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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  • StormyParis - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    htpc should fit into a stereo cabinet. you're trying to build a NAS + HTPC + desktop into one machine, which makes no sense at all. Split the thing in 3, with a real, small, silent HTPC, a NAS, and a mini-itx desktop, and you're much better off, for pretty much the same price. Reply
  • ajlueke - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    While it is somewhat a matter of personal preference, I admit, some people really hate giant cases in the living room. I love having everything built into one system, and using it to serve the rest of the house and play Starcraft II on the big screen. The real downside, is then you are using a high end rig to serve you other computers as opposed to a NAS, and a NAS is going to have far superior numbers in the power consumption department. Reply
  • Mathieu Bourgie - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Good job on the builds everyone, great idea of getting several members of the AT's team to work together on this.

    Here are my opinions, suggestions and things that I'd personally change:

    Dustin's AMD Pure Budget System:
    Hard Drive: Actually, if you shop on Amazon instead, you can snap a Spinpoint F3 500Gb for about $46 and a 1TB for $53, without needing to find any coupons.

    Power Supply: I'd mention that the Antec EarthWatts Green EA-380D 380W doesn't include a power cord in its package. Not a big deal for most of us, but still good to knowi f you don't have a spare cord.

    DVD Burner: Why go with an IDE based model, which is out of stock by the way? Because the motherboard comes with a single SATA and a single IDE cable? Hardly a reason if you ask me.

    Might as well get a SATA model that can be used for years and years, if you upgrade the system down the road. Going by customer's feedback on NewEgg, ASUS 24x SATA DVD Burner is one of the most reliable model available, for only $20: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...

    Balraj's Intel Budget System:
    The one stick of RAM is an interesting trade off, sure you lose dual-channel but you gain the ability to easily upgrade RAM down the road. Then again, a motherboard with 4 RAM slots would allow for both options.

    Blu-Ray: The Samsung SH-B083L/BSBP has pretty bad reviews on NewEgg, I'd get the Samsung SH-B123L instead, which costs $20 more, but is also faster (12x vs 8x).

    Power Supply: I cannot skip this: you really want to avoid using a low-end, generic power supply, for reliability purposes and to protect your components. You do not want to cut corners on a power supply.

    Jarred's AMD Budget Gaming System:
    You mention Crossfire support, but go with a motherboard that has the PCI-Express 16x slots running at 16x and 4x, which would bottleneck performance?

    For a similar price, the ASRock 870 EXTREME3 comes with two PCI-Express 16x slots at 8x/8x, which are well spaced to allow both cards to "breath".

    125W CPU, with a stock cooler? Sure, it's "adequate" for cooling in most cases, but that stock cooler is going to be heard from miles away when you game for hours and/or during hot summer nights if you don't have an AC. Not much of an issue if you play with headphones, but still, I'd get at least a Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus CPU Cooler.

    "Gaming depends primarily on your GPU" "You could even go with a cheaper CPU like the Athlon II X4 645 or the Phenom II X4 810"
    Agreed for most games, but there are games that will be CPU bound (Think RTS like SC2, or MMORPG like WoW), where you'll want a powerful CPU that allow the GPU to flex its muscles.
    Also, while the X4 645 isn't a bad CPU, losing the L3 cache and the lower frequencies are going to hurt performance quite a bit for video games.

    Vivek's Midrange Intel System:
    Once again, Crossfire is mentioned, but the second PCI-Express slot runs at 4x...

    An ASRock P55 EXTREME4 will fix that and if you want USB 3.0 and SATA 6.0Gb/s at the same time as Crossfire 8x/8x, you'll want an ASUS P7P55D-E Pro, which features a PLX chip, making it one of the few P55 boards that can run SATA 6.0Gb/s, USB 3.0 and Crossfire 8x/8x all at once, unlike most boards where USB 3.0 and SATA 6.0Gb/s will fall back to USB 2.0 and SATA 3.0Gb/s due to the lack of bandwidth (lack of PCI-Express lanes, thanks to the P55 chipset).

    PSU: OCZ don't exactly make the most reliable PSUs, with the biggest issue being that reliability varies from a model to another, since they use various manufacturers for their PSUs. You get what you pay for with a PSU and a solid Corsair or Seasonic PSU will serve you much better IMO.

    Raja's Midrange AMD Overclocking System:
    I actually agree with all your choices and like how you didn't strictly stick to NewEgg. Way to go.

    Raja's Midrange Intel Overclocking System:

    I'd avoid the ASUS Maximus III GENE like the plague. I used to recommend it, until I'd hear back from so many readers that had issues with it (Read some review on NewEgg) that I had no choice but to stop recommending it, because it's so unreliable.

    Ryan's High-End Gaming System:
    Way to go for keeping noise somewhat under control. Once again though, an IDE DVD Burner in a 2k+ system? Really?

    Also, the sound card is priced at $100, not $75, unless I missed something here.

    Brian's Intel Dream PC:
    Hahaha, now you're talking! Couldn't agree more on the motherboard, which is a one of a kind.

    Just one thing though: You forgot CPU Coolers, since Xeon CPUs don't come with any.

    Also, why ECC RAM? ECC seems kind of futile for a Gaming PC.

    Keyboard: Yes! Mechanical keyboards are the best. I personally recently got a Filco with MX Cherry Blue switches and that keyboard helped me increase my WPM typing speed tremendously. The feedback and noise is also great for gaming.

    Mouse: I've always been a fan of the Logitech MX-518, which remains excellent years after its release and offers a great bang for your buck too.

    Don't have much to add to the HTPCs, they make sense and quite frankly, it's a matter of personal tastes too.

    Except for a few things mentioned above, great job all on the builds. Although I'm a bit sadden to not have seen any Workstation build.

    P.S. For those who wonder about my experience building PCs and the like, I’m a computer enthusiast with 10 years of experience in building, fixing and modifying computers, who has been writing about/offering PC Builds of all kinds (Gaming, HTPC, Workstations, etc.) at various price points on my own blog (www.hardware-revolution.com) for over two years and a half now.

    Cheers,
    Mathieu
    Reply
  • Ben90 - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    I agree completely on the inclusion of a mechanical keyboard, they are the SSDs of the keyboard world. Once you try to type on rubber domes again it feels absolutely horrible.
    Personally I am a Cherry Black guy as I like the linear travel for gaming, but for typing its impossible to beat Cherry Blues unless quietness is a metric.
    Reply
  • bji - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    How do you feel about scissor switch keyboards? I like them as I find them to be much less mushy than rubber dome keyboards, but alot quieter and with less key travel than mechanical keyboards. I use the Kensington "Slim Type Keyboard" (that's what it says on the bottom, I can't remember the exact model number) and highly recommend it. Reply
  • Tom_S - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Concerning keyboards etc. I *have* been living under a rock and had not heard of the DAS keyboard that sounds interesting, but while under the rock I have been using my Northgate and Avant keyboards (made by CVT Inc) which were always the gold standard in mechanical keyboards. I looked at the site, and it appears that the lesser of the Avant kbds is not available right now, but the Stellar is.
    http://www.cvtinc.com/products/keyboards/menu.htm

    I concede that these are old fashioned - not USB without an adapter, no USB hub, but they have been around since the 1980's and are noteworthy. To further date myself, one of their features has been to remap the left ctrl and caps lock keys (moving ctrl next to the "a" key), for those of us still used to old terminals and editors/programming environments that use control keys.
    Reply
  • strikeback03 - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Are the current Samsung HDDs any good? A couple years ago I bought a Samsung HDD recommended on this site for a build for work. First one wouldn't allow an OS install. RMAed it, got a replacement. That one died a few months later. RMAed that, bought one from another brand, and after testing the third Samsung to be sure it could be formatted when we got it just kept it on the side for emergency use. Can't say I'm anxious to try again. Reply
  • Mathieu Bourgie - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Samsung HDDs are some of the best drives on the market in my opinion. Their F3 and F4 (The 7,200 rpm 320GB model that is) line-up offer some of the best throughputs rates in MB/s, are very reliable and emit very little heat.

    For the average latency time, the Western Digital drives tend to be better, although they run hotter and have slightly lower reliability. For Gaming, I'd say that WD drives are the best, but quite frankly, you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a system equipped with Samsung or WD drives.

    Also, keep in mind warranty: W.D. offers 5 years on their Black Caviar line-up, as opposed to 3 years on their Caviar Blue and 3 years for Samsung drives.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    I did try to price-check everything using our internal pricing tools (Dynamite-Data is an AnandTech affiliate of sorts), so where I could find clearly better prices from other than Newegg I went that route. Obviously, 10 systems or whatever makes it a bit difficult to get every little detail, which is why some IDE DVDRW drives slipped in. Oops!

    The CrossFire/SLI issue on lower end motherboards (i.e. P55 with x16/x4) was another one that I wracked my brain on for a good long time. I'd really like to go the Biostar route on Vivek's setup (or the overclocking board), but truthfully I'm a bit gun-shy with Biostar. I've had decent boards in the past from them, and other boards that sucked hard. Price is another item that I kept running into -- I don't want to recommend an expensive Intel board when SB is coming so soon.

    I'll try to go through and update the optical drives to be SATA, though. Shame on my fellow writers for being so lazy! :-) Thanks for the comments.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Okay, I made some updates and added some additional commentary where appropriate. But I chose to disagree (or let the editors disagree at least) with some of your comments. IMO, there's no need for aftermarket cooling on CPUs if you don't intend to overclock, so I left my build without one.

    The other big issue is Newegg reviews; they're just not reliable by any stretch. We've had motherboards that our guys loved that get mediocre scores at Newegg because of idiot users. "Gee... my memory isn't working and I plugged it in, never looked at the BIOS, never updated the BIOS. What's wrong with this board!?" Likewise, some items get 5 eggs not because they're the best but because a lot of buyers think they're a great value... and they wouldn't know quality if it walked up and punched them in the nose. So, while I generally avoid stuff that gets 3 eggs or less, the 4/5 egg stuff may be decent, good, or great depending on the user. Plus, people with problems are about 10X more likely to post as people where everything worked fine.

    Anyway, thanks for the corrections/suggestions.
    Reply

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