New PC 2010: A Core i7-950 SSD Behemoth

I broke it to my wife that I had started the process of building a new PC. She quietly acknowledged that it was about time. My previous machine, which I built over 5 years ago, was still running fine, but had gotten slow enough that even my wife was commenting on it. And you know that if the wife notices, it's pretty bad.

My goal was a general-purpose PC: decent for gaming, powerful for media processing, and wicked fast at more mundane stuff (browsing, Office, etc.). So, after much research and nail-biting debates over components, I present you with the final build list and the prices that I ended up paying (after any rebates).

corei7950.jpg
Intel Core i7-950 Bloomfield
Probably the hardest part for me is picking a processor. There are so many good options spanning nearly every price point that there are few clear value winners. The Core i7-875K looked stellar (The Tech Report recommended it in their $1,400 "Sweeter Spot" system), but as I'm not big on overclocking and its baseline performance was pretty comparable to a stock i7-950 (3.06 GHz, quad-core). CPU performance charts at Tom's Hardware were a huge help. For upgradability purposes, I thought an LGA 1366 socket chip would be best. Then, when I saw the i7-950 on sale at MicroCenter for $199.99 - $50 cheaper than the 875K and almost $100 cheaper than many places had the 950 - my mind was made up. So far, it's been stellar...cool, fast, and there's OC potential if I ever get the urge.

     $199.99
SabertoothX58.jpg
ASUS Sabertooth X58 Motherboard
Given the CPU choice, motherboard options came down to two: expensive, and really expensive. It's a challenge to find a great LGA 1366 motherboard for under $200. However, again, The Tech Report came through and recommended this motherboard as part of their luxurious, $3,300 "Double-Stuff Workstation" rig. It has many future-proofing features, including SATA III 6Gb/s, USB 3.0 support, and two PCI Express 2.0 slots running at full X16. Hardcore gamers will find the lack of a third slot a turn-off, but you'll see below why that didn't bother me much. Reviews at Newegg.com were encouraging, too, where it's now $20 cheaper than I paid for it just a week ago.

$199.99
600t.jpg
Corsair Graphite Series 600T ATX Case
You gotta have a case to put all this stuff in, and this one was universally heralded in every review I read, including The Tech Report's, as a phenomenal case. It's listed as "Mid-Tower," but it's whopping huge; it positively dwarfs my previous machine, which I thought was big. So, be warned...it's ginormous. But, all that volume means that you have plenty of space for big cards, fans, and drives. Two big things I love about this case are its cable management solution (grommeted holes on the motherboard tray) and its essentially silent 200mm fans front and top (and a 120mm in the rear). I can easily see reusing this machine in a few years when I build another system. The $20 Corsair rebate doesn't hurt, either, bringing MicroCenter's price down even further.

$139.99
CMPSU650TX.jpg
CORSAIR CMPSU-650TX 650W Power Supply
And of course you have to have a power supply. This SLI/CrossFire-ready unit is recommended in Tech Report's "Sweeter Spot", has more than enough capacity (for my needs), and is 80-Plus Certified (good efficiency). And a $20 Corsair rebate brings it into a decent price range.

$69.99
XMS36GB.jpg
6GB of CORSAIR XMS3 DDR3 1600
RAM is important, but makes less difference than many components thanks to all the competition. This 3 x 2GB set takes advantage of the Intel X58's triple-channel memory support. I also splurged and got CAS Latency of 8, which yields a little extra headroom for overclocking in the future. And yes, it's just 6GB, but I don't do a lot that would take advantage of 12GB (the next step up). Newegg now sells this for $5 cheaper than I paid. Ah, progress!

$134.99
ENGTS450.jpg
ASUS ENGTS450 GeForce GTS 450 1GB Video Card
And here's where I'll get scoffed at for skimping. Yes, there are many graphics cards way faster than a GTS 450 (Tom's Hardware has a regularly updated Graphics Card Hierarchy Chart, which is indispensible for keeping up with the constant model number shuffling), but this is about what I need. The game I play most of the time came out in 2002, so I get 400-600 fps with this at the game's max res of 1600x1200. Yes, I should find a newer game, but that's a debate for a different time. Anyway, this card won the GeForce GTS 450 O/C Roundup at Tom's Hardware last month, and is a stellar deal even without a $10 rebate. Plus, the money I saved on graphics went towards the next item (cue evil laugh).

$119.99
PI120GS25SSDR.jpg
Patriot Inferno 120GB SSD
This is the one thing I can truly say was a last-minute addition to my configuration. I had been tempted, but really couldn't justify the extra cost. Then, when I discovered that the whole system was going to come in under a grand, I figured I had some room and went for it. This SATA II (SATA III added too much cost for too little benefit) solid state drive is roomy enough that Windows 7 won't fill it, yet small enough not to force me to take out a home equity loan. Because of its SandForce SF-1200 controller, read & write performance are both very good, per Hot Hardware's review. Its job is solely to support the operating system and installed programs...all mass storage will go on the next item. Sure, there are some faster similarly sized SSDs by a few percentages, but they're all quite a bit more expensive, too. A $30 rebate from Patriot helps ease the pain, although Newegg's price has jumped up since I bought this.

$219.99
HD103SJ.jpg
SAMSUNG Spinpoint 1TB HDD
It's a 7200 RPM, SATA II hard drive...nothing to get too excited about. The Tech Report did recommend this particular drive in their "Sweeter Spot" build, so that's something. My one tinge of buyer's remorse is getting just a 1TB drive when a 1.5TB or even a 2TB would've been just a few bucks more. But, since it's just mass storage, it'd be trivial to upgrade it in the future. Purchased from MicroCenter.

$59.99
DRW24B1STBLKBAS.jpg
ASUS DRW-24B1ST 24X DVD Burner
A generic (does Asus still count as "generic"?) optical drive. The one thing I forgot in all this is that, since this is an OEM drive, it doesn't come with a SATA cable. Thankfully, I had a few in a drawer. I didn't opt for a Blu-Ray drive because I never watch movies at my PC, and I'm sure not moving this massive case around the house to get it near a TV.

$19.99
Hyper212.jpg
COOLER MASTER Hyper 212 CPU Heatsink & Fan
Recommended by virtually everyone, and now Newegg has a $15 rebate that wasn't available when I bought mine. The only thing is that this is a giant heatsink...it has zero chance of fitting in a petite case. Installation was a bit fidgety, but the final assembly seems rock solid and very effective.
$29.99
Tax & Shipping:$56.48
Total Cost:$1251.38
Note: You can find this entire list on one handy page at Newegg.

So, how did it all go together? Pretty painlessly, actually. The hardest parts were deciding how to route cables for best airflow (solution, run them through the grommets and stick them all behind the motherboard plate) and mounting the Cooler Master heatsink. All told, including installing Windows 7, took about 4 hours. But then I wasn't in a hurry, if you know what I mean. :-)

Performance so far has been far beyond my expectations. I'm sure Windows 7 is partly the reason, but I suspect the SSD plays a big part in the fact that this new rig will boot from stone cold to usable in under 45 seconds. Microsoft Word and Excel start in under a second. Ripping a 2-hour DVD using Handbrake to high-quality H.264 took 50 minutes, while my old machine (a 2.4GHz Athlon 64) took over 5 hours with the same film and settings. Everything starts and happens damn near instantaneously...it's pretty amazing. Gaming is better, too, but that's to be expected. The only thing I'm a little disappointed by is the noise...the combination of three case fans, a 650W PSU fan, and a GPU fan makes this whole rig comparatively noisy. OK, to be fair, it's audible.

In summary, this turned out to be slightly more expensive than I had originally planned, but I think the extra money went into the right spots for the performance I care most about. It's a very upgrade-friendly system with good overclocking potential and terrific usability as is. So, I'm pretty happy. Looking at the above list, I'm surprised to see so much come from Corsair and Asus. What I'm not surprised by is that the best price on everything came from Newegg and MicroCenter.  I've tried to find a comparable prebuilt system, and the closest I've seen was priced at $1800, making this a pretty good bargain if you don't mind some elbow grease.

I hope this is useful to someone...if you have questions, post a comment or email me at [craig dot froehle at gmail dot com].