Archive for the ‘Computer Buying Tips’ Category

Weekly News Roundup (10 January 2016)

Sunday, January 10th, 2016

So here’s something interesting. I’ve started on a new PC build. It’s not because my Surface Pro 3 is no longer good enough as my desktop replacement (it is more than enough), but I just thought I would update my skills (as a PC builder) with some of the new tech and parts since I last played around inside a PC case (erm, probably in 2012?). Plus, there are some processor intensive tasks, such as video encoding, that are just not suited for a laptop/tablet hybrid (it’s fast enough to do it, but it also runs quite hot, maybe too hot). I will start documenting my build process here, once all my parts arrive.

CES is currently on, and so there’s a bit of news here and there that’s relevant to what I cover here. News for things like Roku branded 4K TVs and Ultra HD Blu-ray players will be relevant, but things like hoverboard booths getting raided by the DoJ are not really relevant, although interesting. Let’s get started then …


Game pirates might have to start worrying about where they’re going to get their new games, as a game cracking group warned that the age of game piracy might be coming to an end. It’s not just because games these days often have so much online interactivity that it’s hard to tell where the single player game ends and the multi-player begins, but apparently the technology used to protect games have advanced to a stage that is making it very difficult for crackers to do their work.


Denuvo becoming a major pain for game crackers

Games like Just Cause 3 and FIFA 16 that use the Denuvo anti-tampering system are proving incredibly difficult to crack, according to the founder of a Chinese cracking forum. Denuvo doesn’t work like traditional DRM, instead it’s another layer on top of existing DRM solutions that protects these platforms (such as Steam, Origin) from being cracked. Sort of like a DRM for DRM. I don’t really know how it works exactly (and the people behind Denuvo, many of whom were responsible for Sony’s controversial SecuROM DRM, are keeping things very secret for obvious reasons), but it apparently makes it much more difficult for crackers to examine and make modifications to game code. Whether this is through obfuscation, encryption or some kind of black magic, I don’t know, but when crackers are struggling to bring out a clean game months after its release, you know things are starting to get difficult.

However it works, there have been unsubstantiated reports that Denuvo might be causing performance problems for certain games, or that it increases the read/write workload for games (which is a bad thing for SSD drives that are becoming the standard for gaming PCs). It’s also apparently a very expensive technology to license, which is why not all games are using it these days.

But if PC gaming piracy can be ended, will this be a good thing for the gaming industry, or will it mean a return to the bad old days of over-priced, buggy, sub-par game release? Oh, never mind.

With everything at CES being 4K, or Internet connected, or both, here’s a copyright story that rides that particular hype train. Remember a few months back when 4K stuff from Amazon and Netflix’s streaming libraries started to appear on pirated sites? The mystery of where these perfect 4K rips came from may have been solved, thanks to court documents from Intel and Warner Bros’ lawsuit against the makers of a 4K HDCP stripper device. The device is apparently capable of dealing with HDCP 2.2 protected sources, which explains how Netflix and Amazon 4K content ended up on the torrent networks. While the cat and mouse game between PC gaming DRM makers and crackers seems to be reaching a conclusion, for video, the idea of “if you can view it, you can rip it” still appears to be holding true (after all, at some point, the video must be displayed unprotected so that the human eye can see it, and this will be true until they invent DRM implants for eyes – oops, did I just give Hollywood a new idea?)

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Samsung UBD-K8500

Samsung’s $399 Ultra Blu-ray player could be the pick of the early players

On to the real CES 4K stuff now. Both Panasonic and Samsung have shown off their Ultra HD Blu-ray players at CES, but both are aimed at very different demographics. Samsung’s UBD-K8500, previously exhibited at the IFA show in Berlin, will go on sale in March (already available for pre-order on Amazon) for an acceptable looking $399. It has HDR and wider-color gamut support, and will do 4K streaming, plus all the normal Blu-ray features (eg. Blu-ray 3D) that you’ll expect in a $399 machine.

For those looking for something a bit more premium-y, have a look at Panasonic’s as-yet-unpriced DMP-UB900. It will do all the same things as the K8500, but will do everything just a little bit better. Being THX certified, featuring dual-HDMI output, high resolution audio playback, a 4K High-Precision Chroma Processor and other goodies, this one will definitely set you back more than $399 once it’s released sometime in 2016 (as firm a release date you’ll get from Panasonic at this time).

Panasonic DMP-UB900

But for those looking for something a bit more premium, try the Panasonic DMP-UB900

On the 4K TV side, there’s a new brand that you might want to look out for: Roku! Not known for anything else other than a media streamer boxes, Roku has been trying to expand their profile by lending their name, and their much praised OS, to lesser known TV brands, mainly Chinese brands such as Haier, Hisense and TCL. At CES, Roku announced that Roku branded 4K TVs will also soon be available, starting at just $600 (so that’s less than $1000 at retail for both a Ultra HD Blu-ray player and 4K TV for those keeping track). It’s a win-win for both Roku and their Chinese TV maker partners – Roku gets to have branded TVs without having to invest in development and manufacturing, while the Chinese TVs get more exposure in the US and a fantastic smart OS (with tons of apps) to boot.

The earlier sets won’t be fully featured like their more bigger branded cousins, so things like HDR will be missing, but Roku says sets with support for Dolby Vision and HDR 10 (two competing HDR standards) will be made available later in the year.

With so many 4K related products being released in 2016, it definitely has the look of being the year 4K reaches the mainstream. The good news is that these products are not entirely out of reach of the average consumer ($399 for a early model Ultra HD Blu-ray player compares well to the $1000+ you had to pay for the first Blu-ray players, same goes for 4K TVs, thanks largely to Chinese TV makers).


That’s it for the news this week. For those still interesting in my new PC build, here’s a sneak preview of what’s inside: Intel Core i5-6600K with 16GB of Corsair Vengeance LPX DDR4-2400 memory. For a full list, and I’m sorry for going all promotional on you, you’ll have to check out issue 490 of my newsletter which will contain a link to my PCPartPicker page for the build!

See you next week.

Weekly News Roundup (3 May 2015)

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

All of this week’s WNR, and most of this week’s news stories, were written on my new Surface Pro 3. It’s proving to be more than an adequate desktop and laptop replacement (with the tablet mode the least used of the three available modes, for me). All of the teething problems have more to do with the switch to Windows 8.1 (coming from Windows 7), than the actual SP3 hardware. And with the SSD (vs RAID 1 HDDs), faster CPU (i7-4650U vs Core 2 Duo E8600) and more RAM (8GB vs 4GB), it’s also a lot faster too (not to mention super quiet). I’ll keep you all update if I run into any serious issues with the transition.

Onto the news …


The only worthwhile thing the MPAA has produced has now been blocked for usage by anyone outside of the U.S.

File it under the “yep, this will help make things better” category, the MPAA’s much publicized website that helps you find legal content (because obviously people only pirate because they don’t know about Netflix and iTunes) has now been blocked from being used by anyone outside of the United States. now displays a familiar “This content is not available in your region” message if you happen to not live in a part of the world that Hollywood and major rightsholders don’t feel is important enough (ie. anywhere outside of the U.S.). Those that can remember reading about the story last year in the WNR will remember that, in a rare moment, I actually praised the MPAA for providing something that’s actually useful for once. It took them a while, but the MPAA eventually went back to form, and in an not-at-all ironic move (that was sarcasm, btw), has managed to highlight just why many people pirate.

By locking up the content people want, and forcing them to get it via a method that lines rightsholders pockets, as opposed to serving consumer needs, it’s no wonder people choose to go down the piracy route. Not only is piracy free, it’s also often easier and more timely than the Hollywood approved ways to watch. The other alternative is to use geo-dodging services, VPNs and smart DNS solutions, to access U.S. services – and was an useful tool to help you find where things were available. The MPAA has now locked up the site, and although users can use geo-dodging services to gain access back the site, leaked emails from Sony shows the MPAA is also going after VPN and smart DNS providers (see last week’s WNR for more information).

Speaking of the leak, Sony is apparently going after any website that is reporting on the contents of the leaked emails. Sony says the leaked emails is considered stolen data, and “respectable” media outlets shouldn’t cross this moral border. This hasn’t stopped quite respectable media outlets from reporting on the emails, like the New York Times’ Eric Lipton, who just won a Pulitzer for his report on the influence of lobbyists, a report that used information obtained from the leaked emails. And of course, less than respectable media outlets such as this one has no problem reporting on it, and ignoring Sony’s toothless threats.



Australian government set to give Hollywood the right to censor anti-copyright speech. Photo Credit: IsaacMao @ Flickr, CC

The leaked emails also revealed that much of the pressure to change Australia’s copyright laws are coming via Hollywood. Unfortunately, out super unpopular conservative pro big business government only has one agenda, and that’s to give Hollywood exactly what they want. So no surprises that the proposed changes as part of the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015, could go as far as outlaw the right to even say things or have opinions that Hollywood does not approve of.

The current language in the bill allows rightsholders to petition the court to block websites owned or operated by anyone who “demonstrates a disregard for copyright generally”. It essentially places a ban on any online speech that put outs an alternative view on copyright, a view that Hollywood and the MPAA does not approve of.

Of course, it won’t actually get to that point. No court in Australia will grant any such block merely based on expressed anti-copyright views, but what could happen is that sites that discuss ripping or geo-dodging or provides instructions and help on anything that Hollywood deems to “facilitate the infringement of copyright” could be blocked. And with no clear definition on what “facilitate the infringement of copyright” means, anything from VPNs to file hosting companies can get censored here in Australia. The language in the bill is so vague (and I definitely think that it’s intentional) that blocked sites are simply referred to as “online location”, which could either mean the blocking of a single webpage, a website, or the blocking of an entire server serving thousands of unrelated sites just because of one “bad” site on the server.

A wide ranging coalition of tech firms, like Google, and consumer rights groups, like Australia’s CHOICE and the EFF, have all criticized the bill in its current form. Google, in their submission, said that the whole premise of these changes relies upon the proven failed concept of content blocking, which not only has questionable efficacy, but could also have unintended consequences such as the blocking of legitimate content.

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Samsung Curved UHD TV

4K Ultra HD TVs starting to grab some market share

4K TVs are beginning to get into people’s homes, with 11% of LCD TV shipments in March belonging to Ultra HD TV sets. I wandered around the shops the other day, and it definitely looks like 4K TVs are no longer the product you only see at trade shows or in rich people’s homes. There are quite a lot of “affordable” 4K TVs at the moment, perhaps not all capable of delivering the best 4K quality, but it’s certainly more accessible to the average consumer than 4K content at the moment (despite Netflix’s best efforts). Ultra HD Blu-ray players and movies coming out later this year, so the relative content drought (and the expected double, triple … nonuple, or whatever the count is, dipping begins) should be over soon.


More bad news for the Wii U. Whereas the last Call of Duty: Black Ops game, Black Ops II, debuted on the Wii U, the next one, imaginatively titled Black Ops III, will not be coming to the platform at all. To add insult to injury, Treyarch studio specifically dissed the Wii U as not being a current generation console, when giving out their reason for the decision to skip releasing on the console.


Hope you enjoyed/found interesting/were terrified of the implications from this week’s news stories. More for you next week, so until then …

Weekly News Roundup (26 April 2015)

Sunday, April 26th, 2015
Microsoft Surface Pro 3

The Surface Pro 3 – can it be my tablet, laptop and desktop all in one?

I got my Surface Pro 3 on Friday, so I haven’t had enough time to set it up yet as my primary work computer. My initial impressions are very positive though, it’s such a nicely built, lightweight and versatile device, and the Type Cover and the excellent kickstand means it’s more than capable in laptop mode. And with the separately sold dock, there’s no reason why it can’t be a desktop replacement as well. The negative? I still don’t like Window 8 (even with the 8.1 update).

So this week’s WNR is still bought to you by my old trusty (and a bit rusty) Core 2 Duo E8500, which, after nearly 6 years, is still more than adequate for work (and some games, courtesy of a mid-life Radeon 6850 upgrade). Let’s get started …


While the pre-release leak of the first four Game of Thrones episodes prevented the season premier from breaking single swarm records, as people downloaded both before and after the first episode aired, and from different torrents, but after a week of downloads, there’s no escaping the fact that Game of Thrones piracy is still on the rise.

The leaked episodes, plus the post-broadcast uploads (and even a documentary on the show itself), when combined, totaled 32 million downloads in the first week alone, setting a new download record.

Game of Thrones: Season 4

It’s hard to upload a new screenshot for season 5 without the risk of spoilers, so here’s one from season 4

While at first this seems like bad news for HBO, the fact that official ratings for the show is up, meant that the increased downloads is more just a healthy sign of the show’s growing audience, rather than a slide towards piracy oblivion. Many of those that did download the new episodes were in the US, and are prime candidates for HBO’s new unbundled streaming platform, HBO Now. How to convert piracy traffic to paying subscribers may take some more tweaks in pricing and value, but I’m sure by this time next year, we’ll be looking at a different downloading paradigm.

Or maybe people will be watching the show, illegally, some other way. Twitter’s newly launched live streaming app Periscope has apparently been put to “good” use by enterprising pirates, to share the broadcast of new season premier with friends and strangers alike. HBO was not best please, issuing take-down notices and warning Twitter to get their act together and allow rights-holders to more efficiently remove streams.

With almost all anti-piracy efforts on torrents and direct downloads, it just goes to show that if people want to watch something for free, they’ll find a way to do it. The key is to convince people what you have is worth paying for, and at a price that they’re willing to pay.


The next couple of stories all come via leaked Sony emails, more of which were recently published by Wikileaks. First up is the rather ironic story of the MPAA pirating clips from a Google commercial for their own promotional purposes. This is the same MPAA that has painted a target on Google, labeled them as public piracy enemy number one, and proceeded to attack the search engine (not always directly) whenever it can. The MPAA inserting themselves into where the general public feels they don’t belong is something that’s directly responsible for the group’s poor public image – the very same public image they were trying to repair with their pirated promo video. Oh, the irony!


Hollywood to go after users who are desperate to pay for content

The leaked emails also reveal other activities that won’t make the public like Hollywood much better. There seems to be a renewed effort from Hollywood to ban geo-dodging services, such as VPNs and smart DNS solutions used to access the likes of Netflix in places where there’s no Netflix (or access the international version of Netflix, which often yields a lot more content). This is despite a well known fact that if these services weren’t available, the same users would probably just rely on pirated streams and downloads. It’s Hollywood’s new way of punishing people that actually want to give them money (but just not as money as they want, or paid so in a way that allowed other companies to make some money too, both of which Hollywood find unacceptable).

The leaked emails exposes all the ways the MPAA has set out to put pressure on Netflix and others to ban VPN usage. The MPAA and their cohorts even went as far as threatening to sue ISPs that offered VPN services to their customers, despite VPNs being commonly used for many other purposes, including telecommuting. And even for things like watching Netflix, it’s still unclear if this even constitutes copyright infringement – a breach of the terms of service, yes, but the fact that people are paying (so it’s more like grey imports, rather than outright piracy) and that streaming is different to torrenting (as streaming does not have an upload component), means that Hollywood’s threats may not have a legal basis, in certain countries.

A blast from the past, here’s what the MPAA thought about the iPad when it was first released more than 5 years ago. There are some spot-on predictions made by the MPAA, both on the positives and negatives of the ground-breaking device. The MPAA liked the “walled garden” approach of the iPad, especially when it comes to DRM and difficulty in jailbreaking for novice users. The process of purchasing content and apps on iTunes and App Store, the MPAA argues, also serves to educate users about the value of digital content and the need to pay for stuff.

The things the MPAA didn’t like about the iPad was its ability to play ripped movies, stream illegal content, and also to wirelessly stream playback to external screens – something that wasn’t even possible when the report was written, but now quite common via Apple Airplay.

The MPAA also predicted that streaming video, like Netflix (its streaming app launched with the iPad), would take off.

So it seems to me that the Hollywood and the MPAA are more than capable of predicting the future and anticipating user demand. It’s just that they don’t actually want to serve the demand, if what their customers want do not align when their own short term self interest.


While this story also pretty much falls within the copyright section of the WNR, it is also about gaming and about the things gamers have to do just to be able to play a game they’ve purchased. Yes, I’m talking about DRM and about how the gaming industry do not want any exceptions to the DMCA to allow the hacking of DRM, even if it’s just to bypass their poorly designed gaming DRM to allow allow their games to be played. This is especially true of older games that the publishers have ended support for.


What do game companies have to gain to prevent gamers from bypassing DRM on games they no longer even support?

The EFF, as part of its submission to the U.S. Copyright Office and the Librarian of Congress’s review of copyright laws, wants an exception to be made to allow gamers to bypass DRM to play games that are no longer supported by the publishers and developers. A very sensible and limited exception, but one that’s still being opposed by the gaming industry, as well as the MPAA and RIAA. These rights-holders argue that somehow allowing users to make modifications to something they own would “undermine the fundamental copyright principles on which our copyright laws are based” and send the message that hacking is legal.

Except that hacking is legal, and playing around with other people’s stuff is how many programmers, including those in the gaming industry, got their start. “If ‘hacking,’ broadly defined, were actually illegal, there likely would have been no video game industry,” correctly argues the EFF.


That’s it for this quite busy week. Hope the next week is just as busy. See you again soon.

Weekly News Roundup (19 April 2015)

Sunday, April 19th, 2015

My main workhorse computer (more and more just a glorified web browser these days, considering how ever app has moved online, and how little gaming I do these days) is starting to show signs of strain, and so it’s time to get something new. The matter is made more complicated by the fact that I also need a new laptop. So I thought, why not combine these two requirements, add in the (more want than) need for a new Windows tablet, and get the Surface Pro 3, plus the dock, and use that as my desktop replacement. It’s not going to play any serious games (games consoles are a much more economical choice for it these days, or a dedicated gaming PC for those that have the time and money to devote to such a beast and its time consuming ways), but it will be more than enough for work, and work can be taken away by me in both tablet form, or laptop form with the optional (but really should be standard) Type Cover accessory. Some light gaming may also be included.

I opted for the i7/256GB/8GB RAM model, since this is a business purchase and end of financial year, tax deductions blah blah blah – but most will find the i5/128GB/4GB RAM model more than adequate.

I may live to regret my decision, especially given the high cost of the SP3, but it’s hard to justify spending money on a gaming PC when my current 6 year old PC can still do a semi-decent job at medium quality levels, and when I haven’t played a PC game in about 6 months. And an Ultrabook or Macbook Pro with the same portability as the SP3 won’t cost much less, and does not transform into a tablet.

A gaming PC might still be on the table, but it will probably be one that I will build from scratch, part by part, just for the fun of it.

Time will tell if I’ve made the right decision.

Oh yeah, news stuff.


Game of Thrones: Season 4

Game of Thrones continues where we left off last season … still sh*t load of piracy!

Dragons, nudity, death of a beloved character. These are things synonymous with HBO’s Game of Thrones. Piracy, record, smashed – these are also words associated with the hit TV show. And the season 5 premier is no different. Well actually, it is different, and it is a lot worse!

The good news is that the piracy record wasn’t broken this time, but that was only because the first four episodes of the show was leaked prior to the show’s debut, catching HBO and pirates alike off-guard. As downloaders slowly trickled into the swarms, it soon became a downloading frenzy, but the spread out nature of the downloads meant that, technically, no records were broken (and I’m sure if the download totals over a week from after the pre-release leaks were released was ever calculated, I’m sure records will have been broken).

So it’s bad to worse for HBO, which to their credit, tried really hard this time to reduce the incentive to pirate by making new episodes available worldwide simultaneously, and by launching the standalone streaming product HBO Now. The pre-release leak is particularly worrying, and it should prompt HBO to tighten up security for screener copies being sent to reviewers (unique visual and digital watermarks for each copy might be something HBO needs to consider).

One thing they could do is to make HBO Now available outside of the U.S. For example, in Australia, where users have tried to sign up using VPN/smart DNS services, but are now apparently being banned. This will be difficult not just in Australia but all around the world due to HBO’s deals with local pay TV operators, many of whom have locked up HBO programming in exclusive deals, in order to protect their premium pricing model. Piracy is the inevitable result.

Ironically, it’s this kind of piracy that is causing Netflix to drop their prices. Apparently, Netflix sets pricing for their international subscriptions based on that country’s piracy rate – the more pirated downloads, the cheaper their service will be. Netflix says that this is because they’ve positioned their service as a competitor to piracy, and as a result, they cannot ignore the reality of piracy. Or at the very least, they don’t treat piracy as something that can be easily eradicated and devote all their resources to combat piracy based on this false believe.

It’s this false believe that’s the driving force behind the urgency to change copyright laws in Australia to deal with the piracy scourge. Change that apparently is headed not by the local film industry, but by Hollywood lobbyists, many of whom have never set foot in Australia. According to the latest leaked Sony documents published by Wikileaks, much of the US based effort is being channeled via local Village Roadshow co-chairman Graham Burke. Local film studio Village Roadshow is infamously known as the company that compared movie downloads to “terrorism or paedophilia”, and believes in the possibility of “total eradication” of piracy as the end-goal.

Good luck with that!

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The Simpsons Season 17 Blu-ray

Do discs still have a place in our homes? Fox says no!

Changes are-a-coming for The Simpsons, and it could be the end of an era. No, Fox isn’t cancelling the iconic animated show, but they are cancelling the DVD and Blu-ray releases for it. Bad luck for collectors, who should have season 1-17, and season 20, on disc, but will no longer be able to continue adding to their collection.

Both Fox and Al Jean, the Simpsons’ showrunner, blames the “collapse of DVD market and rise of downloads” for the decision, with Jean also apologising to fans outside of North America for the digital option, such as Fox’s streaming service FX Now, being not available in most places.

Regular followers of our Blu-ray/DVD sales report will already know that DVD sales have been declining steadily for years, while Blu-ray sales have also started to stall recently. Most of the business is going to the digital side of things, from iTunes, to Hulu Plus to FX Now (all places where you can watch The Simpsons), so Fox’s decision is understandable, even if, once more, overseas fans lose out.


Fox’s move may be signalling the end of discs, Nintendo may also be signalling the end of the Wii U. With the delay of Zelda that I mentioned here a couple of issues ago, the announcement of the Wii U’s successor, the Nintendo NX, barely 2 years into the console’s lifespan, and with the number of announced titles shrinking all the time, Nintendo may have finally decided that the Wii U isn’t going to cut it anymore in the face of stern competition from the PS4 and the Xbox One.

So the new Zelda game could very well end up having the same fate as the last Zelda game, Twilight Princess, which was originally meant for the GameCube, only to be delayed so that it could be simultaneously released on the Wii as well.

Wii U

The end is nigh for the Wii U? Maybe not, but Nintendo knows it doesn’t have long left …

And let’s hope Nintendo don’t mess up the NX the same way they “messed up” the Wii U. While the Wii U was by no means a complete failure, the fact that it wasn’t a huge improvement on the last gen, and clearly behind the current gen, arrived at a relatively high price with few third-party game support, and with Nintendo failing to properly demonstrate how gaming on the Wii U would be better and more fun (even though, albeit subjectively speaking, it should be). Release a console that’s more powerful than the PS4/Xbox One, had all the “family fun” stuff that Nintendo is famous for, add in a sprinkle of first-party must-haves close to release (Mario, Mario Kart, Zelda …), and then ensure there are plenty of third-party exclusive worth mentioning, and Nintendo may be onto another winner. And from the perspective of someone who writes this particular blog and its main topics of discussions, maybe ensuring the Wii U is also a competent media player would also be a good idea(Blu-ray preferred, but should at least support all the streaming apps, plus local/network based media playback/streaming).


The March NPD results do not reveal any surprises at all. The PS4 once again beat the Xbox One for first place, with the Wii U in a distant third (probably). It’s probably not even worth mentioning the NPD results every month anymore, unless something strange happens, like the Xbox One finally managing to beat the PS4 (might happen, but Microsoft will need bigger price cuts and better exclusives to make it a consistent thing, as opposed to just during holiday discounting).


It’s unlikely that, by this time next week, I’ll be writing the WNR on my new SP3. Unlikely because it will take a while to get everything installed, set up and transferred in time. Ah, the simultaneous joy and pain of a new PC setup. See you next week.

If I were to buy a new computer today (June 2011) – Sandy Bridge Edition

Saturday, June 4th, 2011
Intel Second Generation Core i5

It's now all about Sandy Bridge, Intel's second generation Core processors

It’s been nearly a year since my last “If I were to buy a new computer …” feature, and whereas the last one was about 3D Blu-ray, this one is all about Sandy Bridge, Intel’s second generation Core processor. The original Sandy Bridge launch was scuppered due to a manufacturing fault, and it’s only now that these new Intel CPUs are being launched proper. While normally, it’s never a good time to buy a new computer just after a new CPU/socket launch, due to the premium pricing, Sandy Bridge changes the equation because, for once, Intel is launching a new range of CPUs that not only undercuts AMD’s offerings, but also its own CPUs, making the SB CPUs the best in terms of price/performance, despite the “newness” of the part.

Just like the last edition of this feature, I will provide three different builds, one a general purpose machine, another a Mini ITX build for home theater use, and what I called the “Lottery Winner’s Special” the last time, basically a system if money (as well as power consumption/noise) is not an issue.

Let’s get started.

General Purpose System / Lottery Winner’s Special

Our general purpose system is slightly higher spec’d than your average PC, because with this PC, we want to pretty much do everything on it. This includes playing the latest games, playing and burning Blu-ray discs, video editing and conversion, and also a system that is somewhat future proof.

So let’s look at what I think are the key features that you need to be looking for:

* CPU: We’re choosing to go with a Sandy Bridge CPU. But which one? The sweet spot at the moment, in terms of pricing and performance, appears to the Core i5-2500K. The ‘K’ indicates an unlocked CPU, which allows for overclocking. The ‘K’ version is only slightly more expensive than the standard version. For our Lottery Winner Special (LWS) system, we’re going with a top of the range i7-2600K, which despite being super fast, does not carry the usual super premium.

* Motherboard: Since Sandy Bridge uses a new socket type, we’ll also need a new motherboard. And the best ones to go with SB utilize the Z68 chipset, which has only recently been released, but it allows you to get the best out of SB thanks to the support of hybrid graphics, SSD caching and overclocking of ‘K’ branded CPUs. As for brand and model, we’re going with the ASUS P8Z68-V PRO, which has received good reviews recently.

* RAM: Our last general purpose system had 4GB of RAM. This time, we’re going with 8GB. It won’t give you any performance gains, not much anyway, but with the low price of RAM these days, the real question is “why not?” For our LWS syetem, we’re going to cram in 16GB of RAM just because we can.

* GPU: The ATI Radeon range has dominated the GPU market for quite a while now, and the last couple editions of this feature have all relied on this particular range of GPUs. However, with the release of Nvidia’s Fermi, the momentum has shifted somewhat back towards Nvidia. So this time, we’re going an Nvidia GTX-570. For our LWS, we’re opting for the fastest single card GPU solution available, which is currently the Radeon HD 6990, a dual-GPU solution. Then we’re going to put two of these in CrossFire config, for a total of 4 physical GPUs and 8GB of video RAM. Awesome.

* SSD: Thanks to the Z68’s SSD caching feature, adding an SSD will increase disk performance dramatically. Unlike having a dedicated SSD boot drive, which means an expensive investment in a large SSD drive, caching allows us to use a smaller, cheaper SSD drive, and still benefit from the speed boost offered by SSDs, with transparent background caching. Think of it like a stepping stone between your large, but slow HDD, and your small but super fast RAM. For our LWS system, we’re still going with a large SSD as our boot drive for maximum performance.

Sample Configuration:

Intel Core i5-2500K
Corsair Vengeance 8GB DDR3 (2x4GB)
Intel 320 Series 40GB SATA II SSD
2 x Wester Digital Caviar Black 2TB HDD
Nvidia GTX-570 (3D Option: Add GeForce 3D Vision Kit)
Asus VW246H 24″ Monitor (3D Option: Asus VG236HE 23″ 3D Ready Monitor)
12x Blu-ray burner drive
Case and (at least 750W) power supply of your choice
Price Range: Around $1800 (Add $300 for 3D Option) – based on pricing

So yeah, this system is $400 more expensive than our last general purposes system, but you’re paying for the latest CPU and chispet, which in the past, would have carried a lot more than a $400 premium (plus we’ve also included a SSD caching drive, along with double the RAM, an upgrade to a Blu-ray burner drive and up to 4TB of storage).

Just for the fun of it, here’s specs for a monster system where price isn’t an issue. What I call the “Lottery Winner Special”. The total price of such a system, despite being upgraded with the latest second generation Core processor, plus a bigger SSD, more RAM, a huge 30″ monitor, and the aforementioned dual monter graphics cards, ends up being about $1000 less than last year’s LWS system. The savings mainly come from the top of the range Intel CPU no longer costing upwards of $1000.

Sample LWS Configuration:

Intel Core i7-2600K
Corsair Dominator DDR3 (4x4GB)
Crucial M4 SATA III 512GB SSD
2 x 2TB WD RE-4 HDDs
2 x XFX ATI Radeon HD 6990 4GB
Dell 30″ Ultrasharp IPS LCD Monitor
12x Blu-ray burner drive
Case and huge power supply (1200W?) for your choice
Price Range: Around $5000 – based on pricing

Home Theater System

For the home theater system, we’ll need a Mini ITX form factor machine that’s capable of playing and burning Blu-ray, and that’s pretty much it. With such basic demands, we could have really just stuck with the specs of last year’s system, but let’s see what we can do with a Sandy Bridge CPU.

* CPU: We’re going with an i3-2120, as it’s overkill to go with anything faster for an HTPC system.

* Motherboard: I would like to stick with the Z68 chipset, but since it’s pretty new, the Mini ITX motherboard we need is actually not yet available. The alternative would be to go for a H67 Mini ITX motherboard, and these are more plentiful. Get one with built-in Wi-Fi for extra convenience.

Sample Configuration:

Intel Core i3-2120
Cosair 4GB DDR3
WD Caviar Green 1.5TB HDD
12x Blu-ray burner drive
Dual HDTV tuner card of your choice (low profile)
Case of your choice (Mini-ITX or HTPC case)
Price Range: Around $700 – based on pricing

So basically, you’re looking at an HTPC that’s similar in pricing to last year’s, but with the latest Intel CPU. The built-in Intel HD 2000 may not be much, but it’s good enough for Blu-ray and even 3D Blu-ray, and a bit of occasional gaming (at low res/quality).

And so this concludes another edition of “If I were to buy a new computer today”. Hopefully, I will have another edition of this feature ready for you when AMD’s Bulldozer CPUs are out. So until then …