Introduction

We have made an effort to better address our buyer's guides with more frequent updates to all of the price segments. A couple weeks ago we had a look at the midrange sector, and now we return for a look at the high-end segment. To recap, our definition of the high-end is that the systems focus on achieving optimal performance with price being less of a concern. This does not mean that price is not a concern, however, as there is still a huge difference between a $2000 computer and a $5000 computer - and we'll look at both today. There are also a variety of uses for high-end computers, from powerful workstations to extreme overclocking and of course the ultimate performance gaming machines. Trying to address all areas with a single guide is difficult, so our base configurations are just that, and we expect that anyone looking to spend $2000+ on a computer is going to do a little research and know what they do and don't need. Or not - if you just want to go with our recommendation and get a screaming fast computer (that you might not actually fully utilize), that's your prerogative!

Particularly at the high-end, there are many choices that can be made, and as with the midrange guide we are going to provide several configurations that you can use as a guideline targeting the various price points. Unfortunately for AMD, it has to be said that Intel has a clear performance advantage right now... when it comes to CPU power. That disclaimer is important, because if you're primarily worried about gaming performance, graphics power is often a much bigger concern. However, there are games out there that really demand a lot from both the CPU and the GPU (especially recent real-time strategy games like Rise of Legends and Company of Heroes, as well as some flight simulators). Lest anyone forget that we are interested in getting the best performance for the dollar, consider the following quote from our January 2006 buyers guide:
"The good news is that the Intel 'High-End' platform costs less than the AMD recommendation; unfortunately, the AMD is also clearly superior in performance, and not even a Pentium 955EE chip can close the gap."
Now swap the AMD and Intel names, and replace 955EE with FX-62, and you have the current situation. As we showed in our Core 2 Duo launch articles, Intel currently has AMD thoroughly outclassed in terms of performance, and if you add in overclocking the case for Intel is so lopsided that we would strongly recommend purchasing a Core 2 Duo system right now over anything AMD offers when looking at high-end computers.

Since we're talking about the high-end, we also need to step back for a moment and talk about what the future holds. Intel launched Core 2 Duo a couple months ago, but they're not done yet. We have already previewed performance of Core 2 Quad, and the QX6700 will become available in about a month. In terms of raw computational power, it is certainly more powerful than the X6800, but you need to run applications and tasks that can take advantage of all four processor cores in order to see the difference; otherwise, the higher clock speed of the X6800 will trump the additional cores offered by the QX6700. The good news is that in one month, the decision will be yours to make, and pricing shouldn't play a factor as both processors should cost around $1000. If you don't want to go all out and buy a $1000 processor, the wait for more affordable Core 2 Quad chips will be a couple months longer.

AMD's answer at present consists of their 4x4 initiative: a dual socket motherboard running up to four graphics processors, and honestly that's more marketing hype than anything as few people other than high-end workstation and server users need dual socket motherboards. If you're in the market for a dual socket motherboard, they have been available for quite a long time, so the 4x4 initiative really just amounts to a rebranding of something that we can already buy - on a new socket, of course. Getting a more expensive motherboard and having to purchase two processors instead of one largely negates any reason to upgrade to quad cores. If the price is identical, or nearly so, many of us would take four slightly slower CPU cores over two faster cores, but it we have to spend a lot of extra cash most will agree that quad cores is overkill on the desktop right now.

Upcoming CPU launches aren't the only thing to consider. Rumors and details of NVIDIA's G80 architecture have begun to surface, and a change to DirectX 10 compliance looks set to really shake things up. At least one report states that G80 will have 128 unified shader pipelines, which can be configured to function as pixel, vertex, or geometry shaders according to application demands. What does that mean for performance? We don't know yet, but we sincerely doubt that it will actually be slower in overall performance compared to a 7950 GX2. The expected launch date is around the same time as Core 2 Quad, so that gives you two more reasons to wait another month or two before buying a high-end system.

Before we get to the actual configurations, let us be clear that we're not looking to make equivalent cost systems in this article. A minor change or two is all that should be necessary in order to make the systems more or less equivalent - at least in cost - but other factors make it difficult to recommend similarly configured AMD and Intel systems. At present, those users interested in an NVIDIA SLI platform are often better off getting an AMD AM2 motherboard. The only retail motherboards with support for SLI and Core 2 Duo offer decent stock performance, but they are crippled by a chipset that can't scale to higher front side bus speeds. If you are absolutely certain that you won't bother overclocking, this is a bit less of a concern, but there is always the chance that we will see consumer FSB1333 offerings in the future, and the current NVIDIA chipsets will struggle to run stably with a 333 MHz base bus speed. However, going back once again to upcoming product launches, NVIDIA's refined C55 nForce 680i SLI chipset should fully address this shortcoming... and it should also become available some time in November. So there you have three good reasons to consider waiting for the November launches, but then there's always something better around the corner.

Speaking of platform preference, ATI's CrossFire is in the exact opposite situation from NVIDIA's SLI. Unless you want to get a socket 939 motherboard, the number of AMD motherboards with CrossFire support is extremely limited. When there are fewer choices available for a platform, the overall quality of those choices often suffers. ASUS and MSI offer RD580 motherboards for socket AM2 now, and they certainly aren't bad, but if you are really interested in a CrossFire platform you will get better overall performance with an Intel system anyway. What this means is that we will be focusing on SLI configurations for the AMD platforms, and we will target CrossFire configurations for Core 2 Duo. Also note that we will be putting dual graphics cards in all of our configurations in this article, but please understand that we do not recommend such configurations for people that don't play games. If you know that you won't use your computer for gaming purposes, you can look back to our recent midrange buyers guide and combine some of the CPU, processor, memory, etc. upgrades from this guide with the GPU and/or motherboard selections from the midrange guide. (Professional 3D cards are a separate topic which we won't get into in the interest of time.)

As a final comment, we are separating our case, display, and peripheral choices from the main platform, and we will look at the options there after the primary component choices. All of the configurations should work in any of the cases, so you can choose the case and accessories that you feel best fit your own style, with a few considerations we will get to later. This should be helpful for people that already have many components that they plan on keeping, and upgraders should find the price breakdowns more useful as well.

Baseline AMD High-End Platform
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  • Zebo - Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - link

    Anandtech really needs to start doing monitor tests again. I don't know if you used those Acers but they suck bad. And the Dell 24" suffers from serious input lag and poor view angles like the TN Acers. LCD's are not a commodity where you can graph price/size and pick your winner. Does 8 bit means nothing? Color shift? Input lag? Lying specs vs. real specs? Good viewing angles? LCD scaling for gamers?

    The 30" Dell is pretty decent as it's an IPS but not overdriven like the new HP so it's slow.

    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - link

    I've got both Dells, and they work fine for everything I do. Overdriving displays is mostly just playing the numbers game. If you can see pixel lag on any of the Dell LCDs mentioned, then you can probably see pixel lag on virtually every LCD on the market. I will be doing some LCD reviews in the near future, but so far I have far bigger issues with prices than I do with performance. I just wish I could get an LCD that ran at a high refresh rate in order to avoid tearing when vsync is disabled. Unless you do professional imaging work where having accurate color values is absolutely necessary, most LCDs will get the job done. As for the Acer displays, they did get put on the bottom of the pricing chart for a reason, and I don't think they are the highest quality displays available. They aren't the worst displays available, and without spending twice as much money it is unlikely that he will seek dramatically better performance or colors in the same size display. Reply
  • limiter - Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - link

    I agree on the price, I bought a cheap (under $275), BenQ FP202W 20.1in Widescreen display that got panned by Tom's Hardware as the worst 20.1in widescreen monitor they've ever seen, yet I think it's great. I don't see lag, or the other problems mentioned in their review. I went from a 19in CRT so it's not like I was going from a 15in at 32ms to 8ms and that's why I think it's great. Maybe I just have bad eyes, but I'd buy it again. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - link

    That's a perfect case in point. While it is definitely possible to measure differences between LCDs, the simple truth is that most people can't tell the difference without specialized hardware to measure values. For example, a display that has colors that are off by 10% might not look as good next to a display that has accurate colors. However, if you're viewing them individually in separate rooms, you're going to have a difficult time determining which is better using just your eyes. The lighting in a room often has more of an impact on the display visuals for typical users than the display itself. Reply
  • Howard - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    The efficiency of a PSU has nothing to do with its actual power output. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    No, and I don't believe I said it does. It has to do with how much power is used internally in the conversion process, so a 70% efficient 600W PSU could in theory draw 857W and an 85% efficient 600W PSU would only draw 706W - something like that.

    I guess the text implied that the efficiency meant it could output 500W. What I meant is that it can do 500W output, and it can do it at a high efficiency. There are plenty of "500W" PSUs out there that would fail if you really tried to pull 500W from them. I'll clear up the text....
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - link

    Actually, I believe its more like power thats NOT lost to heat while being converted to DC, from AC. Feel free to correct me if Im wrong though :) Reply
  • BigLan - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    Given the ati-amd merger, the AMD god box uses nvidia sli while the Intel box uses ATi crossfire. I suspect that in a year that situation will be reversed.

    Good guide btw, it's nice to dream about building a system like this, but I'd stick with my Scythe Ninja for a HSF.
    Reply
  • limiter - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    How much of this hardware did you guys test together? I wonder especially about the memory and the optical drives simply because there seem to be a number of modules and drives out there that either don't work, or don't work as well as they should with the p965/975x motherboards. I'm looking at building a new system soon and really appreciate these guides, but I would like to see either confirmation that at least the memory was tested with the motherboard/processor combo listed, or that someone else has tested it and you are going off that... I guess just for peace of mind before buying anything. The motherboard manufacturers list a small number of compatible modules, ASUS being the worst. Reply
  • Gary Key - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    quote:

    How much of this hardware did you guys test together? I wonder especially about the memory and the optical drives simply because there seem to be a number of modules and drives out there that either don't work, or don't work as well as they should with the p965/975x motherboards.


    The majority of the components have all been tested on a large cross-section of boards. Some components work better in certain boards (even though the chipsets are the same) than others. Memory was a very weak area in the P965 launch and it was not the budget memory at the time, it was the upper end memory that was having issues. My opinion on the subject matter is that both the memory and motherboard suppliers had equal issues. The majority of it has cleared up now although it is difficult to understand why certain memory modules and bios updates still have issues playing nice with each other. As far as optical drives, please let us know which one is having an issue, tried over 18 different optical drives from a Kenwood TrueX to a Pioneer Blu-ray without an issue on our current collection of 965/975 boards. At least 11 different hard drives have been used also at this time.
    Reply

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