We get regular emails from people looking for advice on what sort of components to use in a new computer. Some people are looking at cheap budget builds for a friend or family member; others are looking at high-end gaming setups capable of smoking the latest consoles. However, by far the most common type of computer is the midrange system, and that's the category we will be covering today.

Depending on whom you're talking to, midrange can start as low as $1000 and extend all the way up to around $2000, which undoubtedly gives a lot of flexibility in terms of choosing components. We're going to split the middle and shoot for about $1500 for each of the systems we configure today, which will include everything that's necessary for the intended market. You can spend more or less than that with a little bit of effort, and certainly those who are looking to reuse a few components from their current system will be able to save some money.

For this guide, we're going to put together four configurations that target different user types. Gaming is something we are asked about frequently, so we will start by putting together two gaming systems - one based on an AMD platform and the other using an Intel platform. We'll follow that with a Home Theater PC (HTPC) and an entry level workstation. As always, many of the choices can be debated, and picking out a single component that is "best" is usually a matter of perspective. This is particularly true for our HTPC and workstation configurations, but we will cover that in more detail momentarily.

Finally, before we get to the actual systems, we would be remiss if we didn't point out all of the upcoming hardware launches. AMD's Phenom processors (dual-core and quad-core) should be launching within the next couple of months, potentially bringing them back into the raw performance competition with Intel (as opposed to right now where they're mostly competing on price/performance). Along with the new processors, we expect to see a lot of new chipset launches for the AMD side from both AMD and NVIDIA. It's been a rough year for AMD, with falling prices and market share. We'll have to wait a bit longer to find out if they can really get back into the thick of the battle, but at the very least AMD aficionados might want to wait a bit longer to see how everything pans out before making their next upgrade.

On the Intel side, most of the midrange updates aren't going to be as dramatic, but we should start seeing 45nm Penryn processors showing up in quantity in the near future. All other things being equal, we would certainly prefer to use a 45nm Intel processor, but whether or not you're willing to wait a bit longer for what amounts to a minor speed bump (generally less than 20%) depends a lot on what sort of system you're currently using. If you need a new computer right now (because of a new job or because your current system broke) then you probably can't wait a few weeks let alone months. If you don't actually need (or really want) to upgrade, then go ahead and wait until you do.

AMD Midrange Gaming
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  • jonp - Thursday, October 18, 2007 - link

    I would like to propose an alternative to both the Cooler Master Centurion 534 and the Lian Li PC-7B plus II: the Thermaltake Swing VB6000BNS/VB6000BWS (both available at Newegg $60/$67). This mid-tower case has:
    4 5.25" ext drive bays
    2 3.5" ext drive bays
    4 3.5" int drive bays (facing the case side for easy access)
    0.8mm SECC steel except for the black plastic case front
    Tool-free design with side cover thumb screws
    12cm rear fan - included
    12cm front fan
    7 expansion slots
    Room for a standard ATX motherboard.
    Plastic fan brackets for easy fan install/removal.
    Washable front dust filter.
    BNS - no side window, BWS - side window
    The case USB, 1394 and audio ports are on the top of case front along with one 3.5" ext drive bay. The is very convenient since all of my systems sit on the floor (noise, weight, desk space, etc).
    Front power and reset buttons.
    No power supply so you can choose your own.
    Also I think the design in Piano black is both professional and attractive.
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link


    We're not going to spend a lot of time dwelling on the rest of the components, as many of them have been discussed in previous Buyers' Guides and/or reviews. We did choose to use some DDR2-1066 memory, which honestly might be overkill considering the price. $114 (after rebate) for 2GB of this type of memory might seem like a steal compared to a year ago, but if you're okay with DDR2-800 you can still pick up 2GB of 4-4-4 memory for a measly $75. In fact, one of the AnandTech editors did exactly that just this last week... twice! If you're thinking about upgrading to a 64-bit operating system, give some serious thought to running a 4GB configuration with DDR2-800 as opposed to 2GB of higher performance DDR2-1066.

    Who says you need a 64BIT OS to use 4GB of RAM ? Until I had to RMA a pair of 1GB sticks, I was using 4GB with WinXP x32. Photoshop ran faster, applications opened and closed much faster, and my system in general operated much smoother. I tried the /3GB switch, and no joy as it would cause random BSoDs, and in the end, I just let the default /NOEXECUTE=optin switch deal with /PAE for me, and I had 3.5GB of RAM availible to applications/processes. Was it a huge performance gain ? No, but it was well worth the ~$80 usd before MiR.

    Remember, your system does not operate in a vacuum, it need memory to be effective. At the same time, programs like Photoshop that can make use of up 2.5GB of RAM just for the executable can benifit from having 2GB dedicated soley for its use. With 3.5GB availible I was able to allow Photoshop to use 100% memory(~2GB without the /3GB switch in use), and had 1.5GB for the system, and anything else I wanted to run at the same time.

    So in short of using a 64BIT OS, it was a perfect solution that gave me plenty of speed increase for the money spent. A much better option that spending ~110 for 2GB of RAM, that is truely too much for the given system.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    Apparently there's an abundance of people that feel "think about upgrading to a 64-bit OS" means the same thing as "you absolutely MUST upgrade to a 64-bit OS". See above commentary. Personally, when I finally switch my work system to Vista, it will be for Vista 64-bit. Because if I'm going to take the Vista plunge, I'm going to take the 64-bit plunge as well and hopefully be better prepared for future applications and memory requirements.

    Is it 100% necessary? Nope. But if someone asked me for my opinion on the matter, I'd advise them to give some serious thought to running Vista x64. Maybe in another year or two, we'll even start to truly see a need for it in more applications.
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link


    Apparently there's an abundance of people that feel "think about upgrading to a 64-bit OS" means the same thing as "you absolutely MUST upgrade to a 64-bit OS".

    That really has little to do with what I was saying. Mainly, my point has to do with your choice of RAM. You will most likely see a much more noticable performance gain using 4GB of RAM in XP, than using 2GB of high performance RAM(even overclocked). For instance, overclocking my AM2 1210 CPU, and looking for noticable performance gains, I do not notice any without diving into a battery of benchmarks. This also includes having run the memory 100MHZ over spec(900MHZ DDR2). I do agree with your article comments concerning 1066DDR2 memory could help your high overclock possiblities. Since Vista is a resource hog by comparrison, I am sure it would be far more benificial to run as more memory as possible as well.


    Personally, when I finally switch my work system to Vista, it will be for Vista 64-bit. Because if I'm going to take the Vista plunge, I'm going to take the 64-bit plunge as well and hopefully be better prepared for future applications and memory requirements.

    Hey, I hear nothing but good things about Vista x64, but when I upgrade to Vista, it will be to Ultimate retail, and I will most probably at least start off with x64. IF it works out good, then I will stay. The problem is not all the ordinary applications I run that I am worried about, its the games that I play in my down time. Also when I make that leap, my costs will probably be higher than the average upgrader, as I plan on running 8GB of RAM.

    Anyhow, for what its worth, Photoshop CS3, Lightroom, Nikon Capture NX, and several other RAW/image editing applications are supposed to run very well, and fast on Vista x64. At least this seems to be the general consensus with every dpreview photographers/image re-touchers that I have spoken to concerning the topic.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    If there were a native 64-bit Photoshop version out, I'd already be running Vista x64 with 8GB of RAM. (Curse you Adobe....) :)

    Isn't what you said what I put in the article, more or less? We selected DDR2-1066, but it might not be necessary depending on what you want to do with the system. 4x1GB DDR2-800 (or 2x2GB) and x64 is a very viable alternative. Which one you take depends on your end goal. Overclockers and tweakers will likely prefer DDR2-1066; more typical users that run a lot of memory intensive apps will be well-served by running 4GB of RAM. People looking for some cost savings that don't intend to push for maximum overclocks can happily run DDR2-800.
  • Panther - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    Great guide Jarred.

    I've been meaning to build a new workstation so the timing of this article is perfect!

    One question though, is there any Nvidia card you'd recommend in lieu of the 2600XT which provides a similar performance profile? I'm going to run linux and would rather avoid ATi just based on my last experience (granted it's been almost three years ago) trying to use ATi's linux drivers.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    8600 GT and 8600 GTS cards are also reasonable choices. I have one that includes two dual-link DVI outputs, even. I suppose GPU choice is going to be impacted by how you're planning on using it. The 2600 XT is a pretty decent GPU, but in Linux and in games the 8600 GTS probably is a better choice. For video decoding (H.264) I think it beats the 8600 cards, but that's not really a huge concern for most workstations. The only concern is that the 512MB 8600 cards cost quite a bit more than the 512MB 2600 XT listed. So you can give up 256MB of GPU RAM or spend more money.

    I'm going to edit the GPU section on the workstation slightly, though, as you do make a valid point.
  • leexgx - Friday, October 19, 2007 - link

    not sure about the 8800 but the 8600 and lower cards i think have some driver support

    i going to be putting k/ubuntu 7.10 onto an 80gb hdd to see if all my hardware works
  • Kishkumen - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    "...thinking about upgrading to a 64-bit operating system, give some serious thought to running a 4GB configuration"

    Um, why do you need to upgrade to a 64 bit operating system just to use 4GB of memory? Something is seriously wrong there. My 32bit operating system can use 4GB just fine. Even up 64GB I think. It is Linux... but I know a tech savvy site like Anandtech wouldn't make some sort of generalization that "operating system" automatically means some version of Microsoft's NT operating system would it? I mean we are open to different technologies around here aren't we? I wonder sometimes... Well, that's OK, I still like your hardware recommendations anyway.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    A standard desktop PC can't run let alone address 64GB of memory. Unless you're hiding the unbuffered 16GB DDR2 modules from the rest of us? I take it you're referring to 32-bit servers running PAE in order to access more than 4GB of RAM. Or are you referring to a large swap file (which isn't actually RAM)? Both are possible, but obviously for the general computing market it's not an important topic for discussion.

    I can't say that I run Linux on a regular basis anymore, but there are ways to work around memory limitations. Given the target audience of our Buyer's Guides, running off into tangents about various memory management theories doesn't seem to be particularly useful. For those that prefer to stick with Windows, pretty much the only way you're getting full use of 4GB of memory or more is with a 64-bit version of the OS.

    Generally speaking, however, the BIOS and motherboard will limit your options. 4GB is now usually reasonable - in 32-bit Windows Vista you'll usually get access to around 3GB of memory - but while 8GB is theoretically supported on most modern motherboards, compatibility is still sketchy. I'd look up motherboard compatibility charts from the manufacturer and make sure to get approved modules if you want to do a 4x2GB setup.

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