For that very reason, we started writing these System Buying Guides a few years back. We have three categories of Buying Guides: Budget, Mainstream and Performance. Our Budget Guide has a spending limit of $600, the Mainstream limit is $1,200 and we allocate $2,400 for our Performance Guide. The systems that we piece together here are designed to give you the best overall experience under the given budget. Obviously, if you are a gamer, you would probably want to spend more money on a video card than other components. Our guides are designed with overclocking in mind, so we often select lower-end processors / memory / video cards to save money, because we know these can be overclocked to equal or outperform higher priced hardware. All of our guides exclude common components such as a mouse, keyboard, monitor, OS, etc., under the assumption that you already own these items.
So, here we go with our August 2008 Mainstream Buying Guide...
Processor: Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 Kentsfield 2.4GHz LGA 775 Quad-Core
It's no secret that Intel has been dominating the processor market the past few years, which is why we decided to go with an Intel based system for the Mainstream build. Although the Kentsfield core has been out for some time, prices have only recently fallen to the sub-$200 mark. In fact, the Q6600 made our Performance build the last time out, so it is still quite a capable processor for Mainstream computing. The Q6600 operates at 2.4 GHz, 1066MHz FSB with 2x4M of shared L2 cache. This processor has an excellent price point and is extremely overclocker friendly.
While a factory-supplied heatsink may be fine for our Budget system, to ensure that we get the most out of our Q6600 we have paired it with Thermalright's Ultra 120 Extreme, the same cooler we spec'd for our last Mainstream build. Given that the Ultra 120 Extreme has about the same performance as the recently reviewed TRue Black 120, there's really no reason to switch to something else. Thermalright has a reputation of being one of the best heatsink manufacturers on the planet. The Ultra 120 will certainly cool the processor more efficiently than the retail Intel heatsink, but more importantly, will allow for much more headroom when pushing the processor to the absolute limits.
The P35 has proven to be a very stable and overclock-friendly chipset, the price is reasonable and by using DDR2 DIMMs we can keep memory costs down as well. The ASUS P5K makes a good match for our Q6600 processor, and supports up to 8GB of DDR2, has dual PCIe 16x slots, (although run at 16x/4x) dual Gigabit NICs, 8-channel sound and six SATA 3GB ports with RAID0/1/5/10.
If you're using a 64-bit operating system, there's really no reason not to run 4GB of memory. You'll see increased performance benefits, especially in Vista, and ensure you've got enough overhead to handle the latest games and apps. Our recent review of the OCZ Platinum PC2-8000 4GB kit shows that they overclock very well and are capable of reaching DDR2-1066 speeds or higher, matching the potential of memory kits that cost quite a bit more.
Late last year nVidia introduced the world to the G92 core and practically turned the whole GeForce 8800 series upside down overnight. The 9800GTX represents the latest version of this core, adding support for Hybrid Power and Tri-SLI graphics and running at 675Mhz core, 2200Mhz (effective) GDDR3 memory. While the 128 stream processors and 512MB 256-bit memory bus can't compete with nVidia's latest GT200 series cards, the 9800GTX gets the job done for a whole lot less dough, something we have to be mindful of even on our Mainstream build. If you prefer an ATI card, the Radeon HD 4850 is priced about the same and delivers outstanding performance as well. Either card would make for an excellent gaming machine, capable of playing any current title with a decent quality level.
So if you read our Budget build guide you will have noticed that we opted for a Western Digital RE2 drive over a Seagate 7200.11 Barracuda for cost and possible reliability reasons. For the Mainstream build we've switched back to Seagate, as the warranty and performance are simply hard to beat. We would have really liked to go with two drives in a stripe set for our Mainstream build, but the numbers just wouldn't allow for it. If you find yourself with a few more bucks in the budget you should definitely consider using a RAID0 array for even greater performance.
For the last few years the trend has been for power supplies to add more and more individual +12v rails, up to the point we're at now where many have four and some even six different lines! Some manufacturers, like PC Power & Cooling, use just a single, large +12v rail, which many consider to be more beneficial. Considering PCP&C is now owned by OCZ it's little surprise that many of their own brand power supplies share that same configuration. The OCZ EliteXStream 800 is one of those, and as our recent review showed, was plenty capable of powering even the most demanding of components with ease.
While a Blu-Ray burner may not quite fit into a Mainstream budget, there are several Blu-Ray and HD-DVD readers with DVD/CD+/-RW burning capability that do. Although HD-DVD seems to have taken flight with the dodo, Blu-Ray is very much here to stay, and any mainstream computer should at least be able to play them. The fact that this LG Electronics drive supports both formats is icing on the cake, especially if you picked the wrong format early on and now have a collection of discs that would be expensive to replace. The DVD/CD burning combo further adds to the wide range of tasks that this drive can perform.
Case: Your Choice
This is the segment of the guide that we leave totally up to you, the reader. More often than not, the decision for a case comes down to looks alone. There are a ton of great cases out here with some really good features, but you may not like one case simply because it doesn't fit your style, which is totally fine.
Using our Price Grabber shopping engine to find the lowest prices on each of our components, we come up with a grand total of $1068.41 (as of writing). With our budget of $1200, this leaves us $131.59 to cover the cost of a case and shipping. While this may seem a bit on the short side, especially if you've got your eye on a full size, fully-featured tower case, there are actually several manufacturer rebates offered on our product picks that will leave you with more green to play with. From a performance standpoint, overclocking the processor, memory and video card will take this system to the next level and allow you to run the latest and greatest applications and games for a good while to come.