Sometimes, you just have to keep things real. Last year, our Dream Machine was a paean to excess, a chrome-plated $17,000 wünder-rig. While we’re still quite fond of that machine, this year we decided to take a different tack and see if we could build a more reasonably priced, but still lust-worthy Dream Machine. Well, actually, we built three of them. While the combined cost of these three machines is about half the price of last year’s rig, we packed a lot of awesome into our relatively tight budgets. The lesson is simple: Dream Machine isn’t about spending a ludicrous amount of cash on a PC, it’s about getting the best rig you can for the money you spend. I think you’ll agree that these three machines pack a ton of power and are all great values.
Without further ado, we give you this year’s crop of Dream Machines.
The number-one complaint console weenies have about PC gaming is the cost. We’re here to tell you that you can build an entry-level gaming rig that still kicks ass for less than $700. So, while we advocate saving your ducats when the economy is in the toilet, you needn’t suffer a slow PC.
Our goal with the Recession Special was to build a machine designed for one thing and one thing only—gaming. There’s no terabyte hard drive or fancy quad-core CPU in here, just a honking videocard and enough memory and CPU to support the GPU. That’s it. What we built is a machine that shreds at most games, from World of Warcraft to Team Fortress 2.
So, there you go. Take your severance, put together our $700 wonder, and subscribe to WoW. After all, where else can you get hundreds of hours of entertainment for $15 a month?
A good low-cost alternative to the high-flying 790FX chipset, boards such as MSI’s DKA790GX use ATI’s integrated graphics chipset. We just switched the onboard GPU off and still got access to the advanced chipset special sauce that ATI and AMD have developed for the Phenom II. And made before DDR3, it’ll run well on regular DDR2.
Scoffed at initially, AMD’s tri-core procs will still whip the snot out of any dual-core. Even better, the 45nm Phenom II overclocks like hell. We took our 2.8GHz Phenom II X3 720 to 3.6GHz without breaking a sweat.
This is actually a stock AVC heatsink that AMD includes with its retail processor in box. For what it’s worth, we were able to get our 2.8GHz proc up to 3.7GHz with stability, so there’s something to be said for stock heatsinks.
Yeah, DDR3 is cheaper today but it still ain’t as cheap as DDR2, which you’re practically paid to use. OK, not really, but it’s wickedly affordable. We paired our 64-bit OS with 4GB of Kingston HyperX DDR2/800.
Dayum, it feels good to be a gamer. Especially when you can get an HIS Radeon HD 4870 for such a good price. Just a couple years ago, a hunred and fiddy bucks would get you a pathetic single-slot graphics card that didn’t even need power. And now we have a $700 PC with a truly stupendous card.
One of the tricks to getting a sub-$700 machine to work with a good GPU is to find a low-cost power supply that will actually give you two six-pin graphic connectors. The Rosewill RP550V2-S-SL did that for us and it’s quiet, to boot. It helps that our graphics card is actually pretty lean on power consumption despite its dual six-pin connectors.
Take Samsung’s burnalicious SH-S223 and add LightScribe capabilities and you have one the best burners available for next to nothing. Really. At $25 each, we were tempted to put three in the box just because we could.
Antec’s 900 may be dated but it’s no less effective. You get awesome air flow and a sharp design that doesn’t belie the low budget of the machine. Even better, the case’s vintage status means many stores will have it marked down to a very reasonable price. When you consider that you’re getting a case that revolutionized the category, it’s yet another plus.
The SSD in our Stimulus machine costs almost as much as this whole PC, so an HDD was clearly called for. Western Digital’s 500GB Caviar Black features a 32MB buffer, 7,200rpm, and dual processors for high performance at a pretty low price. Sure, we could have gained a few hundred more megabytes by going with a slower drive, but we opted for as much drive performance as we could get on a budget.
With that OS X-ass-stomping Windows 7 just around corner, it would be pretty hard to load Windows Vista on our Dream Machines. Instead, we went with the Release Candidate version of Win 7 Ultimate in 64-bit flavor. Stuff that in your hat and eat it, Justin Long.
|CPU||AMD Phenom II X3 720||$139||amd.com|
|RAM||Kingston HyperX 4GB||$55||kingston.com|
|Videocard||HIS Radeon 4870 512MB||$153||hisdigital.com|
|Hard Drive||Western Digital Caviar 500 Black||$69
|Windows 7 Ultimate RC1||$0||microsoft.com|
Sticking to a budget can be hard, but it doesn’t have to be painful. Our mid-priced rig, the Budget Surplus, is remarkably similar to the computers that most Maximum PC editors run at home—$1,500-ish rigs that are adept at many tasks. Whether you’re browsing the web, playing games, ripping DVDs, or editing video, the Budget Surplus delivers.
When building a $1,500 rig, it’s easy to get your priorities out of whack. We love the power of a Core i7 CPU when we’re encoding video, but we couldn’t sacrifice GPU to get it. Likewise, we wanted more performance than a single GPU could deliver, but couldn’t skimp on CPU to find the cash for SLI or CrossFire. Luckily, we found a great compromise in the form of an inexpensive Core i7 920 CPU and a dual-GPU Radeon 4870 X2.
The result is a machine that’s only about 20 percent slower than our highest-end configuration, but costs half as much. That’s a surplus we can get excited about.
Gigabyte’s X58-based GA-EX58-UDR3R balances features with price. You get CrossFire plus SLI capability (something most budget boards don’t include), and it’s overclocker friendly. The bad news is that instead of the typical six RAM slots, you get just four. You still get tri-channel, but if you ever intend to add additional RAM later on, you’ll take a memory-bandwidth hit.
It’s no wonder Intel’s 2.66GHz Core i7-920 stole the show when introduced. It’s incredibly low-priced and gives you more computing than you’ll probably need for the foreseeable future—and that’s at its stock clocks. There’s actually a state law that says a 920 has to be overclocked, so we obliged—all the way to 3.66GHz.
Thermalright’s Ultra 120E-1366 isn’t fun to install but the payoff is well worth it. This tower-of-power heatsink is the most effective air cooler we’ve ever tested. Pushing our 2.66GHz Core i7-920 to 3.66GHz was child’s play for this bad mother of a cooler. And to top it off, it’s actually fairly quiet for the performance that it offers.
If you think we’re hypocrites for dissing DDR3 in our budget box but using it in our midrange machine, you’re wrong. You choose the right tool for the right job. DDR3 is the only option for Core i7 and it’s actually pretty damned affordable itself. We got 6GB of Patriot’s Viper DDR3/1600 for just $79.
You know how good ATI’s Radeon HD 4870 X2 card is? It’s so good that this is the first time we’ve ever used a videocard from a previous-generation Dream Machine. That’s just a testament to the legs that the Diamond Radeon HD 4870 X2 has.
Corsair’s 850TX lacks the modular cables of its big brother, but it gives us a reliable 850 watts without breaking the bank. Simply put, the 850TX gives us a lot of bang for the buck. It doesn’t hurt that Corsair’s PSUs are garnering high praise from reviewers and customers for solid reliability. Did we mention that it’s just $135?
Do you really need Blu-ray in your mainstream PC? That one is easy to answer: nope. Thus, we used the same $25 hella-fast DVD burner that we used in our Recession Special, for all the same reasons.
It may not feature exotic materials, lights, or a built-in minibar, but the Element S is truly marvelous to build in and easy to keep neat. For example, getting a tight and tidy appearance inside the Antec 900 takes serious imagination, but thanks to the forethought that went into the Element S’s construction, a ship-shape interior requires minimal work.
SSD prices have plummeted in recent months, but they’re still too rich for our blood. Instead, we tapped Seagate’s superfast 1.5TB Barracuda 7200.11 for storage duties. It’s damn-near as fast as a 10K VelociRaptor, and with 1.5TB of space, you’d be downloading for months before you could fill it.
Windows 7 is like a new topical cream: It will ease the burning and itching sensation that PC users have suffered with Windows Vista and at the same time make it easy to crow about how the PC is better than the Mac once again.
|CPU||Intel 2.66GHz Core i7-920||$280||intel.com|
|RAM||Patriot 6GB Viper DDR3/1600||$79||patriotmemory.com
|Videocard||Diamond Radeon HD 4870 X2||$389||diamondmm.com|
|Hard Drive||Seagate 1.5TB 7200.11 Barracuda||$130
|Thermalright Ultra 120E-1366||$70||thermalright.com|
|Thermaltake Element S||$120||thermaltakeusa.com|
|Windows 7 Ultimate RC1||$0||microsoft.com|
Usually, we outfit our annual Dream Machine with more than just the fastest PC hardware the world has ever seen. Oh yes, usually the Dream Machine is pimped out with luxuries like a fancy paint job and rich Corinthian leather. This year, we made our challenge harder by stripping out all the excess, leaving just the lean ‘n’ mean hardware to send the message that this is a take-no-prisoners PC.
And it does that loud and clear. The Stimulus Package—named for the effect purchasing it has on the local economy and not the way the government spends your tax dollars—is an all-workflows powerhouse.
Asus’s P6T Deluxe V2 is the follow-up to the company’s enthusiast X58 board and supports up to 24GB of RAM at up to 2GHz and does away with the much-maligned SAS controller that was in the original board. It’s also a bit cheaper than the original and has a great reputation as a solid overclocking board.
Clearly, the most luxurious item we put in our top-tier rig is Intel’s new 3.33GHz Core i7-975 Extreme Edition. At $999, it may seem like eating caviar while using the bill collector’s notice as a plate, but it does give you more Turbo Mode control, an unlocked multiplier, and the enhanced overclockability that’s characteristic of Intel’s new D0 step of the core. We cranked ours to a cool 4GHz on air cooling alone.
That’s no moon, it’s Thermalright’s Ultra 120E-1366 cooler with an optional second fan clipped to it. Yeah, it all but eclipses everything on our motherboard, but it’s actually a somewhat quiet and very effective cooler. Running our proc at a conservative 4GHz, we hammered the CPU overnight with Prime95 and didn’t see one hiccup.
EVGA’s GeForce GTX 285 cards are the fastest single-GPU cards available. Period. We tapped two of them in SLI for truly kick-ass performance in all games at high resolutions.
It’s amazing that PC Power and Cooling’s Silencer 910 approaches the kilowatt range without the noise usually associated with 1K units. The unit is, of course, a single-rail design with up to 74 amps on the all-important 12-volt rail. What the specs don’t show you is the PSU’s heritage of reliability. While other brands have experienced failures in long-term use, we’ve never had a PC Power and Cooling unit give up the ghost.
The vast number of people will watch Blu-ray movies yet never need to burn a Blu-ray disc. LG’s GGC-H20L gives us Blu-ray ROM support and acts as a 16x DVD and 40x CD-R burner, as well. This combo drive even reads HD-DVD discs, for those folks who need that kind of thing.
Spending $200 on a case may seem extravagant until you consider how much life you’ll get out of it. When the Core i7 and GTX 295 cards have been jettisoned as scrap in five years, you’ll still be using this Cooler Masters ATCS 840. In 10 years, when you’ve had to replace your car, you’ll still be using this case.
Corsair’s P256 SSD gives you the best of both worlds: With its 256GB of storage, it’s actually large enough to use as a primary drive while still being blazingly fast. With read speeds greater than 200MB/s and write speeds in the 150MB/s range, you’ll wonder how you could ever go back to an HDD as your boot partition. Of course, 256GB isn’t enough capacity for us, so we pair the SSD with a fast 1.5GB Seagate Barracuda drive.
Think of Windows 7 as a hybrid OS: It has the performance feel of Windows XP and the bling of Windows Vista. When pitting our troika of Dream Machines against our zero-point PC, we were stunned by the performance differences between our Windows Vista 64-bit zero-point and the three rigs running Windows 7. Just installing Windows 7 on the zero-point gave it a significant performance boost.
|CPU||Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition||$999||intel.com|
|Motherboard||Asus P6T Deluxe 2.0||$280
|RAM||Corsair Dominator 1600 C8||$166||corsair.com|
|Videocard||EVGA GeForce GTX 285||$700||evga.com|
|Solid State Drive||Corsair P256||$700||corsair.com|
|Hard Drive||Seagate 1.5TB 7200.11 Barracuda||$130
|Thermalright Ultra 120E-1366||$70||thermalright.com|
|PSU||PC Power & Cooling Silencer 910||$185
|Cooler Master ATCS 840||$195||coolermaster.com|
|Windows 7 Ultimate RC1||$0||microsoft.com|
Read on for the benchmarks!
As a point of comparison, we ran all three Dream Machines against our current zero-point test bed. The zero point is admittedly elderly, but it’s actually still faster than 90 percent of people’s PCs, with its 2.66GHz Core 2 Quad Q6700, SLI GeForce 8800 GTX cards, 4GB of DDR2/800, and Western Digital 150GB Raptor. It was probably about $2,000 in hardware when new and today it still couldn’t be built for less than $1,100.
You shouldn’t expect miracles, but it’s truly amazing the amount of horsepower you can get for $700 today. As we said previously, the tri-core will thrash dual-cores, but even overclocked, three of a kind can’t beat four of a kind when you’re dealing with multithreaded apps. Thus, even at 3.6GHz, the tri gets a little drubbed by the quad-core 2.66GHz zero-point box. And even though they’re older, two GeForce 8800 GTX cards in SLI are faster than one newer card. Still, you have to consider that the $700 rig is about 30 percent cheaper than even the depreciated value of our zero-point system. We call that a win.
This is truly the everyman’s machine. For a tad more than $1,400, you get one hell of a fast box. It helps that we pushed our ultra-budget 2.66GHz Core i7-920 to a conservative 3.66GHz. Should we have gone further? Yes, we could have squeaked a little bit more out of it, but we decided stability was more important than it working most of the time. And this still lets our Budget Surplus box run circles around our zero-point and our Recession Special—and frankly, it will make a lot of people wonder if it’s worth even stepping up to the Stimulus Package. The Budget Surplus’s weak point is in high-resolution DirectX 10 gaming. As good as the 4870 X2 is, it’s still a year-old card. Of course, might you not combine portions of the Stimulus Package with the Budget Surplus to make the best compromise of performance and power? Something to think about.
The Stimulus Package was not built without controversy. Would it not make sense, for example, to just use the i7-920 CPU and pocket the cash? You could say the same of the Corsair P256 SSD, one of the GeForce GTX 295 cards, and the Cooler Master 840 case, too, for that matter. Eventually, you can whittle the machine down to the point where it won’t stimulate anything.
In the end, even in down times, some people want the ultimate performance and the Stimulus Package does that for just $3,500. That gets you the fastest rig of the pack and rock-solid stability at a conservative 4GHz. All machines here were stress-tested, but the Stimulus Package was stress-tested the most—and it came out with flying colors.
|Zero Point||Recession Special||Budget Surplus||Stimulus Package|
|Unreal Tournament 3 (fps)||106||111||198||263|
|Photoshop CS3 (sec)||143||150||94||81|
|Premiere Pro CS3 (sec)||1026||1103||496||438|
We’ve come a hell of a long way since the days when you had to set 15 jumpers and cross your fingers in hopes that your newly built PC would actually run. Today, anyone short of a klutz can build an incredibly powerful PC and have it boot on the first throw of the switch.
For our build-it how-to, we used the Stimulus Package PC from our triumvirate of Dream Machines to illustrate how anyone can construct their own rig. As always, you should read through all of the steps before starting your build and research any questions about the process that arise—but you certainly shouldn’t feel daunted by the task. Even the most elite of our machines can be built in an hour or two, even if you’re going at a very leisurely pace.
To get started, gather up all the parts you’ll need (pictured above) and set up your work area in a static-free environment. Before you touch any electrically sensitive components, you should discharge built-up static electricity by touching the case or another large metal object. For tools, you can get by with a basic Phillips screwdriver and a pair of pliers, but that’s about all you need to build your very own dream PC.
So, let’s get cracking!
Not all cases feature removable motherboard trays, but when they do, it can make your life far easier. We start by unfastening the four screws holding our mobo tray in place. It’s important to make sure there will be adequate clearance once your uber-big heatsink is in place. Some heatsinks are so tall that they prevent you from reinstalling the tray in the case. Fortunately, the Cooler Master ATCS 840 has a massive cavity that accommodates just about anything.
Remove your mobo from its packaging and take a quick look at where it mounts to the case. Now add a mount in the tray for each mounting point on your motherboard (image A). Make sure you tighten the mounts in the tray enough so they don’t back out when it comes time to remove the motherboard in the future.
The I/O shield prevents your kids from jamming Cheerios into the case. You can hammer it in place with the back of a screwdriver (image B). This shield doesn’t have the cheap metal fingers that can poke into the network ports, but if yours does, bend the fingers inward and upward as far as they can go. Once the I/O shield is in, drop the board in place and screw it down. Remember, if you screwed nine mounts into your tray, you need to use nine screws to hold the board down. If you only have eight places for screws, you messed up. Remove the board and try again.
With the board in place, you’re now ready to drop in your new Core i7 CPU. Simply unlock the locking arm and swing it out of the way. This will let you lift the metal load plate (image A). Now gently remove the plastic plate that protects the delicate pins of the processor socket (image B). Do not ever touch these with your fingers or any object as you may bend a pin and then it would be adios, muchacho. Next, remove the plastic plate on the CPU that protects the round contact points and then carefully use two fingers to hold the processor parallel to the socket and slowly lower the proc in place (image C). Do not drop one side in and slide the CPU around in the socket—this will kill your motherboard. With the CPU in the socket, lower the load plate and lock the arm in place.
First, prep the massive Thermalright Ultra-120 by inserting the correct LGA1366 bracket in the base of the heatsink. The arms of this X-shaped bracket can be adjusted to match the backing plate that will go on the underside of the mobo. Now add a large-BB-size gob of thermal paste to the CPU’s center (image A). We prefer Dow Corning’s TC-5600 paste, as it’s been known to give us about a five degree Celsius shift from the stock paste. You can be ultra careful and spread the paste evenly all over the CPU surface using a plastic bag, but we’ve been hearing from PC builders that the lazy-man’s large-BB-size gob in the middle of the proc may actually yield better results with Core i7, where flex in the socket design can produce a gap in the center, which is thus filled by the gob.
Now, flip the mobo tray on its side and place the cooler’s backing plate on the back of the motherboard (image B). With one hand holding the backing plate in place, flip the tray back down so it’s hanging partially off the table, allowing you to continue to hold the backing plate in place. It’s tricky, but you must now place the heatsink with the X-shaped bracket in place (image C). Take one of the spring screws and hand-tightenit, connecting the bracket to the backing plate. Once you have one screw in, you can let go of the backing plate, as the single screw will hold it mostly in place. Now install the other three screws by hand. Once they’re in, use a screwdriver to tighten the screws until each bottoms out (image D).
We sandwiched two fans on our Thermalright. Install each by simply sliding the fingers of the fan bracket along the same axis as the heatsink blades (image E). Make sure both fans are blowing air in the same direction. Now plug in both fans. Note: Many high-end fans use only three-pin connectors for power. These are compatible with the four-pin PWM connectors except that one pin is not used (image F).
Core i7 features a tri-channel memory mode that requires the RAM to be installed in three individual memory channels. For this mobo, it’s the orange slots (image A). Unlike with previous Intel or AMD CPUs, you want to populate the set of slots farthest from the CPU. Fail to do this and the PC may not boot. Before you install the RAM, spread the arms of the memory slots. Now, line up the notch in the RAM with the notch in the slot. Carefully insert the RAM directly into each slot and put slight pressure on the outer ends until it locks into place (image B). If it isn’t locking into place, you may have it in backwards. Recheck the notch so that it matches and slide the RAM in again. Do this for all three pieces of RAM. When you’re done, snap closed the unused arms for the empty slots.
Now, grab one of your graphics cards. Since they’re both the same, it doesn’t matter which one. Line it up horizontally above the first x16 PCI Express slot in the system, then carefully insert it. The card should lock into place. If it doesn’t, remove the card by pressing the card release and try reinserting it. We’ve seen people install cards and somehow have the contacts on the outside of the slot, so make sure the card is properly in place. Screw the card in place with two screws. One will suffice, but you should use two if you plan to transport the machine. We’ll install the second card a bit later.
You’re now ready to slide the motherboard tray assembly into place and screw it down. Again, you can see the advantage of using a case that features a removable tray.
If you’re wondering why we didn’t have you install the second GPU when the tray was outside of the case, it’s because it would have blocked your access to the USB and FireWire headers. So, with easy access to the headers, carefully plug in the USB and FireWire connectors that hook up to the front of your case (image A). Generally, they are keyed so they cannot be plugged in backwards. If your case has the old-fashioned individual connectors, you’ll need to get out the motherboard manual and follow the map to plug each tiny one in place.
Now is also a good time to plug in the front-panel eSATA connector, as well as the three loose SATA cables for the hard drive, optical drive, and SSD. These don’t have to be plugged into the drives yet, but it is easier to plug them into the board before you install the second GPU. Finally, you should hunt through your motherboard box for the quick-connect block. This lets you plug in your power and reset switch as well as the hard drive and power LED to the block, which then connects to the motherboard’s front-panel connectors (image B). You don’t have to use the block, but it makes it easier if you have to pull out the motherboard tray—you won’t have to worry about rewiring the front-panel connectors.
Most modern performance boards will have multiple PCI-E slots. For SLI, however, you’ll need to use the very top long x16 PCI-E slot and the very bottom black PCI-E slot. Install the second videocard as you did the first one and screw it in place. Now grab the SLI bridge connector that should have come with your motherboard. There are two pairs of connectors on the cards—you’ll use only one for standard SLI. You can plug into either set. Simply line the bridge up over the slots and gently but firmly push the bridge in place. Voila! You’ve got SLI going now.
Our fast and fat Corsair SSD unfortunately does not fit into the standard 3.5-inch drive slots, so we dropped it into an aluminum shell scavenged from the lab. If you don’t have that luxury, the typical (albeit ugly) 2.5-to-3.5-inch converter
from Frozencpu.com will set you back about $8 (http://frozencpu.com/products/8898...).
We simply mounted the 256GB Corsair drive in the VelociRaptor tray (image A), put that into one of the case’s drive trays, and inserted it into the case. We did the same with our 1.5GB Seagate Barracuda drive, carefully spreading the tray apart and placing the drive in it. Again, insert the drive tray back into the Cooler Master case with the black locking arm open (image B). Push the tray in and lock the arm in place.
To install the optical drive in the Cooler Master, find a spot where you want the drive to reside. Since our case will be under a desk, we opted for the uppermost slot. Now, push the button located alongside the drive bay to unlock the bay, and slide your drive in until the front of the drive is flush with the front of the case (image C). Press the button again and the drive should be locked in place. Try to push the drive out of the case from the back; it should not move. If the drive continues to slide around, push the button again to lock it in place and then check the drive for movement again. Now, take the three SATA cables you previously plugged into the motherboard and hook up the SSD, HDD, and optical drive. The actual SATA port will not matter as all three are on the same controller.
The last part we’re going to install is the PC Power and Cooling Silencer 910. Installation has not changed; simply put the PSU in the case and screw it down in back (image A). With the PSU secured, it’s time to plug in your power cords. For this particular configuration, you’ll need to plug in the large 24-pin main power connector (image B), the supplemental eight-pin ATX12V/EPS connector, plus all six-pin GPU plugs as well as power to the HDD, SSD, and optical drive. All of the connectors are keyed to prevent reverse insertion, so long as you don’t force it. The motherboard power should lock into place. A very common cause of a failure-to-boot is neglecting to plug in the ATX12V/EPS plug. A loose main power connector can also lead to flaky boots. Your final step is to connect the case’s auxiliary fans to the proper Molexes on the PSU.
Congratulations, you’ve just built your very first Core i7 computer! Wasn’t that easy?
So, your new system won’t start or you don’t get an image on the monitor? Here are the most common failure points we’ve run into, from easy to hard: