The Sweet Spot
Stunning value short on compromise
The Econobox makes a pretty solid gaming machine, but it's still somewhat limited. The Sweet Spot's more generous budget gives us the wiggle room to include a faster processor and graphics card, solid-state storage, and other luxuries.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4430 3.0GHz||$189.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$57.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon R9 270X||$199.99|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 120GB||$99.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB||$94.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$55.99|
|Power supply||Corsair CX600M||$79.99|
As the most affordable quad-core member of Intel's Haswell lineup, the Core i5-4430 isn't the most exciting processor in the world. However, with four cores, a 3GHz clock speed (3.2GHz with Turbo), and an 84W power envelope, it has everything we need for the Sweet Spot: great performance in both single-threaded and multithreaded workloads, and great power efficiency.
We'd spring for the Core i5-4670K, which has an unlocked upper multiplier for easy overclocking, but we're stretching our thousand-dollar budget as it is. Haswell doesn't have loads of overclocking headroom, anyway. We think it's wiser to spend less on the processor and more on the graphics card and solid-state drive.
The Core i5-4430 has another advantage over the i5-4670K beside its lower price: support for Intel's Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, also known as VT-d. That feature is inexplicably absent from unlocked Haswell CPUs. Not everybody uses virtualization, of course, but those who do may want the 4430 even if they can afford the 4670K.
We've reviewed Z87 boards from all the biggest mobo makers, and we think Asus' offerings are the best overall. The firmware and software are highly polished and very powerful, providing a wealth of tuning options via slick interfaces. Our favorite model so far is the Asus Z87-Pro, which is a little outside the Sweet Spot's budget. Instead, we've selected the pared-down Z87-K.
The Z87-K has the same firmware and software as the Pro. It may not have as many extras, but all the essentials are covered: USB 3.0, 6Gbps Serial ATA, dual PCI Express x16 slots (albeit with only four lanes running through the second one), a couple of legacy PCI slots, and the all-important LGA1150 socket our Haswell processor requires.
We've singled out a Gigabyte motherboard with more USB 3.0 ports, Intel Gigabit Ethernet, and better integrated audio for our alternative recs. That board is priced $15 higher than the Z87-K, and its firmware and software aren't as mature as what comes with the Asus board. Since the Sweet Spot's discrete sound card removes the need for integrated audio, we're sticking with the Z87-K as our primary choice.
We've selected the same G.Skill kit as in our Econobox. The Sweet Spot's budget could allow for a pricier kit from a bigger, U.S.-based vendor, but considering the price difference and the apparent popularity of G.Skill RAM, we don't really see the point.
The Radeon R9 270X is based on the same silicon as the old Radeon HD 7870, but it's faster and priced at a cool $200. Our benchmarks show that this card outperforms the slightly cheaper GeForce GTX 660 by a fair margin while drawing less power under load. This puppy is almost as fast as the pricier GeForce GTX 760, too.
Gigabyte's take on the R9 270X is clocked 50MHz above AMD's reference speeds, and it has a beefy triple-fan cooler that should keep the GPU cool without making too much noise. We'll take it. Do note, however, that certain other R9 270X models come bundled with Battlefield 4. We couldn't find any that were in stock and not selling for significantly more than $200, but it can't hurt to sift through Newegg's listings before making your purchase. Free games are always nice.
If you want to save 20 bucks, you could also go with the R9 270 from our Econobox alternatives. The 270 has lower clock speeds, though. It also has only one 6-pin PCIe power connector, which could limit overclocking headroom. Since the Sweet Spot's budget is ample enough for the 270X, we don't feel compelled to cheap out.
Here, our thousand-dollar budget has room for both of the Econobox's storage alternatives: Kingston's HyperX 120GB SSD and Seagate's Barracuda 7,200-RPM 2TB mechanical drive. The former can store the operating system, games, and apps, ensuring lightning quick boot and load times. The latter can take care of mass-storage duties—and because of its high spindle speed, it can double as a reasonably fast location for games and apps that don't fit on the SSD.
As for our optical drive, the Econobox's Asus DVD burner is just as good a fit for the Sweet Spot. We considered upgrading to a Blu-ray burner, but that's not a luxury suitable for this budget.
Yeah, yeah, we know some of you think sound cards are relics from the 1990s. However, every time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete cards wind up sounding noticeably better than motherboard audio. We're not using audiophile-grade speakers, either. Our tests are done with a pair of reasonably priced Sennheiser HD 555 headphones.
If you're using analog headphones or speakers that weren't scavenged from a circa-1995 Compaq, a discrete sound card like Asus' Xonar DSX is a worthwhile purchase. This card doesn't just beat onboard audio; it also has a more balanced sound profile than cheaper offerings like Asus' Xonar DG and DGX. The DSX costs less than Creative's latest Sound Blaster cards, too. We liked it so much that we gave the DSX our Editor's Choice award.
Folks with S/PDIF speakers or USB headphones can skip the Xonar. Those solutions take care of the digital-to-analog conversion internally, which makes a discrete sound card somewhat redundant. Any halfway-decent analog audio device will benefit from the Xonar, though.
NZXT's H2 has something of a stranglehold on the Sweet Spot. We've considered replacing this case with various other contenders around the same price point, but we haven't found one that matches the H2's combination of low noise levels, solid build quality, subdued good looks, and plentiful features. This enclosure is loaded with goodies, like hot-swappable front fans, a three-setting fan control switch, a built-in drive dock, rubber-grommeted cable routing holes, and a top ventilation cover that prevents dust and debris from falling straight down into the case. We're still on the lookout for a better $100 ATX enclosure, but for now, the NZXT H2 will do.
Corsair's CX600M has all of the same perks as the CX430W we picked for the Econobox: modular cables, 80 Plus Bronze certification, and a big, quiet fan. It also features a higher output capacity and a longer (five-year) warranty. The asking price is competitive, too.
Sweet Spot alternatives
Don't like our primary picks? As with the Econobox, we've singled out some alternatives.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4670K 3.4GHz||$239.99|
|Graphics||Asus GeForce GTX 760||$249.99|
|Storage||Intel 530 Series 240GB||$169.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB||$119.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
Overclockers will want to grab the Core i5-4670K instead of the i5-4430. This is the cheapest Haswell variant with an unlocked upper multiplier, which is pretty much required for even light overclocking. (Non-K-series Ivy Bridge chips could go a few "bins" above the base clock, but corresponding Haswell models cannot.) Overclockers should probably buy an aftermarket CPU cooler, too; you'll find our recommendations for those on the second-to-last-page of the guide. Our overclocking attempt with the Core i7-4770K, the i5-4670K's big brother, suggested that Haswell requires beefier cooling than Ivy Bridge when pushed much beyond 4GHz.
If you plan to use onboard audio, then the Gigabyte GA-Z87-D3HP is arguably a better option than the Asus mobo from our primary recs. It has a Realtek ALC892 codec and a full set of audio ports, including S/PDIF for digital output and analog jacks for surround setups. As icing on the cake, the GA-Z87-D3HP delivers more USB 3.0 ports. Our only reservation is with its firmware, which isn't as polished and has somewhat confusing fan controls. Gigabyte's tweaking software for Windows isn't on quite the same level as Asus', either.
The GeForce GTX 760 is a little outside our budget for the Sweet Spot's primary picks, and we're also not crazy about its higher power draw. Still, the GeForce is slightly faster than the Radeon, and it comes bundled with free games: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Splinter Cell Blacklist. We also like the card's support for GeForce Experience and ShadowPlay, not to mention the fact that buying a GTX 760 entitles you to a $50 discount on a Shield handheld, provided you go through Newegg's combo menu. We recommend Asus's take on the GTX 760, which is one of the most affordable variants with a nice, dual-fan cooler instead of the noisy stock unit.
Need more storage? Doubling up on SSD capacity costs less than you might think. Here, we're recommending the 240GB version of Intel's 530 Series drive, since the equivalent Kingston HyperX offering costs more and is otherwise similar. (Both drives are based on the same SandForce controller.) Samsung's 840 EVO 250GB may be found for a few bucks less, and it's certainly worth considering. However, we're not really thrilled with that drive's slow write service times in our real-world DriveBench 2.0 test. The EVO's three-bit TLC flash is also less durable than the 530 Series' two-bit MLC NAND.
On the mechanical side of things, you can't go wrong with the 3TB version of Seagate's 7,200-RPM 'cuda. Adding a Blu-ray drive won't hurt, either. LG's WH14NS40 can read and write Blu-ray discs, which makes it handy for both movie playback and backup duties.
Look at that, we even have an alternative case recommendation! The NZXT H2's emphasis on silence means that it's not the coolest-running case around, so folks more worried about low temperatures than low noise levels may take a liking to Corsair's Carbide 400R. This enclosure is a little roomier than the H2, and its interior layout and build quality are top-notch. We especially like the fact that the internal storage bays are rotated 90 degrees, so they face out toward the user for easy drive installation and removal.
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