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System Builder Marathon, Dec. 2009: $2,500 Performance PC

This month’s $2,500 machine is our most powerful to date, but changes that came to market immediately after our purchase still left room for regret. Our biggest regret might be our choice of graphics cards, but how could we complain about parts that offered so much performance?

The problem, of course, is price--two Radeon HD 5870s are an awesome performance combination, but similar performance can be had for much less money in the dual-GPU Radeon HD 5970. The Radeon HD 5970 does require overclocking to exactly match a pair of Radeon HD 5870s, but both the single- and dual-GPU cards have similar overclocking limits imposed through card BIOS. Our only excuse was availability, but anyone who has tried to purchase ATI’s most recent graphics technology will likely tell you that this is a darned good excuse.

The next excessive expense was for storage, with each of our top-performing 2.0TB drives priced at $300. The same $600 could have purchased two 80GB Intel X25-M drives for better performance, but that would have left the system with less space than is typically required by a power user. A single 80GB SSD and single 2.0TB drive would have provided the worst of both worlds, with too little space to store a typical high-end set of program files on the 80GB drive and no redundant storage capability. While smaller hard drives don’t offer the same level of performance as our 2.0TB units do, a better “bang-for-the-buck” option probably would have been three 1.0TB drives in RAID 5.

Combining the cost savings of those two changes would have let us step-up to an X58 platform, a large enough liquid-cooling system to push the processor well beyond 4.0 GHz, and a more expensive case that could hold that liquid-cooling system internally. Such a system would have added support for future upgrades, such as a second dual-GPU graphics card. But we were stuck with a CPU that created far more than the expected level of heat, a CPU cooler that provided far less than the expected level of cooling, and a graphics system that maxed out our motherboard.

Yet choosing mainstream drives to step up platform features would have given this system's critics an equal amount of ammo to attack on a different front. That is to say, $2,500 might be just enough money to consider this as an expensive system, but it represents less than we would need to make a completely high-end build.

Future options include budget changes and/or a reprioritization of graphics, processing, and storage needs, and this is where we turn some of our decision-making responsibilities over to loyal readers. Should the next marathon include a dream system at twice the price? Should we instead adjust every system budget by a smaller amount to align with recent price increases? Should we stick to gaming or general-purpose power machines, rather than trying to create the best of both worlds? Your responses play a critical role in the direction of future builds.

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