Video Accelerator: GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB
Current Cost: $525
Consecutive Guides: New
Price Change: N/A
The video card is the most important part of any high-end gaming system, and assuming no corners have been cut in the areas of processor, motherboard, LCD, memory, or other components, this is usually where you should spend the most cash. We took this adage to heart this month, pouring every available cent into the graphics card, and came out the other side with the GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB. This is the second fastest gaming card on the planet - other than the ultra high-priced GeForce 8800 Ultra - and is undeniably the jewel in our system configuration crown.
The GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB may have put a dent in our system budget, but there is nowhere else that you'll get the same return on investment. This powerhouse features a 90nm GPU with 128 stream processors clocked at 1.35 GHz. The graphics core is fully DirectX 10 compliant and runs at 575 MHz, while the massive 768MB of GDDR3 runs at 1.8 GHz on a 384-bit bus. Unlike the less-equipped GeForce 8800 GTS, the GTX offers the same basic specifications as the top-end GeForce 8800 Ultra, but with slightly lower clock speeds. In terms of brands, we kept that open for now, but can recommend both the ASUS (shown above) and PNY (shown below) models as high-performing, quality graphics cards.
In terms of a single-card solution, the Radeon HD 2900 XT is the ATI product of choice, and even though we prefer the GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB, this is still a viable alternative. With 320 stream processors and 512MB/1GB of onboard GDDR3/4 memory, the Radeon HD 2900 XT certainly stacks up in terms of base specifications. The card is also DirectX 10 compliant, so there are no worries in terms of future game compatibility or Vista support.
LCD Display: Dell UltraSharp 2007WFP 20.1" LCD
Consecutive Guides: 2
Price Change: $0
LCD monitors have quickly become the standard for any mainstream or high-end desktop, and CRTs have really died out for all but the entry-level market. Finding a high-end 19-21" CRT display is virtually impossible these days, as manufacturers have dropped production and shifted it towards LCD displays. Overall LCD technology is also continuing to improve, and both image reproduction and pixel response times are getting better. Due to the sheer number of newer widescreen games, and built-in support for older ones, we follow along similar lines and the Dell UltraSharp 2007WFP 20.1" LCD repeats as our primary choice.
The Dell UltraSharp 2007WFP is a high-end 20.1-inch widescreen display that foregoes the lower cost TN LCD type for a higher-end S-IPS/S-PVA display. This screen offers better color depth, a wider viewing angle, and better image quality, along with true 8-bit color. The UltraSharp 2007WFP has a native resolution of 1680x1050, while providing an 800:1 contrast ratio and 16ms response times, the latter of which may seem slow until you realize it's actually 8ms the way other manufacturers measure it. For widescreen 20.1" gaming displays, it simply doesn't get any better, and the Dell UltraSharp 2007WFP includes a host of connectivity options (DVI, VGA, composite, S-Video, and USB, as well as HDCP over DVI). We use the standard retail price of $399, but this can drop significantly during regular sales or Days of Dell promotions, so stay alert and save some cash.
For those who need a standard size LCD, the 20" Samsung 204B LCD more than fits the bill. With the 204B, Samsung offers a performance gaming 20" model with a native resolution of 1600x1200, 300 cd/m2 brightness, 800:1 contrast ratio, 5ms response time, and both analog and DVI inputs (although Samsung does not include a DVI cable). The ultra-low 5ms response time virtually guarantees that there will be no ghosting in games or video, and its incredible $350 price tag is a nice bonus. This LCD is also available in either silver or black, lending it even greater flexibility.
Please keep in mind that when buying any type or brand of monitor, there is always the chance of receiving a defective unit, so be certain to purchase only from a vendor that offers liberal return and replacement options, especially in their "dead/stuck pixel replacement policy" for new LCDs.
Sound Card: Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer
Consecutive Guides: 3
Price Change: -$11
Creative's X-Fi line of soundcards updates the line in a verifiable way, and is definitely not an "upgrade" in name only. Creative packages the X-Fi sound chip in several different versions, but to keep our budget in line, we selected the entry-level X-Fi XtremeGamer edition. The X-Fi XtremeGamer offers several improvements such as a 109dB signal-to-noise ratio, 7.1-channel surround sound, DTS ES and Dolby Digital decoding, 24-bit, 192 kHz audio support, EAX HD support, as well as the new 24-bit Crystalizer engine, which up samples and enhances all sound to 24-bit. In addition, the X-Fi provides for gaming, audio creation, and entertainment modes that can be switched on the fly. The price is the real key, as the X-Fi XtremeGamer accommodates all of our audio requirements while remaining within budget, something the other Creative Labs X-Fi cards cannot do. The $11 drop is just a nice bonus.
The X-Fi Fatal1ty series is a nice performance alternative, but our budget came up a bit short. This is more of a high-end, gamer-oriented card, and for those with some extra cash, it might be a worthwhile upgrade. The Fatal1ty Champion/Pro offers all the base features of the XtremeGamer, but also includes 64MB of built-in memory and a front connector port. This onboard X-RAM serves as a sound/FX buffer, and if it is implemented at the software level, may well increase game performance. Some limited support exists in some games, but nothing even approaches an industry standard like EAX. At approximately $150-$175, it is still a very expensive card, and with our budget, remains an unattainable luxury.
System Speakers: Logitech THX Z-5300e 5.1 Speakers
Consecutive Guides: 10
Price Change: -$27
With a high-end gaming soundcard, a good set of surround sound speakers is a great way to fully immerse yourself in games, movies and music. Choosing the right set of speakers is an important long-term investment, as these will likely stay with you a very long time.
Logitech's THX Z-5300e 5.1 speakers are a true value when it comes to multimedia computer audio, and you would be hard pressed to find this kind of performance, features and quality at a similar price. Logitech is the name in mainstream gaming speakers, and although some companies excel at the enthusiast level, the THX Z-5300e 5.1 speakers own this market. The Logitech THX Z-5300e 5.1 speakers offer an exceptional price-performance ratio, and with a total of 280 watts RMS power, these redefine the meaning of "bang for your buck". The overall audio quality is certainly not lacking, and the THX Z-5300e 5.1 speaker set offers considerably better output than other speakers sets in its class.
* Also note that Newegg currently has an additional $40 mail-in rebate on these speakers, valid until September 30, 2007.