Pre-AM2 Mid-Range Buyers' Guide, May 2006by Jarred Walton on May 9, 2006 6:30 AM EST
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AMD PlatformStarting with AMD, we immediately get to the most difficult part of the selection process. There are many good processors and motherboards on the market right now, and choosing one of each and calling it the "best" is not possible. Let me tell you my philosophy. Right now, for any computer that costs over $1000, I am going to be extremely hesitant about purchasing anything other than a dual core processor. That's based off of the way I use my computer: while I run plenty of tasks (e.g. games) that won't take advantage of the second core, I also run many tasks at the same time. Multitasking will inherently benefit from multi-core processors, and the overall experience is improved enough that I'm willing to spend an extra $150 for this upgrade. If all you ever do is play games, for the time being you can get by with a single core processor, and putting the extra money into a faster graphics card will improve the overall gaming performance more.
The second factor that needs to be considered is overclocking. In terms of the CPU, this isn't a major consideration, since almost all AMD chips currently overclock to around 2.6 GHz or more; overclocking considerations have a major impact on your choice of motherboard, however. If you don't intend to overclock at all, most motherboards will be fine. Your primary concern should be the features offered - do you want FireWire, RAID, high-definition audio, multiple graphics card support, etc.? Those of you who are interested in running multiple graphics cards will also need to decide between SLI and CrossFire platforms. Personally, I like to overclock, because it's entirely possible to get one of the cheapest processors and come close to matching the fastest processors on the market. A $300 X2 3800+ overclocked to 2.6 GHz is only about 5% slower on average than a $1000 FX-60. It will require more effort to reach that level of performance, but I'm willing to put forth the effort. Here then are our selections for the base AMD platform.
|Click to enlarge|
AMD Motherboard: DFI nForce4 SLI Infinity
Price: $115 shipped (Retail)
AMD CPU: Athlon 64 X2 3800+ 2x512K 2.0GHz (939) - Retail
Price: $297 shipped (Retail)
That takes care of more than one fourth of the allocated budget for our midrange AMD system. However, you get a lot of performance for the price. The motherboard comes with all the standard features (SATA2, IDE, USB 2.0) as well as FireWire support. It also happens to overclock reasonably well - perhaps not quite as well is something like a DFI LANParty or ASUS A8N32 SLI Deluxe, but close enough for the needs of the price/performance conscious overclocker. It also sports two X16 slots (with X8 bandwidth in SLI mode), so of course you have the potential to run SLI, but for the midrange sector we're not going to go with dual GPUs. About the only caution we have to give in regards to the motherboard is something that we generally say with most motherboards: plan on manually specifying your RAM timings. The vast majority of "memory incompatibilities" that we encountered have been caused by people running "auto" timings and expecting everything to work fine - or even worse, they load the "optimized" BIOS settings with value memory and wonder why the system doesn't run. If you buy 2.5-3-3-8 memory, we strongly recommend setting the timings manually to those values - though of course you can try "overclocking" the memory to faster timings.
What about alternatives? On the motherboard, there are literally dozens of reasonable candidates. You can choose to go with a CrossFire motherboard if you prefer ATI chipsets, or you can forget about multiple X16 slots and downgrade to something like the nForce4 Ultra chipset. EPoX, MSI, ASUS, DFI, and quite a few other manufacturers are reasonable choices. For maximum overclocking, especially on the lower cost motherboards, we recommend sticking with DFI or EPoX. Many other brands will top out at around 250 MHz HyperTransport bus speeds, which is pretty average for current AMD motherboards. On the processor side, single core chips like the 3000+, 3200+, 3500+, and 3700+ are all potential candidates. You can also go with one of the Opteron models, including the dual core 165. We would stick with lower cost processors for overclocking, but if you don't want to overclock you can basically throw as much money as you want at the CPU. We did put together a list of a few reasonable alternatives, which you can find below.
|AMD 939 Alternatives|
|Processor||Athlon 64 3000+ Venice Retail||119|
|Processor||Athlon 64 3500+ Venice OEM||161|
|Processor||Athlon 64 3700+ San Diego OEM||192|
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Spacecomber - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - linkThanks for putting up an update to your buyer's guides. I always read these with interest to get other people's insights into what they think are the most useful criteria for selecting the best components to get the job done at a good price.
For me, trying to sort through whose LCD monitors really offer the most in a given price range, such as the $290 to $300 range, continues to be one of the most frustrating areas of selecting components. The fact that manufacturers of LCDs seem to have no compunction about making up whatever technical specifications they think will best help them sell their products is maddening. Perhaps someone will eventually nail them with a class-action lawsuit similar to the one that got everyone to specify the difference between CRT tube sizes and viewable sizes.
Anyway, with regard to your recommendations, I'm skeptical that any of these LCDs, except the 24 inch Acer, are actually true 16.7 million color LCDs. As you said, it's easy to get to hung up on one specification, but all these LCDs, with the exception of the Acer AL2416W, appear to be using TN based panels. This means that in addition to them most likely really only being 6-bit + 2-bit with dithering panels, they suffer from the narrowed viewing angles that is the TN panel's other main weakness. Fortunately, while most manufacturers seem to have little problem with declaring all their LCDs to be 16.7 million color monitors, many continue to still be a little more honest about the viewing angles (though even these are often fudged, as well). The viewing angles on the monitors you listed are what seem to give away the true nature of these displays. They are relatively narrow, and they show smaller angles for the vertical compared to their horizontal angles, which as far as I know is very charecteristic of TN panels.
Anyway, my only point is that the more information you can dig up and provide us about what's what with LCD panels the better. This continues to be one area of computer hardware where facts and reviews are skant and hard to find.
KorruptioN - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - linkThat BenQ FP202W 20" really is a TN panel. Some say it is a full 8-bit panel (16.7M) instead of a 6-bit panel (16.2M). I don't really know for sure. If it is indeed 8-bits, then I don't think I would hesitate to recommend it (for that price with rebate), even with the slightly restrictive viewing angles.
That said, I would recommend people spend a little bit more and get the Viewsonic VX2025WM. It is a full 8-bit P-MVA panel from AU Optronics and offers the best of both worlds (response time, viewing angles, and colour depth). It can be had for just under $350. It has the height adjustment too.
kmmatney - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - linkThe BenQ web site always lists the correct number of colors a monitor supports. In this case the web site lists 16.7 million colors, so its an 8-bit display. Its also a TN panel, so viewing angle will not be as good as an MVA panel.
Here's a review, though:
My experience with BenQ's is that it takes some fiddling to get the colors right, but they are very nice after that. They are not so good out-of-the-box.
Spacecomber - Wednesday, May 10, 2006 - linkWell, you might be right, but I remain skeptical about the BenQ FP202W being a 16.7 million color monitor. It seems like it would be big news if someone was successfully manufacturing TN panels with that many true colors.
www.flatpanels.dk seems to think that this monitor is using a Chungwa panel (CPT CLAA201WA01) and that this panel is also found in the Acer AL2017. Acer lists their panel as supporting 16.2 million colors, typical for how 6-bit plus dithering panels are described.
Again, this just seems to emphasize how hard it is to get factual information that you can rely on when it comes to LCD monitors.
JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 10, 2006 - linkI've got the 19" 2ms and the 20" 8ms both setup right now, and I couldn't tell you (with my eyes) whether they're 6-bit or 8-bit. I need better eyes, I guess (which is actually true). I've edited the display text slightly if you want to check it out.
JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 10, 2006 - linkFull reviews (with empirical data, rather than just using my eyeballs) will be coming soon.
Spacecomber - Wednesday, May 10, 2006 - linkI look forward to those. With so much of the cost of a system potentially going into these monitors, not to mention their expected useful lifespan, more LCD monitor reviews will definitely be welcome.
The trick will be how to go about getting those facts and then figuring out what they really mean. I know that ranslating numbers into users' experiences is easier said than done.
I'm sure that one of the reasons that there aren't very many in depth reviews of LCDs available is because this is such a difficult piece of hardware to get a good, analytic handle on.
kmmatney - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - linkI meant to put in a few more reviews:
There is a review out there that compared the BenQ against a few other LCDs inlcuding the ViewSonic 20" widescreen, and the ViewSonic was deemed the better LCD.
punko - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - linkThanks for the Guide, Jarred.
I guess sometimes its worth whining!
Yawgm0th - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - linkI can't quite understand the recommendation of a 400W Eneremax power supply. There are more powerful modular power supplies in the same price range, with some being cheaper, even the ones from reputable brand names. There are even better PSUs in the same price range without modular cabling. A modular PSU is hardly a necessity for a mid-range computer, but a good power supply is. Enermax makes some great PSUs, but I wouldn't want to try using a 400W in a system like this, especially when there are good 500W power supplies in the same price range.