The $1000 Midrange Sandy Bridge Build

Our midrange build doubles the price; if that seems like a hefty price to pay we should note that it can also more than double performance. If all you’re doing is surfing the web, writing emails, and working with spreadsheets, no, you probably don’t need quad-core Sandy Bridge. If you happen to run more processor intensive workloads—or if you’d like to get an SSD into the mix—by all means go for it. Here are the specs of our midrange build.

Midrange Core i5-2500K System
Part Description Price Rebate
Processor Intel Core i5-2500K $216  
Motherboard Biostar TZ68A+ LGA 1155 $118  
Memory Patriot 8GB (2x4GB) PSD38G1600K $83 -$20
Graphics ZOTAC ZT-40408-10P GeForce GTX 460 1GB GDDR5 $150 -$30
Graphics Alternative XFX HD-685X-ZNDC Radeon HD 6850 1GB GDDR5 $180 -$30
Primary Storage OCZ Vertex 2 OCZSSD2-2VTX60G 2.5" 60GB SSD $120  
Secondary Storage Samsung SpinPoint F3 HD103SJ 1TB HDD $60  
Optical LITE-ON iHAS124-04 DVD Burner $25  
Power Supply Antec High Current Gamer Series HCG-400 PSU $55 -$15
Case Cooler Master HAF 912 RC-912-KKN1 $60 -$10
OS Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $100  
System Total $987 $912

Though the Intel Core i5-2500K is not Intel’s most powerful desktop CPU, it does best AMD’s flagship desktop processor, the Phenom II X6 1100T Black Edition. The Intel chip is not only more capable, but it also uses less power. To be blunt, the Core i5-2500K is mind-bogglingly fast for its cost. In my experience, the Core i5-2500K cuts through genomic datasets like a hot knife through butter, and it noticeably reduced the time it takes me to get answers to my research questions compared to the Phenom II X4 945 (C3) I was using previously. Video encoders and gamers alike will see remarkably improved results versus even the first-gen Core i5-750. Oh, and rare is the Core i5-2500K that can’t overclock to 4.4GHz on air, with the stock cooler.

So why go with the Core i5-2500K instead of the other Core i5 quads? Simple: you aren’t paying much more for the top of the line i5 part. The Core i5-2500K is only $40 more than the least expensive Core i5-2300, and that $40 gives you 300MHz more at stock (500MHz with Turbo Boost) as well as the ability to overclock with the unlocked multiplier. The other Core i5 chips are niche products, like the i5-2405S with its lower TDP and Intel HD 3000 graphics (vs. the Intel HD 2000 graphics on all of the other i5s sans the 2500K), or the i5-2400S, also with a lower 65W TDP. That said, if you have no intention of ever multiplier overclocking, the i5-2500 is essentially the same as the i5-2500K in its specifications (though the non-‘K’ version has Intel HD 2000 graphics instead of the HD 3000 graphics).

As noted earlier, we recommend the Z68 chipset over P67-based motherboards now. The Biostar TZ68A+ offers tremendous value—it has all of the features expected from a Z68 board at a low price. I’ve had excellent first-hand experiences with Biostar’s T-series motherboards going back as far as the AMD Socket 939 days. Compared to other value Z68 boards, it has a three-year warranty (compared to, say, the ASRock Z68 PRO3’s one-year warranty). It also has fewer than normal rear USB 2.0 ports, but I don’t consider this too much of a negative. If two rear USB 2.0, two front USB 2.0, and two rear USB 3.0 ports (which are backward compatible with USB 2.0 devices) are not sufficient for your needs, you might consider spending more money on a more feature-rich board or buying a powered external USB hub.

We’ve upped the RAM to 8GB of DDR3. This is overkill for most users, but during intensive multitasking with demanding applications, the extra RAM can be useful. It might just be unpleasant memories of paying exorbitant sums for a mere 1GB of DDR back in the price fixing days coloring my judgment, but it’s hard to resist buying 8GB of DDR3 for less than $100!

We’ve included a SandForce-based 60GB OCZ Vertex 2 SSD for the OS and a few software titles as well as a fast 1TB mechanical hard drive for mass storage and extensive game libraries. 60GB isn’t particularly spacious, but at this system price point pairing a small SSD with a larger HDD provides a good balance of speed and storage space. (In other words, it’s hard to have both a larger, more expensive SSD and a large HDD without compromising, for example, the GPU.) We discussed which SSD would be best here, and we also eyed the Corsair Force F40 40GB and Kingston V100 64GB. Ultimately, we felt 40GB just wasn’t enough for our purposes, and $20 more could still fit into our budget. The Kingston V100 on the other hand provides an interesting option; it’s the same price initially, but there’s currently a $45 mail-in rebate. Yes, the SF-1200 controllers are faster overall (even with 25nm MLC NAND), but any decent SSD is still a big jump up from the best HDD.

For the video card, we had a bit of a debate on what would be best once again. This time, we decided to go with the green team, as the price difference (after rebate) is a pretty sizeable $30; however, it's such a close call that we're listing the Radeon HD 6850 as an alternative to the NVIDIA GTX 460 1GB, and both lines are packing some serious mail-in rebates right now. The two GPUs perform similarly, and while the Radeon HD 6850 has markedly lower power usage under load, they’re tied for idle power consumption. If you’re looking to buy DiRT 3, it’s probably the better card since you can get a free copy with the 6850 if you act fast. Ultimately, the GTX 460 1GB cards wins out with lower pricing, but note that if you go with the 400W PSU we list below you'll need to buy a Molex-to-PCIe power adapter. (You could save another $10 by going with the GTX 460 1GB SE; we initially had the EVGA card but ultimately felt the extra 17% compute power was worth $10.)

To power everything, the Antec HCG-400 PSU is a very solidly constructed, less powerful version of the 520W we recently reviewed and praised. A 400W PSU is more than sufficient for this system, though I would not plan on adding a second GTX 460 later without a larger PSU! (If that’s your intention, we’d suggest starting with a 620W PSU instead.) If you feel 400W is too small for such a system, one of our editors (Jarred) is running an HD 5870 Toxic with an overclocked Bloomfield CPU and 24GB RAM off of a 450W PSU, and peaking at around 350W power draw from the wall (e.g. well under 300W load at the PSU), with idle power draw of only 170W (<150W from the PSU). This setup will certainly use less power than his system, making the HCG-400 more than sufficient, provided you're not going to add a second GPU or run half a dozen HDDs.

Housing everything is a Cooler Master HAF 912 case. It’s broadly similar to the Antec Three Hundred in that it has mounts for two front 120mm intake fans (and comes with one installed), a rear 120mm exhaust fan (installed), and mounts for a side as well as top fan. Airflow/cooling is excellent, though again like the Antec Three Hundred, it’s not the quietest case. It’s also designed with water-cooling in mind, so if you ever want to water-cool your i5-2500K for aggressive overclocking, that will be straightforward.

All assembled, just under $1000 buys you a very solid all-around desktop computer that’s also able to handle current games at high resolutions and settings without risking a brownout while your air conditioning is on this summer. And if you’re diligent about sending in all those mail-in rebates, you’re looking at $907 for a new PC—including shipping (but not taxes).

Sandy Bridge on a <$500 Budget What Can You Build for $2000?
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  • GullLars - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    I agree on the 2500K + GTX 460 being a great build for "medium" gamers, so don't take the next part as an attack on that system.

    Regarding the last part of your post, if you already have a quad Phenom II / Athlon II, migrating to a LGA 1155 build will require you to get both a motherboard and CPU, combined cost ~$300-350. If you don't already have an SSD, a 128GB Vertex 3, M4, or 510 will give you a noticably better improvement than going to the 2500K system outside number crunching.

    For gaming, an Athlon/Phenom II x4 >2,5GHz won't slow down a 460 noticably at 1900x1200 medium. There may be a few FPS difference, but both will be perfectly playable, and the GPU will be the determining factor.
  • marc1000 - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    for light use my c2duo is perfectly fine. I even do "almost medium" gaming because I invested in a radeon 5770 (it goes fine with my 1680x1050 monitor). but when I need to convert a blu-ray disc (legally bought), my system goes to its knees... it takes 5 to 6 hours for a single disk. at this task the sandy bridge cpus are faster than phenom II, and for anyone with even older hardware like me, it's about 5 times faster...
  • JarredWalton - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    True. If you're upgrading a PC as opposed to buying new, the point at which it becomes important varies from individual to individual. I'm still running a Core 2 Quad desktop, and my wife is on Core 2 Duo -- only my gaming rig is running Core i7 (Bloomfield). My current go-to laptop is a Sandy Bridge quad-core that's actually faster than my Core 2 Quad desktop, but all my apps are still running happily on the C2Q.

    If you are already running in an AMD ecosystem, there's really no point to upgrading to Llano right now. Even if it's compatible with your motherboard, all you'd really get is lower power draw and a faster IGP. Considering you can get a much faster dGPU for $50, why bother? And as far as power goes, let's say Llano saves you 20W on average; at $0.15 per kWh (which is actually more than a lot of people in the US pay), you'd need to run 24/7 for five years to recoup the cost of a $100 investment. In five years, I can pretty much guarantee you'd have upgraded at least once if not twice from Llano.
  • ckryan - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    I decided to build a new system based on SB in part pretty much just cause I wanted to. A quad core Athlon/Phenom II isn't exactly feeble and it wasn't "holding me back". I didn't need to upgrade, I just wanted to upgrade. The 2500k/2600k might be a great deal ahead of the K10.5 architecture but it's not like AMDs are obsolete. Part of my decision to upgrade was based on the fact that I needed to build a system for a family member -- so I just upgraded my system and handed down my AMD system -- which is still way more powerful a system than was necessary. I bought an H67 and a 2500k which was great, but then I decided to get a P67 board. To be clear, in the few games I do play I get better framerates... but it's largely academic. I say if you're building a system for someone else, esp. if they're not a gamer than an H67/Core i3 is a great way to go. Which is what I'm planning to do with my "old" Biostar TH67+.
  • marc1000 - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link

    yeah, giving away our older parts is a great reason to upgrade! =D

    I guess that this "upgrading cycle" is more of an addiction than a necessity. I'm planning to whom I will give my old system as soon as I buy that 2500k!
  • jjj - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    "an AWESOME time to buy an Intel desktop, because there's nothing coming out in the next three months on the Intel side "

    Why would anyone sane buy based on brand name,how does it matter if it's Intel or AMD side and how is 3 MONTHS !?! a significant period of time?

    We have BD coming soon,you say september and it would be nice to tell us what makes you think it is september and not august since all public info suggests august,.There is SB-E this year and i guess we can hope BD will force Intel to price it better than it was planned and then Ivy Bridge could arrive in 7-10 months.It's maybe the worst time to buy a new desktop in YEARS.

    That aside,there are a lot of "best Intel something" articles lately on the internets,i really do hope this wasn't a payed article,or written at Intel's request. You guys are already almost never criticizing any products you review,always looking for the upside and that's starting to be annoying.You might need to keep good relations with hardware makers but objectivity is way more important or you'll end up being the next THG.
  • marc1000 - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    I don't agree with you. I don't believe they are saying any of this because of brand names. It's because of real performance. See, I'm an AMD supporter - each and every GPU I used is ATI/AMD (since the times of geforce2mx ruling the market, I was buying the radeon9000). I even bought an Athlon 64 system when it was faster than any Pentium. but since the core2duo, the intel CPU's are the best performers. I really hope that AMD will deliver a capable CPU with the next iteration of bulldozer, but right now you can't go wrong when buying any of the new sandy bridge cpus.
  • duploxxx - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    difference between initail buyers guide and this version :)

    In the end it's all about levelling a build, first of all you mention a pricerange, but you forget to add kyb-mouse-speakers and screens, so to what extend does a buyer only assign parts to the case and content..... never they look at the full picture.

    THe budget 500$ is off for a SNB anyhow right now, it is totally out of balance, you have more then CPU power enough for general usage and you get an IGP that is worth é&é&é&é sure general desktop usage is fine, but not meant to play any decent game at all, so you need a GPU anyhow.

    a very low budget mobo, the MSI -e35 has at least USB3 support....
    the caviar blue is slow against black series and others like spinpoint....

    THe 1000$ build is also not balanced. there is no need for the 2500K a 2400 will do more then ok for such a rig, for the difference in price you get a 6870 from asus or the his also in rebate with much better price/performance/power ratio then this 460. THe antec psu i would trade it in for a corsair anyday. cheap case that ain't really that looking unless you have a -25j old public. While the 60GB SSD does serve it's purpose here it is narrow on size and performance.... again balance the needs

    The 2000$ build well nothing to add, but then again select all major parts doesn't always provide the best ratio price/perf/power. you could easily take the 2500K here (no need for those HT cores anyway in daily usage), go with a 570 or 6970. buy a faster and better ssd, intel 68 chipset that isn' t really added value beside higher price.... throwing with money but forget for a total complete build you actually need 500$ more for the peripherals at the same level.

    last thing.... its nice searching for the cheapest prices everywhere on the net, but the chances that buyers actually go search for 3 different sites for the lowest $ cost for each part is hardly the case.

    Sure you can mention the fact that AMD has nothing new to offer right now so you don't throw them in, but the 500-1000$ range is still a valid range to compare both where they will do more then well for any user. The non-intel PC users is just lack of IT mind, old school ready for retirement in this branche.....

  • hi87 - Saturday, June 18, 2011 - link

    You're a joke Duploxx. Just stfu. Anything that is not pro-AMD you hate on.

    I'm not a fanboy, I'm just sick of your trolling on anything that's about Intel. Damn, how childish are you?
  • Broheim - Sunday, June 19, 2011 - link


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