Holiday Gift Guide 2008: High-end hardware

Lists ... if there's one thing that people seem to what at this time of year it's lists. Over the next few weeks I've planned on posting several kit lists for the Holiday season covering a wide variety of different kit.To kick off the lists, I thought I'd start by getting the big numbers out of the way first and look at high-end hardware! The top-end, sky's the limit stuff that, if nothing else, is cool to look at and fantasize about (and in a few months be able to pick up for a middle-of-the-road price!).
Written by Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, Senior Contributing Editor

Lists ... if there's one thing that people seem to what at this time of year it's lists. Over the next few weeks I've planned on posting several kit lists for the Holiday season covering a wide variety of different kit.

To kick off the lists, I thought I'd start by getting the big numbers out of the way first and look at high-end hardware! The top-end, sky's the limit stuff that, if nothing else, is cool to look at and fantasize about (and in a few months be able to pick up for a middle-of-the-road price!).

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.

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CPU - Core i7

As of Monday this week, the high-end processor list is dominated by Intel's new Core i7 range of processors.

Core i7 component gallery

The Core i7 processors represents a new era in architecture for Intel. Gone is the LGA 775 socket, instead replaced by the larger Socket LGA 1366.

The Core i7 processors currently come in two flavors and three clock speeds:

  • Core i7 920 2.66GHz | Street price: ~$320
  • Core i7 940 2.93GHz | Street price: ~$600
  • Core i7 965 “Extreme Edition” 3.2GHz | Street price: ~$1,070

With the Core i7 Intel has also reintroduced Hyper-Threading, giving the desktop CPUs the power of eight virtual cores. You also get the brand new X58 chipset and support for DDR3.

How can I put how powerful the Core i7 processors are in context? Well, let's put it this way. the lowest speed Core i7 (the 920) is faster in almost every benchmark than the previous CPU speed-king, the Core 2 Extreme QX9770.

Core i7 965 - [Read the reviews] [Check prices]

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Motherboard - Socket LGA 1366 - ASUS Rampage II Extreme

Since the Core i7 has replaced the Core 2 Extreme as the king of the CPUs, and this has bought with it a change of socket, a high-end motherboard has to support the new Socket LGA 1366.

The top end LGA 1366 board now has to be the ASUS Rampage II Extreme.

So, apart from supporting the Core i7 processor, what's cool about the Rampage II Extreme? Well, in my mind, there's a lot to like about this board:

  • X58 chipset, featuring QuickPath Interconnect (QPI) which results in greater performance
  • Support for both NVIDIA's SLI and ATI's Crossfire multi-GPU setups
  • Triple-channel DDR3 supporting 1800(O.C.)/1600(O.C.)/1333/1066 MHz
  • TweakIT overclocking utility
  • 24-bit SupremeFX X-Fi audio
  • On-board switches, great when building and upgrading

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Motherboard - Socket LGA 775 - ASUS P5N64 WS PRO WiFi

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 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.

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Motherboard - Socket AM2/AM2+ - ASUS Crosshair II Formula

Is you are loyal to AMD then you'll want a Socket AM2/AM2+ board.

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 it does support 3-way SLI, making it a superb gaming motherboard.

[Read the reviews] [Check prices]

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Graphics cards

Picking one graphics card as being the best of the bunch is tricky, because ultimately I think that ATI and NVIDIA both have hardware that's too close to call. With that in mind, I'm picking one by NVIDIA and one by ATI

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 280

The GeForce GTX 280 is the card that knocked the 9800 GX2 off the top spot. Depending on which brand you buy you can get different clock speeds (more speed, higher the price!), and they are fitted with 1GB of memory (again, the clock speed varies depending on brand and model). 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!

EVGA GeForce GTX 280 SSC Edition - [Spec] [Check prices] XFX GeForce GTX 280 - [Spec] [Check prices]

ATI Radeon HD 4870 X2

The Radeon HD 4870 X2 is basically two HD 4870 cards sandwiched together to make a mega-monster card. This card gives you 2x 800 stream processing units and 2GB of GDDR5 RAM.

Want more performance than this card can deliver? Pair it up with another HD 4870 X2 and squeeze more performance from your system!

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Hard drives

When it comes to high-end desktop hard drives, you've got two criteria to choose from - performance or capacity.

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.

Note: there are two flavors of Velociraptor - the WD3000GLFSand the WD3000HLFS. The WD3000HLFS has a specially-designed heatsink that is backplane-ready which allows it to be used in removable drive bays.

WD Velociraptor WD3000GLFS - [Spec] [Check prices] WD Velociraptor WD3000HLFS - [Spec] [Check prices]

High-capacity - Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 1.5TB

Want the largest capacity SATA drive going? then you want the Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 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

Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 1.5TB - [Read the reviews] [Check prices]

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RAM - Corsair DOMINATOR 2GB (2 x 1GB)

Since I’ve listed some DDR3 motherboards, it’s time to include some DDR3 memory - the Corsair DOMINATOR 2GB (2 x 1GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 2133 (PC3 17066).

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.

Corsair DOMINATOR 2GB (2 x 1GB) - [Spec] [Check prices]

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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!

Creative Labs Sound Blaster X-Fi Elite Pro - [Read the reviews] [Check prices]

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Speakers - Logitech Z-5500 speaker system

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

Logitech Z-5500 speaker system - [Read the reviews] [Check prices]

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PSU - 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.

Enermax Galaxy EGX1000EWL - [Spec] [Check prices]

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Case - Cooler Master RC-1100 Cosmos S

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.

Cooler Master RC-1100 Cosmos S - [Spec] [Check prices]

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