The Utility Player
Stunning value short on compromise
The Econobox doesn't skimp on quality components, but we did have to make some sacrifices to keep the system on budget. Our budget grows with the Utility Player, allowing us to spec a stacked system for under $1,000.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-2500K 3.3GHz||$219.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z68-V LE||$132.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$48.99|
|Graphics||Asus Radeon HD 6870 1GB TOP||$189.99|
|Storage||Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB||$59.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DG||$26.00|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$92.99|
The Core i5-2500K is arguably the best value in Intel's Sandy Bridge lineup. For a little over 200 bucks, it offers four cores clocked at 3.3GHz with a 3.7GHz Turbo peak. Notably, the K designation denotes unlocked multipliers. Because of the way Intel has architected Sandy's internal clock, multiplier tweaking is really the only way to get a decent overclock out of the CPU.
In our experience, Sandy Bridge processors have loads of overclocking headroom just waiting to be exploited by a little multiplier fiddling. Even at stock speeds, the 2500K has better performance and lower power consumption than anything else in its class. There's really no better CPU for the Utility Player.
If the Utility Player's Asus P8Z68-V LE motherboard looks familiar, that's because it appeared in the Econobox alternatives on the previous page. There's no reason to change boards just because we've switched the CPU over to a 2500K, especially now that the Z68's overclocking capabilities can be put to use. This mobo happens to feature the best UEFI implementation around, not to mention great fan controls, a wide range of connectivity options, and a second PCI Express x16 slot. The competition is still a ways behind on the UEFI and fan-control fronts, so Asus continues to get our nod.
Yes, we're stuffing 8GB of RAM into our $900 build. Memory is dirt-cheap right now, and thanks to Windows 7's clever caching system (which keeps oft-used programs in memory unless you need the RAM for something else), this kind of upgrades yields real performance benefits.
A string of graphics card releases has flooded the market with fresh products over the last few months. To make room for these new entrants, prices have fallen on existing models, including members of the Radeon HD 6800 family. Take the Radeon HD 6870, which launched at $240 last fall and was often seen selling for quite a bit more. Today, hot-clocked versions like this Asus model are down to 200 bucks. We tested this particular card alongside Nvidia's GeForce GTX 560, and we found that the Radeon offered very competitive performance per dollar with remarkably low noise levels—the lowest of the cards we tested, in fact.
The 6870's extra horsepower over the Radeon HD 6850 in our Econobox allows it to produce smooth, playable frame rates at settings that would make its slower sibling sputter. This value scatter plot shows that the 6870 is clearly a rung up the ladder.
Yeah, we just copied the storage section from the Econobox. You caught us. Here's the thing: you won't find a better 7,200-RPM desktop drive than the SpinPoint F3, and we wouldn't spend any more on a DVD burner than the $21 we're dropping on the Asus model listed above. Were we to open our wallets for anything else on the storage front, it'd be on an SSD that would put us way over budget. So, we've put an SSD in the alternatives section instead.
If your PC's audio output is piped through a set of iPod earbuds or a crappy pair of speakers old enough to be beige, you're probably fine using the Utility Player's integrated motherboard audio. Ditto if you're running audio to a compatible receiver or speakers over a digital S/PDIF connection. However, if you've spent more than the cost of dinner and a movie on a set of halfway decent analog headphones or speakers, you'd do well to upgrade to Asus' excellent Xonar DG sound card. According to the results of our blind listening tests, this budget wonder is a cut above integrated audio and even sounds better than cards that cost several times as much. The Xonar DG has a TR Editor's Choice award in its trophy cabinet, too.
As you might have noticed in the last edition of the guide, our long-term relationship with Antec's Sonata series has ended. Don't feel bad, Antec—it's not you, it's us.
Okay, maybe it is you. Newer versions of the Sonata have been coming out at higher and higher price points, and they've grown old-fashioned, failing to include features we're starting to take for granted—bottom-mounted power supplies, CPU socket cut-outs in the motherboard tray, generous cable-routing options, and tool-less hard-drive bays, to name a few.
The Antec One Hundred has enough of those features to get our nod for the Econobox, but we wanted something a little nicer for the Utility Player. Enter NZXT's H2 case, which is fresh out of our labs. The H2 ticks all of the aforementioned boxes and adds noise-dampening foam, a cleverly designed external hard-drive dock, tool-less front fan mounts, and a whole host of other niceties. At $100, the H2 is easily within our budget, although the combination of this case and our chosen power supply does cost a bit more than the latest Sonata.
Not being tied to a case-and-PSU bundle means we can indulge ourselves with a modular, 80 Plus Bronze-rated power supply from Seasonic (which, incidentally, happens to make PSUs for some of the more enthusiast-focused hardware companies out there). The M12II 520 Bronze doesn't have the highest wattage rating, but 520W is almost overkill for a build like the Utility Player, and the mix of features and price is tough to beat. Seasonic even covers this puppy with a five-year warranty.
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