Guru3D's guide will only cover the box. Monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers are not included. I do this for brevity's sake, as the monitor alone would require its own guide, especially if I were to cover LCD monitors.
Since this site is called "Guru3D" this guide will target a system intended for gaming primarily while not spending heaps of money. So what sort of criteria do I take into account when deciding what parts to recommend?
Price and Performance: First and foremost, what gives the most bang for your buck, in terms of gaming primarily of course. s
Reliability: Second on the list but just as important. This includes things such as compatibility (ever had RAM that worked on one motherboard but not in another?), trustworthiness of a brand overall (do they have a history of making reliable parts?) in addition to the reliability of the part in question.
Overclockability: Overclocking can help squeeze out that extra performance out of a system and can make a big impact on price versus performance (why should you buy a $1000 CPU if you can overclock a $200 CPU to match it?) so this factor can always swing my decision.
Heat and Power Issues: Heat is the enemy of a computer and it can affect the stability (and reliability) of your machine. Performance per watt has become a buzz word and as power requirements for computers rise I eye this more and more closely.
For those wondering about "Target Resolution," instead of listing a particular price point (since price will vary somewhat with vendor/e-tailer) I have listed here what type of resolutions you can expect to be playing most of today's games (with AA and AF on of course) on such a rig, both standard and widescreen resolutions were taken into consideration.
Phenom II X3 710 AM3 or Intel Core 2 Duo E7400 AMD makes it back to the list thanks to their latest Phenom II processors. Much more competitive clock for clock with the Core 2 Duo's then their predecessors, AMD has made a number of improvements over the Phenom architecture, including a shrink to the 45nm process and significantly more L3 cache. If you want to know more about the changes/improvements the Phenom II brings to the table I suggest you check out our review.
For the Intel platform we stick with the latest Wolfdale core. The Wolfdale core includes a shrink to the 45nm manufacturing process, additional SSE 4.1 instructions and increased cache. The E7400 represents the latest entry level offering for the Wolfdale family, replacing the E7300 I recommended in my previous guide and anyone on a budget will love this processor and its overclocking potential.
Zalman CNPS9500 The stock HSF will provide ample cooling power for your Core 2 Duo or Phenom II, but you want to treat your CPU right don't you??? The Zalman CNPS9500 series offers versions for either AMD or Intel processors, offering high quality air cooling while remaining extremely quiet. And it can do it in style with an LED fan and unique copper finned design.
This is what to look for when buying a motherboard, regardless of chipset or processor it supports:
Good chipset cooling. Chipsets these days continue to run hotter. Better cooling means improved stability, improved longevity and better overclocking potential. Be mindful when using a passively cooled motherboard (even one with the works, including copper heatsinks and heatpipes) to ensure that you can provide the coolers with adequate airflow.
Solid state capacitors. Offers improved longevity and heat resistance as well as avoids the dreaded "leaking" capacitor problem.
Improved voltage regulator. Does the motherboard use a 3 phase voltage regulator or something higher? How do you determine the phase you ask? It is determined by the number of MOSFETs (Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor) used. As a rule the higher the number (and hence the phase) and quality of the MOSFETs, the cleaner (higher quality) the voltage delivered to the CPU, offering improved stability and overclockability of the CPU and improved thermals for the MOSFETs. Many motherboards now feature heatsinks to cool the MOSFETs as well, always nice.
Features. What features do you need? Chipset features vary broadly as do features individual motherboards may offer. Do you need RAID? If so what type? If you chose to use onboard sound then take a close look at the audio chipset and its associated features as they differ widely. If you want a SLI setup you will need a an nForce chipset, but not if you want Crossfire. All things to consider.
Editor's Choice AMD:A motherboard based on the AMD 790X chipset. My personal choice is the Gigabyte GA-MA790X-UD4P. Wide support for various AMD processors (AM3, AM2+ and AM2) Crossfire support, 8+2 phase power design, good chipset cooling and all the features you would expect from a mid-range motherboard. For those of you not interested in Crossfire support you can save some bucks and go for the Gigabyte GA-MA770T-UD3P we reviewed here.
Editor's Choice Intel: A motherboard based on the Intel P45 chipset. My personal choice is the Gigabyte GA-EP45-UD3P. Very clean layout, Crossfire support, good chipset cooling and stacked with more features then you would expect from a mid-range motherboard.
Western Digital Caviar Black WD6401AALS 640 GB Aah where has the time gone? I remember the first 1 GB hard drives. Imagine the hours of HD video a drive of this capacity could store. This drive offers a few improvements over the WD6400AAKS I previously recommended, including twice the cache (32 MB) and a 5 year warranty.
Editor's Note: While I give my recommendation with only a single drive in mind there are many configurations available. Here's a list:
For fastest load times: 2 smaller drives in RAID 0. Drawback: reliability, if one drive fails, the data on both is lost.
For data reliability: 2 large drives in RAID 1. Drawback: capacity halved (all the data on one drive is mirrored on the second).
For heavy downloaders: One small, fast primary drive (like a Western Digital Raptor) for Windows and applications/games and a secondary large capacity drive for downloads/multimedia (such as HD video). This is actually my preferred configuration.
4 GB DDR2 800 MHz RAM If you're building a new gaming computer today, chances are you'll be installing Vista. With prices as low as they are now for RAM, no reason not to go for 4 GB and go 64-bit. Whether you are going with an AMD or Intel processor I recommend sticking with DDR2, especially when on a budget as the performance improvements moving to DDR3 are relatively minor.
Remember that DDR2 latencies are much higher than DDR. So always take advantage of lower latency memory. Lower latency modules will have timings in the range of CAS 4-4-4-12. Keep an eye on the default voltage for the module, the default for DDR2 is 1.8v, if the default is higher (and on 800 MHz DDR2 RAM or higher it likely is) then make sure your motherboard can support it. Don't forget to buy that RAM in matched pairs so you can take advantage of dual channel for a slight boost to performance, most memory makers now sell match pairs for your convenience.
Editor's Choice: Corsair XMS2 or OCZ HPC Reaper series. Excellent brands, excellent sticks of RAM and very good price.
Radeon 4850 or GeForce GTS 250 I thought the AMD 4770 would be replacing the 4850 on this list, but the price of the better performing 4850 has taken quite a nose dive, actually available for less then the 4770 and so it remains on the list as probably once of the best price for performance GPUs available today. A note on the Radeon 4850: the retail heatsink/fan is completely inadequate, fortunately most manufacturers are offering these cards with 3rd party coolers, I HIGHLY suggest you choose one of those and enjoy much lower temps and noise.
For NVIDIA fans, my recommendation remains the same... although NVIDIA has pulled a completely unnecessary name change on the 9800 GTX+ to the GTS 250. Still it offers great performance and a low price.
Vista has left the audio card market wide open by removing direct hardware access, thus taking away Creative's long enjoyed performance advantage thanks to EAX. Into the fray comes Asus with an excellent card for those looking for an alternative. Whatever the choice, you can at last bid farewell to PCI as both these cards are PCI-Express 1x.
Our own audiophile Brann Mitchel: Speaking of fearsome, it took all of 5 seconds of listening to the Xonar D2X to know that it is our new reference sound card. This unseats the Auzentech X-Fi Prelude at the high end (not that we really keep track of these things) as our favorite all-around card to game, listen to music, and watch movies with.
Samsung Lightscribe DVD Burner SH-223Q There really is no excuse to not have DVD±R/RW drives, they are very cheap and reliable these days. This drive is capable of burning 22x DVD+R and DVD-R, 16x DL as well as 12x DVD-RAM and boasts a SATA interface. It is also a LightScribe capable drive.
This will allow you to burn a label (or image or whatever you want) onto your disks, no more barely legible permanent marker labeling!
Okay Im going leave this one open to your decision. Cases are a love-hate thing, what one person likes another will not. So go find a case you think suites you.
I have a few suggestions when looking for a case. Aluminum is a definite plus; it will make your computer significantly lighter. 120mm fans are the way to go as well, ensuring good airflow in your case while maintaining a minimum of noise. A removable motherboard tray is particularly useful in cramped cases.
550 Watt or Higher The power demands of the PC continue to escalate, thanks in large part to GPU's and the move to quad core CPU's. Be sure to go out and get the biggest and best power supply you can, do not skimp on the power supply! This is an often overlooked part and yet it's the source of so many computer woes. Be sure to check the amps on the 12V rail(s), you want a power supply that can handle a lot, multiple 12V rails is an additional plus (although not required, PC Power and Cooling is well known for their excellent single 12V rail power supplies).
For a frame of reference: NVIDIA recommends 550 Watts with 40A on the 12V rail for the GeForce GTX 280. Just remember: don't try and buy a cheap generic brand to save some cash, just because it says 1000 Watts (or whatever the number is) doesn't mean it can actually handle that (sadly). Quality counts big, be sure to get a quality power supply or you can face any number of problems.
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