$2000 Gaming PC Buyers Guide -- December 2009

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What a difference $500 makes. With $1500 , building a gaming PC means being as lean as possible, sacrificing a little here and there to bump the important components to the next tier. But with $2000, your options really open up. The extra dough means you can start considering a solid-state drive or dual-GPU solution. Getting the most bang for your buck is always a consideration, but two grand means you can splurge for cutting-edge components that are priced for early adopters. It also means you have to think about your system's upgrade path, since you don't want to spend so much on a rig with nowhere to go in two years. Lynnfield or Bloomfield? SSD or high-capacity storage? Nvidia or ATI? There are a few no-brainers in our $2000 parts pick, but also a few surprises as well.

Read on for our parts picks, and let us know what you think!

*All prices are as of December 7th and do not include rebates, sales, clearance, or whatever else makes computer parts really cheap these days.

CPU

Core i7-920

$289, www.intel.com

With our $1500 PC, we opted for a 2.8GHz Core i7-860, a chip based off of Intel's Lynnfield design. For this build, though, we went back to a Bloomfield processor, namely the Core i7-920. Though the i7-860 and i7-920 are actually the same price, one represents a middle-of-the-pack 1156 part and the latter is the low end 1366 part. But the 920 is far from low-end. Like the i7-860, it can easily overclock to 3GHz and higher, especially when paired with a great cooler. We went with Bloomfield because $2000 affords us to buy a good X58 motherboard and 6GB of RAM to take advantage of the triple-channel capability.  Going X58 also gives us dual X16 PCI-E support, and the best part: an upgrade path to hex-core Core i9's that Intel may have slated for 2010.

Motherboard

Asus P6T

$240, www.asus.com

We picked the lowest clocked Bloomfield CPU with the expectation that this system would be overclocked. That means we had to pick a solid motherboard that could handle serious overclocking. Asus is notorious for releasing multiple motherboard SKUs for each high-end chipset, and the X58 is no different. In fact, Asus has 9 variations of the P6T lineup, ranging from the barebones P6T SE to the feature-ladden P6T Deluxe V2. We went with the moderately-priced P6T (no fancy suffix), which has enough overclocking features to keep the i7-920 rock solid at 3GHz. The motherboard come with Asus's Turbo V utility helps manage the i7's Turbo mode, which automatically provides overclocking up to 2.8GHz, and the advanced BIOS settings easily lets you push your CPU further. The board is also tri-SLI and quad-Crossfire compatible, in case you plan on maxing out on GPU spending. One thing this board lacks is Asus's Express Gate quick-boot frontend, which is included in the more expensive P6T models.

CPU Cooler

Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus

$30, www.coolermaster.com

Even without a $2000 budget, it would be foolish not to pick up an aftermarket CPU cooler, especially if you're planning on overclocking. The decision is made even easier with Cooler Master's recently released Hyper 212 Plus cooler, which isn't just the best air cooler we've tested, but also one of the cheapest. The previous champ, the Thermalright Ultra 120E, sold for $70, and this cooler is less than half the price of that. The skyscraper design isn't particularly innovative, but we can't argue with the performance numbers. A stock cooler heats up to 61 C on a full load, while the Hyper 212 Plus keeps its cool at 43 C.

Memory


Corsair XMS3 DDR3 6GB  (3x2GB)

$155 ($145 after rebate), www.corsair.com

RAM is about the only component that hasn't dropped in price since we priced out a high-end gaming system this summer. In fact, DDR2 memory prices have stabilized since their early 2009 plummet, and even gone up in price. With DDR3, 6GB is the sweet spot for a Nehalem system if you want to run memory in a triple-channel configuration (3GB isn't enough, in our opinion). And sure, you can find a 6GB kit for under $150, but we chose to go with reliable performance modules from Corsair to help with overclocking. Corsair DIMMs have yet to fail us, but you're probably OK with other name-brand makers (Crucial, Patriot, OCZ, etc) if you can find a comparable deal.

Videocard

Diamond Radeon 5970

$600, www.diamondmm.com

With no real competition from Nvidia, ATI's Evergreen GPUs are your best option for a top-tier gaming machine. And with a two-grand budget, you can't settle for less than the best of the best. That title goes to the Radeon 5970, a dual-GPU beast that crushes any doubt that ATI claims the performance crown. With essentially two 5870 GPUs running in tandem on one board, the 5970 packs 3200 stream processors and 2GB of GDDR5 memory. Compute performance isn't exactly double that of a single 5870, since this card runs with a core clock of 725MHz (down from 850MHz of the mono-GPU counterpart).

But dual-GPU scaling is improved over ATI's last effort (the 4870x2), with a PCI-Express 2.1 bridge chip speeding up communication between the two GPUs, and a revamped thermal system to prevent serious overheating (meaning some overclocking potential). Power consumption is also in line with other Evergreen parts, which means this performance monster is actually not overly power-hungry. The card uses only 42W at idle, and maxes out at under 300W under heavy load. It only requires one 8-pin and one 6-pin PCI-E power connectors, too.

Performance-wise, the 5970 has no equal, running Far Cry 2 at 185fps (Ultra High, 2650x1600) and Crysis at 34fps (Very High, 2650x1600). You can get our full benchmark analysis here , but suffice to say, this is the best card on the market at the moment.

Optical Drive

Samsung SH-S223

$30, www.samsungodd.com

This is starting to get a little embarrassing. Samsung's SH-S223 DVD burner hasn't faced a challenger worthy of its blazing read and write speeds, so it remains our pick for best optical drive for yet another month. Its price has gone up a little since the summer, but $30 for a fast and reliable (and did we mention fast?) 22x drive is well worth the money. Unless you're willing to dish out the bucks for Blu-Ray (and deal with HDCP hassles), you'll be fine with a DVD burner.

Hard Drive


Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB

$300, www.westerndigital.com

This is probably the most controversial pick of our $2000 build. For many users, it feels tough to justify $300 for a 2TB hard drive when respectable 1.5TB drives are reaching the $100 price-point. But this Western Digital Caviar Black is a hard drive of a different caliber. This is the first 7,200 RPM 2TB drive, which runs off four 500GB platters, two processors, and a whopping 64MB of cache. WD has also packed in special features like a dual-stage actuator for speedy seek times and a No-touch ramp loader to increase the drive's lifespan. Combined, these features make a drive that's almost as fast as the 10,000RPM Velocipator, and 15 percent faster than the nearest high-speed champ. It's the first of a new generation of 7,200 high-capacity drives that makes a good case for sticking with hard drives instead of SSDs.

If you're not sure about spending so much on a single drive, a reasonable alternative would be to buy two or three 1.5TB Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 drives and run them in RAID.

Power Supply


Corsair 850TX

$140 ($110 after rebate), www.corsair.com

The Corsair 850TX is the same power supply we chose for our $1500 PC build, and it'll the do the trick for this build. Considering the power efficiency of our GPU and CPU picks, and the fact that we're not running dual-videocards or an excess of hard drives, 850 watts is more than enough for a stable build. And seeing as the street price for this PSU has fallen from an MSRP of $160 to $110, the savings make it possible for us to invest in other components without sacrificing reliability.

Case

Silverstone Raven 2

$160, www.silverstonetek.com

Silverstone's first Raven case introduced a rotated motherboard design to improve airflow, which worked very well in practice. This innovation is passed down to the Raven 2, a smaller case that retails for $100 less than the original Raven. In addition to getting this unique rotated design, the Raven 2 comes with three 180mm fans to draw air from under the case, and a 120mm fan to funnel hot air out from the top. The motherboard tray still isn't removable, but openings in the back plate make installing CPU coolers a breeze. There are also bays for five 5.25" drives and the 3.6" drives.

Operating System

Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit Edition

$105, www.microsoft.com

You know our position on Windows 7: it kicks ass . So much so that we've recommended it as a primary OS since Microsoft released the public Release Candidate. But since we can't get away with recommending the RC version anymore, the OEM version is the way to go for your new PC, since it's the cheapest way to get a full copy. If you're truly a penny pincher, you can also just buy an upgrade copy of Windows 7 and run it as a fresh install ( Check out how with this guide ). We're also recommending the 64-bit edition, so you can utilize all 6GB of memory .

Price Breakdown

So how does it all break down? First, let's look at the specs for the $3,525 "Stimulus Package" we built for this year's Dream Machine exercise:

Part:

Model:

Price (when we bought it)

Motherboard
Asus P6T Deluxe 2.0
$280
CPU Intel Core i7 975 Extreme
$999
Memory 6GB Corsair Dominator 1600 C8
$166
Cooler
Thermalright Ultra 120E-1366
$70
Video Card
2X EVGA GeForce GTX 285
$700
Optical Drive
LG GGC H2OL $100
Power Supply
PC Power & Cooling Silencer 910
$185
Case Cooler Master ATCS 840
$195
Hard Drive
Seagate 1.5TB 7200.11 Barracuda
$130
SSD Corsair P256
$700
OS Windows 7 RC $0
Total $3525

In that system, the bulk of the cost went to the Core i7 975 Extreme CPU, dual GTX 285 GPUs, and $700 Corsair SSD. Even though we don't use an SSD or the 975 part in our $2000 build, you're going to get better gaming performance with the $600 Radeon 5970 than with two GTX 285s in SLI. We actually spent more money on hard drives in this build, which made sense because the WD Caviar Black is just so damn fast. And if you consider the fact that the Core i7 920 overclocks very well, the $2000 Gaming PC of today is actually very comparable to the $3000 uber-PC of this past summer.

Part:

Model:

Price:

(Price after rebate)

Newegg Link

Motherboard
Asus P6T $240
Link
CPU Intel Core i7 920
$289
Link
Memory Corsair XMS3 6GB $155
$145 Link
Cooler
Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus
$30
Link
Video Card
Diamond Radeon 5970 $600
Link
Optical Drive
Samsung SH-S223A $30
Link
Power Supply
Corsair 850TX $140
$110
Link
Case Silverstone Raven 2
$160
Link
Hard Drive
WD Caviar Black 2TB $300
Link
OS Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $105 Link

Looking at the price distribution, most of our budget went to the Hard Drive and GPU. That means that if you don't have the money for a $2000 gaming rig, it's easy to get a similar build by swapping out our 5970 and WD 2TB picks for the more moderately priced 5870 and a 1.5TB or 1TB hard drive. You can also make other cuts with the motherboard, though we don't recommend going with an ultra-budget X58 part. At that point, you might as well build a Lynnfield-based system, like our $1500 gaming PC .

Total: $2049 ($1979 after rebates)

Agree with our choices? Have a better configuration for a $2000 gaming PC? Post your thoughts in the comments below!

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