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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  • Jellodyne - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    I actually have that mainboard in my system, and while it's a great board it's NOT a good choice for Crossfire. The secondary PCI-E slot is a 4X slot off of the south bridge (as opposed to the higher performance on-die PCI-E controller of the i750), and it runs with a 2.5 GHz base clock, not 5 GHz which is half the speed of a standard PCI-E 3.0, so in terms of bandwidth you should think of it as a 2X slot. It will work, but it's ugly, and I suspect a 2x slot is going to drop a huge performance penalty, even for a pair of 5850s.

    There are P55 boards out there which can split the on-die PCI-E controller into two proper 8x lanes in crossfire mode, which is actually plenty of bandwidth to drive even a pair of 5970s without issues.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    You mean like we mentioned in the text?

    "The Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD3 is a feature-rich option... If you want to enable both USB3 and SATA6, the primary GPU slot will drop down to x8 speed, while the secondary x16 slot always runs at x4 bandwidth. For the price, however, it's a very good board and it has good overclocking abilities if you're interested.... If you prefer higher performance CrossFire/SLI, and you want Firewire, look at the MSI P55-GD65."

    I'll clarify the paragraph by pointing out explicitly that the MSI board does x8/x8 for CF/SLI instead of x16/x4.
  • jleach1 - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    You're a smart guy Jarred. I like it.
  • Jellodyne - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    No NOT like it says in the text. The text is wrong. The text says the secondary works at 4x bandwidth. But it doesn't. It IS in fact a 4x slot but it's a HALF SPEED 4x slot, so it's REALLY 2X bandwidth.

    4X bandwidth would probably be enough for crossfire, 2x bandwidth is really unacceptable. Which is why I'm objecting to this board as a good choice for someone considering crossfire in the future. It's in fact a really bad choice if you're considering crossfire.

    But it's still a great board if you have no interest in crossfire.
  • ekoostik - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    Great guide. But one clarification. The article states "The Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD3 is a feature-rich option for the builder who might want CrossFireX or SLI down the road" - but this board isn't licensed for SLI. As far as I'm aware, NVidia won't allow it on any of the x16, x4 boards.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, May 14, 2010 - link

    Thanks... forgot about that. The MSI supports CF/SLI because it does the necessary x8/x8. Outside of SLI support, though, I wouldn't go with the MSI.
  • Lazlo Panaflex - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Adding benchmarks for both systems in the final thoughs section was a nice touch.

    Also, wonder how much of a performance penalty (if any) there would be using DDR2 w/ Thubian as opposed to DDR3?
  • Ninjahedge - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Guys, the arguments over semantics are petty.

    This is at the upper range of mid, with many options listed in the article to reduce price.

    If you DON'T OC, and only are using 1 card (no sli) then you can drop the PS, get rid of the cooler and save possibly $50 right off the bat.

    Other cards were mentioned as well, dropping it even further, depending on your need for Gaming Speed.

    As others have mentioned, a Blu-Ray may not be needed, dropping that $105 down to a $25 LG. We are already getting down to $1000 for a full box here.

    Now, taking those parts and using your own KB, HD, DVD, Vid Card and other parts from your current machine (if you feel like it) can easily drop this down to $700 or less. You can then upgrade, piece by piece, until you get what you want at the price you want.

    As for SSD? I have been watching those. the performance is great, granted, but that only comes with loading or transcoding, not with many apps for buisness, or in-game situations (Wow, you loaded up the board the quickest! You can now wait 47 seconds for everyone else to join!!!!).

    You can always upgrade later. Storage is one of the most fickle price points on the market, excluding Vid Cards. A wait of 6 months may bring you 2X the capacity for the same price.

    it is also kind of odd with people screaming about "THIS IS NOT MIDRANGE" and others screaming for an SSD.... I think the fact that there are both means you (the original writer) probably hit a good sweet spot in between!

    Maybe instead of classifying them as "midrange", a different nomenclature should be used. Just state the price ranges and what they are built for rather than deciding what people should see them as.
    This is in the range of a $1000-$1500 box. It is geared for performance, so maybe "$1000-$1500 performance Machine" and shut all the complainers up.....

    Last point, when machines can be built for $500 all included, or $3000 for close to TOTL, screamiming that $1700 is not midrange is just plain silly.
  • Ditiris - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    I'm just going to chime in and suggest losing the Blu-Ray. You don't really justify the necessity for it, and your other choice of components, in particular the overclocked graphics card and bargain 5.1 speakers, make clear the case for this being a gaming machine. So, I would suggest losing the Blu-Ray for the next go-around, which I'm eager to see. Thanks for the article guys.
  • Fastidious - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    I'd almost call anything with a 5850 high end nowadays for gaming anyways. Personally I am going to wait until I can put all of my programs, OS, games, etc I use on an affordable SSD to me before I get one($300 for 300gb sounds about right). I think having some stuff on an SSD and some not would bug me a lot more than just sticking to HDs like I do now. I also agree Blu-ray to me still seems very niche but it makes sense for the future to get it now even if it's a bit expensive.

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