The 2011 PC Market in Review; Hits and Misses

Author: SKYMTL
Date: December 30, 2011
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Processor of the Year: Intel Sandy Bridge i5 2500K

In a market thatís rife with high end products with eight or more threads and ultra high clock speeds, one may wonder why weíve chosen a quad thread, sub-$225 i5 2500K as our Product of the Year in the processor category. Letís start with the obvious first: a quartet of threads is more than enough to satisfy nearly everyoneís needs and even the most heavily threaded games will have a hard time saturating four cores running at up to 3.7GHz. Granted, the i7 2600K is another great choice but at nearly $100 more than its lower priced sibling, its cost far outweighs the benefits of Hyper-Threading.

What sets the 2500K apart from the non-K series part is the fact that it is so easily overclockable via an unlocked multiplier. Without much effort, most end users can achieve at least 4.7GHz and even auto overclocking features on boards from MSI, ASUS and Gigabyte will safely bring clock speeds to 4.2GHz.

If anything, Intelís i5 2500K proves that you donít have to spend a ton of money to get great performance, high efficiency and plenty of overclocking headroom. It is currently the best bang for your buck in the processor market and has been since its release.

The Runner Up: AMD Llano A8 3850 APU

AMD has been talking about their Fusion strategy for the last half decade and while the release of the Brazos platform showed flashes of brilliance it was Llano that finally ushered in the future of APUs. And what a future it is.

Upon first glance the A8 3850 really didnít have much going for it on the x86 processing front due to the use of slightly antiquated processing cores. But when combined with state of the art graphics processing capabilities, the Fusion architecture really starts to shine in both games and other applications. With the massive parallel computing of GPU cores and the serial processing advantages of an x86 architecture working in perfect synergy, this APU is a cost effective solution for 99.9 percent of the population. So far, manufacturing issues have delayed the widespread availability of these highly versatile processors but if they stay the course we think that AMD could have a leg up on Intel in this respect.

The Miss: Bulldozer

Really, what did you expect was going to be considered our flop of the year in this category? If something went right with the Bulldozer launch, weíd love to hear about it. Most of the time weíre firm believers in ignoring pre launch hype but AMD had the better part of a decade to get this one right and close the architectural gap as their products fell further behind the competition. That didnít happen.

Bulldozerís list of failures just kept coming: endless delays, raging power consumption, an inability to consistently beat previous generation processors (let alone the aforementioned 2500K) and an erroneous transistor count information sent to the press. Did we mention the rushed and frankly laughable ďfixĒ for Windows 7 that crashed and burned less than 24 hours after it was posted by Microsoft? Oh yes, it was fun all around whenever the topic of Bulldozer came up around the office.

Sure Bulldozer was able to pull ahead in some case but that took specifically chosen benchmarks which didnít have any foundation in the computing reality of most consumers or enthusiasts for that matter. To add insult to injury, Bulldozergate deniers are still holding out some hope that Microsoftís Windows 8 will ride in like some magical unicorn, offering up significant performance improvements. But by that time, Piledriver-based cores will (hopefully for AMDís sake) be out, rendering the first generation Bulldozer CPUs obsolete. We don't count this as a complete failure though, it was simply a bungled launch of a sub-par product followed by a successive number of *facepalm* moments in the months following initial availability.


Motherboard of the Year: ASUS X79 Rampage IV Extreme

A late bloomer to our review lineup won this segment by a slim margin but make no mistake about it, the ASUS X79 Rampage IV Extreme is one of the best motherboards we have ever reviewed. It has one of the most in depth BIOSes around but still makes basic overclocking extremely easy for Sandy Bridge E virgins. Thatís quite an accomplishment when you consider the complexity of the BIOS for those who want to explore deeper levels of memory skews and sub-voltages.

ASUS also saw fit to include several industry firsts in the guise of OC Key, Subzero Sense, VGA Hotwire, LN2 Mode, and X Socket. Those are all in addition to an excellent layout, very mature release day BIOS and a feature set that includes everything we could possibly want in a high end product. The only pitfall we can see with this board is its astronomical price but when paired up with a 3960X processor, there is no better combination around.

The Runner Up: ASUS P8Z68-V PRO/GEN3

This is another shoe-in for an ASUS product. The P8Z68-V PRO is literally chalk full of goodness with an intuitive UEFI BIOS, USB 3.0 compatibility, LucidLogix Virtu support, PCI-E 3.0, integrated Bluetooth, VGA,DVI and HDMI outputs, official Ivy Bridge support and Intelís SRT SSD caching. It also has a mature software package that incorporates some great tools and ASUS has rolled out regular BIOS updates that have brought about better overclocking and increased stability.

One of the main selling features of this board is its excellent and easy auto-overclocking feature which can safely take your processor to the next level. Weíve experienced all manner of manufacturer-supported overclocking via buttons, software or BIOS tweaks but the P8Z68-V PRO featured on the first we would actually consider using on a regular basis. Nonetheless, the real selling point of this board is its price: at just $199 it represents a phenomenal deal for anyone looking at the Sandy Bridge platform.

The Miss: Sapphire Pure Black X58

When playing against the big boys, itís best to bring your A-game to the table and thatís precisely what Sapphire didnít do with their entry into the X58 market. Even though the Pure Black X58 was introduced during the Nehalem platformís twilight days it felt rushed, seriously incomplete and just didnít bring anything new to the table. To make matters worse, Sapphire neglected to include features that most other boards took for granted at the time. SLI support and dual x16 PCI-E slots were both MIA while the BIOS was rife with bugs, recovery from failed overclocking attempts was nonexistent and some air coolers couldnít be installed since there wasnít enough space between the heatsinks and CPU socket. This is one motherboard attempt weíre happy to put behind us.

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