Market Overview: $1700 Performance Midrange

Many things have changed in the nine months since our last midrange system guide hit the press, some for the worse—a moment of silence, please, for the passing of yesteryear’s RAM bonanza—but most for the better. ATI in particular deserves a nod for raising the bar for single-chip graphics card performance with its Cypress line (and, more recently, NVIDIA for its Fermi parts). All told, a ~$1700 complete system (~$1200 for the base) built around the i5-750 or one of AMD's Phenom II CPUs promises to deliver better performance than last year’s entry in most applications and beat it soundly in gaming and other graphics intensive tasks, all in spite of today’s significantly greater cost per GB of RAM. The icing on the cake? In a climate of ever-increasing energy costs and concerns, the current installment of the performance midrange system is significantly more energy efficient—particularly on the Intel side of the fence.

Our recommendations today skew pretty heavily toward graphics performance, with the single most expensive part—the factory OCed Gigabyte Radeon HD 5850—comprising approximately 25% of the base system cost (or about 18% of the complete system). Though it may be a little over the top for some, one look at graphics card comparison charts will tell you that things drop off rather precipitously after the 5850, with the drops in performance not corresponding all that sensibly to the drops in price. While there are plenty of less expensive cards that will still deliver acceptable performance—for many, at any rate—none seem to offer as desirable a mix of price, performance and future proofing (DX11) as the 5870’s little brother. For our midrange builds today, it feels just about right. If you're not worried about gaming or graphics, feel free to downgrade to something else, but we'd recommend sticking with at least an HD 5670 to get all the latest and greatest video decoding and power management features, or grab an HD 5450 if you're willing to skip out on a few extras like vector adaptive deinterlacing. Or if you don't care about DX11 right now and think CUDA is more important, you might prefer the GT 240.

As usual, we'll have both AMD and Intel recommendations today, with a common set of shared components. The story hasn't changed much when comparing AMD vs. Intel. You can get more cores at a lower price with AMD, but Intel will give you higher performance at the same clock speed (and generally higher clock speeds) along with substantially lower power consumption. If you're interested in Clarkdale over Lynnfield, you might also want to give Lloyd Case's recent article a read. Clarkdale certainly uses less power, but there's no beating quad-core Lynnfield performance. On the AMD side, the big question is whether you want to go with an older quad-core Phenom II, or if you want to spring for the new Phenom II X6. Considering the slightly lower power requirements and AMD's Turbo Core technology, we recommend making the move to X6 if you're going the AMD route.

Now let's get to the specific recommendations; if you're looking for performance comparisons we suggest looking at our Bench results for the recommended processors.

Intel Performance Midrange System
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  • HotFoot - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    I love my SSD, but I wouldn't give up graphics performance for it. It boils down to what you're building the machine to do.

    There just isn't a one-size-fits-all, especially at this price point. If we were talking sub-$500 machines, then basically you're already assuming mostly browsing, media, productivity and some very light gaming. However, $1700 means a serious investment.

    Boiling things down even further, let's say we're talking about a gaming machine. Even then, it's hard to define the meaning of value for graphics cards. Basically, what I want is a card that will power though a certain library of my favourite games, plus what might come out over the next year or two - at the graphics settings I want, and at playable frame-rates or better. If saving 50% on the graphics card means a 20% drop in performance, that might be looked at as a good value savings. On the other hand, if that 20% drop in performance means I'm turning down graphics settings or dealing with poor frame rates, my gaming experience is annoyingly diminished. And, in the end, I've only saved about 8% of the total system cost and given up 20% performance.

    I absolutely agree, though, that the blu-ray player doesn't make sense for the kind of computing/gaming these systems seem to be designed to do.
    Reply
  • PreacherEddie - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    I do not understand why some get so bent out of shape at you offering some suggestions to people on how to build a balanced system at a certain price range. What does it matter what label you call it, if you clearly explained the price point you are shooting for (which you did)?

    Also, you explained various options to up- or down-grade various components to improve performance or save money depending on some of the various circumstances that people may find themselves in when they are building for themselves. So why do some get so upset when it is not the perfect system for them?

    And finally, if you know exactly what you want, why are you reading this article? This article is for those, like me, who do not know exactly what they want, and appreciate the guidance from those who have some experience with a lot of the various options out there.

    My only complaint is that I would like to see these guides more often, but I can understand the hesitation of the staff at AT to do these since they get blasted every time they do one. Anyway, thanks to Mike and Jarred for doing this.
    Reply
  • Phate-13 - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    I'm nog saying that it is a bad guide. I'm just stating that it is very odd not to choose for an ssd. Especially because you can do so without increasing the price (by a lot). Look at the changes I suggested for example.

    It's not about getting upset because it's not the best system for me. It's just that I expect a buyer's guide to be as optimal as possible, and perhaps offer some alternative routes for special occasions. Now they take a special occasion (blu-ray), and advice a little bit on a better way.

    The only reason I, and probably the others as well, are stating these things are that we want to improve this guide. Everybody's cricitcs try to make improvements without increasing the cost OR try to lower the cost of the system, how can you complain about such a thing?

    I help out quite a lot of people that are building a system. That's why I care btw. I want them to buy a pc that's best for their needs.
    Reply
  • jimhsu - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    I think the main problem is that the system proposed is a midrange GAMING system, not a midrange WORKSTATION. Large difference there,

    GAMING systems do not benefit that much from a SSD (I have one, and I know that load times are not affected much, aside from exceptions such as MMORPGs). Games such as Crysis have almost a 0% boost in loading time on a SSD on most systems. Thus a gamer would probably opt for a more powerful graphics card instead of the cost of a SSD (or for that matter, the Bluray drive ... *sigh*).

    There is no freaking way that a WORKSTATION needs a 5850, even if you do some fairly intense gaming on your off time. A 5770 or something is still an incredibly strong card and saves you 100. Or get a last gen card (4870/4890) and get even FASTER performance for cheaper. (You also wouldn't need the Bluray drive, and could save some $$$ on the power supply, and on your yearly electric bill). Case in point: I still have a 8800 GTS 512MB, and it's still decent on almost everything in 16x10, though for a new build I'd like something faster. That money would of course go into a SSD which results in a ridiculous boost in productivity.

    Another vote for segregation of the two systems?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    As mentioned, there are so many options that unless we put together half a dozen potential builds and explain each component in detail (which I've done in the past) you're going to gloss over things. From the intro:

    " Our recommendations today skew pretty heavily toward graphics performance, with the single most expensive part—the factory OCed Gigabyte Radeon HD 5850—comprising approximately 25% of the base system cost (or about 18% of the complete system). Though it may be a little over the top for some, one look at graphics card comparison charts will tell you that things drop off rather precipitously after the 5850, with the drops in performance not corresponding all that sensibly to the drops in price. While there are plenty of less expensive cards that will still deliver acceptable performance—for many, at any rate—none seem to offer as desirable a mix of price, performance and future proofing (DX11) as the 5870’s little brother. For our midrange builds today, it feels just about right. If you're not worried about gaming or graphics, feel free to downgrade to something else, but we'd recommend sticking with at least an HD 5670 to get all the latest and greatest video decoding and power management features, or grab an HD 5450 if you're willing to skip out on a few extras like vector adaptive deinterlacing. Or if you don't care about DX11 right now and think CUDA is more important, you might prefer the GT 240."

    I could have added another paragraph just as long in the intro discussing the pros/cons of SSDs. Pro: fast. Con: small capacity and an order of magnitude more expensive per GB. Blu-ray was something Mike put in, and I have no reason to remove it, though obviously that's an easy thing to do. Of course, it's also easy to add an SSD down the road, clone your main HDD over to it (well, that might take a bit more effort), and go on your merry way. Ultimately, it's different strokes for different folks. I'll take the higher GPU over an SSD any day of the week on a desktop, because I still enjoy games.
    Reply
  • GullLars - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    IMHO, it could be summarized as easy as:
    *Hardcore gamer / upper mid-end gaming rigg: 5850OC.
    *Casual/hobby gamer using the computer for other stuff a couple of hours a day: 5830 + x25-V (OS + core apps) in addition to the HDD (maybe downgrade HDD to Green to make back some cache when/if the IOPS requirements are off-loaded to the SSD.
    *Productivity, using the computer mainly for workstation (and/or office) type things, with a couple of hours casual gaming now and then: 5770 + X25-M 80GB.
    None of the above warrants a BD reader.

    Possible reason for BD reader: high-end HTPC, or fileserver/workstation ripping BD videos. If neither of theese 2 are met, BD is a complete waste of money and you should go for DVD burner instead ($25).
    Reply
  • jimhsu - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Right, no criticism intended at the article, but the above is a more reasonable approach towards designing system configurations that actually suits different groups of people. Like it or not, not all users are the same. Neither should the system design for the users be the same.

    It wouldn't even lengthen the article much to include a few alternatives. For instance, the core components (i7-750, motherboard, RAM (though some may object to 4GB, but whatever), case, fan, etc) are all solid, but obviously the rest of the system is amenable to tweaking. You obviously shown that you could give alternatives - i.e. discussion of motherboard choices, video card choice, etc. It wouldn't be that hard to put in a few more itemized tables as potential variants of the midrange system.
    Reply
  • Voo - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    That's a rather black and white approach to the whole thing. Just because I work a lot on my PC I can't also want a good high end gaming PC? Does that mean that everyone who works isn't allowed to play anymore? ;)

    Most people will want to do more than just one thing on their PC: playing BRs (well I don't need that, but I'm sure there are people out there who do), playing and working. So one balanced build really isn't that bad, as long as you mention (or it's obvious) what you can leave away if you don't do XY.

    The only thing is that a SSD is a great investment for most things you want to do with your PC (well at least if you consider spending more than 1k$ on one), so the extra added paragraph really is a good idea. We can still argue if you need one or not, but it surely warrants that discussion, so it can be a bit more prominently mentioned.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    (Note: Responding to the thread and not necessarily to the post right above mine. Heh)

    Ultimately, an SSD is about adding performance but it doesn't improve the features or capabilities of a system in any way. A Blu-ray reader does exactly one thing that a non-BR drive can't do. Surprisingly, that one thing is reading Blu-ray discs. If you want to watch Blu-ray movies (or rip them for storage on your 1TB HDD and later viewing over the network on your living room HTPC), that can be a very useful one thing.

    An SSD will only improve certain usage patterns, and personally most of those usage patterns don't apply to me, particularly on my desktop. My system is generally on during the day, with email, office, internet, Photoshop, and Explorer windows open. They are usually open all the time, so I don't need to wait for the apps to load. With 4GB RAM, I also don't tend to run out of memory and have to go to the swap file. I turn on my system once in the morning and shut it down once at night. I can hit the power button, walk away, and come back 5 minutes later and never know that the HDD was thrashing during that time. Which is exactly what I do. (Technically I sleep the computer at night and wake it up in the morning, so it's more like 30-45 seconds of HDD thrashing.)

    With everything I need available, the only time I really feel the HDD slowness is if I play games. Load a game, and an SSD might load it a fraction faster, but as someone else mentioned, getting into a round of L4D2 faster usually just means waiting an extra 5-10 seconds for the guy(s) with slow PCs to load the level. And shaving 5 seconds off a level load time when I'm then going to play that level for 10-20 minutes represents a very small amount of lost "productivity". Of course, we're talking about using a 32GB SSD as an OS+Apps drive, so I couldn't really fit more than a couple games on it anyway and more likely all my games would still come off the HDD.

    Are there instances where SSDs truly make their presence known? Of course. Heavy multitasking, launching seven apps at once, start up and resume times, and situations where you access tons of small files randomly. I'm not sure how often I actually do any of those, hence my feeling that for 45X the cost per GB (roughly... a 1.5TB drive costs about as much as a 32GB SSD: http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8... and http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8... those situations where the SSD is 50X as fast don't come into play all that often. In short, measuring a dramatic improvement in benchmarks that stress the storage subsystem isn't the same as delivering a huge real-world improvement in performance and usability.
    Reply
  • DynacomDave - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Well said! Those are my sentiments exactly. I have enough knowledge to get myself in trouble and rely on the recommendations of AnandTech to avoid making big mistakes. I look forward to all of their guides and recommendations. Reply

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