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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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    And naturally, this is not a one-size-fits-all thing. Some people would rather have 8GB of DDR2-667 than 4GB of DDR2-800 (or whatever). I tried to get this across in the RAM commentary - it really *IS* overkill depending on what you intend to do. For a budget system, yeah, you can skip the DDR2-800 and save $13 if you want; midrange or overclocking? Decent DDR2-800 is as cheap as I'm going. Serious midrange overclocking, I'll go for DDR2-1066, which I'd also use for a high-end system. If you want absolute maximum overclocking and performance and screw the cost? Then I guess we can bring in the DDR3-1800 stuff. LOL Reply
  • Pirks - Wednesday, October 17, 2007 - link

    Yeah, I'd ratrher go for 4GB of cheap DDR2-667 RAM 'cause I like to keep lots of open apps in Vista x64 and since some games started to hit 2GB barrier - go figure. And 4GB of high quality DDR2-1066 RAM is somewhat a waste for a gaming rig, it's better to invest in 8800GTX and cool 28" LCD screen for this kind of stuff Reply
  • hubajube - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    A ATI card on a workstation machine? Reply
  • sdsdv10 - Thursday, October 18, 2007 - link

    That's not a comment, it's question. Hence the question mark "?". ;-) Reply
  • rallycobra - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    Vostro 200 with 1.6ghz duo, 1gig ram with Vista on eBay $280
    WD 500gb SE16 $115
    2 gigs crucial ram after MIR $45.
    Nvidia 8800GT 256 or 512mb ~$250 at the end of the month. (GTS speed)
    conductive paint to pin mod cpu to 2.67ghz $0 (already have a tube!)

    Not a bad PC for $650!!!

    Pick up a 24" monitor for $300 in the hot deals forum...
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    For the record, a modded E2140 overclocked to 2.66GHz is not the same as the E6550. If you're going to go cheap, it's a reasonable option, but 1MB of cache on the Core 2 architecture really does hurt performance quite a bit. I'm not sure about how that will work in a Dell motherboard anyway, but I guess if you know what you're doing with the conductive paint....

    Anyway, this is still meant as a midrange guide, using parts that are available now. I pointed out quite a few changes that could be made to get the price down on the systems - including using cheaper memory and a less expensive motherboard. I'm not going to recommend eBay for a Buyer's Guide for a variety of reasons (just like I don't recommend refurbished/used hardware), but others can use them if they want.

    If I were to try to piece together a Dell-equivalent using parts similar to yours, I'd likely get a final price of around $750 (just eye-balling things). I'd also consider it to be a very budget-oriented gaming system, where many corners are cut and overclocking is used in order to keep costs down. That's fine for some users, but a lot of people do appreciate nicer cases, accessories, and a high quality PSU. We'll hopefully have a budget guide out sometime soon, where you will see prices and components similar to what you've mentioned (though not using eBay or Dell still).
    Reply
  • FrankThoughts - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    Excellent! eBay, MIRs, CPU hacking all in one alternative... Yeah, we should all buy those! If you're going to get a Dell you probably don't want to upgrade the thing right after. A similar Vostro 200 system to what was listed comes to $1300, not including the 8800 GTS, DDR2-800/1066, or a decent motherboard. Then there's the case, power supply, keyboard, and mouse.

    Cheap case and PSU: $50
    2GB DDR2-800 RAM: $75
    320GB HDD: $80
    Cheap mobo (ASUS P5B SE): $95
    E2140: $75
    DVDR: $30
    8800GT: $250
    Vista: $105
    Cheap (Dell equivalent) keyboard and mouse: $15
    Total: $775

    You saved $125 with your MIR, apparently. Congratulations! Personally I'll pass on that budget setup. Have fun with your system, though. Hope it all works properly. I'd be hesitant to try running an 8800GTS or 8800GT when it comes out off of a 300W Dell power supply!
    Reply
  • Calin - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    "$114 (after rebate) for 2GB of this type of memory might seem like a steel compared to a year ago"

    I think it night seem like a copper :)
    Reply
  • Yawgm0th - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    There's plenty to question about the HTPC system.

    IMHO You can basically go one of a couple ways with an HTPC. You go high-def or you don't. You go DVR or you don't. Those choices greatly affect what parts you get.

    If you're going to have an optional BD drive listed, why not list a GeForce 8600 as well? I know you discuss it later on the page, but it would make a lot more sense to put it on the table as "optional". It's practically mandatory IMO if you need HD output. Yeah, you can usually do 1080i and 720p okay without it, but it does help, and it really is necessary IMO for 1080p.

    For a DVR, with HDTV and any digital TV in mind, as well as general quality -- terrible tuner choices. This is accentuated by the recent article on the new AMD TV Wonder cards. Recommending the PCI-E 650 makes the most sense by far.

    If one isn't going HD, then the HTPC changes greatly. MicroATX is overkill unless it's a DVR. At this point you're best of switching to Mini-ITX. Via and Intel both have some great offerings for a DVR in this sector. Noise is important, as you say, and nothing beats mini-ITX when it comes to noise (except maybe SBCs and nano-ITX). A passively cooled mini-ITX can easily handle any mpeg2 or mpeg4 variants while leaving a very small footprint.

    For a non-HD DVR/HTPC a digital tuner and low-end mATX system with an IGP is the way to go. That seems to be where the system in the article is headed, but the inclusion of talk about Blu-Ray and 1080p and whatnot confuses things substantially. Even without that, the price is far higher than one should expect for a system of this sort due to some of the component choices.

    Overall, I find the HTPC system to lack direction or a clear sense of purpose. What is "mid-range" in the HTPC world? What makes an HTPC? The ability to play a variety of media files from a variety of sources, or the inclusion of one or more TV tuners, thus making it a DVR?

    IMO what really needs to happen is a Buyer's Guide specifically for HTPCs. There are a variety of uses for HTPCs specifically just for "home theaters" and not as DVRs, and there are multiple DVR configurations that make sense. Hinting at different possibilities in one "mid-range" guide for an HTPC just doesn't do it.

    Also, I will stress that a good sound card is a must for an HTPC. You don't need to be an audiophile to appreciate good sound quality. Although these days quite a few motherboards come with very nice integrated 5.1 and 7.1, not as many come in mATX flavor, and some of the add-in sound cards do make substantial improvements. Anyone with a decent surround system should notice a decrease in sound quality if they try to run anything through an HTPC that doesn't have a good sound card.
    Reply
  • OrSin - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    I have to disagree with Mini-ITX. Its great platform, but the has some limits.
    First it will never do DVR or HD. I know you stated that, but not being about to upgrade to some basic functions down the road is a killer for me.
    Second most case don't allow for large hard drives. Again it might not be necessary if you storage other places or an external array, but again this basic limitation is akiller for me. You can get a bigger case, but at that piont why not for a M-ATX and limit your future needs. I own a Mini-ATX and had to move it to a second HTPC function. Acutally I own 2, and one is my daughter system. If you have a HTPC that doubles as media server in a closet some where, and a mini-itx as frout end unit in Living room then its a nice set up, but as stand alone its lacking (for me anyway).
    Even using it in a threate room was lacking for me since most projector you want to do 1080p, since on a 110' screen you actually tell the difference from 720p.
    Reply

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