Building an inexpensive, high-performance PC for Windows 7

The time is right to start putting together a system that will make Windows 7 shine -- without breaking the bank.

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With all of the components selected, it was time to consider a case. There are dozens of case manufacturers and hundreds of cases to choose from. To thin the herd, I looked for a full-size case that met a few specific needs: it had to be attractive, it had to be easy to assemble and access, it had to have good airflow to keep components cool, and finally it had to reduce noise.

I selected the Antec Nine Hundred Two, which costs about $130. While there are cases that cost less than half the price, it's hard to beat the expansion options offered by the Antec case. The case has room for several hard drives and several optical drives, and it's very easy to disassemble to add new components.

Antec Nine Hundred Two computer case
Antec Nine Hundred Two computer case

The results

Assembling the system took about 35 minutes. After adding a keyboard, mouse and monitor, I installed the Release Candidate version of Windows 7, which took another 15 minutes or so.

(The Windows 7 RC is available to the general public, but you must download it before August 20. Subscribers to Microsoft's TechNet and Microsoft Developer Network sites can get their hands on the final Windows 7 RTM code starting today.)

Windows 7 did an excellent job of identifying the components and installing the appropriate drivers from its installation DVD or over the Web via Microsoft Update. Some components, such as the motherboard audio and video, did require installation of the manufacturer's specific drivers from the installation discs that came with the hardware. All told, getting all the drivers installed took about 10 minutes.

I tested the system using PerformanceTest 7.0 (64-bit) from PassMark Software. The system rated an overall PassMark score of 1151.3 and a CPUmark score of 4025.6 (CPUmark is a subset of the PassMark rating that focuses only on raw CPU performance). I was able to safely overclock the system to 3.8GHz, which increased the PassMark score to 1322.5 and our CPUmark score to 4951.4, a worthwhile increase.

For not much more than $1,000, I constructed a high-performance system with minimal compromises, while still using top-of-the-line components. The case also has room for additional components, such as a high-performance video card, more RAM and additional hard drives, and the power supply has enough oomph to support such extras if I want to add them later on.

Parts and prices

Item    Cost
CPU: AMD Phenom II x4 955 Black Edition (quad-core, 3.2GHz)    $250
Motherboard: Asus M4A78T-E    $150
RAM: Kingston Technology 4GB kit (2 x 2GB DDR3 modules)    $115
CPU cooler: CoolIT Domino A.L.C.      $70
Hard drive: Western Digital WD Caviar Green WD10EADS (1TB)    $120
Optical drive: LG Super-Multi Blu-ray Rewriter GGC-H20L    $125
Power supply: Corsair TX750W    $120
Case: Antec Nine Hundred Two    $130
Total $1,080

As a comparison, I also tested a system built with an Intel Core i7 965 CPU, an Intel DX58So motherboard, an Asus EN9800GTX+ video card and other high-end components. That system offered an overall PassMark Rating of 1679, roughly a 22% performance increase over my AMD test system. That performance increase came with a high price tag, though: The Intel Core-i7 system cost about $3,000 to build.

Is a 22% performance increase worth an extra $2,000? For the majority of users, the answer is no.

For those wanting to keep costs down even further, choosing some lower-level components than I did could easily shave $300 or more off of the total price. The areas to target for savings without sacrificing performance include the case, power supply, optical drive, hard drive and CPU cooler.

Next: Choosing the perfect notebook for Windows 7

Frank J. Ohlhorst is a technology professional specializing in products and services analysis. He writes for several technology publications.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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