$1,000 i7 Desktop Computer
Build It Or Buy It? A Practical Guide for an i7-920 Computer with 12GB Memory and Windows 7 for under $1,000
The Core i7 is Intel's monster processor that everybody seems to be talking about, but is the Ferrari of processors really worth the price?
We wanted to see what all the i7 excitement was about, so we decided to take the plunge based on the following criteria: It had to be screaming fast, upgrade compatible (1366 socket), and relatively low cost. After some research, we learned that an i7-920 would be the best i7 computer to meet our requirements - and to our surprise - could be built OR purchased on a budget of less than $1,000.
Make sure you start with a Core i7-9xx series (1366 socket) processor. Other i7s like the i7-860/870 use the 1156 socket and are not upgrade compatible.
An i7 computer needs three essential ingredients that generally aren't lying around in the garage: (1) an i7-900 series processor (like the entry-level i7-920); (2) an Intel X58 chipset-compatible motherboard, and (3) lots of DDR3 memory. Knowing what we needed, we then had to decide whether to build it - or buy one off the shelf.
The decision turned out to be an easy one after we found a Core i7-920 workstation at Costco loaded with a jaw-dropping 12GB of DDR3 memory, 1TB SATA hard drive, and Windows 7 - all for $999 delivered.
The ZT Systems' i7-920 computer arrived a few days later, and after loading our software on the i7-920 workstation, we soon realized our office had been filled with a bunch of abacuses in comparison.
The i7's blazing fast performance dramatically increased the speed of everything we ran, from Photoshop and Premiere Elements - to processing huge web traffic log files. The increase was nothing short of amazing!
More processor clock speed (GHz) does Not mean a faster computer.
The ZT computer replaced a 2.8 GHz HP with XP 32-bit and 4GB of memory, so it's difficult to tell how much of the performance increase was the result of the i7 processor, expanded DDR3 memory, Windows 7 64-bit, or the enhanced motherboard architecture. We assume they all contributed to the dramatic speed increase.
The Intel Core i7 Edge
Some computer users might ask what's so great about the Core i7 920 with 2.66Ghz, when old Pentium 4 processors have a clock rate up to 3.8GHz. It's a good question that we wondered ourselves, and while the answer quickly gets complicated, it is clear that more GHz does Not mean a faster computer.
The quad core i7 920 processor essentially delivers a "workload equivalent" of 10.64GHZ* (2.66GHZ x 4 cores) when all four cores are being fully utilized.
It's all about how efficiently (and fast!) the processor, motherboard, memory, and OS work together to process data.
In the simplest of analogies, compare the quad core i7 processor to a bakery with four small ovens. If it takes 30 minutes to bake a pie, having four ovens will not make one pie bake any faster. But if you are baking four pies at the same time, having four ovens will allow you to bake four pies as fast as one - and quadruple your output. So while individual cores will not exceed 2.66GHz,* the quad core i7 920 processor essentially delivers a "workload equivalent" of 10.64GHZ* (2.66GHZ x 4 cores) when all four cores are being fully utilized.
The four cores of the i7 are a big plus if you do a lot of multitasking or use photo, video, or audio editing software that offers multicore support (utilizing multiple cores at once), and other processes that take full advantage of all the cores and surrounding architecture.
The i7 processor also features dual hyper-threading per core, which adds four virtual cores to the quad core i7, resulting in 8 threads processing autonomously. What does all of this mean? HUGE processing power for multiple programs and processes all running at the same time.
Device Manager Showing i7's 8 Processing Threads
When Norton Internet Security is running, for example, it only uses half of the 8 processing channels (and only 6% of CPU usage!) to quickly blow through more than a half million files without breaking a sweat. The image below shows the Windows Task Manager with Norton running a security scan.
Windows Task Manager Showing i7 CPU Usage
The i7 chip is just part of the speed equation. ZT's i7 computer features the MSI X58M (Intel X58 chipset) motherboard that throws out the old front-side bus (FSB) architecture in favor of Intel's multi-thread QuickPath Interconnect (QPI). So instead of an FSB speed of say 533Mhz, this QPI bus operates with the i7-920 at a lightning fast 4.8GT/s (4.8 billion transfers per second!).
That means no data bottlenecks on any of the eight threads.
The ZT system's Windows 7 64-bit computer is also loaded with a massive 12GB of DDR3 SDRAM triple channel memory operating at 1333MHZ. Compare that to most other XP/32-bit setups that max out at 4GB (3.5GB usable) and only have DDR2 dual channel SDRAM operating at 533MHZ or less.
MSI X58M Motherboard With Available Ports
By combining these latest advancements in the i7 processor, motherboard architecture, and DDR3 memory, data is transferred faster and more efficiently, and results in a huge increase in the overall speed of your computer. And while it's not important to understand all of the geek details, it is worthwhile to know there is much more to a computer's performance than just looking at raw CPU/GHz numbers.
The i7-900 series 1366 socket provides more upgrade compatibility than the i7-700/800 series 1156 socket
i7 Processors Are Not Created Equal
Intel's Core i7 processors are not all upgrade compatible, which is why it's important to start out with the i7-920 to make sure you can drop in a more powerful i7 when the timing (and price) is right. The i7-920 is the entry-level processor that utilizes the LGA-1366 socket and Intel X58 chipset motherboard which is upwardly compatible with the i7-930, i7-940, i7-950, i7-960 series, the i7-975 Extreme Edition, and even the new i7-980X Six-Core Extreme processors.
Important: The i7-750, i7-860, and i7-870 all use the 1156 socket and Intel P55 chipset, and are not compatible with the i7-900 series processors. While they might give you i7 bragging rights, the i7-700 and i7-800 series with dual-channel memory support Will Not allow you to upgrade to the i7-900 series triple-channel monster chips that use the 1366 socket.
The 45nm-based Core i7 packs all four cores on a single die
Exception: The Core i7-980X Six Core Extreme Edition (Gulftown) is 32nm.
Budget i7: Buy It, Or Build It?
If you are a computer expert that isn't concerned about technical support or computer warranties, you can certainly build it yourself. But with feature-packed off-the-shelf i7 models now selling for $1,000 to $1,500, building it may not be the cheapest i7 computer alternative unless you have a lot of spare computer parts sitting around.
The advantage to building it yourself, is you can go ahead and use a larger power supply, add a cooling system so you can overclock** the i7 processor from 2.66 GHz to as much as 3.8 GHz, and if it's important to you, put everything into a shiny high-tech case.
Some may have a garage full of computer parts, and building your own i7 system can certainly save some money.
Assuming you have a computer case, PSU, hard and DVD drives, graphics card(s), keyboard, mouse, software, and other basics, you will need three things:
i7 920 processor ($280),
Intel X58 chipset motherboard ($170), and
6GB to 12GB of DDR3 SDRAM ($150-$300)
This adds up to about $600 to $750 depending on the SDRAM. If you already have the DDR3 memory, you'll be able to keep it well under $500 for the i7 build, resulting in a cheap i7 computer with unparalleled performance on a budget build price.
Buy It Price
Complete ZT Systems' Core i7 Computer (see vendors below): $1,000 to $1,300
Build It Price
Parts Required if you built the ZT Systems i7 Computer Yourself:
MSI X58M Motherboard: $170
i7 920 processor: $280
12 GB DDR3 Triple Channel SDRAM Memory: $300
1 TB 7200 RPM HD: $85
512MB NVIDIA® GeForce® 8400 GS Video Card: $45 (probably want to upgrade)
LG DVD±RW optical drive: $40
19-in-1 card reader: $20
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-Bit: $180
Logitech keyboard and mouse: $30
Tower case, power supply, cables, and misc: $100.
Total i7 Computer Parts Cost (approx) = $1,250
Note: The parts cost do not include build time, Windows 7 load time, testing, burn in, two-year 24/7 technical support, parts shipping, and any return policy.
The ZT Systems' i7 920
The ZT Affinity Desktop from ZT Systems comes in a variety of configurations and enables advanced computing, with a powerful Intel® Core™ i7 Processor 920 providing outstanding performance for demanding tasks like managing and manipulating digital images, audio and video. Industry-leading support and maximum multimedia capabilities make this system an ideal choice for power users.
The case measures 19" Deep, 16.25" Tall & 7.5" Wide and weighs about 40 pounds. The Interior is well laid out with very clean cabling. There are 6 USBs in the back and 2 USBs in the front (along with audio jacks) hidden behind a lower-front slider plate.
It has 2 PS/2 ports, 1 eSTAT port, 1 IEEE 1394a port, an RJ-45 port, and a 6-in-1 audio jack. Inside on the MSI X58M motherboard there are two PCI Express 2.0x16 slots (for graphics cards), one available PCIe 2.0x4 slot and one standard PCI slot. (see specification pages from the vendors listed below).
Cost for the ZT i7-920 computer (depending on the configuration): $1,000 to $1,3000.
Why We Like ZT's i7 Computer
Blazing fast speed in an off-the-shelf computer with minimum setup time, long-term support, and a price that's hard to beat.
In addition to the tremendous speed and quiet operation of the ZT i7, another benefit is it being shipped with the bare software essentials. It comes with Windows 7 and a 90-day trial of Norton Internet Security - that's it. Unlike our HPs and Dells that are routinely packed with dozens of useless programs that take hours to figure out what we have to keep and what can be safely removed, the ZT i7 machine is delivered clean and ready to roll for all of your favorite programs.
The only exception is that Microsoft pre-loads a trial copy of Office 2007 within Windows 7, which can be quickly removed via the control panel before loading your own software.
The ZT i7 computer came with a basic wired Logitech keyboard and mouse to get things started, but in our case, they were quickly discarded in favor of the Logitech DiNovo Edge keyboard and MX-1000 mouse from our old machine.
A few minor items we think could use some improvement on the ZT Systems' i7 Computer.
Power Supply. While we are very happy with the i7 computer, we do wish ZT Systems would have supplied it with a higher capacity power supply. At 430 Watts, it is sufficient to handle everything we throw at it, and the Core temperatures usually stay between 45c and 55c (using Real Temp 3.40), but if you want to power some monster video cards or overclock** your i7, it would be necessary to pop in a stronger PSU (among other upgrades - see footnotes).
Video Card. The included 512MB NVIDIA® GeForce® 8400 GS video card is also pretty entry-level. In our case, we replaced it with two GeForce 9500 GT (dual) 1GB video cards (about $55 each from Tiger Direct) to support the four monitors we run on this machine. They both fit in the two available PCI Express 2.0x16 slots on the MSI X58M motherboard, and still leaves one available PCIe 2.0x4 slot and one standard PCI slot.
Our i7 Computer Running 4 Monitors
Computer Case. This is a "who cares" item for us, but we've seen a lot better cases. I suppose for $999, they can't put too much in this cheap i7 computer case. Rather than the more "modular" case construction of the bigger name brands, this case features knock-out plugs for the PCI cards, and doesn't appear to be overly rugged.
Since our machines are not meant to be shown off like many of the expensive gaming computers, we're more concerned about the performance and price than the case's cutting edge looks and rugged features.
No Parallel Port. This is a minor item and certainly no deal breaker, but worth mentioning for some. Since we're too lazy to print to our network printers located down the hall, we use our old faithful HP Laserjet 5p printers for local printing.
The HP printers use a DB25 parallel connection that is not included on the MSI X58M motherboard. Rather than adding a parallel card to the machine, we purchased a $15 DB25 parallel-to-USB adapter cable (Cables To Go #16899) that quickly fixes the problem. This is not unique to MSI, as many of today's motherboards lack a DB25 connection, which is probably a good thing, as everything gets easier to connect using USB and 1394a Firewire.
Where To Buy
We ordered our ZT Systems i7 computer last month through Costco (Item #474371 - $999 delivered). Since Costco is notorious for changing its product lineup, if the ZT i7-920 desktop computer is unavailable, ZT's Core i7-920 computers can also be found in a variety of configurations at Walmart, Buy.com, Sam's Club, Sears, Office Depot, Staples, and Overstock.com. ZT Systems can be contacted directly at 866-984-7687.
Other i7-920 Purchase Options
ZT i7-920 at Walmart - $998 - The ZT Core i7-920 6GB DDR3, 2TB HDs computer available at Walmart.com: ZT Core i7-920 desktop with 6B DDR3, 2 Hard Drives (1TB each), DVD R/RW Burner Drive, NVIDIA 512MB GeForce EN8400GS video card, Windows 7 Premium 64-bit, and keyboard and mouse. $998 with free shipping to a local store.
ZT i7-920 at Buy.com - $1,299 - The ZT Core i7-920 12GB DDR3 computer with upgraded features are available at Buy.com: ZT Core i7-920 desktop with 12GB DDR3, 1.5TB HD, Blu-Ray, upgraded Radeon HD4650 1GB video card, Windows 7 Premium 64-bit, and wireless keyboard and mouse. $1,299 with free shipping.
HP i7-920 WiFi at Walmart - $1,250 - The HP Pavillion HPE-170F i7-920 9GB DDR3, 1TB HD, WiFi computer available at Walmart.com: ZT Core i7-920 desktop with 9B DDR3, 1TB SATA Hard Drive, NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 video card, WiFi, and Windows 7 Premium 64-bit. $1,250 with free shipping to a local store.
ZT, HP, Dell, and many other computer manufacturers are introducing i7-920 computers for budgets in the $1,000 to $1,300 range. Take a look around the Internet and see what other configurations best suit your needs. If you're considering a purchase, 12GB of DDR3 memory is probably overkill for most applications, but you should consider buying at least 6GB of DDR3 with your i7-920 machine.
While we're confident our i7-920 computer won't compete with the processing speed (and certainly not the looks) of some of the $5,000 i7 980X water-cooled gaming computers currently hitting the market, our new i7 workstation does provide a huge speed increase for all of our business software and we couldn't be happier with its performance. (And having the 1366 socket lets us move up to the i7-980X six-core later if we want to).***
The i7-920 computer tackles the big projects with ease, and supercharges our Photoshop, M-Audio processing, Premiere Elements video editing software, and the rest of the programs we routinely use here at Radok. For that kind of price/performance, we'll be buying several more in the months ahead.
As far as those i7-980X six-core gaming machines? Yes, they're tempting. Those brushed aluminum Extreme machines with blue backlit hoses and copper radiators are enough to knock our socks off... then reality sets in, and we decide we have better things to do with five grand.
*The "workload equivalent" translation of 2.66 GHz for each of the 4 cores is for example purposes only. The maximum speed (without overclocking or "turbo" mode) for each core of the i7-920 is 2.66GHz and will never reach 10.64GHz for an individual process.
The actual processing speed is based on the Intel X58 chipset motherboard's base clock speed (typically 133 default, up to 200), the i7 CPU multiplier (12x-20x, or 21x in turbo mode), and the ability of the software with multicore support (or multiple running software) to take full advantage of all the processing horsepower the 4 cores and hyper-threads of the i7, X58M motherboard, and 12GB of DDR3 memory together have to offer.
Note: Turbo mode for the i7-920 temporarily boosts the stock clock speed from 2.66 GHz to 2.8 GHz.
**Overclocking to 3.8GHz. Using a similar Core i7-920/MSI X58M motherboard configuration like we purchased, Neoseeker overclocked their system by adjusting the base clock (from 133.33 MHz) to 190 MHz, used the default 20x CPU multiplier, and set the QPI and processor voltage to 1.2750v. This resulted in a stable core speed of 3.8GHz. (see below)
***The ZT Systems' i7-920 computer is extremely fast without any changes. Overclocking or upgrading to faster i7 processors should only be considered by expert technicians who understands the limits, added cooling and PSU requirements, and other factors necessary to make such changes knowledgeably, and without harm to the computer.
About The Author
Jake Easton is a search engine marketing expert for Radok Corporation, and has more than 15 years of experience in the Internet business. Easton is also a writer, technology hobbyist, and developer of the "Better Mousetrap" project.