Introduction

Inevitably, around this time of year people repeat two questions like a daily mantra. What do you want for Christmas? What should I ask "Santa" to bring me? (Feel free to insert your own appropriately politically correct holiday references.) We won't try to say that it's better to give than to receive, but assuming the giving and/or receiving involves a computer geek, we can at least try to provide some good advice on what sort of packages might bring the most joy to this holiday season.

We try to do regular Buyers' Guides that put together several variants of a complete computer system at various price points, and we've recently covered the entry-level and midrange segments. For the holidays, we're going to scrap putting together complete systems and instead focus on a "best of" list of components for the various price ranges. By the time we're finished, you can also use the recommendations to put together a complete system if you so desire; just make sure everything is compatible and you should be fine. (In other words, don't grab that el-cheapo power supply and plan on running a tricked out CrossFire or SLI setup.)

Before you begin down the dark path of upgrading, however, it helps to take a step back and try to determine exactly why you're upgrading in the first place. If you have a three or four year old computer, it might be best to start from scratch rather than attempting any piecemeal upgrades. By the time you've added a new motherboard to accommodate that new processor, you probably also had to grab some new memory, an upgraded power supply, and a PCI Express graphics card. Add the optical drive, hard drive, and case and you have a new system!

If your computer is only a year or two old, wholesale upgrades might be more than you really need. Yes, you can easily find faster processors if you want, but if you already have a dual-core socket 939 Athlon/Opteron you might be able to wait a little longer. If you have a PCI Express compatible motherboard and are mostly concerned with gaming performance, you can probably get by with a new graphics card, some extra memory, and perhaps Windows Vista - what's DX10 hardware good for if you don't have an appropriate OS, right? Similarly, if you've been storing tons of videos and are running out of space, all you really need is a new hard drive. That's an easier and cheaper solution than adding a bunch of hardware you might not need.

We're going to break this Buyers' Guide into a couple parts, in order to keep things manageable. We'll start today with the major system components: processors, graphics cards, motherboards, and memory. The second installment will cover the remaining components and accessories. So let's get to the heart of the computer: the CPU.

A Plethora of Processors
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  • rudreshsj - Monday, June 16, 2008 - link

    the last buyers guide was way back in november the market has substantially changed after that ... pls post a newer updated guide.
    THX
    Reply
  • imperator3733 - Friday, November 30, 2007 - link

    On page 2 in the part on the QX9650, you say that the QX9650 has "2x6MB vs. 2xMB on the Q6xx0". It should say "2x4MB", not "2xMB". Reply
  • ac3shi6h - Monday, November 26, 2007 - link

    Just upgraded, everything from Newegg.Under $400
    ******
    GIGABYTE GA-M57SLI-S4 - $89
    AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ Black Edition $129
    MSI NX8600GTS Diamond Plus GeForce 8600GTS 256MB $149 -$20= $129
    Patriot Extreme Performance 2GB DDR2 SDRAM DDR2 800 PDC22G6400LLK 79 - 40= $39
    *******
    Total = $389,-
    Can't beat this value in upgrading from 939 x2-4200+ with a 7800gs
    3dmark05
    OLD
    3dmark = 6932
    3d cpu = 6095

    New (cpu @ 3ghz 15x multiplier)
    3dmark = 12234
    Cpu = 7422

    Now I probably would have gotten better scores if I spend a little more, but at a 400 dollar budget I don't think I could have gotten any better then this. The only thing I forgot to order was a heatsink.. that bumped me up to 409,-... still though.. I couldn't find any sli capable deal for anything less...

    AceY

    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Monday, November 26, 2007 - link

    We need to build a new computer to interface with our microscope for the lab. Don't need 3D capabilities to speak of, but does need to be able to run a pair of CRTs at 1600x1200 and have Firewire. I checked out the Gigabyte motherboard suggested with the Intel build, but the Gigabyte website says the DVI output cannot be used with an adapter to D-Sub. Can you confirm if this is true, or recommend any other boards that might fit the bill? Or should we just look for a discrete card for either graphics or Firewire? Reply
  • tshen83 - Saturday, November 24, 2007 - link

    I agree that the 8800GT is in short supply. However the Radeon HD3870 is also in short supply, if not worse than the 8800GT.

    Look at the MSRP. AMD advertised 219 as the MSRP, however, newegg and buy.com both raised the price to 269. And you still cannot buy them.

    It looks more and more that the HD3870 is here for benchmark purposes, whereas the HD3850 is really what AMD wants to sell. But the Radeon HD3850 is really slow, in my mind, not worth 180 dollars when the 8800GT 512MB is selling for $208:

    http://accessories.us.dell.com/sna/products/games/...">http://accessories.us.dell.com/sna/prod...mp;dgc=C...

    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, November 25, 2007 - link

    We actually aren't too surprised, but the text was written last week when supply of 3850/3870 cards was better. That's why we state, "While we're on the topic of availability, we must say that we don't know how long AMD will continue to keep up with demand for the Radeon HD 3850/3870. As with the NVIDIA GeForce 8800 GT, many resellers are now backordered and we wouldn't be surprised to see prices begin climbing." Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, November 25, 2007 - link

    On a related note, Dell currently has a killer deal on an 8800 GT 512MB card. How long will it last, and how long will it take to get the card if you order right now? Well, those are questions we don't have answers to right now. Still, if you're interested in an 8800 GT card, http://accessories.us.dell.com/sna/products/Games/...">here's the link

    (I don't know if that's the correct way to link, and the link buttons appear to be broken. Anyway, you should at least be able to see the URL; go to Dell.com and search for 8800GT if you need to.]
    Reply
  • FrankM - Friday, November 23, 2007 - link

    Am I the only one feeling that there's a bit of a gap between the IGPs and the ~$200 mainstream cards that you called "budget"? I sort of agree that there's not much worth getting between these extremes for current games, but 8600GT @ ~$100 runs OK on medium resolutions and settings, and also offloads HD-media from the CPU.
    Also, calling ~$200 cards "budget" is a bit weird. Not so long ago, that was mainstream, with budget being sub-$100...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 23, 2007 - link

    Well, we did mention them: "There are cheaper graphics cards that provide adequate performance and DirectX 10 support, but the difference in performance between the $100 you might spend on the Radeon HD 2600 XT 256MB/GeForce 8600 GT 256MB and the HD 3850 is substantial. Let's not even get into a discussion of performance requirements for Crysis, Hellgate: London, or Unreal Tournament 3. Needless to say, there are plenty more titles coming out where $100 graphics cards will need to drop down to lower resolutions and medium detail settings in order to provide adequate performance." Reply
  • Chubbbs - Thursday, November 22, 2007 - link

    "the G35 is next week"

    Yes, finally!! This is the platform I've been patiently waiting for. Not all enthusiasts are gamers. Some of us want a superior workstation without the cost, power consumption, acoustics, and binary blobs associated with discrete graphics. All we ask is for is modest composite and decode acceleration and a digital output (two would be nice). But that doesn't mean we don't want a premium ATX board with 8 SATAs, solid caps, and effective chipset radiators.

    There *is* a retail market for a $150-200 motherboard with integrated graphics. In fact, if we're going to pay $200 or more for a motherboard, shouldn't we expect it to include onboard graphics? It's not like it precludes adding discrete graphics, and it offers a much lower power mode for those rare moments when you're not gaming. I look forward to AT's in-depth analysis of Intel's long-overdue foray into integrated graphics for the midrange performance market.
    Reply

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