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Sharky Extreme : Monthly High-end Gaming System Buyer's Guide September 24, 2008

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    January High-end Gaming PC Buyer's Guide
    By Vince Freeman :  January 14, 2008

    AMD CPU: Phenom 9600 Black Edition (2.3 GHz) Retail AM2+

    Current Cost: $240
    Consecutive Guides: New
    Price Change: N/A

    This month brought up a real question regarding the AMD processor for our high-end guide. The Phenom is certainly the right processor core for the job, as is the AM2+ platform, but with only the 2.2 GHz Phenom 9500 and 2.3 GHz Phenom 9600 on the market, it was a very tough call. Quad core is certainly nice to have, and the Phenom architecture is superior to the Athlon 64 X2 on a clock-for-clock basis, but the 3.2 GHz Athlon 64 X2 6400+ dual core was still looking pretty good.

    What changed things was the release of the Phenom 9600 Black Edition. While this processor is still clocked at 2.3 GHz, AMD has shipped it unlocked, so moving up to 2.4, 2.5 or even 2.6 GHz is a very real possibility. The upper reaches are certainly higher, with reports of 2.8-3.0 GHz overclocks, but that will depend more on cooling and luck, but 2.3 GHz is definitely the starting block.

    The Phenom offers a true quad core architecture, complete with 512K of L2 cache per core (2MB per CPU) and 2MB of shared L3 cache. It is a 65nm processor, with an onboard dual 64-bit (128-bit dual channel) memory controller that supports up to DDR2-1066. The only potential issue is that much-publicized TLB bug, which as more time has passed, seems to have been blown well out of proportion. Sure, the BIOS fix does entail a 5-10% performance hit, but AMD now lets you decide whether to disable it and regain that performance.

    Overall, we recommend AMD buyers make the Phenom transition, especially as the Black Edition is fully unlocked, but since AM2+ motherboards are fully backward compatible, the Athlon 64 X2 6400+ is a viable secondary option. The only issue is the Phenom's "Black Edition" designation, which translates into a bare CPU with no bundled heatsink-fan, so we will need to purchase a 3rd-party cooler.

    Intel CPU: Core 2 Duo E8400 (3.0GHz) Retail

    Current Cost: $245
    Consecutive Guides: New
    Price Change: N/A

    Initially, we thought the Intel processor might delay the guide even further, as Intel was making waves about a crop of new 45nm processors for CES. This piqued our interest, but a few problems came up once the announcement finally hit. The first issue was the inevitable delay, and these processors were not scheduled to reach the mass market until January 20. The price of the quad core models was another, and the 2.83 GHz Core 2 Quad Q9550 was the only viable *upgrade* to our 3.0 GHz Core 2 Duo E6850, but its estimated price is over $600. The dual core Wolfdale models are far more interesting, and although the ETA isn't until January 20, 2008, we just couldn't resist a 3.0 GHz 45nm processor that will be priced under $250.

    The Core 2 Duo E8500 and E8400 are shaping up as two of the hottest processors of 2008, and both will certainly offer high-end gaming performance. Quad core is certainly nice, but dual core is enough for most games, and at 3.0 GHz on FSB1333, it only takes a back seat to the high-end Core 2 Extreme models. As this is a 45nm Wolfdale, it features 6MB of shared L2 cache, which ramps up performance compared to a standard 4MB Conroe. Overall, the Core 2 Duo E8400 is a wild deal, especially now that the E8500 release has been delayed.

    AMD Heatsink-Fan: 3rd-party AM2/AM2+ HSF

    Current Cost: $50
    Consecutive Guides: New
    Price Change: N/A

    Since the Phenom 9600 is a "Black Edition", it ships as a bare CPU, so we will need to select a 3rd-party heatsink-fan. There are several high-end options at this price level, including the Scythe Infinity (left) and Zalman CNPS9700 NT (right), both of which have proven very popular with Phenom system builders and enthusiasts alike. Feel free to select a cooling solution that fits your own requirements, but these two models are affordable, mid-range cooling options that won't break the bank, and are widely available at most online stores.

    Intel Heatsink-Fan: Bundled Core 2 Duo E8400 HSF

    Current Cost: $0
    Consecutive Guides: New
    Price Change: N/A

    For the time being at least, we're sticking with the Intel retail cooler, both for budgetary and ease-of-use considerations. The retail heatsink-fans are virtually free, and can easily handle the cool-running 45nm Core 2 Duo processors. Of course, there is always the option of spending the extra money for a 3rd-party heatsink-fan of your choice, especially for the hardcore overclockers.

    Page 1 Introduction and Case
  • Page 2 Processors and Cooling
    Page 3 Motherboards
    Page 4 Memory, Hard Drive and DVD Writer
    Page 5 Video Card, LCD Display and Audio
    Page 6 Mouse and Keyboard
    Page 7 Communications, Operating System, etc.
    Page 8 Price Roundup and Closing Remarks

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