The Sweet Spot
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 Sweet Spot, allowing us to spec out a stacked system for a little over $1,100.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3470 3.3GHz||$199.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$149.99|
|Memory||Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$44.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti Power Edition||$309.99|
|Storage||OCZ Agility 3 120GB||$94.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$89.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$48.99|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$79.99|
We stepped up from the Core i5-3470 to the Core i5-3570K in the last edition of the system guide. Now, we're back to the 3470 again.
Call us flip-floppers if you will, but our reasoning is pretty straightforward. We benchmarked the two chips against each other, and it turns out their performance is extremely close. (Stay tuned for the results.) Overclockers may favor the 3570K because of its fully unlocked upper multiplier, and they'll find the CPU recommended in our alternatives on the next page. Folks not as keen to tinker with an already blazing-fast chip should be much better off sticking with the cheaper Core i5-3470. That way, they can allocate the leftover funds to a faster graphics card, like Nvidia's freshly released GeForce GTX 660 Ti. See below.
Asus' Z77 Express-based Asus P8Z77-V LK has two more external USB 3.0 ports than the H77 mobo from the previous page, for a total of four. It also delivers sideways-mounted Serial ATA ports (which won't get in the way of long GPU coolers), dual PCIe x16 slots with proper support for CrossFire and SLI (with an x8/x8 lane configuration), and Asus' excellent fan speed controls. We would have liked to see an Intel Ethernet controller instead of a Realtek one, but considering this mobo's low price and well-rounded feature set, it's hard to complain. This board offers full CPU multiplier control, too, a worthwhile feature if you opt for our alternative processor on the next page.
You know the drill. Eight-gig kits are so cheap that there's really no sense in getting anything less. Here, we're going with 1600MHz DDR3 memory, since our Ivy Bridge processor supports the higher speed out of the box.
Since we've scaled back our CPU choice and have a little more cash to spend on a faster GPU, MSI's souped-up flavor of the new GeForce GTX 660 Ti seems like an easy choice. It's an Editor's Choice award winner, and our 99th-percentile frame time numbers suggest it's in the same league as AMD's pricier Radeon HD 7950. (The 660 Ti's average frame rates are admittedly lower, but 99th-percentile frame times are a better indicator of gameplay fluidity.)
This MSI card also has lower power consumption, both at idle and under load, and lower load noise levels than comparable solutions from the Radeon camp. The Radeons do consume a little less power when the display is switched off, but we find the MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti Power Edition's overall proposition to be more compelling.
We've doubled the capacity of our solid-state drive this time around. Stepping up from OCZ's Agility 3 60GB to the 120GB model only sets us back an extra $35 or so, which is more than worth it. We're talking about a fast, SandForce-based solid-state drive with top read and write speeds around 500MB/s. The more apps and games you can put on the drive, the more responsive your PC will feel.
Of course, 120GB won't be enough for everything on your computer. That's why we're pairing the Agility 3 with a mechanical sidekick: Samsung's 1TB Spinpoint F3. The 1TB Spinpoint F3 is a long-time TR favorite because of its high performance and low noise. If you're feeling adventurous, the Z77's Smart Response Technology lets you configure the SSD as a cache for the mechanical drive. SSD caching can deliver substantial performance improvements without forcing users to pick and choose what gets stored on the SSD.
We've borrowed the optical drive from the Econobox. Higher-end DVD burners don't seem like they're worth the premium, and Blu-ray is a little out of our price range. Those itching to outfit the Sweet Spot with more exciting storage solutions should check out the alternatives on the next page.
If your PC's audio output is piped through a set of iPod earbuds or some circa-1996 beige speakers, you're probably fine using the Sweet Spot'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 DSX sound card. According to our blind listening tests, this card handily beats good integrated audio. It sounds better than Asus' cheaper Xonar DG and DGX sound cards, as well. Those cheaper offerings filter audio to give it some extra pop, but we find the results too sharp-sounding and too likely to induce listener fatigue. We prefer the more neutral sound of the DSX, and we think it's worth the small price premium.
The Antec Three Hundred has enough features to get our nod for the Econobox, but we wanted something a little nicer for the Sweet Spot. Enter NZXT's H2 case, which we reviewed not long ago. The H2 ticks all of the right boxes—bottom-mounted power supply emplacement, cut-outs in the motherboard tray, generous cable-routing options, and tool-less hard-drive bays—while adding 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 fits easily within our budget.
Our budget also leaves room for 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 Sweet Spot, 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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