Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2098



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

Base High-End AMD Athlon X2 AM2 System
Hardware Component Price
Processor AMD Athlon 64 X2 (AM2) 4600+ - 2.4GHz 2x512KB Windsor $245
Motherboard MSI K9N SLI Platinum - nForce 570 SLI AM2 $135
Memory GeIL Ultra 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR2-800 4-4-4-12 $280
Video Card 2 x EVGA 512-P2-N573-AR Geforce 7900GTO 512MB $504
Hard Drive Seagate 3.0Gbps 320GB 7200RPM 16MB Barracuda 7200.10 $95
Optical Drive NEC ND-3550A 16X DVD+/-RW $34
Operating System Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2B (OEM) $115
System Total $1408
Complete Package $1995 - $3971

Starting with the AMD basic high-end offering, it should come as little surprise that you still get a powerhouse of a computer for the cost. A fast processor, dual graphics cards, 2 GB of RAM, and a good amount of hard drive space will keep all but the most demanding users satisfied. We won't be putting together an equivalent Intel system, as we already mentioned, but it could certainly be done. Let's take a closer look at a few of our component choices, and discuss some of the alternatives you might want to consider.

The choice of motherboard determines in a large part what sort of system you are going to build. A high-end gaming system will come with dual X16 PCI-E slots, often with full X16 bandwidth to each slot. The truth of the matter is that PCI Express graphics cards are rarely starved for bandwidth, so dropping down to X8 bandwidth won't have a dramatic impact on performance. We saved about $40 by going with the MSI K9N-SLI Platinum motherboard, which uses the nForce 570 SLI chipset as opposed to the nForce 590 SLI chipset. The motherboard won't overclock quite as far as some other offerings, and during our testing for the review we found that it seemed to hit a brick wall very quickly once you passed a certain point. If you can live with the approximately 315 MHz top bus speed "limitation", however, the board still performs admirably.

Moving on to the processor, we have chosen what is best classified as a moderately fast AMD offering, the Athlon X2 4600+. When the AM2 processors first launched, the 4600+ carried a price tag of nearly $600. We didn't really recommend the processor then, but with the updated price of roughly $250 it becomes a lot more attractive. We considered recommending an upgrade to the 5000+, with a price of roughly $365, but at present many places that stock the CPU at that price are backordered. Besides, as we've already stated, Intel definitely has the performance advantage anyway, so if you're looking at getting a reasonably high-end AMD system you might as well save a bit of money. Overclocking is always an option, and we have found that most dual core AMD AM2 processors top out somewhere between 2.6 and 2.8 GHz without resorting to extreme cooling, in which case you would again be better off saving the money and getting a slightly slower stock clock speed.

The choice of memory sparked some serious debate here at AnandTech, as well as a vigorous search of many vendors along with our own pricing engine in an attempt to find the best performing memory at the lowest cost possible. We mentioned this in our last midrange guide, and we will reiterate the point here: DDR2 memory prices have skyrocketed over the past couple of months. You could find 2 GB of reasonably performing DDR2 memory for only $150 two months ago, but now the cheapest price you will find for such memory is $200, with the better performing options costing over $250. Given that our baseline AMD configuration is more of a "budget high-end" system, we tried to keep the costs down as much as possible. We still wanted to get some DDR2-800 memory with CL4 timings, however, as memory with those specifications generally marks the beginning of the high-end RAM. Our own memory reviewer relayed the following information, which is worth repeating: "Corsair, Crucial, Kingston, G.Skill, GeIL, Mushkin, OCZ, Patriot, Super Talent, and TEAM (and several others as well) have all been very competitive at the same speed grade in DDR2." Basically, if you buy memory with the same specifications, the difference from one manufacturer to another is not going to be huge. With this in mind, we looked for DDR2-800 memory with good timings and tried to find the lowest current price. As you can see, we ended up with a GeIL Ultra 2x1GB kit. If prices change in the near future and one of the other manufacturers offers DDR2-800 CL4 RAM at a better price, they would get our pick for "budget high-end" memory.

Having selected an SLI motherboard, we of course chose to go with two NVIDIA graphics cards. There are many options currently available, but generally speaking we feel you should get the fastest single card you can purchase up until the GX2 before moving to dual graphics cards. In other words, we would take a single fast 7900 series card over two 7600 GT cards. Once you reach the cost of the GX2 (about $500), many new options open up. Two 7900 GT cards would have been a good choice a month or two back, but these cards have now been displaced with the launch of the 7950 GT and the 7900 GTO. The 7900 GTO is basically a 7900 GTX design, including the large, quiet heatsink/fan, only with lower memory and core clock speeds. Many people have had good results in overclocking the GTO to GTX clock speeds, but even at the stock speeds it will be a very fast card. The only drawback is that the cards are dual slot designs, and the GTO cards don't currently include HDCP support. Relative to the 7900 GT, you will definitely get better performance, as you get twice as much memory with a faster core clock speed.

A near tie in terms of getting our recommendation is the 7950 GT cards. These have a slower clock speed than the GTO but include faster memory, they take up a single slot, and you can get HDCP support. They also cost a bit more than the GTO and they make more noise. We decided to save money and sacrifice expansion slots, and with many games starting to stress GPU core performance rather than memory bandwidth we feel the GTO will be faster. It ends up being a decision between features and price, however, so you should choose whichever appeals to you more.

Rounding out our component selections, we chose to go with a single 320GB hard drive and the obligatory 16X DVD burner. In both cases, we had an eye towards performance as well as price. For 320GB hard drives with 16MB of cache, the Seagate 7200.10 is currently the lowest price and offers compelling performance. You could always go with a smaller or larger hard drive, although the difference in price between 250GB and 320GB isn't very large. With Blu-Ray and HD-DVD on the horizon, DVD burners are all becoming very similar in specifications and performance. Media compatibility will still vary, but if you get the drive manufacturer's recommended brand you shouldn't have any problems, at which point you can simply choose whichever is cheapest. Once again, that honor falls to the NEC ND-3550A, with LG Electronics, BenQ, LiteOn, Pioneer, and others following close behind. The only thing to remember is to get an optical drive with a faceplate that will match your choice of case.

We will wrap up with a brief note on the operating system selection. All of the systems we are putting together today should be fully compatible with Windows Vista once it becomes available, not to mention Windows XP, Linux, and many other operating systems. You should also be able to run either 32-bit or 64-bit versions of any of these operating systems, although the overall performance and compatibility of Windows x64 OSes at present is lower than their 32-bit offerings. You then need to decide which specific package to get within the OS family, and for Windows XP that means choosing between Home, Professional, and Media Center Edition. For anyone that runs more than a single computer on a network, we definitely don't recommend XP Home. Media Center Edition and XP Professional use the same code base, with a few minor differences. We feel MCE is the most versatile choice overall, and the fact that it is $20 cheaper helps to seal the deal. If you plan on running 4GB of memory or more, you will probably want to upgrade to a 64-bit OS, but we will continue to recommend 32-bit Windows and 2GB of RAM for the time being.



Upgraded AMD High-End Platform

Upgraded High-End AMD Athlon X2 AM2 System
Hardware Component Price
Processor AMD Athlon 64 (AM2) FX-62 - 2.8GHz 2x1MB Windsor $695
Motherboard DFI LANParty UT SLI-M2R/G - nForce 590 SLI AM2 $182
Memory GeIL Ultra 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR2-1000 4-4-4-12 $315
Video Card 2 x EVGA GeForce 7900GTX 512MB RoHS HDCP $810
Hard Drive 2 x Western Digital 250GB 16MB Caviar SE16 $154
Optical Drive 2 x NEC ND-3550A 16X DVD+/-RW $68
Operating System Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2B (OEM) $115
System Total $2339
Complete Package $2926 - $4902

Our upgraded AMD configuration adds additional performance in many areas over the baseline AMD system. However, the performance improvement gained relative to the price increase is definitely a case of diminishing returns. This is especially true in light of the fact that a similarly priced Intel Core 2 Duo system is going to offer better overall performance, so unless you absolutely refuse to buy Intel it is difficult for us to recommend this particular configuration. We end up targeting the middle of the high-end price range with our upgraded AMD platform: faster in several areas than the baseline Intel configuration we will get to in a moment, but definitely not as fast as the upgraded Intel platform.

For the motherboard, we have gone ahead and upgraded to an nForce 590 SLI chipset. The base performance offered may not be much better, but the overall better quality of the board is indisputable. DFI's recently launched DFI LANParty UT SLI-M2R/G motherboard includes all of the enthusiast options you could want, along with rock solid performance and superb overclocking. There are competing motherboards for the AM2 platform that come very close to the DFI in overall performance and features, but once we add in price the DFI is currently the best high-end AM2 motherboard available. It features solid electrolyte capacitors that seem to improve overclocking stability, and we have been able to reach higher memory clock speeds with this motherboard than any other motherboard currently available - for any platform. Maximum memory performance isn't necessarily the be-all end-all, but DFI has created a product that should definitely appeal to the AMD enthusiasts.

About the only other alternative for motherboards on AM2 platforms that we haven't mentioned would be something that provides CrossFire support. There are only three RD580 AM2 motherboards currently available, one of which definitely isn't worth considering. The remaining two boards are provided by MSI and ASUS, with the MSI board costing slightly less. If you want to build an AMD CrossFire system rather than going with SLI, either motherboard will do the job admirably.

Our CPU selection uses the fastest currently shipping AMD processor, the FX-62. This comes with a clock speed of 2.8 GHz and it includes 2x1024K of cache rather than the 2x512K used on most of the other shipping Athlon X2 processors. It's also nice to see that the price has come down from $1000+ to "only" $700; unfortunately that's more money than any Intel chip other than the X6800, with performance roughly equivalent (and slightly lower on average) to the much cheaper E6600. Not to beat a dead horse, but there are definitely better options than an ultra high-end AM2 system these days.

We upgraded the memory slightly from our baseline recommendation to some DDR2-1000 memory. All of the DDR2-1000 memory that we have tested performs very similarly, and all of it is also able to run at 3-3-3 timings at DDR2-800 with added voltage (typically 2.1V-2.2V). The absolute best DDR2 memory currently available costs quite a bit more than the GeIL Ultra memory we have chosen, so unless you really want speeds over DDR2-1100 this memory probably represents the best compromise between price and maximum clock speeds.

Our GPU recommendation has been upgraded to the 7900 GTX, which adds quite a bit to the cost without gaining much performance at all if you're willing to try overclocking the GTO cards we mentioned earlier. We could always talk about upgrading to quad SLI, but honestly overall performance, compatibility, and stability is much better with SLI. If you want to purchase a 30" LCD so you can run games at 2560x1600, perhaps quad SLI is worth consideration, but don't be surprised if you run into many compatibility/stability issues if you choose to go that route. We definitely do not recommend quad SLI, and we feel you would be much better off waiting for the next-generation GPUs to become available rather than investing in expensive, flaky, bleeding-edge hardware configurations.

The only other change we've made is to the storage subsystem, where we've doubled the number of hard drives and DVD drives. You certainly don't need to have two hard drives for a top-end computer, but it does give you the ability to run RAID 0 or RAID 1. Even without RAID, performance can be somewhat snappier in Windows by having your swap file and some of your applications on the second hard drive, and of course you do get more storage with two drives instead of one. The dual DVD burners are an extra feature that a lot of people probably will never utilize, but if you do a lot of DVD burning it could prove useful. You could also try purchasing drives from two different manufacturers in order to maximize your media compatibility. While some might be interested in seeing a Blu-Ray or HD-DVD included instead of a standard DVD-RW, the technology is too new for us to recommend right now - that whole bleeding-edge problem again.



Baseline Intel High-End Platform

Base High-End Intel Core 2 Duo System
Hardware Component Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 - 2.40GHz 4MB Shared L2 $317
Motherboard MSI 975X Platinum V.2 "PowerUp" MS-7246-020 - Intel 975X 775 $176
Memory GeIL Ultra 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR2-1000 4-4-4-12 $315
Video Card Sapphire Radeon X1900XT 512MB $338
Video Card Sapphire Radeon X1900 CrossFire 512MB $391
Hard Drive Seagate 3.0Gbps 320GB 7200RPM 16MB Barracuda 7200.10 $95
Optical Drive NEC ND-3550A 16X DVD+/-RW $30
Operating System Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2B (OEM) $115
System Total $1777
Complete Package $2364 - $4340

The baseline Intel platform for this high-end guide falls somewhere between the base and upgraded AMD selections. The storage components are the same as the baseline AMD system, while we went with the faster memory from the upgraded AMD configuration. The reason for this is that Core 2 Duo computers seem to be better capable of utilizing higher bandwidth memory than AM2 systems, not to mention the importance of getting high-quality memory if you plan on overclocking Core 2 platforms using a 1:1 ratio. You can of course choose to stay with the cheaper alternative we listed earlier, and you could also downgrade the CPU to a cheaper model. We've gone the other direction and opted for better performance at a higher price.

Core 2 Duo motherboards based off the P965 chipset have been getting a lot of the headlines lately, but in many situations the 975X chipset motherboards are still the better performers. You can now get CrossFire support with P965, but it comes with a slight to moderate performance penalty and the price advantage isn't particularly noteworthy. For non-gaming purposes and maximum FSB overclocking, going with the P965 chipset is certainly viable, but for overall versatility we prefer 975X motherboards. MSI's original 975X Core 2 Duo offering had some issues, but they have since released a "PowerUp edition" (also designated v.2) that has turned out to be a great motherboard, ranking right up with the best of the current 975X offerings. Unfortunately, the new revision bears the same model number as the old revision, so pay careful attention to the online vendors to make sure that you are getting the right motherboard. Most of the old models seem to be disappearing now, but a few extra minutes of caution certainly won't hurt.

For the Core 2 Duo processor, there are a lot of reasonable choices. You can always purchase one of the lower clocked E6300/E6400 processors and then see how far you can overclock it, which will still usually result in CPU performance that's better than anything on the AMD side of the fence. We recommend that path more for the midrange sector, whereas for the baseline high-end Intel platform we have chosen to upgrade to the 4MB L2 cache of the E6600. That also gives you higher clock speeds than the E6400, and with some overclocking you should still be able to easily reach clock speeds above 3 GHz. That means you can get X6800 performance for one third the cost, although X6800 CPUs will

typically overclock even further. Even without overclocking, though, the E6600 is no slouch and will put up performance numbers that are higher than the AMD FX-62 in the majority of benchmarks. For another $200, you could upgrade to the E6700, but we're content to stick with the E6600 as the basic high-end Intel CPU selection.

The choice of motherboard and chipset also dictates which multi-GPU configuration we can use, so while our baseline AMD system went with NVIDIA GeForce 7900 GTO cards, for the Intel platform we have switched over to ATI X1900 XT/CrossFire cards. Depending on which games you play, NVIDIA will be faster in some areas and ATI will be faster in others, at least when comparing the 7900 GTX with the X1900 XT. Overall, the X1900 CrossFire configuration will be faster than the baseline AMD graphics configuration, often by a reasonable margin. It does however cost $225 more, so ATI isn't the clearly better choice if money is a concern.



Intel Ultra High-End Platform

Upgraded High-End Intel Core 2 Duo System
Hardware Component Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Extreme X6800 - 2.93GHz 4MB Shared L2 $950
Motherboard ASUS P5W DH Deluxe - Intel 975X 775 $229
Memory OCZ Titanium Alpha VX2 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR2-1000 4-4-4-15 $445
Video Card Sapphire Radeon X1950 XTX 512MB $431
Video Card Sapphire Radeon X1950 CrossFire 512MB $465
Hard Drive 2 x Western Digital 3.0Gbps 500GB Caviar SE16 $352
Optical Drive 2 x NEC ND-3550A 16X DVD+/-RW $68
Operating System Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 SP2B (OEM) $115
System Total $3055
Complete Package $3642 - $5618

Finally, we come to the granddaddy of all high-end computer configurations. Oh sure, we could go off the deep end and recommend a dual socket motherboard with Xeon 5160 processors and multiple gigabytes of memory - or you could go out and purchase one of the new Mac systems and get the same thing (minus CrossFire/SLI support) - but outside of workstation class applications a fast single socket configuration will usually offer better performance, and it will save you quite a bit of money.

The MSI motherboard in our basic Intel recommendation is still a good motherboard, and the Abit AW9D and AW9D-Max are another alternative. However, if you want what is considered the best overall 975X motherboard right now, that distinction continues to belong to the ASUS P5W DH Deluxe. Capable of reaching bus speeds of over 400MHz while maintaining stability, and offering full support for 2x8 CrossFire, the ASUS P5W DH has all the features necessary for building an ultimate performance computer. It also fully supports the upcoming Core 2 Extreme QX6700 for those that are planning to upgrade to quad cores in the future. Prices have also come down quite a bit since the initial Core 2 launch, although at $230 the P5W DH certainly isn't an inexpensive motherboard. Thankfully, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for, and what you're paying for here is optimum performance.

When it comes to CPU performance, the Core 2 Extreme X6800 is currently the fastest mainstream processor available. In our initial review, we found that the X6800 didn't lose a single benchmark to any other processor. Similar to AMD's FX series, Core 2 Extreme also comes with unlocked CPU multipliers, so you also gain the benefit of being able to overclock via higher multipliers rather than simply increasing bus speed. (That could prove especially useful if you want to get an nForce4 SLI for Intel motherboard.) If you're interested in achieving maximum performance at any price, you will certainly want the X6800. Just don't get too upset when something faster comes out in the not-too-distant future.

For our ultra high-end configuration, we have pulled out all the stops and gone with some of the fastest memory we have ever tested. The OCZ Titanium VX2 is rated at DDR2-1000, and it is also certified for operation with up to 2.4V. Depending on personal preference, you might also find the chromatic heatsinks to be the best thing ever... or not. In our performance testing, the OCZ VX2 was able to keep up with the best memories currently available. Beyond DDR2-1100, increased latencies often reduce performance making higher clock speeds less useful, but up through DDR2-1067 there are actual performance benefits to be had. Are the benefits worth the extra $150? For a lot of people, the answer is no, but anyone seriously considering a $1000 processor is probably going to want maximum performance in all other areas as well.


Going along with the maximum performance trend, our graphics card selection consists of the recently launched ATI X1950 series, with the obligatory XTX + CrossFire combination. Sporting the same GPU clock speed as the X1900 XTX but utilizing GDDR4-2000 rather than GDDR3-1550, the X1950 is the fastest single GPU currently available. (The GeForce 7950 GX2 is still faster in some situations, but that is technically two GPU cores, and as already mentioned the prospects of upgrading to quad SLI are not without their drawbacks.) ATI's latest driver updates have also further improved performance of all of the R580 cards, with the net result being that X1950 CrossFire is faster than the NVIDIA alternative in most games.

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.



Display, Case and Peripherals

We have covered the core components for all of the systems, so now you need a box to put everything in, a power supply to get everything running, as well as a display, speakers, keyboard, and mouse. If you already have a decent computer system, you might want to reuse some of your existing parts, but it might be easier to simply buy a new case and power supply so that you can sell off your old system (or add a second full computer as the case may be). We have four configurations for you to choose from, ranging from an upper midrange selection all the way up through the no holds barred ultra high-end setup. While all four could be used with any of the computer systems listed in this guide, the higher-end parts you choose for your main components the more you should probably spend on the remainder of the system. Of course, you do not need to use all of the choices from one table; if you want to get an ultra high-end display but use baseline components for the rest of your system, there's nothing stopping you from doing so. Mix and match as you see fit!

Base High-End Case and Accessories
Display Acer AL2216Wbd 22" 5ms 1680x1050 $339
Case Antec Solution SLK3000-B $52
Power Supply Seasonic S12-500 500W $113
Keyboard and Mouse Microsoft Comfort Curve 2000 with Optical Mouse $28
Speakers Logitech X-530 5.1 $55
Total $587

Our baseline recommendation has many similarities with the upgraded midrange configuration we used in our last buyers guide, including the use of the same 22" widescreen display from Acer and the Microsoft keyboard and mouse combo package. We have chosen a slightly different case and power supply, although the choice of case is going to be largely based on personal preference. The Antec SLK-3000 case is your classic steel Antec chassis with a black paint job: it's durable, easy to work with, and it includes a reasonably quiet rear 120mm fan with an additional 120mm fan mount at the front of the case. A second fan isn't absolutely required, but adding a lower RPM fan can help ensure that your components stay cool. As we are using multiple graphics cards in all the configurations, we felt a good-quality power supply was a required starting point. While just about any 500W or higher rated PSU is going to be sufficient, we wanted something relatively quiet that we were confident would last a long time. (Ed: And we changed from the original PSU choice due to user feedback...) We selected the Seasonic S12-500 to go with the Antec case, as Seasonic is one of the most highly regarded PSU manufacturers around. 500W might seem low to some, but this is truly a 500W PSU with a high efficiency; it can really output 500W to all the peripherals - more than enough for the systems listed here today - and it will do so without drawing substantially more power from the outlet. We also added some basic 5.1 speakers from Logitech - something we omitted in the previous buyers guide. (Ed: Sorry!) For the basic builds, we feel most users will be fine using integrated audio, so we are not listing a sound card, but you can see some options below.

Upgraded High-End Case and Accessories
Display Acer 24" AL2416Wd 6ms 1920x1200 $686
Case LIAN LI PC-7B plus II $100
Power Supply OCZ GameXStream OCZ700GXSSLI 700W $130
Keyboard and Mouse Logitech Keyboard and Mouse - Wireless + Rechargeable $56
Sound Card Bluegears b-Enspirer $106
Speakers Cyber Acoustics A-5640rb 5.1 $100
Total $1178

Stepping up one notch, we've moved up to a 24" LCD from Acer, sporting a native 1920x1200 resolution with a fast 6ms response time. With all the money spent on upgraded graphics cards, there's no point in not having a high-end display to help keep them busy! For the case, we chose the Lian Li PC-7B black aluminum enclosure. Lian Li has always been known for building high-quality cases, and this is no exception. Like the Antec we selected above, it includes two 120mm fan mounts at the front and rear of the case, only this time both fans are included. We upgraded the power supply one more notch to a 700W model, this time going with the OCZ GameXStream 700W as it is presently the lowest priced quality 700W PSU available. Thermaltake, Fotron Source, and several other manufacturers offer similar power supplies - in fact, most of these power supplies are simply tweaked Fotron Source designs, so if you can find one of those for less money there's little difference other than the name on the side of the PSU. For the input devices, we switched to a wireless Logitech keyboard and mouse, with the mouse including a recharging stand. Some people have other preferences as far as keyboards and mice go, so get what you're comfortable with.

We've also upgraded the speakers, and we added a Bluegears b-Enspirer soundcard. A lot of you may not have heard of this soundcard yet, but it is definitely one to consider. It uses the new C-Media Oxygen HD CMI8788 audio chip and features real-time Dolby Digital and DTS encoding support. This is a great soundcard for anyone looking to put together an HTPC system, or anyone looking for better than integrated audio without the Creative Labs name. Feel free to upgrade the speakers to something better or use your home stereo system in order to take full advantage of this soundcard. If you're primarily concerned with gaming audio, the Sound Blaster X-Fi is still the better choice, but for light gaming and home theater use the Bluegears b-Enspirer is an excellent alternative.

Upgraded #2 High-End Case and Accessories
Display Dell 2407WFP 24" 6ms GTG 1920x1200 $720
Case Antec Performance I P180 $125
Power Supply OCZ GameXStream OCZ700GXSSLI 700W $130
Keyboard and Mouse Logitech MX3000 Wireless + Laser Mouse $63
Sound Card Creative X-Fi XtremeMusic $114
Speakers Logitech Z-5300e 5.1 $139
Total $1291

Most of the differences between this upgraded version and the previous upgraded version are slight. We've chosen the Dell 2407WFP 24" LCD, which we think looks a little bit nicer than the Acer, and it also includes a better stand and an integrated flash card reader. Are any of those changes required? No, but some of you will prefer the Dell display, and if you wait you might actually be able to find it for less money when Dell puts on one of their classic sales. We changed the case to an Antec P180, going for silver this time because not everyone likes black. (Make sure you get an appropriate optical drive faceplate if you choose this case!) The power supply remains the same, while we ditched the rechargeable wireless mouse for a wireless laser mouse. Finally, we upgraded the speakers another step to the Logitech Z-5300e. A little bit more money, a little bit better sound quality. We also chose a more gaming-centric sound card in the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeMusic, which we would assume all of you are familiar with by now.

Ultra High-End Case and Accessories
Display Dell 3007WFP 30" 11ms GTG 2560x1600 $1450
Case Cooler Master Stacker 830 $243
CPU Cooling Scythe Infinity $60
Power Supply SilverStone SST-ST85ZF 850W $279
Keyboard Microsoft Natural 4000 $43
Mouse Logitech MX Revolution $90
Sound Card Creative X-Fi Platinum $175
Speakers Logitech Z-5500D 5.1 Digital Speakers $223
Total $2563

The Ultra accessories package is a great complement to the ultra high-end Intel configuration. In a similar fashion, we have maxed out just about every component, sometimes at significant expense. We have chosen the Cooler Master Stacker 830 for our top configuration, as it has a spacious interior and an attractive and easy to use design that's suitable for even the most high-end configurations. Yes, you could buy a different case, and as we often state what case is "best" is largely a matter of personal preference. For the display, the best computer deserves the best LCD currently available, so we have selected the Dell 3007WFP 30" LCD with a native 2560x1600 resolution (or WQXGA if you prefer). Definitely don't skimp on your GPU selection if you choose to go with this large monitor and plan on gaming at the native resolution!

We also jumped up to an 850W power supply from Silverstone, which costs almost twice as much as the 700W OCZ. (Ouch!) However, with rumors circulating that the next generation high-end graphics cards from NVIDIA and ATI will require even more power than the current models, we felt that any ultra high-end system needed a power supply equal to the task. (You could jump up to a PC Power & Cooling Turbo-Cool 1000W PSU if you really want to go extreme, but be prepared to fork over nearly $500 for the privilege!) The soundcard has been bumped up to the platinum edition of the X-Fi, which adds a 5.25" bay that provides front panel connections but is otherwise the same as the other X-Fi cards. For the speakers, we moved up to the Logitech Z-5500 digital speakers, eliminating the interference that can be generated by all of the electronic noise inside your computer case. Finally, for the user interface we went with Microsoft's Natural 4000 keyboard and coupled that with Logitech's Revolution MX mouse, both of which are arguably best in class peripherals. However, personal preference still plays a role, so you might want to try out these devices in person at your local computer store.

CPU Cooling

One item that we added to the ultra configuration that is worth considering for any of the system builds is an aftermarket heatsink to help keep your processor cool. If you are looking for the HSF that we currently feel is the best air cooling available, look no further than the Scythe Infinity. It is absolutely massive and definitely won't fit in every computer case out there - or on every motherboard - but if you are serious about overclocking then the $65 is money well spent. Another good alternative is the Tuniq Tower 120, which is unfortunately out of stock everywhere right now. We consider the Scythe Infinity to be the better CPU cooler, but the Tuniq Tower 120 is very good and might cost a bit less. Another competing solution (that's just as large as the Infinity) is the Thermalright Ultra-120, which typically equals the other two in cooling prowess and may cost a bit more or less depending on where you find it. For cases and motherboards that aren't quite as spacious, Zalman and Thermalright offer reasonably priced CPU coolers that will still outperform the stock heatsinks from both AMD and Intel.



Alternatives

As if all the options we've already given you aren't enough, there are so many choices available when you have such a large budget that we felt it would be beneficial to put together a quick list of alternatives. We've broken them down by component type, but otherwise we have made no attempt to clearly separate the configurations that work together. For example, if you're interested in getting an SLI motherboard, you won't want to purchase a couple of ATI graphics cards to go with it - unless you simply want to run the graphics cards as individual units rather than in CrossFire mode.

Alternative Processors
Brand Component Price
AMD AMD Athlon 64 X2 (AM2) 4000+ - 2.0GHz 2x1024KB Windsor $196
AMD AMD Athlon 64 X2 (AM2) 4200+ - 2.2GHz 2x512KB Windsor $204
AMD AMD Athlon 64 X2 (AM2) 5000+ - 2.6GHz 2x512KB Windsor (Backordered!) $364
Intel Intel Core 2 Duo E6400 - 2.13GHz 2MB Shared L2 $220
Intel Intel Core 2 Duo E6700 - 2.67GHz 4MB Shared L2 $502

Alternative Motherboards
Brand Component Price
AMD MSI K9A Platinum - ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200 + ATI SB600 AM2 $136
AMD Asus M2R32-MVP - ATI CrossFire Xpress 3200 + ATI SB600 AM2 $148
AMD Foxconn C51XEM2AA - nForce 590 SLI AM2 $177
AMD Asus Crosshair - nForce 590 SLI AM2 $235
Intel ASUS P5B-E - Intel P965 775 $164
Intel DFI Infinity 975X - Intel 975X 775 $185
Intel Abit AW9D - Intel 975X 775 $209
Intel Abit AW9D-MAX - Intel 975X 775 $260

Alternative Graphics Cards
Brand Component Price
ATI 2 x Sapphire Radeon X1900GT 256MB $404
NVIDIA 2 x XFX GeForce 7900GS 256MB DDR3 RoHS $404
NVIDIA EVGA GeForce 7950GX2 1GB $500
NVIDIA 2 x EVGA GeForce 7950GT KO 512MB $580

Alternative Memory
Type Component Price
DDR2 G.Skill 2GB (2x1GB) DDR2-800 model F2-6400CL4D-2GBPK $265
DDR2 OCZ Platinum 2GB (2x1GB) DDR2-800 model OCZ2P8002GK $280
DDR2 WinTec AMP-X 2GB (2x1GB) DDR2-800 model 3AXT6400C4-2048K $295
DDR2 Corsair XMS2 2GB (2x1GB) DDR2-800 model TWIN2X2048-6400C4 $300
DDR2 Super Talent 2GB (2x1GB) DDR2-800 model T800UX2GC4 $310
DDR2 Patriot 2GB (2x1GB) DDR2-800 model PDC22G6400LLK $310
DDR2 Kingston HyperX 2GB (2x1GB) DDR2-800 model KHX6400D2LLK2 $330

Alternative Hard Drives
Type Component Price
SATA2 Seagate 3.0Gbps 250GB 7200RPM 16MB Barracuda 7200.10 $75
SATA2 Western Digital 3.0Gbps 320GB 7200RPM 16MB Caviar SE16 $100
SATA Western Digital 1.5Gbps 400GB 7200RPM 16MB Caviar SE16 $135
SATA2 Seagate 3.0Gbps 400GB 7200RPM 16MB Barracuda 7200.10 $154
SATA2 Maxtor 3.0Gbps 500GB 7200RPM 16MB MaXLine Pro 500 $209
SATA2 Maxtor 3.0Gbps 500GB 7200RPM 16MB DiamondMax 11 $219
SATA Western Digital 1.5Gbps 150GB 10000RPM 16MB Raptor $219
SATA2 Seagate 3.0Gbps 500GB 7200RPM 16MB Barracuda 7200.10 $220
SATA2 Seagate 3.0Gbps 750GB 7200RPM 16MB Barracuda 7200.10 $356

Depending on where you live in the world, it may be easier to get some of these alternative recommendations over the components we listed earlier. We feel confident that all of these components are very high quality and will work well in any high-end computer. In some cases, the differences are going to be very slight, and we didn't bother listing all of the various GPU manufacturers as by and large a 7900 GTX from company A is going to be nearly the same as a 7900 GTX from company B.

Hopefully it's pretty clear by now that there are a lot of different choices you could make and still end up with a very good high-end computing system. We would also be remiss if we didn't mention the fact that one more point in favor of ATI graphics cards right now is their support for Folding@Home's new GPU accelerated client. Even if you have no interest in Folding@Home, we have to commend ATI for their efforts, and we hope to see additional applications in the future leverage the floating-point number crunching power offered by today's GPUs.

Conclusion

Some companies like to advocate the "one size fits all" approach, whether it be for clothing, computers, transportation, or just about any other product. We here at AnandTech are strong believers in individualization, as what works best for one person may be overkill or insufficient for another. We have made an effort in this buyers guide to address many of the configuration options that are available for anyone looking to build a new computer. Even with everything we've said here, however, there are still many areas that we only glossed over. Naturally, if you have any questions, feel free to send them our way or post them to our comments section.

If you're still confused after all of the information we've unloaded, or if you're uncertain whether or not you should upgrade right now, discretion is usually the best course of action. Do some more research, ask some questions, and remember that something better/faster/cheaper is always just another month away. Today is not the perfect time to upgrade or buy a high-end computer system; neither was last month, and next month won't be either - at least not for everyone. The best time to upgrade is when you are no longer happy with your computer... or perhaps just after winning the lottery. Many of us still have computers that are over two years old that we use on a regular basis, and while they may not be the fastest systems on the planet, for a lot of tasks they are perfectly adequate.

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