Video Card: Two GeForce 8800GTX 768MB graphics cards in SLI
Current Cost: $1,000 (2x$500)
Consecutive Guides: 2
Price Change: $0
With little activity at ATI's high-end, NVIDIA must be very confident and feel no need to lower prices on its GeForce 8800 series of graphics cards. That's a shame, because we were really hoping at least to upgrade our system to dual GeForce 8800 Ultra's in SLI. Still, the GeForce 8800 GTX does the job well, even if its value is falling behind advancements in other hardware.
The standard-speed GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB is set at 575 MHz core, 1.35 GHz shader, and 1.8 GHz memory default clock speeds, which translates into a fillrate of 36.8 Gtexels/s and a memory bandwidth of 86.4 GB/s. This creates a nice gap between the two GeForce 8800 GTS models, and provides a lot of gaming power in a SLI configuration.
If you're looking for something a bit faster without additional expense, a few lesser-known brands are even offering overclocked versions for the same base price.
LCD Display: Westinghouse L2410NM
Current Cost: $430
Consecutive Guides: New
Price Change: N/A
Nothing shows off a performance system's internal components better than a great monitor, but many gamers now want higher resolutions than those found on our former 21" selection. When it comes to LCD displays, pixel count is usually a function of size, and reaching for 1200 vertical pixels in a widescreen display forced us to consider 24" models. But with so much money dedicated to internal components, our budget was definitely feeling the squeeze.
The Westinghouse L2410NM is a low-cost 24" LCD, but with far greater performance than many buyers would expect at this price range. A true 8-bit MVA panel provides 8ms response times and 176° viewing angle in both horizontal and vertical directions. These attributes closely approximate the performance levels of higher-cost competitors, and our own experience with the L2410NM shows very few flaws that would otherwise prevent its use in high-end gaming environments.
Visually, the only noteworthy problem is that its default contrast ratio may obscure certain dark objects, but this can be compensated by increasing software gamma settings. Ergonomically, the stand is not height or side-to-side tilt-adjustable, and it is bouncy enough to require a sturdy, heavy desk. These small sacrifices are necessary to get a 1920x1200 screen with gaming-level performance, and then fit it into the budget we had left after configuring all the performance components.
Thanks to a lower "area per diagonal measure" ratio, widescreen monitors cost less to produce than conventional 4:3 versions. Widescreen buyers get less "real estate" for the "diagonal size" but in turn pay less, a fact that monitor manufacturers have used to promote the so-called "better value" of widescreens. Unfortunately, this has eventually ended production of most 4:3 displays, and as supplies dwindle, we couldn't find a 4:3 LCD that had the right combination of price, performance and screen real estate. For example, the SyncMaster 214T, a former-favorite, has gone up in price by around $200 since our last Extreme Gaming PC Buyer's Guide.
Sound Card: Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi Platinum Fatal1ty Champion Series
Current Cost: $170
Consecutive Guides: New
Price Change: N/A
Creative Labs continues to be a major player in the discrete soundcard market, blocking or buying the creative efforts of other sound chip developers. This brings up the question of what could possibly replace the X-Fi Platinum Fatal1ty FPS of our last four guides. Not really anything, as the X-Fi Platinum Fatal1ty Champion Series is nothing other than the same technology under a new model name. Buyers still get a theoretical performance boost from 64MB of "X-RAM" for caching sounds, and the re-labeled model still features an ultra-high 109db signal-to-noise ratio enhanced by EAX 5.0 audio effects.
Still missing is real-time multi-channel digital encoding to a single output, via Dolby Digital Live or DTS Connect. Also, like all of Creative's high-end cards since the SB Live, the lack of a case-standard front panel audio connector necessitates the use of a "Live-Drive" equipped model to enable front-panel headphone/microphone port access. An alternative X-Fi model from Auzentech will support all of these features, whenever this third-party manufacturer gets its drivers and software figured out.
Speakers: Logitech Z-5500
Current Cost: $265
Consecutive Guides: 8
Price Change: -$15
Our chosen soundcard lacks DDL or DTS Connect and thus requires analog connections for multi-channel game audio. But loudspeaker technology hasn't changed much since before the PC era, and high-end PC speakers had already been developed long ago. One product that still stands out as the pinnacle of classic technology, Logitech's Z-5500 has survived our guide through eight revisions.
We have yet to find a 7.1-channel analog speaker system that can surpass the quality of Logitech's 5.1-channel Z-5500, and games are typically encoded for 5.1 channels anyway. Those who believe they have a better plan are welcome to send feedback, but until then we'll continue to go with the time-proven quality of Logitech's top analog system.