Gaming CPU and Motherboard Recommendations

While we are providing two Gaming system recommendations here, let's make this perfectly clear: the AMD setup will beat the pants off of the Intel setup in gaming. It's not even close, and what's more, the Intel system will cost a bit more. The future Intel processors (there's additional information here) have a lot to offer and should provide substantially improved gaming performance relative to today's Prescott parts, but the "future" is almost a year away. Some will argue that Intel is "more reliable", but that simply isn't our experience. Reliability seldom has much to do with the processor these days; the choice of RAM and motherboard is of far more consequence. There may be some specific applications that would have problems on one type of processor, but if there are, we have to admit that we haven't encountered them.

With that disclaimer out of the way, our Gaming Systems are going to make a massive trade-off in CPU performance in order to get a better GPU. Gamers are very much limited by the graphics card in the latest games - provided that you want to run at high resolutions with 4xAA/8xAF enabled at all times. HDR rendering in a few recent titles has also had a massive impact on performance, though the quality of HDR is not yet at the point where we would say that it's worth losing over half of your frame rate. As we're building systems that will have some upgrade potential in the future, we're also going to go with higher quality motherboards that have SLI. (ATI's Crossfire boards are still not available, so we'll remain with NVIDIA chipsets and graphics cards on the gaming setups.)

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AMD Gaming Motherboard: DFI LanParty UT SLI-DR
Price: $165 shipped
AMD Gaming CPU: Athlon 64 3000+ Venice 512K 1.80GHz
Price: $146 shipped (Retail)
Total: $311

We've selected one of the best SLI motherboards (some would argue the best) for the foundation of our system. True, you can find plenty of cheaper SLI boards out there, but we don't feel that the quality is worth the $50 that you might save. DFI's LanParty series comes loaded with extras - you might even say that there's too much stuff. The DFI board received our Gold Editor's Choice award in our initial SLI roundup, and we still haven't seen any boards that are better. You can get either the SLI-D or the SLI-DR, with the main difference being the presence of eight SATA connectors on the SLI-DR. However, right now, the SLI-DR is actually slightly cheaper than the SLI-D, so there's no reason to opt for the latter. Whether or not you make full use of every feature, the end result is a high performance motherboard with great features, an attractive design, and plenty of support for the overclockers of the world. That brings us to the CPU.

The Venice cores are really wonderful chips, all told. 1.80GHz doesn't sound like much, and if you stick with stock speeds, you will be CPU limited in many games. However, CPU limited at 50+ FPS really isn't too bad. With the motherboard and CPU that we've selected, though, you should be able to reach much higher speeds than 1.80GHz. 2.40GHz (267MHz CPU bus with the stock 9X CPU multiplier) is about as sure of an overclock as anything that we've seen. Even with the stock retail HSF, 2.40GHz is common. All you need is a good understanding of how to overclock and a motherboard with good overclocking features. Good quality RAM is also helpful, and we'll get to that in a moment. That's a 33% overclock, and performance should be about 25% faster in most benchmarks, give or take. What you're basically getting is a 3800+ for half the cost, and we'll use the savings to upgrade the graphics card. (With a bit of effort, you can probably even reach higher overclocks than 2.40GHz, but those are less of a "sure thing".)

If you want other options for the motherboard, we have quite a few that we're tracking in our Price Engine. The $98 Biostar is so cheap that it's almost too tempting to pass up. We seriously doubt that it will have equal overclocking performance and stability compared to the DFI, but you could take the extra $70 and upgrade to a faster processor, alleviating the need for overclocking to a large degree. We mentioned BIOS support of the latest CPUs as a problem with MSI boards in our last Guide, and thankfully, that has now been fixed. However, we're a little gun-shy now, as nearly two months to provide a working BIOS implementation is not acceptable. ASUS and EPoX are other alternatives to the DFI that we've listed, and they're usually pretty safe.

We mentioned processor upgrades, and here's our complete socket 939 list. Those who dislike overclocking might want to look towards the Venice 3500+ and San Diego 3700+ parts, though obviously they cost quite a bit more. In the case of the 3500+, you're spending 50% more on the processor for about 20% more processor performance. Athlon X2 is also an option, but it isn't going to help your gaming performance at all, unless you like to leave many other applications running in the background while you play games. With the cheapest X2 coming in at $361 at the time of writing, we simply can't justify it for a "Mid-Range Gaming" configuration. We're already pushing the limits of "Mid-Range", and an extra $200 just on the CPU is too much. The Venice 3200+ might be worth getting, however, as it's only $29 more.

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Intel Gaming Motherboard: ASUS P5ND2-SLI Deluxe
Price: $199 shipped
Intel Gaming CPU: Pentium 630 2MB Prescott-2M 3.0GHz
Price: $180 shipped (Retail)
Total: $364

Our motherboard pick is the best Intel SLI motherboard that we've seen, but it costs a lot. We compared it very favorably to 955X in our Dual Core Intel Platform Shootout, and prices are thankfully not quite as extreme anymore. At $199, it's still more than the AMD recommendation, but ASUS boards - and particularly their Intel platform boards - have always been among the best. Quality costs money, and there's also a premium being charged for the ASUS name. We would love to go with one of the more economical choices, but we're simply not comfortable doing so right now. $50 in order to save potentially days (or weeks) of headaches is money well spent in our book.

Our CPU choice gets a change this month: the Pentium 6xx parts. No, the parts aren't new, but the prices are! When they first launched, our impression wasn't especially favorable. The parts weren't bad, but performance wasn't stellar when compared to the 5xx parts. Doubling the L2 cache, enabling EM64T, but then having higher cache latencies meant that Prescott-2M was merely "okay". A step sideways rather than forward was how we initially described it. While there are select applications where the 5xx parts are actually faster than the new parts, gaming and many business applications at least benefit. In the past, we still had a price disparity to worry about, but that has now disappeared (and this only recently). With the 6xx and 5xx parts now costing nearly the same for the same clock speed, we'll take the increased cache. $180 for the 630 essentially matches the $179 of the 531, and it's only a few dollars more than the slower clocked 521.

What about the alternatives? Intel SLI motherboards are starting to become more readily available, but as with the AMD offerings, we don't want to skimp on the motherboard cost and end up with an unstable or unsupported configuration. We basically have two price points for Intel SLI: $135 to $165 or $195 and up. The choices for the lower end include MSI, Gigabyte, Abit, and Biostar. We haven't reviewed any of the boards in that group, and previous experience with several of the companies leaves us a little hesitant to recommend them. If you want to take a slight risk, the Biostar is particularly interesting, as it currently has a $25 mail-in rebate. That means that it's only $112 once you're finished providing them with a 0% loan for a couple of months. Will it work flawlessly? Will it overclock at all? We have no idea, but if anyone wants to be a $100 guinea pig, let us know how it works out!

The Intel processor alternatives are a little more limited. Without dropping to a budget Pentium chip (and losing HyperThreading and possibly EM64T), you can't get under $170 ($163 if you count the 520, but that doesn't have EM64T). Moving up the price ladder, you could go with the Pentium D, but for gaming, that's really taking a step back: the fastest Pentium D 840 is only as fast as the Pentium 540 in games, which itself is nothing special. The 640 or 650 is a better choice, and they're even cheaper than the 541 and 551 respectively. As with the AMD chips, though, you're spending about 50% more for two CPU bin upgrades; only this time, you're only getting a 13.3% clock speed increase. (400MHz means a lot more at 1.80GHz than it does at 3.0GHz.)

As we've already stated, the performance of the Intel system in gaming really isn't going to match up with the AMD system. It will also consume substantially more power, which means more heat and more noise. Overclocking is a possibility, but we're far more hesitant to make any claims about what can be achieved with the stock cooling configuration. With the ASUS motherboard and the retail HSF, 3.4 to 3.6GHz is entirely possible. (Throw in some liquid nitrogen, and you might even reach 7.2 GHz!) 3.73GHz with a 1066FSB is another possibility, although a better HSF is recommended in that case. If you're an Intel diehard, you'll probably be happy with whatever you get, and that's all that really matters.

The SLI Debate

We've recommended SLI-capable motherboards for the gaming setups. Are they really required? Not in my opinion, but the extra money invested in the motherboard may prove useful for upgrades. Another possibility is to forget about the SLI motherboards and go with a single X16 slot. By the time you're in need of a faster graphics subsystem, you'll probably be looking at socket M2 and DDR2 for AMD, or the new Broadwater chipsets plus Conroe for Intel. You might even have a G80 or ATI R6xx graphics chipsets available that can outperform SLI'ed 7800GT cards. The point is, SLI may or may not prove useful in the long run. If you want to drop the SLI support, you can save around $70 and get either of the Office System motherboard recommendations. You could also allocate the money to more RAM instead of SLI potential.

Index Office CPU and Motherboard Recommendations
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  • vailr - Monday, September 19, 2005 - link

    No mention of the nForce4 SLI Intel Edition chipset?
    And note that, it apparently:
    "DOES NOT support the dual-core Pentium D 820 processor"
    "The 820 does not work with Nforce boards, you have to get an 830."
    Also, maybe a mention of HD sound level quietness?
    Samsung HD's appear to be the quietest, followed by Seagate as next quietest? Or: have newer drives from Hitachi, WD or Maxtor changed that idea?
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 19, 2005 - link

    I've got one of the newer WD drives, and the fan noise overpowers anything from the HDD. Maxtors are still pretty loud, IMO, but mostly on seek noise. Thankfully, all of the HDDs are quiet on the bearing noise front. The older IDE drives from several companies were really bad. FDB has cleared up those problems.
  • noxipoo - Monday, September 19, 2005 - link

    I thought midrange was... well mid priced as well. i've only been out of the country for 2 weeks, did something new come out that i'm not aware of?
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 19, 2005 - link

    Read it in the context of the article. Basically, if you're going to spend $1250 (give or take) on a computer, but games are really important to you, I'm recommending that you downgrade most other parts in order to get the 7800GT. A fast GPU is the most important item in a gaming system, in my opinion.
  • yacoub - Monday, September 19, 2005 - link

    While there is a difference between integrated audio and discrete audio solutions, you'll need better speakers before it really begins to matter.

    Well there is also the 3D gaming performance difference, where the on-board solutions tend to suck up CPU resources something awful when compared to a peripheral card audio solution.
  • yacoub - Monday, September 19, 2005 - link

    $1250 is the right goal for pricing for a Mid-Range system. You can build a solid system for that amount that will run the latest games fine and offer plenty of performance for everything else. Good call on that price range (within $250 either way makes sense, but under $1350 is ideal).
  • archcommus - Monday, September 19, 2005 - link

    I don't know what this world is coming to when the recommended MID-RANGE video card is almost a frickin' four hundred dollars. How is the slightly lesser version of the most recent model of video card considered mid-range and not high end? I'd call that high end, with the top-level 7800 being ultra high-end.
  • yacoub - Monday, September 19, 2005 - link

    One word: Marketing.

    That's the only reason companies have the balls to debut a new GPU at anything over $350 - they can convince people it's omg amazingly necessary and better.
  • JarredWalton - Monday, September 19, 2005 - link

    The $400 video card is for gaming. For games, that fast video card is a LOT more important than getting a faster CPU. $370 for the X2 3800+ or $370 for the 7800GT? How dare they charge that much money!? For the record, I remember a time when Pentium MMX 200 processors cost $650, as did the K6 200MHz. Sure, graphics card prices have gone up, but so has the importance of the GPU relative to the rest of the system - again, for games only.
  • yacoub - Tuesday, September 20, 2005 - link

    Like I said, marketing. Good to see it's working, too. That'll keep them encouraged to keep upping the new card debut prices every six months since they can find suckers to buy them at those prices. Eventually I'll just move to console gaming while some of you take out loans for overpriced PC hardware. (And this is coming from a PC gaming fanatic who dislikes most current console offerings - yes, I will be that certain of not wasting money that I will sacrifice the latest PC gaming simply to avoid being price raped.)

    I've never paid $400 before yet have always been able to buy a new GPU that runs the top games at high enough res smoothly. In fact the most I've ever paid for a hot new GPU was $300. I'm currently ready to upgrade from my 9800 Pro 128mb and will go with something again around $300 which will play all the current games just fine - and I'm not even playing BF2 or FEAR so it's even easier for me to 'make due' with an X800XL or similar card.

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