Hot Hardware Holiday Buyer's Guide 2006
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.
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.
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.