Summary: Planning on building a high-end PC for gaming and getting a little bit of work done? With his experience writing for magazines and websites, Chris sees a lot of high-end gear. In this article, he outlines his favorites. See which parts made his cut in the Ultimate PC Buyers Guide!
FiringSquad’s High-End Buying Guide
Processor – AMD Athlon 64 FX-51
The Athlon 64 FX-51 runs at an even 2.2GHz. It’s complimented by a 1MB L2 cache, 128KB of L1, and most importantly, an integrated memory controller. It also offers full support for Intel’s SSE2 instruction set, which really helps the chip’s multimedia performance. The new processor centers on an evolved architecture (formerly known as K8), and as a result, requires that you buy a brand new motherboard with a Socket 940 interface. Further, you’ll need a pair of registered DDR400 memory modules in order to extract the highest level of performance from the platform.
If you’d love to buy an Athlon 64 FX-51, but simply can’t justify the exorbitant price of a processor, motherboard, and memory upgrade, consider AMD’s Athlon 64 3200+. It’s nearly the same monster, with a megabyte of cache and an integrated memory controller. However, it comes in a Socket 754 package and support non-registered DDR memory, making it a more palatable upgrade. The Athlon 64 3200+ sports a 64-bit memory path, so it doesn’t require modules to be installed in pairs. As a result, it isn’t as fast as the Athlon 64 FX, but you might not even notice the difference.
For more information on the Athlon 64 FX-51, take a look at our Athlon 64 FX-51 Performance Preview.
SIDEBAR: AMD is building a new fabrication facility in Dresden, Germany. Check it out.
Heatsink – Thermaltake Venus 12
A good number of those chips are of the tray variety, otherwise known as OEM parts. They don’t come bundled with heatsinks and they generally include between 30- and 90-day warrantees. If you don’t mind that route, your first order of business is to track down a capable cooling solution. The Athlon 64 infrastructure is still maturing and there aren’t many high-performance coolers out there just yet, but Thermaltake’s Venus 12 does everything we’d want it to and more.
The 760g heatsink is large to be sure, weighing in with 73 copper fins for maximizing cooling capacity. And while its 80mm fan might suggest noisy operation, the Venus 12 can be tuned to run between 2000 and 5500 RPM generating anywhere from 21 to 48dB of noise. It comes with two controllers – one that fits in a 3.5”drive bay for easy access and another that occupies a PCI slot for inconspicuousness. Admittedly, the Venus 12 is obnoxiously noisy at its fastest setting, which should only be necessary for aggressive overclocking. Stock frequencies necessitate somewhere closer to 3000RPM for stability. And at that speed, the Venus 12 is fairly quiet.
Motherboard – ASUS SK8V K8T800 Motherboard
The SK8V is laid out well. Power connectors are situated to avoid blocking airflow, the processor socket is unobstructed, and the onboard connectors are color coded to aid installation. It has plenty of expandability too, sporting an AGP 8x slot, five PCI slots, and ASUS’ proprietary WiFi slot that works in conjunction with the ASUS WiFi-b add-on card.
Should you instead opt for the Athlon 4 3200+, check out the K8V Deluxe. It offers the same feature set, but substitutes a Socket 754 connector for the Socket 940 interface. And because it doesn’t require dual-channel memory configurations, the K8V only offers three DIMM slots.
SIDEBAR: In addition to all of the other markets ASUS dabbles in, it recently jumped feet-first into wireless networking with the SpaceLink 802.11g lineup. If you’d like more information, visit ASUS’ page.
Memory – Corsair TwinX1024RE-3200LL 1GB Memory Kit
Chassis – Lian Li PC-6070
A few cases, however, are particularly classy specimens, and have a general appeal that anyone with an eye for style can identify. Lian Li’s PC-6070 is a perfect example. Traditional in design, the 6070 is all about brushed aluminum and faux carbon fiber. It is designed for quiet operation and is fit with sound insulating rubber around the door and foam on each of the body panels.
Svelte as the PC-6070 may be, an increasing number of enthusiasts prefer small form-factor systems to larger towers. Shuttle’s SB75G2, featuring the 875P chipset, is a great platform for the Pentium 4. It’s dressed in all black, comes equipped with a 220W power supply, and a bevy of other enthusiast-oriented necessities. Shuttle also sells an XPC for the Athlon 64 called SN85G4 that boasts its own laundry list of features, including Serial ATA RAID and a 6-in-1 card reader.
SIDEBAR: Corsair is one of the few companies that offers a forum for enthusiasts to talk about performance overclocking. You can find that here.
Graphics Card – ATI RADEON 9800 XT 256MB
If you’re to go all-out and buy a new Athlon 64 FX-51, the fastest gaming processor currently available, why not complement it with a similarly capable video card? ATI’s RADEON 9800 XT, available online for about $450, is currently top dog. It’s very similar to the RADEON 9800 Pro that preceded it (and in turn, very much like the original 9700 Pro); the most significant change is higher clock speeds. The RADEON 9800 XT’s core runs at 412MHz and its memory bus cruises along at 365MHz, delivering 23.3GB per second of bandwidth. A large copper cooler keeps the card stable at its enhanced frequencies, but other than that, the 9800 XT is architecturally identical.
Because the RADEON 9800 Pro is so much like the recently introduced XT, it makes for an attractive alternative at just $300 online. You don’t get the beefy copper cooler or dynamic overclocking via OVERDRIVE, but with a bit of conservative overclocking, it shouldn’t be hard to replicate the XT’s level of performance.
If you’d like more information on the RADEON 9800 XT’s performance, including overclocking results, check out our 9800 XT preview.
Display – Dell 2001FP LCD Display
Purists will argue that CRT displays are the only way to game. And while their points merit acknowledgement, a new generation of flat panel displays goes a long way in bridging the gap that once divided the two technologies. Dell’s latest introduction, the 2001FP, is an embodiment of a magnificent gaming display. Plus, it looks a lot better than any of its predecessors – the .7-inch bezel all around is elegant, to say the least.
The 20” LCD employs a 1600x1200 native resolution. Fortunately, we don’t have to worry about sub-standard quality, as the RADEON 9800 XT makes for a perfect complement, as both components do their best work at 1600x1200.
Dell integrates several connectivity options, including DVI-V, D-Sub, S-Video, and composite inputs. A picture-in picture mode enables video streaming from the latter two connectors. The 2001FP also comes equipped with a USB 2.0 hub that exposes four ports.
With regard to performance, there isn’t much to say against the 2001FP. Dell specifies a 16ms response rate (that is, the time it takes a pixel to switch from on to off and back again), which is currently the best you can buy. Be it placebo or actual performance, hours of subjective gaming tests failed to uncover any instance of “ghosting.” Dell’s 2001FP is easily the display to own.
(For those who insist on the best-looking image, only a CRT will do. Sony's 21" F520 is the display of choice among graphics artists and CAD users. It boasts a 2048 x 1536 max resolution and 0.22mm dot pitch among its list of features.
SIDEBAR: The Dell 2001FP is currently available with Dell PCs and on Dell’s website at dell.com
Sound Card – Creative Labs Audigy 2 ZS Platinum Pro
At the top of the card’s feature list is eight-channel output and an ultra-quiet 108dB SNR. It also comes equipped for DTS-ES and Dolby Digital EX software decoding, used in DVD movie playback. The included external I/O hub offers analog stereo connectors for six-channel input, optical and coaxial inputs and outputs, a pair of IEEE 1394 ports, and microphone input with gain control.
Admittedly, the Platinum Pro is overkill for most gamers (we’re talking about the best of the best here, after all). You should still consider a sound card upgrade, though, especially in favor of an integrated audio solution. Built-in sound may suffice, but many motherboard manufacturers are sloppy when it comes to fidelity and if you connect a quality playback device (I use Sennheiser’s HD600 headphones), you’ll hear a difference, without question. For those that can’t justify more than $200 for a sound card kit, the vanilla Audigy 2 ZS is just as impressive for under $100. It just doesn’t feature all of the connectivity options.
Speakers – Creative Labs GigaWorks S750
The S750’s primary drawback is inherently logistical. Creative includes three lengths of wire for connecting the satellites: three 10-foot cables, two 16.5-foot cables, and a pair of 23-foot cables for the rear speakers. If you’re in a large room, those might not be enough. Or, it’s possible that the dimensions of your gaming haven just don’t provide for eight speakers, in which case you might want to pick up a set of cans (headphones, that is). At the very high-end, Sennheiser’s HD600’s are divine, driven by a quality amplifier. However, those run about $250. Grado’s SR60 is a great alternative at $70, albeit a bit less comfortable than the HD600, which doesn’t make contact with the ear.
SIDEBAR: If you’ve purchased an Audigy 2 ZS card, check out Creative’s driver download page for more information on the recently released EAX 4.0 driver set.
Networking Equipment – Gigabit Ethernet or 802.11g Wireless
The more elegant route is 802.11g wireless networking, which is finally coming into its own. Six months ago, we were dealing with hardware that complied with a draft specification, as 802.11g waited for ratification. Now, the necessary infrastructure is in place and the independent chipset manufacturers are moving a step further by enhancing their hardware with proprietary technologies. For example, D-Link recently released a firmware update to its Xtreme G DI-624 router that theoretically boosts performance from 54Mbps to 108Mbps on like-branded clients.
The enhanced operating mode isn’t without fault, though. We found that older versions of the DWL-G650 CardBus Adapter wouldn’t work if the network were locked in at 108Mbps, even though a newer version of the same product would work properly. Also, hardware manufactured by third parties won’t run at 108Mbps. The network still screams at 54Mbps, though. And just imagine playing a little Final Fantasy XI out by the pool once the weather warms up.
Disk Drive – Maxtor 250GB SATA Ultra Series Hard Drive Kit
Western Digital’s 10,000RPM Raptor is another viable alternative, though it tops out at 74GB and isn’t necessary for a gaming rig. If you plan to use your machine as a digital content creation workstation, though, a pair of 74GB Raptors might be a better choice. And at $300 bucks a pop, they sure beat comparable SCSI drives for value.
Should you take the small form-factor route, Seagate’s 200GB Barracuda 7200.7 SATA is one of the quietest drives we’ve tested. It sports a native SATA interface, unlike the Maxtor drive that incorporates Marvell’s parallel ATA bridge chip.
SIDEBAR: As you build your wireless network, consider using D-Link’s 802.11g wireless bridge to connect your gaming console.
Optical Drive – Plextor PX-708A DVD+/-R/RW Drive
Although the PX-708A doesn’t burn CDs with the same alacrity as a modern 52x drive, its 40x rating isn’t shabby. How many other drives do you know of that work so well in a small form-factor chassis?
Controllers – EuminX Keyboard and Logitech MX700 Wireless Mouse
I won’t claim that EluminX’s keyboard is the most comfortable or ergonomic I’ve ever used. To the contrary, it doesn’t have the same tactile appeal as my Logitech Elite. It’s a better gaming keyboard, though. Nothing is more annoying than dimming the lights for an all-night gaming session, only to turn them back on in favor of keyboard accuracy. The EluminX is backlit by electroluminescence, which makes it easy to see in the dark – a lifesaver if you rely on keyboard shortcuts.
There shouldn’t be much debate about the mouse. Logitech’s MX700 is nothing less than an award-winning product. It is comfortable, accurate, and durable. The batteries last for days at a time, after which the mouse can be charged in a matter of hours (I keep a wired mouse by my workstation as backup). Sure, at $50 online, the MX700 is a bit pricey, but the premium is well worth it.
SIDEBAR: Plextor’s PX-708A is shaping up to be quite the drive – already Plextor has updated its firmware three times!
And The Total Is…
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