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By Paul Scherbak
Editor: Julio Franco

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The future is now! Quad-core CPUs, DirectX 10 graphics cards, Windows Vista, all the things we have been waiting for are now available for public consumption.

With deals, price cuts, and the winter buying season upon us, this would seem like a perfect time to empty our wallets and make an upgrade or build a new PC, especially if you are a big spender. We have put together a special high-end PC buying guide for the New Year that includes a $2000 “standard deluxe” configuration, a heftier $3000 “Fully Loaded” system, and an additional “Dream Machine” with no virtual price ceiling. Without further ado, here’s our components picks for this month...

Motherboard

Standard: MSI P965 Neo - $ 95

High End/Dream Machine: eVGA Nvidia nForce 680i – $ 250

While newer and better chipsets are on the market, Intel’s 965 series is tried and true. MSI’s version features a 1066MHz FSB, one PCIe x16 slot, two PCIe x1 slots, and three PCI slots. It also supports one PATA connector and 5 SATA devices with onboard audio from Realtek. The board also has hookups for four USB devices. At under $100, this board is top-quality without going over budget.

For our High End and Dream Machine, an Nvidia 680i board is a must. This is the height of mainboards for Intel chips right now and has the features to prove it. Supporting a 1333 or 1066 FSB, this bad boy is screaming fast. It has three PCIe x16 slots for future expansions, SLI-mode, or PPUs. With room for six SATA devices, we will manage to use all of them on our Dream Machine. The PATA port also provides legacy support for older hardware and drives that aren’t SATA ready. The onboard audio is the Azalia HDA, which is the best onboard audio out there. It also features dual LAN ports, six USB devices, and room for four more USB hookups.

Processor

Standard/High End: Intel Core 2 Duo E6600 - $ 320

Dream Machine: Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700 – $ 1000

There is no question Intel is the new king of the hill of PC processing at pretty much every price point. The Core 2 performance for price ratio blows the competition completely out of the water. The E6600 features a 2.4GHz clock and a 4MB shared L2 cache. With the retail HSF, however, this chip can be pushed well past the 3GHz mark. If you plan on overclocking, it is recommended that a high-end cooling unit is used such as the Tuniq Tower 120 or even water cooling.

Our Dream Machine features the first Quad Core CPU that made an appearance in the retail market, and it remains as the best out there. Intel’s QX6700 offers about identical performance to the dual core E6700, as they are both clocked at 2.66GHz. The reason the QX6700 was chosen over the dual core X6800 is that, while you can always overclock the QX6700 to X6800 speeds, you cannot add more cores to the X6800. While there isn’t really much software or games that take full advantage of the quad core design - with a few remarkable exceptions - this is the future and hence our ultimate high-end pick.

Memory

Standard/High End: OCZ 2GB PC2-6400 - $ 270

Dream Machine: Corsair XMS Dominator 2GB – $ 460

The OCZ PC2-6400 RAM is completely worthy of its place in the High End Guide. It has 5-5-5-12 timings which are some of the fastest on the market without doubling the price. Both 1GB sticks have an included heatspreader to help manage thermals. This is the fastest supported RAM on our Standard motherboard at DDR2-800.

For the 680i board, however, an upgrade to the Dream Machine RAM may be in order. At a speed of DDR2-1142, this is the highest clocked RAM on the market and is only supported on the 680i boards from Nvidia. Both sticks in this 2GB kit feature heatspreaders, Dual-path Heat Exchange (DHX), are SLI-certified, and feature 5-5-5-15 timings.

Graphics Card

Standard: Nvidia GeForce 8800GTS - $ 440

High End: Nvidia GeForce 8800GTX - $ 600

Dream Machine: 2x Nvidia GeForce 8800GTX – $ 1200

Needless to say, these cards are fast, crazy fast. The 8800GTS features 640MB of GDDR3 RAM, a 500MHz core clock, and an effective 1.6GHz RAM clock. The 8800GTX features 768MBs of GDDR3 Ram clocked at 1.8GHz and a core clock of 575MHz. While all of the GeForce 8s on the market right now are essentially the Nvidia reference model with different logos put on, there are slight differences. In performance tests, a single 8800GTX is usually faster than a 7900GTX-SLI setup, with the more affordable GTS variant being only slightly slower in than the deluxe 7900GTX-SLI setup.

Optical Drives

Standard: NEC Dual Layer 16x DVD+/-RW - $ 50

High End: PX-755SA 16x SATA DVD - $ 100

Dream Machine: High-end + Sony BWU-100A Blu-Ray Disc Writer – $ 800

Our standard DVD drive is probably the best of what is soon to be a dying breed. The NEC 18X DVD drive features a PATA interface, 2MB cache, and 160ms access times with a maximum transfer rate of 33MBs/second. It is tray-loading with 16x read and +/-R write times. With PATA on its way out, we have decided to get ahead of the curve a little bit and go ahead and recommend a SATA DVD-ROM.

While they are fairly new to the market and there aren’t many to be found, they will be quickly increasing in numbers as manufactures move away from the more traditional IDE-interface. Writing DVDs at 16x +/-R and 10x dual layer, this drive is the hallmark of the future. This drive also has 150ms access times and a maximum transfer rate of 150MBs/second, making it well worth the increased price. This also leaves the PATA port completely free for older optical and hard drives from previous systems. The Sony BWU-100A Blu-Ray Disc Writer is a last minute addition to the Dream Machine… just because we can, as arguably there is not vast use you can give to this drive for the time being, not to mention it will eventually be phased out by faster and cheaper drives, but then again it’s the Dream Machine, and it’s edgy technology.