Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Feb 08/Mar 08

Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Feb 08/Mar 08

Summary: OK, here it is folks - The Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Feb 08/Mar 08. Here I've tried to compile a list of the best high-end and mid-range components currently available. These components are on this list because I firmly believe them to be the best either in terms of performance or price - although I'm ready to admit that, as always, that there's room for debate and some choices "go with the gut" more than others.


OK, here it is folks - The Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Feb 08/Mar 08. Here I've tried to compile a list of the best high-end and mid-range components currently available. These components are on this list because I firmly believe them to be the best either in terms of performance or price - although I'm ready to admit that, as always, that there's room for debate and some choices "go with the gut" more than others.

If you read the first Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Dec 07/Jan 08 then you'll be pleased to know that this latest edition has been updated, categories have been expanded and all prices have been checked and verified.

NOTE: Each time I come out with a list of kit I always end up fielding a few emails and comments from people wondering if companies have "bought" space on the list. Let me tell you now that the only way for a product to get on this list is to be the best - period. Manufacturers, vendors and PR companies have zero influence over this or any other recommendation that I make.

My plan is to publish a new list every couple of months. I'm pretty sure that this will mean that not only the list will grow but that it's kept fresh as new products are released. If you want to suggest some additional categories that you'd like to see, please let me know.

Let's get started!

CPUs -->


The processor market is currently dominated by Intel, so I'm afraid that if you're hoping for AMD offerings, look away now ...

QX9650High-end - Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 - Unchanged 

If you've got a stack of cash that you're desperate to get rid of then the CPU to do just that is the Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650. Four cores, each running at 3.0GHz and an FSB of 1,333MHz makes this CPU a monster.

Do you really need a QX9750?  If you have to ask that question, the answer is probably "no," but if you have apps that max out your existing quad-core processor, this one might make those games run a little faster of allow you to render that video a little quicker.

Price - around $1,100

Note: At some point soon Intel will release the QX9775. This one will have four cores each running at a blistering 3.2GHz and have a faster 1.600MHz FSB.  Expect this processor to be reassuringly expensive.

E6750Mid-range - Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 - Unchanged

At the mid range, Intel still rules. It's hard to pick a specific CPU for the mid-range but the range to be looking at is the Core 2 Duo.

The sweet spot in that range is the 2.66GHz E6750. It offers good performance at a reasonable price, plus you can tinker with it in the overclocking department if you want to.

Price - around $200

Hard to overlook - Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 - New! 

Gaining entry into the "Quad Core Club" has never been cheaper - for about $260 you can pick up a Core 2 Quad Q6600.  2.4GHz, 8MB cache and a 1066MHz FSB should be fast enough for most!

Price - around $260

<-- Intro | Motherboards -->


In the interests of brevity, I'm going to pick what I believe are the best boards LGA775 and AM2 motherboards. Both of these are made by ASUS

ASUS Maximus ExtremeHigh-end - LGA775 - ASUS Maximus Extreme - New! 

$400 is an insane amount of money to pay for a motherboard, but you do get one heck of a board for your money.  The ASUS Maximus Extreme supports all of Intel's current Core 2 offerings, even the latest 45nm multi-core packages.  The Maximus Extreme is based on the X38 chipset.  You also get support for 8GB of RAM (the motherboard supports DDR3 memory (yes, that means spending crazy money on RAM ... ) that features data transfer rates of 1800(overclocked)/1600(overclocked)/1333/1066/800MHz), Crossfire, 8-channel audio, loads of USB ports, IEEE 1394a - the works! Plus, it's an overclocker's dream.

Price - about $400

ASUS M3A32-MVP DeluxeHigh-end - AM2 - ASUS M3A32-MVP Deluxe - Unchanged

About the only difference between the Maximus Formula and the M3A32-MVP Deluxe (apart from the socket), is the Chipset - the AM2 board comes with an AMD 790FX chipset - the only drawback (for those wanting an extreme system) is that it doesn't have DDR3 support. Apart from that, the M3A32-MVP Deluxe is a very capable board indeed.

Price - about $250

MSI 975X Platinum Mid-range - LGA775 - MSI 975X Platinum - New!

It's tricky to pick the best mid-range motherboard because the market is crowded and there's little to separate the competition.  However, my money would go to MSI for the 975X Platinum board.  It's a very capable board that offers support broad CPU support (from Celeron D processors to the latest Core 2 Extreme) and rock-solid performance.

Good board at a good price.

Price - about $110

Biostar TForce 7050-M2Mid-range - AM2 - Biostar TForce 7050-M2 - New!

In the mid-range AM2 motherboard category the best board in my opinion is the Biostar TForce 7050-M2.  It combines excellent performance at a price that doesn't make your head spin. 

This board has all the usual complement of ports, including an HDMI port - nice.

Price - about $90

<-- CPUs | Graphics cards -->

Graphics card

Competition for the best graphics card is, as expected, very stiff. If you want to go high-end, expect to pay a bundle, especially if you plan on going SLI/Crossfire!

BFG GeForce 8800 Ultra OC 768MB GDDR3High-end - BFG GeForce 8800 Ultra OC 768MB GDDR3 - Unchanged 

This thing is a monster. It's pre-overclocked so there's no messing about. The core clock runs at 630MHz, the memory clock at 2220MHz and the shader clock at 1566MHz. It has 128 stream processors, a memory bandwidth of 106.6GB/sec and is capable of a fill rate (the number of pixels that can be rendered and written to the video memory) per second of over 40 billion.

If money is no object (and if it isn't, steer clear of this card) then this is the card that delivers the goods.

Price - about $740

Radeon HD 3850Mid-range - Radeon HD 3850 - Unchanged

If you're looking for a solid mid-range graphics card then look no further than the Radeon HD 3850. The core clock runs at 668MHz, the memory clock at 1656MHz, the shader clock at 1566MHz and 320 stream processors. You also get dual-DVI and HDMI support.

If over the next couple of months we see nVIDIA 8800 GT and GTS cards drop in price a bit then I could be persuaded to change the mid-range card, but for now the HD 3850 stays put.

Price - about $180

<-- Motherboards | Hard drives -->

Hard drives

Hard drives aren't usually considered to be a sexy upgrade, but spend your money wisely and you should see a significant performance boost!

Western Digital Raptor/RaptorXHigh-end - Western Digital Raptor/RaptorX - Unchanged

When it comes to the Raptor/RaptorX (the difference being that the X means a clear cover), I've made a complete U-turn.

Initially I viewed them with suspicion, thinking that they were little more than a gimmick, but now I have at least one fitted into each of our main systems here. These drives aren't cheap and don't come offer much capacity, but they are fast!

Price - about $170 for the 150GB RaptorX

Samsung Spinpoint T166 500GBMid-range - Samsung Spinpoint T166 500GB - Unchanged

If you're looking for a fast drive that offers high capacity, then take a look at the Samsung Spinpoint T166 500GB drives. Because the T166 has three platters, the data density is high, which in turn means great performance.

They're also quiet.

Price - about $110

<-- Graphics cards | RAM -->


Buying cheap RAM is just asking from trouble, especially if you push your system hard.

Corsair TWINX Dominator Dual Channel 2048MB PC14400 DDR3 1800MHz Memory (2 x 1024MB)High-end - Corsair TWINX Dominator Dual Channel 2048MB PC14400 DDR3 1800MHz (2 x 1024MB) - New! 

Since I've listed some DDR3 motherboards, it's time to include some DDR3 memory.

Insanely fast, insanely expensive.

Not only do you get some of the fastest DDR3 going, but you also get excellent quality RAM backed by a lifetime warranty for added piece of mind. This stuff has a CAS latency of 7-7-7-20.

Price - about $550

Corsair XMS2 DHX 2048MB Dual Channel PC6400 DDR2 800MHz Memory (2 x 1024MB)Mid-range - Corsair XMS2 DHX 2048MB Dual Channel PC6400 DDR2 800MHz Memory (2 x 1024MB) - New! 

Fast RAM, tight timings (5-5-5-18), combined with the Dual-Path Heat Xchange (DHX) technology makes the Corsair XMS2 DHX RAM a bargain at $60. These modules also overclock well and run relatively cool. 

Power, performance and stability all for a mid-range price.

Price - about $60

<-- Hard drives | Coolers -->


Stock coolers are OK if you like mediocre cooling and a noisy fan. Me, I prefer to upgrade the coolers on my systems.

Note: Many have wanted me to cover forms of cooling other than air - these will be added at a future date.

Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 ProLGA775 cooler - Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro - Unchanged

What can I say about this cooler other than it's quieter than the Intel stock cooler and a heck of a lot more efficient. It's also easy to fit and remove and tends to fit well into cramped motherboards. No matter what other air cooler I look at, I always come back to this one.

It's also pretty cheap.

Price - about $20 Scythe Infinity

AM2 cooler - Scythe Infinity - Unchanged

The Scythe Infinity will fit a whole host of sockets (including the LGA775, but I like the Infinity on the AM2 because it's so easy to fit. Also, this is a pretty good cooler - you can dispense with the fan altogether if what you're cooling is an Athlon 64 - even if it is overclocked.

Price - about $35

<-- RAM | PSUs -->


Given the spec of a modern PC, especially a mid to high-end system, getting a good quality PSU that can deliver consistent power is essential if you want to avoid problems.

Enermax Galaxy EGX1000EWLHigh-end - Enermax Galaxy EGX1000EWL - Unchanged

A high-end system is going to need a high-end PSU, and they don't come much better than the Enermax Galaxy EGX1000EWL. This is capable of delivering 1KW of power in a stable way but without the noise associated with other PSUs.

This has a whopping five 24A 12V power rails, which allow you to build a stable system. Oh, and the modular cabling system means less cable mess. Oh, and it's also 80% efficient, so it doesn't harm the sky either.

Note:  Do people really need a 1KW PSU?  I doubt that many do, but there's no doubt that these high-output PSUs are popular among performance enthusiasts.

Price - about $300

ThermalTake PurePower W0100RU 500-WattMid-range - ThermalTake PurePower W0100RU 500-Watt - New! 

For the mid-range PSU I've dropped the spec from a 650W unit to a 500W unit, which has meant a substantial drop in price.  I've encountered a number of these PSUs and I've been very pleased with them. 

With the ThermalTake PurePower you get a robust, reliable PSU that delivers the juice when it's needed without costing the earth.

Price - about $60

<-- Coolers | Home -->

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  • No Zalman?

    As far as heat sinks are concerned, I swear by my Zalman 9500 and would get a 9700 if I had the space available.
  • What about optical drives?

    What about the need for the latest and greatest optical drives? I know you can get a LG BluRay/HD DVD combo drive for under $300, or a Light-On BluRay player for under $200.

    I have not been following HD burners, but I would like to read what is available and if they are worth the price.
  • RE: Hardware 2.0

    The ATI 3850 as a midrange card? That's more of a low end card in terms of performance these days. The nVidia 8800GT is much faster and not that much more expensive IMO.
    • Drivers

      Unless nVidia gets their act together with drivers, I would not consider one of their cards. Fast is nice, but fast and unstable is not a good combination.
      • re: Drivers

        I've heard of the problems with nVidia's drivers... but under XP I've had no problems. Haven't tried it on a Vista PC yet.
        • Vista == Keyword

          That and "Direct X 10" is a Death Knell
        • nVidia has always had buggy drivers...

          ...but Vista has been their worst effort so far. ATI has been somewhat better, but not perfect by any means.
        • They fail in XP for me

          I've had to give up playing Civilization IV (not exactly a game that pushes graphics capabilities to the max) because it causes my nVidia graphics drivers to spaz out and die. We're talking serious errors that have partially destabilized a fairly new system. I wouldn't trust another nVidia card for a while yet. Who knows what it would do if I actually pushed it?
  • Shopping

    More shopping?

    The PC ecosystem is technically stagnant. Service packs are issued a year in, to
    repair bloated systems, and expectations have been made lower still. But it's good
    news everyone! Nags have been reduced, fundamental functions like file copying
    now work at acceptable speeds, and the holiday buying guide produced some
    fabulous deals?

    I'm sorry, but are we technologists, or salesmen? Are we users of technology, or are
    we simply consumers? Marks to be taken advantage of by this weeks cash back

    I'm interested in TCO not "bargain hunts". I'd rather hear about productivity levels
    than your frame rate in Crysis.

    This is a business site, what we're getting is Vista life support when business
    doesn't use Vista, and a preoccupation with capital costs, over and above TCO and
    cost recovery. What we need is cross platform productivity studies, and what we're
    getting is "Adrian's house of awesome"

    or... (I'm cutting and pasting here)

    "Agent Peterson of the Geek Squad offers some tips on how to protect yourself
    from viruses and spyware."

    Long live the protection racket in all it's forms!
    Harry Bardal
    • Hardware 2.0

      This is a blog about hardware...isn't it?

      Would you feel better if he talked about the hardware needed to be productive on a MBA?
    • What do you think drives productivity?

      Do you think a Quad core processor will help your word processor?

      I know there are applications that utilize the hardware better. I would like to see something on workstation level graphics cards, but I don't go to ZDnet to do that. Most of those applications have specialized forums. I would expect George Ou of Real World IT to release such a thing. His blog is probably the most relevant to that nature.
    • I'm surprised...

      Surprised that you would climb down off your high-horse long enough to read the thoughts of, in your own words, "a PC repairman".

      Shouldn't you be off editing a video somewhere?

      Oh, and don't forget to repeatedly, and very eloquently, remind yourself how much better you are than the poor bastards who use Windows.
      Hallowed are the Ori
  • X3850 should be changed to X3650.

    If the X3850 is a midrange card, I'd rename that to X3650, rename the original X3650 to X3450, and raneme the original X3450 to X3150.

    The original X3850 doesn't seem to be a step-up from Radeon X2900, other than an upgrade to DX 10.1 and Shader Model 4.1 for Windows Vista and reduced power consumption. But, I can see why AMD wanted to reduce the power consumption when it comes to reducing the manufacturing size from 80nm to 55nm.
    Grayson Peddie
  • Look at the E8400


    I would have agreed with you on the mid-range processor pick (E6750) up until a week ago, but now that the E8400 (45nm, 3Ghz) can be had for $229 on Amazon, that's the one I'd recommend to friends.
    • Even lower: $189.99

  • High-end Hard drives - are you kidding??

    I'm amazed and disappointed that on a list with $700 graphics cards that your "high end" hard drive option is a SATA drive. How about you list a SAS controller (with or without RAID) and some 15K drives like the MAX3147RC or ST3300655SS or 8K036S0 ? If you're spending $1100 on a CPU and $700 on the video card, why would you want to cripple your system with mediocre drives???

    (I know your list is subjective, but come on, your system is limited by it's weakest link, drive performance is critical!)
  • 1 gig memory? and 3870x2...

    Only 1 gig memory chips? Come On!!!! Memory is dirt cheap for going up the chain. 2 gig x 2 or nothing!

    I'd also put the new 3870x2 boards up against the nVidia card you chose. You'd almost get 2 of the ATI's for the same price and blow the nVidia out of the water! And be a ton more stable too! nVidia's drivers are so outdated, it's not funny. (who want's a beta driver anyway?)
  • RE: Hardware 2.0

    CPU :
    Intel's E8400 45nm processor should be the midrange CPU of choice.

    Motherboards :
    In the midrange, I would put the ASUS P5N-D 750i. High end, agree with the MAXIMUS but would add the MAXIMUS Formula to the mix (basically same X38 chipset but supporting much cheeper DD2 ram). The price of DDR3 ram is just way too high and currently DDR3 ram provides little performance benefits, so it's more "early adopter" than "high end".

    CPU Coolers:
    Swiftech H20-220 Liquid cooling kit
    Thermaltake Ultra 120b
    Zalman CNPS 9700

    Power Supply :
    Gigabyte Odin 800W

    Video :
    High end : Two overclocked nVidia 8800 GT in SLI (better performance than one ULTRA).
    Midrange : ATI HD 3870

    Case :
    High-end : Coolermaster Stacker 832, Silverstone TJ09
    Midrange : Thermaltake Armor

    Hard drive:
    SCSI/SAS 15k drives? I guess they are the fastest but they aren't really "Enthusiast" level hardware (they are made for servers and high-end CAD workstations). Having installed SCSI drives in my previous machine five years ago, I can't say that the performance advantage was worth the extra 2000$.
    So unless "High end" means "throw your money away just for bragging rights", I would agree that the WD Raptors are the best "Enthusiast" hard drives currently out there.
  • We can all disagree on the specifics...

    ...but isn't the discussion fun? I prefer Zalman fans, Abit motherboards, and Adata RAM, but what is really great is having so many wonderful choices. I spent 4 months picking out components for my last system, and enjoyed every minute of it. An even bigger thrill is seeing just how well that system performs, knowing that it is custom configured for my needs in a way that Dell, etc, would never be able to do.

    Too bad that we can't piece together cars in the same way.
    • Custom-built cars!

      Custom-built cars... I like it. Problem is that if we could build our own car from custom parts purchased online, all our wives would leave us because of our "car parts" obsession. If you took four months to pick your computer components, imagine how much time you would spend researching and building your car!