(Apologies in advance if some of my questions have already been addressed elsewhere, I didn't find anything specifically in point)
My current pc is now a relic of the distant past. I use it mostly for gaming (which is my only money intensive indoor pastime) and, at least since it ceased to be at the cutting edge about 2 1/2 years ago, I have constantly been looking to upgrade my system. Invariably, my designs for a new build failed because of the premature superannuation syndrome, in other words, the perception that because a new generation of hardware will be available soon the current components can never be adequate.
However, I've had it now and am determined to build a new pc in March-April. My budget is roughly £2000 now with another £1000 for upgrades in Q4 2008 or Q1 2009. I don't intend to use any parts from my current pc (other than the 17' LCD monitor as a second monitor). My current thoughts (and dilemmas) are as follows.
I don't see a compelling reason to go for a quad core processor now (that's what most of the upgrade money is earmarked for). An E8400 would seem to be the sensible option, overclocked to anywhere in the region of 3.6-4.2 GHz. As I don't expect to use it for more than 1 year, I'm not too concerned about the impact on the life expectancy of the CPU, but I believe in quality cooling components, so I'm thinking along the lines of a Thermalright IFX14+fan.
I've read good reviews of the Asus Striker II 780i (this may be a stupid question: is there an EVGA step-up program for motherboards? If so, will the 790i come out within 3 months of, say, mid-April?). The only reason why I'm considering an nvdida over an intel chipset is SLI (unless I'm very wrong, both the X38 and X48 are simply better and better value). This choice is predicated on the assumption that nvidia GPUs will rule the top end of the market in the foreseeable future. I consider that the 9800 cards will likely be significantly better that the 3870X2 and that the next generation (early 2009?)will similarly dominate the market as the 8800 series did when it first came out (case in point: the 3870X2 is the first ati card exceeding 8800 ultra performance...). This leaves me with the 780i for now, to be replaced with the 790i as soon as I upgrade the CPU.
RAM: PC2-6400 or faster?
I'm not convinced there is much to gain in terms of performance by selecting 8500+ memory over quality, low-latency 6400 (which should overclock marvellously anyway). At the moment I'm tempted by 4*2GB Crucial Ballistix Tracer (4-4-4-12) or 4*2GB OCZ Reaper (the 4-4-4-15 not the ReaperX as apparently only 4GB will fit). With the CPU at 3.6GHz their stock speed of 800MHz would yield a 1:1 ratio. This is based on my understanding that the performance of 32bit applications in Vista64 will not be significantly affected and that it is possible to circumvent the 2GB per application limit. If this is wrong, I suppose I'll go with 4GB only (in which case I might consider PC2-8500).
Option A: 2*EVGA 8800 GT 512MB now to be stepped-up to 9800GX2(whatever it's called). Either step-up one and e-bay the other or, if quad-sli is possible, step-up both. This, in my view, only makes financial sense if the 9800 generation will be king for at least 9 months. Of course, if there is a delay and I miss the 3-months window I waste a lot of money (I think that 2*8800 GTs won't be good enough which is why I would upgrade to the 9800 as soon as available in any event).
Option B: if the 9800 really will be the half-generation to skip, I could go with a 3870X2, than another once quad-crosffire is supported by the drivers and pray this will suffice until the "true" next generation delivers me from this indignity. On the plus side, I could get an X38.
As this post is already far too long, I won't bore you with my thoughts on HDD, peripherals etc. (other than say that I'm also in the market for a good 24' monitor). Some of my assumptions may be wrong - I generally only skimread forum posts on articles, as I don't have much time. Many thanks for your comments, insights and, above all, patience for making it this far.
The great part about your building options is you can afford to make a nice rig. Now If I was you I would wait untill April. You will have a much better idea of what is going on by then. Things to keep in mind are:
-Nvidia does not offer dx10.1 hardware support in the 9 or 8 series = bad dx10 performance now and no updates for DX
-The Q6600 in April will still probably be the best all around bang for the buck for Intel users. I could not in good intent recomend a 2 core Intel at this time knowing the releases slated for the next year.
-We should have a new chip from AMD by April or atleast some solid information.
-Dont waste your time on ddr3 as it just cost more money for maybee what amounts to 1-2% performance boosts realisticly
-I would recomend buying the dual install of Vista 64 and 4 gigs minimum of ram
The 8800GT 512 is a great card. Be sure to save all original packaging from the card for the step-up program or it'll reduce the value of the card for trade in (dumb, yes, but whatever)
I was looking at the Striker II Formula before deciding that the EVGA 780 SLI would be far better, partly because of how god-awful the original striker was and how many problems it had. I'm done sucking on the ASUS teat, as I've had it with them from building so many systems that ended up being either problematic or severely disappointing.
PS - Time for the turd:
Don't buy Vista 64. There are driver problems and unless you have 8gb for a very little real-world performance gain in most of your applications, you'll actually be wasting memory because 64-bit apps take up more RAM. If you must have Vista for DX10, buy the 32-bit version, which has enough driver problems to last a lifetime anyways.
@jerseygamer: Most seem to agree that DDR3 is not worth it for the time being, so I'm happy to wait on that front till later. While I'm loathe to delay upgrading form my current rig, you're probably right - now is a good time to just hold fire for another couple of months.
@resonance: thanks, that's helpful on the 780i (the EVGA is also cheaper, though not by much). In relation to 32-bit vs 64-bit, I was swayed by the article here on tomshardware about the performance boost from using Vista 64 with 8GB (which, as I'm probably happy to go with cost-effective PC2-6400 rather than anything faster, I could quite easily afford). I understood the articel to say that running a 32-bit application embedded in a 64 OS with sufficient RAM going spare was the only way to get it to actually use 4GB rather than 2GB (which is the per-application limit in Vista 32-bit). Now, if that's a misunderstaning on my part, the only reason why I'd want Vista 64 falls away. However, as jerseygamer points out, with Vista Ultimate I get both anyway.
The E8400 or E8500 should be good for gaming. Very few games use more than two cores today. It makes sense to me to take the higher clock speeds of the duo cpu's. If your game is flight simulator X, then a quad would be better. Of course all of these will be obsoleted by nehalem in a year or so. With technology, waiting for the next best thing will make you wait forever.
If you want sli, you need nvidia motherboard chipsets and nvidia vga cards. For crossfire, you need intel motherboard chipsets and ATI vga cards. Today, sli with two 8800GTS-512-G92 cards is as good as you can do.
If and when you want to upgrade, those cards will have good value on e-bay. I don't expect them to be superceeded within the step-up window. The 8800GX2 looks like a strange duck to me, and it might show up within 90 days. In the meantime, you will have the top performing vga setup available. Don't worry about DX10.1 or pcie-2.0. Nobody is going to sell a game that won't run well without them for quite some time
If you are not overclocking, then any reputable DDR2-800 ram should be fine. I found it hard to find solid info on what ram would run at 8gb on any mobo. See my sig for how I did it. Vista 64 bit runs just fine; don't believe the FUD, particularly from those who are not running it. 8gb might not be necessary, but it can't hurt(unless you are overclocking), and at the current low prices, why not?
As to a good monitor, I would suggest one of the T series from samsung(245T,275T,305T). They have a 178 degree viewing angle which is good, but not cheap. Adding a second monitor was one of the best upgrades I have ever made. It is a great idea to keep the old one.
Based on the replies and my research I have formed the failry firm view that, as far as my build is concerned, two things can wait until nehalem: (i) a really high-end CPU (i.e. the £500 category) and (ii) DDR3. I read that the Bloomfield cores are planned for a Q4 release, thus, allowing for the inevitable delays and a period for price stabilisation, this rig will have to last me for about 1 year.
I think my money is best spent on a quality monitor (the T series samsungs do indeed look nice, if a spot on the pricey side) and graphics hardware.
The relative ease with which Crysis subdues even the most powerful setups presently availbale (at high resolutions that is), suggests to me that even 2*8800GT(or GTS for that matter) in SLI won't be enough power for the next year or so. I think I'll have to go with one of the two possible (if and when drivers permit) quad-GPU arrangements. As I'm moving this month, that affords me a good reason to wait until the end of March/beginning of April. I'll survey the position then and decide whether nvidia or ati have the best offering.
Regarding CPUs, the E8400 vs Q6600 debate still rages. My instinct was, and probably remains, to go with the dual core on the basis of its potential gaming performance (2 cores at 4Ghz really should be able to remove any risk of CPU bottleneck and put the pressure where it belongs, i.e. the GPUs). However, it looks like I should try to find out what games are expected over the next year supporting a form of multithreading that would genuinely benefit from an extra pair of cores.