The Utility Player
Value without major compromises
Our Utility Player build packs a Core i5 processor, a fast graphics card with plenty of memory, and some nice extras—all for just under $900.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-750||$206.99|
|Memory||Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$73.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB||$154.99|
|Storage||Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB||$74.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Enclosure||Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU||$109.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$881.92|
If you've read our review of Intel's new Lynnfield-based Core i5 and i7 processors, then this pick should be self-explanatory. If not, well... we recommend reading the review anyway. To sum up, the Core i5-750 performs better overall than any previous-generation processor in its price range. Thanks to the matching P55 chipset, it also has prodigiously low idle power consumption—drawing fewer watts than many dual-core systems, in fact.
This performance and power-efficiency comes with very reasonable platform costs, too, since P55 motherboards and dual-channel DDR3 memory kits don't suffer from the same markups as their X58 and triple-channel counterparts. We can therefore squeeze the Core i5-750 into this build without cutting corners. Oh, we might be stretching our budget a tad, but it's worth it.
We had a nice handful of sub-$150 P55 boards to choose from, and among those, Gigabyte's GA-P55-UD3R looked like the best solution for the Utility Player. This board has dual PCI Express graphics slots with AMD CrossFire support, eight internal SATA ports, 10 USB 2.0 ports, a pair of external Serial ATA ports, and heatsinks on the power regulation circuitry.
Competing Asus mobos may have more PCIe slots, but those slots are all crammed right under the primary PCIe x16 where you'd put a double-wide graphics card. The GA-P55-UD3R smartly positions one PCIe x1 slot above the primary x16, so you can use it without impeding airflow even in a dual-GPU setup. Not even Asus' more expensive P7P55D has as many USB and SATA ports as the UD3R.
The 4GB Crucial kit we picked for our Econobox should work just as well here. DDR3-1333 happens to be the fastest speed the Core i7-750 processor supports out of the box, so you shouldn't miss out on any extra performance, either.
We don't want to splurge too much, so the Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB from our Econobox alternatives returns here, too. This card delivers excellent performance for the price, with enough GPU power to run pretty much all games at 1920x1200, usually with some level of antialiasing. You may not need to consider anything faster unless you have one of those huge 30" monitors.
This Caviar Black is the fastest member of Western Digital's 640GB line, and it's also the only 640GB hard drive we know of with five-year warranty coverage. The Black should be pretty quiet, too, making it a great all-around choice for both the Econobox and the Utility Player.
We're sticking with the Samsung SH-S223B as our optical drive. DVD burners have become commodity items, so we're not terribly inclined to get something fancier just because of our more generous budget.
Sound cards were absent from our first few Utility Player builds. We made that choice mainly because we were sticking with dual- or triple-core processors at the time, and we didn't want to have to cut more corners to include a sound card. Today, however, we can outfit this system with a Core i5 processor, four gigs of RAM, a very fast graphics card, and other goodies with enough cash left over to grab a Xonar DX. And we're doing just that.
We really believe the Xonar is a must-have for a system of this caliber, provided you're using half-way-decent analog speakers or headphones. Onboard audio has certainly improved in recent years, but it still can't match the output quality and noise shielding of a real sound card. The Xonar has extra goodies like real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding and support for EAX 5.0 emulation in games, as well.
Enclosure and power
The Antec Sonata III costs more than the NSK 4480 II we selected for the Econobox, but it has several advantages over it, including a beefy 500W power supply with an 80% efficiency rating, a clean layout with sideways-mounted hard drive bays, and a host of noise reduction features. Antec even slaps an eSATA port on the Sonata's front bezel, should you wish to plug in a fast external hard drive without crawling behind the system.
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