TR’s back-to-school system guide

The back-to-school season is upon us, bringing with it droves of students stocking up on books, school supplies, and something trendy to wear on that all-important first day back. Notebooks are popular at this time of year, of course, but if portability isn’t a priority, desktops can offer substantially more horsepower and flexibility at significantly lower prices. The time is right, then, for another update to our system guide.

It’s been almost two months since the guide was updated, and its contents already read like an ancient Babylonian tale etched on stone tablets. Well, maybe not. But things change quickly in this industry, and the last two months have been no exception. Thanks to falling prices spurred by the introduction of new products, we’ve managed to slip a quad-core processor and a Radeon HD 4870 into our $1,000 Grand Experiment system. The $500 Econobox’s gaming chops have been upgraded with a GeForce 8800 GT, too, and our $1500 Sweet Spot build has been lavished with RAID and other high-end luxuries.

To make things even more interesting this time around, we’ve fashioned a sub-$300 PC based on Intel’s new Atom processor. This system won’t set any performance records, but it should satisfy users looking for basic, no-frills desktop functionality in the kind of small form factor that easily squeezes into cramped dorm rooms. Read on for all the details on this and other builds in our latest system guide.

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 helpful 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
Once a dull, low-end build with a single-core processor and integrated graphics, the Econobox now features dual-core goodness and a very capable graphics card. You won’t find too many fancy extras here, but we’ve tried to select a balanced mix of peppy, reliable components with headroom for future upgrades.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Pentium E2180 $69.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3L $99.99
Memory 2GB Kingston DDR2-800 $36.99
Graphics PNY GeForce 8800 GT $119.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $84.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $28.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480 w/380W PSU $79.95
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $520.89

Processor

With two 2GHz cores based on Intel’s speedy Core architecture, the Pentium E2180 sits well past the “good enough” threshold for a machine like this one. We could go with something a little faster and more expensive, but we’d rather spend the extra cash on a reasonably quick graphics card and other upgrades.

With that said, we should point out that AMD makes slightly faster processors in this price range. We’re leaving them out of our primary config simply because we find the Intel platform more attractive overall. Our recommended motherboard supports 45nm Core 2 Quads that beat their Phenom counterparts into the ground, and it should allow you to get a decent overclock out of the Pentium E2180. If you’re less concerned about an upgrade path, check out our AMD alternative on the next page.

Motherboard

Gigabyte’s GA-EP45-DS3L is a little expensive for an Econobox motherboard, but we’ve chosen it over the cheaper P35-based GA-EP35-DS3L for several reasons. The P45 chipset draws less power, has better overclocking potential, and offers PCI Express 2.0 support. Also, the P45 board has two more Serial ATA ports and two more rear USB ports than its P35-based cousin. The price difference between the two amounts to $15, and we think the GA-EP45-DS3L is well worth the extra cash.

As we often point out when recommending budget motherboards, this one lacks RAID support. That’s probably not a major cause for concern for most users on a budget, though, and we can forgive the omission considering the low price tag.

Memory

In light of Windows Vista’s memory demands and current prices, 2GB of RAM has really become the minimum for a modern PC. Our 2GB Kingston DDR2-800 kit is one of the cheapest in its class at just $36.99, so it easily fits in the Econobox’s $500 budget. Kingston should have better quality control and customer service than you can expect from no-name module makers.

Graphics

If you had to do a double-take on this one, we don’t blame you. Yes, the GeForce 8800 GT is now cheap enough to make an appearance in the Econobox. We probably don’t need to sell most of our readers on this card, since its fantastic performance and value proposition have made it an enthusiast favorite ever since its release in late 2007. Newer GPUs like the GeForce 9800 GTX+ and Radeon HD 4850 have replaced the 8800 GT at $199, but Nvidia’s older mid-range wonder is still fast enough to handle pretty much any game with plenty of eye candy enabled.

This particular PNY GeForce 8800 GT doesn’t have higher-than-stock speeds, a fancy custom cooler, or lifetime warranty coverage. However, PNY covers the card for three years and throws in a copy of Frontlines: Fuel of War, which is pretty decent considering the affordable price tag.

Storage

We recommended Western Digital’s 320GB Caviar SE16 hard drive last time, but the 640GB SE16 only costs 20 bucks more. Even with the 8800 GT, we have room in our budget for the higher-capacity drive—and it’s a nice step up. The 640GB SE16 boasts great performance, low power consumption, low noise levels, and a lower cost per gigabyte than virtually any alternative. If you’d rather pay a little less for a lower-capacity drive with a longer warranty, though, check out our alternatives section on the next page.

For our optical drive, we’ve moved to Samsung’s SH-S223Q for its low price, solid feature set, and positive user reviews. If previous drives from the same series are any indication, this one should be pretty quiet, too.

Enclosure and power

Antec’s NSK 4480 case and power supply bundle includes everything we need for the Econobox: three 5.25″ bays, three internal hard drive bays (housed in a removable cage with rubber mounting grommets), a speed-adjustable 120mm exhaust fan, and a high-efficiency EarthWatts 380W power supply.

$80 may sound pricey for a case and PSU bundle, but you get what you pay for. PSUs bundled with inexpensive cases tend to include cheap, low-quality components that often inspire 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. We prefer spending more for both a good PSU and a case that won’t cut up your fingers when you’re filling it with new hardware.

Econobox alternatives

We’re happy with the selections on the previous page, but not everybody will want an Intel processor or integrated audio. Since users’ needs will invariably, er, vary, we’ve gathered a list of alternatives and extras on this page.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon X2 5200+ $77.00
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H $84.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 3850 Ultimate $109.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500GB $79.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99

Processor

The Athlon X2 5200+ likely outruns the Pentium E2180 in our primary config overall, but we find the socket’s upgrade path considerably less appealing. Still, the Athlon is a decent choice for folks who don’t overclock and have no interest in upgrading to a Core 2 Quad CPU down the road.

Motherboard

Our Socket AM2 processor won’t plug into our primary system’s LGA775 socket, so we’ve selected a matching motherboard based on AMD’s 780G integrated graphics chipset. The 780G is blessed with a surprisingly competent Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics processor that can run fairly recent games as long as you can live with lower resolutions and detail levels. Cinephiles will be glad to know that the Radeon HD 3200 can accelerate high-definition video decoding to facilitate buttery-smooth Blu-ray playback, too.

We have plenty of experience with Gigabyte’s GA-MA78GM-S2H motherboard, which we featured in our initial review of the 780G, so we’re confident that it’s a good match for our Econobox alternatives. The S2H also seems to have more positive Newegg user reviews than other 780G boards.

As a side note, we should mention that motherboards based on Nvidia’s GeForce 8200- and 8300-series integrated graphics chipsets are trickling onto the market, and that they’re certainly interesting alternatives to the 780G. However, based on our experience with the GeForce 8300, we still favor the 780G.

Graphics

Some users may prefer Sapphire’s Radeon HD 3850 Ultimate to the GeForce 8800 GT. The AMD-based card doesn’t perform as well, but it costs less, draws less power, and features a near-silent cooler. This is a decent alternative for die-hard AMD fans who hate Nvidia’s control panel software, too.

Storage

The 640GB Caviar SE16 is a sweet drive, but maybe you’d rather have the extra two years of warranty coverage Seagate offers with its 500GB Barracuda 7200.11. This drive also costs $5 less than the WD, although it has a lower capacity, slower performance, and higher noise levels.

Sound card

Those who’ve read our review of the Xonar DX will likely understand our motives for picking this as our optional sound card. Compared to Creative’s similarly priced X-Fi XtremeGamer, the Xonar offers superior sound quality, useful features like real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding, and a PCI Express x1 interface. It also does a nice job of emulating Creative’s EAX 5.0 positional audio effects, ensuring compatibility with a broad range of games.

The Grand Experiment
The sweet spot for the budget-conscious
Where the Econobox delivers the basics you need for an enthusiast PC, our Grand Experiment’s more ample budget gives us room for parts with a little more punch. Here, we can add some of the latest and greatest components to the mix while keeping the total system budget reasonable.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q9400 $274.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3R $134.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $71.49
Graphics VisionTek Radeon HD 4870 $270.00
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $84.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $28.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $99.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $1055.43

Processor

Like our graphics card choice for the Econobox, our CPU selection for the Grand Experiment may elicit a double-take from more than a few readers. Hear us out, though. We’ve traditionally stuck to fast dual-core chips for this system for two reasons: quad-core CPUs are expensive, and they typically have lower clock speeds than their dual-core counterparts, which leads to lower performance in many tasks.

What’s different now? First, other components have become cheap enough to give us room for both a quad-core CPU and a comparably meaty graphics card. Also, the Core 2 Quad Q9400 runs at 2.66GHz, which should make it more than fast enough in single-threaded apps. Sure, you’ll get higher performance from a 3.16GHz Core 2 Duo E8500 in those instances, but the Q9400 won’t be very far behind, and it’ll perform far better with software that can tap its extra cores. And with both AMD and Intel pushing developers to parallelize software, those extra cores should become increasingly useful as time goes on.

If you still don’t care about multi-threaded performance and would rather save a few bucks, feel free to check out our alternatives section on the next page for a dual-core CPU recommendation.

Motherboard

The Grand Experiment’s more substantial budget allows us to splurge on a fancier motherboard, and Gigabyte’s GA-EP45-DS3R looks like one of the best sub-$150 P45 offerings out there. As we explained in our review of the board, the DS3R delivers all the necessary goodies for an enthusiast system: two physical PCI Express x16 slots, dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, FireWire, and excellent overclocking potential. We managed to push this particular board to an impressive 500MHz front-side bus speed in our labs, which would be enough to crank our Core 2 Quad Q9400 up to 4GHz.

Memory

Kingston’s 4GB DDR2-800 kit will stand in as our staple memory recommendation throughout much of this guide. $71.49 is a steal for four gigs of DDR2-800 RAM, especially since it comes from a reputable manufacturer and features a lifetime warranty. With Windows Vista and most newer games guzzling memory like there’s no tomorrow, 4GB of RAM is by no means over-indulgent, either.

Naturally, you’ll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of this amount of memory. 32-bit OSes have enough address space for 4GB of memory, but that figure is an upper limit for all memory in a system, including video RAM. In practice, 32-bit versions of Windows will only be able to use 3 to 3.5GB of actual system RAM, and they’ll normally restrict each application’s RAM budget to 2GB. There are potential workarounds, but Microsoft says they can hurt compatibility; it recommends that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. Because Vista x64 is quite mature these days, we recommend it for this system. Check our operating system section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.

Graphics

Despite blowing almost $300 on a quad-core processor, our budget still has room for a Radeon HD 4870. We invite readers unfamiliar with AMD’s latest high-end GPU to check out our review of it. Without going into too much detail, the 4870 is arguably the second-fastest single-GPU card on the market right now, losing little ground to Nvidia’s $450+ GeForce GTX 280. The 4870 performs so well that it almost makes exotic multi-GPU configs pointless in current games unless you have a giant LCD monitor—not bad for something affordable enough to slip into a mid-range PC.

Nvidia fans may object to our selection on grounds that the GeForce GTX 260 costs about the same as the 4870 and performs nearly as well. We think the 4870 takes the cake overall, but we’ve given the GTX 260 a spot in our alternatives section on the next page.

Storage

Western Digital’s 640GB Caviar SE16 delivers excellent performance, very low noise levels, and an ample 640GB capacity at a very tantalizing 13 cents per gigabyte. Samsung’s 750GB SpinPoint F1 only costs about $25 more, but the Caviar offers more consistent performance across a wider range of applications, which is why we prefer it.

On the optical front, we’re sticking with the Samsung SH-S223Q; it’s a decent DVD burner that should be a good match for this system.

Audio

Asus’ Xonar DX makes our primary recommendations here for the same reasons as in our Econobox alternatives. This card trumps competing Creative offerings with superior sound quality and EAX 5.0 emulation capabilities.

Enclosure and power

The Antec Sonata III costs more than the Econobox’s NSK 4480, but it has more goodies: 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. Antec even slaps an eSATA port on the Sonata’s front bezel, should you wish to plug in an external hard drive without crawling behind the system.

Grand Experiment alternatives

We have some alternatives to suggest here, too, in case you’d like to save a few bucks or prefer components from another manufacturer (cough fanboy).

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo E8500 $189.99
Motherboard Asus P5Q Pro $139.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 260 $269.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 640GB $89.99

Processor

Quad-core CPUs are great, but some users would rather pay a little less for higher single-threaded performance. With two 3.16GHz cores, 6MB of L2 cache, a 1333MHz front-side bus, and—best of all—a $189.99 price tag, the Core 2 Duo E8500 is a perfect alternative to our main recommendation for those folks.

Motherboard

We selected the Gigabyte GA-P45-DS3R on the previous page because of its well-rounded set of features and our first-hand experience with the board, but users who like cramming their PCs full of hard drives may prefer the Asus P5Q Pro. The P5Q has eight 300MB/s Serial ATA ports to the DS3R’s six, although it doesn’t have a second Gigabit Ethernet port, a secondary FireWire port, or as many USB ports.

Graphics

AMD’s Radeon HD 4870 performs better overall than the GeForce GTX 260, but the two cards are pretty closely matched. The Nvidia card also supports hardware PhysX and CUDA general-purpose GPU voodoo. Whether you’re interested in those features or you just don’t like AMD’s control panel software, the GTX 260 is a very capable alternative to the 4870. We went with this particular Asus model because of its low price tag and positive user reviews.

Storage

Western Digital was the only company to make a 640GB desktop hard drive for several months, but it now has some competition. Seagate’s 640GB Barracuda 7200.11 costs $5 more than the Caviar, but it has five years of warranty coverage instead of three. If this drive is anything like other members of the Barracuda 7200.11 series, though, it should be a little slower and louder than the SE16.

The Sweet Spot
Excess—with a healthy dose of prudence
We’ve crammed some impressive hardware into our Grand Experiment, but the $1,000 target price still forces us to make some compromises. The Sweet Spot lets us allocate an extra $500 to polish out those few rough edges and chuck in a few extras. At the same time, we’ve made sure to avoid wasting cash on unnecessary items, so the Sweet Spot still delivers great value for the money.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 $329.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3R $134.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $71.49
Graphics VisionTek Radeon HD 4870 $270.00
Storage
Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $84.99
Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $84.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $149.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 $139.99
Enclosure Antec P182 $109.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $1466.41

Processor

The Sweet Spot’s more generous budget lets us go a step up the Core 2 Quad ladder and snatch the Q9550. We think this is a good upgrade: for a $55 premium, you get a speed boost from 2.66GHz to 2.83GHz and a cache size increase from 6MB to 12MB. The Q9550’s higher multiplier should allow overclockers to hit higher core clocks with slower front-side bus speeds, too, although our recommended motherboard should have more than enough FSB headroom.

Motherboard

The Grand Experiment’s Gigabyte P45 motherboard doubles as our recommendation for the Sweet Spot. Considering the GA-EP45-DS3R‘s features, overclocking potential, and price, we see no reason to outfit the Sweet Spot with anything more extravagant.

Memory

We’re also going with the same 4GB Kingston DDR2-800 kit we used in the Grand Experiment, largely because tricked-out modules rated for operation at higher speeds and tighter timings don’t deliver enough of a performance advantage to justify their associated price premiums. If you have extra cash to burn, you’ll see greater returns from upgrading other system components.

Again, you’ll want to run a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of 4GB of RAM. More detailed operating system analysis is available on the second-to-last page of the guide.

Graphics

AMD has become the undisputed king of the mid-range graphics market thanks to its new Radeon HD 4800 cards, but we were a little torn on exactly which configuration to recommend for the Sweet Spot. Our budget allows for dual Radeon HD 4850s running in CrossFire, and as we’ve seen, such a configuration offers phenomenal performance. That said, a closer look at the actual test scores shows that the Radeon HD 4870 is well past the “fast enough” mark in most current games—even at very high resolutions and detail levels.

Since multi-GPU configs take more room, generate more heat, and don’t always perform up to their potential in new games as well as single cards, we settled on the 4870 for the Sweet Spot’s primary config. If you’d rather have a pair of 4850s, check out our alternatives section on the following page.

Storage

Why are we recommending a pair of $85 hard drives instead of a single high-end model? For one, 750GB and 1TB hard drives can’t match the cost per gigabyte of Western Digital’s Caviar SE16 640GB. On top of that, we’ve yet to encounter a higher-capacity model that brings quite the same mix of great performance, low noise levels, and overwhelmingly positive user reviews. Finally, picking two identical drives like these opens the door to RAID—more specifically, a mirrored RAID 1 array.

RAID 1 arrays can improve read performance, and their redundancy allows systems to survive single drive failures without data loss. Having a real-time mirror of the contents of your system’s hard drive can save loads of time when a drive fails—so much so that at least two of TR’s editors run RAID 1 in their primary desktops. If you value storage capacity over redundancy, though, nothing stops you from running these two drives independently or combining them in a 1.28TB JBOD array (or an even riskier but potentially faster RAID 0 setup).

On the optical side of things, we have enough moolah to outfit the Sweet Spot with a Blu-ray reader and DVD burner combo drive by default. LG’s GGC-H20L can actually read both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, and it has encouragingly positive user reviews on Newegg. Even if you don’t care too much about high-definition movies, the drive’s relatively speedy DVD burning capabilities should keep you happy.

Audio

With fantastic sound quality, support for real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding, a PCI Express interface, and the ability to emulate the latest EAX effects, the Asus Xonar DX is easily the best mid-range sound card on the market—and a great match for the Sweet Spot.

Power Supply

All-in-one case and power supply bundles complement cheaper systems well enough, but the Sweet Spot has both an ample budget and power-hungrier components, so discrete solutions make more sense here.

PC Power & Cooling’s Silencer 750 won an Editor’s Choice Award in our enthusiast power supply round-up and retained that crown in our latest PSU comparo. With enough output capacity for any quad-core system with one or two fast GPUs, a five-year warranty, remarkably low noise levels, very clean power delivery, high efficiency, and dual 8-pin PCI Express power connectors, and the Silencer certainly looks perfect for the Sweet Spot. Just a word of warning: this PSU is quite long, and it’s somewhat of a tight fit in our recommended case.

Enclosure
Antec’s P182 case has the same upside-down design, composite panels, adjustable-speed 120mm fans, and partitioned cooling zones as the older Antec P180. However, this new model improves greatly upon its predecessor’s biggest flaw: cable management. Unlike the P180, the P182 is designed to run cables behind the motherboard tray, helping to avoid tangled messes. And, of course, the case’s design and composite panels should enable delightfully low noise levels given the Sweet Spot’s relatively quiet components.

Sweet Spot alternatives

As well-rounded as the Sweet Spot is, we have to consider potential alternatives just like with our other builds.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition $194.00
Motherboard Asus M3A78-T $149.99
Graphics
Sapphire Radeon HD 4850 $179.99
Sapphire Radeon HD 4850 $179.99
Storage Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB $294.99
Sound Asus Xonar D2 $179.99

Processor

Let’s be clear: Intel’s quad-core processors perform better and draw less power overall than AMD’s Phenoms, and that’s why we keep selecting them for our primary configs. With that said, the Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition is cheap and holds its own against Intel’s similarly priced Core 2 Quad Q6600. The Phenom also has an unlocked upper multiplier, which makes overclocking a snap. AMD’s OverDrive utility even lets you run the Phenom’s four cores at different speeds via independent multiplier controls.

We’re snubbing the pricier Phenom X4 9950 here because we just don’t see the value in paying $41 more for a mere 100MHz clock speed increase, especially when that clock boost adds 15W to the processor’s TDP.

Motherboard

Asus’ M3A78-T has the benefit of being one of the only AMD-based enthusiast mobos to sport the new SB750 south bridge. The SB750 doesn’t do as much as we’d like on the storage front, but it has one killer feature we can’t ignore: ACC. Short for Advanced Clock Calibration, ACC interfaces with unused pins on Phenom processors to tweak the chips for overclocking. And it works. Our Phenom X4 9850 sample hit 3GHz with ACC enabled, while it only managed 2.7GHz when we turned the feature off.

We didn’t review this particular Asus motherboard, but it has a nice feature set, a third PCI Express x16 slot, and some good user reviews. It’s available, too, whereas the Gigabyte 790GX mobo we reviewed earlier this month seems to be out of stock everywhere. We’re not huge fans of the Gigabyte’s Serial ATA port placement, anyway.

Graphics

If CrossFire profiles are available for the games you want to play, and if those games work well with multiple GPUs, dual Radeon HD 4850s will often deliver higher frame rates than the single 4870 in our primary sweet spot config. In fact, a Radeon HD 4850 CrossFire setup will often outperform Nvidia’s pricier GeForce GTX 280. If you’re willing to deal with the additional power draw, enclosure crowding, and potential game compatibility hassles associated with a dual-card setup, this is the one for you. You may want to beef up your case cooling, though; the 4850’s single-slot cooler doesn’t exhaust air outside the system, and dual-card configs can generate quite a bit of heat.

Storage

We don’t expect you to trade our recommended 640GB drives for a speedier one that only has 300GB of capacity, but we do think Western Digital’s 300GB VelociRaptor can nicely complement slower, higher-capacity drives. Thanks to its 10,000-RPM spindle speed and high-density platters, the latest Raptor delivers excellent performance with random I/O seek loads (not to mention impressively low response times), making it an ideal operating system and application drive.

Sound
Asus’ Xonar D2 is a nice step up from the Xonar DX for audiophiles with a little more cash to spend. Both cards use essentially the same audio chip, so they have similar capabilities. However, the D2 features higher quality DACs and ADCs, LED-backlit ports, and comes with a truckload of extra cables. The D2 also has a standard PCI interface, but if you prefer PCI Express, you can opt for the D2X for a few bucks more.

The Double-Stuff Workstation
Perfect parallelism
In system guides of old, we had to outfit this build with a proper workstation motherboard and two CPUs to make it a quad-core system. Today, the Double-Stuff looks more like a glorified desktop, albeit with more RAM, faster graphics, and a fancier storage configuration than most. Even on a system like this one, we dodged unnecessary premiums by avoiding top-of-the-line CPUs and RAM with blinking lights.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 $329.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-X48-DQ6 $279.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $71.49
Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $71.49
Graphics VisionTek Radeon HD 4870 $270.00
VisionTek Radeon HD 4870 $270.00
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F1 1TB $149.99
Samsung SpinPoint F1 1TB $149.99
Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB $294.99
Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB $294.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $149.99
Audio Asus Xonar D2 $179.99
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 $139.99
Enclosure CoolerMaster Cosmos 1000 $189.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $2842.88

Processor

Yes, we’re recommending the same processor for the Sweet Spot and Workstation builds. Before you go thinking we’re all stingy, keep in mind that the Core 2 Quad Q9650 costs $559.99—70% more than our Q9550—for a modest boost in clock speed from 2.83 to 3GHz. The next step up is the 3.2GHz Core 2 Extreme QX9770, which sells for about a grand and a half. Considering the small performance returns associated with such minimal clock speed bumps and our recommended motherboard’s overclocking potential, we don’t find either upgrade sensible.

Motherboard

Choosing AMD as our primary graphics provider means picking an Intel motherboard to allow for multi-GPU goodness. Gigabyte’s GA-X48-DQ6 fills that role quite elegantly, with a top-of-the-line Intel X48 Express chipset, two second-generation PCI Express x16 slots with a full 16 lanes of connectivity each, and official support for 1600MHz front-side bus speeds.

Gigabyte includes all the trimmings one would expect from a high-end motherboard, such as eight 300MB/s SATA ports with RAID support, dual GigE controllers, passive chipset and voltage circuitry cooling, digital audio outputs, and—let’s not forget—a BIOS loaded with overclocking and tweaking options. We haven’t tried overclocking this particular mobo ourselves, but we managed to push its DDR3 twin, the X48T-DQ6, to a 500MHz front-side bus. The X48-DQ6’s near-identical, X38-based predecessor also had no problems running a 500MHz FSB in our labs. How’s that for consistency?

You may be tempted by motherboards featuring the freshly-minted P45 Express chipset. However, keep in mind that P45 mobos with equivalent features to the DQ6 aren’t much cheaper. The P45 can’t provide a full 16 lanes of PCIe 2.0 bandwidth to each card in a two-way CrossFire config, either.

Memory

With memory prices the way they are, we wouldn’t dream of outfitting a high-end workstation system with anything less than 8GB of DDR2-800 RAM (via two 4GB Kingston kits). Our budget has more than enough room to splurge here, and this selection ensures ample headroom for almost any task. We’re going with higher capacity here instead of faster DIMMs for the same reasons as in the Sweet Spot: low latencies don’t matter nearly as much as some would have you think, and DDR3 RAM is just not worth the premium over DDR2 right now.

Naturally, you’ll want to install a 64-bit operating system in order to make full use of 8GB of RAM. See our operating system section a couple of pages ahead for details.

Graphics

The Radeon HD 4850 CrossFire setup in our Sweet Spot alternatives is already incredibly fast, but we’ve stepped it up to two Radeon HD 4870s for the Double-Stuff. This configuration has two distinct advantages: for one, it’s faster at very high resolutions, which should ensure silky smooth gameplay at 2560×1600 with antialiasing turned up in almost all current games (and probably a good number of future ones, too). Additionally, these cards seem to have more effective cooling than the 4850s, which is an important consideration in a system with as many power-hungry components as this one.

Storage

Our storage recommendations split a whopping 2.6TB of capacity between two Samsung SpinPoint F1s and dual 10,000-RPM VelociRaptors. The SpinPoints each offer a terabyte of capacity and excellent performance, while the VelociRaptors feature ultra-dense 2.5″ platters revolving at 10,000RPM for incredibly low response times.

You can run these drives in either RAID 1 or RAID 0 arrays (or a combination of the two) for improved performance or redundancy. RAID 0 will increase the chance of data loss due to drive failure without doing much for overall system performance, but it should still help in particularly storage-intensive tasks. If you’d like improved performance with a measure of redundancy, you could assign four of either drive to a RAID 10 array.

On the optical drive front, we’re going with the same LG Blu-ray/HD DVD drive we recommended in our Sweet Spot alternatives. This drive combines a Blu-ray/HD DVD reader and a DVD burner but doesn’t break the bank.

Audio

As we’ve noted, the Xonar D2 gives you all sorts of extra goodies that don’t come with the less expensive DX model we recommended for our other systems. Gamers looking for native rather than emulated EAX effects may want to take a gander at our X-Fi-based alternative on the next page, though.

Power supply

PC Power & Cooling’s TR Editor’s Choice award-winning Silencer 750 power supply delivers some of the highest efficiencies we’ve seen to date along with five years of warranty coverage, 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, and it should provide plenty of headroom for expansion, as well.

Enclosure

Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000 is another TR Editor’s Choice award winner. This case shares some design elements with 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. Four 120mm fans generate plenty of airflow, and the case has enough room to accommodate six hard drives, five 5.25″ drives, multi-GPU configurations, and internal liquid cooling systems. CoolerMaster also primes the case for quiet operation by using 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. If you’re looking to build a system with ESA-compliant components, you can get an ESA-certified Cosmos 1010 for an additional $60.

Workstation alternatives

Not all users of high-powered $3,000 PCs are going to have the same needs, so we’ve whipped up a list of alternative options.

Motherboard

As we’ve said earlier, the Radeon HD 4870 and GeForce GTX 260 are closely matched, so some folks may want to go with a dual-GeForce setup instead of the dual-Radeon on the previous page. The X48 mobo in our primary picks doesn’t support SLI, meaning those users will need our recommended XFX nForce 780i SLI motherboard to run a pair of GTX 260s in tandem.

This board is based on an Nvidia reference design, and it features a very tweakable BIOS, compatibility with Nvidia’s nTune tweaking and monitoring software, and support for the Enthusiast System Architecture specification. Nvidia does make a swankier 790i SLI chipset, but that part only supports DDR3 memory, and we think the performance returns from DDR3 don’t justify the considerable price premiums.

Graphics cards

These two GeForce GTX 260s should deliver performance close to that of the two Radeons on the previous page, and they support additional goodies like hardware PhysX and CUDA. AMD also has a general-purpose API toolkit for its graphics offerings, however, and CrossFire configs have better multi-monitor support.

Storage

The Samsung hard drives we featured on the previous page seem to have compatibility problems with Nvidia chipsets. If you go with our alternative nForce 780i motherboard, we recommend opting for a pair of Western Digital’s 1TB Caviar GPs instead. These drives don’t perform quite as well as the SpinPoints, but they’re cheap, they’re quiet, and they have very low power consumption. In fact, those last two attributes make the GPs worthy alternatives even for users who stick with our primary X48 motherboard recommendation.

Sound

Audiophiles will no doubt favor the Xonar D2, but Auzentech’s X-Fi Prelude has a few extras for gamers and multimedia enthusiasts with equally deep pockets. Auzentech has combined a Creative X-Fi chip, which offers hardware acceleration for positional audio and native EAX Advanced HD 5.0 support, with the audio quality and features one might expect from high-end sound card. What’s more, the Prelude’s ability to encode Dolby Digital Live streams in real time is unique among X-Fi cards. The Prelude earned a TR Recommended award when we reviewed it.

The Mini-Econobox
Computing on a shoestring budget
Intel’s release of a budget Mini-ITX motherboard with a built-in Atom processor gives us the opportunity to fashion an incredibly cheap desktop. For nearly half the price of our Econobox, you can build a small-form-factor system fast enough to handle typical desktop tasks.

Component Item Price
Motherboard Intel BOXD945GCLF (with 1.6GHz Atom processor) $79.99
Memory 2GB Kingston DDR2-667 $35.99
Graphics Intel GMA 950 (Integrated) $0
Storage Western Digital Caviar GP 500GB $69.99
Lite-On DH-20A4P-04 $24.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Apex MI-100 w/250W PSU $55.99
Operating system Ubuntu Linux 8.04 $0
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $266.95

Motherboard and processor

We don’t have much of a choice here; Intel’s BOXD945GCLF motherboard currently looks like the only way to get an Atom CPU on a Mini-ITX board without buying a pre-built PC. There’s little to complain about, though. With an incredibly low price, a decent mix of onboard features, and a 1.6GHz Atom, the BOXD945GCLF has pretty much all we need for this build. That said, we do wish Intel had included a DVI display output.

Memory

2GB of RAM strikes us as the bare minimum even for a sub-$300 PC. Besides, Kingston’s 2GB DDR2-667 module is so cheap we wouldn’t save much by going with 1GB.

Storage

We could pair this system with a solid-state drive, but SSDs either cost a lot or have lackluster storage capacities. For just $70, the Western Digital Caviar GP hard drive delivers 500GB of storage capacity, competitive performance, and a low spindle speed that guarantees both low noise levels and low power consumption.

On the optical front, Lite-On’s DH-204P-04 DVD burner relies on the old “parallel” ATA interface. Our motherboard only has two Serial ATA ports, however, and we wouldn’t want to compromise expansion capacity just to rid this system of ribbon cables.

Enclosure and power

We’re not entirely familiar with Apex as a case manufacturer, but the spec sheet and user reviews for this Mini-ITX enclosure and 250W PSU combo look good enough to us. The cramped internals and lack of exhaust fans might cause problems with faster hardware, but all of our components have small power footprints—especially the Atom CPU.

Operating system

With Windows XP going the way of the dodo, Ubuntu looks to us like a good fit. We wouldn’t recommend Ubuntu as a primary OS for our other builds, since it won’t let you play most games or run Photoshop out of the box, but this is a sub-$300 small-form-factor PC for basic desktop tasks. Ubuntu offers all you need for web browsing, instant messaging, word processing, and MP3 and DVD playback (assuming you install a couple of extra packages). Also, Ubuntu has a better track record than XP from a security standpoint, and it won’t fall prey to the same viruses and spyware.

You can download an Ubuntu 8.04 ISO for free from the official website. If you don’t have a burner handy, Ubuntu discs are also available for purchase at a relatively low cost.

The operating system
Which Vista is right for you?
Before we begin, we should acknowledge that some readers may not feel comfortable with Windows’ prominent place on this page. We hold no particular grudge against Linux, FreeBSD, or other desktop PC operating systems, but we think most TR readers will want to stick with Windows. For starters, most of you play PC games, and we’ve tuned all of our main configs for gaming—something Linux doesn’t do nearly as well as Microsoft’s OSes. Also, we figure enthusiasts with enough expertise to run Linux on their primary desktops will already have a favorite Linux distribution picked out. As for Mac OS X, we find both the dubious legality and the lack of official support for running it on standard PCs too off-putting.

You may also be wondering whether Vista is really worth choosing over Windows XP. After all, Windows XP still works, and from a distance, Vista looks like little more than a prettied-up version of the same old OS. Appearances can be deceptive, however, and Windows Vista really is much more than that. Microsoft has 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 graphics card in DX10 games like Crytek’s Crysis or Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, then you’ll want Vista.

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:

 

Vista Home Basic

Vista Home Premium

Vista Business

Vista Ultimate

Aero user interface   x x x
Windows Meeting Space   x x x
Windows Media Center   x   x
Basic scheduled backups   x x x
Complete system backups     x x
Networking Center x x x x
Remote Desktop Connection     x x
Windows DVD Maker   x   x
Windows Movie Maker HD   x   x
BitLocker encryption       x
Price $164.99 $222.99 $278.99 $277.49

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. If you’re going to bother with Vista at all, you might as well enjoy the additional features available with full-fat versions of the OS. Besides, 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 used to be Vista Business, which oddly now sells for the same price as Vista Ultimate, at least in a retail package. As its name implies, Vista Business is designed mainly for professional users. This version lacks media center functionality, but makes up for it with industrial-strength backup and networking tools.

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. Home Premium and Business editions used to be much better values than Vista Ultimate, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore.

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, and most of the systems have 4GB of memory or more, the 64-bit version of Windows Vista is the most sensible 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 should “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.

There are some 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. Another compatibility snag comes from Vista x64’s lack of support for 16-bit software, which will matter to those folks who are attached to a really old application for some reason.

Despite these little downsides, we think most enthusiasts will want to go with the x64 version. As we’ve already explained, 32-bit flavors of Windows only support up to 4GB of RAM, and that upper limit covers things like video memory. In practice, that means that your 32-bit OS will only be able to use 3-3.5GB of system RAM on average and even less than 3GB if you have more than one discrete GPU. With both Vista and newer games pushing the envelope in terms of memory use, the 4GB limit can get a little uncomfortable for an enthusiast PC.

On top of that, Vista x64 has matured substantially since its release over a year ago, as has third-party software and driver support. Unless you have a good reason to stick with a 32-bit OS, we think Vista’s x64 higher memory support ceiling and security/stability improvements will serve you better. Besides, with a retail-boxed copy of Windows Vista, you can always scrap your installation and load up the 32-bit version if you run into any major 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) $89.99 $99.99 $139.99 $179.99
OEM price (64-bit) $89.99 $99.99 $139.99 $179.99
Retail price $164.99 $222.99 $278.99 $277.99

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 on your own personal preferences.

Displays

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 little reason to avoid LCDs.

However, despite their universal sharpness and thin form factors, 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 that only have 18-bit color definition instead of standard 24-bit color. 6-bit panels use dithering to simulate colors that are out of their scope, yielding sub-optimal color accuracy. 8-bit panels certainly look better, but their response times are often a little higher than 6-bit displays. Unfortunately, few monitor vendors advertise their monitors’ color bit depth, so you’ll want to hunt for specifications in manuals and on third-party sites to see what you can learn about a display’s bitness before buying. If the manufacturer says the display is 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 UltraSharp 2007WFP, although Dell seems to be replacing that model with a 6-bit version known as the UltraSharp 2009W. Both monitors have 20.1″ panels with 1680×1050 resolutions, but while the 2009W has a higher contrast ratio and a lower response time, the 2007WFP should have better color reproduction. We’re personally fans of the UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC, which costs considerably more ($1,199) but delivers a stunning 30″, 2560×1600 panel with 12ms response times and a 1000:1 contrast ratio. 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 generally costs less.

Keyboards and mice

In order to beef up our mouse and keyboard recs, we recently started trying out some different mice and keyboards. As a 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 were 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 MX Revolution and G5 are popular choices for gamers. The Logitech MX Revolution is a wireless model with a high-precision laser optical engine, two scroll wheels, and charging cradle. The Revolution is plenty responsive, but hard-core gamers may nonetheless prefer its wired cousin, the Logitech G5. The G5 sports a similar 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/multi-flash-card reader combo like this Koutech 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.

Cooling

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 AT (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.

Conclusions

Our Grand Experiment and Sweet Spot builds have long enjoyed component upgrades as new hardware generations debut at the high end and trickle down to the mainstream. This time, we’ve made some more fundamental changes. The Grand Experiment has become a quad-core box with high-end graphics, while the Sweet Spot now takes after our workstation build thanks to its dual hard drives and Blu-ray reader. This may sound like a tired cliché, but we think now’s an excellent time to build a new PC.

As always, though, new hardware lurks on the horizon. Intel should introduce its next-generation Nehalem processors in the fourth quarter of this year, and AMD is expected to riposte with 45nm Phenoms in the same time frame, if it’s lucky. You may want to think twice about postponing an upgrade until then. Recent rumors suggest the first Nehalem desktop chips will cost upwards of $284 and only support expensive DDR3 memory, though.

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

Comments closed
    • SS4
    • 11 years ago

    For when is the new system guide to be expected 😛

    • Traz
    • 11 years ago

    The atom processor/motherboard should be replaced with the dual core atom processor/motherboard.

    §[< http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813121360<]§

    • kythlyn
    • 11 years ago

    What happened to the link to the complete system for The Sweet Spot?

      • Cyril
      • 11 years ago

      We had to remove the link because Newegg’s shopping cart system was misinterpreting it and adding extra items somehow. It seems to be working again, though, so the link is back in now (as is the one for the Grand Experiment).

    • Al Slitter
    • 11 years ago

    Great article, “The Tech Report” is a five-star site so no problem for me with Newegg being involved.
    However the thing that bothered me was the image heading this article; it showed Corsair XMS Ram being used and throughout the article only Kingston RAM was specified.
    Kingston is fine ram but I would have expected Corsair XMS Ram being at least specified as an alternative!
    I know, I know, picky picky!
    Thanks for the article, Tech Report!

    • indeego
    • 11 years ago

    Like the guides, and the pricepoints. I don’t think you should change anything about the pricepoints as commented below. Being able to look back at years of guides helps keep things consistent.

    I still would go with duo’s over quad’s for sweet spot, and invest in more storage (raid 1 times 2) but otherwise sweet picksg{<...<}g

    • Kunikos
    • 11 years ago

    I’m going to say that in your conclusion the comment about DDR3 being very expensive isn’t nearly as true as it used to be. Yes, you can buy DDR2 for very cheap, however you don’t need nearly as much RAM to still have a fast computer as some people seem to think. 2GB in single-channel configurations has been proven on systems to bench just as high in games as a 2GB (1GBx2) dual channel as well. So buy a single stick of 2GB DDR3 1333 and you’re gravy.

      • Kurotetsu
      • 11 years ago

      Well, one can also say you don’t need DDR3-1333 to have a fast computer either. DDR2-800 or 1066, in single or dual, is plenty for most. Including gamers and overclockers.

    • thermistor
    • 11 years ago

    OK, we gotta stop this Atom-on-desktop love affair.

    I just built a Celeron (core2 based) 420 @ 1.6 Ghz with one 1 Gb memory on a $50 Biostar mobo with 950 graphics. You could get a Celeron E1200, too, for about $40 OEM (I had an Intel OEM heatsink lying around) – which is same specs as the 420 except dual core. For my 5-year-old.

    It is jerky when opening up Windows Media Center, is about the only real problem I see, but it plays DVD’s just fine as long as you are not multi-tasking.

    This cheap proc/mobo (and you can make several examples with AMD parts, too) is comparable (within $10-20) of the Atom soldered on board, is more servicable, and comes with a PCI-E X16 slot if there is ever the need to upgrade to gaming graphics. And it wipes the floor with the Atom on performance.

    Keep the Atom where it belongs…in the ‘netbook’ segment, please. Or wait til there is a worthy low-power chipset in the ITX board format that would a really nifty mac-mini type setup.

    • Coran Fixx
    • 11 years ago

    The Mini-Econobox is extremely weak. You present it as a mainstream alternative when it is really a hobbyist tinkertoy.

    Atom mb + Ram + shipping = $130

    Foxconn 780g + 4050e + 2×1 ram kit + shipping = $157

    $27 more to build something useful.

    • frybread
    • 11 years ago

    Just want to say thanks TR, I bought the Econobox from your June edition, and love playing Crysis with eye candy turned up. I also used your OC guide and overclocked the E2180 by 50% (3GHZ!) on the stock heatsink and it runs nice and cool.

    • danny e.
    • 11 years ago

    ugh

    • shaq_mobile
    • 11 years ago

    gx2 costs the same as a gtx260 and performs better from what i recall…

    anyone agree on gx2 for grand experiment alternative

      • PRIME1
      • 11 years ago

      Just because the GX2 has 2 GPUs does not mean you need to post twice about it 😉

        • shaq_mobile
        • 11 years ago

        yeah sorry i thought the first one didnt post and then i reposted and didnt know how to delete the other comment, sorry 🙁

          • cygnus1
          • 11 years ago

          you edit one and say oops my bad, double post

            • shaq_mobile
            • 11 years ago

            ill remember that, thanks 🙂

    • shaq_mobile
    • 11 years ago

    hmmm seems like the gx2 would be a better buy over a gtx260. anyone else think so?

      • Dissonance
      • 11 years ago

      We don’t factor mail-in rebates into any of our component choices. Also, we have little interest in whether a memory module has any visual flair.

        • SubSeven
        • 11 years ago

        Fair enough on the visual flair. Do you not put any value on having some heatspreaders?

        You may have answered this before elsewhere (and i’m sorry if i’m making you repeat things) but why not take into account rebates? I have sent many a rebate and though some have literally taken more than 6months, i have gotten back every penny. Especially considering that you can potentially cut the cost of a product by over 40%, isn’t that something worth noting?

          • Valhalla926
          • 11 years ago

          The rebate option could disappear tomorrow, making the guide very skewed and incorrect.

          • MadManOriginal
          • 11 years ago

          I agree with you about rebates but I understand they they aren’t included in picing as well. They need to look at ‘common picing’ so the prices will remain relevant regardless of MIRs, barring pice increases. People are free to search for their own deals though and Newegg certainly makes it easy, perhaps he guide could mention a ‘hot deal right now’ that does have an MIR, or mention alternatives, with memory in particular there are many equivalent-performaing vendors.

          • titan
          • 11 years ago

          Heatsinks aren’t really required for memory. At least, not memory designed to operate within industry standard specifications. Even then, it has been shown that just adding a heatsink does little to help the memory run out-of-spec. Moreover, if the systems were designed with overclocking in mind rather than stability, you might have a point.

    • Veerappan
    • 11 years ago

    The link on page 4 to “Buy this complete system at newegg” links to the wrong list of components (includes 2x CPU and 2x 4870’s) which totals up to $1596 instead of the mentioned $1055.

    • denebx
    • 11 years ago

    Great guide as always, but something you may want to consider is giving some alternatives to the mini econobox that maybe aren’t so mini. A $300 bargain bin system would almost always get my attention.

    Also, I could go for $600 econobox, especially if there is a $300 system. Often times I find the $500 budget is just a bit to much of a compromise.

    An example: a $600 budget gets a C2Duo e7200, Radon 4850, GIGABYTE GA-G31M-S2L (A G31 mAtx mobo which isn’t so great, but I wanted a mATX for this dorm room gamer), 2gig DDR2 800, WD SE16 640gig, DVD burner, and a Antec NSK1380 (mATX) case.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 11 years ago

      I was thinking something like what you said as a really nice budget gaming box. The e7200 can oc like mad, I just wouldn’t go for a mATX board, or that one, maybe something that is better known to oc well.

    • Spec4
    • 11 years ago

    I have mixed and matched various items from these articles for my latest gaming rig, but I’m still wishing for the HTPC build to reappear for those contemplating a build in the near future.

    • grantmeaname
    • 11 years ago

    Didn’t the Phenom X4 9950 use less power than the X4 9850, despite the higher TDP?

    • StashTheVampede
    • 11 years ago

    Surprised the 4870x2s were recommended for the higher end box.

    • El_MUERkO
    • 11 years ago

    You mention ESA compliant components as an alternative in the Workstation segment.

    I looked into ESA when I was deciding on a new case purchase and I have to say parts are few and far between.

    I’d love to see more manufacturers support ESA but until they do it’s a waste of cash.

    • herothezero
    • 11 years ago

    Who gives a damn about the Newegg promotion? It’s not like they’re a fly-by-night operation ripping people off left and right, and it sure as hell isn’t compromising TR’s editorial or technical integrity. And I find the TR links for the Newegg products to be quite handy.

    Why don’t the hypocritical anti-corporate/capitalism types just go and shower off their filth or something?

    • titan
    • 11 years ago

    On page six in the storage section:
    l[<...1.28GB JBOD array...<]l I think you meant1.28TB.

      • titan
      • 11 years ago

      Also, the “Buy this complete system at Newegg.com” link isn’t there like it used to be in previous system guides.

    • Prospero424
    • 11 years ago

    I was wondering why two 4870s instead of one 4870 X2 for the workstation build? Is it a multi-monitor thing?

      • Kamisaki
      • 11 years ago

      I also found that a bit odd. The X2 will even have better performance in some cases because it has 1 GB of memory per GPU instead of just 512 MB. Heck, in that build you could even throw in 2 4870 X2’s, if you really wanted to go crazy.

      • nzunit
      • 11 years ago

      Wouldn’t you want a Quadro/FireGL card to give this build true workstation credentials? I am doing a build for a Maya/CAD using friend and everything I have read points towards a workstation class graphics card being pretty neccesary for good performance?

    • mboza
    • 11 years ago

    No -[

      • eitje
      • 11 years ago

      maybe $400, $800, and $1200?

        • rhema83
        • 11 years ago

        Those numbers sound right. When I built my system in July, I paid around $600 for a rig that plays Oblivion smoothly at the highest setting on at 1680×1050. Now that everything got cheaper – especially the HD4850 which I paid MSRP for – a Grand Experiment build can cost $500.

    • herothezero
    • 11 years ago

    Agreed on the cooling changes; Xigmatek and Noctua make much better coolers for equal or less money than Zalman.

      • buildcurious
      • 11 years ago

      Amen.

      I also just learned that “posts with less than 10 words can’t be worth reading”. Awesome error message xD

      But, to elaborate, the Zalman, which is louder and significantly more expensive than the Xigmatek heatsink, can’t match its cooling ability either. Some of the boilerplate just needs a refresh. As always, great guide and much appreciated.

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 11 years ago

    Get rid of the not-so-useful $90 sound card in the Econobox alternative and put a Radeon HD4850 in there.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      That would make the price jump too far above the attractive “500” threshold set. Besides, a lot of users would/could favour a nice soundcard, particularly the model featured here.

        • lex-ington
        • 11 years ago

        Which users would prefer a soundcard in a cheap build?

        Every person I have ever built a cheap computer for uses the on-board sound. They’re not gamers or audiophiles or use it for anything more than internet, e-mail, and your occasional children school project.

        I have to agree with JAE, ditch the soundcard and use the money somewhere else. Bump up the processor, or get a bigger HDD.

          • eitje
          • 11 years ago

          i think i would. every computer i own cost less than $600 to build, and they all have either discrete audio solutions, or are using onboard optical output running to a stereo head unit.

            • Kurotetsu
            • 11 years ago

            As much as I like and support discrete audio, he has a point. Most people going with a budget build like this, and using analog-out, will most likely be tooling around with a pair of very cheap and very crappy PC speakers. With low-end garbage like that, getting a discrete sound card will make absolutely no difference (in fact, a good sound card will make shitty speakers sound as bad as they are).

            You won’t hear a difference between onboard and discrete if your speakers aren’t up to snuff.

      • flip-mode
      • 11 years ago

      Agreed. Discrete audio is a waste for most, including me. There is not a person I know that would spend even $20 on an audio card.

        • Meadows
        • 11 years ago

        Spending 20 (or even less) dollars might even make you end up worse than if you used the onboard audio.

          • Valhalla926
          • 11 years ago

          Amen to this. I made that mistake before, and never will again.

        • elmopuddy
        • 11 years ago

        I hear crackling and popping with my P5K-E’s onboard audio, I don’t with my Xonar DX..

          • Tamale
          • 11 years ago

          sadly, I think it’s hard to make blanket claims about this topic.. some onboard audio chips I’ve heard sound awesome.. and some which are ‘rated’ lower in general end up sounding very nice. It’s kinda hit or miss..

          • lex-ington
          • 11 years ago

          Sorry elmopuddy, but your xonar dx is 20% of the the total $500 system price.

          To me that does not constitute an econobox. The econobox would warrant the SB Audigy SE @ $20.00

          • flip-mode
          • 11 years ago

          I can handle some cracking and popping – I just don’t mind it that much.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 11 years ago

      that’s a heck of a mismatch – a $70 CPU and a $200 video card?

        • SubSeven
        • 11 years ago

        Depends on what you are trying to accomplish. If all you want is an OK pc to surf/school work then yah, even 8800gt is way too much. However, if you do quite a bit of gaming then a good card like a 4850 wouldn’t be such a bad idea. I’d downgrade the HD to an WD SE16 250GB and save 25 bucks. For someone that isn’t into media (music/dvds), 250GB is plenty of space. I have yet to fill my 80GB.

          • Flying Fox
          • 11 years ago

          Or if they want to Fold on the machine.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 11 years ago

            Or if they OC the CPU which ought to be very easy even with stock heatsink.

        • flip-mode
        • 11 years ago

        Disagree. Just don’t need much CPU to game.

        • eitje
        • 11 years ago

        there’s plenty of proof that a reasonable video card paired with a low-end proc is good enough. I had a pretty good experience detailing such with regards to some EPIAs and low-end, discrete video cards. It’s in the forums. 😉

    • Pachyuromys
    • 11 years ago

    I noticed you’ve added the “Powered by Newegg” logo. Why don’t you just call the article “The Newegg Back To School Sale?” Or haven’t they ponied up enough for full sell-out naming rights yet?

    Despite all the “full disclosure” statements, clearly defined advertising is one thing, but an article that’s little more than “Go buy this at Newegg” is something else.

    • redavni
    • 11 years ago

    I built a system almost exactly like the econobox 3 weeks ago, same MB, same burner, same HD. I spent a total of $135 extra though, and I got the e8400, some Crucial 1066Mhz RAM, an Antec 430 PSU, a nice Cooler Master case, and an ATI 3650.

    I skimped on the video card, but I think upgrading this system will be a lot cheaper than the extra $135 I spent now. I’m willing to bet the 4850 or gtx260 equivalent performance will be available for $150 in a year.

      • Tamale
      • 11 years ago

      the 4850 is $150 right now if you get a nice deal..

    • jackaroon
    • 11 years ago

    It seems goofy to make a build targeted for ~$1000 right now. By switching to a 4850 and making the E8500 the default, an ~$800 just seems more relevant. If I had some reason that the number $1000 (or $1055) were really important to me (if i were spending Brewster’s $1055 in the low budget sequel), sure, that’s probably the best build . . . but I just don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone. Hey, that’s what the alternatives are for though.

      • rhema83
      • 11 years ago

      I am also suprised that the HD4850 was not recommended for any build. For anyone who does not want to spend a grand on a system, but still wants to run most of the latest games with eye candies, nothing beats the HD4850 bang-for-buck. Downgrade to a dual core and you have enough change for a decent 22″ monitor.

        • Tamale
        • 11 years ago

        agreed.. didn’t we already establish that the 4850 is the best value right now by far?

    • Jive
    • 11 years ago

    Great guide as always, but i think its time to update your cooling recommendation. We haven’t had a review of CPU heatsink/fans in quite a while, and i think you can find better value cooling then the good ol’ Zalman 9500.

      • Jambe
      • 11 years ago

      Yeah, the cooler section could use a refresh. Perhaps you could look into towers from Xigmatech or Sumbeam which have the heat pipes directly contacting the CPU — they seem to have impressive performance.

      • mboza
      • 11 years ago

      Is that not a ninja in the photo? Personally, I would not have recommended the Zalman 9500 even when it was new, as not being as quiet as a ninja or as cool as some of the other towers, and it is probably well beaten by the latest coolers.

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