Writing new Buyer's Guides month after month gives you a certain perspective on the market. One of the things that we've come to realize is that waiting for future performance in the way of faster components is generally a waste of time. The fact of the matter is that many of the "Next Big Thing" upgrades, which we often look forward to, either end up taking far longer than expected to materialize, or else they only improve performance by 10% to 20% for the same price. If you're waiting for a price drop on an item, how much is your time really worth? Naturally, if you have a decent computer and don't really need the upgrades, waiting never hurts. Newer and better parts are always coming out. Once you're ready to upgrade, though, we would recommend that you take the plunge and not look back.

For this month's Mid-Range Guide, PCI Express and Athlon 64 are finally available...barely. Are they worth it? The answer depends on the individual and the goals for the system. If you want the best potential for upgrades, go for PCI Express, and probably even spend the extra money on an SLI motherboard. For the infrequent upgraders, it really doesn't seem to be all that big of a deal. If you don't need a lot of graphics performance, the budget to mid-range price segment is basically a tie in terms of price/performance. However, price/performance is only one side of the equation. Stability and reliability are still somewhat unknown with PCI Express motherboards, as it is version 1.0 hardware – the so-called "bleeding edge" of hardware.

If that doesn't seem like a big deal to you, recall that the initial Athlon 64 socket 754 motherboards had quite a few minor problems. For instance, RAM compatibility and tweaking/overclocking features were somewhat problematic. New technologies almost always have some issues, and socket 939 PCIe is not likely to be any different. 939 PCIe chipsets were slated originally to launch as early as September of last year, but then they were delayed several times, and only now are they finally becoming available. What caused the delays, and have they now fixed all the potential problems? As for the causes, certainly there were some technical difficulties that had to be addressed. There's always a chance that we won't encounter any glitches on the final hardware, but more likely than not, a few minor problems will surface that some people would just as soon avoid. If that sounds like you, we would recommend that you stick with the tried-and-true approach of AGP platforms. On the other hand, if you want to take the plunge and are willing to deal with some potential teething problems, go for it.

Our recommendations in this Guide will cover both options. As usual, we're going to be shooting for a specific price point with our Guide; in the case of this Mid-Range Guide, that target will be roughly $1250. We'll have a few options, including the requisite AMD and Intel recommendations as well as some alternatives. As in most recent Guides, we continue to feel that AMD has the upper hand in terms of price as well as performance, but we don't want to neglect our Intel holdouts. Let's start with AMD.

AMD Recommendations


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  • JarredWalton - Sunday, January 23, 2005 - link

    35 - Damn. Foiled. :) I forget these things over time. Wasn't the original Raptor TCQ and the newer version has something like "TCQ-II" which was supposed to improve on standard TCQ somehow? Anyway, our NCQ article didn't really show a major benefit for desktop use, but I've fixed the error now. Thanks! Reply
  • REMF - Saturday, January 22, 2005 - link

    "On the other hand, if improved performance is what you're after, the best two choices are either one of the 16MB cache Maxtor drives or the 74GB Western Digital Raptor [RTPE: WD740GD] with its 10,000 RPM design - both of these also offer NCQ, in case you were wondering."

    the Raptor offers Tagged Command Queuing, not Native Command Queuing.

  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 22, 2005 - link

    Regarding post #30 and the NEC 3520A, a reader sent me an email informing me that the 3520A uses a new chipset and thus the 3500A is *not* upgradeable to the 3520A via a BIOS flash. Barring any contradicting views, I'll stick with that. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 22, 2005 - link

    31 - our RTPE doesn't currently differentiate between the ST3160023AS and the ST3160827AS, unfortunately. For example, the Newegg listing currently priced at $111.50 + $4.69 shipping is the appropriate NCQ model. In reality, the NCQ doesn't seem to be a big deal for non-server systems (just like RAID), but if it's only a few dollars more why not get it? That was my feeling. There are even a couple listings in the RTPE for the ST3160021AS. Basically, the RTPE bots match items according to size and features, but NCQ doesn't seem to be something they're aware of yet. Reply
  • kamaboko - Saturday, January 22, 2005 - link

    you know the saying, "can't please all of the people all of the time". i think that applies here. in any case, i found this guide useful since i'm looking at a near total ground up rebuild--minus dvd burner, audigy 2zs, and monitor. Reply
  • beakerman - Saturday, January 22, 2005 - link

    "With the added benefit of Native Command Queuing (NCQ), the Seagate drives continue to impress. The Seagate 160 GB SATA [RTPE: ST3160023AS]"

    According to Seagate, the ST3160023AS does not feature NCQ. I believe the drive you want is the ST3160827AS, which is actually a few $$ cheaper. Both drives are 160 GB SATA.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, January 22, 2005 - link

    26 - Sorry, I got the wrong "updated burn speeds" in there. The 3500A is indeed capable of 16X DVD+/-R recording. The difference is that the 3520A can do DVD+RW at 8X and DVD-RW at 6X, while the 3500A is stuck at 4X for both. There's a reasonable chance, of course, that a BIOS flash of the 3500A can turn it into the 3520A. I updated the text with this information.

    28 - The "alternative" was meant as a closer to high-end option. 50% more for the CPU for 10% more performance is a rather expensive upgrade. The jump to the 3800+ is even worse, coming in at 100% more than the 3500+ for a 9% performance increase. I've updated the text slightly to make this more clear. For overclockers, I definitely wouldn't bother with the added cost of the 3500+.

    27 - I did mention the home theater aspect for the speakers (last part of the 5300e paragraph), but we're certainly not going to spec out an entire home audio setup, so there's not much to do other than mention it. Your comment ties into the next point:

    29 - 2.1 speakers aren't much cheaper than the 5.1s, and you can always just leave the rear speakers disconnected. Still, you have a point that some people really don't want more speakers. In that case, I'm not sure why they would bother with anything more than 2.0 speakers, though. There *are* great 2.0 and 2.1 speakers out there, but then you're almost better off looking at the home audio equipment instead of PC speakers. I dunno... I suppose the Swans are always an option. Anywat, I modified the text to include 2.0/2.1 speakers and headphones as something to consider, along with home theater audio. I moved this into a separate paragraph to draw more attention to it.
  • Dranzerk - Saturday, January 22, 2005 - link

    One suggestion for next buyers guide, I think all kinds system setups like 2.1 speaker systems, you should offer a 5.1 and 2.1 for each type instead of just 5.1.

    I know some personally don't like 5.1 sounding speakers, and prefer 2.1 speakers.

    The logitech Z3 2.1 fit that bill perfectly, you can find them for under $50 also, and they get great reviews.
  • Pjotr - Saturday, January 22, 2005 - link

    I think you are fooling buyers into a wrongful purchase when it comes to performance. In the AMD "Upgraded" PCIe Athlon 64 System you have gone from 3200+ for $215 to 3500+ for $334. The performance increase from 2.0 to 2.2 GHz is smaller than 10 %, in many applications like games it might even be close to 0.

    Instead of adding $119 for this 0-10 % performance gain, I think sticking with the 3200+ CPU and changing the graphics card from 6600GT to 6800GT (Leadtek A400) is a MUCH better choise, It will cost you £377 minus $190 = $187. If you want to come down close to the $119 difference don't get an SLI motherboard.

    This graphics upgrade will make wonders in anything graphics related compared to a 10 % CPU clock speed upgrade that is seldom noticed in anything.
  • Caligynemania - Saturday, January 22, 2005 - link

    Great article, just one comment. With your reccomendation of speakers and sound card as alternatives, you really should mention that a receiver/speaker combination would probably be most people's best bets. A good receiver will run slightly more than the sound cards you mentioned, but the selection for real speakers is infinitely better than computer speakers. Reply

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