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Holiday Hardware Buyers Guide

Date: November 15, 2006
Author(s): Techgage Staff

The holiday season can be a rough time if you are not sure what you buy, or ask for. We have taken out the hassle and delivered a comprehensive guide of our top picks that covers every type of component inside your computer.

Update: We’ve added a gadgets page!



Introduction

It’s hard to believe that it’s that time of the year again. As we inch closer to the holiday season, there is no time to waste in figuring out what the hot hardware item for the season is. We have done all the legwork for you!

This guide is designed for buyers and givers alike. If you are unsure what the “hot” item is, this guide will help you understand what to purchase, or what to add to your wishlist. Even if you do not celebrate any holidays, this time of the year is still a fun one since a lot of the hot items go on sale. So keep your eyes peeled!

Throughout many of our categories, we have divided them in the order of Ultimate to Stocking Stuffer. AKA, “Uber Hot” or “Budget Gift”. One thing you should bare in mind though, is that even though we may call something a “Stocking Stuffer”, it’s still a quality product that we highly recommend. Anything that we think is crap is not listed here, simple as that. They are listed according to price, with the Ultimate being the most expensive usually, and the Stocking Stuffer being an item that’s affordable by anyone.

Alongside most of our picks are live pricing feeds, so that you can quickly see the best going price for a given product. Since the holidays is one time of the year where your wallet empties at light speed, these feeds help ease the pain.

If you are interested in seeing the list up front, here it is. Clicking on “Jump to Page” will bring you quickly to that page. If you are in no hurry to leave (why would you be?), feel free to casually stroll through the guide starting with the next page.

Word of caution before proceeding! If you are a gift buyer and intend on buying a friend/family/pet a piece of hardware, just make sure first that it will work on their PC by casually bringing it up in a conversation or getting them drunk so that they spill the beans. If you are to purchase a video card for example, chances are it will not work in a PC that’s two years old, since the PCI-E standard was brought on later. Of course if you are in need of any help or advice, you can hit up our forums and post your question there.



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Peripherals

Keyboard

The keyboard has remained unchanged for a very long time with the exception of the way it connects to the PC. While the QWERTY layout remains, the designs of keyboards have gone from dull and beige to elegant and sleek. If I were to choose one keyboard that has captured my attention the most it would be the Saitek Eclipse II. Back in September, we took a look at this keyboard and our reaction was incredibly positive.

The quality of the keyboard was high and the layout well done. Using a standard USB connection for power and connectivity, the backlit keys could be a bit brighter but are still easily recognizable for all but the basic of users. There are the obligatory media keys in the top right corner of the keyboard. The keys are small and surround a dimmer knob for the backlit keys. As stated before, Saitek could certainly up the power going to the LEDs so the dimmer is pretty much useless. All in all, the Saitek is getting this editor’s recommendation for anyone in the market for a high quality keyboard, perfect for gamers and everyday users alike.

The Saitek Eclipse II can be found online for approximately $50 (US.)

Mouse (Wired)

For anyone looking for the ultimate control from their gaming mouse, look no further than the Razer Copperhead. We were fortunate enough to have one to review shortly after launch. Since that time, there hasn’t really been any company to produce an equal when high a DPI is of the utmost importance. The gold plated USB plug ensures an optimal connection with your PC and the laser eye of the Copperhead is fully customizable up to an amazing 2000 DPI. In fact, this eye is so impressive; Microsoft has chosen a variable of it to power their next gaming mouse, the Habu. Leave it to Razer to make an enviable product. The only downside to the mouse is that its design and shape might not be for everyone. It took me a good long while to get used to it but I have talked with many who can’t live without theirs.

The Razer Copperhead can found online for approximately $60 (US.)

Mouse (Wireless)

This is an easy one, the Logitech G7 wireless gaming mouse. Logitech has pretty much had the PC peripherals game on lock for more than a decade. With the G7, you get laser precision, on the fly DPI adjustments and a pair of rechargeable battery packs that can be swapped out in a hurry all while the G7 communicates with your PC via a 2.4 GHz wireless signal. The G7 also comes with the comfortable Logitech styling and for this editor; the feel of Logitech’s mice can’t be beat. Look for this under trees near you!

The Logitech G7 can be found online for approximately $60 (US.)

Mouse (Notebook)

Should your PC of choice be a notebook, we have the hook up for you as well. Most people are either not used to the touchpad of their notebook or just don’t want to use it. For those people, we can recommend the Logitech VX Revolution. Logitech dropped the boom hammer when it released its Revolution line of mice. We took a good long look at the MX desktop mouse back in August and its little brother is very similar in all but size. The VX is a wireless (2.4 GHz RF) 7 button mouse that has a tilt wheel and programmable software. The VX uses a laser eye for mind numbing precision and is small and portable so it’s easy to throw in your notebook bag and get back on the go. Connectivity, as stated before, is 2.4 GHz (RF) and is connected through a small USB thumb drive sized device.

The mouse is rather painless to use and can be found online in the ballpark of $80 (US.)

Headphones

Gamers have brought the use of headsets to an all time high. No gamer is going to be caught dead at a LAN party with speakers as most LAN events strictly prohibit the use of anything but headphones. The headset I personally use and recommend is the Steel Sound 5Hv2. I have been using these headphones for the past month and a half and each day, I learn to appreciate them more and more. The sound is top notch and the ability to break them down into three separate pieces is a welcome feature if you attend many LAN parties or just like to store your things away. The 5H headset has an inline volume controller that also allows you to turn your microphone on and off. Speaking of microphones, the 5Hv2s have a built in microphone that can retract into the left ear pod for safe and convenient storage when not gaming or the microphone is not needed.

The Steel Sound 5Hv2 can be found online for approximately $70 (US.)

Thumb Drives

We all need extra storage. Being an IT professional (yea right!), I have to have a lot of data at my disposal at all times. Sometimes it software, a lot of the time its router configurations, and sometimes it just music and por…. stuff. Whatever it might be, the ability to make important data readily accessible at any PC with an open USB port is awesome. With that said, there are 2 thumb drives that truly stand out in my mind.

The OCZ 4GB Rally thumb drive is a fast storage solution for those of you on the go. The 4GBs of storage should be more than enough for you to store anything you really need to access or install on any and all PCs that you might be in front of, all through the convenience of USB.

If 4 gigs of storage aren’t enough, then perhaps you can opt for the 8GB Corsair Voyager. Despite the huge density, Voyager remains a small size.

Both of these drives offer far more space than any flash drive did last year and that my friends, is the beauty of progress. The concept of mobile data isn’t new, but with these thumb drives, you now have the power to fit a DVD worth of data on a small drive that will fit in your pocket as well as remove that data and start over should you feel like it. Times are good. Thumb drives for the masses!

The OCZ Rally can be found online in the area of $80 – $100 (US) dollars while the Corsair Voyager can be had for a stonking $160 (US.)

For a few years now, there have been many companies to released portable MP3 players but there is really only one major player.

Launched back in 2001, the iPod has taken off and with many different varieties, hasn’t looked back. You can now buy iPods with screens on them, without screens, flash based, hard drive based, with video and picture support…. you get the picture. Or perhaps you don’t if you have the shuffle (iPod joke, I know, I’m lame.) Well, just as companies always release new products, Microsoft has their “iPod killer”, the Zune. Just as they did with the XBox, Microsoft is going for the gusto and throwing their financial fists directly at the face of Apple. Will it work? Time will tell.

The Zune, as stated before, is an all new MP3 player manufactured by Microsoft. Offering 30 GBs of storage, FM radio, video and music playback and WiFi, the Zune looks to be an all in one portable media center. The Zune can also connect with Microsoft’s XBox 360, allowing the user to stream media off of the Zune, and onto the TV and speakers that are hooked up to the 360.

On the other hand, the iPod has been a vanity item for a long time. It was almost as if it was a social status indicator that divided those with from those without. I personally own the 30GB flavor if iPod and overall, I have been happy. Another positive about the iPod is that because of it’s popularity, every company under the sun makes add-on hardware for it. Hell, if car companies build cars with your product in mind, you without a doubt have a good thing going for you.

The Microsoft Zune will retail for $250 (US) while the iPod can be found for anywhere from $145 (US) for the 2GB Nano up to $340 (US) for the whopping 80GB Video iPod.


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Video Cards

Ultimate – NVIDIA 8800GTX

Just last week, NVIDIA released its G80 based video cards to the eagerly awaiting gaming enthusiasts. While there are 2 cards with the G80 core, one being the 8800GTS, the only one can be called “Ultimate” is the 8800GTX. Keeping with the premium GTX badge, the 8800GTX is far and away the most hardcore GPU on the market today and the benchmarks prove it. In fact, it is difficult to truly push this card unless you have a rather large display. The 8800GTX can cut right through gaming on a 24” LCD and is only slightly taxed when driving a Dell 30” LCD screen worth of pixels. It is also worth mentioning that the 8800GTX is the first DirectX 10 card on the market.

Being of the PCI-E flavor, NVIDIA created the 8800GTX to be SLI capable. This is good for all the benchmarkers out there but in all honesty, there are very few people out there who can cripple one, let alone two.

Everything about this card is big. The card is longer and the die itself is larger than the GPUs of the past. Shipping with the now standard dual slot cooler, the 8800GTX is relatively quiet. More importantly, NVIDIA has pulled off another hard launch and these deadly cards are available at this very minute from any reputable retailer online or down the road. With a MSRP of $599, this card takes the GPU performance crown in price as well as raw horsepower. This is a card that any gamer would personally write Santa thank you note should one be found under their Christmas tree this holiday season, this editor included.

As good as this card is, it is only going to get better. At the time of publishing, there isn’t a single DirectX 10 game out at this time. As time goes on though, we will see Alan Wake and Crysis and if these games live up to the hype, you better wire your bottom jaw shut as this card is going to look amazing with those games.

Great – ATI x1950XTX

With the launch of the 8800GTX by NVIDIA, ATI lost the performance crown. While this might sting the ego a bit, very few people can afford the best of the best and while expensive, the cost of an x1950XTX is a bit of an easier pill to swallow.

Being the current flagship gaming GPU from the men and women at ATI, the x1950XTX certainly has a lot to offer. The addition of GDDR4 has allowed ATI to reach much higher clock frequencies with the RAM and the dual slot cooler keeps the temperatures in check and while doing so, rarely get anywhere close to being loud. The ability to add a second x1950 or x1900 CrossFire master card for CrossFire performance only adds to the appeal of the x1950XTX. Having worked with the card in question, the performance impressed me greatly in all games that I have played. With a street price anywhere from the very high $300 dollars all the way up to the mid $400s, the x1950XTX is expensive but well within reach of most consumers.

Good – ATI x1950Pro

Released only a few short weeks ago, ATI brought their first GPU produced on the 90nm fab process to market. This smaller core allows the x1950Pro to run cooler as it is far less power hungry. Because of this, the cooling requirements are less than its bigger brother, the x1950XTX, and thus only needs a single slot cooler. This is a huge plus for everyone with little room in their cases.

The ATI x1950Pro is also unique in the sense that it’s the first ATI GPU to ditch the massively hated CrossFire dongle for an all internal solution now. Apparently ATI had been listening to the complaints and taken a cue from their green enemy to the south because the internal CrossFire adapter(s) are extremely similar to NVIDIA’s SLI adapters. With prices ranging anywhere from just under $250 to $300, a little shopping around will do you some good. This is the card for those of us on a budget. The x1950Pro is a card that puts its money where its mouth is and the prospect of adding a second card down the road makes this card that much more appealing as this card can be found for only $250.

You can check out our preview of the x1950Pro here.

Stocking Stuffer – NVIDIA 7600GT

The 7600GT from NVIDIA is card for those who game, but not at incredible resolutions and those who game on a budget. With high clocks, the 7600GT makes up for its glaring weakness, it’s 128-bit memory bus. Cooled by a single slot cooler, the 7600GT takes up little space in your PC and remains relatively cool too. With shader model 3.0 support, the 7600GT is a steal in the mid $150 dollar range. For that price, you also get a SLI ready card should you ever decide to get a second card.


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Monitors

Ultimate – Dell 3007WFP 30”

Dell has long been known for their mass produced, yet customizable PCs. In the past few years, Dell has invested a lot of money into other areas. One of these areas has been the PC monitor field. In that time, they have managed to create superb CRT and LCD monitors with the mack daddy of them all being the enormous 3007WFP wide screen LCD monitor.

With a max resolution of 2560 x 1600, you are going to need a tremendous video card to push 4,096,000 freakin’ pixels! Might I suggest our Ultimate GPU, the 8800GTX?

There have been concerns in the past with LCD screens and ghosting in games. While this is a valid concern, most companies have offered monitors with a 8ms response time or less. The 3007 offers a response time of 11ms gray-to-gray and a 14ms response time for black-to-black. The 3007 also offers analog and DVI out, 9-in-2 card reader, 4 USB 2.0 ports, an adjustable stand and component in for console gaming in high def.

As a personal owner of 4 different Dell monitors, I can speak for their quality. If you want the 3007 for your own however, you will have to shell out $1,275 which is more than a lot of people’s entire PC. Ultimate hardware comes with an ultimate premium and if you decide that you must have this monitor, or want to give it as a gift, bring your check book. Once past the price, you have a monitor that performs well and offers far more real estate than any other computer monitor to date.

Great – Gateway FPD2485W 24″

The FPD2485W is the latest offering from Gateway. Having established themselves long ago as a quality system builder, Gateway has decided to step into the big leagues with their 24” widescreen LCD monitor. While there are other 24” wides out there, and I am personally using the Dell 2407, the Gateway offers similar performance and specs, but does it for a lower price.

With its analog (VGA), DVI, component, composite, USB and S-Video, the only thing that the monitor lacks is a card reader. A native, and maximum, resolution of 1920×1200 allows gamers to enjoy widescreen gaming goodness and provides professionals with more than enough desktop real estate to aid in productivity. Another feature that should catch many people’s attention is the support for 1080p high definition display. If multitasking is your thing, or you are running video in though the display, picture in picture is an included feature as well.

With a street price of $679.99 direct from Gateway, the FPD2485W is a full $40 less than its Dell counter part and with the exclusion of the card reader, on paper the two look alike. The Gateway is getting my nod for sheer pricing.

Good – PLANAR PL2011M Black 20.1″

The Planar PL2011M is a 20.1” LCD flat panel monitor that allows those of us just coming from CRT monitors to keep our beloved 1600×1200. This was a sweet spot for me on my old CRT and the ability to retain this resolution in a much smaller LCD is a wonderful thing. With a response time of 8ms, you should be able to game on this monitor till your little heart’s content.

One thing that the PL2011M lacks is all of the extras that the other monitors have. If you are looking for a card reader, USB ports or component and S-Video in, you are out of luck. The PL2011M does however off DVI and Analog video out. There is also a pair of building speakers on the bottom of the monitor and for the most part, they don’t sound bad. There is an audio in port on the back of the monitor and if you can deal with yet another cord hanging down from behind your desk, than the inclusion of built in speakers is a plus in my book.

The PL2011M can be purchased at various e-tailers for a price in the mid to lower $400’s. If you have to have a 1600×1200 resolution but want an LCD screen, the PL2011M is the monitor for you.

Stocking Stuffer – Dell UltraSharp 1907FP 19”

Back in June, we took a look at the Dell UltraSharp 1907FP 19” LCD monitor. At the time, I was using a Dell 196FP and when the 1907FP came in, I quickly switched them out because I wanted the DVI out that the 1907 offered.

Aside from the DVI out, the 1907FP offers a native resolution of 1280×1024, 4 USB 2.0 ports as well as an adjustable stand. The colors of the 1907 are rich and with a 8ms response time, the monitor certainly has game. Should you ever get a wild hair, the ability to add speakers onto the monitor itself is offered and there is a power port in the bottom of the monitor itself to power said speakers. With a going price of $263, the Dell 1907FP is well within most people’s price range. For those of you who want a larger 19” LCD but don’t want to break the bank, I recommend the UltraSharp 1907FP 19” as I have been using it for the past 5 months and I love it.

If widescreen is something you are looking for, you would be smart to take a look at the Dell E207WFP. The E207 is roughly the same price as the 1907fp but offers widescreen goodness and a higher resolution. With its DVI out and a blazing fast 5ms response time, the E207 offers amazing gaming capabilities without the standard 4:3 resolution ratio. With a street price in the mid $200s, the E207 is certainly priced to sell and backed with Dell’s 3 year warranty, the E207 is a monitor that can walk the walk.

You can read our review of the 1907FP here.


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Motherboards

When building a new machine, the -last- thing you want to skimp out on is a motherboard. It’s the heart of your system, and if you buy a low quality board you can expect far more issues than you’d like. Because there is such a divided market between Core and AM2 motherboards, this page is designed a little differently.

Ultimate – ASUS Striker Extreme (Intel Core)

This board is so hot off the line, you can still smell the plastic! With the introduction of the NVIDIA G80 cards last week also came the chipset many Core 2 owners have been waiting for, the 680i. Basically an elaborate nForce 5 chipset, the 680i is the ultimate board for your Core 2 machine. It’s designed for any Core CPU you throw at it, whether that be an E6600, X6800 or QX6700. This board is built for speed, and proves the fact with its 1,333MHz FSB!

If you are a gamer, then this board was developed with you in mind. In fact, ASUS recently kicked off a series line called “Republic of Gamer” and the only other board included is the Crosshair, and we all know how far the tweaking ability was with that one (3.4vdimm anyone?). The same, if not better tweaking ability can be expected with the Striker. To add to the bling factor, included is an advanced onboard audio card, LCD screen on the back for diagnostics and a very unique looking NB/SB heatsink. The only catch? The Striker may be one of the few motherboards to ever hit the $400USD mark. Ouch.

Ultimate – ASUS M2N32-SLI Deluxe (AMD AM2)

It may seem like I am on an ASUS binge, but they’ve really impressed me this past year. The M2N32-SLI was the first AM2 motherboard I used, and I was immediately impressed. Like the DFI M2R/G, this board also features the nForce 590MCP chipset, so SLI is your friend quick as long as you have two of the same capable cards. While the board caters to enthusiasts, it also delivers in other departments to make it a great board for all around use. Gaming, HTPC, alarm clock… you can use it for whatever you want.

You may laugh at the alarm clock reference, but it’s no joke. You can set this board to start playing an audio CD for whatever time you specify and it will turn on your computer to do so when that time hits. Other great features include built-in WiFi, 8-phase power design, LinkBoost technology and other odds and ends. One feature I particularly enjoyed was the fact that you could back up your entire bios to your thumb drive! You also have the ability to load a BIOS backup from the same drive or a CD-Rom, and it will give you specific info before you proceed with a flash so that you can make sure it’s the right move. Without a doubt, this is one serious feature-rich AM2 motherboard.

You can read our ASUS M2N32 review here.

Great – Gigabyte DQ6 (Intel Core)

The DQ6 doesn’t really need any introduction, but I will give it one. This is one fine Core 2 board from Gigabyte that offers a lot of tweaking and overclocking ability to the user. It has multiple features that make it stand out in a crowd. It features the unique Quad BIOS feature, which essentially adds a layer of security in case your primary BIOS becomes corrupted. This is a huge benefit that you wouldn’t exactly realize unless you were in that specific situation without this protection ;-)

Also here is an All-Solid capacity design, which is reassuring if you are an overclocker. The board features no cooling fans at all, for 0db operation, a plus if you are looking at an HTPC or generally enjoy a quiet PC. Reliable chipsets, decent on-board sound, 4 primary USB ports, 8 S-ATA… this board offers a lot of what you would expect and a lot of what you wouldn’t. Like all recent Core motherboards, this one is also compatible with the upcoming Quad-Core from Intel. Lastly, the board fully supports ATI Crossfire, so you are good to go with a dual GPU setup.

Great – DFI LanParty NF590 M2R/G (AMD AM2)

Speaking of motherboards for enthusiasts, nobody understands the need better than DFI. The reason for this is that the people behind the boards are hardcore enthusiasts themselves, and painstakingly design each product with passion, which is why we get boards with incredible tweaking ability. The M2R/G came out a few months after the AM2 platform launch, and was quite hard to wait for. Luckily, the few extra months that the board took, showed up in it’s overall quality.

The board supports every AM2 CPU as you’d expect, and the usual DDR2-800 memory speeds. NVIDIAs top of the line nForce 5 chipset, the 590MCP, is used here. So, SLI is ready for you straight out of the box. The board features an 8-channel Realtek audio card, 8-SATA ports, CMOS Reloaded and very, very quiet chipset cooling. Where the board shines though is with overclocking, but that’s not a real surprise. The limits are endless, as you can hit a staggering 1.94Vcore and 3.0Vdimm in small increments. Yes, that’s “extreme” if I’ve ever seen it. Without a doubt, this is the board you want if you are an AM2 enthusiast.

Note: To use this board without issue, we recommend you use a power supply with 3.0a to the +5VSB rail, as some DFI motherboards will choke on anything less.

You can read our DFI M2R/G review here.

Good – Gigabyte DS3 (Intel Core)

When Conroe first launched, there wasn’t exactly an abundance of motherboards to choose from. However, one board did stand out from that small bunch, the Gigabyte DS3. This board is compatible with all of the Core CPU’s and is very overclocking friendly. The huge bonus of the board is that it retails for only around $150, so it’s perfect for overclockers on a budget.

Good – ABIT AN9 32x (AMD AM2)

Now here is a great board worth your consideration. The AN9 32x is equipped with the MCP590 chipset like the M2N32-SLI and M2R/G boards are, but costs around $50 less! Feature-rich is not really how you would describe the board, but it boasts a fair amount of tweaking ability, and SLI for those who want it. The layout of the board overall is great, and there is absolutely no noise thanks to the blue heatpipe that runs along the entire proximity. AM2 on a budget… the AN9 32x is for you.


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Processors & Cases

Ultimate – Intel Core 2 Extreme QX6700

Without question, 2006 was one of the most interesting years in a long time in terms of the hardware industry. Just looking back would take an entire article on it’s own. One release that made enthusiasts cry with joy was Intels Conroe chip. Yes, this chip was blazing fast and put anything AMD offered to shame. The sad fact of the matter was, even Intels smallest Core CPU could be overclocked to overtake AMDs FX-62!

How do you take such a successful chip and make it better? Double it, of course. Though the need for 4 cores is yet to be seen, the fact is that game developers are working vigilantly to write their games to take advantage of more than one core. Alan Wake and Unreal Tournament 2007 are two prime examples of this. UT2007 is written in such a way that it could even use more than four cores. So the future proofing of this CPU is evident.

It’s hard to imagine a $1,000 CPU as a good value, but in a way, it certainly is. The 2.93GHz X6800 Dual Core chip runs for the same price, while the QX6700 lags a little behind at 2.66GHz. If you have been following Core 2 Duo overclocking at all, you know that the sky’s the limit. Buy a QX6700 chip and overclock it… and you will have one beastly machine.

Ultimate – AMD Athlon FX-62

If you are not ready to jump on the Intel bandwagon, then AMD offers many CPU’s for your consumption. If I were to build a new machine, I’d quickly recommend building a Core 2 Duo rig, but the fact of the matter is, sometimes AMD will still surpass Intel in a few ways. The most notable is the integrated memory controller. Thanks to this, the bandwidth seen is great increased which is key for overclockers trying to reach new heights.

The CPU is built on a 90nm process, so you likely already know what kind of overclocking ability to expect here. Unlike some of the smaller X2 chips, the FX-62 has 2 x 1MB cache, which will improve overall performance at the same clock speed. There’s no doubt, if you are an AMD guy and want to overclock your CPU or memory, the FX-62 is the chip for the job. Consider the fact that the FX-62 can hit 3.0GHz quite easily, which would give you DDR2-1200 speeds. Since that’s the way the memory industry is going, this chip is ready to deliver with whatever is thrown at it.

Great – Intel Core 2 E6700

The E6700 is a superb chip for those who don’t want to shell out more than double for the X6800 or QX6700. It rolls in at 2.66GHz speeds with a staggering 4MB total L2 cache. Thanks to it’s 1066MHz FSB, the performance seen is incredible, although the Core architecture is amazing to begin with. Like all of the Core chips, the E6700 has crazy overclocking potential. If you have the $500 to spend on one, you will not be kicking yourself after picking one up.

If the FX-62 is a wee bit out of your reach, then the next best chip for the job would be the X2 5200+. In effect, it’s similar to the FX-62 in every regard except that it runs at 2.6GHz as opposed to the 2.8GHz that the FX offers. The 2MB total L2 cache is still available here, so the performance will be primo. Not too bad for a chip that’s almost $300 less then the FX-62. Makes you wonder why anyone would really go for the FX instead!

Good – Intel Core 2 E6300

If you want a Core 2 machine but want to keep the CPU under $200, then the E6300 is your only choice. Don’t let the budget moniker play with your mind though. This is an amazing CPU like the rest of the Core line that you can expect insane overclocking ability from. Though the chips stock speed is 1.86GHz, it’s not foolish to ponder the thought of squeezing 3.0GHz out of it… it’s been done many times over. The only downside would be the maximum overclocking potential and the 2MB of cache. Compared to the next CPU though, you’d be almost foolish to build a completely new budget machine and not include the E6300.

Good – AMD X2 3800+

Even budget CPU’s can be dual core, and also a great price. The 3800+ X2 retails for around $150 and comes in at 2.0GHz speeds with 1MB total L2 cache. The chip is built on a 90nm process, so you may not get insane overclocking out of it, but 2.5GHz seems like a reasonable goal. But who’s that focused on overclocking a chip that retails for such an easy to stomach price? On the AMD side of things, this is a fantastic CPU worth your consideration.

Computer Cases

Ultimate – Silverstone TJ07

The Silverstone TH07 is arguably the ultimate case for cooling options. It puts the HDDs and PSU in a lower chamber like the Lian Li V series cases yet it doesn’t invert the mobo tray so those of us with heatpipes need not fear it fouling up chipset cooling. It also has enough room in the bottom chamber to allow for easy radiator mounting plus it’s meshed for exceptional airflow.

Great – NZXT Zero

Got an aircooled rig? Want great airflow with lots of CFM’s with low noise? The Zero has 8 included fans, 7 of which are low RPM 120mm units but combined move a ton of air. Add to that the killer front door with window for 5.25″ bay mounted devices and tons of drive mounting options for the storage nuts out here and you’ve got a great case that won’t break the bank.

You can read our Zero review here.

Good – Ultra Aluminus

The Ultra Aluminus is the case designed for the compulsive cable hider. While it’s not the most robust case on the market, it’s no shrinking violet either. While it might not be the ultimate lan bomb it is a very polished looking case with very good cooling (with optional fans) that is very easy on your back (at less than 10 pounds) and wallet at under $100.

You can read our Aluminus review here.

Good – COOLER MASTER Centurion 5 CAC-T05-UW

On a tight budget? Look no further than the CoolerMaster Centurian 5 TAC. It’s got a stylish front bezel and a distinctive look that lets you know right away that it’s from the same folks that brought you the Wave Master among others. The drive options are as good or better than others in its price range and the cooling is above average with an 80mm in the front and a 120mm in the rear. With the CPU duct this will cause the rear fan to pull air in through the duct and funnel it to the CPU cooler. If you don’t use a cooler that’ll work with the duct simply put a low RPM fan where the duct mounts and blow cooler room air at the CPU cooler.


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RAM & Storage

It’s a PC component that’s often overlooked, but the fact is, better ram means faster performance. The tighter the timings and higher the frequency, the faster the data can surf around your computer. If you are an overclocker, then having good memory isn’t even in the question! In order to get your CPU to new heights, you need to have memory that’s flexible. Value ram that won’t go an ounce above stock speed will hold back your CPU and can take all of the fun out of tweaking.

You may notice that we don’t mention anything about 1GB kits here. That’s because they are old news now… gone the way of the dodo! Todays games and applications are far too system intensive to get by on only 1GB of ram. Before you know it, 4GB kits of ram will be the “norm”.


Ultimate – Corsair DOMINATOR 2GB PC2-8888

The memory market is fierce, though to non-memory enthusiasts it may not seem so. Whenever a company releases a new high-end kit that blows everything else away, within days another company will release a product to counter-attack. This past August, Corsair told the world that they are not fooling around. Their solution to gain them the crown? The ultra-fast PC2-8888 DOMINATOR.

OCZ released a PC2-9000 kit days after the DOMINATOR announcement, but it lacked one thing. Extremely tight timings. While the PC2-9000 kit had 5-5-5 stock timings, the DOMINATORs PC2-8888 speeds were reliable at 4-4-4. This is a huge deal, and shows that Corsair must’ve really hit the mother load with high-binned chips. If you are to purchase another standard kit and overclock to PC2-8888 speeds, chances are that 4-4-4 timings will either not be reliable or possible at all, or will require 2.5v+ to make it so. The chips inside these beastly modules however, run smooth and without active cooling at 2.4v!

But, the extreme speeds is not the only thing that makes the DOMINATOR so great. There is an add-on fan accessory that mounts atop your DIMM slots, to actively cool your modules. This is useful for overclocking especially. To help even further with heat dissipation, an entirely new type of heatspreader was developed. Though the DOMINATOR looks a bit huge, it’s for a reason. Not only do the FBGA chips have a heatsink, but also the PCB! Did I mention that these modules range between $600 – $700? Yes, that’s why they are our “ultimate”. Kudos to Corsair for making high-end memory a luxury item ;-)

Great – OCZ 2GB PC2-7200 EPP

While Corsair has been around for quite some time, OCZ Technology is still a relative noobie to the market. They wanted to catch up to others, and in the enthusiast market, they have. Things seem to have really taken off for them in the past few years, especially after the release of their great looking heatspreaders, the XTC. Built for great heat dissipation, they did their job and looked ‘cool’ at the same time. Since their release, they have seen a few different coats of paint, such as the Ti Alpha and Special Ops Edition.

The PC2-7200 Platinum EPP modules have proven to be, by far, one of the best kits I’ve ever touched. They include the infamous D9GMH chips, well known for their overclocking ability. Out of the box, these modules run at DDR2-900 speeds with tight 4-4-4 timings. What makes these modules so great though, is the overclocking potential. I’ve had my personal kit past PC2-1100 speeds while retaining 4-4-3 timings… at 100% stability. Granted that required a fair bit of voltage, but isn’t that the overclockers way?

Our review of the OCZ 2GB PC2-7200 EPP.

The very second that G. Skill announced this kit, enthusiasts were drooling. It was -the- kit to have, thanks to it’s capabilities and price range. Like the previous kit we looked at, the PHU2-2GBHZ also includes Micron D9GMH chips, which screams overclocking potential. Though I have not had great luck with my personal kit, many others have. Seeing DDR2-1200 with these modules became “boring” after a while, as people were continually pushing them.

The price of these seem to be going up, however. Just a few months ago, this kit could have been yours for $250, but now they range closer to $300. Perhaps their insane capabilities became far too apparent? Even at $300, this proves to be a great kit with way too much potential. Expect a few 3:00am overclocking sessions out of this one.

Our review of the G. Skill 2GB F2-6400PHU2-2GBHZ.

Stocking Stuffer – G. Skill 2GB F2-6400CL5D-2GBNQ

You may be asking yourself, “Why is the ‘Stocking Stuffer’ $200”? That’s because I believe highly in quality, over small savings. This is important if you are an overclocker of any sort, and if you aren’t, then there are many more options available to you. This kit offers great speeds and moderate overclocking ability with ultimate stability for only $200… which I consider a steal. There are far too many memory kits that cost way more than this, and have weaker performance. G. Skill knows how to pump out great modules, and both the 2GBHZ and 2GBNQ prove it.

Storage

Tis the season to be RAIDing. Yes, we are focusing on RAID as opposed to a single drive, because this setup is becoming increasingly popular. Why? RAIDs undoubtedly offer you better security when set up properly. Running a RAID Mirrored will essentially give you two drives with the same data, so if one dies, you are not screwed. Not too long ago, it was difficult to convince anyone to go with a RAID setup. Yes, the benefits are clearly there, but storage was so expensive… anyone would rather buy two drives and use all of the storage available instead of buying two that act as one.

However as the storage industry progresses, drives are getting larger and much cheaper. Who would have thought that 320GB for $90 would have been a sane thought just a few years ago? Now it’s commonplace. Though we are focusing on RAID, if you are looking for a single drive then we’d have the same picks. All of these drives are amazing, but nothing can touch our Ultimate…

Ultimate – Seagate 750GB ES * 2

Seagate impressed us earlier this year with their 750GB hard drive, which was possible thanks to Perpendicular Magnetic Recording. Well, they have taken that proven drive and improved on it greatly. The ES versions are designed to take punishment. Perfectly suited for RAID and business environments, they offer extreme reliability in addition to a full no-hassle five year warranty. Seagate also touts the fact that the 750GB drives are actually faster than the 10,000RPM drives available, thanks to the larger 3GB/s bandwidth. No question… if you want an “ultimate” RAID setup, you need a couple Seagate 750GB ES’s.

Great – Western Digital 500GB RE2 * 2

So maybe you think $1,000 is a little too much for a 750GB RAID or JBOD setup. Well, I’d have to agree with you. A 500GB RAID setup is much easier to swallow, and the perfect discs to pick up would have to be the WD 500GB RE2. Like Seagates ES drives, the RE2 are designed to be tough, fast and perfectly suited for RAID setups. For $500, you can have a huge 500GB RAID, which should prove to be enough space for anything you need. Unless of course you have a major digital collection! In this case though, it pays to do the math. Do you buy two of the above mentioned ES drives for $1,000, or four of these RE2 drives for the same price? Sure it’s 2 discs compared to four, but at least four of these RE2 drives would give you 250GB more than the 750GB to deal with. Of course, it all depends on what you need.

Good – Seagate 320GB * 2

But what about a RAIDer on a budget? Nothing can beat two Seagate 320GB’s! They will treat you well, and each drive costs only $90! That’s quite a substantial savings when thinking of $ per Megabyte. One 500GB for $250 or one 320GB for $90. If you are not in dire need of insane storage, then it really pays to hold back and buy a smaller drive. We reviewed this drive a few months ago and awarded it a perfect 10/10, and it well deserved it. $90 for 320GB! I love where this industry is going!


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Power Supplies & System Cooling

Ultimate – PC Power and Cooling 1kW SR 1000 watt with a single 12V rail

If you’re going to be building a uber high-end rig with SLI 8800GTX’s and the quad core Intel you need stable power and lots of it. The PC Power & Cooling 1000 Watt 1KW SR is the ultimate single rail PSU for the uber gaming rigs out there. While a bit noisier than some PSU’s out it’s also very well regulated and features full certification for every card config out now.

Great – Corsair HX620

If you’re not pushing the envelope with high end SLI and quad cores then the HX 620W is right up your alley. It’s stable, well built and as an added bonus, modular. This is the perfect PSU for last gen SLI or current gen Crossfire and overclocked dual/quad cores.

Good – Silverstone SST-ST50EF-Plus

Looking for an efficient PSU that won’t break the bank? Don’t need a ton of power? Look no further than the Silverstone Element ST50EF Plus. With certified 80 percent plus efficiency and a decent amount of 12V power this is a great unit for those on a budget.

Good – XCLIO GOODPOWER 500W ATX 500W Power Supply

On a tight budget? Want a PSU that won’t break the bank but will give you peace of mind that your investment is in good hands? The X-Clio GoodPower 500W is a cheap PSU that breaks the mold for cheap PSU’s. It gives stable power for a price that’s under the curve.

System Cooling

Ultimate – Swiftech Apex Ultra 220 WC Kit with MCW 60’s and MCW Ramcools

The Swiftech Apex Ultra 220 is a great CPU only WC kit. The performance is on par with any of the DIY W/C products out there and it includes everything you need to get up and running in no time. Toss in a pair of MCW60’s sans ramsinks and MCW Ramcools and you’ve got the ultimate SLI cooling setup. Not only is the GPU cooled but the ram gets some loving too making for less chance of hurting your Vram with insane tempertures.

Great – Zalman Reserator 1 V2

New to watercooling? A bit hesitent to get your feet wet? Look no further than the Zalman Reserator 1 V2. It comes with CPU and GPU blocks that fit most popular chips/cards out there today and is fully ready to run. The unit is as close to noise free as you’re ever likely to get and the performance is better than air cooling by a good margin.

Good – VANTEC STG-100 All-in-one Water Cooling Kit

Want something a bit cheaper than the Zalman yet that cools everything? The Vantec STG-100 comes with CPU, NB and GPU blocks yet retails for considerably less than $200. It features a cleanly laid out pump/res caddy for external mounting although it can be shoehorned into larger cases and features a real radiator versus a bay mounted rad so that you get decent performance.

Good – Swiftech MCP655, Danger Den Liang D5 Pump

Got everything you need but the pump? Looking into 120V units and 12V units? Need a pump that’s 1/2″ native? The Liang D5 based pumps from Swiftech and Danger Den are pretty stout. With 10′ of head (lift of a vertical column of water) they are pretty much stronger than equal sized 120V pumps and unlike the DDC (also by Liang) they’re 1/2″ native. They even have a speed control to lower the pumps output for the best balance of performance to noise.


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Digital Cameras

As you are well aware, we take a look at a variety of products week in and week out. Sometimes we may look at computer cases, monitors, or performance parts to help you get the most out of your system. However, there is another piece of tech that most everyone has, but is never actually considered to be a piece of “computer hardware”. We use our digital cameras with our computers though, so it’s only fit that we include our top picks in the guide!


Ultimate – Nikon D80

When Nikon announced their D70s successor, they knew they had a winner on their hands. Without a doubt, this is the “must have” DSLR for the holiday season. When compared to the competition, the D80 costs around $200 more but has the goods to make up for it. Although the D80 has similar image quality to the Canon 400D and Sony A100, it has better performance and a more solid design. It’s a camera that was built for comfort.

If you are a Nikonian and are having a difficult time deciding between the D80 or D200, perhaps the fact that the D80 uses the same CCD as it’s bigger brother will sway your decision. Not too shabby for a camera that costs $500 less! Feature wise, the camera has a lot to offer over the D70s. Thrown into the mix are 10.2MP capabilities that result in 3872*2592 sized images. ISO settings are also improved, ranging from 100 – 1600, but with proper configurations can be pushed to 3200. The D80 screen is not only larger, but offers a much crisper image thanks to it’s 230,000 dot resolution.

Another reason that Nikons high-end cameras are favored is due to the sheer amount of lenses to choose from. In addition to official Nikkor lenses, Sigma and Tamron offer a slew of F-mounts for your choosing. If you choose to pick up the camera in a kit, you will receive the 18-135mm (28-200mm 35mm equiv.) f/3.5-5.6 lens which offers a 7.5x zoom. I can attest to the quality of the lens; it’s well worth picking up with the camera. Just be warned that vignetting occurs at both ends. If your camera know-how is more advanced, then you will likely be better off choosing a separate lens alongside the D80 body.

In addition to all that we’ve mentioned, the D80 is perfectly suited for the advanced shooter, but also the beginner looking to make photography a good hobby or even a profession. That said, if you want a great D-SLR to pick up this holiday season and don’t mind opening your wallet a little wider, picking up the D80 is an easy choice.

Great – Nikon D50

If you’ve been reading the site for a while, you are probably aware that I am drawn moreso to Nikon cameras than the leading competitors. There’s a few reasons for this, but the primary is the simple fact that Nikons DSLRs fit like a glove and offer superb performance. The D50, despite it’s lower price tag, is no exception. Debuted last Summer, the D50 was praised due to it’s solid specs and retail price. Even today, you can pick up the camera with an 18-55 f/3.5-5.6 DX lens for around $650. If you plan on macro photography or portraits, you can add the SB-600 speedlight which still keeps the kit at around $900.

Due to this fact, this is a great camera to pick up if you are a complete SLR beginner and want a solid camera that will treat you well for some time to come. The D50 is built for beginners, but can be executed by professionals for some amazing results. Due to the “novice” nature, it will act splendidly as a Point and Shoot if that’s all you want. Like most other cameras though, there are lots of customizations if you are feeling brave and want to experiment.

This camera uses SD cards and the Li-Ion EN-EL3 battery. I can attest to the battery being a great choice, because I was able to take well over 1,000 JPEG Fine images with the camera before the battery bar was showing half-full. Though the 6.2 Megapixel capabilities may seem a little gimped compared to the newer models, you have to ask yourself if you will really need images larger than 3,000*2,000. If you are printing, then that may be the case.

Like the other Nikon D-SLRs, the lenses are all interchangeable between models. Pick up a D50 now and upgrade to a D90 (Perhaps?) down the road and you will still be able to use your current lenses. If you, or a loved one, are looking to get into photography but are tired of the results that your small point and shoot gives you, then you will want to seriously consider the D50.

Our review of the Nikon D50.

Good – Canon PowerShot S3 IS

If you thought Nikon was going to steal the show here, then you were wrong! Canon is also well known for their D-SLRs and point and shoots, but also their higher-end point and shoots that fall right below their D-SLR line-up. Welcome to the PowerShot S3 IS, a feature-rich compact camera that boasts and incredible 12x optical zoom!

Yes, this is one extreme zoom for a camera of this price range, and the fact is, the zoom performance is actually quite unexpected. Like many Canon high-end D-SLR lenses, the IS in the title is for the image stabilization. This will prove very useful whenever you are using the zoom to it’s fullest, but it won’t help you as much in night scenes regardless of the IS. Another plus is the performance… it offers a fast continuous shooting mode and the battery life is top rate.

Perhaps one of the nicest features of the camera is the 2.0″ LCD screen. Not because it’s one of the clearest out there, but because you can “hide” it away whenever you are not using it, simply by turning it around to face the camera. This is a huge plus for those of you (including me) who love to keep their toys in pristine condition. Yes, the camera is not perfect. One of the main causes for grief seem to be issues with redeye and the lack of use for ISO 800 due to it’s extreme noise. If you require a camera that deals with RAW, then this is one to pass over. As it stands though, the S3 IS is a great point and shoot with an awesome zoom… that won’t break the bank.

Stocking Stuffer – Casio Exilim EX-S600

Ok, I admit this is not “stocking stuffer” material. But, I don’t recommend going with anything cheaper, because you will really be sacrificing quality. Casio may not get as much attention as the big boys, but make no mistake… they make good, simple cameras for everyday users. The EX-S600 is thin, and sleek. Perhaps sexy, if you think that way of technology. The camera takes around 250 pictures per charge, which is respectable for a camera of this size. The lens is not anything amazing either, weighing in at 6.2-18.6mm, resulting in a 3.0x zoom.

Where the camera lacks, it makes up in good image quality and overall functionality. It has the support for video recording at 640*480 resolution, images at 2816*2112, ISO up to 400 and a 2.2″ LCD screen. That brings up another downside for some… no viewfinder. No surprise given the small stature of the camera, though. When the EX-S600 first came out, it retailed for over $350, but now retails between $225 – $250. The drop makes the camera even more worth it today.

One thing to bare in mind though, that as cameras get smaller, their image quality deteriorates. This is an acceptable tradeoff for some, since the camera easily slides into a pocket or purse. For those who want better image quality from a camera with a bigger frame/larger lense should look around, because the choices are endless.


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Gadgets

Stocking Stuffers

Turbo ChargeOfficial Site
Turbo Charge is a Battery-Powered, Reusable, Wireless Cell Phone Charger that runs on a single AA Battery and features advanced technology for extra power and safety. Perfect for Emergencies, Turbo Charge is the safest and most convenient way to charge your cell phone!
$20

USB Sim Card ReaderOfficial Site
This GSM Sim reader allows you to read, backup and modify information you may carry in your sim card. It allows you to store, read and edit phonebook data and sms messages.
$30

Atari 2600 Plug and Play KeychainsOfficial Site
In the olden days of gaming, when quarters were a hot commodity and color graphics were the newest innovation, one name stood out as king: Atari. The games were visually simple, but still retain their hold as some of the most challenging and fun games ever created. Sadly, it’s just too difficult to carry around an Atari system and a bag of cartridges and controllers (both joystick and paddle) with you wherever you go. So, we’ve found a pocket sized solution.
$12.99 – $14.99

Practical Gifts

USB Vonage PhoneOfficial Site
Get a phone that fits on your keychain! The Vonage V-Phone turns any PC or laptop into a fully functional Vonage telephone.
$40

CompUSA 145-Piece Computer Tool KitOfficial Site
The most complete tool kit for home and office repair and maintenance. Work on everything from computers and office equipment to furniture, lamps and more… Heavy duty, custom blow-molded carrying case
$60

Mister Tipster Desktop RSS DisplayOfficial Site
Mister Tipster’s desktop RSS display lets you stay current on the news and information that matters to you most, without using up valuable real estate on your computer screen.
$150

LapinatorOfficial Site
The only laptop desk that keeps your lap cool and your laptop cooler!
$25 & $30

Walkie Talkie WatchesOfficial Site
Another Walkie Talkie Watch, but this time not quite so nerdy looking. These watches were worn by the Norwegian Olympic Team during the last Winter Olympics, which means they’re decent enough for people who need things to work!
$110/pair

TomTomOfficial Site
TomTom NV is a leading provider of personal navigation products and services. TomTom’s products are developed with an emphasis on innovation, quality, ease of use and value. TomTom’s products include all-in-one navigation devices which enable customers to navigate right out of the box.
$500-$700

RoombaOfficial Site
Roomba is an intelligent and effective vacuuming robot. All Roomba Vacuuming Robots feature iRobot’s unique AWARE™ Robot Intelligence Systems. AWARE uses dozens of sensors to monitor Roomba’s environment, and adjusts Roomba’s behavior up to 67 times per second, ensuring that Roomba cleans effectively, intelligently and safely.
$150+

Lego MindstormsOfficial Site
LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT is a robotics toolset that provides endless opportunities for armchair inventors, robotics fanatics and LEGO builders ages 10 and older to build and program robots that do what they want. Building upon the success of the globally-renowned Robotics Invention System, the next generation of LEGO robotics is smarter, stronger and more intuitive than ever, leveraging new technologies and expanded sensor capabilities to add a level of sophistication to excite and challenge more experienced robot creators.
$varies

Logitech IO Digital PenOfficial Site
The Logitech io2 looks and feels like a luxury pen with its sleek and stylish design. But unlike a standard office pen, it digitally captures everything you write or draw on smart digital paper.
$150

Logitech 880 RemoteOfficial Site
The Harmony 880 Advanced Universal Remote puts you in control of your entire audio-video system with just one button. It´s home entertainment the way it should be—simple.
Optimized for complicated HDTV and PVR systems, the Harmony 880 helps you tame tough configurations like switching your television between video aspect ratios depending on the program source. The interactive color display lets you quickly choose a 16:9 ratio for movies and HDTV, or a standard 4:3 ratio for basic television programming.
$250

Impractical Gifts

Designer USB Flash DrivesOfficial Site
Who can resist a Darth Vader Flash Drive?

Monster Laptop SleevesOfficial Site
Tired of your boring laptop? Cover it with a fuzzy blue friend or an abominable white cover. Complete with fangs!
$65

USB Self Destruct ButtonOfficial Site
Some days….you really want one of these… Self Destruction Button, the ultimate USB HUB with sound for your PC
$65

RetroPadOfficial Site
Classic NES controller upgraded to USB. Authentic gameplay unmatched with other controllers. No adapters needed, just plug and play! Mario was never as easy. Get 2 or more controllers to play multiplayer games with friends. See FAQ for controller condition.
$30

LaCie Brick Desktop Hard DriveOfficial Site
Look familiar? Crafted by the world-famous designer Ora-Ïto, the new Brick expresses a playfulness in a user-friendly high-performance hard drive. Stack & Play multiple LaCie Bricks together to brighten your desktop and your mood (they’re even stackable with LaCie Mobile Bricks). With Hi-Speed USB 2.0 interface, it offers the fast data transfer rates required for substantial jobs like downloading digital photos, saving MP3s or transferring home videos from a camcorder.
$130

Nuvo Home RobotOfficial Site
“nuvo” is the first-home-use-type humanoid robot in the world, which means “the humanoid robot for everyone”, not in the movie, drama, or novel, but in your daily life. “nuvo” is developed under the concept of “Always be Together”, resulting in small and light—39cm in height and 2.5kg on weight— to realize safety and mobility at the same time.
$7,000


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