Introduction

The last time we did a true AnandTech buyer's guide was several months ago, just after socket AM2 had launched and before Core 2 Duo hit the scene. Since then, there have been a ton of new product releases, obviously with many of them focused around the Core 2 platform. However, new processors and motherboards for the Intel platform are just the tip of the iceberg. While there may not have been as many new product releases in the graphics card department, things have definitely been interesting there. Storage components haven't changed much, but DDR2 memory prices have skyrocketed over the past month or two. The net result is that nearly every one of the component choices we used two months ago is now at best slightly outdated, which of course means it's time for a new buyer's guide.

Things have been quite busy the past couple of months, and our buyer's guides and price guides have unfortunately been neglected, but we plan on updating all three market segments within the next few weeks. After that, we plan to publish a new buyer's guide every other week. That gives us six weeks between guides that cover the same market segment, which is enough time for some of the choices to change so that we don't just repeat the same thing month after month. We may also look into other types of buyer's guides as the need arises, but for now we will be focusing on entry level, midrange, and high-end configurations. Any time someone tries to define a price segment, there is naturally going to be some disagreement. It is always possible to cut a couple hundred dollars from the price if necessary, or you could spend a few hundred dollars more depending on your budget. For reference, we have defined our market segments as follows.

Starting with the entry level configurations, price is an overriding concern. For those that are simply looking for a computer that can handle most office tasks, the goal is to get the price down to around $500. This can be very difficult without making some significant compromises, and for some tasks it is nearly impossible. For example, building a complete "moderate gaming" computer for $500 is going to be extremely difficult, and it might be best to look at some of the offerings that you can get from major OEMs. Compromises will be made on those systems as well, but when you factor in the cost of an operating system and display, starting with a baseline OEM system and then spending a bit on upgrades isn't a terrible idea. However, this is not to say that you don't often get more bang for the buck by building your own system from scratch. For a slightly upgraded entry level configuration, we will be targeting a price point of $750.

The midrange category is what we will be discussing today, and this is generally the most popular market segment for computer enthusiasts. You can get a system that can do every task reasonably well for around $1000, and you can also downgrade a few components that are less important for your chosen tasks in order to upgrade other areas. For example, gaming depends largely on the speed of your graphics card, so if price is a concern, keeping other costs in check in order to spend as much money as possible on the GPU is a good idea. Most overclockers also tend to live in the midrange price segment, with the hope of purchasing moderately expensive components and then overclocking them to high-end performance levels and beyond. The low end of our midrange price point is $1000, while the upper midrange configurations will cost closer to $1500, and perhaps a bit more.

Finally, with the high-end system configurations price generally becomes less of a concern as users begin to focus on achieving optimal performance. There are still various types of users interested in purchasing a high-end system, ranging from the extreme overclockers to those that simply want the best money can buy, and there are also those that just want better than midrange performance and are willing to pay a bit more. The law of diminishing returns is definitely in full effect for most areas of the high-end market, although there are certain components where it still makes sense to buy high-end if possible. Skimping on displays is definitely something we don't recommend if you can avoid it, and for gamers moving to multiple graphics cards can significantly improve performance, particularly at higher resolutions. High-end system configurations begin at around $2000 and go up from there, although for the most part we will keep things well under $5,000 even for the maximum configurations.

We're going to try and keep things a bit more succinct in this midrange guide, and as always your feedback is welcome. Rather than looking at each individual component choice, we're going to focus directly on the four basic configurations. We will have two AMD configurations and two Intel configurations, aiming for the low end and high end of the midrange price segment with each platform. These configurations are basically a snapshot in time, and prices always fluctuate. We are also of necessity limited in the number of recommendations we can make for any component, so just because your favorite motherboard or graphics card doesn't get selected doesn't mean that it's a bad choice. If you've got questions, feel free to post in our forums or sound off in the comments section, and we will do our best to respond.

Baseline AMD Midrange Platform
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  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    Caps are often one of the most critical factors in overclocking. Obviously, the difference isn't huge, and neither is the difference in price (about $20 more for the DS3). "A bit better" means that you will really have to be pushing hard to reach that point; RAM is likely to give out before either motherboard. Reply
  • RamarC - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    IMHO, the upgraded Intel config can be improved quite a bit for $82 more ($37 more w/available rebates). I'd move up to an E6600, select ASUS P5B-E mobo, and use dual hard drives in matrixRAID. An Antec Sonata II w/450W PS would be subbed in for the case. This config will be plenty fast in 'stock' form and still has some OC headroom.

    Core2Duo E6600 . . . . . 319
    ASUS P5B-E . . . . . . . 164
    OCZ 2GB Gold Gamer DDR2-800 . 260
    GeForce 7900GS
    or Radeon x1900gt . . .. 206
    2 WD 1600JS 160GB . . . . 124
    LiteOn 165H6S retail . . . 42
    Acer AL2216WBD 22" WS . . . 337
    Antec Sonata II w/450W PS . 110
    Logitech Premium . . . . 30
    Windows XP MCE . . . . . 120
    Total . . . . . . . . .. . $1,712

    Reply
  • rjm55 - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    I'm in total ageement with your idea. I was more than a little surprised to see the lowest 2MB cache Core 2 Duo as the choice in the first Intel, but I figured it would be fixed in the the upgrade choice with a 4MB cache model. It wasn't. The 4MB cache does make a performance diffence and is always faster at the same speed. I would pick a E6600 for my own midrange system.

    I would also choose a lowend 975 for the true dual x8 Crossfire. Abit has a decent 975 board for $159. This would actually be $5 less than your setup with a 965 board.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - link

    I added some clarification on the "upgraded" Core 2 page for you guys. :)

    Basically, your selections are perfectly acceptable alternatives, but if I were to put up my upgraded build with overclocking agains your upgraded builds, I would wager I can get better overall performance. Not everyone wants to overclock, and that's fine, but my picks were made with a bit more of an overclocking bias.

    The $260 OCZ DDR2-800 doesn't OC very well at all, while the $280 RAM does much better. In fact, the $260 RAM you link has had some compatibility issues with some motherboards (it wants to POST with higher voltages for the listed timings, IIRC), so you would be better off getting the $220 OCZ DDR2-667 in my book.

    The bottom line is that you have to determine what you want to do with the PC. For gaming (you mention CrossFire), spend a lot of money on the GPUs before you even worry about upgrading the CPU (unless you run games at 1024x768). If you plan on running X1900 CrossFire, though, you really better think about upgrading to a nice PSU like the Fotron Source listed. For X1900 XT CrossFire (or X1950 CF), you should probably go with a Fotron Source 700W (or OCZ GameXStream, Thermaltake 700W, or several others which are just rebranded FSP units).
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    I unfortunately have to say that Antec PSUs have gone way downhill in the past year. Ask Gary how many dead Antec units he has sitting around. Other than that, though, you demonstrate exactly what I tried to point out: there are a ton of different ways to attack a midrange build, especially at the $1500-$1700 price point. We went with better RAM and a much better PSU with a lower end CPU. RAID won't really help performance much IMO (unless you want RAID 1 for redundancy), and I would rather have a single drive instead of two drives for the same amount of storage (cheaper too).

    As for the CPU, the E6600 is definitely faster. With overclocking, it's lot closer, as the 2MB cache Core 2 Duos will generally overclock further than the 4MB cache CPUs. At that point, you have to decide whether you really need faster CPU performance or if you should improve something else. If you play games as your primary focus, even the X2 3800+ will be essentially tied with the E6600 until you start to get into much faster GPUs.
    Reply
  • RamarC - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    I'm a big fan of MatrixRaid. Dual 160s can be config'd as a 40gb mirror (boot, OS, important docs, etc.), and a 220gb strips set (game files, mp3s, dvd rips, page file, temp folder, etc.). A bit more expensive than a single drive, but a more performance and much safer.

    You guys obviously go through PSs more than me. Still, I'd rather spend about the same cash and get a faster stock system than one that I have to OC to reach the same level of performance.

    Reply
  • Araemo - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    I didn't see any discussion of it in the article, but which of those monitors are 24 bit(8 bit panels)?

    I'm rather picky about colors, and I wouldn't consider any 6 bit panels. I've seen 8 bit panels with good enough refresh times(Using overdrive) from some companies, but it can be such a PITA to find out for sure if a given monitor uses a panel that is 8 bit or 6 bit, that I would like to see that kind of information noted when a recommendation is being made...
    Reply
  • Super Nade - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    Hi,

    I have serious issues regarding the PSU's being recommended. Why are you guys skimping on a no-name, possibly dodgy PSU? To keep things in budget, I'd suggest cutting back on the case and the DRAM, possibly substituting a 17 inch display for the 19 inch. There are several good reasonably priced PSU's (say $80 range)available.

    I like the article and agree with most of the recommendations, but for the PSU :)

    Regards,

    S-N
    Reply
  • Revolutionary - Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - link

    Everybody questioning the choice of a Fortron-Source PSU because they "have not heard of them" needs to get a clue.

    They MAKE power-supplies as an ODM. Often the Antec, Enermax, whatever-pricey-name-brand-you-want-to-insert PSU is just a re-badged FS model.

    And if you check out the "cool-n-quiet" community, you will find that FSP actually has quite a following. I've personally used 3 of their PSUs (I'm still using one, actually: a 300W 120mm fan model that I bought about 3 years ago...).

    Mass marketing brand awareness does not a good component make.
    Reply
  • Gary Key - Tuesday, September 26, 2006 - link

    quote:

    I have serious issues regarding the PSU's being recommended.
    While I am one to usually advocate buying a 700W or above power supply for any system ;-> , we looked at the baseline system requirements and determined the included power supply from Gigabyte was adequate to meet the systems needs. There are numerous case/power supply choices in this range and most of the tier one case suppliers provide decent power supplies. I for one like the Cooler Master Centurion 5 combo with their 380w power supply for a base system. Obviously, if you designed a system around the base configuration and wanted to overclock your system (in the case of the AMD unit, also run SLI) then a better power supply is certainly warranted.

    In the upgraded configuration I think our power supply choice reflected one of the best price/performance choices in the 500W~600W range. There was another FPS 550W power supply that was actually at the top of our list for a couple of more dollars but it was sold out at the majority of on-line stores.

    :)
    Reply

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