Out of the Loop?

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This article is for old-schoolers who have been out of the loop for a few years and are looking to put together a new rig.  I am not going to mention specific model numbers, but rather give you a sense of current trends in the industry.  This article assumes you know the basics of computer building (ie installing an OS, installing a HDD, or what a GPU is).

 

If you lack this introductory knowledge, you still may get a lot out of this article.  I will address many of the common questions that are asked in our forums and, of course, inject my own personal views.  Without knowing a specific budget it’s impossible to give definite answers, but I hope this will put you in the correct frame of mind when researching specific components.

CPUs

One of the most fiery debates in the hardware world is AMD vs. Intel.  Over the past 10 years it’s been a great seesaw battle between the two corporations.  Intel was top dog, then AMD, now Intel…with the mid range and budget CPU leader even more subjective!  So, what’s the answer?

Right now Intel has the mid to top-end pretty much cornered for both dual and quad core (I’ll address this later) in the high end market;  however for budget systems I believe AMD has the edge.  With very inexpensive motherboards and CPUs, more money is available for more critical components (GPU for gamers).

The last issue is dual vs. quad core.

It’s cool to have four cores, but most games and everyday applications just don’t use the other two.  Unless you are doing encoding or plan on using an application which does use all four cores, dual is a better choice.  Low end quad cores are available from AMD, but with Intel’s technological advantage, I would rather have a similar priced dual Intel over quad AMD.

So the only reason to have four cores is for bragging rights/cool factor, or you encode.

*Important note to gamers* The GPU is by far, above and beyond, absolutely, no doubt, the most important part of your system.  If you run an average priced processor with an average priced GPU, that system will get crushed by a system running a low end processor with a mid to high-end GPU. 

GPUs

The next big question is ATI vs nVidia…err I mean AMD vs nVidia (yes, AMD bought ATI!).

This has been one area which has been very exciting the past few years.  In the past 10 years I can honestly say high-end video card prices (in relation to other components) are lower than ever.  The bang for the buck of mid to high-end cards is incredible.  There really is not a clear winner or deciding factor over which one is the better choice, so buy whatever you can afford as a gamer!  Today’s GPUs are BIG (9-10” is the standard) and require a lot of power, typically two 6 or 6+2 connectors (This is just stupid to me since of those 14 wires, you only need two:  12v and ground – but I digress).

I was never convinced with SLI and Xfire until just this past year.  The performance gains were inconsistent, the concept of buy one now and another later is ridiculous, considering the rate of innovation, increased power consumption and motherboards that support two high end cards are expensive.  This past year both corporations have done an excellent job getting performance up to spec; however, they discovered that putting two cores on the same PCB eliminated many of the issues of two card systems.  So, SLI and Xfire still are not a wise option for the budget-conscious user.  If you want the absolute best performance, then yes it is a smart choice, but if you want bleeding edge, you have to bleed money.

The last exciting thing is AMD’s Eyefinity.  This is a fledgling technology, but it allows one video card to control three displays, and two to control six!  This could be like widescreen gaming was to 4:3/5:4 monitors – it just needs a little support from game designers before it takes off (I don’t care who you are, three displays is just awesome!). 

*Gamers: Do not skimp on the GPU *

Motherboards

The main thing to look for in a motherboard is making sure you have the correct chipset for SLI/Xfire and matching your CPU socket.  Other than that, there’s not a whole lot going on other than optimizations.  You’ll find PATA ports disappearing and on-board audio is at a point where you would need very expensive speakers/headphones to tell the difference.  One bone I have to pick is with any motherboard manufacturer who places SATA ports facing upwards and in-line with video card slots.  Basically, this configuration prevents the user from plugging devices into those ports since the video card blocks them.  Look for this before you buy!

HDDs

HDDs have almost always been the slowest part of the system.  That has not changed, but hard drives have become faster, more reliable and benefited from other various technological advances.  Other than the typical mechanical improvements in seek times and bandwidth, the two biggest factors have been reliability (which makes RAID 0 safer) and SSD’s (Solid State Drives).

For a typical or budget user, a normal single HDD will work fine.  For someone seeking faster load times and increased performance without breaking the bank, RAID 0 is for you.  I am not going to elaborate too much, but RAID controllers are standard on most motherboards.

The next exciting innovation has been SSDs.  SSDs are basically flash drives and they have essentially no seek times as there are no moving parts.  Bandwidth can be much higher than a normal HDD, but incredibly low seek times really make SSDs ideal for OSs.  The drawbacks of SSDs are the higher price tags and growing pains that go along with the production and optimization of any new technology.  Despite this, for the ultra high-end machine, they offer incredible performance.  For more info, Anand Shimpi at www.anandtech.com is the leading enthusiast expert and his website has excellent articles discussing SSD issues.

Power Supply

PSUs have gotten larger and, of course, more powerful.  The cool innovation of late is many of them are modular (meaning you plug in the cables you need instead of have a dozen 4 pin molex connectors creating a mess in your case).  Make sure you do your research on these.  Many vendors are egregious liars about specifications. Ensure you’re getting a quality one, and do not skimp – the smell of burning electronics sucks!  Jonny Guru at www.jonnyguru.com is an excellent source of information on the latest power supplies.

Memory

There are two choices, with one of them dying; DDR2 and DDR3.

DDR2 is an aging technology, therefor DDR3 is the choice for high-end systems and arguably mid-range.  DDR2 is older, but memory speeds do not “really” have a major impact on performance.  Yes it does help, but the money spent on RAM is often better spent on other components.

For most users, 4 GB is the standard and should be for another year or so.  After 4 GB, you are typically better off upgrading GPU, CPU, peripherals, or just saving the cash for a later upgrade.  The same principle applies for ultra-fast RAM – prices are usually high but performance gains are minimal.  With the massive price discrepancy between DDR2 and DDR3, using DDR2 is a better choice for a new build because it saves money for a video card or other upgrades.  High-end builds, of course go DDR3, but it will cost you.

Peripherals

This is more of an opinion than a rule of thumb, but peripherals seem to be the one thing many people skimp on in order to fit a budget.

Remember that most peripherals last a long time and can impact your experience the most!  I have had the same 24” Dell 2405FPW monitor for six years and its been great for everything from gaming to typing reports and productivity apps.  My Klipsch 4.1 speakers are eight years old and still strong, the same chair for five years – you get the point.

Each peripheral was expensive but lasted a long time and significantly enhanced my experience. Plus, when I upgrade my computer, I do not need to spend any additional money on peripherals.  So ask yourself: would I rather have a nice new desk, chair, 24” LCD or another monitor even (dual monitors are amazing for ANY user), headphones, speakers, keyboard/mouse, or any other thing that would make your area better?  Then, build your computer, it will pay dividends trust me!

That’s my run down of what you can expect to see in the market or give you a decent starting point for your research. I avoided mentioning specific models to ensure that these basics will help you get back into the game over the next 6-12 months.

Good luck in building your new system! If you have any questions please visit OC Forums.

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