Logo   Banner   TopRight
TopUnder
Transparent
Hot Hardware Holiday Buyer's Guide 2006
Transparent
Date: Dec 12, 2006
Section:Systems
Author: Sean Pelletier
Transparent
Introduction

As the holiday season approaches its peak and minds rush to conjure up the ideal gifts, we here at HotHardware have taken the liberty of creating three ideal system configurations to illustrate the best way to spend your holiday budget.

Although we are confident in the performance offered by each system listed in this guide, we are in no way trying to say that the budget system will compete with the flagship configuration where money is no object. However to many, the performance offered by the budget system will be surprisingly high despite the reasonable price-tag. Admittedly, we even shocked ourselves when we realized the level of performance which could be purchased for under $1,000.

For those who want a convenient combination of economical prices with stellar performance, we introduce a third system configuration which is created with a focus on overclocking. For those who are willing to spend a few minutes in the system BIOS, nearly flagship-level performance of systems costing thousands more can be had for free with a few quick keystrokes. Overall, there is a system configuration for nearly every need within this buyer's guide.

The flagship system represents the fastest possible hardware configuration money can buy today. Although there are certainly several variations of the final configuration which could include more exotic cooling solutions, more RAID arrays, and various additional hardware, the core components listed in this guide are the ideal foundation for a dream system. Granted, this type of hardware certainly does not come cheap. However, when you demand the ultimate performance and have the funds to afford it, you should not accept any substitutes.

For those adventurous enough to dabble with overclocking, we have a system configuration which will offer nearly the performance of the flagship system but at a fraction of the price. Enthusiast-class hardware typically has some amount of overclocking headroom built-in, where frequencies can be safely raised beyond stock reference speeds without issue. The components selected for this particular configuration have been picked for their well known ability to overclock well beyond their stock specifications. As a result, the performance witnessed after initial tweaking can be significantly higher than the performance seen from the stock frequencies. The beauty of this configuration is that this exponential leap in performance is available basically free of charge thanks to a few BIOS settings and a bit of patience.

Although we all love to drool over the latest enthusiast hardware, few of us can easily afford or justify the lofty costs which are commonly associated with these products. As such, we have opted to create the fastest possible system for under $1,000 to reflect a much more realistic budget.  Although comparatively inexpensive, this system is easily able to play any game currently on the market and can run nearly any application with ease. Should users be ambitious enough, the system can also be overclocked to offer even higher levels of performance. Suffice to say, many would be shocked at what kind of performance levels can be had for under a grand these days.

Transparent
Flagship System

Flagship System Configuration

 

CPU - Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700

Throughout the last year, the industry has warmed up to the idea of multiple-core systems with the widespread availability of dual-core processors. With the advent of the Core 2 Extreme QX6700, however, Intel has pushed the bar once again with the industry's first x86 quad-core consumer processor. Utilizing the same Intel Core architecture as the wildly popular Core 2 Duo processors, the Core 2 Extreme QX6700 is easily the fastest processor on the planet in today's multithreaded applications and is well poised to retain that title with the multitude of multithreaded applications on the horizon. Although expensive, there is no other processor on the planet which can match this product's speed. If you have the cash, accept no substitutes.

Hot Hardware review

Motherboard - ASUS Striker Extreme

Built around NVIDIA's latest nForce 680i SLI chipset, the new ASUS Striker Extreme motherboard is one of the most robust and feature-rich boards on the planet. Being one of the few motherboards to stray from NVIDIA's reference design, the new flagship Striker Extreme uses an impressive collection of copper heatpipes for cooling duties and has a few additional tricks up its sleeve such as an 8-phase EL-capless power design. On top of a custom diagnostic LCD and slick EL I/O, the board features one of the most option-rich BIOS's we've seen. If you can afford the steep cost of entry, there is currently no other board on the market which can provide the same levels of tweakability and performance. 

Hot Hardware review

 

Memory - 2GB Corsair Dominator DDR2-1142

Acting as one of the keystones for a fast and stable system, choosing the right memory modules is a critical area where no expense should be spared. With exceptional reliability and a stellar reputation for being one of the top memory vendors in the industry, we opted for Corsair memory for the flagship system. The new "Dominator" series represents Corsair's top of the line memory modules which feature all of the latest technology the company has to offer including the new Dominator heatspreaders and Enhanced Performance Profile (EPP) settings.

Hot Hardware review

Graphics - 2 x EVGA GeForce 8800 GTX

Without question, the fastest graphics card on the planet in any game would be NVIDIA's new GeForce 8800GTX. Boasting Dx10 support along with a new unified shader architecture and a whopping 768MB of memory, NVIDIA's new flagship GPU is able to offer unprecedented levels of performance. Given our SLI-capable motherboard, it seems fitting to use two of these behemoths in SLI to guarantee that we're seeing the highest framerates possible today. In this case, we opted for the EVGA version as nearly all vendors are using the same reference design and only differ from one another by the included bundles. This is going to change somewhat in the coming weeks as vendors such as BFG will be offering GeForce 8800 GTX cards which are equipped with custom waterblocks for watercooled systems.

Hot Hardware review

Transparent
Flagship System Continued

Flagship System Configuration Continued...

 

Hard Drive - 2 x Western Digital 150GB Raptor

Building on top of an already legendary drive, Western Digital has refreshed the ever-popular 10,000rpm Raptor hard drives with a large 16MB cache and raised capacities from 74GB up to a much more useful 150GB. Creating a RAID array with these two drives will offer some of the fastest drive performance money can buy. By significantly lowering read and write times, the use of such a potent array of drives will reduce the amount of time it takes for games and applications to load. In short, you'll be able to spend less time looking at a boring load screen and more time racking up headshots in your favorite first-person shooter.

Hot Hardware review

Sound Card - Creative Labs X-Fi Elite Pro

Going above and beyond Creative's standard X-Fi series, the flagship X-Fi Elite Pro utilizes higher quality DAC's (Digital-to-Analog Converters) to offer the highest possible performance in the product family. Although a few improvements have been made, the X-Fi Elite Pro still retains the 24-bit Crystalizer, CMSS-3D surround, and 3DMIDI functionality which X-Fi sound cards are famous for. In addition, this premium model also incorporates 64MB of X-Ram onboard audio memory for increased framerates and audio performance in the few games that support it. Rounding out an already impressive product is a breakout box to provide users with unparalleled functionality and convenience.  

Power Supply - PC Power & Cooling Turbo-Cool 1kW-SR

With the latest flagship components including a quad-core processor and two cutting-edge graphics cards demanding a large amount of power, we opted to settle for nothing short of 1,000W of power for the PSU of our flagship system. Although one of the priciest brands on the market, PC Power & Cooling are renowned for offering exceptional products which are able to handle extreme loads without fail. The Turbo-Cool 1kW-SR combines the stellar reliability and stability the company is famous for with an unbelievable 1kW output for the ultimate PSU money can buy. Although there are cheaper options, none will offer the piece of mind and derive the same amount of envy from friends as the PC Power & Cooling Turbo-Cool 1kW-SR.

Transparent
Overclocker's Dream System

 

Overclocker's Dream System

CPU - Intel Core 2 Duo E6600

Although nothing can replace the additional two cores found on the flagship system's Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700, the Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 is armed with enough cache and overclocking headroom to give the flagship Intel processor a run for its money in many of the applications on the market today. Unlike the Core 2 Duo E6400 which has 2MB of cache, the Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 bumps that cache size up to 4MB. Operating at 2.4GHz the E6600 runs 530MHz slower than the flagship dual-core X6800 though there are countless reports of people getting this processor running well over 3GHz with little effort saving you hundreds of dollars and offering higher performance.

Hot Hardware review

 

Motherboard - eVGA 122-CK-NF68-AR

Based upon NVIDIA's new flagship nForce 680i chipset, the eVGA 122-CK-NF68-AR motherboard is one of the fastest and most feature-rich enthusiast motherboard currently available for the Intel platform. Armed with a 6-phase VRM, countless ports, an array of passive heatsinks for all chipsets, and three PCI-E x16 slots the eVGA nForce 680i SLI motherboard is one of the most robust boards we've ever tested. Add to this the fact that the nForce 680i SLI chipset is proving to be an excellent overclocker and you have yourself a rock-solid foundation for anything you care to throw at this system.  

Hot Hardware review

Memory - 2GB Corsair XMS2 DDR2 1066

Although lacking the new heatspreader design found on the flagship Dominator series of memory, this Corsair XMS2 memory is gathering great popularity with overclocking enthusiasts thanks to its ability to handle very high voltages and return hugh frequencies with solid timings. In addition, these modules feature the Enhanced Performance Profiles (EPP) which are taken advantage of by the nForce 680i SLI chipset meaning the system will offer exceptional performance right out of the box, and even better performance once some BIOS tweaking is completed.

Hot Hardware review

 

Graphics - 2 x BFG Tech GeForce 8800 GTS

Although it features slightly lower clock speeds, fewer stream processors, and a bit less memory than the flagship GeForce 8800 GTX, the GeForce 8800 GTS is anything but a slouch in terms of performance. Here, the GeForce 8800 GTS retains the stellar G80 architecture complete with unified shaders and a wealth of performance optimizations and features. Although nearly all GTS cards on the market are identical as vendors are using the same reference PCB and heatsink assemblies, the BFG Tech models are equipped with a lifetime warranty. Using two of these cards in SLI will provide excellent performance out of the box, though they will truly shine once they're overclocked. Given the solid yields G80-based GPU's seem to be getting, there should be ample overclocking headroom for these cards, which will help them approach 8800 GTX frequencies.

Hot Hardware review

Transparent
Overclocker's System Continued

Overclocker's Dream System Continued...

 

Hard Drive - 2 x Western Digital 150GB Raptor

Building on top of an already legendary drive, Western Digital has refreshed the ever-popular 10,000rpm Raptor hard drives with a large 16MB cache and raised capacities from 74GB up to a much more useful 150GB. Creating a RAID array with these two drives will offer some of the fastest drive performance money can buy. By significantly lowering read and write times, the use of such a potent array of drives will dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes for games and applications to load. In short, you'll be able to spend less time looking at a boring load screen and more time racking up headshots in your favorite first-person shooter.

Hot Hardware review

 

 

Sound Card - Creative Labs X-Fi XtremeMusic

The X-Fi XtremeMusic has captured a significant amount of attention since its release for offering the vast majority of the performance and functionality of the X-Fi family of sound cards while retaining a reasonable price point. Offering support for Creative's 24-bit Crystalizer, CMSS-3D surround, and 3DMIDI technology the XtremeMusic offers everything all other models provide (with the exception of the X-Fi Elite Pro's custom DAC,X-Ram, and breakout box). Given the lack of industry support for X-Ram and the excellent audio performance the chipset still provides, the XtremeMusic is an excellent choice for a sound card for the system.

Hot Hardware review

 

Power Supply - Thermaltake ToughPower 850W

Although it lacks the 1kW rating of the PC Power & Cooling unit, the Thermaltake ToughPower 850W is available for nearly half the cost and is anything but a slouch in its own right. Rather, this SLI-ready power supply comes with its own modular cable system and boasts an impressive combined output of 62A on the four 12V rails. In addition, the unit has four 6-pin PCI-E connectors which allows us to easily power the dual GeForce 8800GTS GPUs.

Hot Hardware review (ToughPower 750W)

Transparent
Budget System

 

Budget System

CPU - Intel Core 2 Duo E6300

Hands down, the Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 is a top candidate for having the best price/performance ratio of any processor on the market today. For well under $199, you have a processor which uses the fastest architecture on the market and is an absolute phenom when it comes to overclocking. Out of the box, the CPU offers excellent speed though the true beauty of this processor comes when a user overclocks. Here, it is not uncommon to see this CPU go beyond its 1.86GHz stock speed and easily reach up to 2.5GHz and beyond.

Hot Hardware review

Motherboard Option 1 - MSI 975X Platinum V.2

Based upon the Intel 975X chipset, the MSI 975X Platinum V.2 offers a solid collection of ports, expansion slots, and performance-related features. In addition to two PCI-E x16 slots, the board also has two PCI-E x1 slots as well as 2 standard PCI slots. Users also are provided with RAID support, 8-channel audio, and 8 USB ports. Passive cooling, a solid group of overclocking options in the BIOS, and a surprisingly reasonable price-tag make this enthusiast board an excellent choice for our budget system. For those aiming to use ATI GPU's, this motherboard's Crossfire support gives them a solid upgrade path with the ability to add a second GPU down the road.

Updated: 12/15/06

Motherboard Option 2 - ASUS P5N-E SLI

For $30 less than the MSI 975X board, users can also opt for the ASUS P5N-E SLI motherboard which is based around the nForce 650i SLI chipset. Featuring passive cooling, an impressive collection of ports including 5 SATA2 headers, and complete SLI support the ASUS P5N-E SLI is a great bargain for a solid budget motherboard. The only minor grip we have with the board is the use of the older SLI daughter card to enable or disable SLI functionality. However, being able to have support for two GPU's while having a pricetag $30 lower than the MSI 975X motherboard above makes this a minor inconvenience many could deal with without issue.

Memory - 1GB Corsair XMS2 DDR2 800

As was the case with our other two system configurations, we've opted to use Corsair memory. Having used Corsair here in the HH labs for a number of years, we can attest to the quality and performance of their memory modules. For the budget system, we were able to afford 1GB of Corsair's XMS2 series of DDR2 memory. With aggressive timings out of the box and ample headroom for overclocking, these memory modules should offer a solid foundation for any overclocking adventures the budget system might encounter.

 

Graphics Option 1 - eVGA GeForce 7950GT KO

Despite an initial MSRP of over $300, the eVGA GeForce 7950 GT KO 256MB can be found for nearly $50 less at online retailers. This particular model offers excellent performance for this price-point as the GPU and memory are factory overclocked well above NVIDIA reference specifications. On top of the solid framerates this GPU will provide, users also gain full support for NVIDIA's PureVideo technology making the multimedia capabilities of the system equally as impressive as the gaming performance. Overall, it is hard to beat the price/performance ratio this card offers when purchased online.

 

Graphics Option 2 - Sapphire Radeon X1950 Pro

For a solid $60 - $80 less, you could go with ATI's latest Radeon X1950 Pro, now selling for $199 for Sapphire's version.  Our performance testing showed the card to offer around 85 - 90% of the performance of a GeForce 7950GT in most applications.  The good news is these cards now come with native CrossFire, without the need of an external dongle, if you ever get the hankering for a dual GPU setup with two of these.

Transparent
Budget System Continued

Budget System Continued...

Hard Drive - 250GB Seagate Barracuda 7200.10

Thanks to Seagate's perpendicular recording technology and a solid 16MB cache, the new Barracuda 7200.10 series of hard drives offer excellent performance with solid capacities. Surprisingly, consumers can now find large capacity external drives for well under $100. Given the impression the Barracuda 7200.10 drives have left after testing in our labs and the low prices they can be found for online, it is hard to select any other option to power our budget system.

Hot Hardware review (750GB 7200.10)

 

 

Sound Card - Creative Labs X-Fi XtremeMusic

The X-Fi XtremeMusic has captured a significant amount of attention since its release for offering the vast majority of the performance and functionality of the X-Fi family of sound cards while retaining a reasonable price point. Offering support for Creative's 24-bit Crystalizer, CMSS-3D surround, and 3DMIDI technology the XtremeMusic offers everything all other models provide (with the exception of the X-Fi Elite Pro's custom DAC,X-Ram, and breakout box). Given the lack of industry support for X-Ram and the excellent audio performance the chipset still provides, the XtremeMusic is an excellent choice for a sound card for the system.

Hot Hardware review

 

Power Supply - Corsair CMPSU-620HX

Although a relative newcomer to the power supply market, Corsair's stellar reputation in the memory module industry set lofty goals for the initial PSU entry. As we witnessed in our testing of the unit, the new power supplies only strengthen Corsair's acclaim. With 620W, a modular cable design, incredible 5-yr warranty, and one of the most stable voltages we've witnessed in our labs the Corsair CMPSU-620HX is an obvious choice for the ideal power supply to fuel our budget system.

Hot Hardware review

Transparent
Peripherals - LCD

LCD's

 

30" - Dell 3007FPW

Despite the $1499 price-tag (MSRP $2200), the Dell 3007FPW is quite possibly the ultimate LCD for consumers. Armed with a stunning resolution of 2560x1600, there is more real estate on this panel than in the entire state of Delaware. All kidding aside, the features of this panel leave little to be desired. In terms of ports, we find a dual-link DVI along with 4 USB ports and a 9-in-2 media card reader. Combine a low 11ms response rate with complete HDCP support and you have an LCD monitor which is ideal for nearly any application.

 

24" - BenQ FP241W

Coming in at a respectable $799, the BenQ FP241W is another incredibly potent LCD offering. Beyond the impressive 24" size and extremely low 6ms response rate, the key to the BenQ LCD's success is the inclusion of an HDCP-compliant HDMI port. There are still the usual collection of ports including DVI, D-Sub, component, S-Video, and composite for those who are not able to find an HDMI-equipped graphics card to suit their tastes. With a native resolution of 1920x1200, this panel is sure to make games and movies look phenomenal. People considering the FP241W should keep a keen eye out for the upcoming FP241WZ early next year as that new model will incorporate 1:1 pixel mapping.

 

20" - Dell E207WFP

With a current standard price of only $289, the new Dell E207WFP is nearly impossible to beat. This panel features a native resolution of 1680x1050 and manages to include both D-Sub and an HDCP-compliant DVI connection despite the bargain price. Add to this mix a blistering 5ms response rate and you have yourselves an unbelievable monitor for well under $300. With prices this low on a high-performance widescreen 20" LCD, there seems little reason to consider anything smaller.

Transparent
Peripherals - Cases

Cases - Unlike most other hardware where the fastest or most feature-rich product is easily the ideal part to purchase, items such as cases are largely a personal choice. What is an ideal case for one person could be a horrid decision for another. With this in mind, we've compiled a list of three superb cases which we feel would please just about anyone.

Full-Tower - Silverstone TJ09

With a chassis design tailored specifically around the idea of graphics card cooling, the Silverstone TJ09 is a unique case with a wealth of features. A special mid-section air duct and 120mm fan bypasses the hard drive cage and brings fresh air directly to the graphics card zone keeping hardware running stable and cool. Subtle details such as additional room for extra-long power supplies as well as pre-cut holes for mounting watercooling equipment are just a few examples of the build quality and attention to detail Silverstone has put into this case. It might not be cheap, but the $269 Silverstone TJ09 is a fine example of precision craftsmanship with an elegant and timeless design.

Mid-Tower - Antec P180

With two chambers isolating the CPU and power supply into different cooling zones, the Antec P180 is anything but your conventional mid-tower case. Armed with up to 5 configurable fans and featuring three-layer sound dampening panels, this case is able to handle a wide variety of applications while keeping components cool and noise levels well under control. For those who believe a PC should be seen but not heard, this $100 case could very well be a key ingredient in getting a handle on system noise without sacrificing thermal performance.

 

HTPC - Zalman HD160XT

Although priced at a painfully-high $599 MSRP, the new Zalman HD160XT looks to be the pinnacle of HTPC cases. With an integrated 7" LCD that comes with a Zero Dead Pixel policy as well as a wealth of features designed to keep the system operating cool and without any unwarranted noise. From nearly any perspective, the fit and finish of the case is exceptional allowing the HTPC to fit in amongst other high-end A/V components in a living room. Add to that the convenience of full MCE support with the included remote and you have yourself a gorgeous case for the ultimate HTPC.

Transparent
System Comparisons and Conclusion

For comparison sake, we have collected the lowest costs online for each component selected in the three system configurations and compiled a table to outline the variances in cost.

Flagship vs. Overclocker's Dream 

Component Flagship Overclocker's Dream
CPU 1004.49 309.00
Motherboard 375.00 233.81
Memory 459.00 369.00
Graphics Card(s) 1199.98 899.98
Hard Drive(s) 435.50 435.50
Sound Card 246.63 89.95
Power Supply 482.99 236.19
Total Cost $4203.59 $2570.42

Taking a glimpse at the various components which comprise the flagship system configuration, it is no surprise to see the price for the core components coming in at an astronomical $4,203.59. Mind you, this cost does not include peripherals such as a keyboard, mouse, speakers, and monitor. Surely, the fastest possible performance does not come cheap and this particular configuration speaks volumes in support of this point. However, it is interesting to see that the cost of the Overclocker's configuration is more than $1,300 lower and offers much of the performance. These days there are components which are specifically designed with overclockers in mind and the risks associated with overclocking have been dramatically reduced. Looking at the comparison here, it is hard to justify the additional $1,300 when the final performance could be so close in so many applications. 

 

Overclocker's Dream vs. Budget

Component Overclocker's Dream Budget
CPU 309.00 170.00
Motherboard 233.81 154.99
Memory 369.00 124.00
Graphics Card(s) 899.98 261.99
Hard Drive(s) 435.50 78.95
Sound Card 89.95 86.94
Power Supply 236.19 145.95
Total Cost $2570.42 $1022.82

Looking at the cost differences between the components of the two system configurations above, it is easy to assume that the budget system would have vastly inferior performance compared to the overclocker's system. Although the dual-GPU configuration, RAID array, and additional 1GB of memory certainly give the overclocking system a huge advantage (especially at high resolutions), the budget system will offer surprisingly competitive performance at lower resolutions depending on the image quality settings which are selected. Coming in almost $1,600 cheaper and being able to be overclocked itself, the budget system offers an excellent price/performance ratio. In all but the most extreme cases, the budget system will offer more than enough performance for any given application and would be ample for many users.

Although this guide could certainly be used as a blueprint of sorts for building your ideal system, it is meant to be more of a suggested parts list of sorts. Despite the fact that "other" brands can be alluring with relatively low prices and features which sound too good to be true, history has shown that these products are often the Achille's heel of a system and can do far more harm than good. As such, it pays to opt for a brand and a product which has earned a solid reputation. Although that product might cost more initially, it will more than make up for the difference in price with its stability, reliability, and performance over time. As we have seen, excellent performance does not necessarily have to come with an astronomical price. So long as you do your research and choose the right brands and components, you can build a phenomenal system for a very reasonable cost. With this in mind, we unleash you to the world of online vendors and the wealth of computer hardware at your disposal. Be sure to take advantage of Hot Hardware's Pricegrabber price-searching engine to find the lowest possible price for the hardware on your Christmas list!  Happy Holidays!

Discuss This Article in HotHardware's PC Hardware Forum

Please Digg This Article To Share With Others



Content Property of HotHardware.com