Welcome to the second part of our Holiday 2010 shopping guides. We started with a look at notebooks, in part because they're a popular item but mostly because Dustin just happened to be quicker to the draw when it was time to put together a shopping guide. While notebook and laptop sales continue to grow and now account for more units than desktops, every one of the editors at AnandTech still packs a desktop (or two or three or...) for those times when performance and screen size take priority over portability.

For this guide, we're taking a break from our traditional buyers' guides and giving each editor a chance to put together a system that they would recommend. There's definitely some overlap in taste and intended use, though, so we also broke things down into broad categories to make sure we had representatives for each market. From pure budget builds through the midrange and up to the high-end, we'll provide options. We'll also have a couple different takes on HTPC and a discussion of overclocking. While we won't be able to dedicate lengthy portions of the article to each specific component, you can also consider the individual parts as recommended upgrades/purchases in their own right.

Before we get to the guides, we do want to take a minute to discuss the market as a whole. We've said in the past that the right time to build is whenever you feel your current system isn't meeting your needs/wants. If you happen to be in that situation, then normally we'd say go ahead and spec out a new system and take the plunge. Waiting for the Next Big Thing™ can be an exercise in futility, as new parts are always just around the corner—new processors, chipsets, sockets, graphics cards, SSDs, etc. And the fact is, you can still put together a great system right now that will continue to be great in three months, even if something faster comes along.

We're reaching the stage where even PCs that are several years old (yeah, ancient!) are still more than fast enough for 95% of users. That old Core 2 Duo E6600 plugging along at 2.4GHz may not stand up well to the latest desktops in raw performance, but come on: it can still run circles around most laptops, it can handle HD YouTube content, and with an appropriate graphics card it can even manage medium to high detail games! [Jarred: Yes, I've got just such a PC in my living room pulling duty as an HTPC, never mind the old single-core Athlon 64 3800+ running in my eight-years-old daughter's computer!] So sure, new parts are just around the corner once again, but a good PC today will continue to be plenty fast for a couple years at least.

All that said, we do need to take a moment to name drop: Sandy Bridge. Our early testing shows it to be around 25% faster than the currently shipping parts, especially Lynnfield and Clarkdale. It will have better multi-threaded and single-threaded performance, and while idle power may not change much the load power consumption should drop quite a bit. Anand measured 121W for the entire system under load with an i5 2400 (3.1GHz), and that's 8% less power while being 23% faster than the i5-760 it replaces. If that pattern holds up, we're looking at overall performance per watt going up by almost 35%. To make matters worse, Sandy Bridge will also usher in a new socket, chipset, and motherboards: goodbye 1156, hello 1155! If you're looking to get the best performance from the most efficient architecture and you don't want your motherboard outdated next month, it will likely be worth waiting for.

Sandy Bridge isn't the only new component coming, naturally. The SSD companies are talking about several new controllers that will improve performance and perhaps even lower cost in the not-so-distant future. AMD just launched their HD 6800 cards, but it's no secret that the 6800 series is the replacement for the 5700 and Cayman (6900 series) is coming real soon. How fast will it be and how much will it cost? You'll have to wait a bit longer to find out. Likewise, NVIDIA just released GF110/GTX 580; we will probably see trickle-down parts like a 570 before long as well. AMD will also have Bulldozer launching in 2011, probably in the first half of the year but likely in the latter part of Q2, so you still have maybe six months to wait. Brazos isn't going to set the desktop world on fire (though it ought to do well in nettops and HTPCs), but Bulldozer might be able to hang with Sandy Bridge. It will also require a new motherboard/socket (AM3r2), so whether you're going Intel or AMD, the bleeding edge is about to switch sockets next year.

We're still going to give you a bunch of current system builds, regardless of the above, and most of the components can easily transfer over to a new Sandy Bridge or Bulldozer setup when those arrive. Whether you choose to wait or buy now and then upgrade (or buy again) later is up to you. So here's our holiday system guide picks, starting with the budget builds, moving through midrange, overclocking, and high-end, and wrapping up with the HTPC options. There's something for everyone, and even if you're happy with your current system you might have a friend or family member that would benefit from the content. There's no conclusion, so enjoy our picks and feel free to join the conversation in the comments below.

Dustin's AMD Pure Budget System
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  • SteelCity1981 - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    I honestly don't care if I have the latest tech. the way I look at it new tech comes out every 6 months to a year anyhow. I get tech that suits my needs not what's out there. I'm one of those people that wait until the current tech gets replaced by the latest tech which ends up pushing the last gen tech down in price.

    I'll prob be looking at a first gen AM3 system or a LGA 1156 system early next year to replace my aging S939 system I currently have now. By then a lot of the processors and sockets for those systems should see a nice price drop from where they are now.
  • mapesdhs - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    A small note on budget systems one might build for friends, etc.
    (especially those without the tech knowledge). I built a PC for my
    neighbour & his family back in May; decided to see what I could do re
    mixing 2nd-hand 'professional' parts and consumer tech, try to make
    something with a bit of quality. I found a mbd/CPU/gfx/RAM combo for
    135 UKP (ASUS M2N-BM-DVI, Athlon64 X2 6000+, OCZ 2GB DDR2/800, ASUS ORB
    8800GT PCIe), LSI 21320-IS SCSI card for 5, U320 SCSI 73GB 15000rpm
    Fujitsu MAX3073NC and cable/adapter for 15 (knocks the socks off SATA
    for access time), and a company was offering a new Coolermaster
    Centurion Plus 534 case half-price for 25. The rest I bought new: 500GB
    SATA Samsung F1 for 40 (as it was back then), CiT 700W PSU for 30,
    Wireless 54Mbit PCI card for 7 and DVDRW for 18. Total: 275 UKP

    The main idea was to have a fast & responsive system disk, but with a
    normal SATA for data, so it feels very nippy but still has decent
    storage. The resulting setup ran very nicely (and the mbd combo came
    with Stalker, complete/boxed. :)


    For a display though, I recommended they buy new, something decent,
    which they did for 138 (LG W2254TQ-PF 22" 1680x1050, 2ms, 300 cdm/2,
    1000:1). Same cost today gets 1920x1080.

    They do a lot of surfing, so the fast system disk really helps.

    Just thought I'd mention for those who like to be a bit adventurous...

    (the landscape of what is available has changed since then, but the
    same concepts still apply)


    PS. Access time speed ref (the Fujitsu beats a WD VR 10K):

  • precarious - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    "never mind the old single-core Athlon 64 3800+ running in my daughter's computer!"

    does she really need more than that to download recipes and msds sheets for the latest household cleaning products?
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    FYI, my daughter turns eight tomorrow. LOL It's more like Noggin.com for her.
  • ManjyomeThunder - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    I see that you mention the Das in your ultimate-uber-badass dream gaming rig. And that's perfectly fine, it's a great keyboard, but I thought I'd take a second to clarify a few things.

    1) The link specified is for the "Silent" model of the Das Keyboard, which uses non-clicky, tactile Cherry MX Brown switches. While these keyboards do provide tactile feedback just like, say, the Model M, the majority of any sound produced is from "bottoming out" the keys. The normal Das keyboard uses Cherry MX Blue switches, which are tactile and clicky, and produce a more distinct sound like the Model M, only much more high pitched.

    2) The Das Keyboard is far from being the "modern Model M". If anything, the direct equivalent of the Model M would be the Customizer 101, manufactured by Unicomp in Lexington, Kentucky. They own the rights to the patents and such on the Model M, and produce nearly identical keyboards for an affordable price. I'm typing on a black Customizer 104 now, which costs a fair bit less than the Das keyboard. There are also somewhat smaller models such as the "SpaceSaver" available. Make sure to pick up a model that uses "buckling spring" switches (most of theirs do), because that's what makes it mechanical and clicky.

    3) In addition to Unicomp, there are a large number of mechanical keyboards, including Razer's new BlackWidow, the Deck Legends, Filco Majestouches and Steelseries 7G. There are a lot of different switches, each with their own unique properties, so it's best to look into these things before you buy them. A good place to start would be over at GeekHack. We're all keyboard nerds there.
  • raghu1111 - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    I would like to know estimated idle power consumption for AMD and i3 budget systems. Dell 580s with i3 550 lists idle power at 40 watts.. which is very good.

    My use case : this is an always on computer running ubuntu. I don't plan to put it in sleep mode and hence the sensitivity to power consumption. I have been using a laptop as desktop for this reason so far.
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    Here's Anand's figures from Bench for two similar setups:

    Note that those both have a 5870 GPU, so you can knock off around 10-15W if you go with IGP or a low-end GPU. I figure an Intel i3-550 setup can probably get down to around 40W idle power draw for the entire system, depending on components, where an Athlon II X4 will end up 10-15W higher. Running 24/7 you're looking at a power bill difference of around $10-$15 per year in most places, so it's nothing major -- though if you were doing something like a Folding@Home PC I think the difference might be more like 35-40W at load.
  • raghu1111 - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    Thanks Jarred. The page lists 66 W at idle. IGP should be good enough to start with for me. I can disconnect DVD drive (may be just a couple of watts). May be I am looking at best case of 50 W.
  • Out of Box Experience - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    I want a tablet PC that can control a REAL computer in realtime, with compressed graphics sent wirelessly from my tower to the tablet at FULL frame rates.
    It needs wireless usb3 for sending data and controlling the tower with bidirectional throughput (USB2 is a one way street)

    I also want a mini-ITX tower with a built in KVM switch and a power supply that can handle 2 or more motherboards

    I want hard drives that have a read only switch (like SDHC cards) so I can backup ALL my stuff without worrying about viruses & worms

    I want mini-itx motherboards with built in digital audio amps (Low powered for mobility)

    and while I'm dreaming, lets make XP-Pro open source so we can fix it properly and add SSD support!

    and I want it all by Christmas
    Thanx Santa
  • raghu1111 - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    What would be the idle power consumption for i3 550 based budget system. would AMD based much different. Dell lists Inspiron i3 550 based 580s at 40 Watt, which is pretty good.

    My use case : always-on Ubuntu desktop. not planning to set it to sleep mode. 3D graphics performance is a not an issue.


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