Build the Most PC for Your Money

By Jason Cross  |  Posted 2004-09-08 Email Print this article Print

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Build It: What if you could create a PC that hits the sweet spot of price and performance? We find the best "bang for the buck" components, and then build a PC out of them. The result is pretty sweet, indeed.

The feedback we've gotten from you, our readers, is that you love our Build It series, but you want us to mix things up a bit from time to time. Typically, we design and build a system for a certain task, such as gaming, digital audio content creation, or cheap internet access. We then pick a pretty aggressive price point, and try to build the best system we can where the sum of its parts falls under that total price.

A lot of you have expressed interest in finding out what we think is the best value for your dollars. What CPUs, hard drives, video cards, and other components will get you perilously close to the extreme high end, without making you spend extreme dollars? That's sums up today's build-it project. When choosing each component for this system, we asked "What gives you the most bang for the buck?"

In general, the hardware that gives you the most performance for the money is the stuff that's just one or two steps back from the bleeding edge. We're sometimes amazed at the performance of ultra-low-cost hardware, but building a PC out of those components can keep your from enjoying current software to its fullest, and such an ultra-cheap system definitely won't have the legs to let you enjoy next year's hottest software. As cheap as something may be, it's not a good value if it doesn't deliver what you need.

It's also pretty easy to build a killer system if money is no object. But for most of us, money is indeed a limiter. The question is, for a machine built from value components, can the whole be sweeter than the sum of its parts?

With that in mind, here are some guidelines we used when pricing out and building our Bang for the Buck 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 $75 off the price. We think that the wealth of popular software available for Windows XP makes it a good value, though, and that's what this system is all about.
  • We included the costs of monitor, keyboard, mouse, and speakers. Many who are upgrading could use peripherals from their previous PC and save quite a bit of money.
  • Our focus is on building the highest-performance system we can without using any major high-ticket items. The idea is to target the "sweet spot" for each component, but you should always shop around for better prices.
  • These are our choices. If you like a particular component better, then by all means, swap in your choice. We did try to find the best price/performance component we could lay hands on, though.

All the components used in this PC have been seen here before, in some cases many times. The focus of this article will not be performance comparisons, but part selection.

Putting together a PC entirely of parts that occupy the sweet spot—where the lowest price and highest performance converge—isn't easy. It takes a lot of research and lots of knowledge about which parts are true performance champions. We've done all the hard work for you. Without further ado, here are our part choices:

Component Brand / Model Our Price
Processor Athlon 64 3400+ $325
Active Cooler (included in Athlon 64 retail box)
Motherboard ASUS K8V Deluxe $97 (check prices)
Memory 2X 512MB (1GB) Kingston DDR400 $152
Case Antec SLK-3700 BQE $76 (check prices)
Power Supply Vantec 470A (case upgrade price) $42
Hard Drive Maxtor DiamondMax Plus 9 160GB SATA $104 (check prices)
DVD-ROM / CD-RW ASUS DRW-0804P $75 (check prices)
Graphics ATI Radeon 9800 Pro (256MB) $265
Monitor 19" Samsung SyncMaster 997DF $219 (check prices)
Speakers Logitech Z-5300 5.1 $130
Audio Sound Blaster Audigy 2 $70 (check prices)
Floppy Mitsumi floppy and card reader $35
Keyboard Microsoft Natural Multimedia $20 (check prices)
Mouse Logitech MX700 cordless optical $46 (check prices)
Operating System Windows XP Home $75
Total $1737

That's not a bad list for under $1,800. With shipping and tax—provided you didn't buy parts from a dozen different online stores—it would probably stay below $2,000. Let's see what we get for eighteen C-notes.

At the extreme high end, Pentium 4 CPUs compete nicely with Athlon 64s. In fact, Intel's brand of chips can even perform better at media encoding tasks, which make good use of the chip's hyperthreading capabilities. Those extreme high-end chips cost over $600, and generally run so hot that they require serious (and often loud) cooling. We would have liked to spend less than $300 on our CPU, but the processor that gives you the best performance costs just a touch more than that.

The Athlon 64 3400+, at 2.4GHz, is a speed demon of a CPU. It performs well in all those heavy number-crunching tasks like media encoding and 3D rendering, but it's even better when you start running games. At $325, no other processor in its price class can come close. A 3.4GHz Pentium 4 CPU costs about the same, but not the Extreme Edition, which can keep up with the Athlon 64 chips. An added bonus of the Athlon 64 is that you'll be able to run the 64-bit version of Windows XP and 64-bit applications next year when that OS is released. For many CPU-intensive tasks, the extra registers available in 64-bit mode can speed things up a lot.

The other nice thing about using this CPU is that it's built for socket 754 motherboards, which offer a lot of value for the money. We like the ASUS K8V Deluxe for its speed, reliability, and overclocking options. It doesn't hurt that it's loaded with USB ports, FireWire, SATA RAID, and Gigabit Ethernet. Not bad for a $100 motherboard. There is one small downside, though. Socket 754 will be supported for the next couple years or more, but Socket 939 is where the exciting new high-end stuff will appear. We expect that AMD's dual-core desktop CPUs (scheduled to release later next year) will only be available for socket 939 motherboards. You'll have plenty of CPU upgrade options with the ASUS K8V Deluxe, but the upcoming dual-core Athlon 64 may not be one of them.

Choosing memory has become pretty basic these days: Just stick with name-brand memory that corresponds with the frequency your processor and motherboard support. In our case that's good old DDR400 and, overclocking notwithstanding, there's not much use in shelling out extra doe for really high-frequency or low-latency RAM. We went with basic CAS 3.0 RAM, a gigabyte of which (two 512MB modules) costs only about $150. You could easily spend more for "premium" RAM, but the sweet spot lies in avoiding that unless you plan to overclock the system, which we don't.

Case and Power Supply We've used Antec's SLK-3700 in many of our systems, because it's just such a well-built, reliable, and cost-effective case. This system uses the "BQE" version, essentially the same but with a premium on quiet operation, and rotates the hard drive cage 90 degrees so that drives are easier to add and remove. The rear fan is a large, slow-turning 120mm unit that moves a good amount of air while making hardly any sound.

The case comes with a 350-watt power supply, which could power our system as configured, but we wanted to step that up a bit. Some online stores, like Directron will let you outfit your case with almost any power supply they sell, charging you the difference in price between the included one and your upgrade. A $42 upgrade buys us the Vantec 470A Stealth—a beefy power supply that gives our system more legs. 470 watts is enough to power those high-end nVidia graphics cards, and this power supply even includes the plug format for newer PCI Express motherboards and the PCIE graphics adaptors. It's nice to know that we have a beefy enough power supply to make major upgrades to the system in a year or two without replacing it. The Vantec 470A Stealth is billed as a very quiet power supply, and in our experience it lives up to that. While not silent, it makes very little noise, even under heavy load.

With the massive volumes of digital media we all seem to acquire these days and multi-gigabyte game installs, having plenty of hard drive space is important. Moving around increasingly large chunks of data makes drive performance just as important, though. You can get hard drives in excess of 250GB these days, but the great deals are on 160GB drives. For performance, capacity, price, and reliability, we like both the Western Digital and Maxtor Serial ATA offerings at this capacity. We've used Maxtor's DiamondMax Plus 9 160GB SATA drive with an 8MB cache in our system, but we find that Western Digital's drive for about the same price has comparable performance. Either drive would be an excellent choice.

Optical drives represent some of the best values in the PC industry today. You can get a drive that burns CD or DVD (both –R and +R variants) as blistering speeds for under $100. Just such a drive is the ASUS DRW-0804P, which Loyd Case reviewed in a drive roundup a few months ago. Now available for only about $75, the ability to burn DVD at 8X speeds makes it a great deal. Quality dual-layer DVD burning drives are still a bit on the expensive side, so we avoided them, but you might want to consider spending the extra money if you plan on burning a lot of movies.

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 use that space for something more useful, like a card reader? This makes getting photos off your digital camera or loading up that memory-card-based MP3 player that much more convenient.

Audio The best sound card on the market for most PC users is still the Audigy 2. It provides excellent 3D sound acceleration while keeping CPU utilization low and sound quality excellent. The 7.1 support and "slightly better than already great" sound quality of the Audigy 2 ZX is overkill if you don't have a massive array of high-end speakers and a golden ear, so we saved a few bucks and stuck with the basic Audigy 2. It has 6.1 speaker support and a better signal-to-noise ratio than most users have the equipment—or ears—to hear.

Of course, a sound card is no good without a decent set of speakers. With a little shopping around, you can find some good deals. The Logitech Z-5300 speakers we found are a bargain. 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 find them much cheaper online.

Graphics & Video
It's actually starting to become important to have a 256MB graphics card these days. At their highest-detail settings, many games make use of enough high-res textures to fill up more than 128MB. You might not see the difference in canned benchmarks, but you'll notice stuttering in actual gameplay. New and upcoming massively multiplayer games, where dozens of uniquely textured characters can occupy the screen at once, often push beyond the 128MB barrier.

To that end, we opted for a 256MB version of ATI's Radeon 9800 Pro. For about $265 online, you get a card that's extremely fast and supports all the latest DirectX 9 games. Of course, there are many other options when it comes to 3D graphics. If you want to spend closer to $300, you can make a huge leap in performance with a GeForce 6800 card—serious hardcore gamers may want to spend the extra money there. There's not much need to blow $400 or $500 on an X800 Pro/XT or higher-end GeForce 6800GT or Ultra card right now. Those are extremely fast and impressive cards, but hardly the "sweet spot" between price and performance.

Note that nVidia has already announced the $200 GeForce 6600, and ATI is sure to follow soon with a $200 card of its own that offers similar impressive performance. Either of these cards would be faster and more fully featured than our Radeon 9800 Pro while costing less. The catch is, they won't be available for purchase for another month or so, and that's just the PCI Express flavor. It will probably be November before AGP versions are widely available. As soon as that happens, those new $200–250 cards will surely represent the best price/performance ratio on the market.

It does you no good to get a good graphics card and hook it up to a shoddy 17" monitor, so we added a Samsung SyncMaster 997DF to the list. This is a bright, sharp 19" CRT with good color characteristics for just over $200. Though LCD panels are all the rage these days, a really good one at a comparable size—one with a fast response time that's good for gaming and has excellent color—costs twice as much. If you can spare the room on your desktop, a good CRT still offers the most bang for the buck.

A quality keyboard and mouse
Without these two peripherals, your computer is pretty much 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 ergonomic, split layout is a plus for those who do a lot of typing, but if you don't like split key layouts you can find the regular straight-layout version, simply called the "Multimedia Keyboard," for a few dollars less

We reviewed Logitech's MX700 mouse almost two years ago, but it's still one of the best mice on the market. For under $50, you get a rechargeable cordless optical mouse with enough speed and precision for even high-end gamers. At that price, you can afford to cut the cord.

Operating System
Of course, you don't have a computer without an OS, and we picked Windows XP Home Edition—we've purchased enough parts here to easily qualify for an OEM version that costs less. 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 is what gives it value. We're not wild about spending $75 on an OEM version of our operating system, but it opens up a wealth of desirable software that a free OS just can't match.

We'll quickly go through a few pages of performance numbers, but almost all the parts in this system have been reviewed, discussed, and benchmarked on ExtremeTech before. Considering the way we chose the components for this system (targeting "most bang for the buck" at each step rather than trying to come in under a specific price), there's really nothing to make a good comparison with. We'll still present scores, though, both for your edification and to compare with other systems you may read about online.

We've begun to phase out the dated Business Winstone and Content Creation Winstone benchmarks, and not a moment too soon—they don't work with Service Pack 2 for Windows XP and haven't been patched yet. Replacing those tests will be BAPCo's SysMark 2004, a larger benchmark suite that has similar real-world tests—one suite for content creation, one for business applications.

These are very respectable SysMark scores—only the very highest-end CPUs break 200 on the Content Creation tests and 150 on the Office Productivity suite.

We also determine overall PC performance with PCMark 2004, the latest from FutureMark. This version expands 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.

Again, quite respectable numbers. Certainly not the highest we've seen, but attaining those numbers would cost hundreds of dollars more. PCMark's synthetic tests tend to fit entirely within the large caches of current CPUs—unlike real-world applications—so this is more of a theoretical, academic benchmark than a measurement of performance during normal use.

To test media encoding performance, we encoded a large, high-bitrate DVD-quality movie clip into a 1 megabit WMV9 file, with "CD quality" audio, using Windows Media Encoder 9. We then performed the same encode using DivX 5.2 with the popular VirtualDub freeware application. Audio compression is extremely fast these days—almost too fast to be relevant—but we wanted a good digital audio compression data point nonetheless. We took a large 254MB WAV file and compressed it to a constant bitrate WMA file using Windows Media Encoder 9.

We've seen some of our extremely high-end systems do a little better on media encoding tests. This is particularly true for Pentium 4 based systems, which thrive on digital video and audio compression. Still, these are good numbers. The DivX encode was faster-than-realtime, which is always nice to see.

To gauge 3D rendering performance, we're using the new Viewperf 8.01. This benchmark suite runs a variety of timed tests using the rendering cores for 3ds max, LightWave, Maya, and several other digital content creation and CAD programs. We average the scores into a composite to produce a final Viewperf measurement.

Scores for Viewperf 8.01 are considerably lower than they were for the last revision, 7.1.1, as the test loads are tougher and the test applications have been changed and updated. This is a pretty high score overall, considering the consumer-level graphics card inside. Computers with dedicated workstation graphics cards tend to generate higher Viewperf scores.

We've updated our standard 3D game benchmarks. Gone is UT2003, with our own custom UT2004 timedemo in its place. We test the C5L2 benchmark from Painkiller that was added with patch 1.3, and run the built-in demo1 benchmark from Doom 3 as well. The only test that really isn't different is Halo, which we still run using the Shader Model 2.0 path. All these tests were run at 640x480 with details maxed out to stress overall system performance and not just the 3D card. In addition, we run 3DMark 2003 at 640x480, with software vertex shaders enabled to put more strain on the CPU.

You certainly wouldn't play games at the 640x480 resolution, but we wanted to give an idea of overall system performance, not limit things to the graphics card, since that is most readily and easily upgraded. Both Painkiller and UT2004 are entirely CPU limited, and you can crank up the resolution quite a lot before the frame-rate drops below this. Doom 3 and Halo will start to take a hit as you turn up the resolution, but you'll still get really good speeds at 1280x1024.

It is often a good idea to think of what primary task you'll use a system for, how much you want to spend, and then build a system from there. That's what we normally do, and it's a useful procedure. But sometimes what you want to know is not "What will fit in my budget," but "What gives me the most for my dollar?" This system won't top out any benchmark, and it won't have more features than fancier machines, but it performs more than adequately. It makes a good platform for digital content creation and playback, game playing, office work, digital photo work, and more. While the performance may not win any benchmark races, it's quite a bit faster and full-featured than what you'd find for a similar price from major retailers.

This Bang for the Buck system is more than just a good template for building your own PC, though. Because we've picked what we feel are the sweet spots for each component, you can simply use it as a reference for individual components. You may not want to build a whole system, but if, for example, you're in the market for a new DVD burner, the one we chose here is a great pick. Even if you don't build a system like this one, taking a look at our components may help you decide how to most efficiently upgrade your own computer.

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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