PC Buying Guide: December 2003

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A quick update on buying recommendations as I’m off to buy yet another machine for Connie’s Dad. The recommendations are particularly hard since between the Pentium IV and Athlon 64, things aren’t super clear:
h4. High-end System ($1500 target)
| Component | Price | Comment |
| Shuttle SN85G4 | “$330”:http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=150965 | SK83G2 need to check it out |
| AMD Athlon 64 3200+ | “$404″:http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=80700-OEM” | “3000+”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=1734754/blsrt=1/ut=0ce4169308a239fb is $215 |
| Kingston 1GB PC3200 KHX3200AK21G | “$198”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=939430/blsrt=1/ut=0ce4169308a239fb | PC3500 is $250 for overclocking |
| Optorite DD0401 | “$127”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=1595697/blsrt=1/ut=0ce4169308a239fb | 8x DVD+/-RW and Optorites are good |
| Hitachi Travelstar 7K250 | “$276”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=1146400/ut=0ce4169308a239fb | WD2000JB is $156 and 10% slower |
| ATI Radeon 9800 Pro | “$273”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=704418/ut=0ce4169308a239fb | “9200”:http://www.slcentral.com/Radeon-9200-SE/ for “$55”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=1582127/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4basic, “$211”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=1089875/blsrt=1/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 for 9600 All in Wonder for video capture too |
| Total | $1,608 | Without monitor, keyboard, mouse |
BTW, the really great monitors right now are is the Samsung Syncmaster “191T”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=552795/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 at $641, it got a great Tom’s Hardware review.
“ExcaliberPC”:http://www.excaliberpc.com/product_info.php?manufacturers_id=24&products_id=2973 is doing a promotion for a Shuttle XPC SN85G4 and the AMD Athlon 3200+ for $725, which is normally $740 from Zipzoomfly. There is alos a $30 rebate on SN85G4 through January 5 as well.
h4. Mid-range ($1000 target)
For gaming focus…
| Component | Price | Comment |
| Shuttle SN85G4 | “$355”:http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=150965 | SK83G2 has just come out with integrated graphics |
| AMD Athlon 64 3000+ | “$230”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=1734754/blsrt=1/ut=0ce4169308a239fb | Athlon XP 3200+ is $312, Athlon 64 is $420 |
| Kingston HyperX 512MB kit | $105 | $198 for 1GB “KHX3200AK21G”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=939430/blsrt=1/ut=0ce4169308a239fb |
| Optorite DD0401 | “$127”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=1595697/blsrt=1/ut=0ce4169308a239fb | Haven’t seen reviews yet but Optorite has good record |
| Western Digital WD2000JB | $156 | 10% slow than the Hitachi, less important for games |
| ATI Radeon 9600 Pro | “$134”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=987780/blsrt=1/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4| “$145”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=815096/blsrt=1/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 from ATI ||
| Total | $1,107 | Without monitor, keyboard, mice |
For video/audio encoding and ripping:
| Component | Price | Comment |
| Shuttle ST61G4 | “$370”:http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=150966 | Use the SB61G2 at “$280”:http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=150956 if you don’t game at all |
| Intel Pentium 4 3.0GHz | “$278”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=779130/ut=0ce4169308a239fb | $215 for 2.8GHz, $400 for 3.2GHz |
| Kingston HyperX 512MB kit | $105 | Or $193 for 1GB kit |
| Optorite DD0401 | $127 | 8x really needed for DVD writing |
| Western Digital WD2000JB | $156 | Only one drive allowed, so want it big |
| Total | $1036 | Add an ATI Radeon 9800 to 2x game speed |
h4. Low-end system (office usage)
| Component | Price | Comment |
| Shuttle SK43G | “$230”:http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=150967 | DDR333 or less |
| AMD Athlon XP 2500+ | “$86”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=697070/blsrt=1/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 | “$136”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=703028/blsrt=1/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 for 2800+ |
| Kingston 512MB | “$74”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=687181/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 | PC3200 so can overclock |
| Lite-On LTC4816H CD-RW/DVD-ROM | “$47”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=825908/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 | Lite-ON 523227S CD-RW for “$32”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=992349/blsrt=1/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 |
| Western Digital WD1200JB Disk | “$93”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=541564/blsrt=1/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 | Best $/MB and good performance |
| Total | $530 | A great office machine |

Here’s the backing data on each category
h4. High-end Backing data
I’ll try to keep this at about $1,500 for the machine not including a monitor. It’s the ultimate machine that folks can love for its raw power and no compromises. Not quite at the bleeding edge, but just one step back from it. So what’s changed since October? Well, be the first on the block with a 64-bit PC 🙂
“Athlon 64 3000+”:http://www.hardocp.com/article.html?art=NTYw. It is an Athlon 64 3200+ (2.0GHz 1Mb cache) but with a 512KB cache instead of 1MB. It’s also at the unbelievable price of $220 or about half the $400 for an Athlon 64 3200+ or Pentium IV 3.2GHz. It also undercuts the Athlon XP 3200+ (the older Barton core) which is still at $300 and the Pentium IV 3.0GHz also at $300. These are probably the $400 parts that failed test, but still have 512KB of good cache.
“AMDZone Review of 3000+”:http://www.amdzone.com/articleview.cfm?ArticleID=1371 and “3200+ reviews”:http://www.amdzone.com/articleview.cfm?articleid=1344 shows that the two processors run identically in CPU intensive chores (not surprising, they are running at the same 2.0GHz clock rate), but for games there are differences where Athlons are faster and video/audio encoding where Pentium wins:
| Benchmark | Athlon 64 3200+ | Athlon 64 3000+ | Pentium IV 3.2GHz | Comment |
| Comanche 4 | 63.8 | 60.5 | 65.4 | 5% slower than Pentium |
| Unreal 2003 Citadel | 90 | 92.5 | 80 fps | 3000+ still 10% faster than Pentium |
| Quake Arena | 410 | 380 | 444.1 | 10% slower on Quake but Pentium IV benchmark not on same hardware, should be about 420 |
“Hardtec4u”:http://www.hardtecs4u.com/reviews/2003/amd_athlon64_3000/index1.php. This is a German site, but they’ve done the most comprehensive benchmarks to date:
| Benchmark | Pentium 3.0GHz | Pentium 3.2GHz | Athlon 64 3200+ | Athlon 64 3000+ | Athlon XP 3200+ | Comment |
| Business Winstone 2002 | 34.9 | 37.3 | 42.9 | 42.0 | 43.5 | Higher better, XP is actually faster |
| Content Winstone 2003 | 55.5 | 58.7 | 56.3 | 56.5 | 52.2 | About the same |
| TMPGEnc | 83 | 79 | 90 | 93 | 98 | Video encoding, Pentium wins, lower better |
| Mainconcept MP3 Encoding | 65.6 | 62.2 | 75.4 | 77.7 | 90.4 | MP3 very CPU intensive, Pentium wins |
| Comanche 1024x768x32 | 59.3 | 62.5 | 63.6 | 60.6 | 52.6 | higher better, very close |
| Quake Arena 640x480x16 | 435 | 455 | 527 | 462 | 394 | about same |
| Unreal 2003 1024x768x32 | 58 | 60.9 | 74.4 | 71.3 | 61.9 | faster |
“Tom’s Hardware”:http://www.tomshardware.com/cpu/20030923/athlon_64-22.html did the definitive reviews in September but didn’t include the new Athlon 64 3000+, but these benchmarks let us estimate its performance. I included the Pentium 2.8GHz because it is about the same price as the Athlon 64 3000+
| Benchmark | P4 3.2| P4 3.0 | A64 3200+ | P4 2.8 | XP 3200+ | A64 3000+ |
| Quake Arena 640x480x16 (Opengl) | 464.4 | 443.3 | 440.9 | 423.7 | 361.9 | ~420 |
| Comanche 4 (DirectX8) | 67.6 | 64.4 | 66.2 | 58.5 | 56.9 | ~65 |
| Unreal 2003 1024x768x32 (DirectX8) | 238.8 | 227.8 | 262.1 | 216.7 | 218.8 | ~250 |
| X2 1024x768x32 (DirectX9) | 164.3 | 158.9 | 167.2 | 150.0 | 144.6 | ~160 |
| Gun Metal 640x480x16 (DirectX9) | 61.5 | 58.8 | 65.5 | 55.9 | 56.8 | ~60 |
| Xmpeg + DivX 5.1 VOB | 180 | 192 | 210 | 212 | 240 | ~220 |
| Lame MP3 encoding | 92 | 98 | 114 | 105 | 103 | ~110 |
These additional benchmarks show the Pentium still faster though more expensive for video and audio encoding, but about the same for everything else, so the Athlon 64 3000+ is pretty great value. So main issue is if you are doing lots of video encoding. Clock speed makes a big difference for encoding.
* The Shuttle SN85G4 is based on the nForce 3 chipset. Tom’s Hardware reports it has an AGP bug that slows it down 35%. Need to check whether this is still true in production. The Shuttle SN85G4 is now widely available, but I haven’t seen any more mention of the SK83G2 which is the VIA chipset for the Athlon 64. This reportedly doesn’t have the problem.
* On hard drives, the transition to Serial ATA is finally happening. Costs are about WD’s best ATA-100 at $0.78 per GB on ATA-100 and $1.05 for Hitachi’s S-ATA. And “Storage Review”:http://www.storagereview.com/php/tiki/tiki-index.php?page=LeaderBoard Leaderboard shows that the S-ATA are just taking over performance-wise.
* The Optorite 8x DVD+/-RW drive is now available and is very inexpensive at $127!
* Tom’s Hardware just finished their 19 inch LCD reviews and loved the Samsung.
* Switched to recommending the Serial ATA Hitachi, but if you really want to be at $1,500, then you can substitute the Western Digital WD2000JB at $110 less. It’s 10% slower in disk I/Os.
* If you don’t care about gaming, a reasonable card is the Radeon 9200 SE. “SL Central”:http://www.slcentral.com/Radeon-9200-SE/ shows it has
h4. Mid-range systems Background (gaming focus)
These are machines that are $1,000 without a monitor, keyboard, mouse. There are two options here. One for AMD Athlon (great for gaming) and Pentiums (great for video/audio encoding). Both are good choices for general purpose use.
On the Athlon side, the new Athlon 64 3000+ is a good value for gamers given performance. The upcoming SK83G2, will be another option that includes onboard graphics for casual gamers since it has onboard graphics.
The big issue is what graphics card to get. If you are just doing Office/Internet stuff, then just get the cheapest card you can. It doesn’t make any difference, but if you are gaming, the best price performance are the step down ATI 9600 series and not the flagship 9800 as shown in “Tom’s Hardware”:http://www.tomshardware.com/graphic/20031015/” analysis:
| Test | 9600 Pro | 9600 XT | 9800 Pro 128 | 9800 XT | Comment |
| Unreal 2003 Inferno P4 3.2 1600x1200x32 | 32.1 | 33.8 | 59.7 | 64.5 | 9800 2x faster |
| Unreal 2003 Inferno 1280x1024x32 FSAA Anisotropic | 29.0 | 31.6 | 54.6 | 60.0 | really need the 9800 XT |
| AquaMark 3 1024x768x32 FSAA Anisotropic | 21.4 | 26.6 | 36.6 | 39.8 | 9800 30% faster |
| Flight Simulator 2004 1280x1024x32 FSAA Anisotropic | 21.5 | 25.5 | 45.8 | 48.6 | 9800 twice as fast |
So, there is a real tradeoff with the 9600 being cheaper but 30-50% slower but also 50% cheaper. Here’s our midrange recommendation. If you don’t care about games, then getting the new SK83G2 with integrated graphics is a good bet and will save you $134 for the graphics card. Also, you could get rid of
h4. Mid-range recommendation background (audio/video ripping)
Right now folks doing audio ripping and video editing and encoding, need to use Pentiums given their raw clock advantage.
Big change is recommending the new Shuttle “ST61G4”:http://www.tech-report.com/reviews/2003q4/shuttle-st61g4/ just available ($375) and it has a Radeon 9100 chipset, which is a good choice for the casual gamer. In benchmarks at Tech-Report, it is 30-50% the performance of the 9700 Pro (that in turn is about the same speed as the 9800 Pro). “Lost Circuits”:http://www.lostcircuits.com/motherboard/shuttle_st61g4/ confirms the result. Only drawback is relatively poor USB 2.0, Fireware and Serial ATA performance. Of these, USB 2.0 is probably the biggest deal if you are doing lots of scanning.
For the CPU, the sweetspot of the market is the 3.0GHz model. Give you just a little extra. Going to the second fastest Intel CPU usually seems like a good choice for price/performance:
h4. Low-end System
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 new Shuttle “SK43G”:http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=150967 which is only a single channel memory system, so it is cheaper and not much slower in practice. No reviews on this one yet, but performance compared with the SN41G2 has been good and it comes with onboard video.
| Component | Price | Comment |
| Shuttle “SK43G”:http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=150967 | $230 | There’s a $30 rebate right now, so $200 actual |
| Shuttle Card Reader | $32 | from ewiz.com, adds a flash card reader |
| AMD Athlon XP 3200+ | “$315”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=820562/blsrt=1/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 | |
| Kingston HyperX 512MB kit | “$105”:http://www.pricegrabber.com/search_getprod.php/masterid=939431/ut=0ce41693ae1ec9b4 | Or $197for 1GB kit |
| Optorite DD0401 | $127 | Or a Lite-on 52x for $36 if a budget |
| Western Digital WD2000JB | $155 | Disk speed doesn’t matter that much|
| Total | $932 | If you only need an office machine, see below |
h4. For Budget
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. Intel doesn’t make a chipset cheaper than about $150 unless you go to the Celeron line:

One Reply to “PC Buying Guide: December 2003”

  1. Wow Rich – amazing research. Frys has bumped their wd2000jb price up to $229 from $199 (around $130 with rebates) And I thought they’d only go down !

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