Current Cost: $920 ($460 each)
Consecutive Guides: 4
Price Change: -$40 each
NVIDIA might not have released a new high-end graphics card, but that hasn't kept the rest of the industry from moving forward. In fact, it's probably because lower-cost products are now approaching the performance levels of the 8800GTX that its price has come down.
The standard-speed GeForce 8800 GTX 768MB is set at 575 MHz core, 1.35 GHz shader, and 1.8 GHz memory default clock speeds, which translates into a fillrate of 36.8 Gtexels/s and a memory bandwidth of 86.4 GB/s. This is a powerful single-card solution, and provides serious gaming power in a SLI configuration.
If you're looking for something a bit faster without breaking the budget, a few lesser-known brands are even offering overclocked versions at similar prices.
Current Cost: $900 ($450 each)
Consecutive Guides: New
Price Change: N/A
It's been a while since ATI (now a division of AMD) has offered a compelling high-end graphics solution, but the HD 3870 X2 is finally able to challenge the venerable GeForce 8800GTX in performance. ATI fans welcome the news.
The Radeon HD 3870 X2 might not beat the 8800GTX in most games, but it's certainly close, and slightly less expensive. Based on two mainstream HD 3870 graphics chips, this "Crossfire on a card" configuration clocks the graphics cores at 825MHz and the memory at GDDR3-1800.
Had these been our first choice, we could have also picked updated, Crossfire motherboards using either the Intel X48 Express or the AMD 790FX chipset. So why didn't we go the ATI route? First of all, a few (and shrinking in number) games don't use both graphics processors, and a combination of two dual-GPU cards in Quad Crossfire mode (QuadFire, CrossfireX 4-way) can be difficult to set up. But for ATI fans that have the time, money, skill, and patience, it's a perfect solution.
We blew a quarter of our budget on graphics cards, so why would we want to display such awesome graphics power on a skinny little 900-pixel high display? With CRT's gone and "standard aspect ratio" LCD's going for collector's prices, our only viable option for getting the pixel count we want is to choose a 24" widescreen display. But not just any 24" LCD display would be worthy of a $4,000 PC. We wanted the best our budget would allow, and for that we chose the Westinghouse L2410NM.
Although officially a budget model, the Westinghouse L2410NM provides far greater performance than many buyers would expect. A true 8-bit MVA panel provides an 8ms response time and 176° viewing angle in both horizontal and vertical directions, with a 1000:1 contrast ratio and a 500 cd/m2 brightness level. These attributes closely approach the performance of higher-cost competitors, and our own experience with the L2410NM shows very few flaws that would otherwise prevent its use in high-end gaming environments.
So what are its flaws? Visually, the only noteworthy problem is that its default contrast ratio obscures certain dark objects, which can be compensated by increasing software gamma settings. Ergonomically, the stand is not height or side-to-side tilt-adjustable, and it's bouncy enough to require a sturdy, heavy desk. These small sacrifices are necessary to get a 1920x1200 pixel screen with otherwise good performance into the budget we had left after configuring the rest of our system.
High-definition connectivity comes by way of VGA and HDMI, while additional devices can also be attached using component, s-video, or composite connectors. The unit includes a VGA cable, but we'd suggest buyers consider an HDMI to DVI cable as a complimentary item.
Current Cost: $170
Consecutive Guides: 2
Price Change: 0
We brought back the X-Fi Platinum Fatal1ty Champion Series from our previous guide, which is identical to the X-Fi Platinum Fatal1ty FPS of our earlier four guides. With Creative blocking or buying the creative efforts of other sound chip developers, we had no other choice. Buyers still get a theoretical performance boost from 64MB of "X-RAM" for caching sounds, and this most recent model still features an ultra-high 109db signal-to-noise ratio enhanced by EAX 5.0 audio effects.
Still missing is real-time multi-channel digital encoding to a single output, via Dolby Digital Live or DTS Connect. Also, like all of Creative's high-end cards since the SB Live, the lack of a case-standard front panel audio connector necessitates the use of a "Live-Drive" equipped model to enable front-panel headphone/microphone port access. All of these features were supposed to have been supported by an alternative X-Fi model from Auzentech, but the firm is apparently still unable to figure out the required driver alterations.
Current Cost: $235
Consecutive Guides: 9
Price Change: -$30
Our chosen soundcard lacks DDL or DTS Connect and thus requires analog connections for multi-channel game audio. But loudspeaker technology hasn't changed much since before the PC era, and high-end PC speakers had already been developed long ago. One product that still stands out as the pinnacle of classic technology, Logitech's Z-5500 has survived our guide through and amazing nine revisions.
We've yet to find a 7.1-channel analog speaker system that can surpass the quality of Logitech's 5.1-channel Z-5500, and games are typically encoded for 5.1 channels anyway. Those who believe they have a better plan are welcome to send feedback, but until then we'll continue to go with the time-proven quality of Logitech's top analog system.
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