Buyer's Guide - Mid-Range, January 2005by Jarred Walton on January 21, 2005 11:09 AM EST
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Writing new Buyer's Guides month after month gives you a certain perspective on the market. One of the things that we've come to realize is that waiting for future performance in the way of faster components is generally a waste of time. The fact of the matter is that many of the "Next Big Thing" upgrades, which we often look forward to, either end up taking far longer than expected to materialize, or else they only improve performance by 10% to 20% for the same price. If you're waiting for a price drop on an item, how much is your time really worth? Naturally, if you have a decent computer and don't really need the upgrades, waiting never hurts. Newer and better parts are always coming out. Once you're ready to upgrade, though, we would recommend that you take the plunge and not look back.
For this month's Mid-Range Guide, PCI Express and Athlon 64 are finally available...barely. Are they worth it? The answer depends on the individual and the goals for the system. If you want the best potential for upgrades, go for PCI Express, and probably even spend the extra money on an SLI motherboard. For the infrequent upgraders, it really doesn't seem to be all that big of a deal. If you don't need a lot of graphics performance, the budget to mid-range price segment is basically a tie in terms of price/performance. However, price/performance is only one side of the equation. Stability and reliability are still somewhat unknown with PCI Express motherboards, as it is version 1.0 hardware – the so-called "bleeding edge" of hardware.
If that doesn't seem like a big deal to you, recall that the initial Athlon 64 socket 754 motherboards had quite a few minor problems. For instance, RAM compatibility and tweaking/overclocking features were somewhat problematic. New technologies almost always have some issues, and socket 939 PCIe is not likely to be any different. 939 PCIe chipsets were slated originally to launch as early as September of last year, but then they were delayed several times, and only now are they finally becoming available. What caused the delays, and have they now fixed all the potential problems? As for the causes, certainly there were some technical difficulties that had to be addressed. There's always a chance that we won't encounter any glitches on the final hardware, but more likely than not, a few minor problems will surface that some people would just as soon avoid. If that sounds like you, we would recommend that you stick with the tried-and-true approach of AGP platforms. On the other hand, if you want to take the plunge and are willing to deal with some potential teething problems, go for it.
Our recommendations in this Guide will cover both options. As usual, we're going to be shooting for a specific price point with our Guide; in the case of this Mid-Range Guide, that target will be roughly $1250. We'll have a few options, including the requisite AMD and Intel recommendations as well as some alternatives. As in most recent Guides, we continue to feel that AMD has the upper hand in terms of price as well as performance, but we don't want to neglect our Intel holdouts. Let's start with AMD.