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. 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.
Reliablity: Second on the list but just as important. This includes things such as compatability (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 reliablity 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 reliablity) 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 pricepoint (since price will vary somewhat with vender/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.
Intel Core 2 Duo 6550 or AMD Athlon 64 X2 6000+ AM2
The Core 2 Duo's have graced the market for a year now and the first refresh has just been released, accompanied with a always welcome price cut, as Intel seeks to regain all that AMD had managed to take away during the Athlon 64 dominance. The new Core 2 Duo's boast a faster 1333 MHz FSB, be sure the motherboard you select supports this (many boards already on the market will support it through a BIOS update).
The Athlon 64 X2 is almost at the end of its long road with new desktop chips (Phenom) slated for release towards the end of the year. In the meantime, AMD has vastly cut the prices of the X2's to remain price/performance competitive with the better Core 2 Duos. Make no mistake, at these prices they definitely are an excellent alternative.
Neither the AMD64 nor the Core 2 Duo have any trouble with heat and the stock HSF for both should prove more then enough, especially for those of you on a budget. But as always 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.
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? Chispet 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.
Intel: Your choice will be between an nForce 650i SLI or Intel P35 chipset.
The nForce 650i SLI chipset is one of NVIDIA's newer low cost SLI offerings for their nForce 600 series for the Intel platform, which continues to remain very popular for enthusiasts due to its performance, feature set and overclockability. A note: since these boards have been on the market for a while, they will likely require a BIOS update to support the new 1333 MHz FSB CPUs from Intel. Check with the manufacturer to insure that an update exists before purchasing the board.
An alternative and also excellent choice for those of you who are not concerned with SLI (and especially for those who want Crossfire support), would be a motherboard based on the brand new P35 chipset. The successor to to the mainstream P965 chipset of last year, this chipset boasts some improved performance and features, support for DDR3 (although the time to switch to DDR3 is realistically not until next year and many boards only support DDR2) and support for the 1333 MHz FSB processors from Intel.
AMD: nForce 570 SLI. The nForce 500 series continues to remain the popular choice for the AMD platform. For a look at all of the features and performance of this chipset, I suggest you have a look at our own review of the chipset here. A number of excellent motherboards based on this chipset can be found, finding one that suits you should not be difficult.
320 GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 ST3320620AS
320 GB is more then ample for a low end gaming machine. This drive features the perpendicular recording technology, which allows for greater disk density and improved performance as well. It also comes with 16 MB cache, SATA-II interface and support for Native Command Queuing (NCQ, a disk seek optimization technique). To polish it all off this drive comes with an outstanding 5 year warranty and is relatively inexpensive.
2 GB DDR2 800 MHz RAM
Yes from low end to top end I am recommending 2 GB of RAM, the extra memory is very important especially if you make the move to Vista. DDR2 prices have taken quite a dip and 2 GB of RAM is very affordable, even for a budget computer.
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 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.
DDR3 is now available, but at this time I would not recommend it as it is priced 2 to 3 times more then DDR2 (and the performance benefits are minor). Better to wait until the price and latency on DDR3 to come down before making the switch.
Editor's Choice: Corsair XMS2 TWIN2X2048A-6400 DDR2. Stylish heatspreaders, reliable brand and good price. EPP and SLI certified.
ATI Radeon X1950 XT
Now before you go "huh ?"; the once proud flagship for ATI has slipped to the same price point as the 8600 GTS, which is a decidely lackluster midrange offering from NVIDIA (and has a hard time keeping up with the X1950 Pro, much less the XT). If you're looking for some gaming power and DirectX 10 is not an absolutely needed feature, the XT will give you quite some bang for your buck. If you need a DirectX 10 card, then I suggest you save some extra dollars and go for the 8800 GTS 320 MB at minimum.
Creative has finally made some low cost X-Fi offerings so now those of you even on a tight budget can enjoy the X-Fi.
Our own audiophile Brann Mitchel: Playing a few games with Creative's latest sound card in your rig will convince you that there really isn't anything better than the X-Fi. It doesn't matter which of the four models you choose either, you'll still get blistering performance in any game you choose with the powerful new APU, CMSS 3D Headphone and EAX Advanced HD 5.0. While Creative's X-Fi is no doubt the performance leader in gaming, it will also impress you with its music capability. We get lots of sound cards that offer one or the other, good sound or good gaming, but the X-Fi really delivers both. It has that rare ability to make you play song after song just to hear how they sound through the X-Fi. For these reasons, the X-Fi is our new reference.
There really is no excuse to not have DVD±R/RW drives, they are very cheap and reliable these days. This drive has a few extras that set it apart like the ability to burn 18x DVD+R and DVD-R as well as 12x DVD-RAM. 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.
Editor's Choice: Lian Li PC-60 Plus II W. Lian Li is a name familiar to many of you, they have made extremely beautiful aluminum cases for many years now and their cases are a favorite among modders. This brushed aluminum case comes in your choice of silver and black, a side window and sports dual 120mm case fans as well as a blowhole on top with an 80mm case fan.
OCZ GameXStream 600/700 Watt
The power demands of the PC continue to escalate, thanks in large part to GPU's and the looming arrival of 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.
For a frame of reference: NVIDIA recommends 450 Watts with 30A on the 12V rail for the 8800 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 can face any number of problems. The GameXStream is the latest in OCZ's offering of excellent power supplies offering 4 (yes 4) 12 volt rails, a single 120mm blue LED fan, compact size (making it easily installable in any case) and great performance.
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