Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Jun/Jul 08

OK, it's time once again for ... (drum roll please) ... The Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Jun/Jul 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.

OK, it's time once again for ... (drum roll please) ... The Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Jun/Jul 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.

Check out the gallery for this post here

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 with a lot of new entries.

Quick menu

Let's get started!

CPUs -->

CPU

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.

Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770
High-end - Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9770 - Unchanged

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 $1,500

Intel Core 2 Duo E8400
Mid-range - Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 - New!

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 $200

Hard to overlook - Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 - New!

Gaining entry into the "Quad Core Club" has never been cheaper - and for about $300 you can pick up a Core 2 Quad Q9300. 2.5GHz, 6MB L2 cache and a 1,333MHz FSB. The Q9300 replaces the Q6600 which runs slower and hotter.

AMD Phenom X4 9850
Honorable mention - AMD Phenom X4 9850 - Unchanged

I'm willing to add AMD's latest "Black Edition" X4 9850 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.

<-- Intro | Motherboards -->

Motherboard

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

ASUS Striker II Extreme NVIDIA nForce 790i Ultra SLI
High-end - LGA775 - ASUS Striker II Extreme NVIDIA nForce 790i Ultra SLI - New!

It seems traditional that the top-spot board on this list costs $400+, and the ASUS Striker II Extreme with the 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
  • Support NVIDIA 3-way SLI graphics cards
  • 6 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 - make sure that you download and apply the latest BIOS updates.

Price - about $450

ASUS M3A32-MVP Deluxe
High-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

Oh OK, here you go. A few non-ASUS motherboards for your consideration.

Gigabyte EP35-DS3R
Mid-range - LGA775 - Gigabyte EP35-DS3R - New!

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

Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H
Mid-range - AM2 - Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H - New!

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

<-- 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!

XFX GeForce 9800 GX2
High-end - XFX GeForce 9800 GX2 - Unchanged

As you might expect, the top spot belongs to 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 $530

Radeon HD 3870
Mid-range - Radeon HD 3870 - New! 

Competition from NVIDIA has forced down the price of ATI's Radeon HD 3870 512MB to the point where for around $140 this card is a steal. The flipside of this deal is that as the price has come down, the performance of the card has improved dramatically thanks to updated drivers from ATI.

This card runs hot, takes up two slots, and it's noisy unless you control the fan using RivaTuner, but for the price it's a mighty fine card that can really push the pixels about.

Price - about $160

Radeon HD 3650
Budget - Radeon HD 3650 - Unchanged

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 $85. 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!

No change this time in either of the hard drives on the list.

Western Digital Raptor/RaptorX
High-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 500GB
Mid-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 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.

Price - about $99

<-- Graphics cards | RAM -->

RAM

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

Corsair TWINX Dominator Dual Channel 4096MB PC12800 DDR3 1600MHz (2 x 2048MB)
High-end - Corsair TWINX Dominator Dual Channel 4096MB PC12800 DDR3 1600MHz (2 x 2048MB) - New!

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 $680

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) - Unchanged

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 $55

<-- Hard drivesSound cards/Speakers -->

Sound Cards/Speakers

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.

Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro
Sound card - Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro - New!

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

Logitech Z-5500
Speakers - Logitech Z-5500 - New!

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 $250 - $300

<-- RAM | 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.

Cooler Master RL-EUL-GBU1-GP Aquagate S1
Water cooling - Cooler Master RL-EUL-GBU1-GP Aquagate S1 - Unchanged

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 $80

Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro
LGA775 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

<-- Sound cards/Speakers | PSUs -->

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 EGX1000EWL
High-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. 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

ThermalTake PurePower W0100RU 500-Watt
Mid-range - ThermalTake PurePower W0100RU 500-Watt - Unchanged

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

<-- Coolers | Cases -->

Cases

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.

Cooler Master RC-1100 Cosmos S ATX Full-Tower Case
High-end - Cooler Master RC-1100 Cosmos S ATX Full-Tower Case - Unchanged

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

<-- PSUMonitors -->

Two monitors for your viewing pleasure.

Samsung T220
22" - Samsung T220 - New!

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 - $350

Dell UltraSharp 3008WFP
30" - Dell UltraSharp 3008WFP - New!

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

<-- CasesHome -->