Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Oct/Nov 08

OK, it's time once again for The Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Oct/Nov 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!

OK, it's time once again for The Hardware 2.0 "Best Kit List" for Oct/Nov 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!

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.

Also note: I'm looking to expand this list by adding more categories and components. If you'd like to see anything added, let me know!

Quick menu

Let's get started!

CPUs -->

CPU

Once again, the processor market continues to be dominated by Intel, with AMD barely getting a look in.

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

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

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

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 $170

Keeping an eye on the future!

If you are looking for the best performing CPU possible then you might want to hold off from buying a Core 2 Extreme monster like the QX9550 and wait for Intel to officially release the new Core i7 processors because these processors will mean a new motherboard too because of socket changes.

For the budget-conscious

Looking for a CPU that packs a lot of punch but which costs under $100? Take a look at the Intel Core 2 Duo E4300. For around $99 you get a dual-core 1.8GHz processors with 2MB of cache. This is the ideal processors around which to build a budget PC, or even to upgrade an existing system that usual an older Socket LGA775 CPU.

AMD Phenom X4 9850
Honorable mention - AMD Phenom X4 9950

I'm willing to add AMD's latest "Black Edition" (unlocked, thus ideal for overclockers) X4 9950 2.6GHz quad-core Phenom to the best kit list. If you can get your hands on this CPU for around the $175 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 LGA775 and AM2 motherboards.

ASUS P5N64
High-end - LGA775 - ASUS P5N64 WS PRO WiFi NVIDIA nForce 790i Ultra SLI

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

ASUS Crosshair II Formula
High-end - AM2/AM2+ - ASUS Crosshair II Formula AM2+/AM2 NVIDIA nForce 780a SLI

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.

ASUS P5QL-E
Mid-range - LGA775 - ASUS P5QL-E 

There is a lot of like about the ASUS P5QL-E motherboard. It's a robust board, it packs really nice features such as a crash free BIOS and and ASUS's EPU power-saving feature.

But what's really nice about the P5QL-E is the ExpressGate feature that allows you to boot up into a Linux shell in 5 seconds and access the Internet, email and other features. Great for that quick email or browse through Wikipedia!

Nice board, nice price.

Price - about $110

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

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, 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!

XFX GeForce GTX 280
High-end - XFX GeForce GTX 280 1GB 512-bit GDDR3

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!

Note: If you bought (or were looking at) this card a couple of months back, notice that the price has fallen by about $100!

Price - about $450

Radeon HD 4850
Mid-range - Radeon HD 4850

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

Radeon HD 3850
Budget - Radeon HD 3850/GeForce 9600 

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!

<-- 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!

Western Digital VelociRaptor
High-end - Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB 

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

High-capacity - Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 ST31500341AS 1.5TB

Want the largest capacity SATA drive going? then you want the Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 ST31500341AS 1.5TB drive. Yes, you read that right - 1.5TB!

The spec on this drive is pretty good:

  • Spindle speed: 7,200 rpm
  • Average latency: 4.16 msec
  • Random read seek time: <8.5 msec
  • Random write seek time: <10.0 msec
  • Cache: 32MB

Price - around $190

Samsung Spinpoint T166 500GB
Mid-range - Samsung Spinpoint T166 500GB

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 1GB Samsung SpinPoint too, priced at around $130. If you want more storage space then this could be the drive for you.

Price - about $70

<-- Graphics cards | RAM -->

RAM

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

Corsair Dominator Dual Channel 4096MB PC3 17066 DDR3 1600MHz (2 x 1GB)
High-end - CORSAIR DOMINATOR 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 2133 (PC3 17066)

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 9-9-9-24 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.

These modules have been tested together at 2133MHz, Vdimm = 2.0V, at latency settings of 9-9-9-24 on NVIDIA 790i-based motherboards with a dual core CPU.

Price - about $520

Corsair XMS2 DHX 2048MB Dual Channel PC6400 DDR2 800MHz Memory (2 x 1024MB)
Mid-range - Corsair XMS2 DHX 4GB Dual Channel PC6400 DDR2 800MHz Memory (2 x 2GB)

Fast RAM, tight timings (4-4-4-12), combined with the Dual-Path Heat Xchange (DHX) technology makes the Corsair XMS2 DHX RAM a bargain. These modules also overclock well and run relatively cool. Power, performance and stability all for a mid-range price.

Price - about $110

<-- Hard drives | Sound 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

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 - $250

Logitech Z-5500
Speakers - Logitech Z-5500

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

<-- 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

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

Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro
LGA775 cooler - Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro

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

Scythe Infinity
AM2 cooler - Scythe Infinity

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

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 

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 $55

<-- 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

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 $250

<-- PSU | Monitors -->

Two monitors for your viewing pleasure.

Samsung T220
22" - Samsung T220

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 $300

dell ultrasharp 3008wfp
30" - Dell UltraSharp 3008WFP

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

<-- Cases | Home -->