Introduction

We get regular emails from people looking for advice on what sort of components to use in a new computer. Some people are looking at cheap budget builds for a friend or family member; others are looking at high-end gaming setups capable of smoking the latest consoles. However, by far the most common type of computer is the midrange system, and that's the category we will be covering today.

Depending on whom you're talking to, midrange can start as low as $1000 and extend all the way up to around $2000, which undoubtedly gives a lot of flexibility in terms of choosing components. We're going to split the middle and shoot for about $1500 for each of the systems we configure today, which will include everything that's necessary for the intended market. You can spend more or less than that with a little bit of effort, and certainly those who are looking to reuse a few components from their current system will be able to save some money.

For this guide, we're going to put together four configurations that target different user types. Gaming is something we are asked about frequently, so we will start by putting together two gaming systems - one based on an AMD platform and the other using an Intel platform. We'll follow that with a Home Theater PC (HTPC) and an entry level workstation. As always, many of the choices can be debated, and picking out a single component that is "best" is usually a matter of perspective. This is particularly true for our HTPC and workstation configurations, but we will cover that in more detail momentarily.

Finally, before we get to the actual systems, we would be remiss if we didn't point out all of the upcoming hardware launches. AMD's Phenom processors (dual-core and quad-core) should be launching within the next couple of months, potentially bringing them back into the raw performance competition with Intel (as opposed to right now where they're mostly competing on price/performance). Along with the new processors, we expect to see a lot of new chipset launches for the AMD side from both AMD and NVIDIA. It's been a rough year for AMD, with falling prices and market share. We'll have to wait a bit longer to find out if they can really get back into the thick of the battle, but at the very least AMD aficionados might want to wait a bit longer to see how everything pans out before making their next upgrade.

On the Intel side, most of the midrange updates aren't going to be as dramatic, but we should start seeing 45nm Penryn processors showing up in quantity in the near future. All other things being equal, we would certainly prefer to use a 45nm Intel processor, but whether or not you're willing to wait a bit longer for what amounts to a minor speed bump (generally less than 20%) depends a lot on what sort of system you're currently using. If you need a new computer right now (because of a new job or because your current system broke) then you probably can't wait a few weeks let alone months. If you don't actually need (or really want) to upgrade, then go ahead and wait until you do.

AMD Midrange Gaming
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  • leexgx - Friday, October 19, 2007 - link

    i got an customer that mite be wanting an Quad cpu with 8gb ram soon :) and it ant going to be running vista, it be XP x64 (he uses 3DS)

    so i need to start to look it up but i cant see there been any problem sticing 4x2gb sticks in one pc
    Reply
  • The Boston Dangler - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    "...the abit IP35-E is selling for $102 shipped, plus a $20 mail-in rebate. The quality of that motherboard is a bit suspect, however, with quite a few users reporting compatibility problems and other quirkiness. We haven't had any serious issues with our own test subject, but you might need to exercise a bit more patience if you go with abit."

    i'm considering this board. could you please link me to a description of these issues?
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    Read the Newegg comments (and take them with a grain of salt, most likely). You can also try googling for reviews, which may are may not result in useful information. Basically, Gary said the board is a good "budget midrange" offering, but the overall quality is definitely lower than what you would find in something like the IP35 Pro (which costs twice as much). Reply
  • yyrkoon - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    Better yet, go to the ABIT forums, and READ. Newegg reviews are fairly subjective, with a lot of the reviewers obviously being seriously in-experienced when it comes to building systems.

    You probably will not see a more candid forum than the ABIT forums, or at the very least, they do not censor because of a posters dislike for a product. Incidentally, when buying a new motherboard, and if it is an ABIT board, the first place I go to is ABIT forums, and read.
    Reply
  • n yusef - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    As the owner of a Lian Li PC-7 Plus (a generation older than the 7B Plus II), I have to recommend against it. As a workstation case it is limited at three hard drive bays. This may have been fixed in the new version, but the front panel of my case is no longer attached. The bezel is connected to the case via four quite flimsy plastic pins, two of which have broken off. Although the pins can be replaced, a high end manufacturer like Lian Li should never produce such a poor design, especially on a case as simple as the PC-7 is. Reply
  • Pirks - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    I don't understand this. I got myself 4GB of DDR2-667 RAM at newegg for _ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS ALTOGETHER_, which comes to $25 per 1 GB, and you always sugges this crazy overpriced $50 per 1 GB DDR2-800 memory. What the heck is this shoot?? Why pay almost twice more if you get just 2% of performance increase? Well, maybe 5% is you're really into synthetic Sandra stuff..

    I just don't get ya guys
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    DDR2-667 with an Intel platform and a 1333FSB is going to seriously handicap overclock, for one. AM2 will also suffer a 5-10% performance loss compared to DDR2-800 at stock speeds. If you're happy with cheap DDR2-667, by all means go for it. I've built enough systems over the years that I've learned from painful experience that cheap memory can create unforeseen problems. Basically, I'm not going to stake my reputation on it if I can avoid it. I spent $250 on DDR2 memory that's not as good as the $114 RAM recommended in this article, and that was less than a year ago. (That memory, incidentally, was RMA'ed when one stick failed after five months.) Reply
  • Pirks - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    But it's not going to handicap overclock on those 800 MHz FSB Intel Allendales. Hence you can get seriously overclocked CPU with all its 40%-50% system-wide performance increase goodness for _much_ less money, compared to overclocking on duper expensive DDR2-1066 sticks. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    Okay, let's take the E4400. 10x333 will put the RAM back to DDR2-667 using 1:1 ratio. The CPU can likely handle that with appropriate $70 cooling. So you've spent $210 or so on your CPU+HSF. How does that compare to an E6750 that sells for $195? I haven't tested, but I'd imagine the OC'ed E4400 wins by a bit. Then you can OC the E6750 and close the gap. But using DDR2-667 with the E6750 (or E6550) means a 1:1 ratio already has the RAM at DDR2-667.

    $15 already has us about half way to the upgraded memory you despise, or we can just stick with the $75 stuff and see about pushing the E6550 to 7*400, or the E6750 to 8x400. Now we've topped out on inexpensive DDR2-800 (which you can probably push to 850-900 MHz if you make an effort, but I've had more than a few DDR2 modules fail after a few months of that). So go with DDR2-1066 and now with the right mobo you can try for as high as 7x533 without taking the RAM out of spec.

    Feel free to disagree on what's more important, but the bottom line is that I would much rather spend a bit more money on quality RAM, especially when looking to overclock. At the top overclocks, I've seen performance differences of 20% with cheap RAM vs. high-end RAM - when trying to push the whole system to the maximum stable speed. With some time and effort, you might get that down to 10%, but for a 3% system cost increase I'm more than happy to eliminate most of that effort.
    Reply
  • Pirks - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    Okay, I got your point. When you invest $1500 in a new system then you can add another $100 to the cost of the memory, not a large difference compared to the total price. I was looking at this from the point of view of building gaming rig where it's usually better to invest in large high resolution monitor and high performance video card, while saving on CPU and RAM which are much less important for games, compared to video card/monitor combo.

    From the pure CPU overclocking perspective (ignoring games and 3D) your solution is better than mine, it's more expensive tho, but (I have to agree here) not much more expensive, considering total system price.
    Reply

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