Market Overview: $1700 Performance Midrange

Many things have changed in the nine months since our last midrange system guide hit the press, some for the worse—a moment of silence, please, for the passing of yesteryear’s RAM bonanza—but most for the better. ATI in particular deserves a nod for raising the bar for single-chip graphics card performance with its Cypress line (and, more recently, NVIDIA for its Fermi parts). All told, a ~$1700 complete system (~$1200 for the base) built around the i5-750 or one of AMD's Phenom II CPUs promises to deliver better performance than last year’s entry in most applications and beat it soundly in gaming and other graphics intensive tasks, all in spite of today’s significantly greater cost per GB of RAM. The icing on the cake? In a climate of ever-increasing energy costs and concerns, the current installment of the performance midrange system is significantly more energy efficient—particularly on the Intel side of the fence.

Our recommendations today skew pretty heavily toward graphics performance, with the single most expensive part—the factory OCed Gigabyte Radeon HD 5850—comprising approximately 25% of the base system cost (or about 18% of the complete system). Though it may be a little over the top for some, one look at graphics card comparison charts will tell you that things drop off rather precipitously after the 5850, with the drops in performance not corresponding all that sensibly to the drops in price. While there are plenty of less expensive cards that will still deliver acceptable performance—for many, at any rate—none seem to offer as desirable a mix of price, performance and future proofing (DX11) as the 5870’s little brother. For our midrange builds today, it feels just about right. If you're not worried about gaming or graphics, feel free to downgrade to something else, but we'd recommend sticking with at least an HD 5670 to get all the latest and greatest video decoding and power management features, or grab an HD 5450 if you're willing to skip out on a few extras like vector adaptive deinterlacing. Or if you don't care about DX11 right now and think CUDA is more important, you might prefer the GT 240.

As usual, we'll have both AMD and Intel recommendations today, with a common set of shared components. The story hasn't changed much when comparing AMD vs. Intel. You can get more cores at a lower price with AMD, but Intel will give you higher performance at the same clock speed (and generally higher clock speeds) along with substantially lower power consumption. If you're interested in Clarkdale over Lynnfield, you might also want to give Lloyd Case's recent article a read. Clarkdale certainly uses less power, but there's no beating quad-core Lynnfield performance. On the AMD side, the big question is whether you want to go with an older quad-core Phenom II, or if you want to spring for the new Phenom II X6. Considering the slightly lower power requirements and AMD's Turbo Core technology, we recommend making the move to X6 if you're going the AMD route.

Now let's get to the specific recommendations; if you're looking for performance comparisons we suggest looking at our Bench results for the recommended processors.

Intel Performance Midrange System
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  • strikeback03 - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Flip that around, what would you call a system with a 980X and multiple Fermi GPUs if this is high-end? I suppose you could call this the bottom of high-end, upper-midrange or lower high-end is really semantics.

    I wonder why they keep saying the i5-750 is faster than the i7-920 in most benchmarks when Bench shows the opposite.
  • Phate-13 - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    So a Porsche 911 Turbo S is midrange because there happens to be a Bugatti Veyron that costs more than 10 times as much?
    In my opinion, midrange is the "typical" range. What the average person would buy. Low end is below that, high end is above that. This is not something the average person would buy. But this argument is actually quite irrelevant, imho. You can't "prove" that something is mid-range, that depends on personal factors. I repeat, I was just stating that it was my opinion that this is rather high-end.
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    By that definition, midrange is a $600 Dell. ;-)

    You can go so many routes with a $1000 to $1750 build, and whichever route you go and whatever you call it, it's still a $1000 to $1750 build. For the price and for a complete system, I'm very comfortable with the recommended components. If you don't want Blu-ray, I assume you're all plenty smart and can manage to not add the Blu-ray drive and--GASP!--even put a DVD-RW in its place. I figure the same goes for the GPU, storage, case, keyboard, mouse, and LCD. All of those are literally drop-in replacements, and we have plenty of other articles reviewing things like SSDs for the interested.

    In my opinion, the biggest decision in any build really comes down to the choice of motherboard. That's the one where you have to really think about what you want and what you're willing to spend. And I spent time chatting with several others here just to make sure we had good motherboard recommendations.

    As for high-end, I personally start that at $2000 and go up. This is close to that, which is why it's "performance" midrange--or "upper" midrange if you prefer. At $2000, I'd seriously push for adding an IPS LCD, and if you give me $3000 to work with, there's no beating 30" LCDs (still) with most likely a 5970 GPU to drive it. Or you can grab three 24" LCDs and run them in portrait mode. I'd also call that sort of setup "Dream" but regardless of the label it's still just a really expensive and fast PC.
  • artifex - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Jarred, I agree, the biggest thing to think about is obviously the motherboard. Could you give a little more insight into your decision that 890FX isn't worth it? I'll be buying a board quite soon, and up until today, based on info here and at TechReport, I'd been leaning heavily towards an FX-based board, with the same CPU you selected. Since I don't need the latest and greatest graphics support, however, the GX's integrated one would be fine. ("Performance" for me is a solid number cruncher that also does some HTPC and storage duty. The only game I play for now is WoW.) I'm trying to build this thing to last more than 3 years without heavy upgrading, though :)
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    I talked with Raja about the motherboard and chipset, and he said that the primary benefit of 890FX over 890GX is better extreme overclocking. 890FX also has dual x16 links for CrossFire while 890GX will drop to x8/x8 for dual GPUs. So if you don't plan on running dual GPUs and you don't intend to pursue extreme overclocking, 890GX is a great chipset.
  • artifex - Thursday, May 13, 2010 - link

    Thanks, Jarred. I think you just saved me a bunch of money.
  • Benoit_P - Friday, May 14, 2010 - link

    Good article. One taking the time to read it calmy and understand the caveats will find how to modify the hardware list.

    However, I think that you have overlooked the fact that the 890FX chipset can do virtualization, something the other 8xx chipsets are incapable of.

    Given that running WinXP mode in Win7 Pro/Ultimate requires virtualization capabilities, this is an important point for some users.

    The article does not mention virtualization capabilities for the intel builds either.


    Does a PC used only for photo editing (Photoshop) and video capture/editing/encoding (Première) from an HD camcorder (AVCHD codec) benefits at all from a powerful graphics card ? or can do with an embedded solution ?

  • JarredWalton - Friday, May 14, 2010 - link

    I know Photoshop benefits from GPUs now (via OpenGL), but I don't know how much of a difference there is between IGP and dGPU. I don't know if Premier benefits from GPU or not, though I know there are other video manipulation applications that leverage CUDA (in which case the AMD GPU we selected wouldn't help, obviously).

    As far as virtualization, I thought that was the CPU that handled that. I wasn't aware of any limitations with 890GX not supporting virtualization. It appears that the IOMMU isn't virtualized except in 890FX, which isn't a problem with Xen, Hyper-V or VMware ESX but prevents its use with WinXP Mode on Win7.

    Honestly, I hear about Virtual WinXP in Win7 so often that it's really quite surprising, as I don't know of a single person who uses it. I'm sure businesses do, but do home users really care? I have been using Vista on my machines since 2007, and outside of a few 64-bit compatibility issues (which have since been solved with updated applications), I haven't had any apps that didn't run properly. Who is actually using this (which means you need to buy Win7 Business or Ultimate... a small minority of home users), and what are they using it for? It just seems like something 99.99% of people won't ever use.
  • Phate-13 - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Let me rephrase that, the midrange is the typical pc a consumer buys with a specific goal in mind. What the average person with (game-)performance in mind buys, thats what I call midrange.

    But anyway, why would de motherboard be the most important part? There is barely any difference between specific motherboard, except for some very specific features that most of the people don't need. When looking at motherboards, performance is a non-issue, there is barely any difference. The only difference is features, but what are features that are so important that you need to have them, but not important enough so that not all motherboards have them? (And no, I'm not stating that any motherboard is ok, I just wouldn't know.)
  • Phate-13 - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    And damn it's annyong that there is no "edit" button.
    Anyway, if everything is a drop-in replacement, than what is the point in making a guide at all?

    (Though again, let it be clear, I really like the effort that is put in these articles, but there is a fundamental flaw with these guides, almost any guide. And that is that every person has different needs and the persons who can adapt these configs to their needs are often the persons who actually don't need a guide, while the ones who can use a guide very often don't know anything about it and what to and what not to replace.)

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