Pre-AM2 Mid-Range Buyers' Guide, May 2006by Jarred Walton on May 9, 2006 6:30 AM EST
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To Buy, or not to Buy?We haven't done a Buyers' Guide for a while, and enough things have changed in the midrange sector that it's high time we rectify the situation. We're going to try and narrow the focus a little bit this time, so there will basically be two system recommendations: one for AMD and one for Intel. That's not to say there aren't plenty of alternatives, and we will be listing many of the other options on individual component pages. The simple truth is that there are a lot of reasonable choices out there, so just because we don't list something explicitly doesn't mean that it's a bad choice. If you have any questions, you can always email me or ask our forum members for advice.
If you follow the computer hardware scene, you're probably already questioning the timing of this Buyers' Guide. AMD will be launching their new socket AM2 platform in just a few more weeks, so going out and purchasing a new system right now based on their older 939 platform doesn't seem to make much sense. However, the truth of the matter is that socket AM2 doesn't appear to be ready to add much in the way of performance. Basically, it will change memory types, there will be a couple new high-end processors, and later on we should also see some budget Sempron processors for the platform. This is the midrange sector, though, so we can immediately toss out chips like the FX-62 that will cost over $1000. Likewise, we can toss out the low-end single core Sempron chips. Given that this is a brand new platform, it's also reasonable to expect prices to be somewhat higher than the current platforms, and choice of components is also going to be limited - mostly in the motherboard area, but that's a critical component.
What it all comes down to is that we really don't expect AM2 to seriously change the outlook of the AMD market. It certainly won't be a bad platform, but we expect most midrange buyers will wait at least several months before switching, as that will give the platform a chance to mature, and it should also bring lower prices. High-end buyers will definitely want to wait, because at the top of the performance spectrum the new platform should offer the potential for another 10% more performance. Overclocking enthusiasts might also want to wait, if for no other reason than to see how DDR2 affects the price/performance overclocking scene. The current prices of DDR2-533 and DDR2-667 are much lower than competing DDR offerings, and while latency is slightly higher, you can get much higher bandwidth - that's especially if you want 1GB DIMMs. For the remaining potential buyers as well as upgraders, there is much less incentive to wait for the new platform. Waiting a few more weeks might save you $20, but that's probably about it.
What about Intel and the new Core Duo 2 chips? That question is a bit more tricky to answer. We fully expect Core Duo 2 to outperform anything else Intel currently offers, potentially by as much as 35% for the same price CPU - maybe even more! However, the launch date for Conroe is still two months away, and you still have to worry about the cost of motherboards, motherboard availability, not to mention the nature of version 1.0 hardware. The Intel overclocking enthusiasts can probably be happy short term by purchasing something like the AOpen i975Xa-YDG and Core Duo T2400. Unfortunately, that particular motherboard is rather expensive, and the Core Duo processors aren't cheap either. You basically end up matching the performance offered by AMD X2 overclocking at a higher price. Socket 775 975X motherboards are also expensive, and we're still not 100% sure they'll all work with Core Duo 2 chips, but they do potentially provide an upgrade path.
If you're willing to wait and find out how the market develops over the next couple months, that certainly isn't a bad idea. As we always say, you really only need to upgrade your computer when you're unhappy with the current level of performance. Plenty of people are still running old socket 478, 462, and 754 systems, and they're perfectly happy with the level of performance and they have. The "latest and greatest" computer games (in terms of graphical complexity, not necessarily gameplay) almost certainly struggle on those older systems without reducing the graphics quality, but if you don't play games you probably won't care about or notice the "missing" performance. We will of course be providing updated Buyers' Guides in the future, but for the most part we don't recommend waiting for the Next Big Thing to show up - you could potentially end up waiting forever for the "perfect" time to buy. Our Buyers' Guides are simply a recommendation for what we would buy at this point in time, and not an indication that we think you need to upgrade if you're running slower hardware.