review trs christmas 2007 system guide

TR’s Christmas 2007 system guide

Deciding when to pull the trigger on a new PC isn’t easy, since new technology is always waiting just around the corner to spoil the party. As soon as you build a system, something shiny and new will arrive that offers higher performance and gee-whiz new features at the same price or less. This is the way of all things in the PC industry, and it’s a very healthy dynamic.

But it’s still a pain in the rear.

Happily, though, sometimes all of the elements converge and the time just seems right to build or upgrade. Now is unquestionably one of those times. The past few months have seen the release of a deluge of new PC components that offer solid value for the average enthusiast’s PC—not just the high-end stuff with elaborate, snaking heatpipes and outrageous price tags, but truly affordable hardware with next-generation performance. We’re talking about quad-core processors, DirectX 10-class graphics cards, near-terabyte hard drives, and the plumbing needed to keep such beasts well fed. At the same time, we’ve been inundated with a slew of major new PC games—everything from Unreal Tournament 3 to Team Fortress 2 to Crysis, to name just a few—to take full advantage of that hardware. If you’ve been holding off building until the time was right, your wait may well be over.

Into this fortuitous context steps the latest edition of TR’s system guide, with our recommendations for building the best PC for your budget. Our four core systems represent what The Tech Report’s editors would choose for themselves at various price points based on the findings from our own in-depth reviews. These systems offer more bang for your buck than ever. Keep reading to see what we’ve chosen and why.


Rules and regulations
The first thing you should know about this guide is that it’s geared toward helping you select the parts for a home-built PC. If you’re new to building your own systems and want a little extra help, our tutorial on how to build your own PC is a great place to start and a good complement to this guide.

Before tackling our recommended systems, we should explain some of the rules and guidelines we used to select components. The guiding philosophy behind our choices was to seek the best bang for the buck. That means we avoided recommending super-cheap parts that are barely capable of performing their jobs, just as we avoided breathtakingly expensive products that carry a hefty price premium for features or performance you probably don’t need. Instead, we looked to that mythical “sweet spot” where price and performance meet up in a pleasant, harmonic convergence. We also sought balance within each system configuration, choosing components that make sense together, so that a fast processor won’t be bottlenecked by a skimpy graphics card or too little system memory, for instance. The end result, we hope, is a series of balanced systems that offer decent performance as configured and provide ample room for future expandability.

We confined our selections to components that are currently available online. Paper launches and preorders don’t count, for obvious reasons. We also tried to stick to $500, $1000, and $1500 budgets for our desktop systems. Those budgets are loose guidelines rather than hard limits, to allow us some wiggle room for deals that may stretch the budget a little but are too good to resist.

We’ve continued our tradition of basing the guide’s component prices on listings at Newegg. We’ve found that sourcing prices from one large reseller allows us to maintain a more realistic sense of street prices than price search engine listings, which are sometimes artificially low. In the few cases where Newegg doesn’t have an item in stock, we’ll fall back to our trusty price search engine rather than limit our options.

Finally, price wasn’t the top factor in our component choices. Our own experiences with individual components weighed heavily on our decisions, and we’ve provided links to our own reviews of many of the products we’re recommending. We’ve also tried to confine our selections to name-brand rather than generic products, and to manufacturers with solid reputations for reliability. Warranty coverage was an important consideration, as well.

The Econobox
Because speed doesn’t have to cost a fortune

Our low-end Econobox isn’t designed to be the cheapest possible combination of parts. Instead, it’s a solid and affordable foundation for enthusiasts on a budget. We’ve avoided cutting corners in ways that would have limited future upgrade options, and at the same time, we’ve tried to ensure that the system doesn’t actually need any upgrades to deliver relatively peppy performance as it is.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Pentium E2160 $82.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L $91.99
Memory Corsair 2GB ValueSelect DDR2-667 $40.99
Graphics eVGA GeForce 8600 GT $99.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 320GB $79.99
Samsung SH-S203B $33.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480 w/380W PSU $89.95
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $519.89

Intel’s Pentium E2160 retains its spot as the primary recommendation for our Econobox. It’s not hard to see why. The chip is essentially a Core 2 Duo clocked down to 1.8GHz with half its 2MB cache chopped off, its front-side bus speed reduced to 800MHz, and its price tag dropped well under the $100 mark. Yes, AMD also makes good sub-$100 chips, but we think our Intel system’s overclocking potential, superior processor architecture, and attractive upgrade path make it a more compelling solution. Our motherboard will be able to accommodate Intel’s upcoming 45nm Core 2 Quad processors, which AMD has little hope of beating, judging by what we’ve seen from Phenom so far.

However, AMD still makes the cheapest decent dual-core processors around. As a result, we’ve selected the Athlon 64 X2 4000+ for our Econobox alternatives on the next page. If your budget is really tight, the Athlon will allow you to save a few bucks while still getting great performance.

Motherboards based on Intel’s new P35 chipset are now quite affordable, so we’ve gone with Gigabyte’s GA-P35-DS3L for this build. The board is available for less than $100, but it delivers fine overclocking potential, a great upgrade path, passive cooling, and plenty of connectivity options. You also get four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet, S/PDIF audio inputs and outputs, and a full array of PCI Express and 32-bit PCI slots. We’d be happier if the GA-P35-DS3L offered RAID support, but that’s an omission we’re inclined to forgive considering the price tag.

Corsair’s 2GB ValueSelect DDR2-667 kit is still our memory recommendation for this build. Readers have requested that we upgrade the Econobox’s memory to DDR2-800, but there’s still a sizeable price gap between DDR2-667 and DDR2-800 RAM, and this system is more about saving money than splurging for a small handful of performance points in your favorite benchmark. At just over $40 for 2GB of RAM, this kit offers incredible value and more than adequate performance. It shouldn’t impede overclocking, either, provided you make use of the Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L’s memory dividers.

Nvidia launched its GeForce 8600 GT graphics card with a recommended price range of $149-159 earlier this year, but eVGA’s 256-P2-N751-TR GeForce 8600 GT is now available for just under $100. This isn’t some crippled version with GDDR2 memory and a heatsink made out of tinfoil, either; it’s a full-blown 8600 GT card running at Nvidia’s specified clock speeds with the customary 256MB of GDDR3 RAM. eVGA hasn’t “factory overclocked” this particular model, but considering the price and the fact that it’s covered by a lifetime warranty, we gladly forgive them.

Western Digital’s 320GB Caviar SE16 is our hard drive of choice for the Econobox. We’re passing on Seagate’s 320GB Barracuda since the Caviar has a lower price tag, higher performance, and lower noise levels. The only trade-off is in the warranty department, where Seagate delivers five years of coverage and Western Digital offers only three. We don’t think a warranty alone is worth going with a more expensive, slower, and louder drive, though, so the Caviar SE16 has become our primary selection. If you favor longer warranties above all else, the 7200.10 is still listed in our alternatives section on the next page.

For our optical drive, we’ve chosen Samsung’s SH-S203B. There are slightly cheaper drives with Serial ATA interfaces and similar features, but this model is faster and only costs a couple of dollars more.

Enclosure and power
Antec’s NSK 4480 case and power supply bundle is a fine addition to our Econobox. It includes three 5.25″ bays, two 3.5″ bays, three hard drive bays with rubber mounting grommets, a speed-adjustable 120mm exhaust fan, and a high-efficiency EarthWatts 380W power supply rated for 17A of power delivery on each of its two +12V rails. The power supply costs $55 on its own, so this bundle actually delivers pretty good value for the price.

Our recommended case and PSU bundle may seem pricey for a budget system, but a good power supply is an invaluable asset to system stability. You could get a $30 case/PSU bundle from a no-name manufacturer, and you might even end up with a halfway decent case out of the deal. PSUs bundled with inexpensive cases tend to be built from cheap, low-quality components, though, and that often translates into low power delivery, voltage fluctuations, poor stress tolerance, and short life spans.

Cheap PSUs can jeopardize system stability, damage sensitive components over time, and potentially even flame out in spectacular fashion, taking several system components with them in the process. For an extra $60, the added peace of mind is definitely worth it.

Econobox alternatives

The preceding selections round out our low-end system, but we’ve come up with a couple of suggested alternatives, should you wish to tweak the formula a little bit. These alternatives will allow you to step up to better performance for a little bit more money or save a little without too much pain.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon 64 X2 4000+ $64.99
Motherboard Asus M2NE-SLI $88.99
Graphics Diamond Radeon HD 3850 $179.00
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 320GB $84.99
Audio Chaintech AV-710 $26.99

As we said on the previous page, the Athlon 64 X2 4000+ is our alternative processor for the Econobox. It’s not as fast overall as the Pentium E2160, nor does its platform offer the same upgrade path. However, the chip is $20 cheaper and a fine budget alternative.

Our alternative mobo for the Econobox is the Asus M2NE-SLI. This board sports a full ATX layout, support for SLI multi-GPU setups (albeit in a x8/x8 lane configuration), and an nForce 500 core logic chipset with two ATA channels, four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports with RAID support, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire, and passive chipset cooling—quite a repertoire of features for a $90 motherboard.

The GeForce 8600 GT is a fine card for light (and even some not-so-light) gaming, but don’t expect it to run the latest and greatest games with acceptable frame rates unless you’re prepared to make some serious compromises as far as display resolution and image quality options are concerned. If you’re a gamer, you’ll probably be better off spending an extra $80 or so on AMD’s new Radeon HD 3850 graphics card, which is currently the fastest offering in the sub-$200 range. The 3850 won’t exactly plow through Crysis, but it will offer much better performance across the board and allow you to play most games at higher resolutions with anisotropic filtering and antialiasing turned up.

If you’re prepared to spend slightly more for five years of warranty coverage and don’t mind having slower performance and higher noise levels than with our primary recommendation, Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.10 320GB is the drive for you.

Sound card
The trusty Chaintech AV-710 is back once again, since we reckon some users might want better sound quality than what onboard audio tends to provide. The AV-710 won’t give you perfect surround sound or 3D audio acceleration in games, but it does combine a low price tag with the ability to route stereo output through a high-quality Wolfson DAC. This last feat translates into stereo sound quality that’s worthy of much more expensive cards and far superior to most onboard audio—perfect for users with decent headphones or stereo speakers.

Creative now offers a PCI Express X-Fi Xtreme Audio sound card for around $50, and we considered it for our Econobox alternatives. However, the card isn’t based on the same audio chip as pricier X-Fis, and it has the worst sound quality ratings of the lot. Releasing stripped-down, low-quality cards under the same brand as high-end models seems to be common practice for Creative. We’ll stick with the AV-710 for our alternative.

The Grand Experiment
The sweet spot for the budget-conscious

Our Econobox is suitable for budding enthusiasts, but its budget only allows for so many goodies. That budget gets doubled for our mid-range build, allowing us to assemble a pretty powerful box while keeping the total cost close to a grand.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 $189.99
Motherboard Asus P5N-E SLI $114.99
Memory Mushkin 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR2-800 $53.99
Graphics XFX GeForce 8800 GT 512MB $289.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 500GB $104.99
Samsung SH-S203B $33.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $79.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $139.95
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1007.88

Intel’s Core 2 Duo E6750 is still the speediest dual-core processor available for less than $200, so it gets our vote for the Grand Experiment. The chip is clocked at 2.66GHz, packs 4MB of shared L2 cache, and has a 1333MHz front-side bus. We’ve looked at quad-core alternatives for this machine, but our budget doesn’t really allow for them. We’d rather have a well-rounded machine with adequate graphics horsepower for games and a good sound card than the fastest CPU we can afford.

Should you wish to go with an AMD processor, we’ve featured one in the alternatives section on the next page.

For the Grand Experiment, we’ve picked the Asus P5N-E SLI once again. Nvidia’s nForce 650i SLI chipset is a worthy alternative to Intel’s latest offerings, and it has the advantage of supporting SLI multi-GPU configurations. That’s a nice plus should you wish to add an extra GeForce 8800 GT to boost game performance once prices drop.

This motherboard also features four Serial ATA ports with RAID support, one eSATA port, two IDE channels, Gigabit Ethernet, and FireWire. The P5N-E SLI does have fewer Serial ATA ports than the latest boards based on Intel chipsets, but it makes up for that shortcoming with excellent overclocking potential. In our labs, we’ve been able to crank the P5N-E SLI up to a front-side bus speed of 470MHz—enough to push our recommended Core 2 Duo E6750 to 4.7GHz.

We’ve been hesitant to outfit this system with DDR2-800 memory instead of DDR2-667 considering the price gap and relatively small performance difference between the two memory types. However, with Mushkin’s 2GB DDR2-800 memory kits now going for less than $60, we think you may as well spring for the faster RAM. The Grand Experiment has a bigger budget, faster processor, and higher front-side bus speed than the Econobox, so there’s no sense hampering it even slightly just to save $20.

Our choice of graphics card for this system isn’t in the least bit surprising, but then again, Nvidia’s GeForce 8800 GT is the performance champion of the $200-300 price range. As we saw in our review, the GT’s performance rivals that of the pricier GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB for around $100 less, making it a no-brainer for this system. However, the GT’s tight availability complicates matters somewhat. At the moment, finding a GeForce 8800 GT both in stock and near its intended price range is like playing a game of cat and mouse. Cards go in stock every now and then, but they quickly disappear from store shelves for indeterminate periods of time. Worse yet, many of them are marked up far beyond their intended $199-249 price range.

Despite these availability problems, we’ve tentatively recommended XFX’s flavor of the GeForce 8800 GT, which is “factory overclocked” from default core and memory speeds of 600MHz/900MHz to 640MHz/950MHz and features a “double lifetime” warranty covering second-hand cards. The card may or may not be in stock as you read this, so if it isn’t, we suggest hitting our price search engine and finding a GeForce 8800 GT that is. Supply will hopefully catch up with demand before long, but until then, shopping around is the best course of action.

Should the 8800 GT prove too difficult to find, we’ve suggested a decent Radeon alternative below.

We’ve gone with Western Digital’s Caviar SE16 500GB drive for this build. We’re selecting it over the Seagate alternative for the same reasons as in our Econobox: the WD drive is simply cheaper, quieter, and faster, and we don’t think Seagate’s five-year warranty is enough to tip the odds in favor of Seagate’s Barracuda 7100.11 500GB. Again, though, we’ve featured the Seagate drive in our alternatives for this system.

On the optical front, we’re sticking with the Samsung SH-S203B. It’s a fine DVD burner that should be a good match for this system.

Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer gets our vote here. We used to recommend the X-Fi XtremeMusic, but Creative has discontinued that card and effectively replaced it with the XtremeGamer. The two cards are essentially identical, although the XtremeGamer has a smaller form factor and lacks an AD-Link connector for the break-out X-Fi I/O console. The XtremeGamer does have an Intel HD Audio-compatible front panel connector that can be hooked up to front panel ports in many cases, though.

Vista support note: Creative has Vista drivers out for this card, but because of Vista’s new audio pipeline, there’s no audio acceleration support in games that implement EAX via DirectSound. Luckily, Creative has a workaround available.

Enclosure and power
Our recommended Sonata III delivers everything we need for this system: 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, including a speed-adjustable, rubber-damped 120mm exhaust fan. This case even has an eSATA port on its front bezel, should you wish to plug in a speedy external hard drive.

$130 is a fair amount of money to spend on a case, but the Sonata III is actually a smashing deal when you take into account its bundled power supply, which is normally worth $90 on its own. You’d be hard pressed to find a stand-alone case with the same noise reduction features and finish as the Sonata III for significantly less than $40.

Grand Experiment alternatives

As with our Econobox, we have a few alternative component suggestions for our mid-range build, should you wish to move up or down in price and capabilities a little bit.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ Black Edition $129.99
Motherboard Abit KN9 SLI $99.99
Graphics VisionTek Radeon HD 3870 $223.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500GB $119.99

The alternative processor in our previous Grand Experiment system was AMD’s Athlon 64 X2 6000+, but we’ve “downgraded” to the Athlon 64 X2 5000+ Black Edition. Why the slower chip? Simply put, the 5000+ Black Edition is a much better value proposition for folks who aren’t afraid to get their hands a little dirty. The chip runs at a default clock speed of 2.6GHz—lower than the 6000+’s 3GHz—but it has an unlocked multiplier, which lets you overclock without stressing the host motherboard by raising the HyperTransport clock. Want to bump this chip from 2.6GHz to 3GHz? Just change the multiplier from 13 to 15. It’s as simple as that—although, as always with overclocking, your mileage may vary.

The Athlon 64 X2 5000+ Black Edition also presents two further advantages over the 6000+. The chip is based on 65nm process technology, so it should have lower power consumption than the 90nm 6000+ at the same clock speed. Additionally, AMD’s 65nm Brisbane core supports multiplier control in 0.5X steps, allowing for further fine tuning.

Our alternative mobo, the Abit KN9 SLI, is a great little board. Despite a $109.99 price tag, it offers SLI capability, six Serial ATA ports with all kinds of RAID support, dual Gigabit LAN with TCP/IP offloading, and passive chipset cooling that also takes care of the processor’s power regulation circuitry. What’s more, the KN9 SLI includes plenty of overclocking and fan speed control options in its BIOS.

The Radeon HD 3870 is AMD’s riposte to the GeForce 8800 GT. As we’ve seen in our testing, the 3870 isn’t quite as fast as the 8800 GT, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good alternative. The Radeon HD 3870 should typically be cheaper than its Nvidia counterpart, and it still offers great performance at high resolutions and high quality settings. Unfortunately, just like the GeForce 8800 GT, the Radeon HD 3870 is difficult to find in stock. We’ve tentatively recommended VisionTek’s Radeon HD 3870, because it’s one of the only 3870s we could find available somewhere. Should it go out of stock, feel free to hit our price search engine and look for another model.

We’re again suggesting a Seagate hard drive as an alternative for folks who really want a five-year warranty. Do keep in mind that the Barracuda 7200.11 500GB costs a few bucks more than the Western Digital drive in our main recommendations, and that it’s slower and louder overall.

The Sweet Spot
Excess—with a healthy dose of prudence

The Grand Experiment is a solid system that should be able to handle a little bit of everything, but its specs aren’t exactly drool-inducing. For that, we have our high-end build, a machine that avoids hefty price premiums while still packing enough hardware to make you the envy of the next LAN party.

This build is probably closest to what TR’s editors would choose for themselves in order to get the most value for the dollar in an enthusiast’s PC. Most of the components are chosen because they’re in that proverbial “sweet spot” for price and performance—hence the name.

Component Item Price
Processor Core 2 Quad Q6600 $279.99
Motherboard Abit IP35 Pro $179.99
Memory Mushkin Enhanced 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $139.99
Graphics XFX GeForce 8800 GT 512MB $289.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 750GB $149.99
Samsung SH-S203B $33.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $79.99
Power supply Antec NeoHE 550W $99.99
Enclosure Antec P182 $139.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1393.91

Intel’s current pricing scheme makes it easy for us to stick a quad-core processor into the Sweet Spot’s list of recommended parts. The Core 2 Quad Q6600 runs at 2.4GHz, so it actually offers lower performance than the Grand Experiment’s dual-core, 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo E6750 in apps that only take advantage of up to two cores. However, load up a piece of software coded to use more than two cores, and you’ll often see substantially higher performance than with even today’s fastest dual-core processors. These gains are most apparent with apps like Cinebench, POV-Ray, or Windows Media Encoder, but some of the latest games also benefit. With the industry moving towards more parallelism and eight-core processors expected to appear in 2009, picking up a quad-core chip now should set you up nicely for future applications designed to take better advantage of multiple cores.

As you’ve probably noticed, we’ve chosen the Q6600 over one of AMD’s Phenom processors. The reasons are straightforward: the Core 2 Quad Q6600 is faster overall than any Phenom on the market today, and the Q6600 has lower power consumption than the equivalent 2.3GHz Phenom 9600, too.

We were pretty happy with Abit’s IP35 Pro when we reviewed it back in June. It packs two PCI Express x16 slots (in a x4/x16 lane setup) with CrossFire support, eight Serial ATA ports (including two eSATA ports at the back), two Gigabit Ethernet ports, and passive, heat pipe-based chipset/voltage circuitry cooling. Overclockers will also enjoy the board’s µGuru overclocking, tweaking, and fan monitoring tools. The IP35 Pro features Intel’s upcoming 45nm Penryn chips, too, which is nice if you intend to upgrade this system down the line.

In light of ever-sinking memory prices, we’re bumping the Sweet Spot’s memory capacity from 2GB to 4GB. Our recommended 4GB kit of Mushkin DDR2-800 memory is only $140, and it actually has the exact same timings and a lower stock voltage than the 2GB Corsair XMS DDR2-800 kit we recommended in our September system guide. We can’t say anything about the Mushkin kit’s overclocking capability, but with a quad-core CPU and four gigs of RAM in tow, performance should be high enough to make memory overclocking somewhat superfluous.

Please note that in order to take full advantage of 4GB of RAM, you’ll want to install a 64-bit operating system. 32-bit versions of Windows XP and Vista won’t refuse to work with 4GB of RAM installed, but they won’t be able to detect or use all of it by default. Using Physical Address Extension can get around the problem, but Microsoft says PAE causes compatibility issues, and it recommends that users install a 64-bit version of Windows. Considering Vista x64 is fairly mature at this point and doesn’t require users to buy a separate license, that’s a small price to pay for the extra wiggle room. Check out our operating system section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more tips.

XFX’s GeForce 8800 GT also finds its way into this system. We could recommend a pricier card, but there’s hardly any point: the GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB offers equivalent performance to the 8800 GT, and the GeForce 8800 GTX is barely faster despite its much higher price tag. There’s always the 8800 Ultra, but a $600 graphics card isn’t exactly our idea of a good match for a $1,500 system.

As we said in our notes for the Grand Experiment, GeForce 8800 GT availability is tight, so this particular card may not be in stock when you read this. If it’s not, feel free to hit our price search engine and seek out an 8800 GT that is.

Western Digital’s 750GB Caviar SE16 hard drive is now available for $150, which makes it an ideal candidate for the Sweet Spot. At that price, you’re paying just under 20 cents per gigabyte, which exceeds the value of much cheaper low-end drives.

For the optical drive, we’re picking the Samsung SH-S203B. More expensive SATA drives don’t have anything particularly worthwhile to offer, and we wouldn’t want to move to an IDE model.

We picked Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer in our Grand Experiment, and we’re doing the same here. The card provides excellent sound quality and accelerated 3D audio effects in games for a very attractive price. More expensive models don’t offer a significantly different formula, so we see no reason to pony up the extra cash. That said, folks who are big into audio editing or who require a gaggle of additional input and output ports would be better served by sound cards more geared toward audio professionals.

Power Supply
An all-in-one case and power supply bundle is great if you’re on a relatively tight budget, but The Sweet Spot has both a bigger budget and power-hungrier components, so discrete solutions make more sense here.

Based on the findings from our enthusiast power supply roundup, we’ve opted to pair the Sweet Spot with Antec’s NeoHE 550W power supply. The NeoHE distinguished itself enough from ten other contenders to earn our TR Recommended award, and it’s not difficult to see why: the unit delivers great power efficiency, modular cabling, a five-year warranty, low noise levels, and a very attractive price. This wasn’t the best PSU in our roundup, but at $90, it’s definitely one of the best deals for the money. The Neo HE can also deliver more than enough juice to keep the Sweet Spot running, with plenty of headroom to spare.

Antec’s P182 case is a newer version of the Sweet Spot’s previous enclosure, the P180. The P182 has the same upside-down design, composite panels, adjustable-speed 120mm fans, and partitioned cooling zones. However, it improves upon the P180’s greatest flaw: cable management. Unlike the P180, the P182 is designed to run cables behind the motherboard tray, helping to avoid tangled messes. Coupled with the NeoHE’s modular cables, the P182 should allow for extremely neat cabling. And, of course, the case’s design and composite panels enable prodigiously low noise levels, provided your processor and graphics card fans aren’t too loud.

Sweet Spot alternatives

As with the other configs, we have some additional suggestions for modifying our Sweet Spot spec.

Component Item Price
Processor Phenom 9500 $259.99
Graphics VisionTek Radeon HD 3870 $223.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 750GB $194.99
Storage Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $169.99

AMD’s new Phenom processors may be slower than their Intel counterparts overall, but they’re at least worthy of a spot in our alternative recommendations for the Sweet Spot. The Phenom 9500 seems to be the only one of AMD’s two new chips that’s actually available, and as the slower of the two, it has the advantage of being a little cheaper than the Core 2 Quad Q6600 in our main recs. This processor offers good performance in the vast majority of tasks—especially those optimized for more than two cores. The 9500 also also achieves equivalent or better performance than the Q6600 in a handful of apps, such as DivX encoding, POV-Ray rendering, some [email protected] workloads, and some games.

If you’re going to go with a Phenom processor, you’ll want to get a motherboard with full Phenom support, which currently means a Socket AM2+ mobo based on the 790FX chipset. Only those motherboards will support the Phenom’s split power planes, HyperTransport 3.0, and AMD’s Overdrive auto-overclocking facility. In addition, 790FX boards support PCIe 2.0 and CrossFire with two (or more, once the drivers are released) Radeon HD 3870 graphics cards. Unfortunately, all of that presents a real conundrum for us at the present time, because our initial experiences with 790FX boards were a little rocky. Beyond that, 790FX-based motherboards look to be almost unobtainable.

As we write, Newegg has the Gigabyte 790FX board in stock for $209, but that board has issues with AHCI, the setting of manual memory timings in the BIOS, and relatively high power consumption. We have difficulty recommending it. You might be better off with the Asus M3A32-MVP Deluxe. Although our initial experiences with a pre-production version of that board were horrible, we’ve since received a final production model, and it’s clear from our brief time with it that the final product is vastly improved. MSI also has a 790FX offering, the K9A2 Platinum, and it looks to have the best layout of the bunch. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find the Asus or MSI boards in stock at online vendors.

If you’re dead set on getting a Phenom now and don’t already have a Socket AM2 motherboard, you might consider giving up the extra goodies in Socket AM2+ and grabbing an older Socket AM2 board. You will, however, want to check with the motherboard vendor to make sure that the board has a BIOS update available to enable Phenom compatibility. You may also need to have a Socket AM2-based Athlon 64 processor on hand in order to flash to the new BIOS before installing the Phenom.

Obviously, Phenom systems are very new, so you’re on the bleeding edge if you go there. We expect the picture to improve in the coming weeks and months.

Graphics card
Much like the Phenom, AMD’s Radeon HD 3870 isn’t as fast overall as its main competitor—in this case, that’s Nvidia’s GeForce 8800 GT. However, the 3870 should be cheaper than the 8800 GT, and it still pumps out decent in-game frame rates. We’re tentatively recommending the same VisionTek Radeon HD 3870 model as we did in our Grand Experiment alternatives, but considering the tight availability of 3870s in general, feel free to hit our price search engine and look for another model if the VisionTek card goes out of stock.

We have two storage suggestions in our alternatives list. The first is Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.10 750GB, which is our recommendation for users who care more about a long warranty than higher performance, lower noise levels, and a lower price tag.

The second is Western Digital’s 150GB Raptor. We don’t expect you to trade our recommended 750GB drive for a speedier one that only has 150GB of capacity, but we do think the Raptor is a good complementary option. Thanks to its 10,000-RPM spindle speed, the Raptor provides the best performance with random I/O seek loads of any Serial ATA drive out today, making it an ideal operating system and application drive. The extra performance could come in handy for storage-intensive applications like video editing, too. With 750GB and 150GB drives in one machine, you’ll enjoy the best of both worlds: high speed where needed with high capacity riding shotgun.

The Double-Stuff Workstation
Perfect parallelism

As always, our Double-Stuff system includes some of the fastest components available, often paired up in an ode to parallelism, without squandering cash on unnecessary extras.

Component Item Price
Processor Core 2 Quad Q6700 $539.99
Motherboard XFX nForce 680i SLI $199.99
Memory Mushkin Enhanced 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $139.99
Graphics XFX GeForce 8800 GT 512MB $289.99
XFX GeForce 8800 GT 512MB $289.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 750GB $149.99
Western Digital Caviar SE16 750GB $149.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $169.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $169.99
Samsung SH-203B $33.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $79.99
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 $159.99
Enclosure CoolerMaster Cosmos 1000 $199.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $2573.87

Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q6700 is essentially a re-badged version of the older Core 2 Extreme QX6700. As a result, it has the same 2.66GHz clock speed—266MHz faster than the Q6600 in our Sweet Spot system—with the same 8MB of total cache and 1066MHz front-side bus. Since the Q6700’s price is still reasonable, and since we have an ample budget for the Double-Stuff, we think stepping up to this CPU is worth it.

As with the Sweet Spot, we’re avoiding AMD’s new Phenom chips. AMD’s current fastest Phenom has trouble keeping up with the Core 2 Quad Q6600 overall, so it’s not exactly a worthy alternative to the Q6700.

We’re going with dual GeForce 8800 GTs for this build, so that calls for an Nvidia-based motherboard. The nForce 680i SLI is Nvidia’s flagship chipset for Intel processors, and we’ve picked XFX’s latest 680i SLI mobo to complement the Double-Stuff. This board is based on a reference design by Nvidia, complete with SLI compatibility, a very tweakable BIOS, and full support for Nvidia’s nTune tweaking and monitoring software. One could choose from plenty of other very nice high-end motherboards, including those based on Intel’s X38 and P35 chipsets, but this board’s mix of SLI support and tweakability makes it our choice for the Double-Stuff.

The Double-Stuff’s memory recommendation mirrors that of the Sweet Spot: a 4GB kit of Mushkin DDR2-800 memory. Considering the kit’s price and specifications, we don’t have much of an incentive to go for a more tricked-out alternative with flashy heat spreaders and lower latency ratings. Yes, lower-latency RAM could get you an extra frame per second or two in Unreal Tournament 3, but you’ll hardly notice if you’re already averaging 80 FPS at 2560×1600 with everything maxed out.

As we said a couple of pages ago, you’ll want to install a 64-bit operating system in order to take full advantage of 4GB of RAM. See our operating system section on the second-to-last page for more information.

We already recommended the GeForce 8800 GT for our Grand Experiment and Sweet Spot builds, so we couldn’t exactly outfit the Double-Stuff with the same card. That’s why we’re recommending two of them for this machine. Before you shake your head at the thought of pairing a top-of-the-line system with mid-range graphics cards, bear in mind that the GeForce 8800 GT keeps up with the GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB and even nibbles at the heels of the GeForce 8800 GTX, all at a much lower price while drawing less power. With AMD unable to keep up in terms of overall performance, the 8800 GT is easily the best choice for a multi-GPU system right now.

Once again, we should point out that GeForce 8800 GTs are scarcely available at the moment. Don’t hesitate to hit our price search engine and shop around if our recommended model is out of stock.

Our storage recommendations cover a whopping 1.8TB of capacity split between two 7,200-RPM Western Digital Caviar SE16s and two 10,000-RPM Raptors. These drives can be run in either RAID 0 or RAID 1 arrays (or a combination of the two) for improved storage speed or redundancy. RAID 0 may increase the chance of data loss without doing much for overall system performance, but it should still help in particularly storage-intensive tasks. If you’d like to improve both performance and redundancy, you can also assign four of either drive to a RAID 0+1 array.

On the optical drive front, the Samsung SH-S203B has made it all this way from our Econobox to the fastest machine in our system guide. This drive is perfectly capable, though, and the fact that it uses Serial ATA connectivity makes it a good addition to a state-of-the-art box.

The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer sound card is also back from the Grand Experiment and Sweet Spot builds. Creative makes pricier versions of the card with built-in “X-RAM,” but as we saw in our review of the X-Fi Fatal1ty, the added memory does little for performance in the few games that support it. Creative also offers even fancier versions of the X-Fi with support for break-out boxes, but we think users who really need a gazillion audio inputs and outputs would rather look at true professional offerings from M-Audio or E-MU. Otherwise, feel free to have a look at the X-Fi XtremeGamer Fatal1ty Professional or the X-Fi Elite.

Power supply
PC Power & Cooling’s Silencer 750 power supply was one of only two units from our 11-way power supply roundup to earn a TR Editor’s Choice award. The unit delivers the highest efficiencies we’ve seen to date along with a five-year warranty, a single 12V rail capable of delivering 720W of power, dual 8-pin PCI Express power connectors, and low noise levels. This PSU has everything it takes to handle our Double-Stuff Workstation’s many power-hungry components, and it should provide plenty of headroom for expansion, as well.

Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000 is another TR Editor’s Choice award winner. This case shares some design elements from the Antec P182 we featured in our Sweet Spot system, such as a flipped internal layout that houses the power supply at the bottom, but the Cosmos is bigger, badder, and more enthusiast-friendly. With four 120mm fans, there’s plenty of airflow, and the case is roomy enough to accommodate six hard drives, five 5.25″ drives, multi-GPU configurations, and internal liquid cooling systems. It’s also tweaked for quiet system operation, with insulated side panels and low-speed fans. Hit our full review of the Cosmos for additional details on this case’s unique features and swanky design.

Workstation alternatives

We also have additional suggestions for our Double-Stuff build.

Component Item Price
Processor Core 2 Quad Q6600 $279.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-X38-DQ6 $259.99
Graphics VisionTek Radeon HD 3870 $223.99
VisionTek Radeon HD 3870 $223.99

The next step up from the Core 2 Quad Q6700 in our primary recommendations is the Core 2 Extreme QX6800, which costs nearly twice as much for a 266MHz clock speed boost. We may have an ample budget for the Double-Stuff, but even that is pushing it. Instead, we’ve picked the Core 2 Quad Q6600 as our alternative. The Q6600 was our primary selection for the Double-Stuff in our July guide, and with its 2.4GHz clock speed and four cores, it’s a more than capable CPU.

The Gigabyte GA-P35-DQ6 motherboard we recommended in our last system guide is no longer available, but for about $30 more, you can get the GA-X38-DQ6. This new board is based on Intel’s high-end X38 chipset, which supports second-generation PCI Express connectivity that nicely complements our alternative graphics recommendation of Radeon HD 3870 graphics cards in CrossFire. All the trimmings one would expect from a high-end motherboard are also included, including eight 300MB/s SATA ports, dual GigE controllers, passive chipset and voltage circuitry cooling, digital audio outputs, Firewire, and eSATA options. The DQ6’s BIOS is also loaded with overclocking and tweaking options, and we’ve been able to crank its front-side bus up to a whopping 500MHz in our labs. If you’re planning on upgrading to a Penryn-based 45nm processor in the future, the GA-X38-DQ6 will support it, as well.

Graphics cards
Like we said on the previous page, Nvidia’s GeForce 8800 GT is pretty much the bee’s knees for a dual-GPU system. The GT may not be the absolute fastest card out there, but it’s very close, and you’d need to pay nearly double the price for an upgrade to Nvidia’s top-of-the-line 8800 GTX or Ultra. However, some folks may feel inclined to spend slightly less on the Double-Stuff’s dual-GPU setup, and others may simply favor AMD as their graphics processor maker. Both types should be content with the pair of Radeon HD 3870 graphics cards we’ve selected as our alternative. A dual-3870 setup won’t be as fast as a pair of 8800 GTs, but it will cost slightly less, and performance will still be excellent. You can expect lower power consumption and noise levels, as well.

Yet again, do note that supply of Radeon HD 3870s is tight. If our recommended card isn’t in stock when you read this, feel free to hit our price search engine and pick another model that’s available.

The operating system
Which Vista is right for you?

With the advent of Windows Vista, we’ve decided to put our operating system section on a separate page. Microsoft’s new operating system comes in an even greater number of flavors than Windows XP, and we couldn’t really explain all those choices in a handful of paragraphs.

Before we begin, some of you may be wondering whether Vista is really worth it in the first place. After all, Windows XP still works, and from a distance, Vista looks like little more than a prettied-up version of the same old operating system. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and Windows Vista is really far more than Windows XP with a new user interface.

For one, Microsoft has completely overhauled the OS’s kernel with an emphasis on security, stability, power management, and performance. Because of those changes, Vista makes it much more difficult for malicious software or poorly-crafted drivers to wreak havoc on the operating system. Vista’s built-in Windows Defender application and User Account Control mechanism both work to prevent malware and spyware infections. (Although we’ve found UAC to be a little annoying in practice, the extra hassle may be worth the peace of mind given the severity of the spyware/malware phenomenon.) Also, most device drivers no longer run at the kernel level, so if they crash, the effects should be no worse than if any random application were to take a dive.

Along with superior stability and security, Vista boasts system-wide instant search, a new networking stack, a new audio architecture with per-application volume control, and DirectX 10. If you want to take full advantage of a shiny new GeForce 8800 graphics card in upcoming DX10 games like Crytek’s Crysis, then you’ll want Vista. Really, the folks at Microsoft haven’t been sitting around twiddling their thumbs in the five years since Windows XP’s release, and if you’re building a new PC now, Vista looks like the way to go.

Which edition?
So if Vista is the right OS, which version should you get? To make things simple, here’s a chart that lists the four retail Vista editions and the major features they include for desktop systems:

As you can see, Windows Vista Home Basic is stripped to the bone and doesn’t come with any of the goodies the more expensive editions offer. Since it costs just $70 less than Vista Home Premium, we think it’s a pretty poor deal. Besides, this edition lacks the Aero graphical user interface, and Vista just isn’t Vista without shiny transparent windows and live thumbnails.

With the pricier Home Premium version of Vista, Microsoft has essentially produced a successor to Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 that’s intended to be more of a jack-of-all-trades for home desktops than an OS aimed squarely at home theater PCs. Home Premium includes Microsoft’s Windows Media Center software, which rolls PVR and media playback functionality into an attractive GUI optimized for display on a television. That media-centric functionality is bolstered by Windows Media Extender, which allows you to access movies and music stored on your PC via compatible Media Center Extenders like set-top boxes and even the Xbox 360. You also get backup scheduling tools, as well as software to burn your own DVDs and make high-definition movies. This version of Vista would get our vote if it weren’t for the lack of Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) software.

RDC allows you to connect to your home PC remotely, and it’s not included in Vista Home Premium. Several of TR’s editors use RDC extensively in order to control their main PCs from their laptop computers. Thanks to RDC, there’s no need to install every last program on a mobile computer or to sync all data between one’s desktop and laptop systems. This is a great option, whether on the road or from the couch, so it’s not a capability we’d write off lightly.

Your least expensive option with RDC support is Vista Business. As its name implies, this version of Vista is designed mainly for professional users. Vista Business lacks media center functionality, but makes up for it with industrial-strength backup and networking tools. If you couldn’t care less about turning your PC into an entertainment center, coughing up the extra $40 for Windows Vista Business is probably your best bet.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s Vista Ultimate. Fragmented features sets may save you some cash, but there are some who just want it all. This edition contains all the features from the Home Premium and Business versions plus BitLocker, a real-time hard drive encryption tool that helps keep your data safe from prying eyes. Unless you really need everything in one package or regularly blow your nose with $100 bills, though, the cheaper Home Premium and Business editions are probably more sensible choices.

32-bit or 64-bit?
The x64 version of Windows XP was somewhat of a dead end because of limited third-party support, but all retail editions of Windows Vista offer a license for one installation of the OS in either 32-bit or 64-bit form. (You’ll probably need to hit Microsoft’s website and cough up a $10 fee to get the actual 64-bit installation disc, though.) You therefore have the option of installing whichever version you please, and most companies releasing Vista drivers have done so in both 32-bit and 64-bit formats. Since all of the processors we recommend in this guide are 64-bit capable, the 64-bit version of Windows Vista seems like a pretty compelling choice. (For some background on what makes 64-bit computing different at a hardware level, have a look at our take on the subject.)

Vista x64 also offers some security features the 32-bit version lacks. According to this article by Paul Thurrott, Vista x64 will “virtually eliminate” remote system attacks, prevent malicious software from patching the operating system kernel, and support the security features inside AMD’s and Intel’s latest processors at the hardware level. And of course, having a 64-bit operating system means you can use more than 4GB of system memory without any convoluted workarounds.

There are a couple of caveats, though.

For one, Vista x64 presents some device driver challenges. Older 32-bit drivers won’t work on this OS, so your hardware will either need to be supported by Vista’s built-in set of drivers or the device manufacturer will have to offer 64-bit Vista drivers. Most of the core system components we’ve recommended already have 64-bit Vista drivers, but if you’re carrying over peripherals like printers and scanners, you’ll want to look into drivers for them. Also, Vista x64 requires all drivers to be signed. Since bad drivers are frequently the culprit in an unstable system, this requirement makes sense in environments where stability is crucial. It’s not so great, though, if you’re the type to run user-customized graphics drivers or the like.

Also, the x64 edition of Vista breaks compatibility with older applications in a couple of ways. Vista x64 can’t run 16-bit software, which will matter to those folks who are attached to a really old application for some reason. Also, Thurrott points out that 64-bit versions of Vista lack automatic registry and file redirection, a key element of Vista’s backward-compatibility provisions. As a result, more recent 32-bit and even 64-bit applications written for Windows XP may not run properly under Vista x64.

We’re not quite sure where PC enthusiasts will go on this issue. There may be something of a split between the gaming-oriented enthusiasts who pick the 32-bit version of Vista for minimum hassle and the computer propellerheads who go the x64 route for maximum performance and security. As for us, we’re tentatively recommending the x64 version of Vista here, since our system guide is oriented toward those building themselves brand-new PCs. By and large, the newer hardware recommended here ought to have 64-bit drivers ready, and the x64 version’s improvements in memory support, security and the like are probably worth the hassle, so long as you can successfully navigate the hardware and app-level incompatibilities. With a retail version of Vista, nothing should stop you from giving Vista x64 a go and reformatting and installing the 32-bit version if you run into problems.

OEM or retail?
Just like Windows XP, Vista is offered in both OEM and retail versions. The retail versions are intended for consumers, while the OEM versions are officially intended for use by PC system builders. You can get a nice discount by going with an OEM version of Windows, but you’ll be making some compromises in the process.

For one, the retail versions of Vista ship with both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) edition DVDs in the box, but the OEM versions require one to choose up front, because they come with only one of the two.

Additionally, Microsoft has stated that its licensing terms won’t stop enthusiasts who run retail versions of Windows Vista from changing major hardware components regularly or from transferring the OS installation to another PC. However, OEM versions are technically tied to the first systems on which they’re installed, and Microsoft may choose to enforce that limitation via its software activation scheme at any time. If all of this sounds confusing to you, that’s because it is. For more on Vista OEM and upgrade licensing issues, see our article on the subject. The bottom line here is that you’re taking a risk when buying an OEM version of Vista, and it may come back to bite you if Microsoft invalidates your software license after a hardware upgrade. If you’re likely to upgrade your PC before Microsoft releases the next version of Windows, you should probably get a retail copy of Vista. Then again, we don’t yet know how strictly Microsoft will enforce the OEM transfer limits. The gamble could pay off.

If you do choose to gamble on the OEM version of Vista, you will be saving some money up front. Here’s how the OEM and retail pricing compare.

Vista Home Basic

Vista Home Premium

Vista Business

Vista Ultimate

OEM price (32-bit) $94.99 $104.99 $144.99 $169.98
OEM price (64-bit) $94.99 $104.99 $144.99 $179.99
Retail price $149.99 $219.99 $249.99 $319.99

We aren’t keen on paying Microsoft’s retail prices when OEM versions are this much more affordable, but we dislike the limitations that the OEM versions of Vista impose, so our nod goes provisionally to retail. If you’ve already decided the 32-bit versus 64-bit question and you’re willing to risk it, though, the OEM discount might be worth taking.

Peripherals, accessories, and extras
Matters of religion and taste

Now that we’ve examined operating system choices in detail, let’s have a look at some accessories, such as displays and peripherals. We don’t have a full set of recommendations at multiple price levels in each of these categories, but we can make some general observations and point out a few specific products that are worthy of your consideration. What you ultimately choose in these areas will probably depend heavily your own personal preferences.

The world of monitors has enough scope and variety that we can’t keep track of it all, especially because we don’t often review monitors. However, we do appreciate a good display—or two or three of them, since several of us are multi-monitor fanatics—so we can offer a few pieces of advice.

Let’s get one thing clear before we begin: LCDs have long since supplanted CRTs as the display type of choice for gamers and enthusiasts. LCDs might have been small and of insufficient quality for gaming and photo editing six or seven years ago, but the latest models have huge panels, lightning quick response times, and impressive color definition. Unless you’re already content with a massive, power-guzzling CRT, there’s hardly any reason to go with anything else these days.

However, despite their universal sharpness and pretty colors, not all LCDs are created equal. Besides obvious differences in sizes and aspect ratios, LCDs have different panel types. Wikipedia has a good run-down of different kinds of LCD panels in this article, but most folks will only be bothered by one differentiating attribute: color bitness. Most cheaper monitors with crazy low response times have 6-bit panels, which only have 18-bit color definition instead of 24-bit. Those panels use dithering to simulate colors that are out of their scope, yielding sub-optimal color accuracy. Panels with 8-bit colors look better, but their response times are often a little higher. Unfortunately, few monitor vendors advertise their monitor’s color bitness, so you’ll want to hunt for specifications in manuals and third-party sites to see what you can learn about a display’s bit depth before buying. If the manufacturer advertises the display as capable of showing 16.7 million colors, it should be an 8-bit panel.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at some popular monitors. Many users have taken a liking to wide-screen LCDs, which offer a more cinematic experience with movies or games and in practice tend to feel roomier than their squarer siblings. Many are also fond of Dell’s UltraSharp LCD monitors, which are generally offered at attractive prices with rebates thrown in every now and then.

One of the most popular wide-screen Dell LCDs out there is the 8-bit, 20.1″ UltraSharp 2007WFP, but Dell appears to be replacing it with a 6-bit model known as the UltraSharp SP2008WFP. This is a 20.1″ display with a 1680 x 1050 resolution, 2ms response, a 2000:1 contrast ratio, a built-in web cam, and an enticing $269 price tag. The 2007WFP is still listed on Dell’s website, but with a 3-5 week lead time. To get an 8-bit panel on shorter notice, you’ll have to splurge for the $669 UltraSharp 2407WFP-HC, which has a 1920 x 1200 resolution, 6ms response time, and 1000:1 contrast ratio. We’re personally fans of the UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC, which costs considerably more ($1,399) but delivers a stunning 30″, 2560 x 1600 panel with 12ms response and 1000:1 contrast. The Dell isn’t the only 30″, four-megapixel monster out there (HP’s LP3065 is another one, and it has more DVI inputs than the Dell), but the Dell is one of the best priced.

We should also mention that a number of our forum readers have taken a liking to the Westinghouse’s 37″ LCD TV display for use as a computer monitor. As a 1080p display, it has a native resolution 1920×1080, about half that of the Dell and HP 30″ panels, but it has two big advantages: being versatile enough to serve as a high-def television or game console display, and being fricking huge. We’d rather have a 30″ Dell or HP panel ourselves, but we can’t argue with this puppy’s virtues.

Keyboards and mice
In order to beef up our mouse and keyboard recs, we recently started trying out some different mice and keyboards around here. As part of that effort, we outfitted the latest iteration of the Kitchen PC with the Logitech Cordless Desktop LX710 Laser keyboard and mouse combo. The keyboard won praise for its sturdy feel, medium key travel distance, and soft but accurate positive feedback. However, we found that the goofy auxiliary buttons on the edges of the keyboard were way too easy to bump inadvertently—not the best placement. We had a split over the included wireless laser mouse. Its tilt scroll wheel and laser sensor were excellent, all agreed. But Scott found the mouse’s shape to be too narrow to grip comfortably, while it fit his wife’s smaller hands much better than her previous Logitech MX500.

Scott also tried out the corded version of the same mouse, the LX3 Optical. Predictably, he found it to be too narrow for his average-sized-guy hands, though he did appreciate the fact that the shape is ambidextrous.

A new entrant from Microsoft, the Natural Mouse 6000, also caught Scott’s eye. The shape is unconventionally “tall,” and places one’s hand at a very different angle than other mice, which makes it very comfortable and a nice ergonomic variation from the norm. This mouse is cordless and has lasers, too, so it’s a veritable killing machine. The only downside is that it’s decidedly right-handed, so lefties need not apply.

As TR’s resident Neanderthal, Geoff tends to have a different opinion on input peripherals than some of our other staffers. His hands are like giant paddles—large palms with short, stubby fingers—so getting peripherals that feel right can be a challenge. He’s one of probably only a, er, handful of people who actually prefers the original Xbox’s bear-sized controller to the smaller “S” unit that eventually replaced it.

For years, Geoff has found Microsoft’s mice to be the most comfortable under massive palms. Their shape just works for him, and the Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is no exception. There’s more to the mouse than just its shape, though. The 6000 has all-important horizontal scrolling for those with massive Excel spreadsheets, and the wheel’s vertical scrolling is silky smooth. That almost lubricated smoothness is great for web pages and zooming, but the lack of tactile “clicks” does make it less suitable for gamers looking to scroll precisely through available weapons. Wireless mice tend not to be the most responsive options for gamers, either, although the 6000 is plenty precise for age-impaired reflexes.

The Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is often bundled with Microsoft’s Comfort Curve keyboards, and the combo’s usually pretty cheap. We like the idea behind the Comfort Curve, too: just enough shape to allow your hands to sit at a more comfortable angle while typing without completely separating the keyboard into a “natural” design that feels anything but. Unfortunately, the Comfort Curve isn’t the sturdiest keyboard we’ve used; the keys have a little too much play for those who prefer a more solid feel, and you certainly don’t get much in the way of clickety clack. But there are plenty of extra buttons, including a few programmable ones, and Geoff’s been using one for a while now with few complaints.

Of course, both Microsoft and Logitech have a host of laser optical mice available at relatively low prices, so you can pick one to suit your tastes. Logitech’s G7 and G5 are popular choices for gamers. The Logitech G7 is a wireless model with a high-precision laser optical engine, tilt wheel, quick-swap battery packs, and buttons for in-game sensitivity switching. The G7 is plenty responsive, but hard-core gamers may nonetheless prefer its wired cousin, the Logitech G5. The G5 sports the same design but uses a good old-fashioned mouse cord, and it features adjustable weighted cartridges.

Incidentally, if you’re buying a mouse to play games, you might want to have a look at the following article on ESReality. Old-school Quake star Sujoy Roy has fashioned a benchmarking system for mice, and his resulting analysis should give you a good idea of which mouse is likely to get you the most kills in fast-paced action shooters.

There are at least two major schools of thought on keyboards. Some users will prefer the latest and fanciest offerings from Logitech and Microsoft, with their smorgasbord of media keys, sliders, knobs, scroll wheels, and even built-in LCD displays. Other users like their keyboards loud, clicky, and heavy enough to beat a man to death with. If you’re one of the old-school types, you may want to try a Unicomp Customizer 101/104 or an original vintage-dated IBM Model M. Fifty bucks is a lot to put down for a keyboard, but these beasts can easily last a couple of decades.

Floppy drive/card reader combo
Since the advent of cheap USB drive keys and broadband Internet access, floppy drives have essentially been rendered obsolete. They can still come in handy in a few instances, though, like when you’re installing Windows to a system with an unsupported Serial ATA controller. You could just spend $10 on a run-of-the-mill internal floppy drive, but we prefer to opt for a floppy/7-in-1 flash card reader combo like this Mitsumi model instead. You’re still getting a floppy drive, but the added flash card reading functionality will probably prove more useful over the long run, and it only ups the price another $10.

We’re recommending retail processors in all of our configs because they come with longer warranties. Those CPUs also come bundled with stock cooling units that, these days, are usually reasonably good in terms of cooling capability and noise levels. However, if you want to have an even quieter system or to buy yourself a bit of overclocking headroom (or both), you may want to look into an aftermarket CPU cooler. Our slam-dunk favorite is Zalman’s CNPS9500 LED (and the CNPS9500 AM2 for AMD Socket AM2 processors.) As we noted in our review, the CNPS9500 offers excellent cooling performance and is whisper-quiet at its lowest fan setting. This cooler is a particularly good match for our Sweet Spot system, whose Antec P182 case can provide a stunningly quiet computing experience when paired with the right processor and graphics card cooling.

As we said in our introduction, we’ve been able to pack more value and performance than ever into our four usual builds. If you’ve been following our system guides over the past couple of years, you’ll no doubt agree. The fact that we’re now able to stuff a quad-core processor, 4GB of RAM, a high-end DirectX 10 graphics card, 750GB of storage space, and a modular power supply into our Sweet Spot system while barely breaking $1,400 makes this a very exciting time indeed for enthusiasts. This guide may have been let down somewhat by the tight availability of GeForce 8800 GT and Radeon HD 3870 graphics cards, but we’ve still ended up with some particularly enticing builds.

This isn’t one of those system guide conclusions tempered by promise of even shinier hardware a couple of months away, either. AMD plans to release some slightly faster Phenoms next year, and Intel will fill out its lineup of 45nm Core 2 processors, but those chips should largely be on the same playing field as the CPUs we’ve recommended today. We can expect some novelties on the core logic and high-end graphics front in the relatively near future, but probably nothing worthy of holding up a holiday-season purchase.

As always, feel free to take a stroll down to the System Builders Anonymous section of our forums if you’re in need of further assistance. That forum is teeming with users asking for help either building new machines or upgrading old ones, so you’ll find plenty of company—and assistance—if you’re not feeling particularly confident about a new build.