||Top Holiday Hardware Upgrades 2005
December 09, 2005 Brandon Sandman Bell
Summary: Planning on upgrading this holiday season? If so, you'll definitely want to check out today's article. Inside you'll find nearly 6,000 words on our top choices in CPUs, motherboards, video cards, power supplies, storage, and audio. See who comes out on top inside!
| Introduction||Page:: ( 1 / 11 )|
For the sake of convenience, we used a combination of both Newegg and Pricegrabber for the bulk of our pricing data. Newegg is a pretty popular e-tailer among our readers, with aggressive pricing, a huge selection of products to choose from, and solid support. Newegg is also the e-tailer we here at FiringSquad use for many of our own hardware purchases.
I, Brandon, wrote the bulk of the article, while FiringSquadís resident audio/video guru Alan Dang wrote the audio portion. We both chimed in with our own thoughts on PSUs towards the end of the article. Letís get started with the processors firstÖ
$0-$150: Athlon 64 3000+
While Intelís aggressively priced their dual-core Pentium D lineup offering processors at entry-level as well as high-end price points, AMDís still delivering more performance per dollar. No CPU represents this better than AMDís Athlon 64 3000+.
The Athlon 64 3000+ is built on AMDís ďVeniceĒ core, which contains a revamped memory controller that has been tweaked to provide better support for PCs equipped with lots of memory. With Venice you can populate all four DIMM slots on your motherboard without seeing the performance slowdown present in previous Athlon 64 CPUs, Venice also supports mismatched DIMM sizes. Finally, to enhance multimedia performance, AMD added SSE3 support to Venice. The chip supports 11 of Intelís 13 SSE3 instructions.
The 3000+ runs at 1.8GHz and contains 512KB of L2 cache. It is built on AMDís 90-nm manufacturing process, allowing it to consume less power (and thus generates less heat) than competing Intel solutions as well as previous Athlon 64 cores.
By going with the 3000+ for our budget CPU pick rather than AMDís Sempron, which is designed from the ground up for the value market, we get more performance and a more robust upgrade path. Although AMD will be moving to the DDR2-based Socket M2 platform next year, AMD will continue to support the Socket 939 platform throughout 2006. The future isnít as clear for todayís Socket 754-based Sempron CPUs however. Overclockers are hitting 2.4GHz (or more) on the 3000+ also, making it an excellent value for enthusiasts looking for the most performance but are on a tight budget.
As we reported back in October, the Athlon 64 3000+ is no longer in production. This means that once supplies of the chip run out at retail, the CPU will be gone for good. Right now Venice-based 3000+ chips are selling for about $11-$20 less than the equivalent 3200+, so if you arenít able to pick one up before supplies dry up, at least going up to a Venice-based 3200+ wonít cost you an arm and a leg.
| CPUís (contíd)||Page:: ( 2 / 11 )|
Athlon 64 3800+
AMDís Athlon 64 3800+ is our CPU pick in the $150-$300 price range. Street prices on these chips can be found just under $300, allowing it to just fit within our budget. Like the 3000+, Athlon 64 3800+ CPUs can be found built on AMDís Venice core, there may be a few 3800+ chips still floating out there built on AMDís older Newcastle core, so be careful when shopping.
The Athlon 64 3800+ runs at 2.4GHz, and is a decent candidate for overclocking, although not quite as popular as less expensive Athlon 64 chips like the 3500+ and 3000+. 3800+ chips tend to max out just below 2.8GHz (in the 2.7-2.79GHz range), although 2.8GHz+ is certainly possible with good cooling and a little bit of luck.
The Athlon 64 3500+ is a nice alternative if you canít afford the Athlon 64 3800+ nearly $300 pricetag. 3500+ chips can be found with the same Venice core and feature set, only they run 200MHz slower than the 3800+ at 2.2GHz, but you save a nice chunk of change in the process. The Athlon 64 3500+ sells for about $80-$90 less than the 3800+.
Athlon 64 X2 4400+
If your budget can allow for it, AMDís Athlon 64 X2 4400+ is pretty hard to beat in the $500 price range. The Athlon 64 X2 4400+ is built on AMDís dual-core ďToledoĒ core, and runs at 2.2GHz.
Unlike less expensive Athlon 64 X2 chips like the 3800+ and 4200+, each of the CPU cores inside the 4400+ contain 1MB of L2 cache. Slower X2 chips contain 512K of L2 cache per core. The extra cache buys you an additional 5-10% in performance.
Even though the processor contains two cores, power consumption is similar to AMDís single-core chips. This is because AMD has tweaked the chipís manufacturing process for greater efficiency. As a result, the CPU generates roughly the same amount of heat too. In terms of overclocking, 200MHz is easily achievable, with reports of users going to 2.6GHz or more.
If the Athlon 64 X2 4400+ís nearly $500 price tag is too much for you, the Athlon 64 X2 4200+ can be found for about $100 cheaper, and as we mentioned above only runs about 5-10% slower than the X2 4400+ since both chips run at the same clock speed. Another worthy alternative that sells for even less than both dual-core chips is AMDís Athlon 64 4000+. The 4000+ was initially based on AMDís now retired Athlon 64 FX-53 ďClawHammerĒ CPU core, sporting 1MB of L2 cache and a 2.4GHz clock frequency. (Newer 4000+ chips are built on the ďSan DiegoĒ core, which is built on AMDís smaller 90-nm process and incorporates the same features found in Venice. These 4000+ chips are the ones you should be on the look for.)
In fact, thanks to the 4000+ís clock speed advantage it actually runs faster than the aforementioned dual-core processors in games.
Athlon 64 FX-57/X2 4800+
If youíve got over $500 to spend, AMDís Athlon 64 X2 4800+ really is about as good as it gets right now. The Athlon 64 X2 4800+ runs at 2.4GHz, and like the Athlon 64 X2 4400+, contains 1MB of L2 cache per core.
At 2.4GHz, the X2 4800+ doesnít run quite as fast as the 2.8GHz Athlon 64 FX-57 in games when you test at low screen resolutions, but remember that once you crank up the screen res and turn on AA/AF (which is something youíre going to do if you have a high-end graphics card), the X2 4800+ runs just as fast as any other high-end AMD processor, including the more expensive Athlon 64 FX-57.
Where dual-core X2 processors differentiate themselves from older Athlon processors is during multitasking. Your system will be more responsive, especially as you increase system load. Another area where dual-core processors excel is in media encoding. If you find yourself encoding lots of MP3s or movies, these applications will take advantage of the second core in your dual-core processor.
| Motherboards||Page:: ( 3 / 11 )|
Top budget motherboard
Gigabyte GA-K8N Pro-SLI
Looking for a good motherboard on a tight budget? If so, you may want to check out Gigabyteís GA-K8N Pro-SLI. The Gigabyte GA-K8N Pro-SLI is the little brother to Gigabyteís GA-K8N Ultra-SLI.
As its name implies, the board is based on NVIDIAís high-end nForce4 SLI chipset, only itís designed for the mainstream market. Unlike Gigabyteís more expensive K8N Ultra-SLI board, the K8N Pro-SLI is priced just over $100, Newegg for instance currently sells the board for just $106. That $100+ buys you a lot of motherboard though.
For starters youíve got Gigabyteís battle-tested DualBIOS. With DualBIOS, Gigabyte places two BIOS chips on the board. If your primary BIOS goes down, just revert back to the second chip. This feature protects your motherboard from a bad BIOS flash or virus.
Gigabyte also uses Realtekís popular ALC850 8-channel CODEC on the K8N Pro-SLI. This is the exact same audio solution used on more expensive $150+ nForce4 SLI motherboards. The boardís most unique feature though (besides DualBIOS) is its support for IEEE-1394b. With transfer speeds of up to 800Mb/sec, 1394b provides double the peak theoretical bandwidth of IEEE-1394, which is important for you home video buffs transferring home movies from your camcorder to your PC. The board also provides support for all the standard features you expect from NVIDIAís nForce4 SLI chipset, including GigE networking, 3Gb/sec Serial ATA with RAID, and of course support for the latest Athlon 64/FX/X2 processors.
Gigabyteís BIOS options arenít the greatest, so tweakers looking for the most flexibility may want to look elsewhere, but for ~$100 you canít expect the greatest. Likewise, some enthusiasts have complained that Gigabyteís 100% passive cooling solution isnít the most robust in the world. But again, for $100, you canít expect anything exotic. And besides, if your budget allows, you can drop in additional cooling for just a few bucks more.
With prices on nForce4 SLI motherboards dropping rapidly, picking up a good budget nForce4 SLI board is pretty easy nowadays, as evidenced by the Gigabyte GA-K8N Pro-SLI. We feel that by going the SLI route, youíve got more upgrade flexibility in the long run.
But if $100 is too much to spend on a new motherboard, NVIDIAís GeForce 6150 series are becoming pretty popular among the budget crowd. The chipset offers all the features found in NVIDIAís other nForce4 chipsets with the addition of integrated GeForce 6200 TurboCache-derived graphics. The GeForce 6150 GPU features a 2-pixel pipeline/1 vertex engine architecture and runs at 475MHz. The 6150 is also equipped with a TV encoder, support for DVI and component output, and the ability to accelerate high definition MPEG2 and WMV9 playback, making it perfect for home theater PC (HTPC) applications.
ASUS offers their A8N-VM CSM. The A8N-VM CSM features four Serial ATA RAID ports as well as GigE and x1 and x16 PCI-E slots. As an added bonus, ASUS provides both VGA and DVI outputs on the A8N-VM CSM, making it ideal for both flat panel and CRT users alike. The best part though is the pricetag, currently the board sells for $88 on Newegg!
| High-end motherboard||Page:: ( 4 / 11 )|
Top motherboard high-end
ASUS A8N32-SLI Deluxe
If you recall the first generation of nForce4 SLI motherboards, when running in SLI mode only eight lanes are devoted to each PCI-E graphics slot. The X16 chipset solves this problem, providing all 16 lanes to both PCI-E slots, even when running in SLI mode. In theory, this eliminates one of the chief bottlenecks of first-gen SLI boards, but in practice there are no titles that take advantage of the additional lanes anyway.
The board boasts 8-phase power circuitry, allowing the board to run cooler while also supplying the CPU with cleaner, more consistent power. This feature has already made the board popular among the overclocking community. In theory, ASUSí 8-phase power design should improve stability during extreme overclocking.
Another important feature found in the A8N32-SLI Deluxe is its heat pipe-based cooling. ASUS integrates a copper heat pipe connecting the boardís North and South Bridges as well as the boardís MOSFETs for improved cooling. This allows the board to run completely silent! Enthusiasts looking for a little more cooling need not worry though as ASUS also includes a small external fan which can be easily added to the board for even better cooling.
But thatís not all, the motherboard also comes with a wealth of goodies. Youíve got two GigE Ethernet controllers and support for up to four Serial ATA drives.
ASUS also leaves extra space between the x16 PCI-E graphics slots than other motherboard manufacturers, allowing the board to more easily accommodate dual-slot graphics cards like the GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB. In fact, this is actually the motherboard NVIDIA recommended for 7800 GTX 512MB launch stories. Without this extra space, we wouldnít have felt comfortable running two 7800 GTX 512MB cards in SLI mode Ė there just isnít enough space between the x16 PCI-E slots on most other nForce4 SLI motherboards.
This added space does come with one very significant downside though, sitting between both x16 graphics slots are two PCI slots. This means that if you do chose to run the board in SLI, and also have multiple PCI devices, say for instance a TV tuner card and a sound card, you wonít have room to run everything adequately and still provide good cooling for the Master (primary) PCI-E graphics card in your SLI config. The third PCI slot is then located beneath the secondary graphics slot,
DFIís LANPARTY UT nF4 SLI-DR Expert looks to be a solid alternative to the A8N32-SLI Deluxe. It has extra spacing between the x16 graphics slots, just like the ASUS board, but by placing the PCI slots beneath both graphics slots, the DFI board pulls it off without compromising as many PCI slots as the ASUS board does. This is a definite plus in our book.
The biggest downside to the DFI board though is the large fan DFI places on the chipset. Quite frankly, it interferes with larger graphics cards like the GeForce 7800 GTX, preventing them from seating completely down into the PCI-E graphics slot. After spending over $400+ on your shiny new 7800 GTX graphics card, it would be an awful shame to come home one day to find your graphics card is dead because it came loose while you were gone. DFI needs to fix this problem with another board revision ASAP.
| Budget Videocard||Page:: ( 5 / 11 )|
Top vidcard $0-150
NVIDIA GeForce 6600 GT
Sorting through the confusing mess that has become the low end of the video card market can be a pretty frustrating experience these days. As we feared when the HyperMemory and TurboCache cards were first announced, many of our own readers are confused by all the GeForce 6200 and RADEON X300 variants floating around out there. If all the cards out there baffle many of our own readers, we can only imagine what itís like for the Average Joe walking into his local computer store!
Therefore weíll keep it simple for you: avoid these budget cards altogether! While these cards are selling for pretty attractive prices right now, typically anywhere from $40-$70, you can buy yourself substantially more performance if youíre willing to spend another $20-$40.
For $100, you should be able to pick up a GeForce 6600 DDR1 card. This gets you 8 pixel pipelines with a 300MHz graphics core and 275MHz DDR memory. NVIDIA has recently replaced the GeForce 6600 DDR1 with a newer DDR2 model that delivers even higher clocks Ė 350MHz on the graphics core and 400MHz memory. A little over a month ago we reviewed one of these boards, XFXís GeForce 6600 DDR2, and found it to be an excellent performer with tremendous overclocking potential and performance. The only problem is that more board partners havenít stepped up to the plate and produced GeForce 6600 DDR2 boards; XFX is the only board partner to really hit shelves in the US so far. As a result, street prices are very close to the boardís offical MSRP of $119. Newegg for example currently sells the XFX card for $117. In our review we were told to expect a price tag of around $99.
Instead, at $117, the board is priced awfully close to first generation GeForce 6600 GT PCI-E boards, which can be found online selling for about $130. Newegg is actually offering XFXís own 6600 GT board for $120 after a $10 mail-in rebate!
Because of this, weíve got to give the edge to the GeForce 6600 GT.
Looking over the two cards, for about the same price, the first-gen GeForce 6600 GT gives you the same NV43 graphics core, but more importantly buys you DDR3 memory. While the second-gen DDR2 memory XFX uses on their 6600 DDR2 board is great, running much better than early DDR2 memory, it seems to max out around 460-485MHz. While this is close enough to the GeForce 6600 GTís stock levels to deliver similar levels of performance (as you saw on page 15 of our XFX review), it still isnít quite the same. In addition, the GeForce 6600 GT can be overclocked just as easily as the XFX GeForce 6600 DDR2, with the key being that itís memory can hit speeds of over 500MHz.
If you want to splurge and spend all of that $150, you should probably look into one of the second or third-gen GeForce 6600 GT cards. These newer 6600 GT boards ship with 256MB of memory, rather than the 128MB that shipped with the first-gen boards. In addition, you can find some pretty unique cards out there. ASUS for instance makes a GeForce 6600 GT 256MB card that relies entirely on heat pipes for cooling. As a result, the board runs completely silent!
| The RADEON X800 GTO||Page:: ( 6 / 11 )|
In case you didnít know, ATI quietly launched this card back in August, just before the RADEON X1K family was announced. X800 GTO cards are often based on ATIís R480 graphics core, only theyíve had four of their pixel pipelines disabled for a total of 12 pipelines. One popular thing to do is to turn on the four pixel pipelines that have been disabled, allowing the graphics core to run as it was originally intended with all 16 pipelines up and running. Essentially giving the user a RADEON X850 card for about half the price.
Normally weíd be all over this, we are after all the site who brought you detailed instructions on how to modify your RADEON 9500 PROís BIOS for overclocking, and more recently, how to unlock the missing pipes in AGP GeForce 6800 cards. But in this case, weíre not as bullish.
Itís not that weíre against free performance. On the contrary, in fact we feel that if you own one of these cards, you owe it to yourself to give it a try!
What we donít like though is just how many people seem to be getting sucked in just because itís the mod of the moment right now. Remember, ATI has moved away from shader model 2.0b, embracing shader model 3.0 instead. This means that ATI will likely stop pushing developers to add 2.0b support to their existing games, as well as games currently in development. Without ATIís support, we see little reason why a developer would take the time to add a 2.0b path to their titles in development. After all, if youíre a game developer on a time crunch with limited resources, are you really going to add a custom 2.0b mode to your game to please such a small audience? We didnít think so.
For enthusiasts planning to upgrade their graphics card every 6-12 months, the X800 GTO is a good buy. After all, you are buying X850-level performance at a significant discount. Just donít complain as more shader model 3.0 titles ship with HDR and other eye candy effects in 2006 that your card may not support. (And by the way, we realize that HDR isnít a SM3.0 effect, but you better believe that both ATI and NVIDIA are going to push game developers to add it to help sell their latest SM3.0 graphics cards!)
| Mainstream 3D cards||Page:: ( 7 / 11 )|
Top vidcard $150-$300
NVIDIA GeForce 6800 GS
Now that you know our opinion on ATIís X800 GTO line, we can discuss the price segment it directly competes in, the $150-$300 market. There are a number of cards competing in this segment, ranging from the GeForce 6800/6800 GT and higher-end 256MB GeForce 6600 GT cards all the way up to ATIís highly popular RADEON X800 XL.
Our top pick for this price segment though is NVIDIAís recently announced GeForce 6800 GS.
The GeForce 6800 GS is based on NVIDIAís brand new NV42 graphics core. NV42 is built on TSMCís 110-nm manufacturing process, just like the GeForce 7800 line, and features a 12-pixel pipeline architecture with 5 vertex units. This isnít quite as strong as the GeForce 6800 GTís 16 pixel pipeline/6 vertex unit architecture, but the GeForce 6800 GS makes up for this by running at a much higher core clock speed: 425MHz on the 6800 GS versus 350MHz on the GeForce 6800 GT. NVIDIA then pairs the GeForce 6800 GS with the same 256-bit wide memory interface thatís used on the GeForce 6800 GT. The memory on both the GeForce 6800 GS and 6800 GT run at 500MHz, so the memory subsystem on both cards is the same.
In terms of performance, as we highlighted in our GeForce 6800 GS Performance Preview, the 6800 GT slightly outperforms the GeForce 6800 GS, but weíre only talking a difference of a few percentage points. Despite having more pixel pipelines, the GeForce 6800 GT never really pulls away from the GeForce 6800 GS.
The real beauty of the GeForce 6800 GS though is its price. While the card officially carries an MSRP of $250, retail cards can already be easily found online for less than $210. In fact, a quick PriceGrabber search reveals prices as low as $199. The lowest price for the GeForce 6800 GT on the other hand is $250.
With that $50 saved, you can pick up a copy of Call of Duty 2, or splurge a little more on another upgrade, say for instance going from a 250GB hard drive to a 300GB drive.
Right now there really isnít a better buy in the $150-$300 price segment than the GeForce 6800 GS.
| $400 3D cards||Page:: ( 8 / 11 )|
Top vidcard $301-$400
NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GT
At the $300-$400 price point, there are really only two cards competing here, ATIís RADEON X1800 XL and NVIDIAís GeForce 7800 GT.
From a features perspective, both cards are pretty competitive. Both ATI and NVIDIA have custom AA modes that apply supersampling to help clean up jaggies, while ATIís X1800 boasts HDR with AA. NVIDIA, meanwhile, is quick to point out that the vertex shaders in their SM 3.0 cards support vertex texture fetching, a SM 3.0 feature which allows the vertex shader to read from texture memory.
Performance between the two cards is a tossup. Between the two cards, the X1800 XL excels in Battlefield 2 and Call of Duty 2, whereas the GeForce 7800 GT has a slight edge in Half-Life 2 and Quake 4, and a wide lead in IL-2 Sturmovik: Forgotten Battles.
Ultimately, what really pushes the GeForce 7800 GT ahead of the X1800 XL are really two factors: price and noise. Right now GeForce 7800 GT cards can be found on Pricegrabber for $300 with a free copy of Call of Duty 2! Considering that Call of Duty 2 is currently selling for $50 ($60 for the DVD edition) and is a pretty popular title, just taking home the #1 spot in retail sales just recently, this is a pretty sweet deal. And for those of you who are tired of WW2 shooters, or just already have a copy of CoD 2, EVGAís been selling their GeForce 7800 GT card with a free nForce4 motherboard for the same price.
You just canít find these kinds of deals for the RADEON X1800 XL right now. At best youíre looking at spending about $350-$360 for just the X1800 XL card, this doesnít include a AAA recently released title like CoD 2. If ATI or one of their board partners had a comparable bundle offer with one of their cards it would be more competitive between the X1800 XL and GeForce 7800 GT but that isnít the case. In fact, neither ATI or any of their board partners has provided a compelling game bundle since the RADEON 9800 XT/9600 XT days when the cards were bundled with Half-Life 2.
On top of this, ATIís reference cooling solution for the RADEON X1800 XL runs louder than that of the GeForce 7800 GT. Some HTPC users may be turned off by this.
One X1800 XL variant thatís very tempting though is ATIís ALL-IN-WONDER X1800 XL. Pricegrabber has the lowest price on this card at $364, just $14 more than the lowest RADEON X1800 XL. For $14 youíre buying significantly more features. While performance between the AIW X1800 XL and RADEON X1800 XL is the same, youíll have the AIW X1800 XLís additional TV tuning capabilities as well as its ability to timeshift and record your favorite television programs to your PC. The AIW X1800 XL also comes with Adobe software and ATIís excellent REMOTE WONDER PLUS remote control unit. With pricing between the RADEON X1800 XL and AIW X1800 XL so close right now, we feel that the AIW X1800 XL is definitely the better deal at the moment.
| High-end 3D cards||Page:: ( 9 / 11 )|
$500+ video cards
NVIDIA GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB
While itís built on the same manufacturing process as the original GeForce 7800 GTX and offers the same basic feature set, NVIDIA has incorporated a number of enhancements into the GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB besides the added memory.
Most importantly, the card runs at substantially higher clock speeds. Core frequency is up from 430MHz on the GeForce 7800 GTX 256MB to 550MHz on the 512MB model. This is an improvement of over 20%. On the memory subsystem, NVIDIA improves the memory speed by over 200MHz, from 600MHz on the original GeForce 7800 GTX 256MB to 850MHz on the 512MB card. As a result of this change, peak memory bandwidth improves to 54.4GB/sec, an improvement of 16GB/sec over the 256MB GeForce 7800 GTX. For reference, NVIDIAís GeForce 6600 GT, one of the best mainstream buys at the moment, only boasts 16GB/sec of peak memory bandwidth total!
Thanks to the new clocks, performance improves by 20-30% over the original GeForce 7800 GTX 256MB. As we just noted in our XFX GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB review earlier this week, when running alongside a 7800 GTX 512MB, the 7800 GTX 256MB looks downright slow in many cases.
The most remarkable part about the GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB though is that it pulls all this off while running virtually silently. NVIDIA incorporates the same dual-slot cooler first used on their Quadro FX 4500 board. This is a high-end $2,000+ workstation card that goes into very high-end systems. The cooler is massive, encompassing nearly the entire GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB board, and is outfitted with four long heat pipes. To keep everything cool, NVIDIA then employs an 80mm fan to keep everything cool.
The fan is quite large for a graphics card fan, but thanks to its size it is able to spin at low RPMs while still generating plenty of airflow to keep heat in check. Smaller fans used on other high-end cards have to spin at higher RPMs in order to accomplish the same task, and as a result, they tend to generate more noise.
In theory, by running at lower RPMs, the fan should last a little longer too.
Unfortunately, while the GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB carries a $650 MSRP, current street prices on retail boards start at $700 and go up from there. This is the complete opposite of the GeForce 7800 GT and 7800 GTX, where street prices on boards are actually below NVIDIAís MSRP. Hopefully prices on 7800 GTX 512MB boards will improve by the end of the year, but that may not be enough time for holiday shoppers.
| Storage (Memory and HDDs)||Page:: ( 10 / 11 )|
Corsair XMS-3500LL PRO & OCZ PC-4000 1024MB Gold GX XTC Edition
Around here, weíre big fans of Corsair and OCZ memory. On the high-end both companies have recently launched new 2GB memory kits that cater to the enthusiast. From Corsair, you have the XMS-3500LL PRO. This module promises tight memory timings of 2-3-2-6 with 1T command rate at 218MHz (437MHz effective). Thatís right, youíve got CAS Level 2-1T, delivering very low latency.
As a PRO module, Corsair outfits the board with their oversized aluminum heatsink and 18 activity LEDs.
If you want even higher clock speeds with low latencies, OCZ just released their PC-4000 1024MB Gold GX XTC Edition. These modules run at timings of 3-4-3-8 at a whopping 250MHz (500MHz effective)! The XTC module also supports OCZís Extended Voltage Protection, meaning OCZ backs the modules at voltages of up to 2.9V, which is important when overclocking. We havenít even had these modules long enough to take them out of the box for a test spin, but we definitely canít wait.
Both OCZ and Corsair back their high-end memory products up with a lifetime warranty, although OCZ earns extra points for providing toll-free phone support. Both also offer value memory lines.
If you want to save a little money, this is the route we recommend you take.
Top Budget HDD
Seagate Barracuda 7200.8 250GB
Seagateís Barracuda 7200.8 hard disk line has proven to be extremely popular among upgraders on a budget. The drive runs relatively quiet, contains 8MB cache, supports NCQ, and spins at 7200 RPMs. The most important aspect of the 7200.8 though is its 5-year warranty; this is two years more coverage than most other manufacturers provide on their consumer-level hard drives. We picked the 250GB model, as it can be found for about $100 online.
Maxtorís MAXLine III delivers a pretty impressive feature set for the price. The drive boasts a 16MB cache yet itís priced similarly to the aforementioned Seagate drive. It also comes with a 5-year warranty. Average seek times are a little higher with this drive though.
Top High-end HDD
Western Digital Caviar RE2 400GB
This one was a tougher call than the budget drive, but ultimately we elected to go with Western Digitalís Caviar RE2 hard disk drive. The WD Caviar RE2 features a 16MB cache, a five-year warranty, and an affordable ~$220 price tag for a 400GB hard drive. Honorable mention goes out to Seagateís Barracuda 7200.9 drive. The drive has all the features of the RE2, with the addition of SATA 3.0Gb/sec support with NCQ, but with a $350+ price tag it doesnít deliver the performance per dollar of the Western Digital.
If youíve got to have 500GB of storage though, it would be our top choice.
| Audio and PSUs||Page:: ( 11 / 11 )|
The Envy24 continues to be a solid choice despite its lack of hardware 3D acceleration. Audio quality is superb for music and games, and while you would gain performance by getting an X-Fi, you also have to consider that the Envy 24 in a system-wide budget, would cost $300 GeForce 7800GT + $25 Envy24 is going to be faster than a $55 XGI Volari 8300 + $270 Sound Blaster X-Fi Fatal1ty FPS.
In other words, unless you have that Athlon FX-57 with 2GB of Corsair's XMS Pro 3200XL, SLI'd GeForce 7800 GTX's, and RAID-0'd WD Raptors, you will always find a better way to spend your money than the X-Fi. When I wrote the X-Fi Elite Pro article for CNET/Gamespot, I summarized it as essentially being a brilliant sound card thatís priced out of touch with reality.
Power Supply Unit
Alan: When it comes to power supplies, the PC Power & Cooling Turbo-Cool 510 design remains the flagship PSU. It's the definition of over-engineering. That said, the 510 SLI doesn't have the 8-pin EPS12V power and so you wouldn't be able to use the current PC P&C PSU with the new DFI NF4 Expert motherboard in the optimal configuration.Two peripheral 4-pin connectors (2 of these type of cables are included)
A few months ago, we gave the Seasonic S12-500 and the Silverstone Zeus ST65ZF our Bull's Eye awards and said that we'd consider upgrading these two Editor's Choice products with more experience and time. Our experience has shown that these PSU are excellent choices. The Seasonic S12 is a great choice because it's also very quiet, but the Zeus ST65F provides incredible stability. 2006 should be a good year for PSUs -- Silverstone has already shown that their Zeus ST65ZF is a world-class PSU. They've brought a modular design of the ST65ZF into a 600W model (ST60F) and introduced a 560W ST56ZF, which adopts the single 38A +12V rail design of the PC Power & Cooling CPUs.
At the moment, my preference is to use PC Power & Cooling when I need to be able to say "I've put the best PSU in your system," the Zeus ST65ZF for dual socket workstations, and the Seasonic S12 for high-performance desktops.
Brandon: For the PSU, Iím going to go in a different direction than Alan and recommend OCZís ModStream. With the ModStream, you can pick and choose which power cables you want running inside your system, plugging in the cables you need today, and saving the others for powering devices you may install in the future. This keeps the amount of excess cables running inside your system down to a minimum. OCZ includes the following cables with the ModStream:
One peripheral 4-pin and one floppy disk drive connector (1 of these type of cables are included)
One peripheral 4-pin connector (1 of these type of cables are included)
One PCI Express 6-pin connector for hooking up to a PCI-E graphics card (1 of these type of cables are included)
Two Serial ATA connections (1 of these type of cables are included)
Each of these power cables features copper-shielded power leads which are also specially sheathed, this delivers cleaner power. OCZ then adds clear plastic tubing on top of this. For added flair, the cables glow in a light shade of blue when used with UV lighting.
While the ModStream doesnít feature adjustable rails like OCZís PowerStream line of PSUs, OCZ provides plenty of power on each rail for all of the latest high-end hardware. For instance, for the GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB Performance Preview article, I ran two GeForce 7800 GTX 512MB boards on an Athlon 64 FX-57 system with 2GB of RAM, 2 hard disk drives at one point, and a DVD-ROM drive with no problems.
The ModStream features very solid construction, and is decked out with a mirror finish and blue LEDs. For cooling, OCZ uses one 120mm fan which acts as an intake fan, sucking up the hot air within your case and expels it out the back of the PSU, which consists of one large grille. The fan runs quietly as well. Finally, as an added touch, the PSU also ships with extra zip ties and Velcro strips for bundling everything together.
The only downside to ModStream is the lack of a 600W model. Right now the ModStream line tops out at 520W.
So there you have it, our top picks for hardware this holiday season. We think any hardware enthusiast would be well served by any of the hardware components chosen in this article, and hope that you found this guide helpful. As always though, feel free to drop your thoughts in the news comments!