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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  • limiter - Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - link

    I read an article on Toms or HardOCP (that I can't find now) which said they had problems getting one of their DVD drives to work on a P965 ASUS board, but a lot of what I've read comes from Newegg item comments like these for the ASUS P5B Deluxe:

    quote:

    BenQ & Pioneer DVD-RW IDE drives can't record from Windows on this board for me. Strange really. They show as DVD-RW drives, and work fine in other machines, but when a blank DVD/CD is inserted, Windows changes the drive description to DVD-ROM, and you can't record.


    quote:

    the primary IDE has problems. It won't let my DVD burner burn DVDs. It will burn CDs but not DVDs. When I try to burn a DVD, some burning software sends the data but the burner never does anything. Other burning software reports an error. I have spent 5 days trying to fix this annoying problem. For a long time I thought it was software or Windows related. I finally re-installed Windows, changed to a Plextor DVD burner, changed the cable, etc. Still doesn't work. I am now convinced that this is a motherboard problem. zevo thinks this is a JMicron IDE controller problem and that makes sense to me.


    For the ASUS P5W DH Deluxe

    quote:

    For me, the Intel IDE controller is VERY slow when using a known-working DVD drive. It is stuck in PIO mode.


    I've read some other forum comments about DVD problems on ASUS P965 mobos, but I can't find them right now. If I run across them again I will update. I'm not saying this is a bad motherboard or ASUS is a bad company, and any of this could be user error, unrelated bad hardware, or have been corrected by bios updates. I guess I just get the impression there are more people having issues with memory and DVD burners than usual. Nothing I think needs a too much attention. I am happy to see memory was tested for the article, I look forward to the future article mentioned above on this topic!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - link

    Of course, all the boards are using 975X in this guide and not P965. The problem likely stems from the fact that none of the P965 boards have an Intel IDE controller, since ICH8 doesn't provide one. (Stupid... but that's a topic for another day.) Most boards use third-party controllers can order to offer IDE support, and some of the initial BIOS revisions were very flaky in memory and IDE support. Beyond that, I can't think of anything specific that would be causing issues for people. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    The RAM and motherboard combinations have all been tested (as far as I'm aware) by Gary Key and/or Wesley Fink. Those choices were made with extensive input from Wes and Gary. That's the major sticking point in terms of compatibility - and P965 memory compatibility has improved a lot with the latest BIOS revisions. However, it should be noted that we strongly recommend setting memory timings (and voltages) manually for most high-end enthusiast systems. The SPD settings should work and allow the systems to POST, but they are not optimal by any means. Hope that helps - Gary or Wes might be able to chime in with specific testing results for the RAM+Mobo, although I think there's an article in the works that will cover that aspect regardless. Reply
  • Missing Ghost - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    Is there really a good reason to choose AM2 over 939? I think the motherboards for 939 are more mature. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    If you're looking to use older components (like existing DDR RAM), 939 is still fine. That's what I still use for my personal system (mostly because I don't have the time to get a full Core 2 Duo up and running, and I likely wouldn't notice the difference in performance for the apps I run most). If you're building a full new system, there's no reason to get 939 anymore.

    Think DDR2 prices are bad? Take a look at quality DDR - it's no better, and you won't get 1:1 overclocks to DDR-667 or higher with any RAM. $250 or so will get you DDR2-800 that can run faster than any 1:1 overclock on AM2 will need. There will also be no future platforms for DDR (other than budget offerings from maybe SiS or VIA).

    Anyway, AM2 launched in a state that was nearly as mature as 939, and it has quickly matched it overall, if not exceeded it. The prices are about the same, AM2 typically hold a 5% advantage in performance over 939 (for equivalent CPU and RAM speeds), and hopefully AMD will do quad cores on AM2 in the future - 939 is now EOL'ed, and DDR is in a similar boat. I believe the last production runs of DDR will complete in early 2007, and then pretty much everything will shift to DDR2 or later RAM production.
    Reply
  • mostlyprudent - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    Wow! You really covered your bases and made it clear that there are still plenty of options out there to choose from. Nicely done, although it leaves little room for discussion.

    One Guide I would love to see in the future is one that attempts to find the best balance between noise and performance. There are plenty of sites that talk about silencing a PC, but they tend to cripple performance at some level. Anandtech has looked at some components in this respect (i.e. video cards and cases), but it would be great to see the whole package put together. Maybe it's in the context of the best all-purpose PC for those who cannot afford a separate rig for gaming, one for family use, one for an HTPC, a media server, etc.
    Reply
  • MadBoris - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    Glad you guys offered so many alternatives through the guide. I like a reference of what the current best components are in each field, but I end up choosing certain best components. So the alternatives, throughout the guide, were very nice.

    Thanks for these buyers guides, it will really help alot of people out with core 2 duo upgrades and upcoming next gen GPU's. Thanks alot guys.
    Reply
  • Baked - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    What's with the Ultra High End system w/o a Seasonic or PCP&C PSU?

    And no loving for the Thermalright Ultra-120? Unlike other companies, Thermalright knows how to innovate instead of just blowing up their products. You can get the Ultra-120 w/ a Yate Loon D12L for less than $55 and it'll perform better if not on par w/ the Scythe Infinity, AND it'll stay attached to the motherboard. You expect people to buy your $65 but you can't come up w/ a better mounting system other than the one used by Intel's retail HSF? Poleeeeeeeese.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    See above comment - the Kingwin has been upgraded to a Seasonic S12-500 now. I should have figured the PSU police would come knocking if I didn't spend at least $100 on a "high-end" PSU. Honestly, if you don't plan on overclocking and adding a lot of extras, the vast majority of 500-600W PSUs will work fine. Some are quieter, some are more efficient, but most will handle a moderately high-end configuration.

    BTW, I'm typing this on a system configured with:
    ASUS A8R32-MVP
    Athlon X2 3800+ OC'ed to 2.2GHz (4600+ equivalent)
    X1900 XT + X1900 CF GPUs
    2x1024MB OCZ DDR-500 3-3-3-8-1T
    320GB WD HDD
    160GB Samsung HDD (secondary storage)
    Pioneer DVR-110D
    Antec SLK-3000B case
    ...And a Kingwin 600W PSU

    I bought the Kingwin several months ago on a whim - I needed a PSU fast after an Antec 400W unit failed, and the local shops didn't have a great selection. Note that the Antec PSU was *not* used in this system config! LOL - CrossFire on an Antec? Not for me!

    The system is not extremely quiet... but then that's almost impossible with dual X1900 cards. Full load the system stays well under 500W, and I haven't had any issues with stability whatsoever. Upgrading the system to socket AM2 and 7900GTO cards would drop power requirements, so I still fully stand by the original choice of the 600W Kingwin as a reasonable "budget high-end" PSU. Will it fail gracefully if I exceed the limits of the PSU? No idea - I don't intend to find out either. :)
    Reply
  • yyrkoon - Tuesday, October 10, 2006 - link

    Its not about the brand name Jarred, you can find a reasonable PCP&C PSU, hell, you'll pay more just because of SLI 'certification'. Anyhow, sometimes, someone may want a longer hold time, or want rock solid rails, or possibly better efficiency (although seasonic may have PCP&C beat here, depends on models).

    You mentioned something about re-branding, however im not so sure thats completely true. 99.9% of all PSUs probably are made in one of 12 plants in China, HOWEVER, parts, support, , and specifications are not always interchangeable.

    I didnt see how much your KINGWIN PSU was, but something that hits me as more than slightly funny, is why spend 260 us on a motherboard, 300 + on a CPU, 250-300 on memory, and get cheap on the PSU ? I think you'll find that PCP&C PSUs are more efficient, have a much longer hold time, and should exibit a much more solid rail supply. Lets not forget that PCP&C PSUs are rated at 40C, and not 25C like alot of common PSUs on the market. (not everyone lives where its cold, or even cool.)*shrug*
    Reply

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