Midrange System Buyer's Guideby Zach Throckmorton on September 11, 2012 12:35 AM EST
- Posted in
- Ivy Bridge
- Radeon HD 7000
Developments in the Midrange Market
As with the budget segment of the DIY computer market, the midrange segment has seen many exciting new developments since the start of 2012. Perhaps the most noteworthy change is that Intel CPUs are now entirely dominant in systems that will set you back about $1,000. Ivy Bridge-based chips are now available at every price point from $100 up, leaving only the pure budget category untouched (at least until we see the Celeron IVB part). If you're interested in more information, we have a lot of information available on Ivy Bridge.
As with the latest CPUs, the newer B75 chipset has brought out of the box Ivy Bridge CPU support to less expensive motherboards, filling out the Panther Point platform. Ian thoroughly covered the Z77 chipset and compared it with H77. The B75 chipset is similar to Z77 and H77 with a few important differences for midrange buyers: two fewer USB 2.0 ports (eight vs. ten), one less SATA III port (one vs. two), and support for neither Intel RST (firmware RAID) nor SRT (SSD caching). PCIe 3.0 and 2.0 configurations are the same on B75 as they are on H77. The important point is that B75 enables less expensive motherboards that lack features that might not be important to midrange system builders, allowing money to spent on faster CPUs, GPUs, better SSDs, etc.
That said, AMD's impending launch of its Trinity APUs might very well put AMD back into the midrange market. AnandTech will be covering Trinity chips in more depth as the new APUs start hitting the mainstream desktop market over the next few months. While the parts are already shipping in OEM desktops, retail availability of the APUs has not yet occurred. For now, you can read more our current Trinity coverage.
As is often the case, the GPU market remains dynamic, with both AMD and NVIDIA wrestling for your money at multiple price points by introducing new cards and lowering prices on existing cards. We'll discuss the GPU market in more depth on the gaming rigs page.
Another development of note for midrange buyers is that prices on many of the best SSDs have been cut in half (or more!) compared to late 2011. This means that respectably-sized (i.e. 120/128GB and above) SSDs that perform very well and have great reputations for reliability are now comfortably within reach of even the lower end of the midrange budget. High capacity SSDs (i.e. those around 250GB) are also within midrange budgets; for many purposes, this means you can eschew a mechanical hard drive entirely—and either spend that money on better CPUs, GPUs, or just keep it in your wallet. Fortunately for consumers, prices on mechanical hard drives are declining in the wake of the Thailand floods, so the wallets of those with more demanding storage needs won't be hurting quite as badly as they were earlier in 2012.
Finally, case manufacturers have released many compelling choices for midrange system builders. Over the next few pages, we'll highlight new enclosures from Fractal Design, Corsair, Lian Li, NZXT, and others.
With that out of the way, let's get to the builds! We'll start with gaming machines on the next page.
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Samus - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - linksince when did Anandtech start recommending Biostar and MSI motherboards? I've always ranked them somewhere at the bottom of the pile with ECS, Foxconn, Jetway and the other crap thats often near-free with a CPU purchase from Microcenter, Fry's, etc. They're all notorious for using low-grade capacitors, thinner PCB's, poor mosfet designs and overall poor layouts.
Quality boards from Asus/Asrock, Gigabyte, even Intel, can be had for within a margin of negligibility. Just my .02 (although worth much more)
Impulses - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - linkReally? Traditionally I'd put MSI about on par with Gigabyte... Every board I'd bought over the last 15 years has been an ASUS (except for one Abit back in 2000, RIP), until my current mobo, went with MSI because it just seemed like the better value near $150.
Stas - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - linkAgreed. I, personally, always preferred brands in this order: Gigabyte, MSI, Biostar (high end models), ASUS
StevoLincolnite - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - linkMSI's higher-end motherboards are some of the best, same with their graphics cards.
They're certainly not throwing out crap like they did during the Socket 478 and Socket 462 or even Socket 370 days that's for sure, horrible horrible motherboards back then.
hsew - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - linkI'm on board with gigabyte being my first choice. I'm especially fond of their solution to today's limited USB power spec. The software-based charging solutions from the other manufacturers just can't compete, especially when they are limited to Apple products. :(
JPForums - Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - linkFor me, brand preference depends on whether I'm making an AMD build or an Intel build. It also depends on whether I'm looking at higher end or mainstream boards. I tend to avoid budget boards, because it seems like no manufacturer can consistently make reliable budget boards.
For high end Intel boards, I look to Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI. They sometimes trade off top spot, but Asus's ROG and Sabertooth boards have worked out really well for me. While MSI used to be junk, they've worked their way up to be nearly the equal of Gigabyte at the high end. Both Gigabyte and MSI have boards I've found both impressive and reliable.
For mainstream Intel boards, I look at to high end ASRock boards first, (if budget allows), then I look at Gigabyte and Asus in that order. A high end ASRock board can sometimes be priced somewhat comparably to mainstream Asus and Gigabyte boards. I've had better luck with ASRock's more recent high end boards than any mainstream board. When budget doesn't allow for high end, I've had better luck with Gigabyte's mainstream boards than comparable Asus models.
For high end AMD boards, I look to Asus and MSI. Gigabyte, in my experience, has some quality control issues to work out on the AMD side. MSI's highend offering slots in just below the ROG series, but could be considered better than the Sabertooth series depending on target audience.
For mainstream AMD boards, I again look to ASRock's highend first. I find MSI and Asus to be comparable here. While ASRock hasn't impressed me as much on the AMD side as the Intel side, their high end boards are still better than mainstream boards given Gigabytes quality control issues on their AMD lines.
I've gotten nothing but crap from Soyo, EPoX, ECS, Biostar, Jetway, and Foxconn. I'm surprised to see a number of people here recommending Biostar. It may be time to reevaluate them. DFI was good in the day (if harder to setup optimally), but I haven't bought them since Socket 754/939. ABIT was great in their time, RIP. EVGA was reliable, but not the best performing. Seemed like they had some hiccups to work through. Intel is too limiting last I checked. Zotac seems work well for mini-ITX systems. That sums up my experience (I'm into triple digits for number of builds).
Samus - Wednesday, September 12, 2012 - linkI agree with pretty much everything you've said.
Especially Biostar. Unlike MSI, they have remained crap for the last two decades. Poor BIOS support, generally low quality components (unless high end) and the feel and layout is always bad.
ASUS/ASRock tend to be very consistant with their layouts, leaning toward the conservative and less radical side. Both companies have excellent support. I remember working DIRECTLY with an engineer with my aging P6T on a BIOS problem, and the fix (a SLI bug) later found its way into a BIOS update.
Intel is Intel. Although the boards are made by Foxconn, they're generally solid well supported, just a little boring when building a custom system.
Gigabyte has had their issues, especially with their "server" boards, but they have always been reliable for me in the end. I had one finally fail after 7 years awhile back, an old Athlon 754 board with a VIA chipset. The board was actually in a server running Windows SBS 2003. It finally started giving trouble booting up (you'd have to play with cycling the power to get a POST) but it never completely failed, was just retired because it was 'on its way out.'
Soyo is a terrible company all the way around. I've seen nothing but consistant LCD, PSU and motherboard failures from them, almost always from low quality transformers or power components. Their support is awful. 2-3 days for email replies and nobody EVER picks up their phone.
EPoX is interestingly terrible because they aquired a bunch of Gigabyte engineers many years ago. It didn't help them produce any better product, though.
ECS/Jetway/Foxconn are all the same to me. No matter how high-end the board might be priced, the support is terrible and their is always ONE MAJOR THING wrong with their board, usually something unbelievably thoughtless, like the position of the SATA ports or even the CMOS battery standing up and getting in the way or a card. Just when you thought you've seen it all, these big three can always screw up in an entirely new way. Good luck with any troubleshooting or BIOS support after the product has been on the market for more than 6 months, guaranteeing no future CPU support or long-term bug fixes.
I never really liked ASUS because they are overpriced (usually the most expensive) and their website has been terrible forever (at least driver mirrors have improved) but they make very solid, reliable, well-supported products. I love my Xonar soundcard as well.
SciFiRules - Sunday, October 21, 2012 - linkI agree with for the most part but I would say for current products I would tier as follows
1 ASRock, best price product in general in my opinion
Asus, pricey and historically bad support issues and website
Gigabyte, recently more issues with early revision boards
Intel, great corporate stuff if the price is right
2 MSI, early revision issue, retarded support, still wary of them
Biostar, I had more than a dozen fail (m7nc) at about 3 yrs old but less than 15% failure before that. I had like 4 calls in a week about dead computers with this paticular build , I felt like Dell Support.
3 Foxconn, Elitegroup,aka ECS, PCchips, GQ, ect and FIC i only use them for replacements on older products when I cant locate better
I loved the DFI Lanparty Ultra D and built many systems with these - I even have one working as a Loaner still. As for Soyo I think they came close to a good product with the k7 dragon line but that the best I can say about them. Abit had some good boards but I had little experience with them really. I never saw a tier 3 board I would have used or sold in a new computer a second time. I have had decent luck using tier 3 boards for replacing failing boards when the chipsets are very mature and they have high revision numbers in general though. The thinner layer pcb and lower quality limits the life expectancy but generally its borrowed time anyway. And thank god for Dell, Emachine...... for using crap power supply's which has kept me in food for years.
eBob - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - linkMost of my builds have been with Asus mobos. I had a few bad experiences with MSI mobos and one of their DVD drives a few years ago which soured me on the brand. I did build a system for a friend using a Jetway mobo back in 2006. He just wanted something cheap, cheap, cheap for a second computer. He still uses it.
Pessimism - Tuesday, September 11, 2012 - linkI agree with your brand rankings with the exception of AsRock, which is Asus' pile-of-junk division. However, I look at purchasing in a different light: I'd rather a $60 motherboard that will last me five years before its capacitors explode, than a $150-250 motherboard that might last 7 or more. In either case, after 5 years both are so laughably obsolete that you are better off replacing them anyway. Going with the cheaper board nets you $100-200 for the next tier up in CPU, which more than makes up for the paltry 1-5% performance delta between the el-cheapo motherboard and the best of the super-bling-o-matic 35 USB port monsters.