Hardware 2.0 'Very Best Kit List' for December 2011

Hardware 2.0 'Very Best Kit List' for December 2011

Summary: A must-read for those who build or repair PCs.


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Welcome to the Hardware 2.0 "Very Best Kit List" for December 2011 - the final one of the year! Here I've put together a list of the best high-end and mid-range and budget components currently available. So if you're thinking of building or even upgrading a PC, this list is a must-read for you!

Updated monthly, 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, as always, that there's room for debate and some choices "go with the gut" more than others.

NOTE: All prices are approximate ... shop around for the best deals!

Also, because these are the components I feel are the best available, don't expect the entire list to change every month! This is honest, real-world stuff, and isn't based on what's new or what was in the latest press release!


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Extreme - Intel Core i7 990x Extreme Edition - Six-core, 3.46GHz

Still the king of the CPUs!

The Core i7 processors represents a new era in architecture for Intel, and the 990x the next stage in desktop processors - the era of the six-core CPU.

This is a 3.46GHz part that can be Turbo Boosted up to a whopping 3.73GHz. It has six cores, which when combined with Hyper-Threading makes a whopping 12 threads available. Add to this 12MB of L3 cache, triple-channel DDR3-1066 memory interface, 130W TDP, and a brand-new stock cooler.

This is a 3.33GHz part that can be Turbo Boosted up to a whopping 3.6GHz. It has six cores, which when combined with Hyper-Threading makes a whopping 12 threads available. Add to this 12MB of L3 cache, triple-channel DDR3-1066 memory interface, 130W TDP, and a brand-new stock cooler.

Additional info - What you need to go Core i7!!!

Price: $1030

Honorable Mention: A serious contender for the "extreme" title at a fraction of the cost of the Core i7 is AMD's six-core Phenom II X6 1100T Black Edition processor. This runs at a whopping 3.3GHz (3.7GHz with Turbo boost) and retails for around an amazing $199 - an absolute steal! Think about it - six cores for under $200. That’s pure awesomeness!

Also, worth considering are the new second-generation Sandy Bridge Core i7-2600K (around $320) which boasts quad-cores clocked at 3.4GHz. These do require LGA 1155 and because availability of these is patchy at the moment, it'll probably be a few weeks until I recommend them (let the BIOS updates also settle down a bit).

Mid-range - AMD Phenom II X6 1055T - 6-cores, 2.8GHz

Why pick this one? Here you have a six-core consumer CPU running at 2.8GHz, and it retails for an amazing $150!

Quite simply, this is an awesome processor available for a fantastic price.

Price: $150

Note: You might also be interested in Intel's new Core i5 760 part, which retails for $200. This 2.66GHz part is a cut-down version of the Core i7 but still offers good value for money - but remember that this can't act as an upgrade CPU for LGA 775 motherboards.

Budget - AMD FX-4100 - Quad-core, 3.6GHz

Here's a brand new CPU to the list - AMD's FX-4100, based on the new Zambezi architecture. Running at a standard speed of 3.6GHz and capable of being boosted to 3.8GHz with turbo boost, this is an awesome CPU for the price.

Price: $120

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Extreme - ASUS Sabertooth X58 (Intel)

First up is the ASUS Sabertooth X58, which makes an ideal partner for the Core i7. Here you have a motherboard that does it all - robust chipsets, great design, support for quad-SLI and quad-Crossfire (meaning you can use either AMD or NVIDIA graphics), and you get SATA 6GB/s and USB 3.0 support.

Fantastic board, highly recommended!

Price: $195

Mid-range - ASUS M4A89GTD PRO/USB3 (AMD)

For those of you wanting to make use of AMD silicon, look no further than the ASUS M4A89GTD PRO. This board supports all Athlon II and Phenom II processors up to 140W, features hybrid graphics technology that allows you to make use of both the on-board GPU and a discrete GPU, SATA 6GB/s support, as well as USB 3.0 support.

Oh, and if you choose a lesser AMD processor that has locked cores (such as the X3) this motherboard can unlock them with the flip of a switch - instant upgrade at no extra cost!

Price: $130

Budget - BioStar H61MU3 - With USB 3.0 and iPhone/iPad/Android remote control support !

BioStar make some great, no-frill boards. The H61MU3 is the latest in the range of good all-round boards offering plenty of options in the way of USB (you even get two USB 3.0 ports!), SATA, Ethernet and so on.

Sure, it hasn't got the fancy bells and whistles of the other high-end boards, but it's still an excellent board.

This board does have one interesting feature though - you can control it remotely using an iPhone, iPad or Android device using the BIO-Remote 2 app that allows you to control media players remotely, drive PowerPoint presentations and even move the mouse pointer!

Highly recommended!

Price: $70

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Extreme - Patriot Viper II 'Sector 5' Edition 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3 2500/PC3 20000

World's fastest RAM. What more is there to say?

  • DDR3 rating - PC3-20000
  • Timing - 9-11-9-27
  • Voltage - 1.65V - 1.7V

Price: $190

Mid-range - G.SKILL PC2-8500 2x2GB

Fast, reliable RAM with plenty of over head. This replaces the Reaper HPC modules that were previously on the list which had weird heatspreaders on them that made them tricky to fit in some systems.

  • DDR2 rating - PC2-8500
  • Freq - 1,066MHz
  • Timing - 5-5-5-15

Price: $65

Budget - G.SKILL PC2-6400 2GB

Solid product with a decent backing. Also offers some overclocking potential. Great value for the price.

  • DDR2 rating - PC2-6400
  • Freq - 800MHz
  • Timing - 5-5-5-15
  • Bandwidth - 6.4GB/s

Price: $23

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Graphics cards

Extreme - AMD Radeon 6970 vs NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580

Note: It's still hard to get your hands on either the AMD Radeon HD 6990 or the NVIDIA GTX 590 cards. A couple of months ago a few GTX 590s were available, but stock of these has mostly dried up. You might be able to grab a Radeon HD 6990 - like the MSI R6990-4PD4GD5 - for around $700, but stocks of these are highly limited from what I'm told.

Until these cards become widely available you'll just have to make do with the Radeon HD 6970 or the GTX 580!

Nothing much has changed when it comes to high-end graphics cards for a while now ...

Let’s make this guide as fair as possible by covering silicon from both NVIDIA and AMD, so you are free to choose which company to give your money to.

When it comes to “ultimate” GPUs, it’s a toss up between AMD’s Radeon 6970 and NVIDIA’s GeForce GTX 580.

Here’s what the Radeon HD 6970 has to offer:

  • New AMD PowerTune technology: Designed with intelligent power tuning features, including the introduction of enhanced power containment, the AMD Radeon HD 6900 series automatically adjusts GPU power draw by dynamically controlling clocks speeds, allowing gamers advanced performance inside of the power envelope they specify.
  • The time to upgrade is now: Gamers looking to move to a DirectX 11-capable GPU will find there has never been a better time to upgrade, with the AMD Radeon HD 6970 offering up to 2.5 times the gaming performance of 2008’s similarly priced high-end graphics solution.
  • Intelligent tessellation: The AMD Radeon HD 6900 series of graphics cards features dual 8th generation tessellation units, delivering up to 2.9x tessellation performance compared to ATI Radeon HD 5870 graphics.
  • Increased memory for higher image quality: With 2GB of video memory serving as the new standard for graphics card frame buffers, gamers can enjoy superior quality graphics without needing to increase the memory footprint, even at extreme resolutions.
  • The Ultimate Visual Experience: As AMD’s most advanced DirectX 11-capable GPU, AMD Radeon HD 6900 series graphics offer a single high-performance solution for a realistic visual experience. DirectX 11 has quickly become the new standard for PC games and the majority of game developers chose to develop their DirectX 11 games on AMD Radeon graphics cards. Beyond DirectX 11 games, the AMD Radeon HD 6900 series also enables an exceptional gameplay experience in DirectX 9, DirectX 10, DirectX 10.1 and OpenGL titles in single card or multi-card AMD CrossFireX configurations.

Prices start at $350.

The NVIDIA GeForce GTX 580 is also an excellent card:

  • 512 cores and 16 PolyMorph engines deliver massive tessellation and compute firepower for games
  • Hard launch with immediate availability at an estimated SEP of $499 USD.
  • Up to 35 percent improvement in performance/watt efficiency
  • New vapor chamber thermal solution results in the quietest GPU in its class
  • New level of geometric realism — 2 billion triangles/second
  • Provides game developers total creative freedom to create cutting-edge DX11 games

Prices start at $499.

Note: I have seen (briefly) an ASUS MARS II/2DIS/3GD5 GeForce GTX 580 x2 make an appearance, but you might want to sit down before seeing the price - $1,500!

Looking for a graphics card featuring 'Dust Removal Tech'? Check out the MSI's new N580GTX. By reversing the fans for 30 seconds at start-up MSI claims that this can help reduce the build-up of crud on the fan and heatsink.

Honorable mention: If you're looking for a silent, passively-cooled card that can handle modern games, keep an eye out for the ASUS HD 6770 DirectCU Silent featuring an enormous passive cooler that is 16% more efficient than the stock cooler.

Mid-range - ATI/AMD Radeon HD 5670

Can't spring for a Radeon HD 4970 (or a 6990!), but still want a graphics card that can pump out the pixels at a rate to keep the current game lineup running smoothly? You need the Radeon HD 5670. This is a wonderful card which redefines the sweet spot when it comes to price.

What’s interesting about the HD 5670 is that it is, as far as most gamers are concerned, the highest-end graphics card they need. Why? Because if you are playing your favorite games (Crysis, Far Cry 2, Left 4 Dead, Call of Duty 5 …) at screen resolutions of no more than 1600×1200 or 1920×1200 (or the equivalent in wide-screen) you can get all the gaming power you need for around $70!

A great card and a fantastic price.

Price: $70

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Hard disks

Note: Regular readers might notice that hard drive prices are up dramatically based on a few months ago. This is due to flooding in Thailand which has had a massive impact on the hard drive supply chain.

Extreme - SSD - OCZ Colossus 2 960GB

There’s no doubt that solid-state SATA hard drives (SSDs) are the future. You get fast transfer speeds, improved battery life on notebooks, and quicker boot times. The only downsides - cost per gigabyte.

Colossus 2 SSDs deliver exceptional performance for high-end desktops and are the result of OCZ’s latest breakthroughs in flash based storage. Designed to offer PC enthusiasts a best-in-class storage upgrade from traditional hard disc drives, the innovative Colossus 2 Series features incredible speed and ample storage for the complete gamut of gaming, multimedia and demanding productivity applications.

Price: 1TB, $2,420

Honorable mention: A mention must go to the Kingston HyperX 2.5-inch SSDs which have just started shipping. These drives are fast - having a read speed of 555MB/s and write speed of 510MB/s.

The 120GB version will set you back $240, while the 240GB is $470.

Extreme - High-speed - Western Digital VelociRaptor 600GB

The old Western Digital Raptor/RaptorX drives have given way to a new hard drive - the VelociRaptor.

I'll be honest with you that the Velociraptor isn't as thrilling as the Raptor was, and it's not so easy to actually see the performance gains you are getting, but they are there. If you want a fast hard drive for your PC, you need the VelociRaptor.

Price: $260

Extreme - High-capacity - Western Digital Caviar Green WD30EZRX 3TB

Want the largest capacity SATA drive going? then you want the Western Digital Caviar Green WD30EZRX 3TB drive. Yes, you read that right - 3.0TB!

Not only is this drive fast, it also sips power as opposed to gulping it. This means that you save money and have less heat to deal with in your system. Sweet!

Price: $299

Budget - Western Digital Caviar Blue WD3200AAJS 320GB

Great starting point. Can't go wrong with this drive at the price it's going for now.

Price: $99

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Sound cards

Extreme - HT | Omega Claro Plus+ 7.1

An absolutely stunning card for the audio enthusiast. Lots of tweaking and customization options.

Price: $180

Mid-range - Creative 7.1 X-FI Titanium

Great mid-range sound card.

Price: $82

Budget - Creative Sound Blaster Audigy SE

If you motherboard doesn't feature sound then this will rectify that. However, if you are lucky enough to have a motherboard that has onboard sound then you'll be just fine with that.

Price: $30

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Extreme - Enermax MAXREVO EMR1350EWT

A high-end system is going to need a high-end PSU, and they don’t come much better than the Enermax MAXREVO EMR1350EWT. This is capable of delivering 1.35KW of power in a stable way but without the noise associated with other PSUs. Sure, you need your own personal fusion generator but it’s worth it for the bragging rights.

The MAXREVO EMR1350EWT has a whopping six 30A 12V power rails, which allow you to build a stable system that's packed with CPUs, GPUs and hard drives. The modular cabling system also means less cable mess. Oh, and it’s also better than 80% efficient, so it doesn’t harm the sky … much.

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, hence my reason for including one.

Price: $250

Mid-range - Antec EarthWatts EA-500D 500W

Nice mid-range PSU. Efficient, reliable and provides ample power.

Price: $65

Budget - Antec EarthWatts EA-380D 380W

Probably the best budget PSU you can find.

Price: $45

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Specialist - NEC MultiSync LDC3090WQXi

If you're a professional looking for a monitor that you can trust in then look no further than the 30" MultiSync LCD3090WQXi from NEC.

This is a pro bit of kit aimed at the photographic, print production, graphic design and CAD/CAM industries, so expect a premium price! However, you do get a panel capable of stunningly flawless output.

Price: £2,100

Extreme - 30" - Dell UltraSharp U3011

Monitors don’t come much better (or more expensive) than the Dell UltraSharp U3011.

  • 2560 x 1600 Native Resolution
  • 3000:1 Dynamic Contrast Ratio
  • TrueHD 1080 with an integrated HDMI connection
  • Seven connection options: VGA, DVI-D with HDCP, HDMI, S-Video, Component, Composite and DisplayPort

If you don’t have the desk space for a dual-panel setup then this might be the solution for you (of you want to spend that much on a panel).

Price: $1,140

Mid-range - 22" - ASUS VW224U

A really sweet panel by ASUS.

  • Display Type: Widescreen LCD
  • Pixel Pitch: 0.282 mm
  • Input Video Signal: DVI-D/VGA
  • Dynamic Contrast Ratio: 1000:1
  • Brightness: 300 cd/m²
  • Response Time: 2 ms
  • Horizontal Viewing Angle: 170 degrees
  • Vertical Viewing Angle: 160 degrees
  • Maximum Resolution: 1680 x 1050

Price: $160

Budget - ASUS VS Series VS198D-P 19"

A superb 19" monitor from ASUS, and it supports a 1440 x 900 screen resolution.

Price: $105

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  • RE: Hardware 2.0 'Very Best Kit List' for December 2011

    How can you even begin to recommend any HDDs with how much they are currently going for? Best bet is for people to just wait, the prices will fall again come Spring.
    • RE: Hardware 2.0 'Very Best Kit List' for December 2011

      Unless, of course, you need a hard drive. In which case, a hard drive comparison when prices are high is just as useful as a hard drive comparison in normal times.
  • RE: Hardware 2.0 'Very Best Kit List' for December 2011

    what the f is with the cpu lineup? no sandybridge-e, and 1st gen intel core is mentioned!
  • Obsession with core count

    I'm still not convinced that more cores = better processor. Surely for most purposes a high Ghz quad core will give you more bang for your buck than an equivalently priced 6 or 8 core at a lower frequency. Or has Windows 7 finally able to spread it's load more efficiently across multiple cores?
    • Not a windows issue

      @keebaud@... Windows isn't the determining factor - W7 has no problem using many cores efficiently - but if you're running one single threaded app - you won't see improvement from many cores - it's all about the app being able to leverage the cores
  • RE: Hardware 2.0 'Very Best Kit List' for December 2011

    Your choices for the 'Very Best' in some catagories are at best debateable. As for your choices in 'Mid-range' or 'Value' they're downright laughable. You're writing here for a savvy crowd, not some 5th grader, come to mention it some 5th graders would have better choices... And no I'm not a 6th grader, I'm a tech guy with 30 years of recomending under my belt. jmho
    • RE: Hardware 2.0 'Very Best Kit List' for December 2011

      @murray13@... And it's not at all suspicious that you felt you had to say you're not a sixth grader unprovoked (I think they call that guilty knowledge), or that you misspelled recommending, or that you gave a vague occupation to validate your statements ("tech guy" [could mean anything] with 30 years of "recommending"?).