favorites, expect to see a few flaws highlighted.

Read on as we hand out awards for processors, chipsets, graphics cards, motherboards, sound cards, and more.

Manufacturer AMD
Model Athlon 64 3500+
Price (street)

Processor
AMD Athlon 64 3500+
AMD’s Athlon 64 processor was undoubtedly the best CPU for enthusiasts in 2004. With a speedy on-die memory controller, future-proof 64-bit capabilities, and Cool’n’Quiet technology, there was a lot to love about the Athlon 64. Intel’s newest Prescott Pentium 4 processors still had a few things going for them, including the creamy smoothness of Hyper-Threading and excellent video encoding performance, but those virtues weren’t enough to overcome the chips’ incredibly poor gaming performance, toasty temperatures, and gluttonous power consumption.

Of the Athlon 64 family, the 3500+ gets the nod because it was the first affordable chip to be released for AMD’s new 939-pin socket. Socket 939 is the future of the Athlon 64, so the 3500+ was a wise choice for those looking to keep their CPU upgrade options open down the road. Since its initial release, AMD has even added a second 3500+ to its stable, the new 90nm Winchester Athlon 64, which sports lower power consumption and a slightly faster L2 cache.


The AMD Athlon 64 3500+
Manufacturer NVIDIA
Model GeForce 6800 GT
Price (street)

High-end graphics processor
NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GT
After enduring a rough patch with the lackluster GeForce FX series, NVIDIA came roaring back in 2004 with the introduction of the GeForce 6 series of graphics processors. The graphics race looked like a dead heat when the first GeForce 6 series GPU, the NV40, arrived this past spring alongside ATI’s new chips. The picture changed, though, as NVIDIA’s plans for the GeForce 6 series unfolded and ATI’s Radeon X800 series became mired in a seemingly intractable set of availability problems.

Nowhere was NVIDIA’s practical lead in graphics more evident than at the $399 price point, where the 16-pipe GeForce 6800 GT did battle against the 12-pipe Radeon X800 Pro. When Doom 3 arrived, the 6800 GT put the smack down on the X800 Pro and even showed up the more expensive Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition. The 6800 GT was clearly the best buy among the $399 cards. What’s more, the pricier GeForce 6800 Ultra and Radeon X800 XT PE cards were hard to find and didn’t offer much more in the way of performance than the 6800 GT.


The GeForce 6800 GT

The 6800 GT looked like an even better proposition as time went along, highlighting the fact that the NV40 GPU packs newer technology than the Radeon X800. A new patch for Far Cry demonstrated the performance benefits of Shader Model 3.0, and another showed off the cards’ 16-bit floating-point filtering and blending for use with high-dynamic-range lighting. Then came word that Shader Model 3.0 may continue as the graphics standard for several years, raising the possibility of unusual longevity for the 6800 GT. Finally, NVIDIA unleashed its SLI technology, giving the PCI Express version of the GeForce 6800 GT the ability to run in dual-card configurations with up to twice the performance. The only real chink in the 6800 GT’s armor was the fact that the video processor didn’t offer the promised WMV 9 decode acceleration in early revisions of the NV40—a flaw remedied in later production runs.

As the year closed, ATI gave us a sneak peek of its ultimate answer to the 6800 GT, the 16-pipe, $299 Radeon X800 XL. If those new ATI cards arrive in volume, the GT may finally meet its match, but 2004 undoubtedly belonged to the GeForce 6800 GT.

 

Mid-range graphics processor

Manufacturer NVIDIA
Model GeForce 6600 GT
Price (street)

NVIDIA GeForce 6600 GT
We knew when the 16-pipe high-end cards arrived that a revolution in the mid range was only a matter of time. That revolution came in force with the arrival of the GeForce 6600 GT. These cards, priced at around $199, brought performance on par with the previous generation’s high-end cards. In fact, the 6600 GT offered performance to rival NVIDIA’s own $299 GeForce 6800.


The GeForce 6600 GT

The 6600 GT also packed the formidable technology portfolio of the GeForce 6 series, including Shader Model 3.0, a fully functional version of NVIDIA’s programmable video processor, and a unique fragment crossbar situated between the pixel shader and raster output portions of the pixel pipeline. Despite saving silicon by having only four raster output units, the 6600 GT achieved performance better than nearly any eight-pipe competitor.

The GeForce 6600 GT was good enough to force ATI into introducing a product, the Radeon X700 XT, apparently for the sole reason of countering. The X700 XT couldn’t keep up with the GeForce 6600 GT in terms of overall performance, though, and ATI canceled it before it ever came to market. That left the 6600 GT competing against the decidedly overmatched Radeon X700 Pro.

When NVIDIA introduced an AGP version with similar performance at a similar price, the 6600 GT cemented its position as the mid-range card of choice for just about anyone. For LCD freaks, the deal got even sweeter when XFX let fly with a dual-DVI version of the 6600GT. Add in the prospect of eventually running two of these cards in an SLI rig—through an upgrade-by-installment plan—and you have the ultimate mid-range graphics card for 2004.

Low-end graphics processor

Manufacturer ATI
Model Radeon 9550
Price (street)

ATI Radeon 9550
Last year’s best low-end graphics card was a stunning example of the benefits of trickle down. Based on the same RV350 graphics core that made the Radeon 9600 series such a hot mid-range commodity in 2003, the Radeon 9550 brought full-precision, DirectX 9-class graphics to video cards costing as little as $60. The Radeon 9550’s only real competition was NVIDIA’s partial precision-plagued GeForce FX 5200 series, which the 9550 largely outclassed. S3 also made a play for the low-end with the DeltaChrome S4, but the S4 was a rare bird in the wild and couldn’t touch the 9550’s performance, anyway.

Apart from its direct competition in the add-in graphics card market, it’s important to highlight how much of a step above integrated graphics the Radeon 9550 represents. Intel may boast that its GMA900 IGP has DirectX 9-class shaders, but supporting DX9 shaders and delivering playable in-game frame rates are two very different things. Titles like Doom 3 and Far Cry are barely playable and often artifact-prone on the GMA900 and other integrated graphics chipsets, but the Radeon 9550 can handle them all, albeit at low resolutions.


ATI’s Radeon 9550

 

Sound card

Manufacturer Creative
Model Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
Price (street)

Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
Although it’s trendy for enthusiasts to bash Creative, and we’ve certainly led the charge in that regard, the Sound Blaster Audigy2 ZS really was the best all-around sound card of 2004. Cards based on VIA’s Envy24 sound chip were the only real competition for the Audigy 2. Despite strong Envy-based offerings from M-Audio, Philips, and others, it’s hard to get around the Envy24’s lack of hardware acceleration for 3D positional audio. The Audigy 2 ZS’s hardware acceleration yields tangible performance benefits, and for gamers looking for smooth frame rates, that’s hard to ignore.

Of course there’s more to a sound card than just gaming performance. Audio quality is also important, and the Audigy 2 ZS delivers there, too. With support for 24-bit/192kHz audio from its inputs through 7.1 output channels, the Audigy 2 ZS offers precision to rival the Envy24. The Audigy2 ZS does have a slight vocal bias, but the card’s music playback quality is right up there with cards like M-Audio’s Revolution 7.1. We still prefer Envy24-based solutions for non-gaming applications, but the Audigy2 ZS’s blend of playback quality and hardware acceleration made it the best all-around sound card in 2004. Heck, even driver bloat isn’t an issue anymore.


The Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS
Manufacturer Western Digital
Model Raptor WD740GD
Price (street)

Hard drive
Western Digital Raptor WD740GD
Although NCQ-capable hard drives started to pick up steam towards the end of 2004, the year belonged to the second coming of Western Digital’s Raptor Serial ATA hard drive, the WD740GD. The Raptor redux doubled capacity to 74GB, improved seek performance, offered surprisingly low noise levels, and maintained the 10K-RPM spindle speed and five-year warranty that made the original such a hot commodity. The WD740GD also brought Tagged Command Queuing (TCQ) to the table, although TCQ went largely unsupported in 2004—not that the drive needed it. The WD740GD easily laid waste to its Serial ATA-based competition even without Tagged Command Queuing.

The Raptor WD740GD is an excellent example of enterprise-class hardware that works really well in an enthusiast system. With a Serial ATA interface that plugs right into most modern motherboards, the Raptor has a distinct advantage over 10K-RPM SCSI drives that require an additional controller card. In the end, the Raptor’s only real detriment is its relatively limited 74GB capacity, but that’s still plenty of space for a speedy system drive.


Western Digital’s Raptor WD740GD
 

Core logic chipset

Manufacturer NVIDIA
Model nForce3 250Gb/Ultra
Price (street)

NVIDIA nForce3 250Gb/Ultra
Believe it or not, picking our favorite chipset of 2004 was pretty tough. On one hand, Intel’s 900-series chipsets ushered in the PCI Express era and brought us High Definition Audio, Serial ATA with Native Command Queuing, and the ever-so-appealing Matrix RAID. However, the 900 series required the use of a Pentium 4—not the most attractive processor option. On the AMD side of the fence, VIA’s K8T800 Pro was a pretty compelling option throughout the year, in part because so many motherboard manufacturers produced quality boards based on the chipset. Despite its popularity, though, the K8T800 Pro’s features and accompanying software were one step below NVIDIA’s nForce3 250Gb, also known as the nForce3 Ultra when used on Socket 939 motherboards.

Although NVIDIA’s second-generation nForce3 chipset failed to resurrect SoundStorm, the chipset’s full-speed HyperTransport link, working AGP/PCI lock, integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller, and robust RAID support topped the rest of the Athlon 64 chipset field for the majority of 2004. The nForce3 250Gb/Ultra RAID controller’s support for arrays spanning ATA and SATA drives was particularly notable, especially since VIA’s VT8237 south bridge only supports Serial ATA RAID. NVIDIA also bundled the nForce3 250Gb/Ultra with excellent drivers and software, including an extremely configurable firewall and handy system tweaking utility.

Based on its merits as a chipset, we had high hopes for nForce3 250Gb/Ultra-based platforms. However, motherboards and small form factor systems based on the chipset were slow to market, and when they finally arrived, implementations often failed to exploit the chipset’s full capabilities, most notably the integrated GigE controller. Still, nForce3 250Gb/Ultra’s flexible RAID options, slick software suite, and best-in-class networking were good enough to earn it our Best of 2004 award for core logic chipsets.


The nForce3 250Gb chip, er, set
Manufacturer Abit
Model AV8
Price (street)

Motherboard
Abit AV8
The nForce3 250Gb/Ultra may be our favorite chipset of 2004, but our favorite motherboard is actually Abit’s K8T800 Pro-based AV8. The board’s chipset isn’t the most feature-rich on the block, but the AV8 has what matters, namely excellent application performance, Serial ATA RAID support, and a working AGP/PCI lock for overclocking. What makes the AV8 really special is all the little things that Abit did with the board, though.

uGuru is probably the AV8’s biggest merit. Abit has always been known for its excellent motherboard BIOSes, and uGuru is a natural extension of that. Not only does uGuru offer an unprecedented level of overclocking, tweaking, monitoring, and fan speed control options in the BIOS, it also brings many of those capabilities to Windows. For an enthusiast, it’s hard to go wrong with a motherboard that boasts adjustable temperature-controlled fan speeds for all on-board headers; hardware monitoring that’s extensive enough to cover fan speeds, temperatures, and voltages; and a working AGP/PCI lock that opens the door to all sorts of overclocking potential.

In addition to uGuru, the AV8 also packs digital audio input and output ports, high-end Rubycon capacitors throughout, and a budget sub-$110 street price. That’s the complete package for an enthusiast’s motherboard.


Everything you need and nothing you don’t for about $100
 

Power supply

Manufacturer OCZ Technology
Model PowerStream
Price (street)

OCZ PowerStream
OCZ’s PowerStream 520W power supply shared top honors in our recent PSU comparison. In addition to being great performers, the PowerStreams are loaded with connectors, including 24- and 8-pin connectors for LGA775 and workstation motherboards. The PSUs also offer specially shielded cables for video cards and hard drives, and all other power leads are carefully sheathed and wound to combat tangling. Throw in a slick mirrored finish and an industry-leading five-year warranty, and the PowerStream looks pretty appealing.

As if the PowerStream weren’t swanky enough already, the PSU’s adjustable voltage rails seal the deal. The ability to fine-tune the PowerStream’s 3.3V, 5V, and 12V rails is great for tweakers and overclockers alike. There’s still room for improvement, though. Modular designs from Antec and Ultra—and OCZ’s new ModStream—do a fine job of eliminating excess cable clutter, albeit without adjustable voltage rails. Ideally, we’ll see a PSU combine adjustable rails with a modular design in 2005.


It’s all about the adjustable rails
Manufacturer Shuttle
Model XPC SN95G5
Price (street)

Small form factor system
Shuttle XPC SN95G5
We saw some daring and interesting small form factor designs emerge in 2004, but the best enthusiast-oriented cube of the year was Shuttle’s XPC SN95G5. With a 939-pin Athlon 64 socket ensuring a healthy CPU upgrade path and nForce3 Ultra chipset delivering competitive performance, the SN95G5 continues Shuttle’s aggressive adoption of the latest processor platforms and core logic chipsets. The SN95G5 is also a testament to the versatility of Shuttle’s venerable G5 chassis, which comes with a quieter ICE cooler and stealthy drive bay doors on the SN95G5.

Did we mention that the SN95G5 flat out looks good? Aesthetics are a matter of personal opinion, but in our view, the SN95G5’s sleek black exterior and clean lines make one of the visually-appealing cubes of the year. It almost looks stately.

The SN95G5 may be the best small form factor system of 2004, but this cube isn’t without its flaws. For starters, Shuttle bypassed the nForce3 Ultra’s integrated Gigabit Ethernet controller in favor of a slower PCI-based GigE controller that couldn’t take advantage of NVIDIA’s Personal Firewall software. The SN95G5 also failed to incorporate of some of the new features Shuttle built into its new P-Series chassis, which has thus far only been available with the LGA775-based XPC SB81P. Still, the SN95G5 was the best all-around cube in 2004.


Classy, innit?
 

Audacious innovation

Manufacturer Zalman
Model Reserator
Price (street)

Zalman Reserator
The silent computing craze was big in 2004, but no silent cooler was bigger than Zalman’s monstrous Reserator. While perhaps not the coolest or quietest cooler of 2004, the Reserator deserves recognition for its sheer audacity. As a concept, passive water cooling isn’t all that wild. However, the Reserator’s phallic 24″ cooling tower almost defies practicality. It takes balls to unleash something like the Reserator on the PC market, but the monolithic tower works as advertised, keeping even fully loaded processors cool without making a sound.

This audacious innovation award is as much about appreciating a wild, well-designed product that actually works as it is about recognizing a company’s willingness to market something that almost defies reason. We can only hope that Zalman’s boldness paves the way for more daring innovations. Given this cooler’s “Reserator 1” moniker, the big blue tower may be just the beginning.


Twenty-four inches of Zalman’s audacious Reserator
Manufacturer Intel
Model 915/925X
Price (street)

If only…
Intel 915/925X chipsets
If only Intel’s 915 and 925X chipsets weren’t tied to the company’s Prescott Pentium 4 processor. If they weren’t, or if Prescott were a more competitive CPU, the 900-series chipsets could have been the best chipset of 2004. After all, these chipsets ushered in the PCI Express era long before the Athlon 64 world hopped on the PCI-E train. Heck, the Athlon 64 world is still chasing PCI Express. The 900-series chipsets also replaced the aging AC’97 spec with Intel’s new High Definition Audio specification, and let’s not forget four ports of Serial ATA with AHCI and NCQ support and incredibly tantalizing Matrix RAID.

As chipsets, the Intel 915 and 925X are phenomenal platforms brimming with forward-looking features and compatibility. If only all that potential could have made up for Prescott’s daunting shortcomings.

 

The middle finger award

Manufacturers ATI and NVIDIA
Models Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition
Radeon X700 XT
Radeon X850 series
GeForce 6800 Ultra OC
Price (street) Inflated

ATI and NVIDIA’s high-end vapors
It’s only fitting that we end this Best of 2004 love-fest by singling out for distinction one of the year’s worst developments: the scant availability of certain graphics cards, products that exist almost exclusively in the hands of reviewers like us. It’s tough to say who started it, but both companies are guilty. Some of the problem was a simple issue of demand for these hot new cards outstripping supply, but as the year dragged on, it became clear that wasn’t the whole story.

NVIDIA dropped an overclocked version of the GeForce 6800 Ultra on us to spoil the launch of the Radeon X800 series, but to our knowledge, no card manufacturer has yet introduced a version of the GeForce 6800 Ultra running at the 450MHz core clock speed that card did. There are now some 425MHz cards out there in the wild, but even those were hard to find for much of the year.

Of course, NVIDIA was trying preemptively to counter ATI’s own overclocked wonder, the Radeon X800 XT Platinum Edition—or Phantom Edition, as it came to be known, as months passed and preorders from ATI’s own website were never filled.

ATI liked this strategy so much that they repeated it not once, but twice, and perhaps three times. The Radeon X700 XT debuted to much fanfare amid assurances that they Really Meant It This Time, only to die a quiet, if merciful, death near the end of the year before the product shipped in any kind of volume. Then came the Radeon X850 XT series, including a new Platinum Edition. These cards were designed expressly to make manufacturing easier and to get supplies rolling, and ATI pledged that the product would be available to the world via online retailers at the time of its December 1 launch date. It’s 2005, and we’re still waiting. Will the snazzy new Radeon X800 XL suffer a similar fate?

Only time will tell, but in the meantime, we’d like to extend a meaty middle digit toward this, our least favorite trend of 2004: the rise of graphics reviewerware, the almost-fake product intended to capture the performance flag though it may never be widely available to the public. In this year of soaring highs and solid progress on so many fronts, this is one development we could have done without.