Pre-AM2 Mid-Range Buyers' Guide, May 2006by Jarred Walton on May 9, 2006 6:30 AM EST
- Posted in
AMD PlatformStarting with AMD, we immediately get to the most difficult part of the selection process. There are many good processors and motherboards on the market right now, and choosing one of each and calling it the "best" is not possible. Let me tell you my philosophy. Right now, for any computer that costs over $1000, I am going to be extremely hesitant about purchasing anything other than a dual core processor. That's based off of the way I use my computer: while I run plenty of tasks (e.g. games) that won't take advantage of the second core, I also run many tasks at the same time. Multitasking will inherently benefit from multi-core processors, and the overall experience is improved enough that I'm willing to spend an extra $150 for this upgrade. If all you ever do is play games, for the time being you can get by with a single core processor, and putting the extra money into a faster graphics card will improve the overall gaming performance more.
The second factor that needs to be considered is overclocking. In terms of the CPU, this isn't a major consideration, since almost all AMD chips currently overclock to around 2.6 GHz or more; overclocking considerations have a major impact on your choice of motherboard, however. If you don't intend to overclock at all, most motherboards will be fine. Your primary concern should be the features offered - do you want FireWire, RAID, high-definition audio, multiple graphics card support, etc.? Those of you who are interested in running multiple graphics cards will also need to decide between SLI and CrossFire platforms. Personally, I like to overclock, because it's entirely possible to get one of the cheapest processors and come close to matching the fastest processors on the market. A $300 X2 3800+ overclocked to 2.6 GHz is only about 5% slower on average than a $1000 FX-60. It will require more effort to reach that level of performance, but I'm willing to put forth the effort. Here then are our selections for the base AMD platform.
|Click to enlarge|
AMD Motherboard: DFI nForce4 SLI Infinity
Price: $115 shipped (Retail)
AMD CPU: Athlon 64 X2 3800+ 2x512K 2.0GHz (939) - Retail
Price: $297 shipped (Retail)
That takes care of more than one fourth of the allocated budget for our midrange AMD system. However, you get a lot of performance for the price. The motherboard comes with all the standard features (SATA2, IDE, USB 2.0) as well as FireWire support. It also happens to overclock reasonably well - perhaps not quite as well is something like a DFI LANParty or ASUS A8N32 SLI Deluxe, but close enough for the needs of the price/performance conscious overclocker. It also sports two X16 slots (with X8 bandwidth in SLI mode), so of course you have the potential to run SLI, but for the midrange sector we're not going to go with dual GPUs. About the only caution we have to give in regards to the motherboard is something that we generally say with most motherboards: plan on manually specifying your RAM timings. The vast majority of "memory incompatibilities" that we encountered have been caused by people running "auto" timings and expecting everything to work fine - or even worse, they load the "optimized" BIOS settings with value memory and wonder why the system doesn't run. If you buy 2.5-3-3-8 memory, we strongly recommend setting the timings manually to those values - though of course you can try "overclocking" the memory to faster timings.
What about alternatives? On the motherboard, there are literally dozens of reasonable candidates. You can choose to go with a CrossFire motherboard if you prefer ATI chipsets, or you can forget about multiple X16 slots and downgrade to something like the nForce4 Ultra chipset. EPoX, MSI, ASUS, DFI, and quite a few other manufacturers are reasonable choices. For maximum overclocking, especially on the lower cost motherboards, we recommend sticking with DFI or EPoX. Many other brands will top out at around 250 MHz HyperTransport bus speeds, which is pretty average for current AMD motherboards. On the processor side, single core chips like the 3000+, 3200+, 3500+, and 3700+ are all potential candidates. You can also go with one of the Opteron models, including the dual core 165. We would stick with lower cost processors for overclocking, but if you don't want to overclock you can basically throw as much money as you want at the CPU. We did put together a list of a few reasonable alternatives, which you can find below.
|AMD 939 Alternatives|
|Processor||Athlon 64 3000+ Venice Retail||119|
|Processor||Athlon 64 3500+ Venice OEM||161|
|Processor||Athlon 64 3700+ San Diego OEM||192|