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Building a Custom Cutting Edge PC System for Under £900 or $1250

In Computer Hardware, Electronics, Gaming, Overclocking & Tweaking on July 20, 2009 at 2:14 am

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Requirements

I’ve been asked by a few friends to lay out the specification for a high-end future-proof PC on a reasonable budget. So let’s kick this article off by broadly specifying our goals. To sum it up: We want a PC that does everything, does it well, and doesn’t cost crazy amounts of money!

These goals can only be met by a very high-end rig:

1.) Play HD movies in Blu-ray format on a HDTV or HD LCD Monitor at ‘Full HD’ (1920×1080 resolution)

2.) Handle all the latest games at high resolutions (1680×1050, 1920×1200 and 2048×1152)

3.) Handle video editing, encoding, decoding tasks efficiently

4.) 2D Graphics/Art/texturing – Adobe Photoshop CS4 and related tools should run ‘fast’

5.) Support for 3D modelling using software such as Maya, 3D studio max, and real-time rendering in games development work

6.) Science Simulation/Engineering CAD: should run Solidworks, Matlab, AutoCAD, and other engineering software efficiently

7.) Stanford Research Institute – Folding@Home. Lots of people are getting into the craze, potentially helping fight disease by ‘lending’ computer-time on their systems. The designed system should have these capabilities

8.) Future-proofing/Upgradability- There is really no such thing as future-proofing when it comes to technology. The evolution of technology is not a straight-line deal. Instead, the industry loves to keep taking right-angle turns every year or two just so they can throw customers off trail. But let’s see what we can do. NVidia’s Geforce GT300 and ATi’s Radeon HD 5000 series of 40nm and 32nm graphics cards are coming out soon. We’d like the system to be able to handle these. The system should have options for dual or triple GPU support in the form of SLI or Crossfire. Use of newer, rather than an older platform is recommended.

9.) Overclocking and tweaking – the system should provide headroom for enthusiasts

Budget

Now, looking at these requirements it is easy to see a properly geared Intel Core i7 socket 1366 rig satisfying all the required criteria and do it well, but such a system is going to be more expensive than an AMD AM3 or a Intel LGA775 based system. We could probably manage all this with a last-generation LGA775 system for £750.

Still let’s set ourselves a budget of about £900 and see how well we can do with the next-generation platform.

The Choices

CM 690 Dominator:  - The case, and therefore the "look" of the new rig

CM 690 Dominator: The case, and therefore the "look" of the new rig

The parts listed here were picked from Scan.co.uk (prices correct at time of listing):

Intel i7 920, D0 SLEBJ S1366, Nehalem, 2.66 GHz, QPI 4.8GT/s, 8MB Cache, 20x Ratio, 130W – £204.90

Asus P6T SE, Intel X58, Sok 1366, PCI-E 2.0 (x16), DDR3 2000/1866/1800, SATA 3Gb/s, SATA RAID, ATX – £140.50

896MB Asus GTX 275 55nm, 2322MHz GDDR3, GPU 633 MHz, Shader 1404 MHz, 240 Cores + Terminator Game – £149.81

750 GB Western Digital WD7501AALS Caviar Black, SATA 3Gb/s, 7200rpm, 32MB Cache – £60.34

LG GGC-H20L Lightscribe SATA 16xDVD±R +RWx8/-RW x6 Also READS – Blu-Ray & HD Disc’s black – £78.07

Sub-Total: £633.62 (including VAT).

Delivery: £9.99

The parts listed here were picked from Overclockers.co.uk (prices correct at time of listing):

Patriot Viper 6GB (3x2GB) DDR3 PC3-12800 (1600MHz) Low Latency Tri-Channel (PVT36G1600LLK) – £75.99

Coolermaster CM-690 Dominator Case – Black (No PSU) – £49.99

PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 Quad-Crossfire PCI-E 750W Power Supply – £89.99

Akasa AK-967 Nero Direct Contact Heatpipe CPU Cooler (AM2/AM2+/939/LGA775/LGA1366) – £24.99

OCZ Freeze Extreme Thermal Conductivity Compound – £3.44

Sub-Total: £244.40 (including VAT).

Delivery: £11.75

Grand Total: £878.02 (including VAT)

Total Delivery Charge: 21.74

– TOTAL SYSTEM PRICE: £899.76 –

Justifying Choices

Processor: Core i7 920 2.66 GHz D0 stepping – This entry level i7, hyperthreaded (8 logical cores, of sorts) processor is more than adequate for our needs. In some tasks specifically, such as engineering/scientific applications and video editing, it will even out perform some of the fastest last-generation Intel CPUs such as the Q9550. We are sticking with the 920 rather than a 940 because the price difference is vast while the performance gains are negligible. Our chosen i7 920 D0 stepping (SLEBJ) allows  for a very  reliable overclocking advantage. It should be possible to get this processor up to a stable 4.0 GHz with proper cooling.

Intel's new Core i7 platform. Compatible lower-end i5s will be coming soon.

Intel's new Core i7 platform. Compatible lower-end i5s will be coming soon.

Asus P6T SE Mainboard: This mainboard is rather cheap for an i7 board, but this is probably due  in large part to the lack of out-of-the-box SLI support, as Asus can save on the licensing fees for SLI by supporting only Crossfire. However it should be possible to cross flash the P6T SE with an updated Asus P6T BIOS thus enabling SLI support. Alternatively the MSI X58M Micro-ATX mainboard is £10 cheaper and also supports SLI with a simple BIOS update to the latest version.

Hard Disk: 750 GB, 7200 RPM, 32MB Cache Western Digital Caviar Black. This is simply one of the best hard disks out there. The Caviar Black series offer the best performance/price ratio. They perform reliably better than even Seagate’s Spinpoint F1, and sometimes even out do their bigger, meaner cousin: The ultra- expensive Western Digital 10,000 RPM Raptors! The 750GB and 1TB Caviar Black drives also includes StableTrac™ technology where the motor shaft that is secured at both ends minimizing vibrations and stabilizing the disk platters. The 640GB and 500GB Caviar Blacks do not carry this feature.

Western Digital Caviar Black

Western Digital Caviar Black

Asus GTX275 896MB: This card performs only slightly better than a Nvidia stock GTX 275, however many benchmarks have shown it has quite a bit of latent overclocking potential. At the price, £150, it is almost as cheap as some of the more expensive GTX 260/216s. With the 240 stream processors of the GTX 285, and the 448-bit memory bus/896MB frame buffer of the GTX 260, this card provides the best balance between price and performance. As our goals require handling advanced engineering software, high-resolution gaming, and Folding@Home, a good graphics card is a necessity. The choices boil to the GTX 285 (£225-£250), the GTX 275 (£150-£180) the GTX 260 (£120-£135) or ATI options such as the Radeon HD 4890. However, we went the NVidia route and with the pricing on this card, it’s a little too good to pass up.

Asus GTX 275 896MB

Asus GTX 275 896MB

Patriot Viper 6GB (3x2GB) Triple-Channel (1600MHz) DDR3 RAM: 1.65 Volts, 1600MHz, and 8-8-8-24 timings at £75.99. Nuff sed!

Coolermaster 690 Dominator: Good cooling, spacious, tool-free, and the price is right. It’s a bit heavy but what ya gonna do.

PC Power  & Cooling Silencer 750W Quad Crossfire: PC P&C is a well-known PSU manufacturer that is respected by the enthusiast community. This particular PSU is very heavy at 3.5+ KGs but with PSUs, weight is directly proportional to quality. To further accentuate that last point, this comes with a 5 YEAR WARRANTY! 750W should allow for even SLI with a second GTX 275, with some breathing room. In tests these PSUs have even been found to supply a steady 790w, though I wouldn’t count on it as that’s above rating. We can also hope the next generation of DirectX 11 capable GT300 GPUs consume roughly the same power as the GT200b series, so the PSU may even accommodate dual GT300 SLI, but it’s far more likely a single high-end GTX 380 (hypothetical name :D) would be more than adequate and this PSU should easily be able to handle that with plenty of wattage to spare.

PC P&P Silencer 750w Quad Crossfire

PC P&P Silencer 750w Quad Crossfire

Akasa AK-967 CPU Cooler: Benchmarks show the AK-967 performing similar (2-3 degrees difference at full load) to some very high-end coolers that are twice as expensive and nearly twice as loud. As a compromise between price, performance and noise this is a very good choice.

LG GGC-H20L Lightscribe SATA 16xDVD±R +RWx8/-RW x6 – Blu-Ray & HD Reader: Reads Blu-ray AND HD DVD while it also reads and writes DVDs.  That’s a definite bonus. The ability to read both HD formats: i.e. Blu-ray (the winner of the HD war), and HD DVD (the underdog). If you weren’t keen on HD Movies you could save yourself £60 off the total price by going with a simple DVD drive.

Operating System: We have not included an Operating System in this build. Most users tends to have copies of Operating Systems from older systems they can reuse. However, the cost of software always should be factored into the build price. In this case, the recommendation is to go with Windows 7 Release Candidate while it’s still available for download. In about an years time when Windows 7 RC expires, the retail version of the OS would be the idea choice. It is currently available for pre-order from Amazon and other retailers for around £75 (50% off). There is also the option of dual-booting with  Ubuntu or some other distribution of Linux, which is entirely free.

Cutting Corners

For a version of this system on a lower budget, I would replace the Blu-ray drive with a DVD Drive such as this LG GH22NS40, remove the CPU cooler and go with the 500GB Caviar Black, and get an Antec 300 case. That should shave off around £110 bringing the price of the system down to roughly £790 (inclusive of VAT and delivery costs).

That way I could always add a cooler later on when I want to push the i7 920 to its overclocking limits, and perhaps add a second BD-ROM drive (maybe even an external drive) for blu rays. Additional hard disks can also be installed – perhaps a second 500 GB Caviar Black configured as a nice 1TB RAID 0 volume.

US Build With Components from NewEgg.com (Prices will be similar in several other countries)

Intel Core i7 920 Nehalem 2.66GHz 4 x 256KB L2 Cache 8MB L3 Cache LGA 1366 130W Quad-Core Processor – Retail – $279.99
ASUS P6T SE LGA 1366 Intel X58 ATX Intel Motherboard – Retail – $209.99 ($15.00 rebate)
Patriot Viper 6GB (3 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) Desktop Memory Model PVT36G1600LLK – Retail – $109.99 ($20.00 rebate)
GIGABYTE GV-N275UD-896H GeForce GTX 275 896MB 448-bit GDDR3 PCI Express 2.0 x16 HDCP Ready Video Card – Retail Free Call of duty – World at war w/ purchase, limited offer – $204.99 ($20 rebate)
Western Digital Caviar Black WD7501AALS 750GB 7200 RPM 32MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s 3.5″ Hard Drive – OEM – $79.99
COOLER MASTER RC-690-KKN1-GP Black SECC/ ABS ATX Mid Tower Computer Case – Retail – $79.99
PC Power & Cooling Silencer PPCS750QBL 750W ATX12V / EPS12V SLI Certified CrossFire Ready 80 PLUS Certified Active PFC Power Supply – Retail - $109.99
Noctua NH-C12P 120mm SSO CPU Cooler – Retail – $63.99
OCZ OCZTFRZTC Freeze Extreme Thermal Conductivity Compound – Retail
Total: £1,144.91

Intel Core i7 920 Nehalem 2.66GHz 4 x 256KB L2 Cache 8MB L3 Cache LGA 1366 130W Quad-Core Processor – Retail – $279.99

ASUS P6T SE LGA 1366 Intel X58 ATX Intel Motherboard – Retail – $209.99  ($15.00 rebate)

Patriot Viper 6GB (3 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) Desktop Memory Model PVT36G1600LLK – Retail – $109.99 ($20.00 rebate)

GIGABYTE GV-N275UD-896H GeForce GTX 275 896MB 448-bit GDDR3 PCI Express 2.0 x16 HDCP Ready Video Card – Retail Free Call of duty – World at war w/ purchase, limited offer – $204.99 ($20 rebate)

SONY Black/Gray 2X BD-ROM 8X DVD-ROM 24X CD-ROM SATA Internal 2X Blu-ray DVD ROM Model BDUX10S – Retail – $99.99

Western Digital Caviar Black WD7501AALS 750GB 7200 RPM 32MB Cache SATA 3.0Gb/s 3.5″ Hard Drive – OEM – $79.99

COOLER MASTER RC-690-KKN1-GP Black SECC/ ABS ATX Mid Tower Computer Case – Retail – $79.99

PC Power & Cooling Silencer PPCS750QBL 750W ATX12V / EPS12V SLI Certified CrossFire Ready 80 PLUS Certified Active PFC Power Supply – Retail - $109.99

Noctua NH-C12P 120mm SSO CPU Cooler – Retail – $63.99

OCZ OCZTFRZTC Freeze Extreme Thermal Conductivity Compound – Retail

Notes: The Akasa AK-967 Nero was not available on Newegg. It has been substituted with the Noctua NH-C12P which is about twice the price of the Ak-967. The GTX 275 in this build is Gigabyte – while all GTX 275s were not created equal, the performance should still be very similar. Several components also have mail-in rebates being offered, this should help to further reduce the overall cost. The blu-ray drive picked here does not play HD DVDs unlike the UK build which does. However, for around $70 more it is possible to get a blu-ray reader/burner that also plays HD DVD. The added burning capability would present a significant advantage as BD burners are presently quite expensive.

Grand Total: $1,244.91 (without shipping)

Rebates: $55.00

In GBP this comes to £756.17 for a top of the line all-in-one Intel i7 system! – significantly cheaper despite the exclusion of the delivery cost. This is probably due in large part to the absence of VAT. Delivery costs may offset this price disparity to some degree.

Conclusion

We managed to keep the system within budget, but only barely – still this is very good! For anyone with £900 to shell on a brand new system this rig should suit them very well for any purpose. It meets all the requirements we laid out at the onset, and even goes above and beyond in most cases. Considering the price of dedicated blu-ray players these days it does make sense to include a drive on a high-end all-in-one system.

Could we improve this system? Certainly, given a larger budget there is no limit to the improvements that can be made. However, It makes little sense to do so. At the core, the specification focused on ugradability which it achieved eminently. Our other primary goal was meeting the performance requirements for high-end software. This system will run even the most demanding applications of today. It would be prudent to save any extra money and spend it on upgrades in the future, rather than spend them now and get little benefit with respect to the costs incurred. If I did have a larger budget I’d spend it on a reallygood monitor such as the 23″ Dell SP2309W which is capable of 1920×1200 and 2048×1152 Ultra HD resolutions, or go for the NVidia Geforce 3D Vision Bundle (22″ Samsung 120HZ 2233rz Monitor + NVidia 3D Vision Shutter Glasses) for £399.

If you were to buy a similar system from a retailer, you can expect costs to be much more. If the retailer in question is one of the big names like IBM, HP, Dell or Alienware, you can expect to pay as much as £1600-£2000 or more for a system with similar performance and a 1 year warranty. I might add that all the parts picked for this system have lengthy warranties ranging from 2 years to lifetime, with the mean being around 3 years. Good security and value for money!

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  1. I prefer a custom-built system. A lot of pre-built systems lack certain hardware (bottlenecks) or invest too much in unnecessary equipment (1 TB Hard drive with onboard graphics for a “gaming PC”).
    To help me choose the equipment I like using online configurators. Some of them even check the compatibility of your chosen products.

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