Time for another price and parts guide! The $1000 parts guide we posted earlier this month garnered much discussion and debate among readers, so we wanted to a better job explaining our choices in this edition. Compared to the pricey decked-out systems from OEM builders like Falcon and Digital Storm, $1500 isstill technically in the "budget" range . But for many people, that's still a lot of money to spend on a PC. We catered this build for gamers, and anchored our picks on the GPU and CPU, while judiciously choosing the other parts and brands to fit into our budget limits. The results were pleasantly surprising, and recent price cuts and rebates across the board really helped. Of course, your own configuration may vary wildly from ours depending your own needs, priorities, or brand allegiances,but we think this is an awesome configuration for something building a new gaming PC.
(All prices found on newegg.com, as of March 23rd, and do not include mail-in rebates, tax, or shipping)
We started off this build with the video card, since we wanted something that relatively high-end, and anticipated that it would take up a considerable chunk of our $1500 budget. Initially, we considered options that would give us enough money left for a Core i7 CPU and motherboard. A single Nvidia GTX 280 was the first card we considered, since prices for it have fallen after the release of the ultra high-end GTX 295 and 285 models. The 4850 X2 was also another viable choice, since for $300 it delivers a better price/performance ratio than the top mid-range Nvidia offering. But then we remembered the 4870 X2, which held the title for fastest single-slot solution before the GTX 295 was released. Amazingly, PowerColor sells its 4870 X2 on Newegg for $401, and even clocks it higher than ATI reference boards. At this price, the pick for GPU was a no brainer.
For a $1500 gaming PC, it would be an insult if we didn't recommend an Intel Core i7 CPU. Nehalem is pretty much the only choice for a top of the line processor, since AMD's Phenom II has been relegated to compete at the mid-range level. The only real decision in this category was which Core i7 SKU to use. We have no qualms going with the 2.66GHz 920 part, even if it represents the "budget" end of the Core i7 lineup. The 920 performs tremendously well compared to even the best Core 2 CPUs, and smashes Phenom in most of our benchmarks. It's also very easy to overclock, so you can stretch your $280 investment a long way.
Since we're using a Core i7 CPU, we have to pair it with an X58 LGA 1366 motherboard that supports its socket. Our favorite X58 board is currently the MSI Eclipse, but its no frills companion SKU, the MSI X58 Pro, is just as capable and reliable. In fact, we haven't had issues with any of the X58 boards we've tested so far, so the only big differentiating factors are SLI support and overclocking features. And since we're running an ATI-based 4870 X2 in this build, SLI is unnecessary as an upgrade path -- Crossfire will work fine here. The Eclipse is almost double the price of the X58 Pro at $350, so we're happy with the cost savings we made here. Alternatively, the Asus P6T Deluxe ($290) is also a fine choice, and supports SLI.
We don't review power supplies in the magazine, but we've used enough of them in the lab to have a good feel for what's reliable and trustworthy. PC Power & Cooling is our typical first choice, but we've also recently been very satisfied using Corsair's HX1000 PSU. Modular power cables, six 8-pic PCI-E connectors, and a plethora of SATA power cables ensures that you'll have plenty of opportunity (and power) to upgrade your system with more video cards, optical drives, and hard drives.
With RAM prices continuing to stumble, we see no reason why you shouldn't buy 6GB of memory for you next gaming PC. 6GB runs on three dimms in tri-channel mode on X58 motherboards, and OCZ's DDR3 series delivers exactly what you need for gaming at a great price. These sticks run with 7-7-7-20 memory timings, and should be stable at the stock voltage settings. Of course, you'll need a 64-bit OS to make use of all this memory.
We're currently testing another batch of mid-tower cases in the lab, but until we find something better, the NZXT Tempest remains our top mid-tower case, as it has for months. The Tempest bests the Antec 900 in a few minor categories (though they're both essentially the same case), but undercuts the 900 in price -- especially after a recent $10 price cut. From our review: "We experienced no difficulties whatsoever installing a modern-day system into this no-nonsense chassis. There was plenty of room to manage cables around our huge 8800 GTX card, and the case’s eight hard drive bays come with screwless rails preinstalled—you pop them off, attach them to a drive, and slide the whole deal into place. The two 12cm front-panel fans take care of the cooling efforts."
We chose Western Digital's Caviar Green for our $1000 Budget configuration, but have picked the 1TB Caviar Black series in this build. The Caviar Black costs about $15 more than its eco-friendly sister model, and uses a tiny bit more power to keep its platter spinning at a constant 7200RPM. This drive also utilizes dual processors to locate, move, and cache data quickly and sports double the cache as the Green model. That means that you'll get faster performance which will come in handy when loading games. We picked the OEM version drive, which saves you a few bucks, but omits the full manufacturer's warranty.
The Samsung SH-223 is a minor upgrade from its predecessor, the SH-203, but it’s our new favorite. The burner has 22x DVD +/-R and though a majority of the specifications mirrored that of the older model, the SH-223 is seconds speedier. And don't worry if you can't find it listed on Samsung's website -- this drive is still very much alive and in production. Since its last appearance in our $1000 budget PC price guide, the S223F has gone up in price by $1.
If you're still wary of running 64-bit Windows, man up and have some faith. 64-bit Vista may have been a mess when it first launched, the Microsoft has hotfixed and patched the vast majority of compatibility problems with its soon-to-be-suceded OS. Trust us: 64-bit Vista stable, and it'll let you use all 4GB of memory you bought for this rig. We didn't include the operating system in our final price list, partly because we wanted to keep our cost below $1500, and partly because we know many of you have licensed copies of Windows that you can still use (or even the Windows 7 beta!). However, if you take the rebate discounts into consideration, adding the $100 price for Vista 64-bit will still keep you well under $1500!
From our pie chart below, you can see that the GPU and CPU -- arguably the two most important components in a PC -- together take up almost half the price of our build (and more than that if you include the motherboard). The videocard itself claims over a quarter of the total price, but that's a smart allocation since it has the biggest impact on gaming performance. 17% (or $240) devoted to the power supply might seem a bit high, but we think the investment is worth it for the upgrading potential. Since our total price still falls under $1500 (not including tax or shipping, nor rebates), you could also opt for a powerful CPU cooler (we like the Zalman CNPS 9900NT) if you plan on overclocking or upgrade to a premium version of our build's motherboard model.