PC Buying Guide for Fall 2004

Well, it had to happen, folks are asking me what to buy for this fall season. Here are recommendations by category (assuming you are building up your own box). Here’s a summary:
h4. For Power Users
The Athlon 64 3200+ in a Shuttle SN85G4 barebones system with ATI Radeon 9600 XT or nVidia FX 5700 Ultra graphics card, two Corsair 512MB XMS3200C2 memory modules, a Hitachi KT hard drive and Sony DRU-510A DVD RW drive.
This is a super high performance system and you get to support AMD while you’re at it. Price for this system without a monitor is about $1400. So pretty amazingly cheap really and what I would like to buy for myself. The main drawbacks covered in “Tech Reports”:http://www.tech-report.com/reviews/2003q3/shuttle-sn85g4/index.x?pg=13 are that you can only put a single drive in there because the card reader takes up a slot. Also, the USB 2.0, Firewire and Ethernet aren’t particularly fast. Overall compared with an Athlon XP 3200+ (the 32-bit version), the new Athlon 64 is about 10-20% faster running 32 bit applications. Here are the prices as of today courtesy “Pricegrabber”:http://pricegrabber.com.
The open issues are that there is a new 8x DVD Write now coming out from Optorite. Currently only “Livewarehouse”:http://livewarehouse.com/livewarehouse/shop/product.asp?dept%5Fid=18&pf%5Fid=%7BA41CA7AF%2DD3FD%2D4EAE%2DB87D%2D88B146837C4C%7D has it. Also, the Shuttle boxes are not out shipping yet and the VIA based one (SK83G2) may be cheaper and about the same performance as the nVidia based one (SN85G4)
| Component | Price | Comment |
| Shuttle SN85G4 | $348 | In preorder mode. Can get a $700 CPU+Shuttle from Excaliber. Also need to check out the SK83G2 |
| AMD Athlon 64 3200+ | $421 | |
| Kingston HyperX 1GB DDR3200 Kit | $231 | Need to check memory reviews |
| Optorite DD0203 | $106 | But Optorite DD0401 is 8x writer but is $169 |
| Hitachi 7K250 | $339 | Or WD2000JB at $160 ($120 at Fry’s retail) if you don’t need 10% more speed |
| ATI Radeon 9600 Pro | $145 | if you play games else get a cheap card|
| Total | $1590 | |
h4. For Enthusiasts Gamers
Not as pricey, but probably top of the line is a Intel Pentium 4 3.08 GHz with a Shuttle SB65G2 XPC plus the same components noted above. That is a great system probably for about $100 less than the above one. This has the best price performance. It even has serial ATA and RAID 0 support if you put in two hard drives. It also has two 100Mb Ethernet ports so you could run them in parallel if you wanted.
The big open issue here is the new Shuttle ST61G4 just available ($375) and it has a Radeon 9100 chipset, so you could potentially save $145 if you are casual gamer. Otherwise, this is a fine box. Also, if you want 1Gb Ethernet, you should get the SB75G2 which is a little more expensive and is positioned as an office machine. This setup BTW, gives up the smart card reader for a pair of hard drives, but if you are into digital photography, etc. I’d just get a single drive and the smart card reader.
| Component | Price | Comment |
| Shuttle SB62G2 | $292 | ST61G4 $375 for casual gamer don’t need video card |
| Intel Pentium 4 2.6 GHz | $175 | $215 for 2.8GHz |
| Kingston HyperX 512MB kit | $122 | Or $225 for 1GB kit |
| Optorite DD0203 | $106 | Very cheap, fast too |
| Western Digital WD1200JB x2 | $170 | Or 1 WD2000JB at $170 + card reader $32 |
| Total | $865 | If you only need an office machine, see below |
| ATI Radeon 9600 Pro | $145 | If you want high-perf gaming |
| Total Gamer | $1010 | Rocking game machine |
h4. For Power User Business Types.
If you want a powerful gaming machine get a Pentium, but if you want a basic surf the net, do some video, use Office, then you should get an Athlon because of the pricing. This machine is a little cheaper than the above because it doesn’t, but has twice the memory. Main cost issue is the need for an external video card.
The open issues here are the new Shuttle SK43G which is only a single channel memory system, so it is cheaper and not much slower in practice. This is not yet available, but I’ll update this recommendation as reviews come in.
| Component | Price | Comment |
| Shuttle SN45G | $260 | The SK43G is coming out and could be cheaper |
| Cheap 2-D Video Card | $20 | Unfortunately, no built in video |
| Shuttle Card Reader | $32 | from ewiz.com, adds a flash card reader |
| AMD Athlon XP 3200+ | $294 | $250 for 3000+|
| Kingston HyperX 512MB kit | $122 | Or $225 for 1GB kit |
| Optorite DD0203 | $106 | DD0401 is $160 with 8x burning |
| Western Digital WD2000JB | $170 | |
| Total | $1004 | If you only need an office machine, see below |
h4. For Budget
This is the great price performance system. Good for office machines where graphics power isn’t important and cost is. Amazingly, Microsoft Office really doesn’t get any faster as processor power goes up so these are great office machines. I think a Athlon is the way to go. The chipsets are much cheaper and is the CPU. So get a Shuttle SN45G with an Athlon 2700+. This is budget because Intel doesn’t make a cheaper CPU that $175
| Component | Price | Comment |
| Shuttle SN45G | $259 | Goto the SK43G if cheaper |
| AMD Athlon XP 2700+ | $108 | $132 for the 2800+ |
| Kingston 2×256 DDR2700 | $80 | |
| Lite-ON 523227S CD-RW | $36 | Or get Optorite for $106 |
| WD1200JB Disk | $95 | |
| Total | $578 | As an office machine |
I’m assuming that you already have a mouse, keyboard and monitor, so it is just the system unit we are talking about.
h4. CPUs
It’s a bit tricky because Intel has slipped its Prescott processor by six months (from Q303 to Q104), so the main thing that will happen are price reductions. So if you want to buy today, get a Pentium 3.08 if you want fast and a Pentium 2.8 is a good price now. _As an aside, now that Tom’s Hardware is sponsored by Intel, they don’t do much rumor mongering anymore, so I’ve switched to X-bit Labs (highly rated by google) as the source for rumors_:
* “Intel CPU Roadmap Changed: Prescott Postponed to 2004”:http://www.xbitlabs.com/news/cpu/display/20031011084615.html. The current generation is called Northwood based on 130nm technology. The new Prescott is based on 90nm and has bigger L1 cache (16K uOps vs. 12 uOps) and bigger L2 cache (1MB vs. 512MB). These will be big chips and burn 120 watts! Wow, so if you want to buy this Christmas, it is the Northwood. Prescott launch is December 3, but that’s just the marketing showcase.
* “Prescott anticipated pricing”:http://www.xbitlabs.com/news/cpu/display/20030915183339.html. October 26th there is a price cut and on February 15, the Prescott arrives with a massive cut. You’ll be able to get a 2.8GHz Prescott for $178. Wow, so hold on if you can.
* X-bit labs – – Intel and AMD Perform Massive CPU Price Reductions. Good news is that Northwood prices have dropped as “predicted”:http://www.xbitlabs.com/misc/picture/?src=/images/news/2003-10/cpu_price_desktop_28102003.gif&1=1. The net effect is to put the Pentium 2.8 and 3.06 into the sweetspot pricing of $218 (from $278) and $262 (from $401) respectively.
On the Athlon side, it puts the Athlon XP 3000+ at $203 from $265 at the sweetspot and the Athlon XP 2800+ at $140 from $180 as the bargain chip. But, of course, there’s quite a bit of debate about how the Athlon really compares.
* “Athlon 64”:http://www.theinquirer.net/?article=12087. AMD is on the ropes. Would be really sad if they left the microprocessor business for consumers. That being said, they have $1.8B in debt and a new CEO. If you can get an 2.0GHz Athlon 64 3200+, it is going to be very fast at $417.
* Athlon 2700+. Unlike Intel, AMD has some very low priced chips. These aren’t super competitive with the current Intel Northwood chips, but they are great for budget systems that are just going to do Office. For instance the Athlon 2700+ is just $107, but the Penitum 4 2.4 is $175 and that is pretty much the cheapest Northwood (that is 800 MHz chip around).
h4. Motherboard and system
I only recommend Shuttle “XPC”:http://www.shuttle.com/hq/product/product_b_intel.asp systems for most people. They are smaller, more convenient yet super powerful:
* “Shuttle SN85G4”:http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/mobile/display/shuttle-sn85g4.html. This is my favorite Shuttle form factor ready for the Athlon 64. Cool features are the floppy is replaced by a super card reader that supports SD, Memory Stick, MMC, and SM cards, so you can boot up from. And it has a 240 watt power supply as well plus room for a fast video card. And it has an onboard RAID controller to and you can put in two hard drives. This works great mated to a AMD Athlon 64 3200+ (working at the actual frequency of 2GHz, as you remember), RADEON 9700 Pro graphics card, two Corsair XMS3200C2 memory modules and Seagate Barracuda ATA IV HDD. Nice thing in is that there is no performance tradeoff anymore with a Shuttle. For instance Unreal Tournament 2003 plays at 82.25 fps vs. 72.26 fps on a DFI LAN Party NFII Ultra (where do folks come up with these system names?)
* “Shuttle SB65G2”:http://anandtech.com/systems/showdoc.html?i=1861. This is for the Intel platform. It has serial ATA and also a wireless LAN option. Equipped with an ATI Radeon 9800 Pro, Western Digital 120GB hard drive and 2x512MB Mushkin PC3500 Level II DS and a Pentium 4 3.08 chip, it has essentially identical performance to a full size system. Perhaps it is 2% slower.
* “Shuttle SN45G”:http://www.hardocp.com/article.html?art=NDk5. This is an update to the SN41G that uses the updated nVidia chipset. It has good performance vs. Intel-based systems for Office applications particularly when runing at DDR400. But is much slower for CPU intensive things, so a Athlon 3200 doing LAME encoding takes 54 seconds vs. an ASUS P4C800 with Pentium 3.0 GHZ taking 40 seconds. Main cost issue is that it is the only machine listed that requires an external video card. These are pretty cheap at $20 for a good 2-D one, but it does add to the cost.
* “Shuttle SN41G2”:http://anandtech.com/systems/showdoc.html?i=1764. This is a performance Athlon XP machine. When tested with 2x 256MB Corsair DDR400, Western Digital WD1200JB hard disk and the Athlon 2600+ CPU. For Office performance, you can just use the onboard graphics, it doesn’t affect performance. It is only a DDR333 system, so memory is slower than Pentium or Athlon 64.
h4. Graphics Card
If you are going to just use the machine for Office or Internet, then you don’t need a fancy card. Just use the onboard graphics. If you are going to play games then you do need a fancy graphics card. Here’s the current state:
* “Tom’s Hardware on graphics cards”:http://www.tomshardware.com/graphic/20031023/nvidia-nv38-nv36-43.html. Their latest review shows that the new ATI cards, the Radeon 9800 XT and 9600 XT are only marginally faster than the Radeon 9800 Pro and 9600 Pro they replaced. So get the 9800 Pro if it is cheaper if you want performance gaming. Pick the nVidia FX 5700 Ultra or ATI Radeon 9600 XT if you are in the mainstream. Get the 9800 Pro or 9600 Pro if you can still find it.
h4. Hard Disks
“Storagereview”:http://storagereview.com is my source for the best hard drives. here’s the scoop this month:
# There’s has a new leader, it is the Hitachi 7K250. Hitachi bought out IBM’s hard drive division and Western Digital and Hitachi now battle it out. This is a seriously cool drive. It is serial ATA, so much faster and only works on the very latest hardware (the Shuttle SN82G4), but it is seriously expensive at $339.
# Western Digital WD2000JB. This is the 8MB version with 200MB of hard disk. It was last quarters winner. The main thing is that it is quite fast, but uses a traditional interface ATA-100. Cost is also quite a bit lower at $219 a piece. You really want two of these if you are doing video BTW. Windows likes to have a scratch drive and system drive. Also most modern systems have RAID 0 in hardware, so you can make this look like a 400GB drive that is twice as fast.
# Western Digital WD1200JB. This was the winner six months ago and is the budget drive if you can believe it. It is very fast and relatively inexpensive at $95 each. Has about 112GB (thats really gigabytes, not the bogus 1 million bytes is a MB measure that the hard drive guys advertise), so it is amazing how inexpensive it is.
h4. Optical Drives:
Right now “CDR Info”:http://cdrinfo.com seems to have the most comprehensive reviews of DVD and CD drives. This is the tip over point. The price of DVD burners has dropped from $300 when I first got one to the $111-154 range. And these are for drives that burn everything. Both DVD+ and DVD- media, although there are all kinds of flaky things about what media works with what drives and with what firmware. Here are some of the latest reviews:
* Sony DRU-510A, AOpen DRW4410, “Ricoh MP5240S”:http://www.cdrinfo.com/Sections/Articles/Specific.asp?ArticleHeadline=4x+DVD%2BRW+Roundup+Vol%2E2+%28AOpen+DRW4410+%26+Ricoh+MP5240A%29+&Series=0. These are all the same drives underneath. All made by Ricoh. Performance-wise it is OK. It is slow on reading DVDs, but is fast on DVD ripping. I got a DRU-510A for my dad and can report that it was definitely flaky under Windows XP until I applied the latest driver. I also have an older Sony DRU-120A which I reflashed to be a Ricoh MP5125 for the same reason. Sony firmware ain’t that great and it is more expensive at $154. These drives BTW can read 99 minute CDs. Wow, cool.
* “Pioneer DVR-A06”:http://www.cdrinfo.com/Sections/Articles/Specific.asp?ArticleHeadline=Pioneer+DVR%2DA06+DVD%B1RW+recorder&index=12. This
is only $134 for a universal DVD+/-R writer. It is decently fast, so a good pick over the Sony DRU-510A.
* “Optorite DD0203”:http://www.cdrinfo.com/Sections/Articles/Specific.asp?ArticleHeadline=Optorite+DD0203+DVD%B1RW&Series=0. This has something call HD-BURN that lets you put 1.4GB on a CD! Main thing is that it is very fast at ripping and reading compared with the Sony and Pioneer.
* NEc NC1300A at $111. This is a completely barebones drive with no software at all. No deep review of it I could find, but seems to work OK according to forums. There is someone hacking away at the firmware to improve compatibility which is a plus. Not clear about its speed.
For the true budget folks, there is the Lite-ON CDRW now at 52x/32x/52x. About as fast as anyone ever needs for a CD burner. It is just $36.
h4. Memory
I haven’t had time to research memory. There have been issues in the past, but I’ve had good personal experience with the higher quality RAM. The Kingston HyperX line or Corsair memory seems to be favored in many reviews. The machine above are dual channel memory machines, so you always want to get two memory cards. This improved performance. So the Kingston HyperX 1GB kit is actually two matched 512MB memory cards.


  1. Rich’s PC buying guide
    Tong Family Blog: PC Buying Guide for Fall 2004 — great job rich. Especially my thanks for decoding the Shuttle product line, which I always find so confusing on their site. It ought to be simple “Here’s a good Shuttle,…

  2. Just wanted to say thanks for this very informative page. I found it last winter, and it helped push me over the edge to finally buy my first Shuttle. I love it, and I really appreciate the clean, detailed info you put out there for strangers like me.
    One suggestion: I did buy a honking-fast new graphics card for my Shuttle SB61G2. The card fit but would not operated correctly on the lowly 200-watt power supply. I had to return the card and keep using my GeForce3. Seems like all the high-end cards — including some you recommend — require 250-watt supplies, and most recommend 300 watts. That’s the only negative on my Shuttle so far. Thanks again!

  3. Thanks for the note Stephne. Glad that you bought the Shuttle. I agree, the biggest disadvantage is the small power supply.
    The later Shuttles like the SN85G4 have 250 watt supplies, but it is still marginal when you are using a bad boy like the nVidia cards. Things are slightly better with the ATI cards. They take less power.

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