The HP laptop my dad bought about 2003 broke and this time he doesn't want to invest in repairs anymore. He's looking to build a desktop now; mostly, it seems, because he couldn't do much of any flight simming on the notebook. Though he's never built his own system, I've built and upgraded three over the years, and have taken it upon myself to help him decide whether a DIY project could be worthwhile. I'd help him put it together, but I live on a different continent.
I quizzed him on his use, which seems to mostly be work-related with office suites. As indicated above, he enjoys Flight Simulator. Till now he has FS 2004, and hasn't been flying it because of poor performance, but naturally he wants the beast that is FS X. He quoted me a budget in the 700–750 USD range. Over the weekend, I did some research and made a spreadsheet for selecting components. Since I don't seem to be able to attach files, I'll just provide an example build below. Meanwhile, here is more info as advised by *How To Ask For New Build Advice*:
APPROXIMATE PURCHASE DATE: reasonably soon; we didn't discuss it but I think he is eager
BUDGET RANGE: 700 to 1000 USD, apparently with monitor (after any rebates, I suppose)
SYSTEM USAGE FROM MOST TO LEAST IMPORTANT: work machine (office suites), flight sim, general-purpose machine
PARTS NOT REQUIRED: keyboard, mouse, speakers; the pre-laptop system is from 1998, and my Mom is still using it... (next project)
PREFERRED WEBSITE(S) FOR PARTS: I based mine on newegg.com; I live in Europe but my parents are stateside
PARTS PREFERENCES: fairly open, he mentioned not being keen on AMD... I am guessing micro ATX will do
OVERCLOCKING: No chance, he will be going for longevity
SLI OR CROSSFIRE: doubtful of its benefit for the needs
MONITOR RESOLUTION: He doesn't seem to know. He likes the widescreens for parallel docs. Concerning FS performance, from what I've read FS X (with SP1) scales almost directly with CPU power, almost independently of resolution.
Without shipping that comes to just over $700. I obviously took shortcuts in selecting to keep within budget. This hypothetical system is more or less built around optimizing performance for FS, since the other needs are easily met compared to the P4 performance he's used to. I originally went Intel, but according to Tom's Feb cpu evalutation system, AMD is undisputed on low-budget gaming performance, and with FS the cpu is all-important. I took the X4 because FS X would benefit from all cores, as should office work. I don't know much about AM3 motherboards, this one just had good ratings for the price range. He won't overclock or run FS full-tilt for more than about 2 hours, so I assume the stock fan might do. I also guessed this RAM would do without overclocking. He can add more storage later, and adding an optical drive costs under $30. Windows is conspicuously absent from the system cost.
After doing this research and discussing with him, I found out that the budget is not so strict. He was eyeing a $900 Dell 9000, and that price is without monitor. Now, an i7 seems tempting. It seems odd to make such a price jump just for FS—especially considering the added performance requirements essentially mean eye candy—but I have been bitten by that bug more than once and still have the saliva stains to prove it. Nevertheless, he doesn't really understand the specs he's reading, and is unsuspecting of Dell bloatware and the ways they get you to not tinker with your system so they can sell you another one as soon as possible. It seems to me he is overspending for what he wants it for, but then again the more powerful and robust his system, the longer it will last him.
I would like to propose an equivalent system either for far less or a much better system for the same price, so that he can make a better informed decision. This means a lot more head room, moving up from the above $500 system (sans monitor) to a $700 or $900 system, also without monitor (can price that separately). The price must also include Windows Home Premium so he can fly. There has to be a sufficient gap in performance or price to provide incentive for him to build his own, since he has never done it and I am on a different continent. (He does have other options, though.) Dell has the advantage of a one-year warranty, mass scale and cheaper Windows licenses, and I have the advantage of being his son and not trying to make a profit at his expense.
Rough specs for the competitor to a Dell 9000:
Mobo: Asus P6T/X58 or equivalent
RAM: 4GB DDR3
HDD: 500 GB SATA
PSU: reliable (Dell's 350 W must be a joke)
OS: dual-boot with Win 7 Home Premium, probably 64-bit OEM and Linux
The nVidia 310 they use looks underpowered compared to the CPU and chipset, apparently typical of Dell. It's new, but usually the first chipsets of a new series underperform compared to the more powerful of the previous series. That might not be so bad given the dependency of FS mainly on CPU, but in any case, the 310 isn't available online yet.
I just built a brand new machine over the weekend for a friend that came out to $923 and it is really fast. You could take off the aftermarket cpu cooler and increase the 4550 to a 4850 and he would run any game he wants. Sorry about the formating, I copied it directly from my order status invoice off newegg.
Shipped from CA, USA - Tracking #: 1ZX799331218935834
G.SKILL Ripjaws Series 4GB (2 x 2GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) Desktop Memory Model F3-12800CL9D-4GBRL - Retail
Item #: N82E16820231277
Memory Standard Return Policy
Microsoft Comfort Curve Value Pack - OEM
Item #: N82E16823109156
Standard Return Policy
GIGABYTE GV-R455D3-512I Radeon HD 4550 512MB 64-bit DDR3 PCI Express 2.0 x16 HDCP Ready CrossFireX Support Video Card - Retail
Item #: N82E16814125250
VGA Standard Return Policy
Sony Optiarc 24X DVD/CD Rewritable Drive Black SATA Model AD-7240S-0B - OEM
Item #: N82E16827118030
Limited Replacement Only Return Policy
Antec EarthWatts EA650 650W Continuous Power ATX12V Ver.2.2 / EPS12V version 2.91 SLI Certified CrossFire Ready 80 PLUS Certified ... - Retail
Item #: N82E16817371015
This was a really useful reply, serp1202, thanks. Funny thing is, dad doesn't want to run any game, just flight sim.
I spent more time researching, and it's clear that dedicated system builders go with an i7; however, they are trying to get performance at max game settings. My current idea is that a system based around the i5-750 is a reasonable compromise. The Dell XPS 9000 does have an i7-920 system, but offers only 3 GB DDR3 RAM, the (for me) unproven GeForce 310, and a 475 W supply. Plus, its expandability seems limited to bays and slots, as it has only one PCIe x16 slot.
My remaining questions are about balancing the parts. An i7-920 system is still thinkable with certain sacrifices, and with the i5-750 there is the question of which graphics card does best with this game. After my research last night it seems clear that the GPU does play an important role.
I think it's time to put the question to a forum with people experienced on building systems for this specific game. I'm still happy for any further feedback here! In any case, I will link to any useful threads that develop.