review trs fall 2008 system guide

TR’s fall 2008 system guide

The holiday season looms, and you can tell by just looking at hardware prices: processors, graphics cards, and memory are cheaper than ever, and some interesting new products have had time to slip out into the wild just before the impending shopping rush. It’s definitely time for a new system guide.

However, we faced a bit of a dilemma with this update. You see, Intel says it plans to release next-generation Core i7 processors next month, and the rumor mill has repeatedly hinted that those chips might cost as little as $284 when they come out. Telling readers to buy high-end Core 2 systems now would make no sense, but our system guide still needed an update. What to do?

In the end, we opted to rethink the guide’s price targets and focus on cheaper configurations. We had been planning such a move for a while, anyway, because the hardware pricing landscape has evolved quite a bit since we started publishing system guides. We’ve therefore replaced our traditional $500, $1,000, $1,500, and ~$2,500 builds with more wallet-friendly $300, $500, $800, and $1200 configurations. These new setups are more affordable, and you’d be surprised how much you can get for even 800 bucks these days.

We expect these builds are safely out of the way of the incoming Core i7 tide, as well. Even if Core i7 chips do cost as little as $284, you’ll still need to pair them with expensive DDR3 RAM and presumably pricy X58 motherboards. By contrast, our fastest config in this guide includes a $270 CPU, a $130 motherboard, and cheap DDR2 RAM. Read on for all the details.

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 $300, $500, $800 and $1200 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 Lite
As tight as it gets—but with room for more

What’s this? We priced out an ultra-compact “Mini-Econobox” with an Atom processor in our last system guide, but we were curious to see if you could get a faster, more upgrade-friendly desktop for the same price. Turns out we can. While it has a bigger footprint, the Econobox Lite packs far better components than any Atom rig—and you can easily upgrade it with a speedy dual-core processor and a state-of-the-art graphics card.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Celeron 430 $39.99
Motherboard Foxconn M7VMX-K $43.99
Memory 2GB Kingston DDR2-667 $28.99
Graphics Integrated $0
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 320GB $59.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480B w/380W PSU $79.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $279.94

We’ve dumped the Intel Atom N230 in favor of the Conroe-based Celeron 430. Think of this chip as a 65nm Core 2 Duo with one of its cores lopped off, much of its L2 cache disabled, and a 35W power envelope. The Celeron 430 won’t blow your mind with its multitasking abilities, but it should perform far better overall than anything in the Atom line. This CPU uses the same LGA775 package as Intel’s fastest desktop CPUs, too, so we can pick a more full-featured motherboard to go with it.

You generally shouldn’t expect much from sub-$50 motherboards, but the Foxconn M7VMX-K looks surprisingly compelling for the price. This board’s GeForce 7050 “motherboard GPU” should beat the pants off cheaper Intel integrated graphics, and its PCI Express x16 slot can accommodate a full-blown graphics card. (By contrast, Atom Mini-ITX motherboards typically feature a lone PCI slot.) Best of all, the M7VMX-K supports Core 2 processors with 1066MHz front-side bus speeds, so you should be able to pop in something like a Core 2 Duo E7300 or a Core 2 Quad Q6600 if that Celeron starts feeling too slow. On the flip side, though, Foxconn only includes a VGA display connector.

We haven’t tried this board ourselves, but the customer reviews on Newegg look quite encouraging overall. Yes, we know—some of you might be about to jump in the comments section and say Newegg readers are clueless. Think about it this way, though: while Joe six-pack might not be able to appreciate the finer points of motherboard design, if 86% of Newegg users are giving this board four- or five-star ratings, we can probably discount show-stopping problems and major flaws.

With memory prices the way they are, 2GB is a great place to start for a budget system. Our recommended mobo apparently has a single memory channel, and Foxconn says it supports DDR2-800 RAM only by overclocking, so we’re playing it safe with a single 2GB module of DDR2-667 RAM. We’re going with a Kingston DIMM here because it’s the cheapest one Newegg has, and because it comes from a trusted manufacturer that offers a lifetime warranty and 24/7 technical support.

Western Digital’s 7,200-RPM hard drives tend to be fast, quiet, and cheap. This one is no exception. We actually recommended the 320GB Caviar SE16 for our $500 Econobox system in many previous system guides, and now that it costs just $60, we think it complements the Econobox Lite nicely.

On the optical side of things, Samsung’s SH-S223Q gets our vote because of 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
We went a bit crazy here and picked the Antec NSK 4480B case and power supply bundle we usually recommend for our Econobox. Bear with us, though. If you’re buying a $300 system, we expect you’ll hold on to components like the case and power supply for as long as possible. The NSK 4480B will last not just because Antec uses quality components to make it, but also because its 380W EarthWatts power supply and roomy insides can accommodate much faster hardware (and more of it).

Besides, we think even a $300 system deserves a quality PSU. Cheap, bargain-bin units might look appealing, but their manufacturers often embellish specifications and cut corners where they shouldn’t. In the end, a cheap PSU can jeopardize system stability, damage sensitive components over time, and potentially even flame out in spectacular fashion, taking several system components with it in the process.

Incidentally, this is the black version of the NSK 4480. We picked it because Newegg inexplicably charges more for the silver-bezeled model we usually recommend.

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

Instead of being the cheapest possible combination of parts, the Econobox fills in as our affordable gaming and general use system. 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 E5200 $83.99
Motherboard Asus P5Q SE/R $102.99
Memory 2GB Kingston DDR2-800 $30.49
Graphics BFG GeForce 9800 GT $119.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480B w/380W PSU $79.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $519.43

Intel’s 45nm dual-core processors have finally trickled down well under the $100 mark, which gives us the opportunity to select one for our Econobox. The Pentium E5200 totes a pair of 45nm Penryn cores clocked at 2.5GHz with 2MB of shared L2 cache and an 800MHz FSB. Considering the clock-for-clock performance (never mind the overclocking potential) of Penryn CPUs, that’s an excellent starting point for our Econobox.

We’re once again recommending a P45-based mobo over a P35 model, since the Intel P45 chipset draws less power, has better overclocking potential, and offers PCI Express 2.0 support. Asus’ P5Q SE/R gets the nod this time because it’s slightly cheaper than the Gigabyte equivalent, and because it offers RAID support for those looking to improve performance, redundancy, or both. RAID is a rare commodity on budget boards that use Intel chipsets, so it’s refreshing to see it here.

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 dual-channel kit is one of the cheapest in its class at just over $30, 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.

We’ve swapped out the GeForce 8800 GT from our last Econobox for this BFG GeForce 9800 GT. On paper, the 9800 GT is effectively a re-branded 8800 GT that may or may not have a 55nm GPU. This BFG card is “factory overclocked” to 635MHz for the core and 925MHz for the memory, however, so it should outperform vanilla 8800 GTs. Considering the low price and the fact that BFG offers lifetime warranty coverage with 24/7 tech support, we’re happy with the upgrade.

This Caviar SE16 hard drive from Western Digital simultaneously delivers a 640GB storage capacity, excellent performance, very low noise levels, and a bargain-basement price. What’s not to like? Well, some folks won’t be too enamored with the drive’s three-year warranty. For that reason, we’re recommending Seagate’s competing offering as an alternative on the next page.

As for our optical drive, Samsung’s SH-S223Q fits in just as well here as in the Econobox Lite. Its Serial ATA interface should make it reasonably future-proof, and we like the combination of positive user reviews and low pricing.

Enclosure and power
Antec’s NSK 4480B case and power supply bundle returns from the Econobox Lite, too. We’re again going with the black 4480B model because Newegg charges more for the silver variant.

This bundle has everything the Econobox needs: a quality, high-efficiency power supply that provides a little upgrading headroom; a roomy case with good cooling; and a reasonable price tag. There are cheaper possibilities out there, but we don’t think you’d be able to save a whole lot by going with lower-quality components. And as we’ve noted on the previous page, using a cheap power supply can have disastrous effects in the long run.

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 5400+ Black Edition $77.00
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H $79.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 4670 $79.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 640GB $79.99

AMD can’t quite match the performance and power efficiency of Intel’s Pentium E5200 in this price range. However, the Athlon X2 5400+ Black Edition costs less, should perform well enough, and has an unlocked upper multiplier that can make overclocking a breeze. Coupled with our 780G motherboard, this CPU can serve as a middle ground for folks who don’t care about discrete graphics but still want something better than the Econobox Lite.

Note that this processor doesn’t come with a cooler in the box, so you’ll need to purchase an aftermarket heatsink and fan. This Rosewill model costs only $20 with free shipping and has good user reviews. If you’d rather pay a little less overall, you can also grab a 3.1GHz Athlon X2 6000+ (which comes with a boxed cooler) for $92. That chip does have a higher thermal envelope, though.

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 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 has great user reviews on Newegg.

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

If you’re a casual gamer and want to save a few bucks, the Radeon HD 4670 is a capable alternative to the GeForce 9800 GT. As we found in our review, AMD’s new budget card can run most current games (with the notable exceptions of Crysis and Crysis Warhead) at 1280×1024 or 1680×1050 with some of the detail turned up. Considering the sheer number of not-so-demanding console ports out there, you may find the 4670 capable enough for your needs.

As we hinted on the previous page, Seagate’s 640GB Barracuda 7200.11 is the drive to get if you crave five years of warranty coverage. This model costs $5 more than the Caviar SE16, though, and we don’t expect it to perform as well or run as quiet.

The Utility Player
Value without major compromises

Our reshuffling of traditional TR builds begins with the Utility Player. This machine packs a fast dual-core processor, one of the speediest sub-$200 graphics cards out there, and some nice extras—all for just over $800.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 $164.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3R $126.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $56.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 4850 $159.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $26.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $129.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $830.92

The 3GHz Core 2 Duo E8400 really seems like the sweet spot in this price range. It costs $30 more than the 2.66GHz Core 2 Duo E7300, but it has a higher clock speed, a faster front-side bus, and twice as much cache. The E8400 also costs $25 less than the Core 2 Duo E8500, and it’s only slower by a paltry 166MHz.

The Utility Player’s 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 take our Core 2 Duo E8400 up to 4.5GHz.

Kingston happens to have some of the cheapest memory available on Newegg right now, so we keep going back to it. The firm’s 4GB DDR2-800 kit costs only $57, and we think that’s a steal for four gigs of speedy DDR2 RAM from a reputable company that offers lifetime warranty coverage. 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 also recommend it for this system. Check our operating system section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.

The Radeon HD 4850 seems almost tailor-made for machines like the Utility Player. Variants like this Sapphire model cost as little as $160, yet the 4850 can effortlessly plow through most games at high resolutions with the detail turned up (and, depending on the title, some level of antialiasing enabled). Don’t look forward to playing Crysis Warhead at 2560×1600 with 8X antialiasing if you order this card, but do expect smooth frame rates in Call of Duty 4 and Race Driver: GRID at 1920×1200 with 4X AA.

As we pointed out earlier, Western Digital’s 640GB Caviar SE16 delivers excellent performance, very low noise levels, and an ample 640GB capacity at a very tantalizing price. 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.

We’re sticking with the Samsung SH-S223Q for our optical drive. DVD burners have become commodity items these days, so we’re not terribly inclined to get something fancier just because of our more generous budget.

Lately, it seems that many folks are scoffing at the mere suggestion that one might want to use a discrete sound card. Integrated motherboard audio has certainly come a long way, but if you’re using analog outputs, even the best solutions still don’t sound very good when hooked up to half-way decent speakers or headphones. If you’re spending over $800 on a system like this one, we believe something like Asus’ Xonar DX is in order. This card sounds great, supports features like real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding, and does a decent job of emulating Creative’s EAX 5.0 positional audio effects in games. Unless you plan to use $5 RadioShack headphones forever, you won’t regret this purchase.

Enclosure and power
The Antec Sonata III costs more than the NSK 4480B in our two cheaper configs, but it has more perks: 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.

Utility Player alternatives
As with the Econobox, we have some alternative propositions for how to fill out the Utility Player.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom 9850 Black Edition $169.00
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA790GP-DS4H $128.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 260 $239.99
Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 640GB $89.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $149.99

Phenoms haven’t done very well against Intel’s 45nm Core 2 Quads, but AMD has cut prices dramatically, dropping the Phenom 9850 Black Edition to just under $170. That puts it on the same playing field as the E8400, which has a higher clock speed but two fewer cores. Depending on what kind of tasks you run from day to day, you may find the Phenom’s two extra cores more useful—like, say, if you do a lot of heavy multitasking or 3D rendering.

This chip has an unlocked upper multiplier, too. Coupled with our recommended motherboard’s SB750 south bridge, that could allow for a relatively meaty overclock, provided you don’t mind the extra heat output and fan noise.

Gigabyte’s GA-MA790GP-DS4H mates the SB750 with a 790GX chipset, two PCI Express x16 slots, and Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics at a very reasonable price. We actually recommended this board’s Asus counterpart in our previous system guide, but the Gigabyte specimen is now available, costs $20 less, and fared well enough on our test bench.

The SB750 south bridge has a feature AMD calls Advanced Clock Calibration that can significantly improve the overclocking headroom of Phenom processors. For that reason, we think an SB750-equipped motherboard is really a must if you’re getting our alternative CPU.

Nvidia technically competes against the Radeon HD 4850 with its GeForce 9800 GTX+, but we’ve picked a GeForce GTX 260 as our alternative. Simply put, the GTX 260 is faster than either card, and it’s somewhat of a bargain at just $240. If you’d like to game on a larger monitor but can’t quite afford a Radeon HD 4870 or one of the new GTX 260s with 216 stream processors, this is the best step up from our primary recommendation.

Again, you should consider Seagate’s 640GB Barracuda 7200.11 if you’d like five years of warranty coverage instead of three. Be prepared for potentially lower performance and higher noise levels, though.

Finally, you might be wondering what LG’s GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive is doing in our alternatives section. We realize this is an expensive step up from our Samsung DVD burner, but we think some users will happily cough up a little extra for Blu-ray playback support. This drive can play HD DVDs, too, in case you find any of those lying around.

The Sweeter Spot
Indulgence without excess

The $1,500 Sweet Spot from system guides of old has gone, leaving its place to the $1,200 Sweeter Spot. Think of the Sweet Spot as brown sugar and the Sweeter Spot as white sugar. All we’ve done is cut the indulgent molasses, making the Sweeter Spot lighter on your wallet while keeping its payload of essential enthusiast hardware.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q9400 $269.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3R $126.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $56.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce 260 GTX Reloaded $299.99
Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $74.99
Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $26.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Antec NeoPower 550W $49.99
Enclosure Antec P182 $119.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $1190.90

With the Utility Player, we suggested a choice between fast dual-core and slower quad-core processors. You don’t have to make that choice here. The Core 2 Quad Q9400‘s 2.66GHz clock speed and Penryn cores should allow it to tailgate higher-clocked Core 2 Duos in single-threaded apps, and thanks to its four cores, it can zoom well ahead in multithreaded apps. We think that versatility makes the Q9400 a pretty sweet deal for just $270. Some of you may disagree and prefer a slightly faster model with more cache, though, in which case you’ll want to check out our alternatives section on the next page.

The Utility Player’s Gigabyte P45 motherboard doubles as our recommendation for the Sweeter Spot. Considering the GA-EP45-DS3R‘s features, overclocking potential, and price, we see no reason to outfit the Sweeter Spot with anything more extravagant—especially since we’re trying to stay reasonable here.

We’re also going with the same 4GB Kingston DDR2-800 kit we used in the Utility Player, 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 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.

We’re shying away from multi-GPU setups for the Sweeter Spot’s primary config, since today’s $300 graphics cards perform beautifully even on big 24″ monitors with the detail turned up. Our recent analysis of the $300 GeForce GTX 260 “Reloaded” and Radeon HD 4870 1GB ended in a virtual tie, but when forced to choose here, we’ve decided to go with the GeForce. It’s not that the Nvidia card is faster (the two offerings are very closely matched); we just think the GeForce is more compelling for other reasons.

Nvidia has forged a close relationship with many game developers through its “The Way It’s Meant To Be Played” program and other initiatives. Often, lately, newly released titles have worked better on Nvidia GPUs. The GTX 260 Reloaded draws less power than the 4870 1GB, which should require less heat to be dissipated. The difference doesn’t amount to much under load, but we measured a 30W gap between the two cards at idle. (That’s at least two of those swirly light bulbs.) We could also make a case for Nvidia’s PhysX tech, but the list of consumer apps and games that support it is very short indeed right now.

The Zotac card we recommend has additional upsides, too. One of those is higher clocks: 649MHz core, 1404MHz shader, and 1053MHz memory speeds (up from the default 576/1242/999MHz). Also, this card comes bundled with Race Driver: GRID, and Zotac covers it with a lifetime warranty. Well, technically, the warranty coverage bumps down to two years if you don’t register within 30 days of purchase, but that’s not a bad deal either way.

As we noted in our recent review, the choice between this new GeForce GTX 260 with 216 SPs and the Radeon HD 4870 1GB is an exceptionally close one that may boil down to bundled extras or your personal preference. See our alternatives section for the other side of the story here.

Our storage recommendation might seem odd, but we find a pair of 640GB WD Caviar SE16s more compelling than a single, higher-capacity drive. You’d have to pay much more than $75 to get 750GB or 1TB hard drives with the same mix of great performance and low noise levels that the SE16s enjoy. Also, 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).

We’re leaving the Blu-ray drive from our Utility Player alternatives out of the primary config here, opting instead for Samsung’s SH-S223Q. Blu-ray is nice, but we’re striving to keep the Sweeter Spot relatively affordable, and we think most folks will be happy with just a DVD burner.

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 Sweeter Spot.

Power Supply
We picked a more upscale enclosure for this system, which forces us to go hunting for a separate power supply. Antec’s NeoPower 550W earned a TR Recommended award for its long warranty, high efficiency, and modular cabling. Considering Newegg now sells it for $50, this unit gets our vote here. We weren’t quite as impressed with the NeoPower’s noise levels, but it’s not loud by any means—just not as quiet as pricier offerings.

Antec’s P182 case isn’t particularly cheap, but it has many perks, including composite panels, adjustable-speed 120mm fans, partitioned cooling zones, and a cable management system that lets you run cables behind the motherboard tray. The cooling design and composite panels in particular should enable delightfully low noise levels given the Sweeter Spot’s relatively quiet components.

Sweeter Spot alternatives
Perhaps you want an AMD graphics card, or maybe you’d rather trick out the Sweeter Spot a little more. Either way, our Sweeter Spot alternatives should cover your needs.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 $319.99
PowerColor Radeon HD 4870 1GB $299.99
Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB $279.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB $124.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $149.99
Power supply
PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 $134.99
TV tuner
AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe $94.99

Although it’s not a huge step up, the Core 2 Quad Q9550 has a clock speed advantage and twice the cache of the Core 2 Quad Q9400 in our primary recommendations. Since the Q9550 costs only $50 more, we think it’s a worthwhile step up for folks who have a little extra cash kicking around.

We’ve already detailed our motives for picking the GeForce GTX 260 “Reloaded” on the previous page. If you disagree with us for whatever reason—be it a penchant for red circuit boards, AMD’s driver control panel, or monthly driver releases—you should be happy with the Radeon HD 4870 1GB. We’ve selected this particular variant because PowerColor clocks its core and memory at a respective 800MHz and 925MHz (up from the default 750MHz/900MHz). Unlike the Nvidia card, though, this offering doesn’t come with an excellent bundled game or optional lifetime warranty coverage.

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, making it an ideal operating system and application drive.

If you get the Raptor, or you’re just after a higher-capacity solution for mass storage, the 1TB Caviar Green should make a fine secondary drive. This offering has a lower spindle speed, but its performance is adequate, its noise levels and power consumption are very low, and at $130, it’s pretty cheap. Do note that this is the “old” version of the drive with 250GB platters—the 333GB/platter version doesn’t seem to be available yet.

Last, but not least, movie lovers may want to complement the Sweeter Spot with LG’s GGC-H20L. This drive burns DVDs and reads both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, so it should prove a capable all-around choice.

Power supply
Let’s be clear: you really don’t need a 750W power supply to feed the Sweeter Spot. However, we’d recommend PC Power & Cooling’s 750W Silencer if you’re planning to run a pair of Radeon HD 4870s in tandem. High-end graphics cards draw a lot of power, so you’ll want the additional headroom in that case. The Silencer won an Editor’s Choice Award in our enthusiast power supply round-up and retained that crown in our latest PSU comparo. With a five-year warranty, remarkably low noise levels, very clean power delivery, high efficiency, and dual 8-pin PCI Express power connectors, the Silencer should accommodate dual high-end GPUs perfectly. This PSU is quite long, though, and it’s somewhat of a tight fit in our recommended case.

TV tuner
The AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe we picked for our last home-theater PC build has returned here, since we figure you might want to hook up the Sweeter Spot to a high-definition TV. This tuner has a PCI Express x1 interface, inputs for both analog and digital TV, support for ATSC and Clear QAM high-definition digital TV standards, and a hardware MPEG encoder with 3D comb and ghost reduction filters. On top of that, the AVerTV is certified for Windows Vista x86 and x64, and it comes with a Vista Media Center-ready remote control. The user reviews on Newegg are quite positive, too.

We suggest running either Windows Vista Home Premium or Windows Vista Ultimate if you get this tuner, since both OSes come with Microsoft’s Windows Media Center software (see the following page for details). You might also want to grab the Windows Media Center TV Pack, which adds support for tuning unencrypted digital cable and other improvements.

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:

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 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 retail release in January 2007, 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 $159.99 $222.99 $278.99 $267.49

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. We don’t have a full set of recommendations at multiple price levels in the categories below, but we can make general observations and point out specific products that are worthy of your consideration. What you ultimately choose in these areas will probably depend heavily on 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 little reason to avoid LCDs.

Despite their near-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: whether their display has a 6-bit twisted nematic + film (TN+film) panel. Most sub-$500 monitors have 6-bit TN panels, which means 18-bit color definition instead of standard 24-bit color. Those panels use dithering to simulate colors that are out of their scope, yielding sub-optimal color accuracy, and they often have poor viewing angles on top of that. 8-bit panels typically look better, although they tend to have higher response times and loftier prices.

So, what should you get? We think that largely depends on which of our systems you’re planning to build. For instance, folks who purchase the Sweeter Spot ought to splurge on a nice 8-bit, 24″ display—perhaps the latest revision of Dell’s 2408WFP, which seems to lack the kinks of the original model. Pairing the Sweeter Spot with a small, $200 display would really be a waste, since high-end graphics cards provide headroom specifically for gaming at high resolutions. It’d be a bit like hooking up a Blu-ray player to a standard-def TV.

We think the Utility Player matches up well with less expensive monitors, including cheaper 20″, 22″, and 24″ displays with TN panels. Picky users may scoff at 6-bit displays, but they’re quite a bit cheaper and more than adequate for most applications. As for the Econobox, something like a sub-$200 19″ or 20″ LCD should do fine. If you need something to pair with the Econobox Lite, we suggest either bargain-hunting on deal sites or dumpster-diving. Just make sure to avoid displays that only have DVI inputs—the Econobox Lite only has a VGA output.

Mice and keyboards
New mice seem to crop up every other week, but we tend to favor offerings from Logitech and Microsoft because both companies typically make quality products and offer great warranty coverage. (Nothing beats getting a free, retail-boxed mouse if your old one starts behaving erratically.) Everyone has his preferences when it comes to scroll wheel behavior, the number of buttons present, and control panel software features, but one particular attribute lies at the heart of debates: wirelessness.

Wireless mice have come a long way over the past few years, and you can expect a relatively high-end one to feel just as responsive as a wired mouse. However, some folks—typically gamers—find all wireless mice laggy, and they don’t like the extra weight of the batteries. Tactile preferences are largely subjective, but wireless mice do have a few clear advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, you can use them anywhere on your desk or from a distance, and you don’t run the risk of snagging the cable. That said, good wireless mice cost more than their wired cousins, and they force you to keep an eye on battery life. Some favor wireless mice with docking cradles for that reason, since those let you plug in at night and not have to worry about finding a pair of charged AAs in the middle of a Team Fortress 2 match.

We can also find two distinct schools of thoughts on the keyboard front. 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. Others 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 thumb drives and broadband Internet access, floppy drives have essentially been rendered obsolete. They can still come in handy in some rare instances, though. 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 may prove more useful over the long run, and you’re not paying a whole lot more.

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, offer decent cooling performance with reasonably low noise levels. However, if you want an even quieter system, additional overclocking headroom, or both, you may want to look into an aftermarket CPU cooler. We’re fans of Zalman’s CNPS9500 AT (and the CNPS9500 AM2 for AMD Socket AM2 processors), but there are plenty of alternatives, from massive, tower-style heatsinks with 120mm fans (like Scythe’s SCINF-1000) to elaborate liquid cooling kits. We generally prefer air coolers paired with large fans because big fans move more air per revolution and can thus spin slower, producing less noise than their smaller counterparts.

Finishing up this system guide feels a bit like settling into a new house. While our structure and methodology has remained largely unchanged, we’ve essentially started from scratch and scrapped all but one of our usual builds. As a result, we think this latest guide is better suited to today’s cheaper hardware prices. The $830 Utility Player is a particularly important addition, since it reflects the kind of machine many enthusiasts will be eyeing.

As we stated at the beginning of the guide, Intel’s next-gen Core i7 processors should arrive next month. The new chips will likely give us an opportunity to add a higher-end system to our next guide, but we think you’re safe going with the configurations we recommended here. We may not see major changes in the sub-$250 processor arena until AMD rolls out its 45nm Phenoms either later this year or early in 2009.

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 old ones, so you’ll find plenty of company—and help—if you’re not feeling particularly confident about a new build.

About Cyril Kowaliski