PC Buyer's Guide December 2004 -
PC Buyers Guide Low End
Target Resolution: 1024x768 with 2/4x AA and 4/8x AF, 1280x1024 with 0/2x AA and 4/8x AF
This is a guide to putting together a complete computer, which means speakers, keyboard, mouse and monitor are included. For this guide I have tried to put together the computer that will give you the most reliable PC and the best overall gaming experience, AS IS. That means I am assuming that you will not be overclocking the system (since most people do not!). So please, no flames concerning this [insert name of computer part here] is a better overclocker than [insert name of computer part I recommended]! 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. AA stands for antialiasing and AF stands for Anistrophic 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 3000+ (Socket 939) Retail
The latest and greatest incarnation of the Athlon 64, the Socket 939 processors finally have some low-cost offerings. The Athlon 64 really shines when it comes to games, where it can easily outpace the current Pentium 4 competitors. Also theres something to be said to future proofing your PC. It's nice to know that instead of making a CPU upgrade in a year you can make a software upgrade instead. Rest assured that as software developers begin to develop 64-bit software or modify their existing software to take advantage of the Athlon 64s capabilities that you will see a nice boost to your PCs performance. 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. 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. When buying, be sure youre getting one of the new .09 Winchester cores, as these are better overclockers and seem to use less power as well.
For you Intel fans (who have taken quite a bit of heat from the Prescotts, pun intended) out there you may be wondering what to do, with AMD64 users lording over you a number of additional features, like 64-bit capability and SLI. Well fear not, for your salvation cometh, although you may have to wait a few months. We know NVIDIA is producing an nForce5 chipset for Intel, already reviews are available for SLI capable P4 motherboards and we all know Intel is readying their P4 with EM64T 64 bit capability. Its only a matter of time.
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+. It is the same story if you choose the Pentium 4 processor, the stock heatsink/fan included in the retail CPU bundle will easily suffice. 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.
Motherboard nForce4 SLI
Retail boards based on this chipset should be available any day now. NVIDIA has certainly given the features that will assure that motherboards based on this chipset will be the gamers choice. Most important is the SLI capability, allowing you to use two PCI-Express video cards as one. Also add to that SATA-II support, which will allow 300 MB/s compared to SATAs 150. Lets not forget NVIDIA's implementation of their Gigabit LAN as well as the offering of an onboard firewall. They have 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.
Editor's Choice: Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe. One of the first retail boards to appear, Asus did not disappoint. Featuring 2 8x PCI-Express slots (for SLI) and 2 1x PCI-Express slots should ensure future card connectivity. Nice to see an active cooling solution on the nForce4 MCP as well.
Hard Drive 120 GB Seagate 7200.7 SATA-II w/ NCQ
This hard drives 8 MB cache and support of Native Command Queuing (NCQ, a disk seek optimization technique) offers boosted hard drive performance, always a plus. 120 GB is more than enough space for all your games and music. This drive also carries up to a five year warranty, nice considering in recent months most hard drive manufacturers have shortened their warranties to only one year.
Memory 512 MB PC3200 DDR RAM
RAM prices have been steadily on the rise in the past few months, but that doesn't mean you should skimp. A computer today needs at least 512 MB of RAM. 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 (Cas 2-3-3-6 T1) and doesn't require higher default voltages (some high-speed DDR modules have required default voltages of up to 2.9v, well above the normal 2.5, which cannot be supported by some motherboards). 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.
Editor's Choice: OCZ Enhanced Latency PC3200 Platinum Edition. Supports fantastic memory timings (CAS 2-3-2-5 T1), comes with stylish heatspreaders, excellent price.
Video Card GeForce 6600 GT PCI-Express
This was not a hard decision to make. Given its stellar performance (even better than the previously recommended Radeon 9800 Pro), support for SM 3.0, the zero availability of its competitor (the X700 XT) and probably the the deciding feature: SLI capability. This will make upgrading so much easier (and cheaper!) down the road, instead of shelling out $400 USD for a new top of the line PC, you can instead simply purchase a 2nd 6600 GT (whos price has already fallen to around the $180 USD mark) and put them in SLI mode. Much bigger bang for your buck.
Sound Card Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! 7.1
While not particularly high-end sound, the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound offered by most motherboards today allow acceptable sound for a low-end gaming machine. But youre a gamer so I think you would expect more! For those of you who dont wish to use onboard sound and are looking for a seperate card, the Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live! 7.1 comes in at a price tag of only $30 USD, an excellent low cost Dolby Digital 7.1 solution. And it comes with much of the features of its bigger brother the Audigy series, including EAX 3.0 and 24-bit Advanced HD© capabilities.
DVD-RW Drive NEC ND3500A 16x DVD±R/RW
With prices dropping well below $100 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 in a spare DVD drive if you need to copy from one CD to another a lot and youre set.
Network Onboard Gigabit NIC
These days you'll find most motherboard come packing onboard Gigabit LAN, great for home networks and more bandwidth then you'll ever need for a broadband connection. 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: Antec Super LANBOY. Aluminum, meaning it is quite light (so you can easily carry it to a LAN party, hence the name) and front and rear 120mm case fans, which means good airflow at a minimum of noise. Also includes a carrying strap so you can tote that computer to the nearest LAN party.
Power Supply - Antec True480 480 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, accept nothing under 480 Watts! 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 woes. When it comes to power supplies, Antec makes some of the highest quality power supplies you can buy.
Monitor 17 CRT
While an LCD monitor may be nice and definitely save on desktop space, its way too pricey for a budget gaming machine like this. For a CRT you should be looking for a flat screen, a low dot pitch (0.20 is considered quite good) and support for higher resolutions and refresh rates.
Editor's Choice: Samsung SyncMaster 793DF-T/T. This is an improvement on my previously recommended 793DF-T/T. A sleek black and silver monitor featuring an extremely good .20 dot pitch, a flat screen and supports resolutions up to 1280x1024 @ 65 Hz. All this makes this low-cost monitor an excellent choice for a budget gaming PC like this.
Speakers Logitech X-530 5.1
Regardless of what choice you made for your sound card, you will want a good set of speakers. The quality of sound can really add to the gaming experience so dont sell yourself short on the speakers. You want to hear when someone is sneaking up from behind you in multiplayer, enjoy the theater experience watching DVDs and enjoy the best quality sound when listening to your CDs and MP3s. These speakers are the stylish replacement for the Logitech Z640 5.1's I recommended in the last PC Buyer's Guide. This is an excellent set of inexpensive 5.1 speakers.
Keyboard and Mouse - Logitech Cordless MX Duo
This combo features the Logitech Cordless Elite Keyboard and the Logitech MX700 Mouse. Cordless is the way to go if you want to eliminate the clutter on your desktop. The MX700 is one finest cordless mouse on the market, featuring rechargeable batteries (charged via a docking station) and higher precision than most other mice. In First Person Shooters the mouse is your weapon, its good to come well armed ;)
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