The Dorm PC
Because playing Halo on Xbox is so last decade
With the Dorm PC, we sought not to build an uber-cheap box for cash-strapped students—rather, we tried to pack sufficient computing brawn inside a small-form-factor enclosure that's easy to manage within the confines of a crowded dorm room.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-2100||$124.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$48.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 6850 Cyclone||$169.99|
|Storage||Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB||$59.99|
|Enclosure & power supply
We've also taken the liberty of suggesting some accessories for the Dorm PC: a display, some speakers, and a keyboard and mouse. Chances are you'll need to buy everything together, and as we found, you can get some pretty decent peripherals without breaking the bank.
While it has only two physical cores, Intel's Core i3-2100 more than holds its own against AMD's latest budget quad-core offerings. More important, this Sandy Bridge chip has a 65W power envelope that makes it much better suited to a small-form-factor build. Under load, you're looking at power savings of roughly 40-50W versus AMD's A8-3850 or Phenom II X4 840. Translation: less heat, less noise, and more polar bears saved. What's not to like?
Going with a Mini-ITX enclosure for the dorm PC restricts our selection of motherboards quite a bit. We're not thrilled with the selection of budget Mini-ITX offerings available today, but Asus' P8H61-I has a reassuring number of folks vouching for it with positive Newegg user reviews. The P8H61-I also has a nice features-to-price ratio despite its H61 Express chipset.
The H61 has a somewhat spartan feature set compared to the H67. In addition to being limited to one DIMM per memory channel, you lose 6Gbps SATA support, a few PCI Express lanes, and some USB 2.0 ports. Those shortcomings have largely kept us from recommending H61 mobos, but they don't really concern us here. The Dorm PC's motherboard has only one PCIe slot and two DIMM slots, and the system's mechanical hard drive isn't fast enough to need a 6Gbps interface. The important thing is that the P8H61-I looks like a solid, trustworthy board. Perks like USB 3.0 connectivity and the excellent tandem of Asus' state-of-the-art UEFI interface and Fan Xpert software controls make it even more attractive.
Right now, the difference between 4GB and 8GB of RAM amounts to something like $25. Considering our budget for this build is reasonably ample, we figured you might as well grab an 8GB kit—of, say, Corsair memory—and rest easy knowing a future upgrade probably isn't necessary. This kit is covered by a lifetime warranty and is made up of two 4GB DIMMs rated for operation at 1333MHz with 9-9-9-24 timings and a 1.5V signal voltage.
Higher learning is great, but everybody needs a break once in a while. MSI's Radeon HD 6850 Cyclone should make those breaks refreshing by letting you run most PC games at 1920x1080 with the eye candy cranked up. We chose this card over the competing GeForce GTX 460 1GB because, in our tests, the 6850 GPU proved to be a fair bit more power-efficient under load... and slightly quicker overall. The MSI card comes with a Cyclone cooler that we've found to be generally quiet, too. We would have selected a faster GPU, but our enclosure only supports expansion cards up to 9" long.
Students probably don't have enough cash to spring for a solid-state drive, which leaves us with Samsung's 1TB SpinPoint F3 as the most desirable and affordable option. That's no great loss, because the SpinPoint delivers 1TB of whisper-quiet, 7,200-RPM mechanical storage at a bargain price.
Samsung's slim SN-2088BB DVD writer serves as the hard drive's sidekick. Although most content is available online these days, it's probably too early to drop the optical drive completely—at least for a desktop system. We'd have picked a cheaper, full-sized burner, but our Mini-ITX enclosure only accepts slim optical drives.
Enclosure and power supply
The latest iteration of the Silverstone SG05 case has everything we want for the Dorm PC: a cuboid shape with a small footprint, a sleek graphite paint job, vents aplenty, a 120-mm intake fan, and a 450W 80 Plus Bronze-rated power supply. The overwhelmingly positive user reviews don't hurt, either.
Display, speakers, keyboard, and mouse
We won't dwell on these accessories for too long, since they're more suggestions than hard recommendations like our primary component choices. Still, we think the extras will complement the Dorm PC quite well.
The Acer G23HAbd display manages to serve up a 1080p panel with a DVI input and three-year warranty for only $149.99, and the 352 user reviews averaging five stars are, shall we say, encouraging. This is a TN panel, of course, but IPS comes at a premium we think inappropriate for a relatively affordable college build. If you disagree, see our peripherals section on the last page for more monitor recommendations.
Logitech's K523 speaker setup is almost as popular as the Acer LCD, and it should let you pump out enjoyably loud music. As for the keyboard and mouse, our own Editor-in-Chief can vouch for the pint-sized Logitech M505 wireless mouse. Meanwhile, the Logitech K200 keyboard looks well-received and is, mercifully, one of the few budget keyboards not to mangle the arrangement of arrow keys, home row, and enter/backspace keys.
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