OK, it's time once again for ... (drum roll please) ... The Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Apr 08/May 08. Here I've put together a list of the best high-end and mid-range components currently available, with some decent budget parts listed too, along with a few honorable mentions. 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: 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!
The processor market is currently dominated by Intel, but AMD's release of the quad-core Phenoms mean that the Intel full house is no more.
In the "more money than sense" category we have Intel's monster QX9770. This is four cores, each pumping at 3.2GHz. It's based on 45nm architecture and comes with a massive 12MB of L2 cache. It also features a super-fast 1600MHz FSB.
Do you really need a QX9770? 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 few frames per second faster or allow you to render that video a fraction of a second quicker.
The QX9770 isn't about power, it's mostly about bragging rights.
Price - around $1,600
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 - Unchanged
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!
Honorable mention - AMD Phenom X4 9850 - New!
I'm willing to add AMD's latest "Black Edition" X4 9850 quad-core Phenom to the best kit list. I've not had any hands on time with this processor yet but reviews that I've read suggest that if you can get your hands on this CPU for around the $240 mark, it represents a pretty good deal.
<-- Intro | Motherboards -->Motherboard
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 and both are unchanged from the previous list.
$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 $370
Note: Why no ASUS Striker II Extreme 790i board? Well, while it's a really nice board but I'm going to wait a few months before adding this to the list until updated BIOS firmware is released. High-end ASUS boards go through a fast period of change when new and I find it best to wait for the dust to settle before recommending them.
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
Oh OK, here you go. A few non-ASUS motherboards for your consideration.
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 $90
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 $85
<-- 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!
We have a new high-end card, and surprise-surprise, it's an nVIDIA card.
The 9800 GX2 is nVIDIA's first foot on the quad-GPU ladder. The "2" in the GX2 stands for two GPUs since, in simple terms, the 9800 GX2 is two cards sandwiched into one.
The 9800 GX2 supports a maximum resolution of 2560 x 1600 and can pump out an amazing 76.8 billion pixels per second.
And if a single GX2 isn't enough for you, you can always fit two in an SLI configuration, as long as you're willing to blow over $1K on graphics.
Price - about $580
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.
Price - about $180
The bottom line is that you're not going to get the best gaming experience from a sub-$100 graphics card, but that doesn't mean that you can't get decent performance for a reasonable price.
If you're looking to spend less than $100, then the cards to be looking at cards based on the Radeon HD 3650 GPU. A good example is the Diamond Radeon HD 3650 with 512MB of RAM. You should be able to pick this card up for around $95. For your money you get dual DVI, HDMI and DirectX 10.1 support.
<-- 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!
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
If you're looking for a fast drive that offers high capacity, then take a look at the Samsung Spinpoint T166 500GB drive. Because the T166 has three platters, the data density is high, which in turn means great performance.
They're also quiet.
Price - about $99
<-- Graphics cards | RAM -->RAM
Buying cheap RAM is just asking from trouble, especially if you push your system hard.
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
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 -->Cooling
Stock coolers are OK if you like mediocre cooling and a noisy fan. Me, I prefer to upgrade the coolers on my systems.
I've experimented a lot with water cooling and had mixed results with it. Water-cooling is great but component failure and leaks are hard to avoid.
One of the best liquid CPU coolers (best in terms of price, performance, ease of use, quietness and reliability) is the Cooler Master RL-EUL-GBU1-GP Aquagate S1. It's not elaborate and you don't get enough radiators to heat your house, but for approximately $80 you get everything you need to cool most CPUs down, even if you overclock them.
Price - approx $80
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.
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
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.
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. Sure, you need your own personal fusion generator but it's worth it for the bragging rights.
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 ... 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 - about $300
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. On the list now is a ThermalTake PurePower 500W unit. I've encountered a number of these PSUs and I've been very pleased with them, both in terms of build quality and reliability.
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
In the list by popular demand are PC cases. Remember, this is my favorites and your mileage may (and will) vary. I'm only going to pick one - a high-end case - because the budget end of the market offers too much variety and scope.. Both are high quality and both will give your components a good home.
High-end cases don't get any better than the Cooler Master RC-1100 Cosmos S. Externally, the beautiful yet robust aluminum construction offers rigidity without too much of a weight penalty.
Internally, the case offers bags of room - 7 exposed 5.25-inch drive bays, 4 hidden 3.5-inch bays (converted from three 5.25-inch bays), and 7 expansion slots. All bays are tool-free (and the good quality sort of tool-free, not the cheap and nasty variety). The I/O panel offers four USB ports, IEEE1394 FireWire, eSATA, microphone, and audio.
The only downside - price.
Price - about $300