Video Accelerator: GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB
Current Cost: $455
Consecutive Guides: 2
Price Change: -$70
The video card selection was the hardest area to pick this month - even worse than the Intel motherboard, but for the same reason. Currently, NVIDIA offers the top single-card performance option, and no video card on the ATI slate can match a GeForce 8800 GTX or Ultra. Unfortunately, NVIDIA is a bit late to the AMD and Intel new platform party, and both of our motherboard selections support ATI CrossFireX, rather than NVIDIA SLI. We also had a nice battle over the GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB vs. the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB, but the higher performance of the former gave it the edge over the price savings of the latter. The GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB eventually won out, but for those looking to save a few bucks, the new GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB is also a great option.
The GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB may still put a dent in our system budget, we did save $70 compared to our previous guide. 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. The GeForce 8800 GTX offers the same basic specifications as the top-end GeForce 8800 Ultra, but with slightly lower clock speeds, giving it a nice architectural advantage over the various GeForce 8800 GTS models. 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, ATI simply cannot match the GeForce 8800 GTX, and the Radeon HD 2900 XT is the closest competitor. The Radeon HD 3850 and 3870 video cards do much better, but only in CrossFireX configurations. Dual Radeon HD 3870 512MB cards offer comparable performance to the GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB in some games, and still very competitive in others. Even the price is virtually equivalent, checking in at $460-$470 for a pair of low-cost models. We still prefer a single-card option for a buyer's guide, mostly due to lingering dual-GPU driver issues and game support, but this is a viable solution for those who want to go the ATI route.
LCD Display: Westinghouse L2410NM 24" LCD
Consecutive Guides: New
Price Change: N/A
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 have upgraded to the impressive Westinghouse L2410NM 24" LCD as our primary selection.
Repeated price drops have allowed us to make the jump to 24", and due to the serious power under the hood, we have no problems using the default 1920x1200 resolution, and moving down if necessary. The Westinghouse L2410NM offers an 8-bit MVA panel with a fast 8ms response times and a 176° horizontal and vertical viewing angle. These are excellent specifications for the price, and let the Westinghouse L2410NM compete with higher-end, and higher-priced, models in the 24" range.
The Westinghouse L2410NM offers a 1000:1 contrast ratio and 500 cd/m2 of brightness, along with a wealth of connectivity options. These include HDMI-HDCP, DVI, component, composite, S-Video, and VGA, along with built-in 3-watt speakers, allowing the Westinghouse L2410NM flexibility for HD-DVD/Blu-ray playback and use with various gaming systems.
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: 4
Price Change: +$1
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 X-Fi Fatal1ty series is an attractive option, 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: +$12
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.
Logitech also has the newer G51 5.1 speaker set available, and although it is rated at a lower RMS of 155W (mostly due to the sub), this still represents a viable option for those who might like the updated aesthetics, enhanced Matrix gaming options or nifty control pod.