TR’s April 2009 system guide

Say what you will about the recession and the global economy, but we’ve seen some absolute bargains in the PC hardware market these past few months—and that trend only seems to be accelerating.

A large part of that has to do with competition. AMD’s new Phenom II processors are on equal footing with Intel’s mid-range offerings, which has led to bargains in that part of the market. On the GPU front, Nvidia and AMD are engaged in an aggressive tug of war with practically equivalent products and successive waves of price cuts. On top of that, shrunken global demand and oversupply have caused memory prices to plummet.

The result of this perfect storm is visible in our Utility Player system, which we’ve managed to bring under $700, despite including a fast triple-core Phenom II, a GeForce GTX 260 reloaded, four gigs of RAM, and an accompaniment of quality parts. That’s as good a gaming system as most folks need right now. For those who want a little extra, our base Core i7 config is now cheaper than ever at just over $1,300, partly thanks to sub-$100 6GB DDR3-1600 memory kits.

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 generally 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, $800 and $1200 budgets for our three cheapest 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

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 $69.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-UD3LR $102.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $43.99
Graphics PowerColor Radeon HD 4850 512MB $114.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $25.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480B w/380W PSU $69.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $502.93

Processor

Intel’s 45nm Pentium E5200 is enjoying its fourth term in our Econobox configuration. Yes, AMD has become competitive again thanks to the Phenom II line, but it doesn’t offer any new or exciting processors for less than $100. For the most part, AMD’s just selling the same old 65nm Athlon X2s from its glory days. There’s the Phenom-derived Athlon X2 7750, too, but that chip’s 95W power envelope is needlessly high for a dual-core offering—and it probably doesn’t help with overclocking.

All things considered, we don’t think AMD delivers a budget processor with as good a mix of price, power efficiency, performance, and overclocking potential as the Pentium E5200. If really want to give AMD your money (or you’re just after something a little faster), then we suggest looking into our triple-core Phenom II alternative on the next page.

Finally, you might wonder why we’re not going with a faster 45nm Pentium like the E5300 or E5400. That’s certainly a possibility, but those CPUs cost more and have little to offer over the E5200 aside from relatively small clock speed increases. The E5200 still has a pair of speedy 45nm Wolfdale cores, and any minor differences ought to vanish once you start overclocking.

Motherboard

P45 motherboards are pretty cheap nowadays, so there’s no sense in not outfitting the Econobox with something like Gigabyte’s GA-EP45-UD3LR. This board has much in common with the Asus P5Q SE Plus we recommended last time, but it has a few little extra perks: more USB ports at the back, more (and better-positioned) PCI Express x1 slots, a coaxial S/PDIF port, and full chipset RAID capabilities. Considering the Gigabyte is only $6 more, we think it’s a better all-around choice.

Memory

RAM prices have gotten to a point where we really have no qualms about outfitting even a budget setup with 4GB of memory. Stepping down to 2GB would save about 20 bucks, and unless you were to throw this system out after a few months, chances are you’d need to upgrade eventually anyway. We’re going with this Kingston kit again because it’s one of the cheapest big-name-brand offerings available from Newegg with a lifetime warranty and decent latency ratings.

By the way, you’ll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of all this memory. 32-bit OS’s do have enough address space for 4GB of RAM, but that figure is an upper limit for all memory in a system, including video RAM. In practice, that means 32-bit versions of Windows will only let you use 3 to 3.5GB of actual system memory—and they’ll normally restrict each application’s RAM budget to 2GB.

Workarounds do exist for 32-bit Windows, but Microsoft says they can hurt compatibility; it advises that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. Since Vista x64 is more than mature enough these days, you might as well run that. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.

Graphics

If you’re wondering why the Econobox costs a tad more than last time, this is the reason. A Radeon HD 4850 used to set you back around $150 until a few weeks ago, but at $115, it’s now a perfect fit for the Econobox. Our latest round of mainstream GPU benchmarks shows that the 4850 has enough brawn to run games like Far Cry 2 at 1680×1050 with antialiasing enabled. Some titles, like Left 4 Dead, are even playable at 2560×1600 with 4X AA.

The PowerColor Radeon HD 4850 we chose doesn’t have any noteworthy attributes (aside, perhaps, from the presence of DisplayPort, HDMI, and DVI ports on its I/O plate), but it’s the cheapest at Newegg—by far. Customer reviews look positive overall, as well.

Storage

Western Digital’s 640GB hard drives are all priced in the $70-80 range. While the Caviar Black sits in the upper part of that spectrum, we think it’s the best choice for a system drive. Not only does it have a 32MB cache, a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, and the same noise level ratings as the slower SE16 model, but WD also covers it with a five-year warranty. As far as we know, no competing 640GB hard drive has specifications quite as good or warranty coverage quite as long. (Seagate no longer covers bare drives for five years.)

For our optical storage option, Samsung’s SH-S223Q still fits in just fine here. The 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 remains our enclosure of choice for the Econobox. This bundle has everything the Econobox needs: a quality, high-efficiency power supply that provides a little upgrade headroom; a roomy case with good cooling; and a reasonable price tag.

You might find cheaper cases out there, but we don’t think you’ll be able to save a whole lot by going with lower-quality components. Besides, bargain-bin power supplies generally have inflated specifications. A cheap PSU can also jeopardize system stability, damage sensitive components over time, and potentially even flame out in spectacular fashion—taking system components with it in the process.

Econobox alternatives

We’re happy with our primary selections, but not everybody will want an Intel processor or discrete graphics. Since users’ needs will invariably, er, vary, we’ve gathered a list of alternatives and extras below.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition $134.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA780G-UD3H $89.99
Graphics XFX GeForce GTS 250 1GB $144.99

Processor

Athlon X2s may not be particularly interesting alternatives to Intel’s cheap duallies, but the Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition isn’t that expensive a step up, either—and it’s an altogether different class of product capable of much stronger performance. Heck, we’d even pick the 720 over Intel’s $165 Core 2 Duo E8400 for general desktop use. The Phenom offers a similar level of performance in many single-threaded apps, but it can zoom past the E8400 in multi-threaded tasks thanks to its extra core. Also, the Phenom’s unlocked multiplier makes it easier to overclock.

Motherboard

We have a budget to think about, so we’re recommending a motherboard with integrated graphics to complement the triple-core Phenom. We view this combo as an alternative to the Pentium, P45, and discrete graphics trifecta. That trifecta better suits shoppers who care about gaming and GPU performance. If you don’t need particularly powerful graphics, we think you’ll be better off spending the same amount of cash on a system with a CPU that has more and faster cores.

The main job of our chosen Gigabyte GA-MA780G-UD3H is to accommodate the Phenom II X3 720. However, this board also happens to feature AMD’s very capable Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics processor, which can still handle casual games and high-definition video playback. That’s about all the graphics horsepower many folks will need from a $500 PC.

Graphics

Naturally, some readers may want more GPU power than what our default configuration offers—not less. XFX’s GeForce GTS 250 1GB should serve those users well, because its 1GB of memory and high clock speeds enable it to produce smooth frame rates at higher resolutions (and with more eye candy) than the Radeon HD 4850. Variants of the 4850 with a gig of RAM do exist, mind you, but they’re not quite as fast or as cheap. This XFX card has a double lifetime warranty and a free copy of Call of Duty: World at War thrown in, so there’s little not to like.

The Utility Player
Value without major compromises

Our Utility Player build packs a fast triple-core processor, one of the speediest single-GPU graphics cards out there, and some nice extras—all for just under $700. As affordable as this system is, it should be an excellent choice for playing the latest wave of PC games.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition $134.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA790X-UD4P $109.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $43.99
Graphics BFG GeForce GTX 260 reloaded $178.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $25.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $119.99
Total  Buy this complete system at Newegg $688.93

Processor

As we pointed out on the previous page—and in our review—the Phenom II X3 720 exhibits a unique combination of good single-threaded performance (thanks to its high core clock speed), good multi-threaded performance (thanks to its third core), and easy-as-pie overclocking (thanks to its unlocked upper multiplier). That means it’s competitive with the pricier Core 2 Duo E8400 in single-threaded apps, but it’s generally quite a bit faster in both multi-threaded apps and multi-tasking scenarios. This Phenom looks to be a nice little overclocker, too: we managed to get ours to 3.5GHz with a modest voltage boost.

Going with an AMD platform at this stage also presents other advantages. Intel’s future mainstream dual- and quad-core processors based on the Core i7 architecture will use a new, yet-unreleased socket, leaving LGA775 with little to no upgrade path. By contrast, all AMD Socket AM3 processors that come out through 2010 should be compatible with AM2+ mobos like the one we’ve chosen here.

If you’d rather step up to a Phenom II X4 (or an Intel quad-core), see our alternatives section on the next page.

Motherboard

Gigabyte’s GA-MA790X-UD4P has almost everything you’d want for a build like the Utility Player: two physical PCI Express x16 slots with CrossFire support, eight Serial ATA ports with RAID support, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire, and integrated audio with Dolby Home Theater certification. It’s surprisingly cheap, too, so we really have no incentive to find something more stripped-down.

Memory

Since Kingston has some of the cheapest memory kits available on Newegg right now, we keep going back to it. The firm’s 4GB DDR2-800 kit costs less than $50, which we think is 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 as much memory as they can get, 4GB of RAM is by no means over-indulgent, either.

Here again, you’ll want to run a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of four gigs of RAM. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page for more.

Graphics

In our last guide, the $1300 Sweeter Spot was our cheapest build to feature a GeForce GTX 260 “reloaded” by default. Today, price cuts have made the same type of card fair game for our $700 Utility Player. This BFG GeForce GTX 260 even has a higher-than-normal core clock speed (590MHz) and a lifetime warranty, despite its rock-bottom price tag.

We’d rather not make sweeping statements about what’s “good enough” for gaming today, but… well, the GeForce GTX 260 reloaded ought to be pretty close to that ceiling for most folks. This is a card that can run Crysis Warhead at 1920×1200 using the second-highest graphics preset, and it should have no trouble handling other titles at that resolution with 4X antialiasing. To top that off, more expensive single-GPU offerings typically aren’t that much faster—in many cases, you’ll simply need two GPUs to reach a higher resolution or in-game detail setting.

In other words, this $700 config might be fast enough to satisfy most gamers. Think about that for a second.

Ah, but what about AMD? Equivalent Radeon HD 4870 1GB cards are available in the same price range, but we picked the GTX 260 for three reasons: it’s cheaper, Nvidia’s close relationships with game developers mean newer games often run better on GeForces, and we couldn’t find a 4870 1GB with lifetime warranty coverage for less than $200. We did single out a Radeon for our alternatives on the next page, though.

Storage

Again, this Caviar Black is the fastest member of Western Digital’s 640GB line, and it’s also the only 640GB hard drive we know of with five-year warranty coverage. The Black should be pretty quiet, too. That makes it a great value proposition for both the Econobox and the Utility Player.

We’re sticking with the Samsung SH-S223Q as 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.

Audio

Ask any of us, and we’ll happily pay a premium for better analog sound quality and extra little perks like EAX effects in games. We realize many of you simply don’t care, though, which is why we’ve relegated our sound card recommendation to the alternatives page. If you have nice analog speakers or headphones, we strongly recommend the upgrade. Otherwise, you’ll probably be just as happy with integrated audio—and an extra $90 in your pocket.

Enclosure and power

The Antec Sonata III costs more than the NSK 4480 we selected for the Econobox, but it has several advantages: 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 a fast 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 II X4 940 Black Edition $214.99
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9400 $219.99
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 $269.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-UD3P $134.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB $189.99
Storage
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $109.99
Audio
Asus Xonar DX $89.99

Processor

Three CPU alternatives might seem a little excessive, but hear us out. The Phenom II X4 940 Black Edition is an obvious step up from the X3 720, since its 200MHz clock speed advantage and extra core make it faster all around. Some shoppers might also want to grab an Intel processor instead of the Phenom II X4, and the Core 2 Quad Q9400 is a straightforward alternative there, with a similar price tag and equivalent performance.

Finally, the Core 2 Quad Q9550 has no direct competition from the Phenom camp, but it’s a nice upgrade over the Q9400. Sure, it costs more, but it also has a higher clock speed (2.83GHz instead of 2.66GHz) and twice as much L2 cache (12MB instead of 6MB). If you want better quad-core performance without having to pay a premium for Core i7 hardware, this is the CPU for you.

We did just say that LGA775 is on its way out, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to abandon the socket. Intel still enjoys some platform advantages, including generally lower power consumption and rock solid chipsets. Nvidia chipsets built for AMD processors generally have higher power consumption, and the ones that come from AMD are saddled with an SB750 south bridge chip that has some issues: we noted in our latest Phenom II review that enabling AHCI (required for Native Command Queuing and hot swapping for SATA hard drives) leads to increased CPU utilization, which can hurt performance somewhat.

Motherboard

Gigabyte’s Intel P45-based GA-EP45-UD3P looks quite similar to our recommended AMD motherboard. That’s no coincidence, because both models are part of Gigabyte’s Ultra Durable series, and they both feature dual physical PCI Express x16 slots and fancy cooling for the power-regulation circuitry. The Intel mobo costs a little more, though, and it has one extra Gigabit Ethernet controller. Judging from the gushingly positive user reviews on Newegg, this should nicely complement our alternative Core 2 Quads.

Graphics

We explained our reasons for choosing a GeForce GTX 260 on the previous page. If you have an aversion to Nvidia’s products or a particular fondness for AMD’s, though, this Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB is a fine alternative. Just keep in mind that it’s more expensive and has shorter warranty coverage.

Storage

You might be wondering what LG’s GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive is doing in our alternatives section. We realize this is a (relatively) big step up in price 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.

Audio

Integrated motherboard audio has certainly come a long way, but the best solutions still don’t provide very good analog output. If you have quality analog speakers or headphones and don’t mind paying extra for better sound quality, then 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.

The Sweeter Spot
Indulgence without excess

The Utility Player might be good enough for many gamers, but the Sweeter Spot more closely represents what TR’s editors would buy for themselves if they were in the market for a new PC. Here, we recommend paying a premium for more processing power, a better platform, better storage options, better audio, and a bigger enclosure with fancier noise-reduction features—among other things.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-920 $288.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD3R $199.99
Memory Corsair 6GB (3 x 2GB) XMS3 DDR3-1600 $98.00
Graphics BFG GeForce GTX 260 reloaded $178.99
Storage
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $109.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX650W $109.99
Enclosure Antec P182 $118.99
Total  Buy this complete system at Newegg $1,344.91

Processor

Thanks to recent drops in DDR3 memory and X58 motherboard prices, the Core i7-920 has become our CPU of choice for the Sweeter Spot. This is admittedly the cheapest and slowest member of Intel’s new processor family, but it’s still fast enough to outrun higher-clocked Core 2 Quads more often than not, and it can leave ’em choking in a trail of dust (so to speak) when overclocked.

We didn’t just choose a Core i7 for its raw performance, either. While the LGA775 socket is more or less a dead end, Intel recently revealed that Gulftown, a 32nm six-core processor due in 2010, will happily work with existing X58 chipsets. That means there’s a good chance you’ll eventually be able to slap a shiny six-core CPU in our recommended X58 mobo.

Motherboard

At just $200, Gigabyte’s GA-EX58-UD3R is one of the cheapest Core i7-compatible motherboards around. That low price does come with some drawbacks, of course. Compared to the GA-EX58-UD5 we recommended for our Crushinator build last year, this board is missing two DIMM slots, one PCI Express x16 slot, two SATA ports, and one Gigabit Ethernet controller.

Frankly, though, we don’t expect you’ll regret any of those omissions. You still get two 16-lane PCIe slots (with SLI and CrossFire support) and eight SATA ports. The reduced number of DIMM slots does require you to arrange memory sticks in a particular order to populate all three channels, but once that’s done, you probably won’t need to upgrade until the whole platform is obsolete—6GB is a lot for a desktop PC.

Memory

We won’t start saying DDR3 memory is cheap just yet, but look at it this way: the 1333MHz kit we picked last time was around $120, whereas our 6GB DDR3-1600 selection this time around is just $98. We could even reach below $90 by going with something a little slower, but all Core i7s should be able to run DDR3 RAM at 1600MHz—and doing so can make a real difference. There’s no point in limiting a $1,300 PC just to save 10 bucks.

Graphics

What we said on the Utility Player page applies here, too. This BFG GeForce GTX 260 reloaded has enough muscle to run every current game at 1920×1200—typically with a generous dose of antialiasing—so most gamers probably won’t need anything faster. Those who do are welcome to peruse our alternatives section.

Storage

This storage recommendation might seem odd, but we find a pair of 640GB WD Caviar Blacks more compelling than a single, higher-capacity drive. Few drives offer the same mix of great performance, long warranty coverage, and low noise levels. And 640GB is a heckuva lot of capacity as it is. Also, picking two identical drives 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).

Last, but not least, LG’s GGC-H20L optical drive should please both backup freaks and movie lovers. It burns dual-layer DVDs and can read both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs—and its price tag makes it a reasonable addition to the Sweeter Spot.

Audio

Sticking with integrated audio might be fine on our $700 Utility Player build, but it starts to get a little ridiculous in this price range. That’s why we’ve put Asus’ Xonar DX in our primary configuration. 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, this is easily the best mid-range sound card on the market today.

Power Supply

A high-end Core i7 system calls for something a little meatier than a case-and-power-supply bundle, so we’ve picked out a Corsair TX650W. This unit has a single, beefy 12V rail, plenty of connectors, 80% or greater rated efficiency, active power factor correction, a single 120mm fan for cooling, and—best of all—a five-year warranty. We weren’t all that thrilled with load noise levels when we tested this unit’s 750W big brother last year, but reviews around the web suggest that the TX650W is quieter.

TR system guide regulars might be wondering why we didn’t pick PC Power & Cooling’s 750W Silencer PSU, which earned our Editor’s Choice award and spots in several previous guides. The Silencer costs the same as the Corsair and actually has a higher rated wattage, but we skipped it for two reasons. First, the Silencer’s elongated design makes it a tight fit in our recommended case, especially if you decide to throw in a second graphics card or extra hard drives. Also, an unusual number of Newegg users reported dead-on-arrival units recently. Since the Corsair PSU is a worthy alternative, we feel more confident with it right now.

Enclosure
Antec’s P182 case isn’t particularly cheap, but it has many upsides, 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
Graphics BFG GeForce GTX 260 reloaded (secondary) $178.99
EVGA GeForce GTX 275 $259.99
XFX Radeon HD 4890 $249.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $109.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $109.99
TV tuner
AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe $109.99

Graphics

As we see it, grabbing a second GeForce GTX 260 and teaming the two in SLI mode is the simplest way to run every current game comfortably above 1920×1200. That extra GTX 260 may even increase frame rates by almost 100%, like in Far Cry 2 at 2560×1600. However, dual GTX 260s will draw a fair amount of power and take up a good chunk of space inside your case.

If you don’t feel like dealing with the hassles of SLI, you can still get a handful of extra FPS by opting for a single EVGA GeForce GTX 275 or XFX Radeon HD 4890. You’ll be paying a $70-80 premium for a relatively marginal performance increase, but we acknowledge that some gamers do care about that extra bit of smoothness.

The GTX 275 and 4890 OC ran pretty much neck and neck in our tests, so we can probably assume this vanilla 4890 is a tad slower. It’s also $10 cheaper than the GeForce, however, and it comes with a $20 mail-in rebate on top of that—not a bad deal. Both of these alternatives also have lifetime warranty coverage if you register on the vendor’s website within 30 days.

Storage

What’s better than two 640GB Caviar Blacks running in RAID 1? Two 1TB Caviar Blacks, of course. These drives have meaty capacities, excellent performance, and five-year warranties, although they’re relatively loud when seeking. Few products even come close in the realm of high-capacity system drives, however.

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 watch or record TV on your PC. 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. Newegg customers sound quite happy with it, as well.

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. You might also want to grab the Windows Media Center TV Pack, which adds support for tuning unencrypted digital cable, among other improvements.

The Double-Stuff Workstation
Recession? What recession?

In the realm of enthusiast PC hardware, there’s good enough, better than good enough, and as good as it gets before becoming a waste of money. Can you guess which category the Double-Stuff Workstation falls into?

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-940 $569.99
Motherboard Asus P6T $239.99
Memory Corsair 6GB (3 x 2GB) XMS3 DDR3-1600 $98.00
Corsair 6GB (3 x 2GB) XMS3 DDR3-1600 $98.00
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 275 $259.99
EVGA GeForce GTX 275 $259.99
Storage Intel X25-M 80GB $393.00
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $109.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $109.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $109.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX850W $149.99
Enclosure Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 $159.99
Total  Buy this complete system at Newegg $2,628.90

Processor

The Core i7-940 is the quiet middle child of the Core i7 line, delivering higher performance than the i7-920 but without the perks of the i7-965 (which include an unlocked upper multiplier). We’re cool with paying a $270 premium over the i7-920 for that little extra kick, since after all, this is supposed to be a high-end build. We think that the $710 premium the i7-965 commands is a little too high for our primary config, though.

Motherboard

Similarly, we’re not going with the fanciest possible motherboard here. Asus’ P6T has three physical PCIe x16 slots (with CrossFire and SLI support), six DDR3 memory slots, and nine SATA ports (including one eSATA port), so it’s definitely better equipped than the mobo we picked for the Sweeter Spot. With a price tag of less than $250, though, the P6T isn’t too expensive a step up. Well, at least not when your whole computer costs over $2,600.

Memory

Yeah, yeah. 4GB of RAM is probably good enough for most folks, so recommending three times that much might seem a little crazy. However, keep in mind that a second 6GB Corsair kit only raises the full system price by about 4%, and it’ll come in handy for folks faced with actual workstation tasks. And hey, who wouldn’t enjoy the bragging rights?

Graphics

We established on the previous page that dual GPUs are a requirement for those seeking a significant leap from a single GeForce GTX 260. We could just go with two GTX 260s, but here, our ample budget allows us to spring for more expensive (and faster) GeForce GTX 275s from EVGA. Not only should these two cards provide higher multi-GPU performance, but in games that don’t support SLI well, you’ll still get a faster single GPU on which to fall back. The only major drawback (aside from the price) is higher power consumption when gaming, since the GTX 275 draws quite a bit more power under load than the GTX 260. Our 850W PSU should have no problem with that, however.

So, why not dual Radeon HD 4890s? We haven’t tested the 4890 or GTX 275 in multi-GPU mode, but we’ve found that a Radeon HD 4870 1GB CrossFire setup doesn’t always scale as well from one GPU to two as a pair of GeForce GTX 260 cards in SLI. From that, we can extrapolate that dual GTX 275s should have a notable performance edge over their counterparts with red PCBs.

Storage

You might recall that our prior workstation builds used to include dual 10,000-RPM VelociRaptors. Well, we’ve traded those for one of Intel’s new 80GB X25-M solid-state drives. If you’ve read our review, you’ll be able to guess why. While write performance is nothing to, er, write home about, the X25-M absolutely zooms past mechanical hard drives in read speed tests—and its access times are orders of magnitude quicker. We’re not going with a RAID configuration because the X25-M lacks mechanical components, so it should be much more reliable than a traditional hard drive. (Also, it’s expensive enough already.) We’ve passed on Intel’s new X25-E Extreme, which has much faster write speeds but only a 32GB capacity at an even higher price.

By the way, the X25-M has a 2.5″ form factor, so it probably won’t fit in a regular desktop case on its own. We suggest either purchasing an adapter or just duct-taping the thing inside your case. Hey, it’s just a bunch of flash memory chips inside a metal enclosure, after all.

Since the X25-M only has an 80GB capacity, we’re combining it with a pair of 1TB Western Digital Caviar Blacks for mass storage. Both Seagate’s 1.5TB Barracudas and WD’s 2TB Caviar Greens are slower overall, and the 2TB Caviar Greens have the added downside of considerably higher prices. On the optical side of things, we’re featuring our Blu-ray/HD DVD combo drive as a primary pick here, since we doubt you’ll want to watch only standard-def DVDs on a system like this.

Audio

Asus’ Xonar DX fits in just as well here as in our other builds. That said, musicians and others who require more connectivity options may want to consider the Xonar D2X in our alternatives section.

Eagle-eyed readers might notice that, with two dual-slot graphics cards installed, our recommended motherboard won’t have any PCIe x1 slots free for the Xonar DX. But that’s okay: you can slip it into the remaining PCIe x16 slot. That will admittedly prevent you from running a three-GPU setup, but as far as we’ve seen, that third GPU wouldn’t do much for performance, anyway.

Power Supply

PC Power & Cooling’s 750W Silencer would fit happily in this case, but we’re still shunning it because of negative user reports on Newegg. Instead, we’ve settled on Corsair’s TX850W, a higher-wattage version of the Sweeter Spot’s PSU. This unit has similar advantages—a greater-than-80% efficiency rating, five-year warranty, and a single 12V rail—but it has more juice and more cables, including two pairs of eight-pin PCIe power connectors for high-end graphics cards. The TX850W might be louder than the Silencer, but we’re not as worried about noise levels here. All of these high-end parts will make some noise when they kick into high gear, anyway.

Enclosure

We believe a good workstation requires a big, roomy case, so we’ve brought back Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000 for that purpose. This enclosure shares some design elements with the Antec P182 (like a flipped internal layout that houses the power supply at the bottom), but it’s bigger, badder, and more enthusiast-friendly. Four 120mm fans generate plenty of airflow, and the Cosmos has enough room to accommodate six hard drives, five 5.25″ drives, multi-GPU configurations, and internal liquid cooling systems.

Cooler Master also primed 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.

Double-Stuff alternatives

As complete as our Double-Stuff Workstation is, we still have some alternative ideas for how to fill it out.

Processor

We’ve established that the Core i7-940 has a more sensible value proposition than the Core i7-965 Extreme. However, the Extreme chip has an unlocked upper multiplier that should allow for effortless overclocking. Couple that with a 3.2GHz default core clock speed (up from 2.93GHz on the Core i7-940) and a higher out-of-the-box L3 cache clock, and you really are getting the fastest desktop processor ever. The Core i7-965 Extreme even outpaced a Core 2 Extreme QX9775 “Skulltrail” dual-CPU configuration in several of our benchmarks.

Storage
300GB VelociRaptors might not have the mind-blowing read speeds or near-instantaneous access times of Intel’s X25-M, but they have way more storage capacity and still offer great overall performance. You can run these in a RAID 1 setup for redundancy’s sake or combine them in a faster striped array.

Sound card

Our Xonar DX will do a fantastic job in games and with analog speakers or headphones, but audio professionals might want something with a few more ports. The Xonar D2X is effectively the same product, but with more bundled cables, as well as coaxial S/PDIF input and output ports. Oh, and the rear ports light up in the dark.

TV tuner

If you feel like making your high-powered workstation double as a digital video recorder, AVerMedia’s AVerTV tuner card should be a fine addition. If anyone gives you funny looks, just tell them how fast the Core i7-965 can encode video. The Asus P6T motherboard doesn’t have enough PCIe slots for this tuner card and a PCI Express Xonar, so you’ll have to run the PCI-based Xonar D2 instead.

Enclosure

We’ve just sung the praises of Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000, but the Thermaltake Spedo is a great alternative for overclockers and tinkerers. We love the many little touches, like the fan mount behind the CPU area, the elegant tool-less drive sleds, and the straightforward cable routing system. Take note if you want a quiet system, though: although the Spedo’s wealth of large fans and cooling grills will help keep an overclocked system cool, it will probably result in higher noise levels compared to the Cosmos.

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 Warhead 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 $158.34 $222.99 $278.99 $272.99

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. The core system components we’ve recommended should 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 $158.49 $222.99 $278.99 $272.99

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. 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.

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.

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 users will probably care about one major differentiating attribute: whether their display has a 6-bit twisted nematic + film (TN+film) panel or not. The majority of 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 builds you’re gonna go with. For instance, those 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, or HP’s LP2475w, which has a reasonable price tag despite its fancier IPS panel. 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 recommend something bigger, like Dell’s 30″ UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC, for use with the Double-Stuff Workstation. Our workstation build has two high-end graphics cards, after all, and you ought to have an ample monitor budget if you’re purchasing a $2,600 machine, anyway.

On the lower end of the spectrum, we think the Utility Player matches up well with less expensive monitors, like 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. With the Econobox, something like a sub-$200 19″ or 20″ LCD should do fine.

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 here, too, one particular attribute lies at the heart of many 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, certain folks—typically hard-core 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. Because of that last issue, some favor wireless mice with docking cradles, which let you charge your mouse at night and not have to worry about finding charged AAs during 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 simple, 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. $50-70 is a lot to put down for a keyboard, but these beasts can easily last a couple of decades.

If you’re part of the mechanical keyboard club and are looking for something a little less… well, ugly, then you may be interested Metadot’s Das Keyboard Professional or ABS’s M1. The Das Keyboard is very expensive ($130), but it has a more stylish look and a softer feel than the Model M and its modern derivatives. The M1 costs less and has non-clicky mechanical switches, which are softer still—even though they make typing feel more solid than the rubber dome switches on the average multimedia keyboard.

Another intriguing option is a keyboard with laptop-style scissor switch key mechanisms like the Enermax Aurora, which we found to be surprisingly pleasing, both in terms of tactile feedback and industrial design.

Card reader

This section has always included a floppy drive/card reader combo recommendation, but it’s now April 2009. Windows Vista has been out for over two years. We’ve had the Internet, USB thumb drives, and Windows-based BIOS flashing tools for considerably longer than that. It’s time to let go.

If you absolutely must stick something in that external 3.5″ drive bay, we suggest this Super Talent all-in-one card reader. It’s only 13 bucks, it has good user reviews on Newegg, and it should happily gobble up any flash card you find lying around.

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, 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 like 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. Not all of those coolers will work with a Core i7, so folks who go with our Sweeter Spot or Double-Stuff Workstation builds may want to consider Thermaltake’s V1 AX—it’s served us well in Damage Labs, and it’s nice and quiet.

Speaking of which, we have a general preference for air coolers paired with large fans. Big fans move more air per revolution and can thus spin slower, producing less noise than their smaller counterparts.

Conclusions

Man, computer hardware is cheap. Yes, we know—we often close our system guides with something to that effect. But never has a system embodied the vertiginous decline in PC component prices like our latest Utility Player. For less than $700, you’re getting three fast processor cores, four gigs of RAM, gaming-worthy graphics hardware, blazing-fast mechanical storage, and a quiet enclosure with an 80%-efficient PSU. Unbelievable.

As always, there’s shiny new hardware on the horizon. Intel should release more affordable Core i7 derivatives by the end of the year, and we may see next-gen high-end GPUs in a similar time frame. We don’t think any of that warrants holding off a purchase right now, though.

If you need assistance in the meantime, 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, either with 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
    • designerfx
    • 10 years ago

    Aren’t we a bit in need of another guide? Prices have changed a bit, competitiveness, etc.

    • Dede
    • 10 years ago

    I have never built a PC but would like to build TR’s “Sweeter Spot”. However, I would like to read the comments of people who have built it to see if they ran into problems with it.

    Where can I find their comments on “The Sweeter Spot” in “TR’s April 2009 system guide”?

    • travbrad
    • 10 years ago

    I just got done building my brother something very similar to the econobox, but for even cheaper (he is on a very tight budget). I went with the ASUS board, a 320GB HDD, an MSI 4830, and only 2GB of RAM (he doesn’t run memory intensive games/apps, and still runs XP)

    The full build came out to just over $600 before rebates, and that included a mouse/kb, 20″ acer LCD, and logitech subwoofer/speakers. It’s amazing how good a computer you can build for the money these days.

    I just wanted to say thanks for the guide(s). Even if I didn’t follow it exactly, they are still a great starting point. I really like the Antec case/PSU combo as well. It seems well put together, and seems to be keeping things cool. That is generally the thing I am most unsure about, so thanks for the recommendation.

    P.S. That antec case is now “deactivated” on newegg, so it looks like I got one just in time.

    • Flying Fox
    • 10 years ago

    Two things:
    1. The AverMedia Combo PCIe card. I checked the specs and it mentioned “Stereo sound” as a feature. Does that mean if the OTA HD channels are transmitting in Dolby Digital 5.1 I won’t get it? Can it pass through that DD5.1 through say, an HD4xxx card with HDMI out to the TV/receiver? It also did not exactly mention that it can record the 5.1 stuff, did it? I guess TR needs to do a full review of this?
    §[< http://www.avermedia-usa.com/AVerTV/product/ProductDetail.aspx?Id=24<]§ 2. The card reader mentioned in the peripherals/accessories page does not explicitly mention SDHC support. Chances are if they do not mention it the support is not there. These days I think we should put one that has SDHC support.

      • insulin_junkie72
      • 10 years ago

      No, if the OTA signal is in 5.1 AC3, it keeps it that way.

      With the digital OTA signals, the TV cards are just tuners – a simple straight dump of the digital signal to the HD. A lot less going on than an analog tuner card.

        • Flying Fox
        • 10 years ago

        Thanks. That certainly clear things up.

        You mentioned straight dumping to HD, what about realtime reception? Will it pass the AC3 signal to say, an HD4xx0 card with HDMI? Or it is down to the drivers?

          • insulin_junkie72
          • 10 years ago

          I haven’t personally tried anything like that (shooting the AC3 through a HD4xxx over HDMI), but I suspect if the drivers were all in order, it wouldn’t be an issue.

          On the off chance there were, it would most likely be due to faults/limitations of the player software or vid card, not the TV card. In your scenario, you’re not asking the TV card to do anything differently than it normally would.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 10 years ago

    the price is wrong-[< , bitch!<]- on the Utility Player's RAM. It's $45.99. This Kingston set is $43.99 tho §[<http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820134641<]§

    • Vasilyfav
    • 10 years ago

    Integrated audio is still garbage. My 4 year old Audigy 2 ZS produces much deeper bass and clear highs than ALC662 from Realtek. Not only that, but Realtek cards have these annoying screeching and high pitched noises when you don’t have anything running (in terms of sound).

    At least they made decent integrated Ethernet controllers.

      • Meadows
      • 10 years ago

      Try literally disabling every port the device has (particularly all the unused inputs, it may have a lot), not just reducing or nulling their volume. Some people find, or imagine, that disabling the extras reduces device noise.

      I’m actively using an ALC888 codec and practically have no complaints whatsoever. Sometimes bass is all over the place, but it’s not terrible.

      • Flying Fox
      • 10 years ago

      ALC6xx is so passé. The 8xx’s are a different animal.

    • insulin_junkie72
    • 10 years ago

    /[http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16815100041<]§

      • MadManOriginal
      • 10 years ago

      Are Haupaugge’s drivers that bad?

        • insulin_junkie72
        • 10 years ago

        Not Pinnacle-level bad, but they do have a history of quirky/poor drivers, yes.

    • shank15217
    • 10 years ago

    “You’re one of those people who thinks adding ram upon ram upon ram to a machine makes it perform better, it doesn’t – there’s a point where there is diminishing returns, 45$ could DEFINITELY be spent better elsewhere.”

    Yea it does make a difference, that’s my point all along. A benchmark isn’t gonna show that cause you are running one application at a time. In real usage you may play 2 or 3 different games. Extra memory means all that data you read from disk stays in memory, decreasing load times, not to mention giving that “Econobox” much more utility.

    • shank15217
    • 10 years ago

    What does one have to do with the other? I comment on whatever I feel is worth commenting on. I like TRs articles, I believe it can be improved by mentioning the stuff I brought up in some manner.

    • Shinare
    • 10 years ago

    Great roundup of suggestions TR!

    I wonder if it would make sense in the sweeter spot to drop the BRD drive, extra HDD, GTX260 and extraneous sound card and double up on an HD 4850 x2 for quad-GPU folding madness for only $30 more? 😉

      • MrJP
      • 10 years ago

      For gamers, you’re undoubtedly right. With the builds as they currently are, the Sweeter Spot will be no faster and even possibly slightly slower than the Utility Player for gaming. They have the same GPU, and the i7-920 is generally slower than the X3 720 in games (it loses 3 out of 4 gaming tests in the recent CPU value roundup).

      Of course, the extra RAM, extra HDD, sound card, more powerful PSU, nicer case, and Blu-Ray drive of the Sweeter Spot contribute greatly to the increased cost, but it also highlights that stepping up to i7 is really only worthwhile in the context of a more expensive system, and then only if you’re going to be using it for something where the i7 really excels.

    • shank15217
    • 10 years ago

    Once again tech report suggests 4GB of ram over 8GB of ram on their econo systems even thought the price difference is $45 max, I really don’t get why.

      • flip-mode
      • 10 years ago

      If you really want 8GB then … wait for it … buy 4GB two times. You’d need to be new kinds of stupid if you need TR to provide that level of instruction. And it is questionable whether 8GB should be “recommended”, especially at the “econo” level. You’d have to be running VMs or some /serious/ Photoshop or some other hosting a decent DB to need that much RAM.

        • ludi
        • 10 years ago

        That, and “only” $45 can be a dealbreaker for a college student or someone else with a restricted budget. No point overspending on a component you don’t need if it lets you shift some of your budget over to another component that’s more valuable, such as the motherboard or videocard.

        • shank15217
        • 10 years ago

        Actually you are ignorant as hell, modern OSes have system buffers that keep recently read items from disk in memory. Having more memory helps no matter what. Tech Report goes over alternatives for disks, video cards, cpu, so they could also mention ram as a good performance enhancing upgrade. Also I don’t agree with you about the “4GB is good enough” argument. With ram prices so low there is no damn good reason to not fill out all the ram slots. I don’t need techreport’s advice on how to build computers, I read this site for the hardware reviews. One thing for sure, ram is one of the cheapest upgrades, its silly not to mention that in a hardware purchasing guide.

          • CampinCarl
          • 10 years ago

          Except these builds are geared for gamers. Spending an extra $45 for an extra 4 gigs of RAM won’t get you nearly the same performance increase as spending that $45 towards a better graphics card.

          Also, if you could read, you’d see that the limit is $500. Something they’ve already hit.

            • shank15217
            • 10 years ago

            “Econobox fills in as our affordable gaming and general-use system”

            So i guess you forgot the general use part.

          • MadManOriginal
          • 10 years ago

          If you don’t need advice on how to build computers why did you read this article or comment upon it?

          • mczak
          • 10 years ago

          Sure OS use ram as disk cache. But there are definitely diminished returns there, there’s some point where you can add more ram and it’ll make hardly a difference (depending on usage scenario, of course, but for “typical” that point is usually reached quite fast). Of course, use a couple of VMs and I’m sure more ram will help.
          Apart from the obvious cost issue, there’s another reason not to use all ram slots: power consumption will definitely go up, though it’s probably only a couple of watt at idle for another couple of modules, so might not matter to most people.

            • shank15217
            • 10 years ago

            If $40-45 makes that econo system into a machine that can sustain several VMs, databases, a huge number of applications simultaneously thats a bad thing? Just cause something is cheap shouldn’t automatically delegate it certain type of typical tasks. The truth is consumer computer hardware is very cheap, you can get a lot for ~600. There is no diminishing returns with more ram, i don’t even see how people get that idea. If you said the cost of ram is not justified I would see a point but its $40-45 for twice the ram… how is that not worth mentioning? If you are just using the machine for a single task sure it doesn’t’ matter but versatility doesn’t have to cost a fortune.

            • flip-mode
            • 10 years ago

            Ugh. Here goes nothing:

            Point 1
            Do you know what the purpose of these system guides are? See the section entitled “Rules and Regulations”. These provide STARTING POINTS. Make any modification to them that you like and can afford.

            Point 2
            If you are a user that is special enough to be running multiple DBs and VMs, then you can damn well decide for yourself how much RAM you need – you don’t need TR to tell you.

            Point 3
            It would be verging on irresponsible for TR to recommend 8GB in the Econo machine. There’s no NEED for it, in a general sense, and so adding unneeded things to configuration whose purpose is to keep the cost as low as practical is…. stupidity.

            Point 4
            For the average user, the difference between 2GB and 4GB is difficult to notice – I speak from experience on this – I’ve notice no difference in Vista 64 when going from 2GB to 6GB except for in ONE SINGLE GAME. So you’re here chastising TR for not recommending a $45 expenditure that will go unnoticed by pretty much 100% of typical users. Are you in Congress or something, cause you spend money like they do — wastefully.

            Point 5
            You think spending $45 more on RAM is of critical importance, the next guy thinks spending $45 more on HDD is of critical importance, the next guy thinks spending $45 more on CPU is of critical importance, the next guy thinks spending $45 more on GPU is of critical importance. Every single one of those could provide a meaningful improvement of the computer’s performance for specific applications. Again, that is why these guides are intended to server as starting points, points of departure.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            Flip-mode is on point.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 10 years ago

            I agree, but I’m a little surprised they’re not recommending more than your generic Dell box’s 4GB of RAM for the Utility Player. $40 more in a $700 machine is a drop in the bucket.

            I’m sure it’s done so that the Sweeter Spot doesn’t have less RAM than the Utility Player.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            Probably because I’ve also upgraded to 8 gigs and there is literally no application that would show a difference, except two that I don’t use so often. Chances are that 98% of people wouldn’t guess the difference between 4 or 8 GiB.

            In fact, I had to resort to RAM-drives and other esoteric measures just to make more active use of this memory – I don’t regret buying it though -, for example, wastefully assigning memory to just about any application that allows such a setting.
            Whether a drop in a bucket or not, it really is money out the window for a lot of people. At the quoted price ranges, the expense may matter.

            • shank15217
            • 10 years ago

            You don’t have to resort to ram disks to extract performance from 8GB of ram. Most modern OSes will use the extra ram as disk buffer. All you have to do is open enough applications or games once to see the system buffer usage increases significantly. One example is WoW, it will load textures in demand from disk but WoWs memory foot print is about 1gig but if you have enough ram and have setup the system to use extra ram as a disk buffer, you will see almost 0 load times over almost the entire map.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            Look, I’m sure you use 8 different browsers at the same time, with 6 image editing software of varying brands, all the while playing 5 videogames of differing genres all at the same time, but personally, I don’t see a benefit from the OS caching random junk. It can cache Minesweeper, Windows Fax and Scan and On-Screen Keyboard for all I care, it makes no difference to me.
            Heck, it made no difference from 2 to 4 GiB. The diminishing returns from OS caching are reached extremely fast.

            In your broken special world, your ideas surely work. I live in a real one though, and I know what’s practical and what is not. And I expanded my RAM solely for the purpose of those very few applications I mentioned, not for any other invalid reasons.

            • shank15217
            • 10 years ago

            Ugh. Here goes nothing:

            Point 1
            Do you know what the purpose of these system guides are? See the section entitled “Rules and Regulations”. These provide STARTING POINTS. Make any modification to them that you like and can afford.

            When they give alternatives right on the next page with different price points I don’t see how recommending 8GB of ram can be a bad thing.

            Point 2
            If you are a user that is special enough to be running multiple DBs and VMs, then you can damn well decide for yourself how much RAM you need – you don’t need TR to tell you.

            Oh really? Every VM and DB user is an expert in computer hardware right? My experience is that they are not, and this article is about price points and value for a category of hardware.

            Point 3
            It would be verging on irresponsible for TR to recommend 8GB in the Econo machine. There’s no NEED for it, in a general sense, and so adding unneeded things to configuration whose purpose is to keep the cost as low as practical is…. stupidity.

            They recommend several mid-end parts in that Econobox machine such as the WD Black HD and the Radeon 4850, how is recommending twice as more ram for $45 any different.

            Point 4
            For the average user, the difference between 2GB and 4GB is difficult to notice – I speak from experience on this – I’ve notice no difference in Vista 64 when going from 2GB to 6GB except for in ONE SINGLE GAME. So you’re here chastising TR for not recommending a $45 expenditure that will go unnoticed by pretty much 100% of typical users. Are you in Congress or something, cause you spend money like they do — wastefully.

            That’s such bullshit, I gave a good reason for getting more ram in my first response to you.

            Point 5
            You think spending $45 more on RAM is of critical importance, the next guy thinks spending $45 more on HDD is of critical importance, the next guy thinks spending $45 more on CPU is of critical importance, the next guy thinks spending $45 more on GPU is of critical importance. Every single one of those could provide a meaningful improvement of the computer’s performance for specific applications. Again, that is why these guides are intended to server as starting points, points of departure.”

            You are just picking your points, I say having more ram gives that other 500 you are spending more versatility, just as a Radeon 4850 would. They could have mentioned..

            “Ram is cheap, getting 8GB of ram is a easy upgrade, consider that when purchasing this”

            or..

            “for the light gamer, you replace the 4850 with 4670 and get more ram which would provide a workstation on the cheap”

            Simple things like that…

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            You’re entirely misguided on his third point.

            The Caviar Black is recommended not only for the performance WD is known for, but also because it has extended warranty which can be worth a lot to some unlucky folks.
            And the videocard can easily be used to great effect much more, and far more often, than 8 GiB RAM versus 4.

            You simply can’t accept the fact that 8 gigs barely give a difference above 4, and you’re trying to pad your failure of a purchase by shouting that it’s the best thing ever.

            • shank15217
            • 10 years ago

            A lot of other HDs have long warranties, and how do you expect a Radeon 4850 to help with non-gaming applications.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            Not all of those other drives combine WD’s reputation and performance with the warranty, though.

            As for the videocard, it accelerates HD video more efficiently (removing heaty burden from the CPU), some people use it for folding for some reason, and there are promising GPGPU aspects.
            Each of these is easy to generate proof graphs for, and TR has done some of these, but it’s up to you to prove how 8 GiB of RAM actually helps any of the above-average users even just a little. Your task there is practically impossible, by the way. You can’t possibly prove it.

            • flip-mode
            • 10 years ago

            GPGPU

            • MrJP
            • 10 years ago

            Whoops – replied to wrong post.

            • MrJP
            • 10 years ago

            OK. Take the Econonbox spec and imagine you’re given an extra $50 to upgrade it. Are you seriously suggesting that a significant number of people are going to see the biggest benefit by spending that cash on another 4GB RAM? If they’re gamers, they should upgrade the 4850 to a 4870. If they’re not, they should swap the E5200 CPU for the E7400.

            If you can find one link where 8GB vs 4GB gives a bigger gain than either of these upgrades in the sort of usage a $550 computer is likely to see, then you’ve won.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            Actually I think the best way to spend the $50 is buy a massive amount of popcorn and read this argument as it develops.

            • shank15217
            • 10 years ago

            Anytime you are doing large file manipulation or high disk i/o extra ram can help buffer that information. VMs, databases, large CAD files, raw image from high end dig cams all benefit from large ram because more ram meens less disk access and when you can decrease disk access you win. None of these apps are necessarily cpu intensive, but they are all i/o intensive. If there is a good reason to get high performance SSDs or raid configurations those same reasons should make you wanna get more ram.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            You have a disk buffer of 8 MiB in Windows by default. That doesn’t look like a whole lot of improvement.

            You can change this if you use a server OS, or if you flip certain switches, where it becomes MaxRAM-4 MiB. There are no degrees in between. This server-purposed setting is not recommended for home use, because Microsoft and several other sources caution about performance loss or seemingly random slowdowns on systems that are, by server standards, “low on memory”.

            In essence, unless the user even knows about the existence of that switch, 8 GiB will give nothing. With it, you wouldn’t gain much. Instead, you’d gain a lot more from enabling always preserving loaded kernel components in RAM instead of permitting paging them out, you’d even gain more from disabling PAE in Vista, but you definitely won’t gain much from 8 GiB RAM whether on its own or with disk cache modifications.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            Say it with me slowly: e-cono-box

            • shank15217
            • 10 years ago

            Yea, thats right because those guys tested the applications I mentioned. They tested games which are more cpu and gpu limited than memory. I never said any game would really take more that 4gb of memory.. they cant cause games are usually 32-bit binaries. There is absolutely nothing wrong with 8GB of ram in main boards that support it. Its not less stable, that site just made speculations. If you bought a main board that isn’t rock stable with all 4 dimms installed then you should return it. Lots of hardware have diminishing returns, quad core cpus for example, large multi-gpu configurations… and they cost a lot of money. Maxing out ram on an am2+ or a socket 775 costs about $90.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            What a stupid persistent person.
            They tested multitasking with _[

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            Almost as persistent as you 😉 But at least you attempt to answer the ‘tough posts’ to which your argument might not seem to have a reply, he just ignores them 🙁

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            You can get a lot for any $xx amount of dollars but TR makes guides that adhere very closely to certain pricepoints. So again, what else would you change in that system to keep it very close to $500? Because saying ‘You can get a lot for $600’ defeats the goal of TRs guides.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            You don’t want to do industrial standard image editing or multiple VMs on an “Econobox”. That’s the point.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 10 years ago

      I’m going back to this original post to answer ‘I really don’t get why.’ It’s not that hard to understand if you read the pricing breakdown. Tell me what could be changed in that build to free up $45? Possibly one could hunt around for deals here and there and eek out $10-11 on 4 components or just choose entirely different components but it’s already about as pared down as can be while still providing a lot of performance. 8GB versus 4GB in that system would be a really good way to waste funds in terms of bang-for-buck.

        • shank15217
        • 10 years ago

        OK let me rephrase, TR doesn’t suggest 8GB for ram for any of their systems except the double stuff work station where 12GB is suggested.

          • Freon
          • 10 years ago

          I think you all just got trolled hard.

            • mattthemuppet
            • 10 years ago

            looks like it. way to go skank123456789, you’ve just taken a discussion about a rather nice article sooooo way off topic that you might as well be talking about green aliens emerging from your ar$e.

            Oh sorry, in keeping with the tone of the thread:

            YUSE R ALL IGNORANT IDIOTS. i R WRITE!

            • shank15217
            • 10 years ago

            You have no idea what you are talking about.

            • JustAnEngineer
            • 10 years ago

            After reading all of it, I have to agree. Why anyone would troll to sell more memory is beyond my understanding, but it if looks like a troll and quacks like a troll…

            • BooTs
            • 10 years ago

            Especially when it’s for only $45 more!

      • Krogoth
      • 10 years ago

      Geez, Eco-no-box’s memory capacity is serious business! XD

    • Skrying
    • 10 years ago

    Please, again, update the “Cooling” section.

      • Tamale
      • 10 years ago

      suggestions?

        • Skrying
        • 10 years ago

        I believe I’ve outlined better choices in posts on the last two system guides. Nothing has changed, it’s just a copy and paste job. The choices included in these articles are very poor at best. Zalman, Thermalright, and the Scythe choice are not highly regarded anymore and haven’t been for some time. I’m not saying TechReport must go out and review all of the options available on the market but they could at least say “We don’t review heatsinks but here is a place to check out that does” and provide a link to FrostyTech.

        So yes, my suggestion would be to look over the FrostyTech Top 10 choices covering absolute best performance, best low profile, and best silent heatsink/fans for both platforms at multiple TDP’s. Really there is no other comparable resource on the web: §[< http://www.frostytech.com/top5heatsinks.cfm<]§

          • Tamale
          • 10 years ago

          Thanks for the link, Skyring.. I’ll work with the other guys to try to get some newer products on the next guide.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            Yeah the cooler choices are pretty outdated, definitely better buys for the money if you’re going aftermarket. Perhaps suggestions from the forums, or other oc’ing forums, would be good too.

          • Bombadil
          • 10 years ago

          Frostytech? Sorry, but those lists are rather odd. I guess they are testing with the included fans, but a lot of people are willing to add a better fan. Madshrimps and SilentPCReview are almost the only reliable places for CPU heatsink reviews since they use the same fan on all heatsinks and test at a several fan speeds.

          Even sites like Xbitlabs which makes some attempt at heatsink testing consistency tests also do idiotic things like running multiple fans on a heatsink. Multiple similar speed devices are great for generating annoying noise patterns.

            • Skrying
            • 10 years ago

            First, what does a lot mean? It most certainly isn’t the majority (with which you are targeting with such a generic article), it almost certainly isn’t even a sizable minority. There are a few heat sinks where the fan choice is entirely up to the purchaser, this is often seen with Thermalright’s products. But for others it makes little sense.

            Let’s say we were going to test a Noctua product. Would you really want to use a different fan other than the one packaged? I would say no. Noctua makes very high quality fans with very specific design features that fit their heat sink designs perfectly in many cases. Using a Scythe fan is certainly not going to give you anywhere near optimal results.

            Also, why would you want to use the same fan when comparing the Sunbeam Core Contact against the Thermalright Ultra-120? The Core Contact doesn’t rely on densely packed fins like the Ultra-120 does. But using the same fan, say a high pressure unit, is going to produce wildly invalid results.

            Those are just two example. There is virtually an unlimited amount of other potential examples.

            By including an external fan trying to maintain “consistency” you’re actually opening yourself up to another set of additional issues. So by trying to be “consistent” you’re actually giving your readers very poor results to look at. Instead, if you make the proper choice to test a product “as is” and only use an external fan choice when absolutely necessary you’re actually giving your users a *[

            • Skrying
            • 10 years ago

            Skeptical is the wrong word. I don’t believe SPCR is lying to me about their results. I do believe that they have a different goal in mind when testing and providing conclusions to their reviews. The TechReport system guides seem to have a broad audience in mind. TR has picked components at a variety of price points, to help readers who might not have specific demands. This is where SPCR’s limited variety of reviewed heatsinks and very specific methods really limit the results usefulness. FrostyTech’s results on the other hand are almost exactly what these users want. A very broad and generic list of results sorted by someone “in the know.” It provides readers with the exact data they want and nothing more (more in this case is almost always worse than less, sadly).

            I don’t just read one site or follow a guide. That’s not the type of reader or user I am. I have very specific demands that I want met. My suggestion isn’t based on my own needs, it is based on the needs of those reading these system guides to gain help in selecting parts of a system. TR’s recommended heatsinks are simply out dated and poor choices and that’s why I recommended a site best suited for the readers (and followers) of the system guide articles.

    • TurtlePerson2
    • 10 years ago

    This was a great system guide. The monitor run down was pretty good. It’s not worth getting anything, but an IPS panel unless you have the money for a $200 price premium.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 10 years ago

    Wow. Already time for a System Guide? Time flies…

    • _Sigma
    • 10 years ago

    Thanks for the hardwork put into this!

    • designerfx
    • 10 years ago

    Cosmos 1000 is a horrible case for SLI suggestions.

    Having that case with sli = no ventilation between the graphics cards and the power supply. This basically ensures the power supply will fry, as well as the cards will get some serious heat.

    If you get a cosmos 1000, be sure to buy the cosmos S side case so that you have ventilation and not insulation on the entire side. Also, the V1X is a piece of total crap and does horrible for cooling. I tested it and it actually does no better than stock. Had a professional installer test it too in order to make sure I didn’t use too much AS5, etc.

      • Tamale
      • 10 years ago

      The Nvidia cards recommended all vent out the back of the case, negating any worries about heat build-up between the cards. I’ve tested a Cosmos with SLI myself (and in this case, the cards didn’t vent out the back) and it was still sufficient for some nice overclocks on the cards.

      Active side ventilation rarely helps a case keep the components cooler.. I’ve seen this proven time and time again.

        • designerfx
        • 10 years ago

        Vent out the back? Do you have any idea what you’re talking about?

        I won the system from the christmas contest and also can tell you that there isn’t a single card in existence that vents strictly out the vent below where you connect the graphics cable. Even on cards that are fanless and with heatpipes still exhaust elsewhere. The only exception is watercooling.

        so once again, remember that due to the way motherboards are attached to the cosmos 1000 case, they exhaust directly onto the power supply and with the insulation you have no air blowing at them from anywhere.

          • Bombadil
          • 10 years ago

          My $50 eVGA Geforce 9600 GSO exhausts all its airflow out the back of the case. §[< http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51BChq9FPYL._SL500_AA280_.jpg<]§

          • Tamale
          • 10 years ago

          I’ve been building and writing about cases now for over 7 years now, so I should hope I have a very good idea what I’m talking about!

          Almost all double-slot Nvidia cards now have heat shrouds that allow air to only flow in one direction.. into the fan and out of the unused expansion slot.

          This negates this worry of yours about multiple Nvidia cards getting too hot.. they’re specifically designed to be back-to-back in SLI setups now.

          • ssidbroadcast
          • 10 years ago

          Wow. I hope if someday I should ever be blessed enough to win a TR giveaway that it won’t inflate me with a sense of entitlement over TR’s own staff.

          • Tamale
          • 10 years ago

          The PSU can be turned upside down too, in the Cosmos and most higher-end cases now, to ensure it’s getting fresh air from underneath the cosmos. I would recommend this regardless of your video card setup.

      • wibeasley
      • 10 years ago

      That’s too bad that you got ripped off. How much did you spend on that case, cooler and two graphics cards?

    • ludi
    • 10 years ago

    Have a new power supply arriving in the next day or two, so I get to find out whether or not my PC is gone, or just hungry. If it’s gone, the Utility Player config is honing in pretty close to my typical budget.

    • Thresher
    • 10 years ago

    I guess I will be passing on this round of intel products. My E8400 is still plugging along rather nicely and compares pretty well with other CPUs. Maybe when intel gets settled on a new socket for a while, I’ll move on, but for right now, a better videocard would better bang for the buck performance than a new CPU.

    • jbraslins
    • 10 years ago

    In the article you refer to 2 x 3GB memory kits. Should not it read 3 x 2GB?

    *edit* Thats in the component lists for Sweeter spot and Double Stuff.

      • Cyril
      • 10 years ago

      Indeed. Fixed.

    • Gerbil Jedidiah
    • 10 years ago

    SHEESH! I cannot believe those 500 and 700 dollar builds. It’s amazing what you can get nowadays.

    4GB RAM in a bottom rung build…. Amazing…

    • Bombadil
    • 10 years ago

    I can’t see a $103 motherboard in the econobox. Newegg has a combo deal on the E5200 + Gigabyte GA-G31M-ES2l for $112.98 total. §[< http://www.newegg.com/Product/ComboDealDetails.aspx?ItemList=Combo.181196<]§ Mine are happily running at 4GHz right now!

    • flip-mode
    • 10 years ago

    Thanks TR! These are always fun!

    Suggestion: if you are going to recommend the Ph2 X4 940, it would be benevolent of you to restate the obvious that it is *[

    • bLaNG
    • 10 years ago

    Why is it that every hardware site is so centered around gaming all the time. Hey, I mean there are a lot of gamers that build their own rig, but than again, when you call a thing a workstation and then put in two expensive graphic cards…

    I would love to see at least one rig in the system guide, that for example gives you huge cpu and I/O power without being a pure gaming machine. Same is for testing, please, with sugar on top, do not forget about the needs of hardware enthusiasts that are not all about gaming.

    I am not asking to drop gaming performance as a measurement completely, but rather taking a broader view on things. There are a lot of people that care about video rendering performance, audio editing and post processing capabilities and all this. As long as GPGPU is not much more than a buzz word, graphic cards do not make much sense for them, and they could maybe life with a passively cooled 4650.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 10 years ago

      You answered your own request with the last phrase: just substitute a non-gaming graphics card. Or go with a 790GX AMD setup. TR’s reviews other than graphics card reviews do include a number of non-gaming benchmarks.

        • bLaNG
        • 10 years ago

        Did I? How about a dual-cpu rig? If you throw out the high-end gaming cards, you can get 8-core systems for around the same price as the workstation suggested here.
        But when was the last time you read a review of a dual-cpu board here? There are plenty of boards around, and I would love that now and then this stuff would be reviewed as well.

        No, gamers do not need a 8-core system…and thats what I meant with gamer-centric. There are other enthusiasts than pure gamers.

          • _Sigma
          • 10 years ago

          I too would like to see some dual xeon setups with ultra fast SSD raids etc. While I do a lot of gaming, I also do a lot of number crunching…

            • jackaroon
            • 10 years ago

            I don’t disagree that it would be a good read, and at least academically interesting, but there are other considerations that take all the fun out of it. A vast majority of the “number crunching” projects have one thing in common, and that is that they are being done by businesses with other people watching the bottom line and begrudgingly reviewing their development schedules, and signing paychecks. They don’t like paying people to spend any time fixing up a computer when they could just buy one from dell and have all that time back, with a single warranty provider and a support contract. People at Dell, etc., are getting paid to make intelligent system build decisions before you ever get to see what new products are coming on the horizon. You could build a better server/workstation, and get some performance/price gains, but most people in that situation are not going to be able to talk their bosses into sacrificing that simplicity of support for whatever meager edge they can get.

      • Flying Fox
      • 10 years ago

      The i7 rigs should suffice pretty good. Just drop the the video card(s) down a notch or two.

      • TurtlePerson2
      • 10 years ago

      The Double-Stuff is definitely just for show. Someone who was really building a workstation would probably need a customized computer. If you’re working with audio then you’d need a sound card. If you’re doing 3d modeling then you’d need a specialized 3d card.

    • Walkintarget
    • 10 years ago

    I like the Gigabyte UD3R, but dropping the two RAM slots is just kinda dumb. Granted, 6gb seems fine for now, but I hate saying a year from now “Damn, I guess I gotta buy another board now !” if some oddball application arrives that wold benefit from more than 6gb.
    Truthfully, 1 year on a board is about my limit, but at some point it becomes economically unwise to spend $500+ on new parts just to continue to play the same games that I was playing on the older build (TF2, Comp. of Heroes, CoD4).

    • toyota
    • 10 years ago

    that heatsink above the cpu on the Asus P6T clearly appears to be pushing against the capacitor next it. that cant be good. lol

    • cheerful hamster
    • 10 years ago

    I’ve built digital audio workstations around the i7 920 and 940 chips. Audio production is one of the few applications that can consistently utilize muliple cores, and to be honest, the 940 is not worth it. Both chips overclock into the same range in my experience, and if you’re just going to run at stock frequency then the small bump up to 2.83 ghz is hardly worth the cost.

    • UberGerbil
    • 10 years ago

    Kind of amazing that the 4840 is now the econobox GPU of choice.

      • Krogoth
      • 10 years ago

      It is amazing that you can get so much shader power for so little cash.

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    On newegg the reviews indicate the Adapter Kit to Mount 2.5″ drives isn’t compatible with several cases. Go Duct Tapeg{<.<}g

    • SecretMaster
    • 10 years ago

    Not that I have read the article, I’m about to, but it seems a tad early for a system guide. It seems like we just had one, and aside from the 4890/275 release, has much changed? Those thoughts aside, maybe there’ll be a killer twist in this TR plot.

      • paulWTAMU
      • 10 years ago

      Shoulda read the article first 😉 The new 700 dollar build is freaking fantastic. It’s making me reconsider getting a mac mini; that’s one potent PC for the price even though it goes back from the small form factor/low power idea. Hell even the 500 dollar one is loads better than my defunct desktop (and it was so damn good back when I built it…) The high end stuff isn’t too much though.

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