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This is the time of year when it's okay to wish big. In that spirit, I've put together a wish list for building my holiday dream PC. We've tested some of these items here at PC World; but some are so new, we've yet to lay hands on them (so don't complain to me if they turn out to be less than perfect).
I didn't limit myself by price, but at the same time I didn't pick out the most expensive stuff just because I could. After all, there's no use wasting wishes on overpriced stuff. (Note: For shipping items, I grabbed prices at PC World's Product Finder, when possible, and at vendor sites everywhere else. They're accurate as of Dec 2.)
Mom, get out a pen and paper.
64 Bits and a Fast Bus, Too
For pure performance, Advanced Micro Devices' desktop chips are tough to beat. Sure, it would be nice to have AMD's big shooter, the 2.6-GHz FX-55, but $850 is just too outrageous, even on a wish list. I'm afraid even AMD's 2.4-GHz Athlon 64 4000+ (with a 1MB cache) is a bit too rich at $715.
But I'd be more than happy to receive a 2.2-GHz Athlon 64 3500+, which sells for a mere $267. Sure, it has a smaller cache (512KB), but you still get tons of 32-bit processing oomph, and you're 64-bit ready--which will come in handy should Microsoft ever ship its 64-bit Windows XP for desktops. Plus, it's a 939-pin CPU, which will work in my new wish-list motherboard, the Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe.
The A8N-SLI Deluxe is so new we've yet to test it. But if I had to pick a board on which to place my shiny new Athlon 64, it would be this one. Based on NVidia's rockin' new NForce4 chip set and due in stores about the time you read this, the Deluxe looks to have all the bells and whistles a person could want, plus the Asus stability I've come to depend upon.
The board supports not only the speedy PCI Express bus (about which I've previously pontificated), but also NVidia's slick new SLI technology, which lets you plug together two PCI Express graphics cards for enhanced performance. Add to that dual Serial ATA controllers (which support the new 3GB-per-second spec), integrated gigabit networking, plus a built-in firewall, and you shouldn't be left wanting for much. Asus expects this one to sell for about $185.
Don't worry too much about getting me the best RAM money can buy. Sure, the low latency stuff is cool, but I'm not convinced it has much of an impact on overall performance--as our recent tests indicated. Just be sure to buy me at least 1GB (two 512MB sticks, please) of DDR400 from a high-quality outfit like Corsair, Crucial, or Kingston. Expect to spend about $160.
A Few Good Drives
Some PC performance nuts swear by RAID 0, but truthfully I've never bothered with it. (An article on AnandTech seems to justify my apathy.) However, should I decide to go RAID later, the Asus A8N-SLI Deluxe supports it. I've also never been a huge believer in spending money on drives that spin at 10,000 rotations per minute, opting instead for higher-capacity hard disks that spin at a respectable 7200 rpm.
With that in mind, I'd ask for two of Seagate's new 400GB Barracuda 7200.8 drives. We're just now gearing up for our next hard drive roundup here at PC World, so we haven't yet tested the performance of Seagate's latest drive, but I'm betting it will perform well--and with two of them, having enough storage space shouldn't be an issue anytime soon. With an estimated price of $430 for one Barracuda 7200.8, two of them won't be cheap; but since they're backed by a five-year warranty, I think it's money well spent.
When it comes to optical drives, I'm less picky. I don't do much CD or DVD burning. But prices are so ridiculously low right now that it doesn't make sense to settle for anything less than a 16X unit with dual-layer capabilities. I've had good luck with Lite-On drives, so I'd probably go with the SOHW-1633S that Melissa Perenson picked as a Best Buy in our January 2005 issue. You can pick one up for about $65.
The Sound and the Vision
Today's graphics cards are more powerful than ever. True, the PC World Test Center hasn't seen any dramatic improvements attributable to the new PCI Express bus, but the graphics processing units themselves continue to evolve at a dramatic rate. I don't think you can go wrong with boards based on either ATI's or NVidia's current generation of midrange chips (or, if somebody is feeling particularly generous, their top-end models).
Being a terminally reasonable guy, though, I'd ask for a board based on NVidia's GeForce 6600GT chip. Available for less than $200, the PCI Express version with 128MB of RAM tested well, and with my SLI-capable motherboard, I'm left with the option down the road to add a second 6600GT card for a nice graphics boost.
BTW, if you're looking for the best way to goose an aging PC's graphics for games like Doom 3 2 and Half-Life, I'd recommend a card based on the AGP version of NVidia's 6600GT chip.
Despite what I expect to be a serviceable integrated audio setup on the Asus board, I'd turn to Creative's Audigy 2 ZS Platinum PCI board to get the best sound out of my PC. It's practically a legend in its own time, and for a reasonable $150, it's well worth the price. (If you're looking to, ahem, spend even more, you might consider Creative's recently released $275 Audigy 4, which we haven't yet tested.) For pure audio bliss I could use a set of Klipsch's ProMedia Ultra 5.1 speakers. They go for about $340.
Finally, I'd love to put it all together in a nice Antec case with one of the company's excellent power supplies. I've recently been on a small-form-factor kick, but the fact is I still like a tower case for easy accessibility and expandability. I'd probably ask for Antec's Performance One P160 Super Mid-Tower, which includes a couple of giant-sized quiet fans (it goes for about $111). For a power supply, I'd go with Antec's 480-watt NeoPower 480, which sells for about $130.
And since I don't want to come off as too needy, I won't ask for a new wireless keyboard and mouse, or that 21-inch LCD monitor that would look so good on my desk. Besides, I need to save a few things for the birthday list.