Introduction

AMD introduced the Athlon II X2 and Phenom II X2 early last month. These new processor options extend the 45nm process and the updated Phenom II architecture to lower price points, which is certainly good news. However, the real impact with the top-line Phenom II X2 at $102 is in choices for budget systems with a cost below $800. Those CPUs bring tremendous power to budget systems, as you will see in our upcoming updates to our sub-$800 buyers' guide.

Intel made the world's fastest Core i7 even faster at about the same time AMD was filling in Phenom II at the bottom. The new 3.33GHz Core i7-975 is the fastest Core i7 but it comes with a $1000 price tag. The 3.06GHz Core i7-950 is a more affordable $562 and it does revise some i7 price points. However, the new changes are at the $562 and up price range, which is definitely the high-end range.

The action at the top and bottom don't have much impact on midrange systems, which is where most of our readers spend their money. Priced from around $700 to around $1700 for a complete system, there are plenty of options to from which to choose. You will mostly see refinements to previous guides, a few hot new board choices, and some best value components that have emerged since our last midrange guide.

The midrange base system has dropped a bit and now starts at $700 for the basic computer without peripherals. That has less to do with price reductions this time than with our change of the optical drive to a 32X DVD Sony burner instead of a combo Blu-Ray reader/DVD burner. Many commented BD playback was a bit pricey for a midrange value system, so we have chosen the latest Sony Optiarc 32X DVD burner for the value midrange. The BD/DVD combo is still the choice for performance midrange systems, and naturally you can mix and match optical drives depending on your personal needs and wants.

Phenom II X4 and X3 options have matured rapidly since their introduction a few months back, providing new choices for building a great Phenom II quad- or tri-core midrange system. Intel options have changed little as the market mostly prepares for a new midrange Intel socket in the next month or two. Manufacturers are gearing their Intel efforts toward new Socket 1156 motherboards, which will be home for upcoming Core i5, i3, and even a few Core i7 processors.

You can now build a decent entry level PC for around $500 - including a 1080p LCD monitor and the Vista Home Premium OS. If you already have a monitor and OS, or use one of the free operating systems like Ubuntu or another Linux variant, you can get your desktop system cost down to a bit over $300. As we discussed in our sub-$800 buyers' guide, these cheap entry systems are very capable of doing everything that many users need from a computer. Nevertheless, that $500 machine is certainly not the paragon for gaming, graphics, or raw computing power. As you move up the price scale you gain in all of those parameters. We started to beef up those areas in the bargain systems detailed at closer to $800.

Most of our readers are looking to buy in the next rung up the ladder, broadly defined as the midrange. A midrange system generally provides plenty of performance for the cost, while ensuring that the components still have some staying power in the market. That's our focus for this guide. We'll spec out two Intel systems and two AMD systems. The first value pair targets a base system price of around $700, with a complete system price of around $1100. These $1100 systems represent the best-bang-for-the buck in the midrange.

The second pair of systems target midrange performance. At about $500 to $650 more than value midrange, these $1600 to $1800 complete systems invest that extra cost in performance improvements and upgraded peripherals. The midrange performance segment builds around a powerful Intel Core i7 CPU or the fastest Phenom II you can currently buy. Both are very high performance for the money - and high performance by almost any other measure.

Intel Value Midrange
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  • vol7ron - Monday, July 27, 2009 - link

    I'd like to start seeing numbers with these configurations; something to quantify the performance.

    Usual stuff:
    FPS
    Encoding Times
    Super Pi
    Load times

    I know benchmarks are created for each individual component, but it'd be nice to see the synergistic effects and then make a decision on value per dollar.
    Reply
  • ChrisOjeda - Monday, July 27, 2009 - link

    Will onboard video (like ASUS M4A78T-E) be a solid solution for somebody that does no gaming, but would like to make a home theatre box for watching movies, playing music, and viewing pictures using a Windows solution. I have no intention of gaming on the machine and don't want to spend more than necessary for a video card. Assume all other components the same. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, July 27, 2009 - link

    Yes. If you're a stickler for audio, make sure it's an IGP that can handle multi-channel LPCM audio output. NVIDIA has had this for a while, Intel added it a year or so back, and http://www.anandtech.com/weblog/showpost.aspx?i=62...">AMD just added it with the R785 (HD 4200). Reply
  • garydale - Monday, July 27, 2009 - link

    The AMD 790GX chip does pretty reasonable graphics for the non-gamer so I went with the Gigabyte GA790GP-UD4H (or some similar number) board. The six onboard SATA2 ports meant that my software RAID 5 array (4 x 500G) still allowed me to plug in a SATA DVD rewriter.

    With a Phenom II 940 processor, the total build (less monitor - still using an old Dell 21" trinitron) was pretty small. I found a 470watt PC Power & Cooling Silencer on sale last year and stuffed it in a case I'd picked up years ago.

    The processor runs quite cool thanks to the new cooler AMD puts on them - about the same temp I was getting with with an earlier Phenom X4 and a Gladiator Max cooler. It's the hard drives that are running hot, so I'll need to add another fan at the back to pump more hot air out.

    Just waiting for the Blu-ray burner costs to come down. They haven't really moved in the last year, which is disappointing. Does anyone have any idea on why the prices are staying high? I notice the media prices have been dropping, so when can we expect a $100 Blu-ray burner?
    Reply
  • goinginstyle - Monday, July 27, 2009 - link

    I was surprised that I did not see a AMD 770 or cheap Intel P45 based system with the 4890 as the video card choice for the midrange system. The money you save on the board allows you to upgrade the video card choice and performance looks to be the same. Maybe overclocking is not as good but does it really matter that much.

    You end up with a single video card on the board but it also allows you to save money on the power supply choice, which might get you a better audio selection or two hard drives. I think having alternatives listed in these guides would be good, otherwise most of the choices were solid.
    Reply
  • brybir - Monday, July 27, 2009 - link

    I was looking for the 780G as well. I think they were looking for "gamer" boards with the option to Crossfire or SLI or whatnot over strictly budget options since this is a "middle of the road" system guide for both casual gamer types as well as those in the upper end of the price range who want very good system speed.

    If I were building a mid range system (I am going to build one come early 2010 when Intel's i5 line is more flushed out and the new gen of graphics cards are released in oct/now) I would probably pick up a 780G board and use the money to go from the 4870 to the 4890 or even just use the money for a bump in LCD quality.
    Reply
  • Black Jacque - Monday, July 27, 2009 - link

    This article makes some good points in graphics and CPU selection. However, it shows the Editors have a poor understanding of PC power consumption.

    By reasonable accounts, all the PSUs in the recommended systems have twice the rated wattage that the parts lists will draw at full core-burning maximum. For the mid-range, a 400W-450W PSU is more than enough.

    The recent, excellent Xbit Labs article "PC Power Consumption: How Many Watts Do We Need?" clearly illustrates that 750W PSUs are a waste of money in the mid-range when not going with SLI or Crossfire. This article shows the trend in PC parts is downward in power consumption.

    When building a mid-range machine, you need to keep your eye on your budget. You are trading dollars for performance in every choice. A 450W PSU is less expensive than a 750W PSU. That difference is one budget bump UP toward either a: faster CPU, an upgraded GPU, or more RAM.

    The high-wattage PSUs in the parts lists show a poor understanding of PC power consumption. Selecting lower wattage, PSUs that perform as needed in high performance situations (and more efficiently at idle) allows for higher performance parts to be used in the price/performance mid-range categories, or generally lower the cost-of-entry to a category. I expected a more canny and not “Big is Best” recommendation of PSUs in this article.


    Reply
  • The0ne - Monday, July 27, 2009 - link

    While there's already arguments going back and forth on this it's usually a good idea to buy a beefier but not necessarily more expensive PS. The reason is because many users don't have the capability to determine precisely how much power their system is consuming. Hell, I'm an Engineer and I don't have the tools at home to even do it. So I can't expect the same for your average Joe to be capable of. Secondly, not all low range, mid-range or high end configurations are the same. Some have more components and some have the basics. Having more requires a bit more power.

    In addition, not all power supplies are created equal. Even same power supplies are not exactly the same. And while specs are great to look at chances are if you don't know what you have in the first place it's best if you look for a performance/price deal that is more than what you "think" you need.

    Due to reviews I keep seeing people make comments like "consumers only need 400-450 watt for their mid-range computer!" While this may be true for most cases it is not entirely 100% foolproof. For example, my 600watt PS in my main refuses to run my new 4870 1Gig video card where it's already powering my current 9800GX2. Why, I've no idea. I just know that I had spent hours trying to determine it with little success except the PS is not what the specs are telling me.

    So I pop in the OCZ 700, after doing some research and knowing I would have some good buffer afterward, and my system is running just fine. I'm not maxing it so I really don't have to pay attention to the tight specifications. What matters was that I bought it for $50 when it was on sale and there wasn't a similar PS that came close in price. That's what importantly :)
    Reply
  • SiliconDoc - Wednesday, August 05, 2009 - link

    You don't need home tools to determine what PS requirements are, there are tools all over the internet - how about one form the experts:
    http://www.thermaltake.outervision.com/">http://www.thermaltake.outervision.com/
    ---
    Now they make PS's and you would think they would promote a higher number, but run through it once and you'll likely find a much lower result than you expected.
    Reply
  • The0ne - Monday, July 27, 2009 - link

    Speaking of PS, here's the one I got...and it's on sale again for $49 after rebate :o

    http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?Pr...">http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?Pr...

    Reply

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