Core i7 System Buyers Guide

by Wesley Fink on February 5, 2009 3:00 AM EST


When the System Buyers Guide: $1000 to $2000 was published a few weeks ago it was obvious the last system guide in the series should be the High End Buyers Guides for systems above $2000. It was our full intention at that point to present both AMD and Intel systems for our High-End Buyers Guide, but an AnandTech meeting with all the editors quickly changed that idea. It was the consensus that as of today there is only one CPU at the top of the performance heap, and that CPU is the Intel Core i7.

With the introduction of the Phenom II, AMD now has a legitimate competitor to Intel Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad systems. The recent price cuts by both Intel and AMD in that market segment just reinforced the fact that Phenom II competes very well with Intel Penryn. Perhaps with higher speeds Phenom II processors might make the High-End Buyers Guide in the future, but as of today the Intel Core i7 owns the high-end of the CPU market.

With that reality in mind, it seemed almost pointless to publish a high-end system guide that just presented a dream Core i7 system. It is also clear to us that, despite the fact that Phenom II does not compete well at the very top, it is still a significant achievement for AMD and the processor market, and it deserves better than to be ignored.

Therefore you will see two specialty guides in the next few weeks. This guide will concentrate on Intel Core i7 systems. After some announcements by AMD, we will also be posting a guide for Phenom II systems. While Core i7 and Phenom II now cover different market segments and different price points, they both are significant CPUs in their own right and both deserve a spotlight on CPU compatibility and getting the most from each CPU. Core i7 and Phenom II are where the action and interest are in today's computer market, and the guides will try to provide help in selecting components for your new Core i7 or Phenom II system.

This Core i7 Buyers Guide looks at three different i7 builds that you might consider. The Core i7 is high on the performance tree but it is also expensive compared to other solutions. Not everyone can afford the $2000 Core i7 system presented in the $1000 to $2000 Buyers Guide. For builders who want an i7 system for as little money as possible we put together a Core i7 Entry system. The goal is simple: build a competent i7 system for as little money as possible. We managed to cut more that 25% from our last Core i7 system price without significant compromises.

Another typical buyer is attracted to the Core i7 because of the tremendous overclocking potential of the processor. As seen in Overclocking Core i7 and other Core i7 articles, the 2.66GHz 920 can reach 3.6GHz to 4GHz with proper air cooling. That is faster than the stock speed available even with the $1000 Core i7 965. The goal of the Core i7 Overclocking System build is a system that provides the flexibility and components to maximize overclocking. The slant is to the value end of overclocking - overclocking to increase value - rather than the absolute highest performance options. However, we do make some recommendations for those who overclock strictly for performance.

Finally, there is the Core i7 High-End System. The goal is to select the best performing components available, and not just the most expensive. The very high end of any system in the computer industry will rarely yield the best bang for the buck. Squeezing the last bit of performance from a component usually means spending a great deal more money than buying the component that delivers the best performance for the dollar. However, luxury and top performance sell well, and these components are still the stuff that computer dreams are made of. Our Dream Core i7 system reaches around $5000, and frankly we could have extended the cost much further by expanding storage and selecting a RAID 5 controller and drive array. Still, the components in the High-End Guide should be food for thought as you select your own Core i7 System.

Core i7 Entry
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  • JonnyDough - Saturday, February 7, 2009 - link

    The main reason for buying an AMD system is to keep Intel from price gouging when they become a processor making monopoly.
  • MonkeyPaw - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    Man, if $150-175 is what you consider a small difference, I hate to think what you'd call a big difference. If you actually think about your comparison, the i7 costs 45% more than Phenom II. Will you see 45% more performance in everything you do by buying the i7? Will you feel 45% better?

    You assume that everyone has $600 to spend on CPU+Board+Ram. I can at least assure you that I don't.

    (I'm typing this on an Intel laptop, btw.)
  • JarredWalton - Thursday, February 5, 2009 - link

    You have to also look at the total platform cost. If you're spending $1000 for a system and jumping to Core i7 increases the cost by $150, that's really only a 15% increase. Is the Core i7 15% faster than Phenom II? In the vast majority of cases, yes - unless you're running games that are GPU limited, of course. Both are viable options (and Core 2 is still viable as well), which is why there will be a separate Phenom II Guide.
  • harshbarj - Friday, February 6, 2009 - link

    Your forgetting that with the i7 you need ddr3 ram and that cost significantly more that ddr2. i7 boards also cost a lot more than am2+ ones. SO if your just buying a CPU to set on your desk it will cost you 15% more but if you want to build a system the numbers are far closer to 40-45%
  • JarredWalton - Friday, February 6, 2009 - link

    DDR3 prices have come down quite a bit of late. It's still twice as much in some cases, but you also need to consider that twice $50 isn't all that bad. So:">2x2GB CL4 DDR2 = $50;">2x2GB CL9 DDR3 = $76 (Yes, you could get cheaper DDR2 or more expensive DDR3, but these are at least somewhat "equivalent".)

    X58 motherboards are very high-end right now, so it's only fair to compare them to X48 options - and if you get DDR3 on X48, the RAM comparison can go away, other than the fact that you need tri-channel.">DFI LANParty DK X48-T2RSB PLUS = $200;">Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD3R = $200.

    Then you have CPUs. They simply won't be "equal" - Core i7 is better in some areas to the point where Penryn and Phenom II don't stand a chance, and in other areas it's pretty close to a tie. Let's just say Core i7 920 has an edge in overall performance, but if you don't do 3D rendering, video encoding, or other highly threaded tasks it may not matter. If you're one of the "won't matter" crowd, you should probably look at Core 2 Duo and forget the Quad parts as well. Anyway, we'll go for a reasonable matchup:">Core i7 920 = $290;">Core 2 Quad Q9650 = $345.

    On, snap! What just happened!? Yes, that's right: a similar performance Core 2 Quad can actually end up costing *more* than Core i7 and offer worse performance. So you grab a more competitively priced Core 2 Quad like the Q9300, but now the i7 920 has a much greater performance advantage.

    The problem is people aren't comparing apples to apples. Core i7 is a high-end setup, so the motherboards are all top quality. Yes, you can get decent motherboards for Core 2 for a lot less money, but none of them match X58 across the -ahem- board. Dual x16 slots? What about the potential for SLI and CF support on a single board? For gamers, that might be enough reason alone to get an X58 (though you'd want to get a different board than the Gigabyte I listed above).

    You *can* build a very good Core 2 system for a lot less than you can build a Core i7 system, and more likely than not most people will be very happy with performance. Here's the thing, though: *most* people will be more than happy with the performance of an older Athlon X2 socket 939 or AM2 setup, which you can easily assemble for $300-$400.

    If you need or want more performance, don't sleep on Core i7. The net performance boost can be quite substantial, the platform does have some very compelling features, and for an upper midrange to high-end system it's really hard to claim equal performance. An overclocked Phenom II or Core 2 Quad might match a stock clocked i7 920, but that's hardly a fair comparison. Once you">overclock both platforms, even traditionally GPU-limited things like gaming can see a clear benefit. A $280 Q9550 with DDR2 and X48 compared to i7 920 with DDR3 and X58 will be a price difference of around $100, even counting the extra 2GB for a 3x2GB DDR3 memory kit.
  • Souka - Sunday, February 8, 2009 - link

    Blah blah...Cire i7.... Phenom II

    My P4 AGP system runs just fine...plays games just fine too...and it's approaching it's 6th birthday...

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