Choosing 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 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.

There Is No Spoon...
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  • Tides - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    when i think mid-range i do find it hard to look below 9800/6600.
  • PrinceGaz - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    This article wasn't focussing on a system where gaming will be a major consideration. The reason for recommending a 9600 Pro (or X300) for discrete graphics is that DX9 hardware will be required for Longhorn when it arrives. A 9800 Pro would be overkill for that.
  • neogodless - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    Okay, the price on the 19" monitor IS definitely a typo though! Also, personally I'd spend a touch $100 more for a 9800 Pro (over the 9600 Pro) if at all possible because I think a ~10% increase in overall cost for a much better gaming experience is worth it...
  • neogodless - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    n/m... I see it's the 939 pin part... going on the assumption that dual channel increases that chips performance enough for a 200+ higher rating...
  • neogodless - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    The Athlon 64 3200+ (90nm) is a 2.0Ghz 512kb cache part? Is that a typo? Should that read Athlon 64 3000+ ?
  • tappertrainman - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    Great Job! I definitely like these style "guides" rather than the CPU motherboard guides by themselves. Also, I think a great idea would be to start an "upgrade" guide similar to these. You could have an entry-level mid-level and high-end upgrade guide each month? Thanks for the hard work.
  • gimper48 - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    Very good. I am impressed. However, are we going to see benchmarks in these anytime soon?
  • southernpac - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    I am very inclined to take your recommendation and use a Raid 1 (mirrow) back up strategy. Do I incur a performance "price" for making the constant back-up? If so, will it be significant enough for a simulations gamer to really notice the difference (I'll be using a higher-end system)?
  • Kong Basse - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    Thank you for another good article.
    The article was absolutly not too long, only proclaim that I have is: The 9600 id getting a little old by now, but then again, it still isnt too bad for gaming, even though it hardly runs Doom3 and HL2.
  • PrinceGaz - Thursday, October 21, 2004 - link

    I've just finished reading it and amazingly, I can't fault any of your recommendations!

    I'd say you've covered pretty much everything you set out to starting with solid recommendations for a base system, and providing excellent reasons for why someone might want to choose one of the alternatives suggested.

    Probably the best system guide to date. Well done.

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