Thursday, February 12, 2009

Example Systems

I've been looking over the example systems at Anandtech. For the most part they do make reasonable choices. However, sometimes they betray definite biases in either choice of processor or their desire for overclocking instead of practicality.

Some things just naturally divide into sections, like oranges for example. But computer systems like most things take a bit more effort. However, there are a few common sense rules that help. First of all, as cost increases it has to increase overall, not just in one area. For example, it would be silly to keep memory, harddrives, and video the same but triple the cost of the CPU. As a very good rule of thumb, the drive cost, memory cost, video and display costs will all increase proportionately. Also, not only will the cost increase but so will the capacities. A more expensive system should have a faster (or higher core) CPU, more (and possibly faster) memory, more harddrive capacity (and perhaps speed), higher resolution video and a larger monitor. We would also have to increase power supply size to match the greater system demands and we would probably make some minor upgrades to case, keyboard, mouse, speakers, and perhaps audio. Secondly, if we are going to compare systems then they must have comparable capacities and attributes, not simply comparable costs. Without this common sense notion we could easily end up comparing one system where we spend $500 on audio/video/display and $200 on CPU/motherboard/memory with another that does just the opposite. Yet, it should be obvious that a system that is heavy on AV and light on CPU would be a completely different animal than one that is heavy on CPU and light on AV even if they happen to have the same pricetag.

Looking over the most recent example systems at Anandtech we see 5 categories: Value, Budget, Midrange Value, Midrange Performance, and i7 Overclocking and Dream. Not only are the names a bit confusing but the cost spread is absurd. The first system starts at about $540 which is fine but the cost to move up to each higher system progresses like this: $300, $600, $570, $140, and $2690; this isn't much of a spread. As you move up in price the cost of everything increases so the price between systems also increases. It makes no sense that the the third increase is smaller than the second and makes even less sense that the fourth increase is only half of the first. A more common sense spread would be something like: $300, $450, $600, and $750. So, if we start at $550 then our target systems would cost: $550, $850, $1300, $1900, and $2650. But then we have to skip $3550 to reach AT's Dream system price at about $4600.

The AMD entry and Intel entry level systems listed by Anandtech aren't too bad. However, I would cut the memory in half to 2GBs and we could easily get a midtower case for $25 and a nice CoolerMaster 460 watt power supply for $35. We would end up with the same $60 pricetag as AT but with a better PSU. Next, we can see that Anandtech tried to pull a fast one by sneaking in the too expensive E5200 Wolfdale for the Intel system. They then tried to cover this up by artificially jacking up the AMD motherboard cost. Tsk, tsk. The nVidia 7100 motherboard for $60 for the Intel system is fine but the actual equivalent AMD motherboard would only cost $55 for a 690/740 board (instead of $80 for a 780G board like AT used). So, we toss out the $80 E5200 Wolfdale and $80 AMD motherboard and see what is around $60. We end up with an AMD 2.7Ghz 7750 dual core Kuma and Intel 2.2Ghz 1500 dual core Celeron for about $63. We end up with a system cost of $489. This is a pretty good price for an entry level system. But, for about $40 more we could upgrade to 4GB of memory and either upgrade the AMD to 780G graphics or the Intel to 9000 series nVidia graphics.

Our target is $850 for the next system. I would probably bump the case up to a $38 Gigabyte mid tower and the power supply to the 550 watt CoolerMaster for $60. And, double the amount of system memory to 4GBs of DDR2 for $45. I would probably go with a $105 790GX board. This would give the AMD system adequate graphics for most uses including sims and mid level gaming. Unfortunately, AT has once again tried to pull a fast one by using a $120 Intel board and then putting in an $85 graphic card to hide Intel's weak onboard graphics. Tsk, tsk. So, we toss out the Intel board with junk graphics and use an nVidia board instead. The equivalent 9000 series board will run just $5 more at $110. The target price for processor is $90. For Intel this means either an $85 2.6Ghz E5300 or $95 2.7Ghz E5400 dual core. With AMD it means either using the older and only slightly faster 3.0Ghz dual core 6000+ Windsor or using the slower clocked triple core 2.3Ghz 8650 Toliman. The Toliman is the better choice since this gives a boost of about 28% albeit at the cost of single threaded performance. Next, rather than increasing the size of the single harddrive (like AT did) I would add a second harddrive as a work drive. This means bumping the harddrive cost from $85 to $120 for two 500 GB drives. Even so, we end up with a system cost of $750. We might drop down to $80 AMD and Intel motherboards without graphics and then add an HD 4650 for $60. This would give us a good balance and still only $780.

For our next system we have a target of $1300. The example systems in this range are not very balanced. In particular the Intel system ends up quite top heavy in audio/video. We can get a good motherboard for $120, upgrade the speakers to $70, $80 for case, and a Blu-Ray drive for $105. $200 for a 21" widescreen monitor seems fine. But the power supply is more of a problem. To make sure we have some flexibility we need something SLI and Crossfire certified. And, this means moving up to $120 for a 650 watt certified CoolerMaster. On the other hand, standard motherboards have pretty good sound so we drop the $50 sound card. We then upgrade the memory to 8GBs. The target for the CPU is $150. The obvious choice for AMD is the triple core Phenom II X3 720 2.8Ghz Black Edition for $150. However, with Intel we face the same problem we did with AMD on the previous system. We could go with the 2.93Ghz E7500 dual core for $140 but a better choice would be to move up to $170 and use the slower clocked 2.33Ghz Q8200 quad core. I would replace the work drive with a 1 TB drive and increase the memory to 6 GBs. I would probably have to go with a $90 4830 video card and we end up with a system cost right at our target of $1300.

The target price for the third system is $1900. We upgrade the mouse, keyboard, and speakers. We upgrade the case to $100 and the power supply to a 750 watt certified CoolerMaster for $130. We upgrade to two 1 TB drives for $200. We upgrade the monitor to a 24" for $290. The target price for the CPU is $235. For $230 for AMD we have the quad core 3.0Ghz Phenom II X4 940 and for Intel we have the quad core 2.66Ghz Q9400 for the same price. We upgrade the memory to 8 GBs. And, we'll use an HD 4870 for $200. We upgrade the HSF and end up at about $1850. Anandtech's Entry Level i7 system should be in this range because by the time you balance the system (with more memory, better monitor, etc.) you end up at about $2100 instead of $1450.

This leaves the final two systems. We have the i7 Overclocking system. Unfortunately, their choices for system components are somewhere between absurd and psychotic. You simply can't build a balanced system for $2140 when the CPU, memory, and motherboard are so expensive and 3GB's of memory on a system over $2000 is a real knee slapper. We need to bump the target price up to $2650. Their choices for mouse, keyboard, speakers, optical drive, case, and monitor are fine. But, they completely blew it in terms of memory, harddrives, video card and power supply. Let's start with a Zalman 1000 watt certified power supply for $290. The target price for the CPU is $330 so the 2.66Ghz i7 920 for $290 is good. We need at least 9GBs of DDR3, not 3 GBs. The harddrive is also a joke. I would bump that to three 1 TB drives. And, although the $190 Blu-Ray burner is fine I would add a second regular Blu-Ray drive for $105. And we need to change the video card to a dual HD 4870 X2 for $440. We find that we are unable to hit the target and end up with a well balanced system price of around $2900. Similarly a good i7 Dream system cannot be built for what they claim. By the time you balance the system the price without SSD is around $5600. To be honest, I'm sceptical of Anandtech's conclusion that i7 was the only choice for a Dream system. The truth is that while none of AMD's desktop processors are in this performance class you could make a good argument that you could build an even more powerful system using dual Opteron 2380's.