Market Overview: $1700 Performance Midrange

Many things have changed in the nine months since our last midrange system guide hit the press, some for the worse—a moment of silence, please, for the passing of yesteryear’s RAM bonanza—but most for the better. ATI in particular deserves a nod for raising the bar for single-chip graphics card performance with its Cypress line (and, more recently, NVIDIA for its Fermi parts). All told, a ~$1700 complete system (~$1200 for the base) built around the i5-750 or one of AMD's Phenom II CPUs promises to deliver better performance than last year’s entry in most applications and beat it soundly in gaming and other graphics intensive tasks, all in spite of today’s significantly greater cost per GB of RAM. The icing on the cake? In a climate of ever-increasing energy costs and concerns, the current installment of the performance midrange system is significantly more energy efficient—particularly on the Intel side of the fence.

Our recommendations today skew pretty heavily toward graphics performance, with the single most expensive part—the factory OCed Gigabyte Radeon HD 5850—comprising approximately 25% of the base system cost (or about 18% of the complete system). Though it may be a little over the top for some, one look at graphics card comparison charts will tell you that things drop off rather precipitously after the 5850, with the drops in performance not corresponding all that sensibly to the drops in price. While there are plenty of less expensive cards that will still deliver acceptable performance—for many, at any rate—none seem to offer as desirable a mix of price, performance and future proofing (DX11) as the 5870’s little brother. For our midrange builds today, it feels just about right. If you're not worried about gaming or graphics, feel free to downgrade to something else, but we'd recommend sticking with at least an HD 5670 to get all the latest and greatest video decoding and power management features, or grab an HD 5450 if you're willing to skip out on a few extras like vector adaptive deinterlacing. Or if you don't care about DX11 right now and think CUDA is more important, you might prefer the GT 240.

As usual, we'll have both AMD and Intel recommendations today, with a common set of shared components. The story hasn't changed much when comparing AMD vs. Intel. You can get more cores at a lower price with AMD, but Intel will give you higher performance at the same clock speed (and generally higher clock speeds) along with substantially lower power consumption. If you're interested in Clarkdale over Lynnfield, you might also want to give Lloyd Case's recent article a read. Clarkdale certainly uses less power, but there's no beating quad-core Lynnfield performance. On the AMD side, the big question is whether you want to go with an older quad-core Phenom II, or if you want to spring for the new Phenom II X6. Considering the slightly lower power requirements and AMD's Turbo Core technology, we recommend making the move to X6 if you're going the AMD route.

Now let's get to the specific recommendations; if you're looking for performance comparisons we suggest looking at our Bench results for the recommended processors.

Intel Performance Midrange System
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  • 7Enigma - Monday, October 4, 2010 - link

    Just wanted to update this build guide (since it's the last) with some words of caution. I built my dad a rig 4 months ago with many of the parts on this list (actually pretty much all of them). The Gigabyte UD3 mobo was a great piece that after some initial trouble (mobo and case didn't have a speaker so I couldn't hear the beeps) seemed to work great. I left everything at stock speeds since my dad uses this as a gaming rig exclusively and is only on a 24" LCD with the 5850. Since nothing he was playing was taxing the system I left everything stock.

    So I get a call a couple weeks ago that he was getting a power cycling issue. He tried it the next day and it worked again. 2 weeks later though everything stopped working and it would just cycle on and off....I came over and removed the heatsink and CPU and there was a pin just lying in there disconnected from the mobo!!!

    Contacted Gigabyte through's reviews and have received no answer from them. To top it off there are a SLEW of 1 and 2 ratings in the last couple months of dead and faulty boards, most with the exact same issues my dad's system had. I'm fine with a defective part, but will not stand for poor/no customer service to make things right.

    I've built my last 3 systems with Gigabyte mobo's and loved the frequent bios updates and quality of the boards. But I've had to switch (to an Asus also recommended in this review), and will not be going back unless I see the PR and customer service improve drastically from this company.

    You have been warned.
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