AMD Platform

Starting 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)
Total: $412

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
Hardware Component Price
Processor Athlon 64 3000+ Venice Retail 119
Processor Athlon 64 3500+ Venice OEM 161
Processor Athlon 64 3700+ San Diego OEM 192
Motherboard EPoX EP-9NPA+Ultra 91

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  • Griswold - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - link

    Shouldnt always go for the bigger number at a similar price. There are more important numbers with PSUs than the absolute wattage.
  • KorruptioN - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - link

    Even though it's only rated at 400W overall (yes, wattage is not the best indicator of overall output), it can do 30A on the +12V output alone (360W divided by 12V), which is a good amount for a non-SLI configuration. Even two 7600GTs wouldn't be enough to push this power supply past it's limits. I think it is a good all-around choice.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - link

    I've got a system very similar to this, only with a 7800 GTX, an overclocked X2 3800+, and two 250GB hard drives... all running off a Thermaltake 410W PSU. Maximum power draw hits about 315W - and that's not even counting for PSU efficiency (i.e. that's measuring at the outlet).

    I mentioned several alternative PSUs that people can consider. Why do I like modular units? Sleeved cables, reduced cable clutter, and for an extra $15 I'm willing to go that route. Opinions vary, naturally - this guide is basically my opinion, after all.
  • IntelUser2000 - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - link


    We fully expect Core Duo 2 to outperform anything else Intel currently offers, potentially by as much as 35% for the same price CPU.

    Sure about that. Only 35%?? I think 35% will be the absolute minimum over Netburst in Netburst optimized apps.
  • peternelson - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - link

    Difficult to make comparisons of "same price" netburst cpu, because Intel roadmap will make FURTHER REDUCTIONS in price of 930,940,950 after Core Duo 2 launches through November.

    950 probably isn't going to compete with the new chips on total performance, but may not be that bad in bang for buck in comparison.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, May 9, 2006 - link

    Rough estimate, and it could be more or less depending on benchmarks. Core Duo T2300 costs a bit more than Pentium D 930. Looking at *stock* performance, AutoGK encoding for example should be around 55 FPS for the 930, while the T2400 get 44 FPS. Even with a 25% boost in performance, the Core Duo 2 $210 CPU is probably going to about equal PD 930.

    The flipped side is that some benches (games especially) will be more than 35%. PD 920 at 2.8 GHz maxes out at 63 FPS in BF2, roughly. (Doesn't matter about resolution - 800x600 still gets ~63 FPS.) Gary got 83 FPS with T2400 at stock, and 112 at 2.8 GHz. If CD2 gives another 25%... we're looking at maybe 104 FPS for a 1.83 GHz Core Duo 2. Assuming such a chip costs $210, it's got a 65% performance advantage. :)

    Anyway, I'll tweak the text slightly.

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