How to buy/build a workhorse PC

[callout align="center" width="400"]For info on the March 2012 Workhorse PC please see[/callout]

Every three months or so, we here at Bleeding Edge expose ourselves to the dangers of eye strain and cerebral overload, as we work our way through specifications and price lists, searching for the components for our workhorse PC.
It’s always a tricky thing, trying to balance hype against practical merit while applying some sort of cost-benefit analysis. We also try to pick up some intelligence on reliability of the various components, and identify price moves that might bring previously higher-end products into the realm of the real world.
It’s been particularly challenging over the past six to nine months, as we’ve been matching Intel CPUs against those of AMD. While AMD has eclipsed Intel in many key performance areas, we’ve been troubled in the past by factors like heat management, which have tipped the scale in favour of Intel. This month, we’ve chosen AMD.

CPU: AMD 64-030 3000+ While Intel is making a good deal of noise about their 64-bit extensions, they are still playing catch-up to AMD’s 64-bit capabilities. We like the sound of Intel’s EIST (Enhanced Intel Speed Technology), which allows the CPU to monitor its activities and reduce power consumption, but again they’re following the lead of AMD’s “Cool’n’Quiet” technology, which is now getting better support from motherboard manufacturers.
The chip we’ve chosen is the Athlon 64-939 3000+, which at $207 represents much better value than Intel’s 3GHz version, at $248.

The saving on the CPU allows us to go for a particularly nice motherboard, Gigabyte’s GA-K8NF-9, which is loaded with features. Its Nvidia nForce 4 chipset allows the board to use PCIe video cards, which are gradually replacing AGP video cards (although they still represent something like 70 per cent of the market), and has a hardware-accelerated firewall.
The board also supports faster Firewire 2, gigabit Ethernet, 8-channel sound, serial ATA (SATA) hard disks, and you can use your old PCI cards.

GRAPHICS CARD: 128M Sapphire X300XE
Having gone for a PCIe board we have to get a PCIe video card. If you’re just running business apps, the 128M Sapphire X300XE at $91 is perfectly adequate. If you want to play the occasional game, you’ll probably want something more powerful. We think the best value card is Leadtek’s 6600GT, at $285.
The big development in graphics cards is SLI (Scalable Link Interface) technology, which allows two compatible video cards to work together rendering the one image, for roughly an 80% increase in video performance. In our view you should be cautious about SLI, at this early stage. You need to use the same brand of SLI-capable video card (at least $300 or so each), and unless you’re a rabid gamer, our suggestion is that you keep your hands in your pockets for a little while yet.

MONITOR: LG Flatron F700B
We’ve been recommending this CRT monitor for a long time now, and we’re sticking with it, but we know some people just aren’t going to be able to resist an LCD screen. If thin is what you’re in to, there’s a couple of possibilities. We like the LG 1750 SQ-SN, with its 8ms response time, and at $345 it’s good value. But LG’s dead-pixel policy doesn’t impress us. They won’t replace a screen unless there are three dead pixels. Since a single dead pixel can drive you crazy, we recommend the little-known, but very good CMV 8ms version. They have a zero-pixel warranty provided you report it within 30 days. The screen also has a DVI socket, and includes a set of speakers.

RAM: 512MB Hyundai
A happy development since we last did this exercise has been the substantial slump in the price of RAM. You can now buy 512MB of Hyundai RAM for just $67. Samsung memory is better, but it’s difficult to source.
DVD burner: LG GSA-4163B We’ve switched our recommendation for a dual-layer DVD burner. LG’s GSA-4163B is outstanding value at $79, particularly because, unlike the more expensive Pioneer, it includes Nero software.

HARD DRIVE: 160GB Seagate Barracuda
We’ve increased the size of the hard drive to 160GB, on the assumption that you’re probably storing stacks of music and photos, and are probably considering downloading video. It’s the 8MB cache model, SATA, and it will set you back $120.

Keyboard/Mouse: Microsoft, floppy drive
We picked up the Microsoft keyboard/optical mouse package for $38. And a floppy drive costs $15.
CASE: Coolermaster Again, as the price of the total package has fallen, we’ve gone for a better case. The CoolerMaster case has come down to $115. Even better is the Thermaltek VB1400 Soprano at $145.
The total cost of our workhorse PC, allowing $70 for assembly, is $1126. Three months ago, the exercise would have cost $1243, and you would have had a much less powerful system.

15 Responses to “How to buy/build a workhorse PC”

  1. Ian Smith

    I follow the PC articles in the Green Guide as I have found the advice on the latest and greatest to be good value especially at the moment as I am looking to buy a dual layer DVD burner.
    re todays GG article, a fellow worker in our sales dept has just bought a LG4163B DVD burner but the best price he found was $89. The article quoted $79.
    I have rung a few places this morning who advertise in The Age and the best price was $89. If I can ask, where did you see the $79 price?
    Ian Smith

  2. Dave Eccles

    Likewise read the GG article in ‘The Age’ today. Is that parts list the only things I need to buy to assemble a ‘Workhorse PC’?
    Is there a build a PC for idiots guide anywhere?
    Dave Eccles

  3. Julian Tonkin

    I have been researching a new pc and found the article very helpful, can you recommend a company in Melbourne who can build a machine with these specs?

  4. Andrew Taylor

    I’m not down with the kids, I don’t know what’s happening on the street. I don’t even have a PC, I use a 15″ Powerbook. However, these spec’s look a little wrong to me, now, I don’t really know what a ‘workhorse’ is, I usually use that to mean something that will be powerful and reliable.
    512MB RAM? You reccomend 512MB RAM, on a system totalling out at over $1100. What’s the problem with a GB.
    I’d prefer to put my money in a solid 32Bit Intel P4, 2.8/3Ghz, 1GB of fast RAM, 2 x SATA drives in a RAID0 config. It’s just a tool to do a job, go with something reliable that doesn’t need driver upgrades every ten minutes.
    Also, you don’t specify a price for an operating system.
    I’ll leave you with a Haiku:
    stupid computer
    no innovation lately
    buy apple mac

  5. David

    I agree with Ian Smith. Your article should tell us who will supply the goods you specify at the price you mention.

  6. Anonymous

    I think that would be unfair. If readers ask me, I suggest where they might look. And I do the same on the blog.

  7. Peter K

    The Gigabyte web-site has a page of motherboard comparisons. The GB K8NF-9 MB has a 1600 MHz hyper transport, whereas all the other GB MB’s have 2000 MHz.
    Does anyone know what effect this difference will have? Is the 1600 MHz board slower in some way to the other boards?

  8. Michael

    Hi Andrew,

    I just happened on your response to the bleeding edge article “How to buy/build a workhorse PC” from two months ago.

    It seems that your views on the AMD processor are fairly negative. Why is that?

    I’ve bought several Intel machines, but purchased my first AMD recently. Absolutely no troubles. Solid? Oh, yes. You may wish to have a quick squizz at a few sites that review CPUs, like AnandTech, Sharky Extreme, Tom’s Hardware or Overclockers Australia, and see how AMD fares against Intel. AMD has proven very reliable. I certainly haven’t needed any driver upgrades at all, much less every ten minutes!

    And by the way, my next computer purchase is in fact going to be an apple mac :)


  9. Robin

    Could you please recommend somebody who would be able to build me a Workhorse Computer in the Frankston area, Many thanks!

  10. Smitty

    hello CW
    have you done an update on this topic???
    Its very informative and I for one would be interested

  11. Bryan

    I want to build a computer to perform for a music studio I run real band and band in a box.
    Will the workhorse be suitable or should be using a different set if so what should it be?


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