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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  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Once you select and install a motherboard, upgrading it down the road is really a PITA. Motherboard choice determines many of your core features, and while performance rarely varies much between brands, quality and stability (as well as overclocking and memory support) really differentiate the boards. If you only want to run stock, an inexpensive ECS board will probably work fine. Then again, I've seen a lot of inexpensive boards die after a couple years of use, while higher quality boards can last 5+ years.

    If you want to upgrade the HDD, GPU, RAM, or DVD you can do so in a matter of minutes. (If you have to clone the HDD to another drive, it will take a lot longer, but mostly you're waiting to copy files from one drive to the other.) If you need to upgrade the motherboard, it's pretty much like building a system from scratch.
  • Phate-13 - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Ok, well yes, that's a fact, I forget that there are the really cheap brands. What I'm more interested in, usually when assembling a pc I go for the cheapest ATX motherboard from a decent brand (Gigabyte, Asus, ...) with a decent chipset. I've always thought that there is barely any difference between the motherboards within the same brand (Gigabyte f.e.) when looking at performance AND quality, and only in features. (Most people don't need the features of the 790GX f.e.)

    So example: Before the 880-chipset from AMD I would've went for the cheapest (f.e.) Gigabyte 785G motherboard when assembling an AMD system. (Only checking for crossfire possibilities if wanted and ofcourse if nothing was odd with it.)

    Any comments on that way of selecting a motherboard? (I'm just hoping to learn from it. :) )

    Thanks a lot for the information already. I hope I did not offend with my comments, their just my opinions. ;)
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Really, it depends on two things: how demanding you are... and luck. LOL. Sometimes you can get a cheap board that's absolutely rock solid, and other times you get a piece of crap that never seems to work quite right. Some boards have compatibility issues with some brands of RAM, USB peripherals, etc. The major brands (ASUS, Gigabyte, MSI...) tend to be safe, but even then there's the occasional lemon. Best way to avoid getting burned IMO is to not buy a board until it has been out at least 2-3 months, and then read a few reviews and see what users are saying. Few boards are perfect, so for instance anything at Newegg with a 4 or 5 rating is typically fine.
  • michal1980 - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    When are you anandtech Guru's going to get realistic with power supplies.

    from the grahpics card artile linked here, the system with thr 5850 peaked at ~ 310 Watts. Why do you recommend a PSU for 2x that load?
  • GullLars - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    +1, 500-550W is more than enough here. This is a third source freeing up money for an SSD, or even 2R0 SSD, wich will actually make a huge difference in user experience.
  • bennyg - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Because PSU wattage ratings are a totally fail way to judge them

    the higher the capacity: the less utilised it is during operation, the cooler it stays during operation, the more efficient it is, the longer it will last, the more room to upgrade in the future you will have, the better class of components are used in its manufacture. In general.

    Of course there's a huge problem with yumcha "750W" PSUs which have stupidly high 3.3V/5V rails but are sadly lacking where it's actually needed - the 12V rail. But they are not the price that's listed in this article.

    But marketing-by-misleading-specifications seems to be well represented in all hardware component markets (GTX260M anyone...)
  • Phate-13 - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    On the other hand, most pc's are idle or on low load for most of the time. Account for the fact that under 20% load the efficiency of a PSU drop dramaticly, your better of with a PSU of less watt. At 100% load a PSU is still very efficient. Look at the 80Plus bronze rating: 82% @ 20%, 85% @ 50% and 82% at 100%.
    Less utilized percentage wise, isn't per definition a good thing.

    Also it will last just as long. I mean, nobody said you have to find a PSU that exactly matches your maximum load. If the 310Watt load is correct, then 750Watt is almost 2.5 times what is needed. Even with 500 Watts you have quite a huge reserve.

    And you also totally contradict yourself. You state: "Because PSU wattage ratings are a totally fail way to judge them" and then you state why higher is supposably better. If you want the better quality, buy a 500Watt PSU at the same price of the average 700Watt PSU, than you'll have a quality one.
  • Jediron - Tuesday, May 18, 2010 - link

    The 50% argument is just silly. I can imagine that all PSU builders, because they know alot of us speak that way,, are doing their best to keep their PSU's performing just like that. With a meager 2% better efficiency at te "sweet spot". Really, what a fuss about a meager 2% difference between 50 and 80% . Atleast, that's what you see with the better brands. Look at the number, Silentpcreviews. They say it all!

    Most good Quality PSU stay perfectly fine up and around 80% of their rated power. So a HX750 for example, can deliver 600watts (output) , at the wall that "would be around 700watt" (input). It gets a litte hotter and the fan is spinning a little harder then. So what ? That's exactly what a PSU is supposed to do!
    That's exaclty what i expect from a "high quality" PSU, for which you payed a premium price.

    I remember the day, i was running a fat setup, with a meager "soso quality" Aopen 350watt. Others would not believe me, it worked day and night, rock solid en never broke down on me. No, you know what it is ?
    FEAR! Fear for the unknown. It's easy to make people scared when they know shit about PSU's.
    Brands are guilty too, mostly the cheaper brands. With their overrated PSU's and poor quality.

    When i buy a Seasonix X-750 you can bet i will make it swett. Not too much, but enough to give the feeling i didn't put a V8 engine on my bycicle.
  • michal1980 - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    where did I say to go with a crappy PSU. You could get a good quality PSU for less money then this with less wattage, that will for the overall system be far more efficent, and more importantly sufficent.

    Mid-Range PC's imho, are all about Bang for the buck. The 750W PSU used in this example fails that test.
  • mcnabney - Wednesday, May 12, 2010 - link

    Ahm, you don't know how power supplies work, do you?

    They are by far most efficient operating around 3/4 load and are in fact DESIGNED to run at that constant load.

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