Welcome to the second part of our Holiday 2010 shopping guides. We started with a look at notebooks, in part because they're a popular item but mostly because Dustin just happened to be quicker to the draw when it was time to put together a shopping guide. While notebook and laptop sales continue to grow and now account for more units than desktops, every one of the editors at AnandTech still packs a desktop (or two or three or...) for those times when performance and screen size take priority over portability.

For this guide, we're taking a break from our traditional buyers' guides and giving each editor a chance to put together a system that they would recommend. There's definitely some overlap in taste and intended use, though, so we also broke things down into broad categories to make sure we had representatives for each market. From pure budget builds through the midrange and up to the high-end, we'll provide options. We'll also have a couple different takes on HTPC and a discussion of overclocking. While we won't be able to dedicate lengthy portions of the article to each specific component, you can also consider the individual parts as recommended upgrades/purchases in their own right.

Before we get to the guides, we do want to take a minute to discuss the market as a whole. We've said in the past that the right time to build is whenever you feel your current system isn't meeting your needs/wants. If you happen to be in that situation, then normally we'd say go ahead and spec out a new system and take the plunge. Waiting for the Next Big Thing™ can be an exercise in futility, as new parts are always just around the corner—new processors, chipsets, sockets, graphics cards, SSDs, etc. And the fact is, you can still put together a great system right now that will continue to be great in three months, even if something faster comes along.

We're reaching the stage where even PCs that are several years old (yeah, ancient!) are still more than fast enough for 95% of users. That old Core 2 Duo E6600 plugging along at 2.4GHz may not stand up well to the latest desktops in raw performance, but come on: it can still run circles around most laptops, it can handle HD YouTube content, and with an appropriate graphics card it can even manage medium to high detail games! [Jarred: Yes, I've got just such a PC in my living room pulling duty as an HTPC, never mind the old single-core Athlon 64 3800+ running in my eight-years-old daughter's computer!] So sure, new parts are just around the corner once again, but a good PC today will continue to be plenty fast for a couple years at least.

All that said, we do need to take a moment to name drop: Sandy Bridge. Our early testing shows it to be around 25% faster than the currently shipping parts, especially Lynnfield and Clarkdale. It will have better multi-threaded and single-threaded performance, and while idle power may not change much the load power consumption should drop quite a bit. Anand measured 121W for the entire system under load with an i5 2400 (3.1GHz), and that's 8% less power while being 23% faster than the i5-760 it replaces. If that pattern holds up, we're looking at overall performance per watt going up by almost 35%. To make matters worse, Sandy Bridge will also usher in a new socket, chipset, and motherboards: goodbye 1156, hello 1155! If you're looking to get the best performance from the most efficient architecture and you don't want your motherboard outdated next month, it will likely be worth waiting for.

Sandy Bridge isn't the only new component coming, naturally. The SSD companies are talking about several new controllers that will improve performance and perhaps even lower cost in the not-so-distant future. AMD just launched their HD 6800 cards, but it's no secret that the 6800 series is the replacement for the 5700 and Cayman (6900 series) is coming real soon. How fast will it be and how much will it cost? You'll have to wait a bit longer to find out. Likewise, NVIDIA just released GF110/GTX 580; we will probably see trickle-down parts like a 570 before long as well. AMD will also have Bulldozer launching in 2011, probably in the first half of the year but likely in the latter part of Q2, so you still have maybe six months to wait. Brazos isn't going to set the desktop world on fire (though it ought to do well in nettops and HTPCs), but Bulldozer might be able to hang with Sandy Bridge. It will also require a new motherboard/socket (AM3r2), so whether you're going Intel or AMD, the bleeding edge is about to switch sockets next year.

We're still going to give you a bunch of current system builds, regardless of the above, and most of the components can easily transfer over to a new Sandy Bridge or Bulldozer setup when those arrive. Whether you choose to wait or buy now and then upgrade (or buy again) later is up to you. So here's our holiday system guide picks, starting with the budget builds, moving through midrange, overclocking, and high-end, and wrapping up with the HTPC options. There's something for everyone, and even if you're happy with your current system you might have a friend or family member that would benefit from the content. There's no conclusion, so enjoy our picks and feel free to join the conversation in the comments below.

Dustin's AMD Pure Budget System
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  • raghu1111 - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    Sorry for the repost. I thought my earlier comment didn't make it. Reply
  • sjfischr - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    I think that it's a fantastic setup. To those commenting on the number of drives, let me tell you...as a Ceton owner myself, it's extremely easy to eat up space. I am already eating about 25% of my 4 TB of space thanks to this wonderful card, and I have owned mine for less than four weeks. 1080p HD takes up a good 5.5GB/hr, so let's be certain that many movies approach 12-15 GB apiece. To be sure, I can record up to 4 NFL games at once, and watch them in fast forward (these of course eat up space like crazy). You will need a huge amount of space over time--6TB will be a fine amount of space for now, but think about the fact that as it progresses, the media library will continue to grow.

    My only disagreement is on the case. Why get a $300 tower when the Thermaltake DH101 provides arguably one of the best examples in the $250 range? The DH101 is full ATX, is quiet enough for most tastes, has 4-3.5" bays, is tool-less, and has a built-in LCD display/remote. The LCD display recently had a firmware update, making it very easy-to-read, and it extremely customizable. With a supplied IR remote, this enables anyone (not just iPhone/Android folks) to point at the device and find what they want. I combine this with a Logitech diNovo Mini (it's much sleeker), and I agree that this combination of case, remote, and keyboard rate the highest on the Spousal Approval Factor.
    Reply
  • just4U - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    With options out there for memory that is in the cas 6-7 range I am not quite sure I understand why those of you building the more expensive systems are not considering them..

    It doesn't make sense. Please explain.
    Reply
  • just4U - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    A prime example comes from this link (the cas 6 lineup at Newegg)

    http://www.newegg.com/Product/ProductList.aspx?Sub...

    For me it's at the point where I don't care if it it goes higher I want those latancies to come down so ... C9 is great for a budget system but higher end?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    My personal experience with high-end RAM over the years has been less than ideal. Notice how all the CL6 RAM requires 1.6 to 1.65V, and compatibility with motherboards is less certain. A good mobo should work with it, and it would be faster than CL9 or CL8 memory, but it's not going to be such a huge difference that I'm personally ready to recommend spending $30 more on it. Besides, many of the DDR3 kits can do better timing with a bit of added voltage (just like the CL6 kits). If you want better RAM, by all means go for it, but I'm not promising it will always work. Reply
  • iMav - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    Another recommendation for Unicomp. Their keyboards ARE the modern-day Model M's. Not Model M-like, they are honest to goodness Model M keyboards.

    Definitely check out geekhack.org for more information you'd ever care to know about regarding mechanical keyboards.
    Reply
  • jonup - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    I can't agree more with Anand's mobo/CPU recommendation. I am personally waiting for Sandy for my next build. Meanwhile, I picked up this yesterday: http://www.newegg.com/Product/ComboDealDetails.asp... . For an extra $4 I got P2X4 940 and a similarly/slightly better spec'ed 785G mobo. I think that the extra core and 6MB of cash are worth the for buck. The trade off is that I am stuck with DDR2 but it is not an issue for me since I have 4GB in the system I am putting it in.
    All in all, stick with Anand's choice of picking up a cheap CPU/mobo and wait till January/February of next year. I would even extend this recommendation to the choice of SSD. With many new and exciting SSDs coming out soon after the holidays and the lower production costs of the 28nm manufacturing we should expect higher performance/capacity and lower prices once the next generations start popping up. Maybe 60GB for $100-130 or 80-90GB for <$150 would be a smarter investment.
    Reply
  • ivaxona - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    I've already placed the orders, most of the components arrived.

    Pjenom II X4 955 - bought second hand
    Gigabyte 880GM-UD2H
    Corsair xms3 2x2GB 1600MHZ
    Seagate 500GB and dvd-rw from my old PC
    Antec p180 mini
    Seasonic M12II 430W

    I will buy a 6850 as soon as i have the money, until then the onboard 4250 has to keep me covered. A Corsair force 60 gb on the long run and better cpu cooler. Maybe i'll wait for a new revision of coolermaster Hyper 212 after the new amd socket arrives :)
    Reply
  • GullLars - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    I have a couple of points i want to make in critique of this so called "dream PC".
    First off, while the RevoDrive x2 is a great single part that will not be a bottleneck in any normal system, this is not a normal system, and if you clock the CPUs a bit, it can still be a major bottleneck for bandwidth of incompressible data (like media, compressed or encrypted files).
    RAID-5 off ICH10R with 4x 1,5TB HDDs isn't dreamy either (4R5).

    Since this is a $8K+ "dream system", i feel it warrants a real hardware RAID controller, like the Areca 1880 with a 4GB stick of RAM. This controller supports 6Gbps SATA/SAS and plays nice with SSDs, and comes with 8-24 ports with good support of expanders, should they be needed. You can also hit 2GB/s bandwidth and >100K random IOPS.
    I'd suggest 8R6 Hitachi/Seagate Green 2TB drives + 4-8R0 Crucial C300 from the 12 or 16 port versions. The capacity of the SSDs dedicated by the budget, 8R0 of lower capacity taking priority over 4R0 of higher capacity. OFC with an image of the SSD RAID kept on the HDD RAID, and daily backups of userdata kept on the SSDs.

    I'd also list water cooling as an alternative, especially since 2x 580 in SLI would benefit from being watercooled.
    Reply
  • eBob - Sunday, November 21, 2010 - link

    I was wondering if there are any companies that provide remote control hardware for HTPCs other than Soundgraph/iMon. My current HTPC case has this solution pre-installed and it has been a huge headache. Basically, I am unable to turn power on from the remote after turning power off. If I turn off power at the power supply and turn it back on the remote works, but only once. I am running a Linux OS on this box and apparently Soundgraph is unable or unwilling to support such a setup and their customer support is useless. Reply

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