PC Buyers Guide Low End Target Resolution: 1280x1024 or 1440x900
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.
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 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.
Processor - 2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E7300
The latest Wolfdale core has brought even more improvements to the already excellent Intel Core 2 Duo family. These improvements include shrinking down to the 45nm manufacturing process, additional SSE 4.1 instructions and increased cache. The E7300 represents the new entry level offering for the Wolfdale family, replacing the E7200 I recommended in my previous guide and anyone on a budget will love this processor and its overclocking potential.
Heatsink and Fan - Zalman CNPS9500 LED
The stock HSF will provide ample cooling power for your Core 2 Duo, but you want to treat your CPU right don't you??? The Zalman CNPS9500 LED is an excellent HSF, offering high quality air cooling while remaining extremely quiet. And it does it in style with an LED fan and unique copper finned design.
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: A motherboard based on the Intel P45 chipset. My personal choice is the Asus P5Q Pro. Very clean layout, Crossfire support, 8 phase power design, good chipset cooling and all the features you would expect from a mid-range motherboard.
Hard Drive - Western Digital Caviar SE16 WD6400AAKS 640 GB
Ah 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 is based on Western Digital's latest 320 GB per platter technology, an excellent performing mid-ranged drive and extremely inexpensive.
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 prefered configuration.
Memory - 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.
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.
DDR3 is now available, but at this time I would not recommend it as it is priced twice as much as 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 or OCZ HPC Reaper series. Excellent brands, excellent sticks of RAM and very good price.
ATI managed to correct the errors of the R600 and have come back swinging with their R700. And with AMD/ATI back in the competition prices on graphics cards have taken a sharp nose dive, great for us the consumers! Both of these cards are sitting at the same MSRP and either of these cards will offer you excellent performance for the price. A note on the Radeon 4850: the retail heatsink/fan is completely inadequate, fortunately many manufactures are offering these cards with 3rd party coolers, I HIGHLY suggest you choose one of those and enjoy much lower temps and noise.
Sound Card - Creative X-Fi Titanium or Asus Xonar DX 7.1
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.
Optical Drive - 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.
Power Supply - 550 Watt or Higher
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 (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 500 Watts with 38A 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 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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