Welcome to the second part of our Holiday 2010 shopping guides. We started with a look at notebooks, in part because they're a popular item but mostly because Dustin just happened to be quicker to the draw when it was time to put together a shopping guide. While notebook and laptop sales continue to grow and now account for more units than desktops, every one of the editors at AnandTech still packs a desktop (or two or three or...) for those times when performance and screen size take priority over portability.

For this guide, we're taking a break from our traditional buyers' guides and giving each editor a chance to put together a system that they would recommend. There's definitely some overlap in taste and intended use, though, so we also broke things down into broad categories to make sure we had representatives for each market. From pure budget builds through the midrange and up to the high-end, we'll provide options. We'll also have a couple different takes on HTPC and a discussion of overclocking. While we won't be able to dedicate lengthy portions of the article to each specific component, you can also consider the individual parts as recommended upgrades/purchases in their own right.

Before we get to the guides, we do want to take a minute to discuss the market as a whole. We've said in the past that the right time to build is whenever you feel your current system isn't meeting your needs/wants. If you happen to be in that situation, then normally we'd say go ahead and spec out a new system and take the plunge. Waiting for the Next Big Thing™ can be an exercise in futility, as new parts are always just around the corner—new processors, chipsets, sockets, graphics cards, SSDs, etc. And the fact is, you can still put together a great system right now that will continue to be great in three months, even if something faster comes along.

We're reaching the stage where even PCs that are several years old (yeah, ancient!) are still more than fast enough for 95% of users. That old Core 2 Duo E6600 plugging along at 2.4GHz may not stand up well to the latest desktops in raw performance, but come on: it can still run circles around most laptops, it can handle HD YouTube content, and with an appropriate graphics card it can even manage medium to high detail games! [Jarred: Yes, I've got just such a PC in my living room pulling duty as an HTPC, never mind the old single-core Athlon 64 3800+ running in my eight-years-old daughter's computer!] So sure, new parts are just around the corner once again, but a good PC today will continue to be plenty fast for a couple years at least.

All that said, we do need to take a moment to name drop: Sandy Bridge. Our early testing shows it to be around 25% faster than the currently shipping parts, especially Lynnfield and Clarkdale. It will have better multi-threaded and single-threaded performance, and while idle power may not change much the load power consumption should drop quite a bit. Anand measured 121W for the entire system under load with an i5 2400 (3.1GHz), and that's 8% less power while being 23% faster than the i5-760 it replaces. If that pattern holds up, we're looking at overall performance per watt going up by almost 35%. To make matters worse, Sandy Bridge will also usher in a new socket, chipset, and motherboards: goodbye 1156, hello 1155! If you're looking to get the best performance from the most efficient architecture and you don't want your motherboard outdated next month, it will likely be worth waiting for.

Sandy Bridge isn't the only new component coming, naturally. The SSD companies are talking about several new controllers that will improve performance and perhaps even lower cost in the not-so-distant future. AMD just launched their HD 6800 cards, but it's no secret that the 6800 series is the replacement for the 5700 and Cayman (6900 series) is coming real soon. How fast will it be and how much will it cost? You'll have to wait a bit longer to find out. Likewise, NVIDIA just released GF110/GTX 580; we will probably see trickle-down parts like a 570 before long as well. AMD will also have Bulldozer launching in 2011, probably in the first half of the year but likely in the latter part of Q2, so you still have maybe six months to wait. Brazos isn't going to set the desktop world on fire (though it ought to do well in nettops and HTPCs), but Bulldozer might be able to hang with Sandy Bridge. It will also require a new motherboard/socket (AM3r2), so whether you're going Intel or AMD, the bleeding edge is about to switch sockets next year.

We're still going to give you a bunch of current system builds, regardless of the above, and most of the components can easily transfer over to a new Sandy Bridge or Bulldozer setup when those arrive. Whether you choose to wait or buy now and then upgrade (or buy again) later is up to you. So here's our holiday system guide picks, starting with the budget builds, moving through midrange, overclocking, and high-end, and wrapping up with the HTPC options. There's something for everyone, and even if you're happy with your current system you might have a friend or family member that would benefit from the content. There's no conclusion, so enjoy our picks and feel free to join the conversation in the comments below.

Dustin's AMD Pure Budget System
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  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    While it would be great if Bulldozer could run in current motherboards, all the information I've been able to gather (including asking a contact at a motherboard manufacturer) is that Bulldozer for desktops will run in AM3r2. That socket will be similar to AM3, and it will be able to accept and run current AM3 processors, but the reverse isn't true. So, in essence it's the AM2+ situation again.

    If you search AMD's site, there's no mention of AM3r2 that I can find outside of their forums. It's still possible that we're mistaken, but AMD hasn't unequivocally stated that "yes BD will work in current motherboards" so I wouldn't count on it. I think originally the idea was to try and make it happen, but now it's not guaranteed.

    If you really want to go to the rumor mill, BD might actually work in current boards but might blow caps or have reduced performance. Maybe someone will come out with a fix. All indications however are that there will be new chipsets (980/990 most likely), a new socket requirements, etc. I guess it may be a lot like the socket 775 transitions from Intel where we had a few manufacturers that got older 945P chipsets to run Core 2 and such.
  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Just to add a bit more: Phenom X6 will technically work in many 790FX motherboards... but it's not the same as running it in an 890FX. 790FX wasn't designed for Turbo Core, it has some power management issues with Thuban, etc. We have seen similar issues with previous updates where a CPU would work, but it didn't perform optimally. We may see that with Bulldozer as well, where it will run in 800 series boards with a BIOS update but it very likely will run best with a new motherboard/chipset. If AMD and their partners can prove me wrong, I'd be very pleased, but based on at least one source I'm not holding out much hope.
  • blotto5 - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    thanks for the info good to know since im running a phenom x6 in a 790fx mobo but i think im going to wait to buy a new mobo because of this talk of a new socket a la am2 to am2+
  • baba264 - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    This comes quite handy as after the death of my graphic card two days ago, I was seriously thinking of buying a new system that would be quite similar to "Ryan's High-End Gaming System".

    However, when I had previewed the various parts I wanted, I had set my mind on a new lynnfield core with an i7 870 rather than the old Bloomfield core. Since I don't plan to upgrade to an SLI setting I thought that the i7 870 was the best choice of processor (for the price), was I mistaken?

    Anyway, thanks for the article, this article really comforts me in what I meant to buy.
  • Ryan Smith - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    The 870 is quite good. In fact when I was putting that list together I was seriously considering that instead of an X58 platform. The clincher was SLI support (P55 boards with SLI quickly drive the price up); but since you're not going to be using SLI I wouldn't be concerned.
  • mapesdhs - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    P55 boards run very nicely SLI, easily outperforming X58 boards, and that's
    with an 860, never mind an 870. See my results pages:


    Further tests coming soon with an 870 + GTX 460 FTW SLI.

    it's only really 3-way SLI where X58 takes over. For 2-way, the speeds
    are just as good (if not better) and the costs are significantly lower - the
    board I'm using costs less than 70 UKP ($110).

  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    Color me confused, but those links don't seem to provide the data you're talking about. The question is how something like i7-930 with X58 compares to i7-860 with P55 while everything else is kept constant, and all the stuff there looks like 930 + 4870 CF or 460 SLI, and 860 + 8800 GT SLI, or some other sets of data. You'd need to show X58 460 SLI vs. P55 460 SLI to "prove" that P55 is "easily outperforming X58 boards". And if you do everything with similar quality components, the X58 ought to win out by virtue of having two x16 connects compared to two x8 connects on P55.
  • mapesdhs - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    (my friend has 4890s, not 4870s)

    I'm surprised you'd say that given existing articles have already
    shown that SLI doesn't need full 16x to perform nicely. Some games
    need it because they're written badly (FSX), but others run perfectly
    well at 8X, or even 4X.

    Specific data coming soon (still testing) but my point was that the
    existing data already shows the same effect - people on forums
    said the 4890s should win, but they don't much of the time except
    where resolution, etc. are a factor.

    I'm still ploughing through my P55/460 tests. All takes time as I'm
    sure you can appreciate. :)

  • JarredWalton - Friday, November 19, 2010 - link

    I'm not saying X58 is substantially faster by any means; I'm just saying that all things being equal there's no reason P55 should be faster. x8 vs. x16 isn't a huge benefit, but especially with higher clocked CPUs and more powerful GPUs (i.e. GTX 580 or HD 5870) the X58 should come out ahead. Anyway, Gary Key did a pretty direct comparison when he was still with us:

    In general X58 CF is better than P55 CF, though the margin is never so large as to be alarming. What Gary doesn't show is how the SLI setups compare (probably for lack of an SLI capable P55 board at the time he was with us). I'd figure they're also similar. All told, P55 is faster for single GPUs, but the x8+x8 dual-GPU configuration should and usually does incur a small performance hit.
  • mapesdhs - Saturday, November 20, 2010 - link

    Generally true, though remember the one advantage which
    can make a difference sometimes (and push it in favour
    of P55) is the better Turbo on the 870, etc. For fixed
    clocks, have a look at the CPU scores I get with the
    860 at 4018 for the 3DMark06 CPU tests, compare to
    my friend's 930 at 4136 (and btw, it's not RAM speed;
    I lowered my RAM to match, scores only dropped 1
    or 2%).

    You're right though about the top-end cards/CPUs, if
    I was playing at crazy res with expensive cards like
    the 580 then X58 would be more logical. For midrange
    though, like the 460 (with or without SLI), the gain from
    X58 is minimal at best - the cost difference (which
    may be large) can be used to have a better GPU,
    widening the gap further.

    And by cost difference I mean, for example, the Asrock
    P55 Deluxe, which is now as cheap as 68 UKP here.
    It has excellent slot spacing for SLI, ie. better cooling.

    Either way, we shall see; after doing default tests, my
    plan is to run the FTWs at lower clocks to match my
    friend's Palit Platinums, that should be interesting.

    All I'm saying is, don't be surprised if P55/SLI runs
    better than you might expect. I certainly didn't think
    two 8800GT SLI would be able to match or beat
    an X58 with two 4890s, but they can and do.


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