Core i7 System Buyers Guide

by Wesley Fink on February 5, 2009 3:00 AM EST


When the System Buyers Guide: $1000 to $2000 was published a few weeks ago it was obvious the last system guide in the series should be the High End Buyers Guides for systems above $2000. It was our full intention at that point to present both AMD and Intel systems for our High-End Buyers Guide, but an AnandTech meeting with all the editors quickly changed that idea. It was the consensus that as of today there is only one CPU at the top of the performance heap, and that CPU is the Intel Core i7.

With the introduction of the Phenom II, AMD now has a legitimate competitor to Intel Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad systems. The recent price cuts by both Intel and AMD in that market segment just reinforced the fact that Phenom II competes very well with Intel Penryn. Perhaps with higher speeds Phenom II processors might make the High-End Buyers Guide in the future, but as of today the Intel Core i7 owns the high-end of the CPU market.

With that reality in mind, it seemed almost pointless to publish a high-end system guide that just presented a dream Core i7 system. It is also clear to us that, despite the fact that Phenom II does not compete well at the very top, it is still a significant achievement for AMD and the processor market, and it deserves better than to be ignored.

Therefore you will see two specialty guides in the next few weeks. This guide will concentrate on Intel Core i7 systems. After some announcements by AMD, we will also be posting a guide for Phenom II systems. While Core i7 and Phenom II now cover different market segments and different price points, they both are significant CPUs in their own right and both deserve a spotlight on CPU compatibility and getting the most from each CPU. Core i7 and Phenom II are where the action and interest are in today's computer market, and the guides will try to provide help in selecting components for your new Core i7 or Phenom II system.

This Core i7 Buyers Guide looks at three different i7 builds that you might consider. The Core i7 is high on the performance tree but it is also expensive compared to other solutions. Not everyone can afford the $2000 Core i7 system presented in the $1000 to $2000 Buyers Guide. For builders who want an i7 system for as little money as possible we put together a Core i7 Entry system. The goal is simple: build a competent i7 system for as little money as possible. We managed to cut more that 25% from our last Core i7 system price without significant compromises.

Another typical buyer is attracted to the Core i7 because of the tremendous overclocking potential of the processor. As seen in Overclocking Core i7 and other Core i7 articles, the 2.66GHz 920 can reach 3.6GHz to 4GHz with proper air cooling. That is faster than the stock speed available even with the $1000 Core i7 965. The goal of the Core i7 Overclocking System build is a system that provides the flexibility and components to maximize overclocking. The slant is to the value end of overclocking - overclocking to increase value - rather than the absolute highest performance options. However, we do make some recommendations for those who overclock strictly for performance.

Finally, there is the Core i7 High-End System. The goal is to select the best performing components available, and not just the most expensive. The very high end of any system in the computer industry will rarely yield the best bang for the buck. Squeezing the last bit of performance from a component usually means spending a great deal more money than buying the component that delivers the best performance for the dollar. However, luxury and top performance sell well, and these components are still the stuff that computer dreams are made of. Our Dream Core i7 system reaches around $5000, and frankly we could have extended the cost much further by expanding storage and selecting a RAID 5 controller and drive array. Still, the components in the High-End Guide should be food for thought as you select your own Core i7 System.

Core i7 Entry
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  • Wesley Fink - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    The $1000 to $2000 Guide was published 1/12/2009. At that point the best ATI drivers with the Core i7 were a special beta set of 8.12 drivers. On 1/29/2009 ATI released the 9.1 drivers, which are much better with the ATI cards on the Core i7 than earlier drivers.

    Our issues before were the ATI drivers and not the cards. We explained in today's guide that the ATI drivers were headed in the right direction and we could no longer ignore the better value of the 4870 1GB.
  • cajones - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    So three weeks ago in the $1000-$2000 buyers guide, it was stated to stay away from the ATI cards on X58 systems due to problems. So last night I bought a system with a Nvidia GTX 260 (55nm). Now I see the board of choice with X58 in this guide is the 4870! What changed?
  • Gary Key - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    I run the GTX260 216 in my personal systems even though I have a couple of HD 4870s laying on the floor right now that I purchased for our Phenom II comparison articles. If it were not for the recent price drop and improvement in drivers, I would not have even considered the HD 4870 1GB as an option. However, all of us on the staff agree it must be seriously considered now. At the same time, we all agree the GTX260 216 is still a great card, just the cost/benefits ratio has changed significantly this last week. The short story is that you cannot go wrong with either card. :)
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    Newer drivers have helped, but honestly you don't have to feel bad about the GTX 260 - it's really something of a toss-up. I have a 4870X2, but honestly I wish I had waiting for the GTX 295 instead. CrossFire still doesn't live up to its potential in games more often than not, and without profiles you're stuck waiting for hacks or new drivers - usually 2-3 months after a game is released, unless it's a major title like Far Cry 2. Funny enough, Fallout 3 seems a major title and it still isn't properly CF enabled.
  • shatteredstone - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    You mention that the ASUS P6T6 Revolution (btw, there is a typo in the article (P5T6)) would be the optimal board for Triple-SLI. As somebody who is seriously considering going that route in the near future, I will have to disagree.

    With three two-slot graphics cards, you will be constrained to using onboard-audio -- all 6 slots are used/unusable, and there is no 1-lane PCIe slot to accomodate the audio solution. The Asus II Rampage Extreme supports triple-SLI as well, but actually offers such a slot (it comes with their custom X-Fi, but you can use a Titanium or the recommended card here as well -- although you may have to remove 3-4 fins from one of the passive chipset coolers; if you are going to go with watercooling, this is naturally not a problem).

    Furthermore, "fastest triple-SLI setup possible" should be taken with a grain of salt. It is true that the 3 PCIe slots will all be x16, but that does not necessarily make this the fastest possible solution. Two of those three slots will terminate in the NF200, which will combine those 32 lanes to 16 which can actually reach the CPU (and therefore main memory); furthermore, only the communication between the two cards terminating in the nf200 will actually be able to communicate with eachother at x16 bandwidth; connectivity with the third card will still be constrained by the single x16-connection from the NF200 to the X58.
    In essence this means that this setup will only really have benefits if your application is constrained by two of the three cards talking to eachother. Available bandwidth to memory remains about the same (assuming you actually utilize the cards in parallel, otherwise you really don't need three of em on there anyway). I would also not be surprised if the NF200 introduces some latency into the whole thing, and I would be thoroughly surprised if you could see the difference in today's GPU-killer games (Crysis, say).

    One other nitpick would be the choice of Vista Ultimate OEM instead of Vista Ultimate FPP. Since this is the dream system, it may see a lot of tinkering over the years; I am not 100% current on the US-American license terms for Vista Ultimate, though from what I understand, your OEM version will be tied to that one computer (or whatever Microsoft may deem that to mean), while you can legally transfer the FPP from one computer to another (though you might have to call them to get it activated, anyway).

    One other nitpick : in the article, you link to the p6t6 on newegg (as well as one or two other things). I did not look at the link before opening it in the background, so it was quite counterintuitive to find it bringin me to NewEgg instead of a review or content on Anandtech (especially since most of the other components are /not/ linked that way, and there is no indication of this link actually just directing you to a store).

    Thanks for the guide; My dream system is close (currently thinking of the rampage ii extreme instead of the p6t6, even though I really couldn't care less about those onboard buttons and LEDs; probably some higher speed memory (if it is at all available; the nice-looking ocz blade 2kmhz/cl7 kits look lovely on paper but probably will never ever reach the retail channel), water cooling for most of this stuff (been meaning to play with that for a while), gtx285 instead of 295 (the memory does it for me), and some as-yet undecided storage decisions.
  • Gary Key - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    If you want to run triple SLI and retain a half slot (without mods), then the Rampage Extreme II is a better choice or the upcoming EVGA Classified. Personally I would never run triple SLI for any reason except trying to get a good 3DMark. Even then you would need LN2 and a hand picked i7 from Intel to have a possibility in being near the top of the Orb. 3 way-SLI is just not worth the hassle and cost, same goes for tri-Crossfire.

    I suggested this board to Wes since it is now rock solid. I prefer workstation level quality in my main home system and this board offers it. It took a few BIOS releases to get there, but this board does offer the ability to overclock with lower voltage, VTT, and VDimm rates than the other boards we have tested, with the exception of the DFI UT board in the overclocking section.

    Yes, the NF200 on-board does not guarantee "the fastest SLI" setup possible, but it does not hurt that much either and you know this board will never have any driver or BIOS incompatibilities with SLI. It is just another assurance that you pay for going this route.

    Overall, I think Wes went with this board in the Dream System more for the quality and features of the board than worrying about gaming or pure overclocking performance. If you wanted to save some money, there are other options like the ASUS P6T Deluxe, Gigabyte UD5, or the EVGA X58 SLI for feature rich boards that over a great overclocking experience.

    If overclocking is not at the top of your list, the MSI Eclipse X58 has turned into a really balanced board as of late. Down the ladder there is the Asus P6T, DFI DK X58, and MSI Platinum SLI that still offer SLI and very good quality/performance metrics.
  • Wesley Fink - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    Unfortunately spelling and grammar checks do not catch incorrect model numbers. We got it right 3 of the 4 times and the incorrect 4th reference is now corrected.

    Gary Key is our Motherboard Editor and he very passionate about the P6T6 WS Revolution. I have linked him to your comment.
  • tretchie - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    I don't think the LG GGW-H20LK mentioned in this article can burn 50GB BD-RE discs as claimed by the author. I think it is limited to 25GB BD-RE discs. Can someone in the know comment on this?
  • Wesley Fink - Monday, February 9, 2009 - link

    The LG burner supports writing double-layer (50GB) Blu-Ray disks. I have burned a 50GB with the LG in my own system.
  • iregulate - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    I can verify that it does burn DL BD-RE discs.

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