Our first piece of business was to choose a suitable processor for the $1000 gaming system and the choice was simple given the candidates. The Core 2 Duo E6300 seemed like an obvious choice at $180 and although it only features a 2MB L2 Cache, it is over $100 cheaper than the E6600. Furthermore, the 4MB L2 Cache featured on the E6600 and E6700 does not have a significant influence on performance, particularly when it comes to gaming. The E6400 is roughly $40 more, which is not a lot, but then there is not a lot of speed difference between these two processors either.
Motherboard and memory
Now with $820 still left from our initial budget, it was time to pick a motherboard and two 512MB memory modules. This is where things start getting a little tricky because most Core 2 Duo motherboards are quite expensive, particularly those geared towards gaming and overclocking. The motherboard is really the last component that you should skimp on, so having said that, I failed to take my own advice and went with the cheapest option available at the time. The ASUS P5VD2-MX as it turns out is an incredibly cheap motherboard, costing us just $50, but as you will see this was not a good choice after all.
The ASUS P5VD2-MX sports the VIA P4M890 and I have to say, this motherboard really comes cheap at $50. However, with official support only going as far as single-channel DDR2-533 due to chipset limitations, it seriously hurt our memory performance. Unfortunately, at the time the P5VD2-MX was the only motherboard we could get our hands on that supported Core 2 Duo processors and was priced under $100. Those that do not plan to overclock might find a relief on what's offered by the P5VD2-MX at just $50.
Update: After being very disappointed with the performance of the ASUS P5VD2-MX due to the VIA P4M890 chipset only supporting single-channel DDR2-533 memory, we replaced it with the Gigabyte 965P-DS3. Although this motherboard is almost three times more expensive and pushed us a little over our $1000 budget, we felt it was a necessary sacrifice. As I said, skimping on the motherboard is a bad move, and knowing this I did it anyway, and when you see the results it really becomes clear how much better the 965P-DS3 featuring an Intel chipset is. Not to mention the Gigabyte 965P-DS3 is an incredibly impressive overclocker.
Unfortunately, I have a strong feeling that most of you reading this article will be quite comfortable with overclocking the E6300. In fact I am quite sure most of you are itching to get your hands on a Core 2 Duo and squeeze every last bit out of it, assuming you have not done so already. Since the P5VD2-MX was the only affordable Core 2 Duo motherboard available to us at the time of writing this review, we went with the OCZ Gold Series 1GB (2 x 512MB) DDR2-533 memory modules. These modules operate at relatively low DDR2 timings of CAS 3-3-3-12 and require just 1.9v of power to work. They also feature the gold layered XTC heatspreader, which is an attractive little bonus.
Next we needed a graphics card to drive this gaming machine, and given our budget of $1000, why not splurge a little. And so we did, spending exactly $200 on the ASUS Radeon X1950 Pro, which recently proved to be a GeForce 7900GS killer. The ASUS Radeon X1950 Pro also comes with a customized cooling solution, which works better than the ATI reference design and is also much quieter. This graphics card requires external power, though we found the 350-watt power supply featured in the CoolerMaster Elite330 case to work perfectly. Again this is an item you might want to upgrade should you be able to spend a bit more on the case and power supply combo. Something around the 450-watt output rating is going to be more suitable for such a system.
For storing all our games, and what ever else you like to store on excessively large hard drives, we went with the Samsung SpinPoint T 400GB 7200-RPM hard drive, which uses the SATAII interface delivering a transfer rate of 3.0Gb/s. Priced at just $110, this 400GB Samsung hard drive is a pretty good value. Of course, if you only require half this amount of storage, there is an opportunity to save some money here. The Lite-on Black DVD+RW drive costs just $30 and will take care of any games or media stored on CD and DVDs.
Finally, the last major component purchased was the Acer AL1917ABMD Black 19" 8ms LCD, which cost just $190. Although the Radeon X1950 Pro is capable enough of delivering playable gameplay at resolutions of 1600x1200 and higher even in the latest gaming titles, the AL1917ABMD is limited to its native resolution of 1280x1024. Nevertheless, at this resolution image quality was impressive and did allow us to crank up the FSAA and Anisotropic settings to remove any jagged pixels.