An All-Around Athlon 64 System for $1,500

By Jason Cross  |  Posted 2004-07-23 Email Print this article Print
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Build It: We recently built a $1,500 Pentium 4 system. Now we do the same for AMD's Athlon 64. Which one of these multipurpose rigs is better for your needs?

Recently, we built a $1,500 jack-of-all-trades Pentium 4 system. With our modest budget, we put together quite a decent computer that can edit digital photos, perform offline 3D rendering, play games, record TV, watch DVDs, rip and listen to music, and even do a little home recording. More importantly, it was actually quite good at those functions.
We chose a Pentium 4 as our CPU of choice because its strong multitasking performance, courtesy of Hyperthreading, would be a big benefit to those who wanted to keep using their computer while it was busy with long, compute-intensive tasks. For instance, if you were transcoding video content to make a DVD, doing a little 3D rendering, or calculating the lightmap on that custom game level you just built, your PC could be busy crunching numbers for several hours. The Hyperthreading technology in Intel's CPUs helps keep other programs responsive during that timeframe. The multitasking advantage of the Prescott 3.6GHz CPU has been well-documented in all our recent core processor reviews.

But not everyone will use their PC for these kinds of long, intensive tasks – and even some who will are fine with walking away from their PC for a few hours, if it means the job will get done faster. So we're building a general purpose system using the Athlon 64.



Here are some of the guidelines we followed in pricing out our new Athlon 64-based PC:

  • Shipping and sales tax (or VAT if you're outside the US) are not considered. There's too much variation and unpredictability.

  • These are all US dollars, from US sources. In particular, we took prices from major online retailers that we would trust with our own money.

  • We included the cost of the operating system (Windows XP Home Edition). If you want to use a free version of Linux, then you can knock $74 off the price. Given the broad multimedia capabilities of this machine, Linux is probably not the best solution, though.

  • We included the costs of monitor, keyboard, and mouse, and speakers. Many who are upgrading could use these peripherals from their previous PC and save over $100. You may even consider speakers optional for a rig like this.

  • These are our choices. If you like a particular component better, then by all means, swap in your choice for ours. We did try to find the best cost/performance component we could lay hands on, though.
Giving ourselves $1,500 to work with doesn't make our job as easy as it sounds. In order to make sure this PC can do as many different things as possible, as well as possible, we're going to need to spend a bit more money on some components than we would for a purpose-built PC.

Building a PC for $1,500 is easy. Choosing components that satisfy our requirement that it be pretty good at just about everything, on the other hand, is a bit more challenging.

Component Brand / Model Price
Processor Athlon 64 3000+ (2.0GHz) $223
Active Cooler (Included in CPU retail box) NA
Motherboard Asus K8V Deluxe $98
Memory 2X 512MB (1GB) Kingston DDR400 $174
Case Antec SLK-3700 BQE $63
Power Supply Antec 350W (included with case) NA
Hard Drive Seagate Barracuda 160GB SATA $112
DVD-ROM / CD-RW Asus DRW-0402P/D $94
Graphics ATI Radeon 9600 Pro (256MB) $140
TV Tuner Card Hauppauge WinTV-Radio $70
Monitor 19" Samsung 950b $155
Speakers Logitech Z-5300 5.1 $130
Audio Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS $85
Floppy Mitsumi floppy and card reader $35
Keyboard Microsoft Natural Multimedia $20
Mouse IntelliMouse Optical $15
Operating System Windows XP Home $82
Total $1496

In order to make this an apples-to-apples comparison with our $1,500 all-purpose Pentium 4 PC from a few weeks ago, we kept every component the same, save for the CPU and motherboard. You'll notice that the motherboard is almost the exact same price, and the CPU is just a few dollars more. In the end, this package is only $4 more than the 3.2GHz Pentium 4-based system, and still just under our target price of $1,500.

You'll see that there are a few items on the list here that you won't find in most of our Built-It articles. The Mitsumi floppy drive and 6-in-1 card reader and Hauppauge TV tuner card stand out, as does the decent set of 5.1 speakers and the DVD burner. The trick here was to find the right balance between performance and extended capabilities, while keeping under budget. We'll examine each of our choices in more detail.

Processor

This time around, we built our system with an Athlon 64, to see if we can get a bit more performance at the same price point. This system is designed to tackle any number of tasks, including recording TV programs, transcoding video to go onto a DVD, or rendering a 3D scene. These are CPU-hungry tasks that can take a lot of time, so in our original article we sacrificed a little performance in each individual task for better multitasking performance. With the Athlon 64, we're taking the opposite approach this time, maximizing performance in single applications at the cost of multitasking performance.
This CPU should be faster at most tasks than the 3.2GHz Pentium 4 from our previous attempt, especially gaming. If you wouldn't use the PC for projects that involve long CPU intensive tasks like offline 3D rendering or video transcoding of long video clips, or if you'd rather get those tasks done a little faster as the cost of some responsiveness while they're in progress, the Athlon 64 is a better choice.

Motherboard

There are slightly cheaper socket 754 motherboards, appropriate for this class of CPU, but we really like Asus' K8V Deluxe. It was one of our favorites when we took at look at five Athlon 64 motherboards and it remains one of the better ones you can get for about $100. The K8V Deluxe is built around VIA's K8T800 chipset. The 8237 South Bridge supports native SATA RAID and Asus adds in gigabit Ethernet support..



Memory

This PC is built for all kinds of memory-hungry applications – 3D gaming, video editing, photo editing – that can eat through 512MB in a hurry. We were still on a budget, so instead of going for slightly faster RAM with a CAS latency of 2.5 or better, we opted for more memory, higher latency. A gigabyte of RAM in our system with a CAS latency of 3.0 will do a lot more to improve real-world performance than 512MB with a lower latency.

Case and Power Supply

We've used Antec's SLK-3700 in many of our systems, since it's just such a well-built, reliable, and cost-effective case. For this one, we spend a few more bucks for the Antec's SLK3700-BQE (the "Black Quiet Edition"). It's essentially the same as the basic 3700, with a few tweaks we thought would be useful here. Obviously, it's pitch black instead of a dark grey, but it's the quiet features we care most about. Hard drives mount perpendicular to the case on little slide-out trays with rubber grommets to keep drive vibration down. The rear fan is a large slow-turning 120mm unit that moves a good amount of air while making hardly any sound. Even the included 350-watt power supply is quiet. We won't say this system is silent, but it's definitely hard to hear, and that's nice when you're doing some home recording or watching quiet scenes in a DVD movie.

Storage

Though you can get an 80GB hard drive for practically nothing these days, we're going to need a bit more storage for all that digital media. A 160GB Serial ATA Seagate drive should do the trick. It performs very well and should hold hours of digital video, dozens of hours of digital audio, and thousands of photos. You can never have enough storage, though, and a second "archival" drive to store finished projects wouldn't be a bad investment if you were to spend a bit more money.

What would a does-it-all PC be without a does-it-all optical drive? Asus' DRW-0402P/D was one of our favorite multiformat DVD burners in a recent roundup and, at less than $100, the price is even better now.

One of our favorite gadgets is Mitsumi's combination floppy drive and memory card reader. Unfortunately, some tasks these days (like installing RAID drivers on a clean Windows installation or flashing a BIOS) still require a floppy drive. Why not take up that space with something more useful, like a card reader? This makes getting those photos off your digital camera or loading up that memory card-based MP3 player that much more convenient.

Audio

No integrated audio here, pal! Sound Blaster Audigy ZS offers some of the best signal-to-noise ratios you can find in a consumer card, but it's also great for gaming, with full EAX4 support and really low CPU utilization when the 3D sound effects are piled on. This card may cost a bit more than we usually spend in our Build-It systems (except for the Digital Audio Workstation configuration), but it lets us perform some quality home recording and no-compromise gaming. There are slightly cheaper Audigy 2 cards available, like the standard or the LS models, but moving to one of those didn't really save us enough money to step up another component, like moving to a significantly faster video card or using lower-latency memory. We opted for the slightly cleaner sound and 7.1 speaker support of the ZS, since the OEM models we found online weren't that disparate in price.
Of course, it's no good without a decent set of speakers. With a little shopping around you can find some great deals. The Logitech Z-5300 speakers we found are a great buy. A 5.1 speaker set is great for watching DVDs, gaming, or even listening to DVD-Audio discs. These push 280 watts of power and are THX certified. The list price is $199, but you can easily find them much cheaper online.

Graphics & Video

If we just had a bit more money to work with, we could have beefed up the 3D card to a more impressive Radeon 9800. As it is, the 256MB Radeon 9600 Pro will perform pretty well, and has all the DirectX 9.0b support we need to get the most out of the latest games. This also gives us access to ATI's Multimedia Center software suite, which gives us a TV viewer with weekly program guide info, DVD player, and audio/video file playback facilities. Coupled with the company's Remote Wonder, it's a pretty useful tool for browsing, recording, playing, and managing video content on your PC - provided you have a recent ATI video card.

There's a second visual component to this system, though: a TV tuner card. The Hauppauge WinTV-Radio isn't top-of-the-line, but it'll give us full cable TV coverage, PVR capabilities, and FM radio to boot. Combined with a program like SnapStream's Beyond TV3, you could have a quite serviceable PVR. A combo product like ATI's All-in-Wonder 9600, which combines video and TV tuner together, may be a little cheaper than buying separate cards. But this solution lets you upgrade the two components separately as you see fit.

Quality Keyboard and Mouse

Without these two peripherals, your computer is pretty well useless. And yet, we skimp on them all the time. This time we chose Microsoft's Natural Multimedia Keyboard for its handy media function buttons above the function keys. The IntelliMouse Explorer is a quality standby that works well for both everyday work and gaming.

Operating System

Of course, you don't have a computer without an OS, and we picked Windows XP Home Edition. Linux is often an option, but it's probably not the wisest choice for this PC. Gaming is limited on Linux, and it can be very tricky to get video and audio editing and transcoding to work properly when working with a wide variety of formats. The software available for Windows XP just expands the capabilities of our "does it all" PC more than Linux would. At least for now – Linux continues to make strides in all categories of software support.

Our Winstone tests run a variety of common applications – business and productivity apps in Business Winstone and video, audio, and web development apps in Content Creation Winstone – to determine an overall level of system performance. Hard drive activity is frequent, and both CPU power and memory bandwidth play a big role as well. Both Business Winstone and Multimedia Content Creation Winstone 2004 can be ordered from VeriTest and delivered on CD-ROM for a nominal shipping charge. They cannot be downloaded.

We also determine overall PC performance with PCMark 2004, the latest from FutureMark. This version has expanded on the limited repertoire of the original. FutureMark has added several multithreaded tests, as well as expanded to include storage and graphics. We'll look at the overall score as well as the CPU, memory, and hard disk tests.

The new Athlon 64 3000+ system does quite a bit better in both Winstone tests; we've become accustomed to seeing this out of AMD's new CPUs. We've also gotten used to seeing the Pentium 4 CPUs outpace Athlon 64s in PCMark. Most of PCMark's tests fit in the L2 cache, so the higher clock speed really helps the Pentium 4 whip through them more quickly. This is perhaps not the best indication of real-world performance, though.

For our video encoding tests, we ran Windows Media Encoder 9 to recompress a high bitrate AVI file into a 1 megabit CBR WMV9 file, with "CD quality" audio (640x480 video, 16-bit / 44.1KHz audio). With QuickTime 6.5 we compressed this same video clip using Sorenson 3 video and MPEG4 audio. For DivX compression, we used the popular VirtualDub freeware and DivX 5.2. Our Adobe After Effects 6.0 test involves a batch process that processes multiple data items using various resolutions, encoders, and effects.

For audio compression tests, we took a large 254MB WAV file and compressed it to MP3 Pro using MusicMatch 8.2, and to WMA using Windows Media Encoder 9. In both cases the files were constant bitrate, not variable bitrate.

Pentium 4 CPUs excel at video and audio encoding, and generally outperform all but the very fastest Athlon 64s. Video encoding times are a good deal shorter on the 3.2GHz Pentium 4, and even audio encoding gets done a bit more quickly. If you would plan on doing a lot of video encoding with this system, a Pentium 4 might be the better choice.

In Flight Sim 2004, we set all the graphics options to the maximum possible – a machine like ours should be able to handle it.. Likewise, we ran Halo using the pixel shader 2.0 path for the best in image quality. The "Antalus" botmatch in Unreal Tournament 2003 was run with graphics settings set to their highest. All tests were run at 1280x1204, an aggressive resolution for such an inexpensive PC.




The Athlon 64 system really pulls ahead when it comes to games. AMD's new architecture simply excels at them, and almost always performs better than any comparable Intel processor. Even at our higher test resolution of 1280x1204, the choice of CPU really makes a big difference.

While it's difficult to build a single PC that is ideally suited to all applications, and nearly impossible to do it for only $1,500, we've put together quite a capable system here. With the right software, this system has all you need to:

  • Watch and record TV
  • Record audio
  • Rip and burn CDs
  • Edit video
  • Burn DVDs
  • Play 3D games
  • Import and edit digital photos
  • Surf the Web
  • Work in productivity apps like Word or Excel
  • Watch DVD movies
  • Work with 3D rendering

Is this rig better than the $1,500 Pentium 4-based one we built three weeks ago? That's a difficult question to answer. With a PC that has such a broad range of capabilities, it really all depends on how you plan to use it. If you're just going to play a lot of games, this is definitely a much more capable system. It's also faster at general productivity tasks like word processing, Web-surfing, and basic content creation chores (digital image manipulation and such). But, if digital video and audio are your thing, the 3.2GHz Pentium 4-based system is probably a better fit. We've also seen, in multitasking performance tests with the Prescott 3.6GHz CPU and AMD's Athlon 64 3700+, that the Pentium 4 architecture handles difficult multitasking chores better. So, if you only plan to check your e-mail while your system processes a lengthy encoding job or 3D render in the background, the Athlon 64 will be just fine. If the secondary task is any more strenuous, you'd be better off with the Pentium 4.

 
 
 
 
Jason Cross Jason was a certified computer geek at an early age, playing with his family's Apple II when he was still barely able to write. It didn't take long for him to start playing with the hardware, adding in 80-column cards and additional RAM as his family moved up through Apple II+, IIe, IIgs, and eventually the Macintosh. He was sucked into Intel based side of the PC world by his friend's 8088 (at the time, the height of sophisticated technology), and this kicked off a never-ending string of PC purchases and upgrades.

Through college, where he bounced among several different majors before earning a degree in Asian Studies, Jason started to pull down freelance assignments writing about his favorite hobby—,video and computer games. It was shortly after graduation that he found himself, a thin-blooded Floridian, freezing his face off at Computer Games Magazine in Vermont, where he founded the hardware and technology section and built it up over five years before joining the ranks at ExtremeTech and moving out to beautiful northern California. When not scraping up his hands on the inside of a PC case, you can invariably find Jason knee-deep in a PC game, engrossed in the latest console title, or at the movie theater.

 
 
 
 
 
























 
 
 
 
 
 

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