As the year comes to and end we give you an overview of the best hardware you can get, relative to your budget, and present 4 different PC configurations.
Best of 2004
I like to round up this year by presenting you with a view of "the best of 2004" and give you 4 reference PC configurations which offer the best in value in their price category.
At the start of this year the P4 Northwood (revision "C") had already a hard time keeping up with the emerging Athlon 64 processors. With AMD's transition to Socket 939 with lower end models makes them relative cheap and when combined with high end, future proof motherboards deliver stunning performance!
The pick of the Madshrimps crew is the AMD Athlon 64 3000+, 512KB L2 Cache, Socket 939 64-bit Processor (or 3200+ version depending on your funds), although clocked only at 1.8 GHz (2Ghz for the 3200+) it can soar high when overclocked, even when using the stock AMD heatsink. Those who like to keep things running at stocks will find the A64 3500+ S939 interesting also, but the price will go up quite a bit, of course.
The Athlon 64 is a genuine gaming CPU and does surprisingly well in Intel optimized benchmarks also. If you are planning on upgrading to a new motherboard and CPU this year, make sure to keep a spot free for this CPU on your shopping list.
There are two new additions this years, Intel is pushing their 9xx chipset which features PCI Express and DDR (or DDR2 on the high end 92x chipset), while AMD recently got support for PCI Express also in the form of the NVIDIA nForce4 chipset.
Unfortunately though, none of these motherboards are able to claim the motherboard of the year price due to various reasons. The Intel Alderwood and Grantsdale motherboards offers no tangible performance increase over the older Canterwood boards, while limiting overclocking potential and requiring the additions costs of a new video card, RAM (for the I925x chipset) and Power Supply (24-pin ATX connector). While NVIDIA's nForce4 powered motherboards do not require new RAM or PSU, they have PCI-E support and thus require a new video card, the low availability of these new NF4 boards make them hard to recommend as they are very hard to come by at the end of the year.
In this regard we have chosen to revert to the now proven nForce3 250GB / Ultra chipset equipped motherboards, if you already bought a Socket 754 processor and want to have some fun overclocking to the maximum, we heartily recommend the DFI LAN Party NF3 250Gb board, if you want awesome stock performance with a truckload of features then go for the Asus K8N-E Deluxe.
If you are planning on buying a new setup and want a motherboard to combine your brand new Socket 939 processor with you can't go wrong with motherboards based on the NVIDIA nForce3 Ultra, the MSI K8N Neo2 Platinum in particular offers good performance across the board, including some impressive overclocking capabilities. Epox's latest 9NDA3+ deserves to be mentioned as it has shown some promising OC results also, but some compatibility issues keep it from taking 1st spot in this category. Future BIOS upgrades on Epox's part might chance this, but for now MSI reigns supreme.
With the introduction of PCI-Express manufacturers are working at putting the same card for AGP and PCI-Express on the shelve, the introduction of ATI's X8xx (R42x) and NVIDIA's 6xxx (NV4x) series of GPU's made quite an impact, this new generation of video cards provided performance increases of over 50% in some games! However while both ATI and NVIDIA are trying their best to have the number one performer in their product line up, they both have had difficulties putting their announced products on the shelves.
In end it were their "lower" rated cards which found their way into gamer's boxes, and as the year draws to an end there are even more budget friendly next generation cards being released (NV6600 / X800XL). If you are going to wait and jump on the nForce4 PCI-Express bandwagon, you might as well look into the SLI powered version of the motherboard, in combination with a 6600GT now and one extra one year later, you will have a fast system, without a large upgrade cost!
If you're sticking with the AGP then either ATI or NVIDIA's latest cards will provide you enough GPU power, more if you have the money, but even their lowest rated X800 / NV6800 card will boost the overall speed of games considerably.
DDR memory is not going anywhere soon and with the new batch of Samsung memory chips available to manufactures you are able to buy low latency PC3200 sticks which overclock quite well with relaxed timings (up to DDR600 speeds!). It will depend on price and availability which memory will suit your best, just be sure you're getting "Samsung TCCD" powered ones.
While hard drives are still relative slow compared with the other PC components, don't think that nothing has changed. The new SATA standard is really being pushed forward and prices of drives has been tumbling all year long. You still need to put down a lot of cash for the high speed Western Digital Raptor, but the 7200rpm drives are very competitively priced, you should have no problem finding a large 120GB drive for a small price.
DVD Writers have now pretty much replaced all CD Writers in stores, they are being sold at the same prices and the slowest you'll find will be a 4x model. As there is not a lot of high quality 8x/12x/16x DVD media available yet to the wide public, you won't be missing out much by choosing a slower, cheaper model.
For quickly transferring data from one PC to the next you'll be happy to know that Memory USB sticks have come down in price a lot too, 128Mb can be had for less then $50.
Cases and Power Supplies
When Intel announced their BTX standard their main goal was to increase the heat removal efficiency of a PC case. By placing the CPU near the bottom of the case and using a wind tunnel guiding the hot air away from the other components, they found a way to keep their new Prescott CPU cool.
BTX is not here yet, but case manufactures have taken steps to incorporate some of the improvements in their current ATX products. Lian-Li, Silverstone and others offer cases which allow you to install the ATX motherboard upside down and mimic the BTX case layout. The temperature advantage is not enormous, but there is a definite improvement noticeable.
If you are buying a new case, make sure that has sufficient cooling, as overheating will be the main cause of PC hardware failure.
Of course when talking about Cases, one must also think of the Power Supply which will go in there, the first BTX power supplies are being sampled at Intel, while the rest of the world is pushing the ATX V2.0 PSU envelope, new units rated at 500+W are available in shops at competitive prices. Before you decide on the PSU you're going to get, do a quick search with Google for reviews and user experiences, luckily almost all new units from known manufactures deliver excellent performance, either running at stock or overclocked speeds.
Modding and Cooling
No matter how you are planning to finalize you PC creation, you will find high quality products for each aspect, side panel windows are "old" while cool gadgets are "in": with small dials displaying power load, CPU temperature with a '70 style display are all possible. The quality of pre-modded cases has gone up also with a wide variety of plug and play designs covering anything from specially molded front panels, to cases in the form of a briefcase.
Keeping things running cool can still be done using air cooling, thanks to the blooming third party heatsink & fan market, almost every manufactures has a product made from full copper which uses a large fan to keep noise and temperature down. If you want to take things a step further you can pick up a water cooling kit for ~$200 which delivers good performance and is easy to install, a step closer to mass-market water cooling I'd say.
For your reference I have configured 4 systems tailored for different budgets, take a look on the next page ->