Buyer's Guide - Mid-Range, October 2004by Jarred Walton on October 21, 2004 11:00 AM EST
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IntroductionChoosing the parts for a computer can be a very difficult and a time-consuming process. There is no perfect system for all tasks, so what it really comes down to is two basic questions: how much do you want to spend, and how do you plan on using the computer? If you ever talk to someone about suggestions on computer parts, and they don't take the time to at least ask these two basic questions before they begin offering advice, we would suggest that at the very least, you get a second opinion before plunking down your hard earned cash on a bunch of exotic sounding parts that you may never need.
For this Guide, the first answer is relatively simple. Our target price is around $1250 for a complete "Mid-Range" system. This is a bit higher than our past Mid-Range systems, but many of your comments indicated that you were willing to spend a little bit more than $1000 for a moderately equipped PC. Not included in the final cost are taxes and an OS. The answer to the second question is much more elaborate, and we will do our best to list various options that we consider to be reasonable for this price segment. We will also include a list of potential upgrades for any of these systems with information on whom we feel will benefit most from the options. One option that we will not dwell on here is gaming performance - we'll take a look at systems tailored specifically for that task in an upcoming Guide.
Our first criterion for selecting parts is to choose components that we feel are reliable. No one wants a computer that crashes periodically due to flaky hardware. It is impossible to guarantee 100% reliability, of course, especially when looking at parts that may be less than a year old, so your own experience may differ from ours. After reliability, performance is the next factor to consider, although it needs to fit within our budget. What we really want, then, is the best price/performance ratio for the type of application that we are looking at - more on that in a moment. Finally, features are also something that we will consider, as if the price and performance are basically the same, more "free stuff" is always a welcome addition.
Building a system that is "everything to everyone" is simply not possible when price is a consideration. Yeah, you could put two Opteron 250 or Xeon 3.6 CPUs in a system with several GB of RAM and a large RAID 5 SCSI array and performance will be exceptional in pretty much any application, but such a system is beyond the budget of most people. In order to get around this, we will be looking at several base system configurations with suggestions on how various components might be adjusted to improve the performance of certain applications. Those who are not interested in the alternative suggestions can stick with the basic setup, but we will focus on upgrades that might be useful for people interested in Content Creation, and Software Development. Any Mid-Range system costing around $1250 should be able to do just about any task well enough for light to moderate use, but saving $50 to $100 on a component that isn't as important for one task and spending it somewhere else where the added performance will be used can help you to get the most out of your computer.
Of course, if you're looking for advice on building a budget system, take a look at our last Entry Level Guide. Such a system is much more cost efficient for those who are looking for a computer for basic email, Internet and office use. If, on the other hand, you want the fastest hardware on the planet and the bragging rights that go with it, check out our latest High End Guide. Here, we will be trying to strike a balance somewhere between those two extremes. The majority of our prices can be found using our Real Time Pricing Engine, although we also use sites such as PriceWatch.com. If you find parts on sale for less than the prices that we list, then that can influence your decision, so by all means, feel free to shop around. Local stores are also an option, and while components usually cost more in that venue, you tend to get better support and the RMA process is usually a matter of minutes or hours rather than weeks.
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Confusednewbie1552 - Saturday, October 23, 2004 - linkGreat, I've had my computer for 2 months and have been only using it for only a month and already it becomes mid-range. =( I was expecting it to last until at least by spring of 2005
Degrador - Saturday, October 23, 2004 - linkI know the graphics issue has been mentioned in these comments already, but I just thought I'd add my 2 cents. A gaming article sounds like a great idea, but many people out there looking for a good computer want an all-in-one system. Especially for family buyers, they'll want systems that can do anything, whether it be office work / home business / kids schoolwork / games / burning CDs & DVDs / web surfing / etc. As such, the alternatives are really really great this time, as they give details and reasons for why people should change to other parts. However, I still think you should have included an option for a faster graphics card. You've given alternatives a high end 300GB 16MB cache HD, as well as the (debateably) higher end Raptor, along with high end RAM, and a separate sound card and good speakers, yet no alternative for even a modestly good AGP graphics card (let's be honest, the 9600 Pro is rather mediocre for the games and cards out there these days). I'm certainly not suggesting a 9800 Pro should be the primary graphics recommendation, but perhaps at least an alternative (or even X600 / 6800).
Other than that, great guide :)
JarredWalton - Saturday, October 23, 2004 - linkWow! The 90nm parts are "hot" - not in terms of temperature but in terms of demand. They'll come back down soon enough. Hell, at $266 not counting the cost of an aftermarket HSF you might as well get the 130 nm 3500+ retail. Monarch Computers is still saying $215 and $179 for the 3200+ and 3000+ parts, respectively, but they are out of stock until ~Oct. 29. Patience may be required if you don't want to spend more than $200. I think the suggested price of the 3200+ was $199 originally, but demand has pushed that up quite a bit.
AlphaFox - Friday, October 22, 2004 - linkA64 3200+ 90nm 939 is now $266!!! I dont get how it went up $75 in the past 2 days!
JarredWalton - Friday, October 22, 2004 - linkA few quick comments:
Seagate vs. Samsung: As far as I can tell, they're about the same. Yes, Seagate comes with a 5 year vs. 3 year warranty. I've got both, and neither one has given me cause for complaint. Which is "better"? I call it a tie, and since I went with Seagate last time, I decided to toss in a Samsung this time. As the article states, Samsung, WD, Seagate, Maxtor, and Hitachi all make very similar drives. "Reliability" when you're talking about mostly new versions is almost impossible to guess.
NEC vs. Pioneer: Hacked firmware is not necessary, and the drive performs extremely well. There should be a review up sometime soon.
Prices for the Real Time Pricing Engine seem to be having some issues, so double check them. As for the Mushkin RAM listed in the article, it is not the "Blue" line but an older version. Newegg has it for $75 a DIMM (as of the time of writing).
#37: You can have a bad example of any company out there. I've had ASUS and Abit boards in the past that I had to RMA. Does one bad experience make the company untrustworthy? I don't think so, and I continue to use Abit and ASUS boards. For socket 939, the selection is very limited, and we've had good results with the MSI Neo2 Platinum. YMMV, of course. I'm not sure why you even bothered with MSI. If the boards was DOA, Newegg will replace it with no hassle in our experience. It takes an extra two weeks or so, unfortunately.
#34 brings up an interesting argument. If you actually went out and bought the same hardware that goes into a Dell or other OEM system, the price would be a lot lower than what is listed here. Don't even get me started on reliability and warranty concerns. The price of OEM systems appears attractive, but in the end you get what you pay for. DIY PC builders will always get better performance and reliability for the money. Obviously, that's not an option for Apple computers.
RandomCoil - Friday, October 22, 2004 - linkAs with post #33, I don't understand the switch from Seagate to Samsung. The Seagate should be sufficiently fast for this system and the 5-year warranty and quiet operation are significant pluses.
sophus - Friday, October 22, 2004 - linki think the RAM was underpriced (and i realize things might have changed since publication):
Mushkin Blue Line 184 Pin 512MB DDR PC-3200 - Retail
clicking the link above (and choosing newegg.com) -> $103 ...need 2 so $206
mushkin.com -> $227
this leads to a difference (approx) of $50 to $75. $200-225 compared to original listed price of $150.
i wanted to be all over 1GB for $150 but was unable to find the price 8(
Bugler - Friday, October 22, 2004 - linkYou say that the Neo2 939 board has one problem, that being the difficulty removing larger graphics cards. Their bigger problem is unreliability.
For months I followed your recommendations for MSI but after the 754 DFI came out, I delayed my purchase awaiting a 939 DFI board. The past week I got tired of waiting for DFI and went ahead and purchased the MSI 939 board.
The damn thing is dead on arrival. In addition, I emailed their tech support before they opened this morning. No response. Newegg had me call MSI. After being put on the call hold dialer for about five minutes, the machine finally said they were hanging up and that I should leave my contact number for tech support to call me back.
However, they never did. Screw MSI---RMA to new egg.
tolerant - Friday, October 22, 2004 - linkThere are a bunch of 128mb sapphire 9600 pro's on newegg, including an opengl 2.0 bulk card, and an opengl 2.0 retail card. I recently ordered both the 2.0 bulk and retail cards, and instead of being 400 core/300 mem as expected, they ran at 391 core/229 mem. I'm not sure if I had two defective cards, but they got sent back. The price seemed too good to be true when I purchased, and I believe that $108 is a little low too, so if you order this path, make sure you get a 400/300 card.
AlphaFox - Friday, October 22, 2004 - linkIt should be noted that the prices for 90nm CPUs is wacked out: the 3200+ 939 90nm is now $246 and the 3000+ is $215. they have been going UP in the past week; im glad I got my 3200 for $191 a few days ago!