The AMD Route
We start our selection of components with the AMD upgrade path, where its Phenom II processor has been restoring some faith among enthusiasts. While Intel may still hold the performance crown, the Phenom II has been chipping at Intel's lead with very competitively priced products. Our own experience with the current Phenom II flagship, the X4 955, has found it to perform on par or close to some of Intel's quad-core Core 2 processors and even the Core i7-920.
With a decent clock speed of 3.2GHz and with a larger L2 cache compared to the original Phenom, the Phenom II may also be attractive to upgraders since these AM3 based socket processors can be used on existing AM2+ motherboards supporting DDR2 memory without any fuss but a BIOS update in most cases. That's a value proposition that's hard to beat, especially since the boxed Phenom II X4 955 goes for only US$215 in retail.
Our Phenom II processor would need a motherboard and for that, we'll look to the latest AM3 socket motherboards. The main difference between the AM3 and AM2+ is in the memory support, with AM3 motherboards supporting DDR3 memory. To help us in our choice, we referred to our previous roundup of the latest AM3 motherboards using the AMD 790FX chipset, the designated enthusiast chipset from the company. While the 790GX chipset may offer a slightly better price, the features present on the 790FX, particularly support for more graphics cards tilt the balance in its favor, since these are important to enthusiasts trying to build a high-end gaming rig.
MSI's 790FX-GD70 motherboard was our pick then for its all-round performance and layout, along with some of the newer features like O.C Dial and Max FSB. Quad CrossFireX support and a healthy number of ports and connectors make it suited for the more intensive needs of enthusiasts. And so it remains our choice of motherboard for the Phenom II processor. Price: US$170.
Next, we move onto the choice of memory. Since we are going with an AM3 motherboard, we are looking at DDR3 memory. There are many choices and brands of DDR3 memory out there but with vendors packaging them into dual-channel kits (AMD processors support up to dual-channel memory), we naturally went with that. Next, the memory frequency boiled down to paying a significant premium for the very high frequency versions, which we felt was hardly necessary for the minor, sometimes negligible performance difference. Instead, we felt that the sweet spot is 1600MHz, which allows some overhead for overclocking while remaining relatively price competitive.
For that, our came in handy, which leads to our choice of the Patriot Gamer Series DDR3 1600MHz (2 x 2GB) dual-channel memory kit. With its low latency of 7-7-7-20, it certainly deserves its 'gaming' branding while the lightweight aluminum heatspreaders will at least assure enthusiasts that some overclocking is possible. At US$96, it's not the cheapest of memory kits out there but then such premium products rarely are.