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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  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    Try configuring a similarly equipped "ultra" system at any of the vendors you mentioned for $5500 - including a 30" LCD, remember, plus speakers and all the other stuff. Note that all prices include shipping to the continental US (although tax is not included). Sure, you get support from one location, but we're not here to constantly recommend system vendors.

    There's a huge DIY audience that reads AnandTech, and at least this gives people a baseline price list that they can look at when they're considering pre-built systems. We try to cater to all markets, not just the vendors that buy advertising.
    Reply
  • Powersupply - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    As always someone has to be the annoying person who feels this or that is missing. Today it is me.

    1. I can't see why Thermalright Ultra-120 should be missing from the selection of CPU coolers. It performs on par or better than the Infinity with the same fan.

    2. Why not putting more than 2 harddrives into the "Ultra High-End Platform"? After all you went with a stacker case who got plenty of space. 2 x Raptor + 2 x Other HDD would be sweet.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    Added mention of the Thermalright. As for the HDDs, I quote from the original text:

    quote:

    Lastly, we come to the storage subsystem. Anyone looking for even more extreme performance could always add a couple of 150GB Western Digital Raptor drives in RAID 0, but for an ultra high-end computer we prefer more storage over slightly faster hard drives. Thus, we have chosen two 500GB Western Digital hard drives, which you can once again choose to run in RAID 0, RAID 1, or simply as individual drives, giving you up to a full terabyte of storage. You could further upgrade to RAID 1+0 for performance and redundancy, although that would also require four hard drives which is more than most people want to install in a home computer. We certainly aren't recommending this configuration as the best choice for every single person: get what you feel is most beneficial for your storage needs.


    I believe that fully covers your second comment, right? It's always an option, but it's not required by any means.
    Reply
  • yacoub - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    The Antec P150 is such a superb case I can't believe it does not many any of your four case recommendations. It is an ideal case in that it is built for quietness, airflow, ease of cleaning, and ease of access. Everything about it is pretty much perfect AND it's not upside-down like the more "popular" Antec P180 case, nor does it have a silly topvent. It's also a little more reasonably-sized (I don't know of anyone building a gaming PC that needs more than 2-3 5.25" bay drives nor room for more than 3-4 hard drives. Really, this case has it all. It's probably the one part of my current build I'm most satisfied with and have been since purchase, which was when they first came out about a year ago. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 09, 2006 - link

    quote:

    The choice of case is going to be largely based on personal preference.


    Some people love the P180, others love the P150, and still others think the ASUS plastic monstrosity is the coolest looking case ever. I figured with a choice of the SLK-3000 and P180, I needed someone other than Antec to represent the case section. :)
    Reply

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