PC Buyer's Guide Summer Edition 2005 -
PC Buyers Guide Medium End
Target Resolution: 1280x1024 with 2/4x AA and 8/16x AF; 1600x1200 with 0x AA and 8x AF
I have diverged from previous guides as this guide will only cover the box. Monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers are not included. I do this for brevity sake, as the monitor alone would require it's own guide, especially if covering LCD monitors. Since this site is called "Guru3D" this guide will target a system intended for gaming primarily. I have also taken into account power and heat issues (*cough* Pentium 4 *cough*), overclockability to some extent, as well as price. For those wondering about "Target Resolution," instead of listing a particular pricepoint (since price will vary somewhat with vender) I have listed here what type of resolutions you can expect to be playing most of today's games on such a rig. AA stands for antialiasing and AF stands for Anisotropic Filtering, if you don't know what those are... well are you sure you want to be building your own computer? ;)
Processor AMD Athlon 64 "Venice" 3500+ or Pentium M 750
The Athlon 64 continues to shine when it comes to games, where it can easily outpace the current Pentium 4 competitors. The AMD64 also offers Cool'N'Quiet technology, a nice feature that allows the processor to lower its clock speed and core voltage (not unlike what most laptop processors do) when the CPU is not being fully utilized, a nice power (and thermal) saving feature that will also prolong the life of the processor and cut down on that power bill a little. Another valuable benefit is the AMD64's ability to prevent buffer overruns (enabled in WinXP SP2), an added security feature that will eliminate one common exploit used by hackers and malicious software. The latest "Venice" Revision E core has brought a few new tricks to the table, such as an improved memory controller, SSE3 and unofficial support for up to DDR500 (support for this is motherboard dependent).
For you Intel fans I have an unusual recommendation for you: the Pentium M. While the Pentium 4 has continued to be plagued with heat and power consumption issues, the Pentium M has broken free of the laptop and begun to make a showing in the desktop market. This is an excellent chip, offering staggering low power consumption and gaming performance that can surpass the Pentium 4. They have also proved to be easily overclockable chips and once overclocked can stand up next to even the mighty AMD64 FX series in games.
Now some of you may ask: what about the dual core processors? While they may be great for those of you with heavy multitasking needs, as far a gaming goes right now there is little benefits as few games take advantage dual cores. In fact due to the the lowered clockspeeds of the dual core CPU's, most games will show a performance drop. Also the dual core processors are more expensive than their single core counterparts. If you do insist on a dual core processor, I would highly recommend the AMD64 X2 series, as they easily outclass the Pentium 4 dual cores (albeit at a higher pricepoint). But I am trying to make sure I don't completely bankrupt you people with these guides, high end PC parts quickly begin to show off the law of diminishing returns, I'm trying to give you the most bang for your buck!
Heatsink and Fan Included
Thanks to the integrated heat spreader and lower core voltage of the new Athlon 64, these CPUs do not need quite as elaborate a heatsink that the Athlon XP needed to stay cool. The stock heatsink and fan easily handles the cooling of the Athlon 64. If you want a little extra cooling then there are several fine solid copper heatsinks on the market, I would recommend the Thermaltake Venus 7+. For the Pentium M I recommended you would be hard pressed to find a seperate cooler, but given the ridiculously low power usage and thermals, you don't need to go looking. Also don't forget to get some quality thermal paste, it can make a significant difference in your CPU temperature, Artic Silver 5 is highly recommended.
Overclockers: No retail heatsink will suffice for you now will it!? For you I suggest snagging one of the high-end coolers from Thermalright or Swiftech.
Motherboard nForce4 SLI
The nForce4 chipset has proven itself a worthy successor to the nForce3 chipset. The most noticeable feature is SLI, which as you all must know by now allows for you to run two video cards together for significantly improved gaming performance. Some other highlights of the chipset include SATA-II support, which among other things allows for transfer speeds of 300 MB/s compared to SATAs 150 (although the term SATA-II is being used quite loosely by some hard drive manufacturers, so beware). Lets not forget NVIDIA's implementation of their Gigabit LAN as well as the offering of an onboard hardware firewall. NVIDIA has implemented the Gigabit LAN on the nForce4 chip itself (yes it is a one-chip, not two chip, solution), thereby completely freeing itself from the bottleneck caused by the PCI bus. The result is the best performing onboard LAN while offering the lowest possible CPU utilization. On top of this, the easily configurable hardware firewall (via web interface) will make you feel safe from hackers, worms and other online woes that come with an always-on broadband connection. This is an improved version of the firewall that was included with the nForce3 250 Gb chipset, now dubbed ActiveArmor©. And since it's hardware, it eliminates many of the software conflicts, lowers CPU utilization and offers more throughput when compared to a software firewall. Also, unlike a software firewall, your computer is protected from the very moment you power it on, whereas a software firewall must wait for the OS to at least partially load, leaving your computer vulnerable for a short period. Very nice indeed.
Alright now I know ATI fans want to know... what about Crossfire? Well you are welcome to wait but we still don't know when these boards will become available. Also while the benchmarks for graphics performance seem on par with SLI (which is encouraging), I am more worried with the chipset as a whole. ATI has had some very disappointing chipsets in the past, while the nForce chipset is extremely popular, very mature and feature rich. The real question, I believe, is not whether ATI Crossfire can match NVIDIA's SLI in gaming performance (which I believe it can). Dual video cards is something 95% of you won't be using anyway... Instead it will be a question of whether the chipset can match the nForce4 in terms of features, price, stability and performance.
Editor's Choice AMD: Asus A8N-SLI Premium. This is the successor to my previous recommendation, the Deluxe model. It has some noticeable improvements as well. No longer do you have a SLI connector on the motherboard that you have to set according to whether you wish to run SLI or single video card, this is now controlled from the BIOS. Also the biggest complaint of the deluxe board, a noisy (and sometimes defective) active cooling solution, has been replaced with a passive cooling, heat piped solution, perfect for all of you who want that computer running as quiet as possible.
Editor's Choice Intel: AOpen i915GMm-HFS. Uses the Intel 915GM chipset. 1 PCI-Express 16x slot, 1 PCI 1x Express slot and 2 PCI slots, a good mix for present day and future card connectivity. Supports either the 400 or 533 Mhz FSB Pentium M. Supports both DDR and DDR2 memory so you can save some cash and go with the DDR or feed that Pentium M some extra memory bandwidth that it seems to like. Also features Intel's Azalia onboard sound, an excellent onboard 7.1 sound solution for those of you who would like to save some cash by not investing in a sound card (or who are waiting for the future Creative X-Fi based soundcards).
Hard Drive 300 GB Maxtor MaxLine III SATA
300 GB! Gotta love that, all the room you need for anything you can think of! Music, movies, videos... just think of the HTPC possibilities as well. This drive is fast too, thanks to an unprecedented 16 MB cache, SATA interface and support for Native Command Queuing (a disk seek optimization technique), which should further improve hard drive performance on motherboards that support NCQ. The MaxLine III hard drives also come with an excellent 5 year warranty.
Memory 1 GB PC3200 DDR/DDR2 RAM
Games have become more and more greedy for memory. For a true gaming machine you will want 1 GB of RAM.
For DDR users: Make sure you get at least PC3200 RAM so you aren't starving your processor of memory bandwidth. If you plan to overclock consider purchasing the faster PC3500, PC3700, or PC4000 modules. Just be sure to make sure the RAM uses the faster memory timings (example: Cas 2-3-3-6 T1) and check the default voltage, if it is above the default 2.5v, make sure your motherboard will support it. Also don't forget to buy that RAM in matched pairs so you can take advantage of dual channel for a slight boost to performance.
For DDR2 users: Make sure you get at lease PC2 4200 RAM so you aren't starving your procesor of memory bandwidth. Remember that DDR2 latencies are much higher than DDR. For you faster memory timings will be CAS 3-3-3-8 and the default voltage would be 1.8v. If you plan to overclock consider purchasing faster PC2 5400 modules. Again don't forget to buy that RAM in matched pairs so you can take advantage of dual channel for a slight boost to performance.
Editor's Choice DDR: OCZ Enhanced Latency PC3200 Platinum Edition. Supports fantastic memory timings (CAS 2-3-2-5 T1), comes with stylish heatspreaders, excellent price.
Editor's Choice DDR2: OCZ Gold Series PC2 4200. Stylish heatspreaders and supports the faster memory timings (CAS 3-3-3-8), again excellent price.
Video Card GeForce 6800 GT or X800 XL PCI-Express
Both of these cards offer incredible performance. Both have are very desirable single slot solution. The X800 XL and the GeForce 6800 GT are fairly evenly matched, both bringing 16 pixel pipelines and similar performance. The 6800 GT really holds a slight lead thanks to it's support of SM 3.0 and most importantly SLI support. Both cards have dropped quite a bit in price and can now be had for under $300 USD. The XL will however, find itself outclassed when the 7800 GT hits the scene, let's hope ATI has an answer ready...
Sound Card Creative Labs Audigy 2 ZS
Still nothing not much has changed since the last time I did a PC Buyer's Guide, bitterly disappointing considering how rapidly everything else seems to be moving on. Fortunately Creative does have a new card in the works, with the X-Fi processor, so not all hope is lost. For now, the choice for the discerning audiophile remains the same. And that is the Audigy 2. This most recent version features support for the new EAX 4.0 Advanced HD and Dolby Digital 7.1 sound.
If you want a non-Creative Labs alternative, consider the M-Audio Revolution 7.1 or AudioTrak Prodigy 7.1. Both use the VIA Envy24HT audio processor, offering Dolby Digital 7.1 sound, 24-bit/192kHz audio playback and 24-bit/96kHz recording; the same capabilities as the Audigy 2 ZS.
DVD-RW Drive NEC ND3540A 16x DVD±R/RW
Prices on DVD±R/RW drives are now below $50 USD, how could I not recommend getting a DVD burner!? I chose this particular burner because in addition to supporting 16x DVD burning speeds, it also offers excellent 48x CD-R burning and also supports 4x Dual Layer DVD burning. Throw into this the low price (~$40 USD) and fact that NEC drives are a popular target of firmware modding and you have a winner. Throw in a spare DVD drive if you need to copy from one CD/DVD to another a lot and youre set.
Network Onboard Gigabit
No need to buy a separate network card, the motherboard I recommended comes with the fastest LAN already available onboard. For those of you wondering where the modem is, let me say this: gamers dont use modems! Get broadband.
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.
Editor's Choice: A number of good cases come to mind. Antec Performance 1 P160. A truly breathtaking aluminum case. Comes with or without a side window, 2 120mm case fans for maximum airflow at a minimum of noise, rubber grommets to reduce hard drive vibrations (and noise), washable air filter, LED temperature display and much more... For those of you who love a Mac's sleek looks than you may want to buy the Lian-Li PC-V1000, again comes with 2 120mm fans and is all aluminum. Finally there is the Thermaltake "Shark," again featuring aluminum construction, a stylish look and 2 120mm fans.
Power Supply - OCZ Powerstream 520 Watt
New video cards and new processors are starting to pull A LOT of power. And the situation will not improve (SLI didn't help now did it?). Time to go out and get the biggest and best power supply you can, do not skimp on the power supply! This is such an overlooked part and yet it is the source of so many computer woes. Check the amps on the 12V rail, you want a power supply that can handle a lot (for frame of reference: NVIDIA recommends 350 Watt with 22A on the 12V rail for a single 7800 GTX). Another plus to look for is a power supply with dual fans to help with cooling. Just remember: don't try and buy a cheap generic brand to save some cash, just because it says 480 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 will face any number of problems. OCZ really entered the power supply market with a bang, these are some top-notch power supplies. You can even manually adjust the voltage on each of the rails to ensure the voltages are exactlywhat they should be.
On the next page, the actual high end system :)
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