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Innovation

Build the biggest bang per dollar PCs: June 2007 Edition

It's Father's day coming up and what better way to put a smile on Dad's face than a new computer.  The timing couldn't be better with the arrival of the newest 3-Series motherboards from Intel and the somewhat new 690G AMD motherboards which I reviewed yesterday so it's time to build a new PC with the biggest bang per dollar.
Written by George Ou, Contributor on

It's Father's day coming up and what better way to put a smile on Dad's face than a new computer.  The timing couldn't be better with the arrival of the newest 3-Series motherboards from Intel and the somewhat new 690G AMD motherboards which I reviewed yesterday so it's time to build a new PC with the biggest bang per dollar.  For this edition I'll include 4 build lists from a basic but powerful PC in the $700 range up to an enthusiast PC in the $3200 range.  If you're not sure how to build a PC but you're willing to give it a shot, I have this step-by-step tutorial with photos.  Even if you have no interest in building your own PC, you can still use this list to educate yourself what constitutes a good computer so that you can make better informed shopping decisions or you can take one of these build lists and have a local computer store build it for you.

Note: I like to include the price of shipping for every component since I realize not all of my readers can buy things locally.  If you can buy some things locally and discounted, you'll be able to save on shipping and get an even better price on at least some of the components.  Realistically, the local prices will typically reflect the lowest online price plus shipping plus a little margin because it's more expensive to keep things in stock.

I won't try to go for any arbitrary boundaries like the $500 (shipping not included) mark since my fellow blogger Adrian Kingsley-Hughes has already done that.  I'm also not a fan of these stripped down computers with sub-standard components like low-efficiency noisy power supplies, cheap chassis, lousy keyboard and mice, and small 17" monitors.  I'm not saying that there's no place for those types of computers and Adrian has done those people a service by giving them that option.  The goal of the "biggest bang per dollar PC" is to offer a computer that you will love whether it's $700 or $3200.

In this day in age, I will never recommend a computer with analog-only VGA output.  The minimum configuration will be a 2 GB PC with a dual-core energy efficient processor, Gigabit Ethernet, 19" LCD display with digital DVI, precision keyboard and mouse which should make Windows Vista - or any other OS - scream.  Just by using a cheaper mouse, case, and power supply I can bring the price down close to $600 and technically call it a $500 computer without accounting for shipping costs but I don't think that results in a computer you want to use.  The recommended Operating System to take advantage of all this hardware is Windows Vista Home Premium Edition which costs $117 for an OEM version.  If you're a Linux user or you're going to migrate an existing copy of Windows XP, then you won't need to buy that.

<Next page - Two $700 to $850 Value PCs with 19" LCD>

Two $700 to $850 Value PCs with 19" LCD

The following are two dual-core PCs in the $700 to $850 range that can be perfect for a Media Center PC, general purpose computing for home and office, and good-enough 3D gaming at the medium resolution of 1280x1024.

First we have this $700 AMD PC which is a modern dual-core PC that has plenty of performance to drive the most demanding applications.

Value Dual Core AMD-based embedded graphics PC Cost
MSI K9AGM2-FIH 78
AMD X2 3800+ 65W 2.0 GHz 74
SAMSUNG SpinPoint P Series SP2504C 250GB 7200 RPM 8MB 69
Cooler Master CAV-T03-UW ATX Chassis 70
A-DATA Value Series DDR2-800 RAM (2 x 1GB) 75
SeaSonic silent/efficient 330 watt PSU 67
Lite-on 20x SATA-based dual layer DVD burner 38
Microsoft FA3-00010S black ergonomic keyboard 21
Razer Krait 1600 DPI Gaming Mouse 38
SCEPTRE X9g-Naga V Black 19" 8ms DVI LCD 180
Total (includes shipping but not tax) 708

  • This system is based on an MSI AMD-based 690G motherboard.
  • The CPU  is a respectable 2.2 GHz dual core processor from AMD with all the modern features you get in high-end processors.  Just because it's only $68 doesn't mean you're getting a sub-standard processor and there are retail PCs in this price range selling with single core processors.
  • There are 2 GBs of RAM in this computer because the price of RAM has been slashed in half in recent months.  With this much memory, your computer won't have to thrash the hard drive for swap space.
  • Before someone criticizes the "small" power supplies because common misconception conditioned many people to believe they need something with at least 500 watts, this computer has an idle to peak power consumption between 60 to 130 watts.  The 330 watt rating is a very conservative number and I can assure you that it's many fold overkill with the mother energy efficient processor.  I pick these power supplies because I know they're very reliable even when stressed to over 300 watts of continuous usage, the price is very reasonable for an 80% plus efficiency power supply, and it's almost dead silent.  A silence PC is something that once you hear it in action, you will never want to go back to a normal PC.  Furthermore, you'll be saving energy and money in the long run which will pay for the power supply.
  • The built in ATI graphics on the motherboard has a VGA and HDMI out so it can even be used as an inexpensive Home Theater PC and can be used for casual gaming.  The 19" LCD monitor has a VGA and DVI input but not to worry because you can get any cheap $15 DVI to HDMI cable and get a pure digital image with no analog artifacts.
  • The hard drive uses the newest SATA-300 interface and has NCQ (Native Command Tag Queuing) which speeds up when multiple I/O requests slam the hard drive.
  • With a 20x DVD burner, you can make backups of your favorite DVDs as well as your valuable personal data like home photos and videos.
  • The Chassis is a basic but solid aluminum case.
  • Ergonomic Microsoft keyboard and precision 1600 DPI optical mouse from Razer.

Next we have a slightly more powerful Intel dual-core Value PC.

Value Dual Core Intel-based dedicated graphics PC Cost
GIGABYTE GA-P35-DS3R LGA 775 P35 (ICH9R) 147
Intel E2160 1.8 GHz Core 2 Duo 97
SAMSUNG SpinPoint P Series SP2504C 250GB 7200 RPM 8MB 69
Cooler Master CAV-T03-UW ATX chassis 70
A-DATA Value Series DDR2-800 RAM (2 x 1GB) 75
SeaSonic silent/efficient 330 watt PSU 67
Lite-on 20x SATA-based dual layer DVD burner 38
NVIDIA 6600 PCI-Express (passively cooled, zero noise) 45
Microsoft FA3-00010S black ergonomic keyboard 21
Razer Krait 1600 DPI Gaming Mouse 38
SCEPTRE X9g-Naga V Black 19" 8ms DVI LCD 180
Total (includes shipping but not tax) 847

  • We have a brand new Gigabyte Intel P35 based motherboard which is a smaller cousin to this high-end P35 board without the SLI dual-graphics capability and without the IEEE 1394 ports.  It's a decent overclocker and the ICH9R storage controller is amazing.
  • The Intel E2160 CPU is roughly equivalent to the AMD X2 4200 from a performance standpoint.
  • The NVIDIA 6600 when it was released was a decent mid- to high-end gaming video card.  It's an older model but NVIDIA's drivers (while imperfect) are some of the best graphics in the world.  Linux doesn't have 3D driver support for ATI so NVIDIA is a much better choice.  There is a DVI out which means it can be used with the 19" LCD and it can be adapted to an HDMI HDTV for Home Theater applications with any cheap $15 DVI to HDMI cable.
  • Everything else is identical to the AMD configuration above.

<Next page - Two $1340 Mainstream PCs with 22" LCD>

Two $1340 Mainstream PCs with 22" LCD

The following two computers are identical expect for the graphics subsystem.  They are ideal for the vast majority of users on the market whether they're looking for a great office computer, graphics design, or respectable gaming performance.  The first configuration uses ATI while the second uses NVIDIA.  It's pretty much a toss up between the two systems depending on personal preferences.  I like the NVIDIA drivers a lot more than ATI but the ATI board probably gets slightly better performance and the special aftermarket GPU cooler makes the graphics card almost completely silent.  Since I can't make the choice for you, I put both configurations up.
Mainstream computer (ATI based) budget gamer or office use Cost
GIGABYTE GA-P35-DS3R LGA 775 P35 (ICH9R) 147
Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 Conroe 2.4GHz Retail 224
Seagate 500 GB SATA II HDD 125
Cooler Master CAV-T03-UW ATX chassis 70
A-DATA Value Series DDR2-800 RAM (2 x 1GB) 75
SeaSonic silent/efficient 330 watt PSU 67
Lite-on 20x SATA-based dual layer DVD burner 38
ATI X1950 512 MB PCI-Express 165
ARCTIC Accelero X2 GPU (lower noise and better overclocking) 26
Logitech G11 Gaming Keyboard 59
Razer Krait 1600 DPI Gaming Mouse 38
Dell 22" widescreen 1680x1050 LCD monitor 309
Total (includes shipping but not tax) 1341
Mainstream computer (NVIDIA) budget gamer or office use Cost
GIGABYTE GA-P35-DS3R LGA 775 P35 (ICH9R) 147
Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 Conroe 2.4GHz Retail 224
Seagate 500 GB SATA II HDD 125
Cooler Master CAV-T03-UW ATX chassis 70
A-DATA Value Series DDR2-800 RAM (2 x 1GB) 75
SeaSonic silent/efficient 330 watt PSU 67
Lite-on 20x SATA-based dual layer DVD burner 38
NVIDIA 7950 256 MB 191
Logitech G11 Gaming Keyboard 59
Razer Krait 1600 DPI Gaming Mouse 38
Dell 22" widescreen 1680x1050 LCD monitor 309
Total (includes shipping but not tax) 1341

  • We have a brand new Gigabyte Intel P35 based motherboard which is a smaller cousin to this high-end P35 board without the SLI dual-graphics capability and without the IEEE 1394 ports.  It's a decent overclocker and the ICH9R storage controller is amazing.
  • The Intel E6600 is an awesome overclocking candidate.  By simply adding a $35 high-performance fan, we can get the chip to run at 3 to 3.6 GHz depending on luck of the draw and a small 0.1 volt boost.  See instructions here on overclocking.
  • The Seagate 500 GB hard drive is currently one the biggest bang for the buck hard drives on the market.  It has NCQ out-of-order I/O seek and a SATA-300 interface.  You can add more of these drives to get a high-performance RAID.  The drive comes with a solid 5 year warrantee.
  • The Chassis is a basic but solid aluminum case.
  • We have 2 GBs of DDR2-800 memory which is higher than the required specification of DDR2-533.  Having the extra memory speed allows us to overclock the CPU with ease.
  • The 330 watt power supply is the same one used in the Value PC.  It was selected for energy efficiency and silence.  It has plenty of power overhead for these two mainstream computers which operate in the 120 to 190 watt range.
  • With a 20x DVD burner, you can make backups of your favorite DVDs as well as your valuable personal data like home photos and videos.  Since these are SATA based DVD burners, you'll be able to load up more of these identical DVD burners so that you can burn multiple disks at the same time with Nero Burning ROM software.  It saves a lot of time when you want to archive data to multiple disks.
  • The video card is either an ATI X1950 or an NVIDIA 7950.  Make your pick based on the reasons I gave at the top of this page.
  • The precision Logitech G11 keyboard is great for gaming or speed typing.
  • The precision 1600 DPI optical mouse from Razer is great for everyday use or graphics.
  • The 22" Dell LCD widescreen display offers one of the biggest bangs for the dollar.  Its resolution isn't too high so it doesn't demand a very high-end graphics card to maintain decent gaming frame rates and the fonts aren't too small to read.

<Next page - The $3200 Enthusiast PC with 2.5 TB hot-swap and 27" LCD>

The $3200 Enthusiast PC with 2.5 TB hot-swap and 27" LCD

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This enthusiast PC is the dream computer for anyone with roughly $3000 to spend.  There isn't a retail or online PC you can buy that even comes to these prices.  Chances are you'll have to spend double the money for something this good and you still won't get the high-performance terabyte hot-swap storage subsystem.

This liquid cooled monster has the potential to run at 3.6 GHz or maybe even 4 GHz.  With 2 terabytes of fault-tolerant RAID that operates at four times the speed of a normal hard drive, your operating system will scream.

Enthusiast PC with liquid cooling and hot-swap storage Cost
GIGABYTE GA-P35-DS3P LGA 775 Intel P35 (ICH9R) 180
Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 Conroe 2.4GHz Retail (hoping for 3.6 GHz) 224
Cooler Master Aquagate S1 RL-EUL-GBU1-GP Liquid Cooling Kit 87
AMS DS-3151SSBK Aluminum 3.5" SATA 5-drive hot-swap 127
5 Seagate 500 GB SATA II HDD (RAID-5 for 2 TB storage) 625
Thermaltake Armor Series VA8000BWS Black ATX chassis * 169
A-DATA Value Series DDR2-800 RAM (4 x 1 GB) 150
SeaSonic 550 watt silent PSU (Up to 88% efficiency!) 138
Lite-on 20x SATA-based dual layer DVD burner 38
Creative Sound Blaster Audigy SE 7.1 Channels 24-bit 96KHz 39
Leadtek PX8800 GTS TDH 320MB Extreme GeForce 8800GTS 320MB ** 291
Dell 27" widescreen 1920x1200 LCD monitor 1019
Logitech G15 Gaming Keyboard 72
Razer Copperhead laser precision mouse 2000 DPI 59
Total (includes shipping but not tax) 3214
* $25 rebate on Thermaltake Armor case (discount not reflected above) ** $25 rebate on 8800 GTS (discount not reflected above)

  • This is a new Gigabyte Intel P35 based motherboard which is very similar to this high-end P35 board.  It only lacks the exotic chipset cooling system which isn't really a problem at all since we're using a high-end chassis and a liquid CPU cooler.  It's a great overclocker and the ICH9R storage controller is amazing.
  • We're still using the same Intel E6600 CPU because it gives us the best chance of reaching a clean DDR2-800 (400 MHz base clock on FSB) so that the CPU runs at 3.6 GHz.  You can try to get a slightly more expensive E6700 and go for 4 GHz but the probability of getting to 4 GHz is lower.  Basically we're looking for a clean 50% boost.  See bottom of this page for instructions on overclocking.
  • The Aquagate S1 liquid cooler is a simplified liquid cooling system that's as easy to install as a normal air cooler.  The difference is that it keeps the CPU chilled while operating at minimum RPM and minimum noise levels.  It also dumps the heat from the CPU outside of the chassis so we don't unnecessarily heat up the rest of the motherboard.
  • The 5-drive hot-swap cage was featured in this blog from April.  It gives us easy access to our RAID drives in case one of them fails and it can be used as a housing mechanism for removable hard drives that we can use for backup and archiving off-site.
  • The 5 hard drives give us a massive 2 TB pool of effective fault tolerant storage and it performs 4 times better than a single drive.  It doesn't matter how fast your CPU or video card gets, storage is the biggest weak point of modern computers and your computer will lock up when the storage is all choked up.  The massive capacity allows you to load it up with tons of video.  No enthusiast high-performance PC is complete without a hot-swap RAID.
  • We have 4 GBs of DDR2-800 memory which is higher than the required specification of DDR2-533.  Having the extra memory speed allows us to overclock the CPU an extra 50% in clock speed.
  • With a 20x DVD burner, you can make backups of your favorite DVDs as well as your valuable personal data like home photos and videos.  Since these are SATA based DVD burners, you'll be able to load up more of these identical DVD burners so that you can burn multiple disks at the same time with Nero Burning ROM software.  It saves a lot of time when you want to archive data to multiple disks.
  • Even though we already have 8-channel audio on the motherboard, most games still require EAX if you want surround sound.  This Sound Blaster Audigy gives you that compatibility to games.  Someday this may change when games start using the Vista driver model.
  • The NVIDIA 8800 GTS gives you high-performance DirectX 10 gaming with superior visual quality in Windows Vista.  The graphics card is also known to be a great overclocker though this particular model is already factory overclocked.  Aparently, this sub $300 graphics card is very competitive with AMD/ATI's $410 X2900 video card and uses less power.
  • The Thermaltake chassis gives us 9 5.25" external drive bays and we'll be using three of them for our hot-swap SATA cage.  We can potentially add another 5-drive cage.  Note that a friend of mine has reported to me that the front fan is a little loud so we don't really need to hook that up since we're using the hot-swap drive cage to cool our drives.
  • The 550 watt Seasonic power supply is super quiet and supper efficient at a reasonable price.
  • The Dell 27" display is a widescreen 1920x1200 LCD that allows true 1080p (1920x1080) video playback without any down-conversion.  If you're willing to spend an extra $600, you can go up to the 30" model but you will have to also spend an extra $300 on the video card to get decent performance with the higher 2560x1600 resolution.  But for this configuration, the 27" LCD is the ideal fit for this computer.
  • The Logitech G15 and the Razer Copperhead 2000 DPI laser mouse gives you precision control of your games and applications.

To overclock these Intel Core 2 CPUs, simply adjust the FSB (front side bus) base clock speed from 266 to 333, 366, and then 400 MHz.  At FSB 400 MHz, you will get a 50% boost on the CPU and the memory will run at a its native DDR2-800 speed.  Do it gradually to see when you have problems booting up in Windows Vista.  As soon as you start experiencing any problems as you slowly jack up the CPU voltage, boost the CPU voltage by increments of 0.02 volts but DO NOT exceed 0.19 volt boost.  The Aquagate S1 liquid cooler should keep your CPU nice and cold even with the voltage boost.  You might also need to boost the chipset and memory voltage slightly.  If you go to far and the system doesn't post, you'll need to reset the BIOS by wiping the configuration with the BIOS reset jumper which will be in your motherboard manual.

Note: S3 suspend mode may not work when overclocking is enabled.  If you are experiencing problems with s3 suspend, disable S3 in the BIOS and set it to S1 and disable suspend from Windows Vista.  S1 suspend state is nearly worthless from a power savings standpoint and it only saves about 10 watts.  S3 suspend when it's working will put your PC in to a 3 watt state where all the fans in the system shut down.

Since Vista is very sensitive to CPU errors, you'll know immediately if your overclock setting is too much because Vista won't boot properly.  It's even possible to get an error that say you need to reinstall Vista but you don't need to do that, just pull the clock speed back.  You will want to install your OS without doing any kind of overclock so that you can get a clean install first.

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