Choosing a Platform

The core of any computer begins with the choice of a motherboard. The motherboard will determine what type of RAM, CPU, graphics, and other accessories can be used, so we need to take a look at the bigger picture before we get down to the selections. What we want is the best performance for every task, but unfortunately, there is no universal choice. The overall performance competition between platforms is often a draw, depending on the application used. That said, we have done our best to analyze the relative performance for several categories of use and come up with our platform selections.

For most tasks, AMD currently holds the lead - whether you want a budget CPU like the Sempron-754 3100+ or the all out speed of the Athlon FX, AMD leads Intel in pricing and performance. Unfortunately, there is one drawback with AMD right now, and that is the lack of shipping motherboards with support for PCI Express graphics cards. This muddies the water somewhat, and we'll address this more in the graphics card selections. That is really more of a concern for those interested in gaming, however. Software development has been an area that AMD configurations have dominated ever since Intel introduced the Pentium 4, and that has not changed. The shorter pipelines and lower latencies of AMD CPUs help them out a lot in compiling, not to mention the "free" support for 64-bit computing for those willing to use Linux or the Beta XP-64 OS. Content creation remains a strong point for Intel, which means that it is basically a draw with AMD. If you do a lot of audio or video editing, and depending on the choice of application, Intel's Pentium 4 can still come out on top.

One rather gray area for debate is the multitasking performance of the platforms. Raw benchmarks do not always reflect the actual user perception. A typical benchmark will max out the processor usage for the duration of the benchmark and then report a final value, whereas most users pause frequently during their use of a computer. What we really tend to notice is when we actually have to wait on the computer. For example, if you are encoding MP3s or a video in the background while you surf the web, you will find that web pages tend to load slower than normal. That is to be expected, but how does something like Intel's HyperThreading affect performance? Our feeling is that HyperThreading helps to alleviate the perception of slowdowns in multitasking, while it may not actually improve benchmark performance. Remember that numbers do not always tell the whole story, and we'll leave it at that.

Let us reiterate that both AMD and Intel make very good processors that provide ample performance for all but the most demanding of users. The lead is often less than 10% in most applications, and you would be hard pressed to tell the difference in day-to-day use. If you have strong feelings one way or the other in the AMD vs. Intel processor debates, you could really choose either one and go away happy. We are providing baseline recommendations, but we leave the actual building and tweaking up to you.

Index AMD CPUs and Motherboards
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  • Avalon - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    For the s754 system, to clarify. Sorry. Wish these posts could be edited :) Reply
  • Avalon - Friday, October 22, 2004 - link

    If you wanted to cut an additional ~$50, switch out that MSI K8N Neo Platinum and throw in an Epox 8KDA3J. It's only $73 on newegg, shipped, which is within a dollar or two of the Chaintech VNF-250, but has loads more features. After all, you guys gave the 8KDA3+ an editor's choice award, so why not recommend the "value" board in a mid range rig? It's an option to ponder over. Reply
  • dragonballgtz - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    A $200 CPU would go better with a 9800Pro IMHO for gamers. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    ksherman, that's basically what I went with, but outside of gaming there is no real need for a fast graphics card. $200 for a graphics card that many people do not want/need is difficult to justify. Rather than create more confusion with talk of gaming alternatives, we are going to look at putting together a Gaming Guide in the near future.

    The Mid-Range PC is such a broad segment that it is virtually impossible to cover all options without writing a 20,000 word article. This one is already long enough, and that was after I removed the gaming options. Here's the basics, though:

    If you want a moderate gaming card for AGP, about the only reasonable choice right now is a 9800 Pro. The 6800/6800GT are too expensive for most people, I think. PCI Express has the 6600GT which tends to be faster than the 9800 Pro by about 10 to 20%. As games are GPU limited in most cases, AMD fans will probably either want to wait for PCI Express motherboards and get a 6600GT, or else bite the bullet and spend $360+ on a 6800GT. Ouch. :)
    Reply
  • Beenthere - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    Nice guide. Lotta work !!!

    I think the biggest issue for most folks looking to build a new PC or even to upgrade within a budget, is prioritizing. As you can see from the comments above, gamers always want a top-of-the-line Video card even when this takes a big bite outta the budget. To do that you gotta cut cost some place else and that may compromise the total system performance.

    Seems to me that an easy means to quantify and qualify the real options for an individual system would be by listing the hardware categories as you've done on a spreadsheet then plug in the hardware and prices accordingly. I think some folks would be surprised to see how their total system price climbs way beyond their original budget when you add $50. here and there to get the "best" of a particular component or to step up to the next level of component.

    As you pointed out, sometimes like with memory, buying the lowest latency modules may cost more than moving up 200 MHz in CPU speed, so the CPU may be a better choice. Your guide and recommendations give PC builders a great head start on getting the most bang-for-their-buck.

    Thanks for the effort!
    Reply
  • ksherman - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    also, I think that a good description for a mid range system should be a system with a good amount of power (hence the processor choice) with out the price premium. I like mid-ranges because they offer the power i need with the versitility to do anything I will need to do for a while down the road. Reply
  • ksherman - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    It is kinda weird that you recommend such a low-end card for a mid-range system... to me (as everyone else has stated) the 6600 and 9800's should be in the midrange systems. 9600 and similar should be put into low-end systems... in regards to the x300, you state that it is good for those not into gaming so much as other "basic computing tasks", I think that something like that belongs in the low-end systems category. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    I have made a few minor corrections, and I also added a $1000 AMD 754 system to the summary page, for those that might feel $1250 is too much. :)

    #3: Corrected, thanks. MB, GB... sometimes my fingers have a mind of their own.

    #7: RAID 1 hardware controllers should not incur any noticeable performance penalty, as they simply tell both hard drives to write the same data. Better RAID 1 controllers will actually have improved read performance, as they can pull data from two sources. I have not done any extensive testing of this, however, and would guess that most integrated RAID controllers lack that feature. If anyone knows for sure, speak up.

    #12: I didn't put much of an emphasis on gaming, as I hope to cover that more in an upcoming Gaming Guide. We'll see if that gets a green light - it's been a while since we covered that topic in depth, I think, although the Doom 3 craze touched on it.

    #15: Stay tuned. That's all I will say for now. The Pioneer is still a good choice, though.

    #16: Is that typo corrected now? If not, which page are you seeing that on, since I checked both the Display and Summary pages for the error.

    Thanks!
    Reply
  • Desslok - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    That monitor costs as much as the whole system would?

    NEC/Mitsubishi FE991SB-BK 19" 1274?????

    Reply
  • deathwalker - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    Great article...I am a little surprised at the Optical Drive choice of the NEC 3500A @ $73, reason being is that you just reviewed the Pioneer 108 and called it the best drive reviewed to date and its only $78. Reply

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