OK, it's time once again for The Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Aug/Sep 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. So if you're thinking of buying, building or even upgrading a PC, this list is a must-read for you!
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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.
This month sees a significant shake-up of the list.
Let's get started!
Once again, the processor market continues to be dominated by Intel, with AMD barely getting a look in.
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. And if one isn't good enough for you, build a Skulltrail system that makes use of two of these CPUs!
Price - around $1,450
At the mid range, Intel still rules. This month sees the 2.66GHz E6750 replaced with the 3.0GHz, 45nm, 65W E8400. It offers excellent performance with a very reasonable power draw. Also, if overclocking is your thing, this piece of silicon can be pushed to 4.3GHz and still be air cooled.
Price - around $175
Jumping onto the quad-core ladder has never been cheaper! - New!
Gaining entry into the "Quad Core Club" has never been cheaper - for about $20 more than the E9300 you can pick up a quad-core Q6600 (the last of the 65nm quads) and drop this into pretty much any LGA775 motherboard that's less than a couple of years old. Want more power? For about $270 you can pick up a Core 2 Quad Q9300. 2.5GHz, 6MB L2 cache and a 1,333MHz FSB. The Q9300 is the 45nm replacement to the slower and hotter Q6600.
I'm willing to add AMD's latest "Black Edition" X4 9950 2.6GHz quad-core Phenom to the best kit list. If you can get your hands on this CPU for around the $235 mark, it represents a pretty good deal.
In the interests of brevity, I'm going to pick what I believe are the best LGA775 and AM2 motherboards.
It seems traditional that the top-spot board on this list costs $400+, and the ASUS P5N64 WS PRO WiFi NVIDIA nForce 790i chipset is no exception.
This board is a very neat package and offers everything that the hardcore gamer could want from a motherboard:
- Supports all the latest Intel Socket dual/quad core 775 processors
- DDR3 up to DDR3-2000
- 8 x SATA, 10 x USB
- Whole host of ASUS extras, including LCD Poster, EZ Flash 2, Q-Fan, and CrashFree BIOS
One advice for anyone planning on using this board - this board is very new and BIOS updates are coming thick and fast from ASUS, so make sure that you download and apply the latest updates to get the best out of this board.
Another issue I've found with this board is that the documentation is, well, pretty poor. There is a lot about this board that is undocumented, and you might need to hit the ASUS discussion forums to get answers.
Price - about $450
The ASUS Crosshair II Formula motherboard is happy with any Phenom or Athlon AM2/AM2+ processors that you can throw at it. The board doesn't support DDR3 but it does give you DDR2 support up to 1066, supports 8GB of RAM (in case you feel like going for a 64-bit OS) and ti does support 3-way SLI, making it a superb gaming motherboard.
Price - about $275
Oh OK, here you go. A few non-ASUS motherboards for your consideration.
I like the Gigabyte EP35-DS3R for a number of reasons. It offers broad CPU support, decent overclocking facility, as well as support for both DDR2 and DDR3 (although not mixed).
I also like the board because of the combo of the P35/ICH9R chipset, which in my experience is a good combination. But one of the most attractive features of the EP35-DS3R is the eight SATA ports.
Nice board, nice price.
Price - about $145
This board has one feature that makes it stand out from the mid-range crowd - it incorporates ATI new Hybrid graphics technology. This means that the on-board integrated graphics (which supports both DirectX 10 and HDMI) can be set to work alone or in conjunction with a separate discreet graphics card to boost performance.
The board supports Phenom FX/Phenom/Athlon 64 FX/Athlon 64 X2, 16GB of RAM and makes use of the AMD 780G chipset.
All in all a really nice board at a good price.
Price - about $90
Competition for the best graphics card is, as expected, very stiff, and with new releases from both ATI and NVIDIA, this list sees a decent shake-up! Still, the old rule remains true - If you want to go high-end, expect to pay a bundle, especially if you plan on going SLI/Crossfire! However, there are some real bargains to be picked up.
A note about high-end video cards: Here's the truth about high-end video cards - the card that you pay a small fortune for today will be substantially cheaper in a few months, and not only that, it'll be faster thanks to improved drivers!
Knocking the 9800 GX2 off the top spot is NVIDIA's latest big gun graphics card - the GTX 280.
The XFX GeForce GTX 280 has the core clock running at 670MHz and the GPU makes use of 240 processing streams, while the 1GB of memory thumps along at 2,500MHz. Each card is capable of driving two screens thanks to the dual-DVI connectors.
These cards are expensive, massive (taking up two slots), need a lot of power (550W PSU with an 8-pin PCI-e connectors is the minimum spec) and run hot (so hot that you'll need a system with very decent cooling if you expect to run two of these in SLI configuration reliably - you have been warned!), but they run like a dream!
Price - about $530
Fierce competition between ATI and NVIDIA means that ATI's next-generation Radeon HD 4850 512MB GDDR3 can be picked up for around $170 this card is a steal. The 4850 is the entry-level 48xx-series Radeon but delivers enough power to satisfy all but the most demanding gamer (unless you're running a game like Crysis at high resolutions).
All in all, a decent card for the price.
Price - about $170
Given the latest price shake-up from both ATI and NVIDIA, you can now get a lot of GPU for little money. Shop around and you can pick up either a Radeon HD 3850 or a GeForce 9600 in the sub $100 price range
For example, the Diamond Radeon HD 3850 with 512MB of RAM. You should be able to pick this card up for around $100. For your money you get dual DVI, 1080p HDMI, CrossFireX, and DirectX 10.1 support, not to mention a good gaming experience. I remember buying these cards when they cost a LOT more than $100!
Hard drives aren't usually considered to be a sexy upgrade, but spend your money wisely and you should see a significant performance boost!
The Western Digital Raptor/RaptorX has 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 the fastest drive going in your PC, you need the VelociRaptor.
Price - about $300
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, and in my experience, very reliable.
Note: Keep an eye on the 1TB Samsung SpinPoint too, priced at around $180. If you want more storage space then this could be the drive for you.
Price - about $80
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. This stuff has a CAS latency of 7-7-7-20 so 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.
Also, the 2GB modules mean that you can load up your motherboard with 8GB!
Price - about $540
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 $70
While most motherboards come with a decent sound system, but if you want the best audio reproduction possible, you'll need to get a discrete sound card and good speakers.
If you're looking for the best sound card possible for your system then they don't come much better than the Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro. I know that I have my doubts about Creative drivers for some cards but this setup is about as flawless as you get.
The 7.1 surround sound capable card can deliver 116dB SNR audio playback at up to 24-bit/192kHz which, when delivered through as decent speaker set is like ice cream for the ears.
For the movie buffs this card is THX-certified and can deliver a cinematic DVD movie experience.
Oh, and if you're too lazy to get up to adjust the volume, Creative even throw in a remote control!
Price - $270
The Logitech Z-5500 speaker system is an awesome setup. The 5.1 surround sound system boasts THX-certification and can output 505-watt.
Here's a list of features:
- Powerful, distortion-free bass
- Innovative driver technology
- Digital equalization
- DTS 96/24 support
- Innovative satellite design
- Connect to multiple sources
Two things to bear in mind about this speaker package:
- The subwoofer is massive and needs to be placed well away from PCs, monitors and TVs
- The package weighs in at a whopping 25kg/55lb
Price - about $280
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.
This system'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 $75
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.
Simply the best air cooler available!
Price - about $20
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.
The Galaxy EGX1000EWL 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 $230
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 favorite 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 $270
Two monitors for your viewing pleasure.
The Samsung T220 is a nice panel that not only displays a really sweet image, it also looks good in any setting.
- Display Type: Widescreen LCD
- Pixel Pitch: 0.258 mm
- Input Video Signal: DVI-D/VGA
- Dynamic Contrast Ratio: 20000:1
- Brightness: 300 cd/m²
- Response Time: 2 ms
- Horizontal Viewing Angle: 170 degrees
- Vertical Viewing Angle: 160 degrees
- Maximum Resolution: 1680 x 1050
Price - about $320
Monitors don't come much better (or more expensive) than the Dell UltraSharp 3008WFP.
- 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 $2K on a panel).
Price - $1,999