Friday, 7 September 2012


The mid-tier of components is probably the area that most people would look to spend their money on the next time an upgrade cycle rolls around. These products are in the middle of their life cycles, old enough to have shed their introductory prices, but new enough that you can feel comfortable investing in them as products with a fairly hefty lifespan ahead of them.

It's normally easy to spot the economic sweet spot where performance and price reach their maximum, and the best place to spend money is somewhere in that area. In this guide, we'll show you the best upgrades you can buy for under £300. Again, this money can be spent on multiple products or entirely in one place, but follow our advice and we'll guarantee you can make a canny purchase regardless of the area you want to go forYou won't end up with the best PC. You certainly won't end up with the cheapest PC. But you'll know you've got more for your money than anyone else, and that's a feeling that can't be bought.

Case Upgrade

If you're looking for a mid-tier case upgrade, chances are it's because you're starting to improve your PC and want something that can offer better performance, looks and component capacity than the bog- standard black boxes that you find at the cheaper end of the spectrum. You want interesting designs, space A for plenty of cooling, and unique features. However, you don't want to waste money on high-quality materials and special editions for no good reason. If we're right, we think we have the case for you.

NZXT Phantom 410 - £94.99

The Phantom 410 is a spacious case, but its price and aesthetics leave no doubt that it's aimed at people who want a little bit more than the norm to house their PC. One of the biggest advantages of this chassis is its appearance. Available in red, black or white, it looks sleek and futuristic. It is, however, a reduced size version of the standard Phantom, so it loses some of the most impressive finishing touches (the drive bay cover is held in place by a clip rather than a magnet, for example), but the interior colour matches the exterior and a side-panel window gives you plenty of chances to admire it.

The case is particularly generous when it comes to active cooling. You get three fans included (front, rear and top - 120mm, 120mm and 140mm respectively), and there's space for a second front and top fan, a bottom fan and a side fan, to a maximum of seven fitted. A slider allows you to manually control the case's fan speed.

The PSU for the Phantom 410 is mounted at the bottom, and can be oriented on its side or one end, giving you plenty of options for managing space. A dust filter protects the PSU, but considering the number of vents, it would be nice to have them available for the other openings too. The mesh on the front is arguably a little too large, as you can clearly see the internals through it (not least because the LED in the fan illuminates them), which may put some people off.

Drives are mounted using the included clips, while the expansion sockets have tool-free screws, so you can quickly dismantle and reassemble the bulk of your system without too much fiddling. In the end, it's a decent choice for those who want a chassis that looks good, can improve a system's performance and offers convenient access to the internals, and all at a price you can be happy with.

Motherboard Upgrade

Mid-tier motherboards need to perform well in a variety of situations. You want good, practical features as well as the capacity for decent games performance, but you don't want to have to consider installing a water-cooling system just to use it! Ivy Bridge boards are naturally tempting, but their release has only made Sandy Bridge boards more temptingly affordable.

Asus P8Z68-V Pro - £169.98

The Z68 chipset at the heart of the P8Z68-V Pro is the second generation of Intel's Sandy Bridge architecture. It has two USB 3.0 ports, and two SATA 6Gbps ports, which isn't quite as good as Ivy Bridge boards, but at least the capabilities are there at all. If you can put up with that minor issue, it's actually a very strong competitor.

The Z68 chipset has Smart Response Technology, which gives it the ability to run an SSD drive as a cache. It's also capable of overclocking the GPU component of Sandy Bridge chips, meaning that braver users are free to squeeze a little extra capacity out of their system - no doubt an essential criterion for users who are seeking value.

It's been said that the on-board graphics system of the P8Z68-V Pro is a little fiddly in software, but ultimately it works well. The Lucid Virtu system allows you to switch between the built- in graphics architecture and more powerful expansion cards depending on your needs, which acts as a significantly effective power-saving measure and can reduce system temperature. It's the sort of feature you won't find on cheap or high-cost boards, but which succeeds in making this one more attractive.

At £170, the Z68 is undoubtedly aimed at the higher end of the mid-range, but it will last. Even at almost a year old it performs well against more recent, similarly priced models. If you like the idea of tweaking your system's efficiency as much as its overall speed, it's a good choice.

CPU Upgrade

Mid-pack CPUs are often the most deceptive, and the point where it becomes very important to pay attention to the specs. Luckily, the strength of Intel's chips makes choosing a doddle, especially given the strength of one particular chip...

Intel Core i5-2500k - £179.99

Long held as one of the best chips in pound-for-performance terms, the Core i5-2500k is a Sandy Bridge quad-core that runs at 3.3GHz. At £179, it's far from cheap, but there's absolutely no doubt that you're getting every drop of performance out of that money.

Indeed, the Core i5-2500k is unlocked for overclocking (as opposed to the Core i5-2500, which isn't) and can typically be overclocked as high as 4.4GHz without blinking an eye, meaning you can potentially get a 33% improvement on its clock speed free of charge. Some even report overclocking it to 5GHz with no ill effects!

It's also the first in the range to offer the Intel HD Graphics 3000 GPU, which gives better performance than any other on-board graphics processor, making it possible to run even modern games on reasonable settings. It won't look amazing, but it will be fast and capable, allowing casual gamers to get away without a dedicated graphics card. There's no question the Core i5-2500k is towards the higher end of Intel's mid-range considerations, but ultimately it's hard not to appreciate the bargain it represents. If you're interested in a good deal, then this chip offers you the best one.


Graphics Card Upgrade

Finding a mid-tier graphics card is always a case of deciding on a cut-off point and sticking to it. You can almost always spend £30 more for something a lot better. However, rather than looking for the best card you can put into your machine, you should be looking for one good enough to ensure that it isn't a bottleneck on performance.  

Sapphire HD 7850 2048MB GDDR5 - £199 

Radeon 7850 cards are roughly comparable, in performance terms, to the Radeon HD 6970 and GeForce GTX 570 cards. The primary difference is that they're substantially cheaper, meaning you can take home excellent performance without paying a lot of money for it. The 40nm process employed also uses much less power than similarly powered, older boards, which can reduce the extra cost of beefing up your PSU and cooling solution. A double-whammy of success.In-game performance at 1920x1200 is excellent, and if you don't run at full settings, you can get resolutions as high as 2560x1600 at playable speeds.
If you're feeling extravagant, benchmarks peg the Radeon HD 7870 (the next card up in the range) as having roughly 20% better performance, but maths fans will notice that the card is more than 30% more expensive at £263.99. For that reason, we suggest those looking for the best balance of cost and performance go for the former, which represents better value overall.

Storage Upgrade

If you're looking for a good deal, it can be tempting to think that hybrid solid-state/hard disk drives represent a strong compromise between price and performance, but don't be fooled so easily. Although the idea is sound, the majority of hybrid drives have an SSD component that is too small to be of significant practical help, and the cost of hybridising these two technologies makes for a purchase that doesn't really represent good value. You're better off spending the equivalent money on a second hard drive or extra solid-state drive. For that reason, we suggest going for the following drive.

OCZ Vertex 3 240GB - £207.98 

OCZ is a reliable name in solid-state drives, and its 240GB solid-state drive is big enough that you won't have to worry about running out of space as long as you're comfortable doing the occasional clearout. If you transfer your operating system and games to it, you can expect to see substantial speed improvements that wouldn't be possible by any other means, and installing it alongside your old hard drive will mean you still have a place to store archival data.

As for why this one specifically, the price is one good reason. Admittedly, for around £200 you could buy a superfast 2TB hard disk, but you'll know if you're the sort of person who's likely to need that much space. If not, an SSD is going to offer more practical benefits than mere space alone would.

Furthermore, the OCZ Vertex 3 is one of the fastest solid- state drives available, capable of reaching almost the top speeds afforded by SATA 6Gbps in sequential reading tests. It isn't going to be that noticeable compared to other SSDs (certainly not as noticeable as the difference between a traditional hard disk and any solid-state drive), but the superior speed is a good reason to choose the Vertex 3 over any other.

Mid-Tier Buyers Advice

Spending money on mid-range components can require that you do a lot of research. Anything you put into your PC will improve it, but the question is whether it's worth spending the money on anything better than the basics.

For example, some components - specifically RAM and hard drives - aren't going to be any functionally difficult from their budget brethren. The extra cost tends to come in the form of better Q&A processes. If you're confident enough that you know how to test these products after you buy them, it's arguably worth the risk that you'll receive faulty components if it saves you money; after all, you'll just have to send off for a replacement.

The other thing worth remembering about mid-tier components is that they can often be stretched that little bit further. Buy a mid-tier CPU or graphics card, and there's a good chance you'll be able to overclock it. We wouldn't recommend relying on this, as it's impossible to tell in advance whether your hardware will meet the strain of being overclocked (and it could be damaged permanently if it can't), but if you're willing to learn, the option is there. Of course, if you do find yourself more and more interested in the possibility of overclocking and performance enhancements, maybe you'll want to take a look at our high-end buyer's guide...

See also Budget PC Upgrades

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