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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  • BigLan - Monday, October 15, 2007 - link

    Thanks for noting that the kworld tuner could be a real POS. Personally, I'd stay far, far away from it if at all possible - pcalchemy have a white box avermedia combo for $80 which would be a better bet. I'd also recommend the hauppauge 1600 or 1800 for the main tuner - they're about $90-100, and can sometimes be found at ~$80 with a rebate at circuitcity or compusa.

    I'd also think about going for 2 500gb drives @ $110 each (total $220) rather than one 750gb one @ $200. It'll give you 33% more capacity for 10% more money, but it is another drive in the case adding to the heat and noise.

    The analog tv situation doesn't really apply to cable-fed viewers either as cable providers will continue offering analog sdtv for a period of time after the ota transmissions are turned off (I think it was 2012 at the earliest.) You can also continue to use the svid input to capture SD channels from a set-top box even after that date. The 2009 switch off only applies if you're using an antenna for your sd channels.
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    I can't speak from personal experience about most of the TV tuner cards out there, but I have looked at QAM tuners in the past and they were at best very time consuming to get configured. Still, I also have an AVerMedia dual tuner (non-QAM) installed in my own HTPC that works very well for analog channels (courtesy of a Comcast feed). Quality probably isn't as good as an ATI Theater 550 that I have, but analog TV quality is already lousy anyway.

    I currently use FireWire to capture HDTV content when I feel the need -- for example, I recorded the women's World Cup soccer matches since they were taking place at 3 and 5 a.m. usually. For one-time recordings like that, FireWire was enough. Unfortunately, that doesn't allow you to watch one channel and record another. Setting up recordings is also not nearly as user-friendly as using a Media Center interface.

    One of the problems with using dual hard drives is that Windows Media Center doesn't worked as well in that situation (in my experience) unless you're running a RAID 0 array. All of the recordings are sent to one specific drive/folder, so you would have to manually transfer movies between hard drives. RAID 0 certainly is an option, but I'm pretty much okay with using a single larger hard drive in most situations. Besides, you could then upgrade capacity further in the future if necessary.

    Obviously, there's no correct answer to which choice is best -- I say po-tay-to, you say po-tah-to. LOL
    Reply
  • drpepper128 - Monday, October 15, 2007 - link

    In your article you said that you would probably receive a lot of criticism for your choices, well I’m hear to make one. Your choice of memory seems to coincide with what you always choose in your systems. You chose a lower capacity, but faster timing for both gaming rigs. I thought it was proven a while ago that those types don’t really add much to performance, at least not as much as capacity does. I know however that you do include over clocking into your considerations, but is using the better timings and faster speeds really not needed? I personally would take the Intel setup and choose a the E4500 with slower higher capacity memory and over clock that way; however, I haven’t had much experience with the new 1333Mhz FSB Intel processors and their over clocking capabilities.

    One problem with using the higher memory capacity I stated above is the windows 64bit problem. I noticed you tackled this in your article on the workstation part, but is it worth it? I’m currently about to build a friend a system and was quite interested in the answer. I do know that a 32bit operating system has a limit around 2 or 3 gigabytes, but doesn’t a 64bit operating system also take up twice as much memory for each application essentially turning your 4GB of memory into only 2? Is it really worth spending the extra money on 4GB of RAM to future proof your system?

    Does anybody know when the HD 2900 Pro will start coming out in mass? I’ve been thinking it will be a good buy when it comes down in price.

    Finally, Anandtech, I miss the old style guides where you listed several parts using your price grabber and then recommended the best parts. I’m currently finding the best motherboards to use for builds through Newegg votes and forum posts. You do make several reviews on these boards, but they have been lacking lately, and it is hard to put all the motherboards in to focus and select the best one.

    Thank you for your great article,
    drpepper128
    Reply
  • Calin - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    I don't think going over 2GB is so important on a budget PC. Anyway, using 2x1GB allows one to buy two other DIMMs to increase the memory - so you buy 2 DIMMs now for 2GB and maybe later another 2GB for a 6GB total Reply
  • leexgx - Friday, October 19, 2007 - link

    most small mother boards Only have 2 slots for ram Reply
  • JarredWalton - Friday, October 19, 2007 - link

    What reality do you live in? Even most uATX boards now have four DIMM slots. Only the absolute cheapest/smallest mobos have two slots these days. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 15, 2007 - link

    It previously seemed like most people would simply read one or two of the pages anyway, focus on the tables, and skip everything else. I figured just cutting to the chase would allow me to write less text and focus on the important stuff. I try to expound on areas that do matter (motherboards, GPU options) and not worry too much about stuff that most people will breeze over (case, keyboard, mouse, speakers).

    For the memory, note also what I said on the AMD setup: "We did choose to use some DDR2-1066 memory, which honestly might be overkill considering the price. $114 (after rebate) for 2GB of this type of memory might seem like a steel compared to a year ago, but if you're okay with DDR2-800 you can still pick up 2GB of 4-4-4 memory for a measly $75. In fact, one of the AnandTech editors did exactly that just this last week... twice! If you're thinking about upgrading to a 64-bit operating system, give some serious thought to running a 4GB configuration with DDR2-800 as opposed to 2GB of higher performance DDR2-1066." I think the Intel side would benefit more (i.e. for overclocking), but having good quality RAM is never a bad thing IMO. I'm not going to bother with DDR3 recommendations, but $40 for more flexibility in overclocking and such is reasonable.

    Those of us who are running Vista 64-bit have now reached the point where compatibility issues are pretty much gone (at least, so I heard from Gary). I'm still running XP on my primary rig, but I keep looking at one of my Vista PCs and thinking it may finally be time to give it a serious shot. If I had a 64-bit version of Photoshop and perhaps some games that benefited, I think I'd make the switch.

    Concerning memory footprints on x64, it's only certain instructions (memory addresses) that are twice as large. Most opcodes are still 32-bit and most data is still 32-bit. 64-bit OS/apps do use more memory overall, but it's nowhere near twice as much. 4GB and 64-bit is still going to be more roomy than 2GB and 32-bit.

    Hope that helps.
    Reply
  • Pirks - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    quote:

    $40 for more flexibility in overclocking and such is reasonable
    No, it is not. You pay like 40% more while getting maybe 5% back in terms of performance. How can it be reasonable? RAM overclocking and paying 500% (THAT'S FREAKIN FIVE TIMES!) of a normal price to get those precious 10% in performance gain, when you install exotic duper expensive ddr2-1066? You gottabekiddin'!
    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 16, 2007 - link

    5% at stock performance. If you push DDR2-800 and DDR2-1066 to their limits with overclocking, stability on the DDR2-1066 modules is better and performance gains generally reach into the 15-20% difference range. Again, I have stated in the text that it isn't required or even necessary. If you have no intention of overclocking, grab DDR2-800 4-4-4 memory and save yourself $40.

    Consider this, however: $40 more on a $1500 system represents a total cost increase of 3% for what you admit is probably a 5% performance increase. $75 will get you an 8800 GTS 640MB, which will add anywhere from 0% to 25% depending on game, resolution, and detail settings. And yet many also question the listing of a 320MB part over a 640MB part as being just as unreasonable. That's why both alternatives are discussed in the article.
    Reply
  • leexgx - Friday, October 19, 2007 - link

    overclocking ram at best is 1% (or 10 FPS thats when thay are at 150FPS range)

    been shown loads of times about ram speeds tested and tryed

    id not pick any thing less then an 8800 640MB GTS but most users do not tweek there in game settings to higher ones so not be an problem still an Very fast card
    Reply

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