Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Build or Buy updated for 2008

'Round last Christmas I wrote this piece:
"So, I'm giving computers as gifts to a half dozen people this year; and every time I've mentioned it, I've had someone ask for computer advice.

So, continuing on my gadgetary thrust for the end of the year, lets talk about computers.

Now, the first question is always "build or buy"; by which I mean do you buy a pre-built system from a major vendor, or do you build your own.

Generally speaking, this is a two part question:

1. Does it make sense technically
2. Does it make sense in terms of value"
Earlier today, a reader asked me to update the article for this year. Since I've got a couple of system building related tech articles simmering, I figured, why not.

So, the first thing is, re-read the 2007 article; because those two big questions (and the smaller ones interspersed), and the general advice I give there are still completely relevant.

Also, surprisingly, most of what I wrote in terms of technical detail and product selection still applies. This last year hasn't seen much in the way of fundamental changes in the market; though there have been some nice price drops.

If you are waiting for a major change in overall performance, you're going to have to wait til the middle of next year, when the Intel Nehalem processors (now renamed Core i7) go mainstream.

Where we HAVE seen major movement is in price, and specifically price to performance ratio for memory and graphics.

The memory market saw a huge amount of overcapacity this year, cutting basic memory prices in half, and making DDR3 semi-affordable (if you want to pay for the motherboard to go with it of course.

Graphics saw the biggest change in hardware this year, with a new generation of graphics cards appearing on shelves in the last three months; presenting nearly double the performance of the last generations top of the line, at the same price (or equal performance at half the price).

On the lowest end, the near thin client level hardware offered by Asus, MSI, HP, and others at the under $500 price point have completely flipped the market on its head.

If all you are doing is email, web surfing, and basic word processing and spreadsheets, these $400-$600 machines are EXCELLENT. They have so little to go wrong, that they are near perfect grandma PCs.

Also, and I think this is probably the biggest change in PCs in a long time, and certainly the biggest change in software since windows 95; is that Vista 64 bit is now a very valid choice for both general purpose computing and gaming.

Software and driver support is finally to the point where I am recommending either XP pro (if you don't want Vista), or Vista 64 Premium.

So, I'm going to do things a bit differently this time around. last year, I recommended three sample configurations, a value box, a mid range box, and a god box. This year, I'm going to recommend mix and match components that I think represent the best value for money for each of the basic functions.

Also, I want to renew my recommendation from last year that if you aren't going to spend at least $800, you should just buy one of the better factory systems when they go on sale.

Right now, you can get a Core 2 quad 6600 system with 4 gigs of RAM, 2x 500 gig hard drives, a low end video card and a video capture/TV tuner card for $600 to $800 on sale. You simply cannot build a box to that spec, for that much money.

The reason to build your own system, is to get BETTER than the factory; not to save money; because you cannot build cheaper than HP, Dell, or Gateway. Pick the products that meet your needs better, and make your life easier as a system builder.

Alright lets break it down.

1. Case:

This year, I'm making a STRONG recommendation, that you spend a little extra money on the case. I'm tired of noisy, hard to work with cases; and extra money spent here is really giving you value.

I'm going to recommend a few cases that I think are well made, easy to work with, and represent a good value.

CoolerMaster Cosmos - several models between $190 and $290
Coolermaster RC690 - $85 without PSU, or $150 with a decent 550 watt
Antec Mini P180 - $129 to $159
Antec P182 - about $110

In my personal opinion, the CoolerMaster Cosmos is the best full size personal computer case on the market today. It has the best cooling of any quiet case I've ever seen, and it's the second quietest case I've ever used (that wasn't a special silencer case).

The QUIETEST case I've ever used that wasn't a special silencer case is the Antec Mini P180. It is also one of the best ventilated, and best organized cases I've ever used in terms of disk options, and cable management.

2. PSU:

It's hard to make specific power supply recommendations, because every system has different needs, but again this year I'm going to recommend that you spend a little extra money on some features to make your life easier.

From now on I don't want to build another system that doesn't have a modular power supply. They make cable management so much easier, and keep your case so much cooler and neater, that they are worth the extra $25 to $50 they cost over an equivalently sized non-modular power supply.

Size wise, I'm going to recommend that you don't go below 450 watts, and you don't go above 650 watts unless you are putting more than 4 hard drives and 2 video cards in a box.

As to brands, I'm a big fan of the modular models from Thermaltake, Antecs higher end line, CoolerMasters higher end line, PC Power and Cooling, OCZ, and Corsair.

You're looking at around $150 for a 550 watt modular power supply.

3. Motherboard:

Right now, it's hard to find a bad motherboard from Asus, Abit, Gigabyte, EVGA, or MSI.

Personally, I would take any one of those brands, with any model board that meets your basic needs. I do recommend that you choose a motherboard with as many SATA ports as possible; and I personally like to have more than one PCIe x16 slot, to use either SLI, or for higher performance IO cards.

I would stay away from Foxconn, DFI, ECS, PcChips, Jetway, Elitegroup, or Biostar personally. Sometimes they do good things, sometimes not; and none of them have support worth a damn.

You're looking at $150 for a very good single processor motherboard with a lot of good features, and no SLI. Add $25 to $50 for SLI support, all the way up to about $250 for the top of the line single processor motherboards.

Oh, and get some good onboard sound; because with good onboard sound there is really no need to spend a slot on a soundcard.

Oh and at this point I don't think a multi cpu box makes sense for home users from a value perspective. Even most professional graphics applications wont see much advantage from two quad core cpus instead of one.

4. CPU:

Firstly, AMD is in trouble at the moment. They aren't offering any CPU that presents a more compelling value to the enthusiast user than Intel.

As of today, there are a couple conspicuous and outstanding values from the Intel side.

Core 2 Duo 7200 - This new 45nm low power consumption dual core can be had for $120 on sale with a decent CPU cooler. It's an automatic overclock to 3 ghz, and can esily hit 3.2 and even 3.4 ghz.

Core 2 Quad 6600 - This is still the quad core value leader, with the effortless overclock to 3.2ghz on any motherboard, and prices as low as $180; you still can't beat it, 19 months (and $650 cheaper) after it was released.

Honestly, I don't think you should even consider any other CPU right now. You cannot get higher performance per dollar, or for that matter significantly higher performance overall, no matter how many dollars you spend.

5. Memory:

Pretty simple picture right now really. Buy either 2, or 4, 2 gig sticks from Crucial, Kingston, Mushkin, Corsair, or OCZ. 2 sticks if you're going 32 bit, 4 sticks if you're going 64 bit.

Premium 2 gig DDR2 sticks are running from $40 to $60 on sale these days; and theres no reason to bother with anything cheaper.

Now, you have to decide if you want to go to DDR3 yet or not. If you pick out a motherboard that supports it, it gives you a BIG boost in memory performance, though overall you'll only see about a 10% inprovement; and it's double the memory cost.

Personally... I still say skip it.

6. Video:

This is the interesting one...

Both Nvidia, and ATI/AMD released their next generation cards in the last two months, and both are excellent.

Right now each chipset maker has two price points set.

Nvidia has their GTX 260, from between $250 and $399 (depending on memory and extras), and the GTX 280 at $399 to $599 (again depending on memory and extras).

ATI has their absolute value leading Radeon HD4850 at $180 to $230; and their 4870 at $280 to $320.

Both vendors are also still putting out dual GPU cards (though nvidia hasn't put out a dual 260 or 280 yet); but I don't think they present a good value. Also, all of the cards mentioned above support multi-card (SLI or crossfire); but again I don't think those configurations present good value.

The Nvidia offerings are more expensive, but they are also higher performance. Unfortunately, their performance per dollar isn't nearly as good as the ATI cards, which are frankly spectacular. You are getting twice the performance per dollar as last years mid range and top end cards.

Honestly, I think all four options present good value, and you just have to decide whether you want the best price, or the best performance.

If you don't feel like spending the extra cash for the next gen cards, the Nvidia 8800gt 512 is still the best bargain in the video card market (as it has been since it was released), at a price as low as $125.

7. Hard drives:

Simple question, how much storage do you need?

With 500 gig 7200 rpm 32mb cache hard drives as cheap as $80 and 1tb drives as low as $150, you can pretty much do whatever you want here.

8. Optical drives:

There's no point in not having at least a dual DVD burner setup at this point; and I'd recommend going SATA with everything.

Also, at $150 to add blu-ray reading capability, there is no reason not to.

The only real question is, do you want a blu-ray burner or not. Personally, at as low as $269, I think it's worth it; but you may not.
So, right now, if you want to better the factory boxes, you're looking at something like the following:

Case: Coolermaster RC690 - $160 with PSU
PSU: Included
Motherboard: any of the top tier manufacturers boards - $150
Processor: Core 2 Duo 7200 - $120
Memory: 2x 2 gig DDR2 stick - $80
Video: Radeon HD 4850 - $180
Hard Drive: 1x 500 gig drive - $80
Optical Drives: 2x SATA DVD burners, one of which is a blu-ray reader - $200

Total: $960

For that $960 you're going to get a better PC than 99% of all factory machines; and at less than half the cost of a factory "gaming" PC.

If you want to build your maximum performance with value, your looking at something like this:

Case: CoolerMaster Cosmos - $200
PSU: Any of the modular PSUs in the $150 price range will do it - $150
Motherboard: any of the top tier manufacturers boards with multi PCIe slots- $200
Processor: Core 2 Quad 6600 - $180
Memory: 4x 2 gig DDR2 stick - $160
Video: Nividia GTX280 - $420
Hard Drive: 1x 500 gig drive, plus 2x 1tb drive in a software RAID - $380
Optical Drives: 2x SATA DVD burners, one of which is a blu-ray writer - $300

Total: $2080

Seriously, the only way you're going to get more performance out of a home PC, is to double your video card (an additional $420), push your mobo up to $650 (+ $450), and your CPU up to $3000 (+ $2800) with a dual skulltrail platform... and even then, you're only going to see maybe a 35% boost for your additional $3670.

Nearly triple the total price for 35%performance boost? No thanks.

The only thing good about that price, is that it's about $2000 less than you'd pay a major manufacturer for the privilege of buying an equivalent system from them.