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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Avalon - Friday, October 22, 2004 - linkFor the s754 system, to clarify. Sorry. Wish these posts could be edited :)
Avalon - Friday, October 22, 2004 - linkIf you wanted to cut an additional ~$50, switch out that MSI K8N Neo Platinum and throw in an Epox 8KDA3J. It's only $73 on newegg, shipped, which is within a dollar or two of the Chaintech VNF-250, but has loads more features. After all, you guys gave the 8KDA3+ an editor's choice award, so why not recommend the "value" board in a mid range rig? It's an option to ponder over.
dragonballgtz - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - linkA $200 CPU would go better with a 9800Pro IMHO for gamers.
JarredWalton - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - linkksherman, that's basically what I went with, but outside of gaming there is no real need for a fast graphics card. $200 for a graphics card that many people do not want/need is difficult to justify. Rather than create more confusion with talk of gaming alternatives, we are going to look at putting together a Gaming Guide in the near future.
The Mid-Range PC is such a broad segment that it is virtually impossible to cover all options without writing a 20,000 word article. This one is already long enough, and that was after I removed the gaming options. Here's the basics, though:
If you want a moderate gaming card for AGP, about the only reasonable choice right now is a 9800 Pro. The 6800/6800GT are too expensive for most people, I think. PCI Express has the 6600GT which tends to be faster than the 9800 Pro by about 10 to 20%. As games are GPU limited in most cases, AMD fans will probably either want to wait for PCI Express motherboards and get a 6600GT, or else bite the bullet and spend $360+ on a 6800GT. Ouch. :)
Beenthere - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - linkNice guide. Lotta work !!!
I think the biggest issue for most folks looking to build a new PC or even to upgrade within a budget, is prioritizing. As you can see from the comments above, gamers always want a top-of-the-line Video card even when this takes a big bite outta the budget. To do that you gotta cut cost some place else and that may compromise the total system performance.
Seems to me that an easy means to quantify and qualify the real options for an individual system would be by listing the hardware categories as you've done on a spreadsheet then plug in the hardware and prices accordingly. I think some folks would be surprised to see how their total system price climbs way beyond their original budget when you add $50. here and there to get the "best" of a particular component or to step up to the next level of component.
As you pointed out, sometimes like with memory, buying the lowest latency modules may cost more than moving up 200 MHz in CPU speed, so the CPU may be a better choice. Your guide and recommendations give PC builders a great head start on getting the most bang-for-their-buck.
Thanks for the effort!
ksherman - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - linkalso, I think that a good description for a mid range system should be a system with a good amount of power (hence the processor choice) with out the price premium. I like mid-ranges because they offer the power i need with the versitility to do anything I will need to do for a while down the road.
ksherman - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - linkIt is kinda weird that you recommend such a low-end card for a mid-range system... to me (as everyone else has stated) the 6600 and 9800's should be in the midrange systems. 9600 and similar should be put into low-end systems... in regards to the x300, you state that it is good for those not into gaming so much as other "basic computing tasks", I think that something like that belongs in the low-end systems category.
JarredWalton - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - linkI have made a few minor corrections, and I also added a $1000 AMD 754 system to the summary page, for those that might feel $1250 is too much. :)
#3: Corrected, thanks. MB, GB... sometimes my fingers have a mind of their own.
#7: RAID 1 hardware controllers should not incur any noticeable performance penalty, as they simply tell both hard drives to write the same data. Better RAID 1 controllers will actually have improved read performance, as they can pull data from two sources. I have not done any extensive testing of this, however, and would guess that most integrated RAID controllers lack that feature. If anyone knows for sure, speak up.
#12: I didn't put much of an emphasis on gaming, as I hope to cover that more in an upcoming Gaming Guide. We'll see if that gets a green light - it's been a while since we covered that topic in depth, I think, although the Doom 3 craze touched on it.
#15: Stay tuned. That's all I will say for now. The Pioneer is still a good choice, though.
#16: Is that typo corrected now? If not, which page are you seeing that on, since I checked both the Display and Summary pages for the error.
Desslok - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - linkThat monitor costs as much as the whole system would?
NEC/Mitsubishi FE991SB-BK 19" 1274?????
deathwalker - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - linkGreat article...I am a little surprised at the Optical Drive choice of the NEC 3500A @ $73, reason being is that you just reviewed the Pioneer 108 and called it the best drive reviewed to date and its only $78.