What Hardware Should I Buy? - November 2009

It's November so no one mention Christmas yet! Even if you are thinking about spending money on presents for others, there's always time for an upgrade, right? Right?

The recently released AMD Phenom II X4 965 Black Edition C3 update has arrived in the last month, as did the Athlon II X4 620 - we've evaluated these against our current crop of recommended products to see if they fill the gap a little better.

P55 motherboard prices have dropped a little again, but DDR3 memory prices continue to shoot up into the stratosphere, and so does the price of AMD's ATI Radeon HD 5000 series graphics cards, as demand exceeds supply on both counts.

As usual a run down of our systems is as follows:
  • The Affordable All-Rounder is highly budget conscious, but also does offer plenty of gaming potential and an upgrade path
  • The Overclocking Enthusiast system is for those who want to squeeze the most performance, although not necessarily the most MHz, for his or her money and has tonnes of gaming grunt for not too much cash
  • The Gaming Workhorse offers supreme performance for the heavy multi-tasker and gamer, while staying firmly under the grand mark
  • Our Premium Player package is for those who want the latest, highest performing kit with excellent cooling that won't sound like a hive of angry hornets, and without going way into the thousands.
  • Finally, the Folding Rig is designed to get the most PPD for the least £££, so we can catch those hideously ugly and damn-right smelly EVGA-ites to regain our rightful place in the Folding@home world rankings!
As always, we write the buyer's guide not as a definitive must buy list, but as a monthly update of systems and parts we know will go well together within a particular budget. Take what you want from each build - from affordable, capable PCs, to gaming behemoths - whether it be just a few bits of hardware or the whole thing if you need a ground-up upgrade. We sift through the mass of hardware and recommendations, decide from what we've tested and what we know to be good, then setup the above PCs to fit several budgets.

Affordable All Rounder

Not everyone can afford, or needs an expensive quad core CPU - but how about a nifty dual core setup capable of 3.5 to 4GHz with a graphics card that will handle the latest DirectX 10 games at 1,680 x 1,050? Let's just say we're really pleased with how this build has turned out this month, and we can't think of a better way to get the most value with an upgrade path, from what amounts to a very conservative budget. Changing from last month, we have still kept the Affordable system at the £400 mark almost exactly, although the US cost has gone up by $5, but we've still kept it as best we can around the $550 mark.

*What Hardware Should I Buy? - Nov 2009 Affordable All Rounder

UK Price | US Price: AMD Athlon II X2 250
UK Price | US Price: MSI 770-C45
UK Price | US Price: G.Skill/OCZ 4GB 1,600MHz Cl9 DDR3

Socket AM3 is now our firm favourite in the budget end, with plenty of AMD chips in the sub-£100 area to choose from it really is a buyer's market. Forget LGA775 - it's old news with no upgrade path - unless you can pick up a nice 2nd hand kit for cheap, then go for it because it should last the course for another year yet.

Combining the very capable and overclockable Athlon II X2 250 with MSI's excellent value 770-C45 should provide a very solid combination. It now features core unlocking with the latest BIOS, so if you want to upgrade to a Phenom II X2 550 BE or Phenom II X3 720 BE CPU, it will handle it. That said, those are outside this budget though.

Couple this combination with some decent 4GB kit 1,600MHz CL9 DDR3 memory - this month from G.Skill and OCZ - and there's enough memory performance to cope with overclocking too. Be wary of memory prices though as they change daily, are still ever increasing and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. We recommend getting in sooner rather than later for the upgrade right now.

UK Price: Powercolor Radeon HD 4850 512MB
US Price: MSI GeForce GTS 250 512MB

We've flipped the tables since last month: cheap GeForce GTS 250 512MB cards are no longer available in the UK, whereas Radeon HD 4850s are, and the reverse is the case in the US. That means we can squeeze a Powercolor HD 4850 into our UK budget, but go for an MSI with large aftermarket cooler for its GTS 250 512MB in the States. Both have enough game for popular resolutions like 1,680 x 1,050 or 1,280 x 1,024 if you must.

We considered the much cheaper ATI Radeon HD 4770 512MB but the difference is still considerable in favour of the other two. We wouldn't pay more than £85 for a Radeon HD 4850 though, since the GeForce GTS 250s in the UK are now £90 and generally perform better.

UK Price | US Price: Corsair CX400 PSU
UK Price | US Price: Antec Three Hundred (300)
UK Price: Akasa AK-876
US Price: Arctic Cooling Freezer 64 Pro

Once again the ludicrously good value Antec Three Hundred (300) pops its head up again at just £40 - even cheaper than last month - and coupled with a Corsair CX400W PSU makes an excellent combination for a tidy looking box with plenty of adjustable cooling and a quality, stable power supply. If you want to knock the budget down a little, there are the Cooler Master Elite cases to check out, but little else we'd recommend: you get what you pay for.

The Akasa and Arctic Cooling CPU heatsinks are both cheap, reasonably quiet and better than the reference cooler by a large margin, but if you want to really throw the volts through the Athlon II then we highly suggest spending more on a larger heatsink - a CPU taming Titan Fenrir can be had for as little as £30 now.

UK Price | US Price: LG GH22NS50 22x DVD-RW SATA Black
UK Price | US Price: 500GB Seagate 7200.12 ST3500418AS SATA hard disk

When it comes to optical drives most of the products on the market now are very similar, so we've opted for a nice cheap LG SATA DVD-RW drive. Hard disks however differ wildly between models and manufactuers, but the 500GB Seagate 7200.12 SATA hard disk is ideal for a cheap and very affordable PC that packs a serious punch. While we recommend the Seagate due to its bargain price tag of just over £35 for 500GB of storage, it's certainly worth considering stretching to a 500GB Samsung Spinpoint F3, although the faster Samsung is several pounds more expensive at £42.
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