TR’s summer 2009 system guide

The sun is shining. You can hear the faint sound of lawnmowers off in the distance. It’s summer… time for a new TR system guide.

Aside from a few new processors, most notably AMD’s dual-core Phenom II derivatives, we haven’t seen a whole lot of new hardware come out since our April guide. However, the combination of those few launches and sinking prices has allowed us to reshape our $500 Econobox and $800 Utility Player builds quite considerably. No, really. The former now has an unlocked, dual-core Phenom II and DDR3 RAM, while the latter now sports a speedy quad-core processor.

Our Sweeter Spot and Double-Stuff Workstation have been updated, as well, and we’ve added a fifth configuration: the Pocket Swiss Army Knife. This latest addition is teeny Mini-ITX system with a dual-core Pentium processor and enough expansion capacity to become a compact, low-power gaming rig, a little home-theater PC, or the world’s smallest quad-core box. Keep reading for all the juicy details.

Rules and regulations

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

Before tackling our recommended systems, we should explain some of the rules and guidelines we used to select components. The guiding philosophy behind our choices was to seek the best bang for the buck. That means we avoided recommending super-cheap parts that are barely capable of performing their jobs, just as we 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 is an 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 AMD Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition $102.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA770T-UD3P $79.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1066 $58.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4850 512MB $109.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $69.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $27.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480B II w/380W PSU $99.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $549.93

Processor

The Econobox has been an Intel stronghold for over a year and a half, owing to the overall dominance of Intel’s dual-core CPUs. With the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition, though, AMD has restored much of its former glory in this part of the market. This $100 processor outruns dual-core Pentiums out of the box, has an unlocked upper multiplier that allows for near-effortless overclocking, and doesn’t draw much more power than the next best thing from Intel.

Not only that, but AMD’s Socket AM3 platform provides a better upgrade path than Intel’s LGA775. Whereas Intel will move to a different mainstream socket in the very near future, AMD plans to stick with Socket AM3 at least through 2010. Popping in a cheap and quick quad-core CPU next year should be a piece of cake.

If you’re lucky, you might be able to get that quad-core upgrade without spending another dime. The Phenom II X2 550 is actually based on the same silicon as quad-core Phenom IIs, with two cores disabled. Our recommended motherboard includes a feature that lets you re-enable those cores pretty easily. The cores might not necessarily work at the chip’s stock 3.1GHz clock speed (or at all), but the possibility of getting a quad-core Phenom II for just over $100 certainly pads the X2 550’s list of advantages.

Motherboard

We picked Gigabyte’s MA770T-UD3P for four reasons: it’s very cheap, it has a robust assortment of ports and connectors, it has positive user reviews on Newegg so far, and it’s one of the very few boards with that nifty core unlocking feature we just talked about. Gigabyte also makes core unlocking possible on the MA770-UD3 2.0 and MA770-US3 2.0, but we couldn’t find either one listed online. (While Newegg sells an MA770-UD3 with no mention of a revision number, customers report receiving the 1.0 revision as late as June 2.)

We should note that the MA770T-UD3P only takes DDR3 memory. That would certainly have been a deal-breaker a few months ago, when DDR3 RAM still carried a hefty price premium compared to DDR2. Today, though, that premium is only around $10-15. DDR3 is slowly taking over the market, and DDR2 prices are likely to rise as demand wanes. That makes the UD3P’s DDR3 exclusivity an advantage looking forward.

Memory

DDR3 is finally affordable enough for our entry-level build. We hunted for the cheapest 4GB DDR3-1066 dual-channel kit from a big name-brand company with lifetime warranty coverage, and we found this Crucial offering. Again, stepping down to DDR2 would only save us around $10-15, and DDR3 has a brighter future ahead of it.

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

A Radeon HD 4850 with lifetime warranty coverage was unheard of last year, but now, you can get one for $110. Heck, this XFX model has a double-lifetime warranty (provided you register online within 30 days) plus a nice dual-slot cooler that exhausts hot air out the back of a case.

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.

Storage

Western Digital has three 640GB hard drives priced at around $70, and we think the Caviar Black model is the one best suited for a system drive. Not only does it have a 32MB buffer, a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, and the same noise level ratings as the slower SE16 model, but WD also covers the Black with a five-year warranty. We haven’t seen another 640GB hard drive with specifications quite as good or warranty coverage quite as long. (Seagate no longer covers bare drives with a five-year warranty.)

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 looks to have retired the original NSK 4480 we used to recommend, but Newegg now stocks the NSK 4480B II. This newer enclosure has a slightly different look, but as far as we can tell, it includes the same 380W, 80%-efficient power supply and delivers the same features. Newegg does charge slightly more for the new model, but considering the dearth of PC case bundles with quality PSUs, we don’t mind the price hike too much.

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 a dual-core 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 $119.00
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA780G-UD3H $89.99
Memory Corsair 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $44.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4870 1GB XXX $164.99

Processor

Yeah, we’ve also shut out Intel from the Econobox alternatives. Look at it this way, though: you could replace our dual-core Phenom II with a slightly slower Pentium or a slightly faster Core 2 Duo, but you might not be able to tell the difference, and you’d get a poorer upgrade path out of the deal.

Spend a little extra on a Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition, however, and you get a whole extra core with much better performance in apps that can take advantage of it. (Yes, you can unlock cores on the Phenom II X2, but that’s definitely not a guarantee. Besides, you can try to unlock the fourth core in this Phenom II X3, as well.)

Motherboard

If you don’t play demanding games, then why not skip the $110 Radeon and move down to integrated graphics? Gigabyte’s GA-MA780G-UD3H can accommodate either the Phenom II X3 720 or the Phenom II X2 550, and it features AMD’s very capable Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics processor, which can handle casual games and high-definition video playback. That’s about all the graphics horsepower many folks need from a $500 PC.

Incidentally, this board doesn’t appear to have BIOS-level core unlocking functionality. Also, it only takes DDR2 memory. Keep reading for our matching RAM recommendation.

Memory

Look at us, going on about the benefits of DDR3 before recommending a DDR2 alternative. We have a good reason, though: we just couldn’t find an affordable AMD motherboard from a first-tier manufacturer with both good integrated graphics and DDR3 DIMM slots. If you go with our alternative mobo, we recommend this 4GB DDR2-800 kit from Corsair. It’s cheap, has good latency ratings, and is backed by a lifetime warranty.

Graphics

What if you need more graphics power from the Econobox, not less? Then take a look at XFX’s Radeon HD 4870 1GB. Don’t let the low price fool you; the 4870 1GB is actually the second-fastest single-GPU product in AMD’s lineup right now, and it’s a big step up from the 4850. We’re choosing the 4870 over Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 260 because, in the wake of AMD’s recent price cuts, the cheapest GTX 260 cards with similar perks—pumped-up clock speeds and lifetime warranty coverage—are more expensive than the Radeon and not really any faster.

Some might question whether our recommended power supply can handle this card. Well, our tests show that the stock 4870 1GB actually draws fewer watts under load than the Radeon HD 4850 512MB. We’re inclined to attribute that to the 4870’s use of GDDR5 memory, which is supposed to be more power-efficient than GDDR3.

The Utility Player
Value without major compromises

Our Utility Player build packs an unlocked quad-core processor, a fast graphics card with plenty of memory, and some nice extras—all for just over $800.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X4 940 Black Edition $189.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA790X-UD4P $109.99
Memory Corsair 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $44.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4870 1GB XXX $164.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $69.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $27.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $129.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $827.92

Processor

Thanks to recent price drops, we now have a pair of great quad-core processors to choose from for the Utility Player. Here, picking AMD’s Phenom II X4 940 Black Edition over Intel’s competing Core 2 Quad Q8400 is an easy decision. The Phenom II performs better overall, has an unlocked upper multiplier, and gives you a better upgrading path, to boot. (Socket AM2+ systems like this one should support Socket AM3 processors that come out through 2010.)

Unlike the AM3 CPUs we recommended for the Econobox, however, the Phenom II X4 940’s memory controller only supports DDR2 memory. To get DDR3, we’d have to move up to the new Phenom II X4 945—a chip that performs identically but costs $35 more and lacks an unlocked upper multiplier. Paying a small premium for DDR3 would be fine if we got a better system out of the deal, but in this case, we’d be paying a sizable premium to end up worse off.

That’s a shame. Don’t let it bother you too much, though; the X4 940 is still a fantastic deal at this price.

Motherboard

Since we’re passing on DDR3, Gigabyte’s GA-MA790X-UD4P has just about everything we need for the Utility Player: DDR2 DIMM slots, 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. The UD4P is surprisingly cheap, too, so there’s little incentive to settle for a stripped-down board.

Memory

We’ve carried over the 4GB DDR2-800 Corsair kit from our Econobox alternatives, because it’s cheap and has good warranty coverage. 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

XFX’s Radeon HD 4870 1GB is back from the Econobox alts, too. We chose Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 260 for the Utility Player last time, but we can now get this “factory-overclocked” 4870 1GB with a double-lifetime warranty for the price of a vanilla GTX 260 with no such perks.

Just like the GTX 260, the 4870 1GB has enough GPU power to run pretty much all games at 1920×1200, usually with some level of antialiasing. You may not need to consider anything faster unless you have one of those huge 30″ monitors.

Storage

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. This puppy should be pretty quiet, too. That makes it a great choice 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, so we’re not terribly inclined to get something fancier just because of our more generous budget.

Audio

Since its inception, the Utility Player has lacked a sound card. That’s mainly because we used to have a harder time squeezing the most value out of our $800 budget. Today, though, we’re able to outfit this system with a good quad-core processor, four gigs of RAM, a very fast graphics card, and other goodies with enough cash left over for a Xonar DX.

We really believe the Xonar is a must-have for a system of this caliber, provided you’re using half-way-decent analog speakers or headphones. Onboard audio has certainly improved in recent years, but it still can’t match the output quality and noise shielding of a real sound card. The Xonar has extra goodies like real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding and support for EAX 5.0 emulation in games, as well.

Enclosure and power

The Antec Sonata III costs more than the NSK 4480B II we selected for the Econobox, but it has several advantages, including 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
Intel Core 2 Quad Q8400 $184.99
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550 $219.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-UD3P $134.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4890 $199.99
PNY GeForce GTX 275 $199.99
Storage LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $109.99

Processor

We’re not shunning Intel completely here. The Core 2 Quad Q8400 may not be quite as fast as the Phenom II X4 940 overall, but it’s still a worthy alternative. Also, while LGA775 may be on its way out, the socket still has some advantages, including generally lower power consumption and rock-solid chipsets. The SB750 south bridge on newer AMD motherboards still has some issues with operation in AHCI mode, which is necessary for Native Command Queuing and hot swapping SATA hard drives. AMD continues to recommend running the SB750 in IDE mode for optimal performance, likely because its own AHCI drivers are, well, broken.

For those who want to reach that next performance step, the Core 2 Quad Q9550 is also quite compelling. At $220, it’s cheaper than the Phenom II X4 945 and as fast as the $245 Phenom II X4 955.

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

The logical alternative to AMD’s Radeon HD 4870 1GB would be the GeForce GTX 260, which provides equivalent (and sometimes better) performance and used to be about the same price. The cheapest GTX 260s with 216 stream processors and decent Newegg reviews are around $180, but for only $20 more, we can step up to the Radeon HD 4890 and GeForce GTX 275—both unquestionably faster products. Let’s do that, then.

Because the GTX 275 and 4890 ran pretty much neck-and-neck in our tests, we can probably assume XFX’s vanilla Radeon HD 4890 offers similar performance to PNY’s GeForce GTX 275. The XFX card has a double-lifetime warranty, while the PNY card has three years of coverage and a free copy of Call of Duty: World at War. Either is a good option here, although we prefer the Radeon’s longer warranty coverage to yet another WWII shooter.

Storage

You might be wondering what LG’s GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive is doing here. 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.

The Sweeter Spot
Indulgence without excess

The Utility Player might be good enough for many gamers, but the Sweeter Spot goes that extra step to bring you more processing power, a better platform, Blu-ray, and a bigger enclosure with fancier noise-reduction features.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-920 $279.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD3R $199.99
Memory OCZ 6GB (3 x 2GB) Gold DDR3-1600 $99.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4890 $199.99
Storage
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $69.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $109.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX650W $99.99
Enclosure Antec P182 $144.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1,294.91

Processor

The Core i7-920 retains its status as our CPU of choice for the Sweeter Spot. This is admittedly the cheapest and slowest member of Intel’s newest processor family, but it’s still fast enough to outrun higher-clocked Core 2 Quads more often than not, and it can leave ’em in a cloud of dust (so to speak) when overclocked.

We didn’t choose a Core i7 system just for its raw performance, though. 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 pretty good chance you’ll eventually get to slap a blazing-fast 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’re still getting 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 of RAM is a lot for a desktop PC.

Wait a second, though. Doesn’t Newegg sell an MSI X58 motherboard with six DIMM slots for just $185? Indeed it does, but we’d rather avoid that product for now—a worrying 22% of user reviews give it the lowest possible rating on account of hardware failures and overheating issues. We haven’t had as much luck overclocking MSI’s X58 boards as we have with models from Asus and Gigabyte, either.

Memory

Yes, you can still get 6GB of DDR3-1600 memory for around a hundred bucks. We’ve had to change vendors to reach that target, but OCZ’s Gold 6GB DDR3-1600 triple-channel kit has glowing user reviews, decent specs, and a lifetime warranty. That’s good enough for us.

Graphics

With the Radeon HD 4890 now down to 200 bucks, it’d be a shame to set up the Sweeter Spot with anything less. (Again, this card’s performance lies in a somewhat different class than that of the 4870 1GB.) We’re picking the 4890 over its Nvidia rival because our chosen XFX card has both double-lifetime warranty coverage and great user reviews, and GTX 275s with similar perks cost more. That said, we’ve singled out a cheaper but less tricked-out GeForce GTX 275 for our alternatives on the next page.

Storage

Where did the RAID go? We used to recommend a dual-drive setup for this build. However, overwhelmed by the wealth of hard drive choices in this price range, we’ve decided to recommend a straightforward single-drive config and leave more exotic suggestions to the alternatives page. The 640GB Western Digital Caviar Black is still an excellent drive, and we expect most users will find its storage capacity sufficient.

As for LG’s GGC-H20L, it should please both backup freaks and movie lovers. This optical drive can read both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs and burn dual-layer DVDs. At this price, it’s a reasonable addition to the Sweeter Spot, too.

Audio

If we had room for Asus’ Xonar DX in the $800 Utility Player, we certainly have room for it here. 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-PSU bundle, so we’ve picked out a Corsair TX650W. This power supply has a single, beefy 12V rail, plenty of connectors, 80% or greater rated efficiency, active power factor correction, a single 120 mm 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. And the Newegg reviews are excellent, which is usually a good sign.

Enclosure
Antec’s P182 case isn’t particularly cheap, but it has many upsides, including composite panels, adjustable-speed 120 mm 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 a different graphics setup and more storage capacity. Either way, our alternatives should cover your needs.

Component Item Price
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4870 1GB XXX $164.99
XFX Radeon HD 4870 1GB XXX $164.99
PNY GeForce GTX 275 $199.99
PNY GeForce GTX 275 $199.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $69.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $69.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB $84.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB $84.99
TV tuner
AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe $104.99

Graphics

The way we see it, grabbing a couple of Radeon HD 4870 1GB cards will let you reach that performance step above the Radeon HD 4890 and GeForce GTX 275 for the smallest amount of cash. Paired up in CrossFire mode, the 4870s will comfortably handle games like Far Cry 2 at 2560×1600 with 4X antialiasing enabled. Meanwhile, in titles that don’t support CrossFire, you’ll still get a reasonably fast single GPU to fall back on.

We have two recommendations on the Nvidia side of the fence. PNY’s GeForce GTX 275 should offer slightly higher frame rates than the single 4890. While it may not have a lifetime warranty or masses of positive user reviews, this PNY card still gives you three years of coverage and a free copy of Call of Duty: World at War. You can run two of them in SLI mode, as well, which will yield better performance than the dual 4870s, not to mention potentially better multi-GPU compatibility—especially in newer games. Nvidia partners closely with game developers, and that tends to translate into better SLI support when new titles are first released.

Incidentally, we should note that both of these dual-GPU configs have some drawbacks: they consume a lot of power, increase noise levels, and take up a whole chunk of space in your motherboard’s expansion area. Unless we were building a system with a very large monitor (think 30″), we’d be more comfortable sticking with a single 4890 or GTX 275.

Storage

Three different hard drives stand out the most in this price range: the 640GB Caviar Black, the 1TB Caviar Black, and the 1TB Caviar Green. The first of the three already has a choice spot in our primary config, but picking among the latter two is a trickier affair. Where the 1TB Caviar Black has great performance and high noise levels, its green cousin is the opposite, with only decent performance but very low noise levels.

After much debating, we’ve decided to leave out the 1TB Caviar Black and recommend the following: use either one or two 640GB Caviar Blacks to store your operating system and applications, then grab one or two 1TB Caviar Greens if you require extra storage capacity. Getting two identical drives opens the door to RAID 1, which can improve read performance and allow a system to survive a single drive failure without data loss. Having a constant, real-time mirror of your system drive in particular can save loads of time—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 drives independently, combining them into massive JBOD arrays, or setting up riskier but potentially faster RAID 0 configurations.

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 OS’s 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. The Double-Stuff Workstation belongs to the third category.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-950 $569.99
Motherboard Asus P6T $249.99
Memory OCZ 6GB (3 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $99.99
OCZ 6GB (3 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $99.99
Graphics PNY GeForce GTX 275 $199.99
PNY GeForce GTX 275 $199.99
Storage Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB $219.99
Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB $219.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $99.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $99.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $109.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX850W $139.99
Enclosure Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 $189.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $2,589.86

Processor

Intel’s Core i7-940 sure didn’t take long to flee the scene after Intel introduced the Core i7-950. That’s okay, though, because the newcomer costs the same as its predecessor while running faster—at 3.06GHz instead of 2.93GHz. We wouldn’t exactly call that a free upgrade, but it gives the Double-Stuff more processing power for the same amount of money.

Some might say we should’ve sprung for the new Core i7-975 Extreme Edition, since it’s even faster and has an unlocked upper multiplier. Problem is, that CPU costs over a grand, and we’d rather avoid massive and not-entirely-justified price premiums, at least in our primary config. (We have, however, featured the 975 in our alternatives on the next page.)

Motherboard

We’re not going with the fanciest possible motherboard here, either. 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 also isn’t an expensive step up. Well, at least not when your whole computer costs over $2,500.

Memory

Yeah, yeah. Most folks will be perfectly content with 4GB of RAM, so recommending three times that much might seem a little crazy. However, keep in mind that our second 6GB OCZ kit only raises the full system price by about 4%. The extra memory will surely come in handy for folks faced with actual workstation tasks, too. Besides, who wouldn’t enjoy the bragging rights?

Graphics

We established on the previous page that, if you want a significant leap up from a single Radeon HD 4890 or GeForce GTX 275, you pretty much need dual GPUs. Here, our ample budget allows us to spring for a pair of PNY’s GeForce GTX 275s.

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 performance edge over their counterparts with red PCBs. On top of that, as we’ve already said, newer games tend to perform better with Nvidia multi-GPU configs.

Storage

We’ve rethought our storage setup for this build, trading Intel’s 80GB X25-M solid-state drive for a pair of 300GB Western Digital VelociRaptors. You can set these up in a RAID-1 or RAID-0 array as you see fit, depending on whether you favor redundancy or potentially higher performance with a greater risk of data loss.

Why the change? The X25-M remains a formidable product, but after using it in desktop PCs for some time, we’ve found its limited capacity a little hard to swallow. More likely than not, you’ll be forced to run some applications and games off a mechanical drive—and that defeats the entire point of having an SSD. The VelociRaptors still offer quicker access times than 7,200-RPM desktop drives, without the constant threat of running out of space. We’ve also had some second thoughts about SSDs performance in light of the block rewrite penalty these drives face in a used state, which can reduce write speeds. Given that, we’re back to mechanical storage in our premium build for the time being.

We’re combining the VelociRaptors 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 again, 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. That’s okay, though: you can put it into the remaining PCIe x16 slot. Doing so 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

Simply put, Corsair’s TX850W is a higher-wattage version of the Sweeter Spot’s PSU. This unit gives you 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.

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 120 mm 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 i7-950 has a more sensible value proposition than the Core i7-975 Extreme. However, the Extreme chip has an unlocked upper multiplier that should allow for effortless overclocking. Couple that with a 3.33GHz default core clock speed (up from 3.06GHz on the Core i7-950) and a higher out-of-the-box L3 cache clock, and you really are getting the fastest desktop processor ever. The Core i7-975 Extreme even outpaced a Core 2 Extreme QX9775 “Skulltrail” dual-CPU configuration in several of our benchmarks.

Storage

These 2TB Caviar Greens might be slower and considerably more expensive than their 1TB black counterparts, but they can also store twice as much data. Depending on your needs, that might be preferable.

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 i7-975 can encode video. By the way, 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, all that ventilation will probably let more noise escape the Spedo than the Cosmos.

The Pocket Swiss Army Knife
The little black cube that could

A variety of small-form-factor builds have made their way into past system guides: low-cost desktops, home-theater systems, and even a kitchen PC. The Pocket Swiss Army Knife can fill in for almost all of those and more, thanks to a surprisingly versatile platform and an extremely compact enclosure.

We’ve laid out a basic configuration with integrated graphics below. If you want to turn the Pocket Swiss Army Knife into anything fancier or more specific, see our alternatives on the next page.

Component Item Price
Processor Pentium E6300 $82.99
Motherboard Zotac GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi $139.99
Memory Corsair 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $44.99
Graphics Integrated $0
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $69.99
Sony AD-7590S slim DVD burner $48.99
StarTech slim-line SATA adapter $11.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Silverstone Sugo SG05-B $99.99
CPU cooler Masscool 8W501B1M3G $11.99
Total   $510.92

Processor

AMD might have a more compelling budget dual-core CPU with the Phenom II X4 550, but Intel’s Pentium E6300 isn’t far behind in the performance race. More importantly, the Pentium allows us to spring for Zotac’s excellent GeForce 9300 Mini-ITX motherboard, which in turn lets us make this system very small, very expandable, and quite powerful.

Motherboard

Our review says pretty much all we need to say about Zotac’s GeForce 9300-ITX WiFi motherboard—including the fact that it earned our coveted Editor’s Choice award. To sum up, though, this board manages to cram the following onto a 6.7″ by 6.7″ circuit board: support for Core 2 processors with 1,333MHz FSBs, very capable Nvidia GeForce 9300 integrated graphics, DVI and HDMI display outputs, 802.11g wireless networking, a 16-lane PCI Express slot, two DDR2 memory slots, two internal SATA ports, and one eSATA port.

There’s more, of course, but those are the key elements that help make our Pocket Swiss Army Knife build so versatile.

Incidentally, our search for an AMD motherboard with similar perks proved fruitless. The only contenders we found lacked a PCI Express x16 slot—no good if you want to turn this system into a tiny gaming box.

Memory

Our staple DDR2 memory recommendation returns here. We could save around $20 by going with two gigs instead of four, but that’d be a little short-sighted. RAM is cheap, and more of it is usually better, especially with Windows Vista. (Speaking of which, you’ll want to run a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of all this RAM.)

Storage

We’ve also carried over WD’s 640GB Caviar Black from some of our other builds. This drive is cheap, fast, quiet, and covered with a long warranty. Whatever you decide to turn the Pocket Swiss Army Knife into, the Black is a solid choice.

Hunting down a DVD burner was a tad more difficult, because our selected enclosure only takes slim-line optical drives. Sony’s AD-7590S has decent reviews at Newegg, though, and it’s one of the cheapest mini-SATA burners we could find. Just don’t forget that StarTech adapter in our parts list—you’ll need it to connect this drive to the power supply and motherboard.

Enclosure and power
Silvertstone’s Sugo SG05-B is perhaps the ideal complement to the Zotac board. In fact, the availability of this case and mobo combination is what prompted us to include this build in the guide.

The SG05 has a very compact design (8.7″ x 6.9″ x 10.9″) fitted for Mini-ITX and Mini-DTX motherboards, and it uses a front-mounted 120 mm fan to provide whisper-quiet and effective cooling.

Silverstone also builds in a 300W passively cooled power supply with 80 Plus efficiency certification. Gamers will even find room for single-slot graphics cards with circuit boards as long as 9″. (Head to the next page for our discrete GPU recommendation.)

Processor cooler

Considering how quiet the Sugo SG05-B is, we’d rather have a CPU cooler with a little more metal and a quieter fan than what Intel sticks in the Pentium E6300 retail box. That’s why we’ve picked Masscool’s 8W501B1M3G, which is cheap, has a copper base with plenty of surrounding aluminum, and features a 90 mm ball-bearing fan that should be reasonably quiet. The fan doesn’t have a four-pin header that supports linear fan speed ramping, but since we found the Zotac board’s fan-speed control a little iffy in our tests, it’s probably better this way.

Swiss Army Knife alternatives

Want a diminutive home-theater PC? How about a cheap, super-compact gaming rig for LAN parties or your dorm room? See below for suggestions on how to augment the Pocket Swiss Army Knife.

Component Item Price
Processor Core 2 Quad Q9400S $299.99
Graphics PNY GeForce 9800 GT EE $99.99
TV tuner AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe $104.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB $84.99
Plextor PX-B310U external Blu-ray drive $159.99

Processor

Believe it or not, the Core 2 Quad Q9400S has the exact same 65W power envelope as the Pentium E6300 despite featuring an additional two cores, more cache, a faster front-side bus, and a clock speed that’s almost as high (2.66GHz vs. 2.8GHz). As you’d expect, Intel doesn’t exactly give those things away—$300 ain’t cheap for a Core 2 Quad at this point. Still, the tight power envelope lets us cram a lot of computing power into a very small space, which might be invaluable to some users.

Graphics

Our enclosure has room for bigger graphics cards, but we think PNY’s GeForce 9800 GT EE will deliver adequate gaming performance without making the Pocket Swiss Army Knife too hot or too cramped. This card is based on a slightly lower-clocked, more energy-efficient version of the regular 9800 GT design—”up to 30% less energy needed,” says Newegg—and it has a relatively short circuit board with a single-slot cooler. Too bad about that Flashdance-style sticker on the cooler, though.

TV tuner

If you want to turn the Pocket Swiss Army Knife into an HTPC, then AVerMedia’s AVerTV tuner card should work as well as with our Sweeter Spot and Double-stuff Workstation. Because our recommended mobo only has a single PCIe slot, however, you’ll have to choose whether you want a TV tuner or a discrete GPU. (Any PCIe x1 card like this one will happily function in the mobo’s PCIe x16 slot, by the way. Such is the magic of PCIe.)

Storage

WD’s 1TB Caviar Green will complement an HTPC spin of the Pocket Swiss Army Knife better than the 640GB Caviar Black. While it’s not quite as fast, the Caviar Green has considerably more storage capacity and lower noise levels.

A Blu-ray drive seems like a useful addition to any HTPC nowadays. We looked hard for a slim-line model, but since we couldn’t find one that was either in stock or had good user reviews, we went for the next best thing: Plextor’s PX-B310U external Blu-ray and DVD reader. The PX-B310U might look a tad bulky next to that Mini-ITX case, but it’s relatively affordable, and it comes with playback software in the box. The two Newegg customers who reviewed it sound pretty happy, as well.

The operating system
Which one 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 Far Cry 2, 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 $189.99 $224.99 $278.99 $249.99

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) $84.99 $99.99 $139.99 $174.99
OEM price (64-bit) $89.99 $99.99 $129.99 $174.99
Retail price $189.99 $224.99 $278.99 $249.99

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.

Having said all of that, we should acknowledge that Windows 7 is now imminent, and if you don’t mind using a pre-release version of an OS, you can grab the Win7 release candidate from Microsoft now and use it, free of charge, until next March. If we were building a new PC for ourselves at this point, we’d probably live a little dangerously and take that option. The Win7 RC, by most accounts, is already the best Windows yet.

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, rather than 24-bit, color definition. 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 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 Metadot’s Das Keyboard Professional or ABS’s M1 might interest you. The Das Keyboard is pretty pricey ($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 still 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, but we’re in 2009 now. 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 10 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 heatsinks 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.

Our latest cooler roundup has left us particularly impressed with Noctua’s NH-U12P tower-style cooler, which is available in two variants: one for Core i7 processors and a separate model for other Intel and AMD CPUs. This mass of metal is exceedingly quiet, and it actually managed to keep our test CPU a couple degrees cooler than a pricier liquid-cooling setup. Impressive.

Folks looking for a cheaper solution should also consider Kingwin’s Revolution RVT-9225 HDT, which is available online for as little as $29. That one doesn’t support Core i7 CPUs, though.

Conclusions

The hardware landscape hasn’t changed dramatically since April, but we are noticing a continuing trend: AMD’s products keep getting more compelling. We’re seeing that with the dual-, triple-, and quad-core Phenom IIs in our two cheapest systems. We’re also seeing it with the Radeons in the Econobox, Utility Player, and Sweeter Spot.

The tide may turn before long, though. Our sources in Taiwan have told us to expect Intel’s new Lynnfield quad-core processors in late August or early September. Lynnfield chips may well end up supplanting the upper end of the Core 2 Quad line, and they may also turn out to be better deals than at least the current Core i7-920. On the graphics side of things, we also heard in Taiwan earlier this month that AMD could launch its next-gen, DirectX 11 graphics processor in the late third quarter or early fourth quarter.

We wouldn’t go as far as to advise holding off on an upgrade if you need a PC now. That said, new products are looming on the horizon, so do keep an eye out—especially if you’ve happened upon this guide later in the summer.

Otherwise, if you need assistance, always feel free to head 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 support if you’re not feeling particularly confident about a new build.

Comments closed
    • megreen831
    • 10 years ago

    I purchased this system almost exactly to spec. I substituted:
    Patriot PC3-12800 1600 MHz
    Diamond Radeon HD 4890
    Antec P-193 case

    Everything came together easily enough and I had Windows 7 up and running in 4 hours from start.

    The problem I’m having is with the CPU fan. It’s running at high most of the time. Not all of the time, mind you, but most of the time.
    Example 1: Fan running low. Launch Lord of the Rings Online. Fan kicks into high. End the game but fan remains high.

    Example 2: Fan running low after first power-up for the day. Runs low for 1 hour. Tell Windows 7 to restart and on the way down the fan kicks into high and remains high through power off and then on restart and into windows 7 loaded. 2 hours later fan still on high.

    Any ideas?

      • wt_JR
      • 10 years ago

      Check your temps, it could be that your CPU is running slightly hot, hence the fan going nuts.

      What heatsink did you use in that case, the stock cooler?

    • Maxwel
    • 10 years ago

    I’m building a machine with the mboard, cpu and memory of the Sweeter Spot. I tried to install Windows 7 (32 bit). The machine would not reboot to finish the install, but turn off. All I could do was boot into safe mode, which wasn’t usefull. I have since installed an old copy of XP pro. Any ideas why Win7 doesn’t install?

    • methodmadness
    • 10 years ago

    Haven’t built a PC in a LOOONG time, so I went with the exact parts list recommended for the Sweeter Spot (sans soundcard) to get back in the game. Long story short, and knock on wood, but all the parts came together great and the computer is running like the wind now. Super fast, i7/6gb DDR3/Radeon 4890 combo can handle most gaming tasks well (don’t do much online FPS gaming myself). Only comment for relative novices like me is that installing the power supply and connecting all the components for the Antec case can be a bit tricky due to the design of the “thermal zone” separator and the fact that the cables come out mere inches from the bottom fan.

    • Nomgle
    • 10 years ago

    /[http://www.jwele.com/motherboard_detail.php?419<]§ It pretty much matches the Zotac Intel board, at a slightly cheaper price - and is an AMD board.

    • Schuthrax
    • 10 years ago

    Do you guys actually try all the products you recommend?

    I just bought myself a daskeyboard and it is going back because of the tricks it attempts to play in order to increase the number of keys available for rollover. The short of it is that the USB specs only provide for a maximum of 6-key rollover. The daskeyboard claims 12-key rollover, which they get by having an internal USB hub and faking two separate keyboards.

    Well, this innovative twist is not without its problems, mainly, that it can interfere with USB in your whole system! When I plugged mine in, my Dell monitor hub turned into an “unknown USB device”. On top of that, I could no longer plug in external USB hard drives! They provide a USB Y cable so that you can plug the daskeyboard into two USB ports if necessary. That is a very odd thing in and of itself, but it is probably related to the whole mess of their trick to get 12-key rollover.

    I talked with their tech support, which is odd in its own right as the only way to communicate with them is through a ticket system and there’s no way to see what kinds of problems other users are having. They were of no help in the end so it is going back.

    I’m going to be checking out the Steelseries 7G (http://www.steelseries.com/us/products/keyboards/7g/information) next. Wish me luck!

    One last rant, what is with keyboard manufacturers messing with keyboard layouts? As a gamer and professional programmer, I really do not need my home key cluster messed with!

      • UberGerbil
      • 10 years ago

      §[<https://techreport.com/articles.x/16138<]§ As linked from the system guide. So I think the answer to your question is "yes."

        • Schuthrax
        • 10 years ago

        And it doesn’t say anything beyond how it was used for a day. Was the n-key rollover investigated? Granted, my situation may not have come up here, but a little research indicates that it is common enough. What about a little investigation as far as why there is the wacky Y cable required “sometimes”. They should have said the review was about Cherry blue switches since that was what most of the article was about!

      • MadManOriginal
      • 10 years ago

      I’ve never had such a rollover problem…with PS/2 keyboards 😉

      • d0g_p00p
      • 10 years ago

      I bought the ABS M1 and am loving it. The review here also helped the purchase.

      One thing. The squeeky spacebar does go away after some use. I had the same issue, went and bought some silicone lube (insert joke here) but have never had to use it.

      In short, awesome keyboard.

    • UberGerbil
    • 10 years ago

    g[

    • Kurotetsu
    • 10 years ago

    Is there any reason you jumped to the Core i7-950 for the Double Stuff Workstation instead of sticking with the i7-920?

      • SomeOtherGeek
      • 10 years ago

      I guess, double stuff also means double the price, so $280 x 2 = ~ $570? Think maybe that is it?

      • derFunkenstein
      • 10 years ago

      extra money in the budget + extra speed, I’d think.

    • brucect
    • 10 years ago

    That’s it !!!
    No Bechmarks ?

      • derFunkenstein
      • 10 years ago

      there are plenty of benchmarks all over the site.

        • Convert
        • 10 years ago

        Of these exact configurations?

        Even trying to extrapolate the performance for each system configuration from the data on the site is going to be rather difficult to say the least. Actually I will just call it impossible and leave it at that.

        It brings up an interesting point though, what are you actually getting for the price?

        Personally I think it’s a cool idea but totally impractical for TR. They don’t have the bankroll to go out and purchase the systems every time a guide comes out and then hope the market doesn’t force a change in recommendations before they can finish.

        Besides, brucect, the point of the guides is to use these systems for the budget bracket you are in. The idea is you have X amount to spend, not that you want to get Y performance rating.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 10 years ago

          No, but I don’t think it’s nearly as difficult as you make it sound. Video card reviews will show you high resolution performance where the GPU isn’t the bottleneck, and CPU reviews will show low resolution gaming and other general productivity scores when the CPU is meant to be showcased. CPUs with the same cache structure (usually) show performance improvements pretty linearly.

    • shank15217
    • 10 years ago

    After reading a bunch of reviews from a bunch of sites I think its a fair comparison between Phenom II X4 955 and the Core 2 9650. The Phenom 955 is overall faster than the Core 2 9550.

    • Tarx
    • 10 years ago

    Pity the 4770 is so hard to find (and so priced at a premium) as that would be a great choice in the Sugo – low power dual slot with great performance. I would be uncomfortable putting something as hot/power hungry as the 4850 in the Sugo.

    In my ITX build, I wanted a much smaller case (low profile, pico psu) than the Sugo so I chose a 2.5″ notebook drive (the TR editor’s choice WD 500GB) instead of a 3.5″ drive.
    p.s. why is WD the best choice in every segment of the consumer hard drive market?

    edit: BTW – thanks for a great guide! The econobox is very nice.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 10 years ago

      The Radeon HD4850 is specifically listed on Silverstone’s page as being compatible with the SUGO enclosure.

    • Arxor
    • 10 years ago

    Originally I decided to wait until an x64 Windows OS was viable. Having more than 4GB RAM was just too tempting a paradigm shift to buy new beforehand.

    Now, we have the viable x64 Windows… thing is, there are some tempting improvements right around the corner….

    – DX11 – Requires hardware support that current cards don’t have.
    – USB3.0 – Our friend the Universal Serial Bus doesn’t get an upgrade all that often.
    – SATA 6Gbps – Another example of connections that don’t upgrade that often. And yes, it’s technically here now.

    I know I can get controller cards for the connectors, but if I can have it built in, why bother? It’s easy to get into the waiting game for that next chipset, or that next revision, but I think these are worth holding off a few months for.

    • UberGerbil
    • 10 years ago

    Anyone care to offer other ITX case recommendations? The SG05 is a great choice if you’re using discrete graphics, but if all you need is the IGP for a utility machine, you could go with something much smaller. Unfortunately, most of the ITX cases I’ve looked at online appear to be cheaply made (though not cheaply priced), badly designed, and/or simply ugly.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 10 years ago

      Really? There’s a ton of ITX cases on Newegg and none of them are suitable? The only downside in general to such cases imo is the possibly questionable PSUs, not in terms of power but in general quality. The main advantage of the Silverstone however is the fact that it uses a 120mm fan = quietness and you can only make a case so small with a 120mm fan. Maybe if they had it on the top…

        • UberGerbil
        • 10 years ago

        There are a fair number of cases, yes, but the seem to tend towards plasticy things with questionable PSUs. And little thought given to cooling, despite that bing crucial to such builds. I think the trouble is that most of them were originally aimed at the VIA platform, and in many cases intended for other markets (industrial, POS, etc); in some cases the maker just slapped a different plastic bezel on the thing and hoped to jump on the Atom nettop bandwagon. But if you’re actually putting together something a little more powerful — more than VIA or an Atom and GMA graphics, but less than a separate GPU — the options are more limited. (It would be nice if they weren’t all deathmetal black/silver also, but that’s a minor quibble… at leas they aren’t beige)

        I actually don’t have a problem with the 120mm fan — if the case was no wider than that. But the SG05 is way too fat if you’re not using its girth for a GPU. The SG03 is actually closer to what I’m looking for, though it’s bigger (taller) than it needs to be for this application also. An ITX spec SG03 would be perfect.

        Anyway, I was asking for recommendations — as in “I’ve actually used this, and here’s what I think.” It’s hard to judge quality from a couple of photos on Newegg, and there aren’t (yet) a lot of independent reviews around for these things. For example, this looks pretty good:
        §[<http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811234021<]§ But how good / efficient is the PSU? How loud is the thing? Is it appropriate for the guts of the "pocket knife" build?

      • Skrying
      • 10 years ago

      You must a really weird spot you want to put this in. Besides that Winis case being shorter it is nearly as big or bigger in every other dimension, most certainly in width measuring the dimension the motherboard would be on. You’re honestly not going to find a better case than the Silverstone unless you’re willing to spend a bit on it and you’re specific about your components. But, here’s a good start to find something you might like:

      §[<http://www.mini-itx.com/store/?c=3<]§ Give you some good idea of what's out there. They might even ship to you.

        • UberGerbil
        • 10 years ago

        The Silverstone is over twice as wide (“fat”), and it’s 60mm larger or more on each of the other dimensions. I’m looking for something vertically-oriented with a small footprint.

          • eitje
          • 10 years ago

          You know, what I’ve NEVER understood: why doesn’t someone make a mITX case that has a 120mm fan mounted ABOVE the board, blowing down? Then your case doesn’t have to be tall/fat, since you’re 120mm occupies an area smaller than the 170mm needed by the mITX board itself.

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            There’s other design issues too, you need more than just a mobo in the case. PSU, HD, optical drive all take up space. Probably we’ll see one like that some day though.

            • eitje
            • 10 years ago

            HDD & optical can be mounted underneath the motherboard, along with a 90W stick PSU. imagine a tray where the mITX system sits, with everything else flipped below it.

            • UberGerbil
            • 10 years ago

            Yeah, I’ve actually thought about going ghetto and trying to find a case/120mm cooler combination such that the cooler sits flush with the top of the case — and then Dremelling out a hole for it with some kind of mesh/filter over the top. I guess you could go really hotrod and have the cooler rise right out of the case like the carb/headers sticking through the hood of an actual hot rod, but I expect that would be noisy.

            I do like the idea of slipping the drives underneath the mobo tray.

      • fr500
      • 10 years ago

      Look for APEX MI-008 it’s a nice all around case for the price.

      I have one with a 9300-ITX and will be getting a 9600gt eco from Zotac as soon as they get available, you might need better cooling though, a 12cm fan on the side is worth it.

        • UberGerbil
        • 10 years ago

        Interesting. What did you use for a CPU cooler (looks like you’d need something very low profile)? You can fit a 120mm fan onto the side vents?

          • fr500
          • 10 years ago

          So far the stock intel hsf fits fine (just), and temps are not that bad considering a similar builld with an atom 330 runs hotter…MI-008 has vents on both sides, MI-100 just on right. The PSU is remarkably silent but a bit inefficient.

          You can fit the 12cm just fine no screws or anything just slide it in and it gets locked by itself.

            • UberGerbil
            • 10 years ago

            Good info, thanks. You have your HD in the external 3.5 spot, or can you fit it along the sides with the fans also in place? (I’d like to have room for a card reader if possible)

            • fr500
            • 10 years ago

            you can’t fit it alongside the fan, but you could find a way to fit the disk below the card reader bay, there is enough space down there for an HDD. Rubber bands couldwork but it’s probably too lame :p

      • eitje
      • 10 years ago

      iStarUSA’s S-3:
      §[<http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811165176<]§ It's the new version of the original silver/black S3 they shipped. absolutely the best mITX case I've ever used. I did, however, switch out the side fan for a silenx fan: §[<http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16835226001<]§ perfect for the fanless mITX systems, since it provides just enough airflow.

      • SomeOtherGeek
      • 10 years ago

      I have been frustrated by this too… I mean, they have monitors with PCs built inside of them… Why don’t they have cases in the same way?

      I would not mind a case that is 19 by 19 as long as it was thin enough to hide behind a monitor or a flat-screen TV.

      It that concept just too weird or what?

    • derFunkenstein
    • 10 years ago

    Man, that Econobox is nice.

      • TurtlePerson2
      • 10 years ago

      I thought I had a nice computer, but the Econobox beats everything but my sound card. Maybe it’s time for an upgrade…

        • bthylafh
        • 10 years ago

        Indeed. Taking out the parts that don’t need upgrading, I could get a much nicer system for $250.

        Stupid clothes dryer, needing to be replaced. 🙂

          • derFunkenstein
          • 10 years ago

          It won’t blow my desktop system away except in graphics performance (my poor Radeon 3850), but man it’s nice for the price. Just mind-blowing.

            • TurtlePerson2
            • 10 years ago

            If you’re feeling any strain on your GPU and had the cash I would upgrade it. I just saw a 9600 GSO for $35 AR and I’ve been seeing 4850s for about $80.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 10 years ago

            The 4850 would be a good upgrade, but not good enough. I’m happy with what I have and I’ll wait.

            I think the 9600GSO would be a step down, but a GeForce 9800GT would be a little bit of improvement.

            All in all I’m satisfied and can wait for the next big thing to force prices down farther.

            • SomeOtherGeek
            • 10 years ago

            Yea, it is… I’ve taking the guide and removing everything but the MB, CPU and RAM and think it is a perfect PC for the kids or (hope she is not reading this) the wife. 200 to 300 bucks for a full blown system! Wow! Times are good!

    • Freon
    • 10 years ago

    You should consider the Coolermaster 690 or 690 NV for your next article. It’s priced cheaper than the P182 but has many of the features of the $179 Coolermaster case mentioned. Five or six 120mm fan mounts (some with dust filters), toolless HDD tray system w/tranverse mounting, toolless 5.25 bays, PSU at the bottom, fits large heatsinks, most of the same I/O ports on the top, etc. I have a 690NV and am extremely happy with it. For ~$80 it seems to beat the $120-150 Antecs based on my needs.

      • UberGerbil
      • 10 years ago

      Yes, Coolermaster offers a lot of value in that segment. I much prefer the look of the 590 to the 690, but that’s purely personal aesthetics.

      The Antec 300 is another good choice in that ~$50 price range.

      I would never choose the 182 for a personal build because I hate doors.

        • Tamale
        • 10 years ago

        You’re both right, the Antec 300 and CM 590/690 are all great deals.

        I think the recommendations as they are now in the guide though are still some of the best for noise levels if that’s your primary concern.

        • bdwilcox
        • 10 years ago

        Yes, the Antec 300 immediately sprung to mind for me, too (especially if the system is for an enthusiast).

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    Anyone have a Small Form Factor case to recommend for the econoboxg{

    • swiecki
    • 10 years ago

    Hooray Cookies!

    Edit: After actually reading through the guide, I’m surprised how much ATI(AMD I guess) has dominated the lower price ranges. Their cards are really in the value spot this generation.

    I agree with the comments below, Windows 7 RC1 is what I’m running until October.

    I also like the choice of the i950 in the double-stuff. I don’t think a chip over a thousand dollars is worth it, either.

    Great guide, and its probably going to be the last one of this generation so eat up folks!

    • Ruiner
    • 10 years ago

    X-25m for main OS and apps all the way. 80gigs is plenty. Anything big goes to NAS.

      • TheBob!
      • 10 years ago

      My steam folder alone is 55GBs.

        • Meadows
        • 10 years ago

        And does that have to reside on C:?
        If so, Steam is broken.

          • Tamale
          • 10 years ago

          uhh.. I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to be trying to load Portal over the network 😛

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            So if it’s not on C:, then it’s on the network?
            Am I really on a tech site?

            • bthylafh
            • 10 years ago

            Apparently you’re on the site where you think it’s OK to be a douchebag on a regular basis.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            You’re begging the question.

            • Tamale
            • 10 years ago

            well, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seemed like you were implying that you could put anything large on NAS and keep the system drive for OS and apps..

            steam is an ‘app’ but indeed, it gets too big for an 80gb SSD.

            i think if you want an SSD, you almost have to limit it to the OS and common apps.. Everything else that you want to be fast will have to be on another internal drive

            • eitje
            • 10 years ago

            yes.
            yes.

            Read Ruiner’s post for our frame of reference, DB.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 10 years ago

          only if you want the level loading benefits of the SSD. Why buy an SSD if you can’t use it for your frequently used stuff?

    • flip-mode
    • 10 years ago

    I gotta criticize the x4-940. It’s DDR2 only. I can’t agree with DDR2 for a new system build at this point.

    But opinions are like elbows….

      • Saribro
      • 10 years ago

      Yeah, you can’t lick your own opinions.

      • SubSeven
      • 10 years ago

      I agree. I actually just picked up a great deal on zipzoomfly. A phenom ii 955 with a Gigabyte GA-MA790XT-UD4P for a cheaper price than they have here for the 940 and ddr2 gigabyte. DD3 & cheaper, my kind of deal. Check it ouf if anyone is interested.

      §[<http://www.zipzoomfly.com/jsp/ProductDetail.jsp?ProductCode=10010385&ps=homain1<]§

      • potatochobit
      • 10 years ago

      i would not get that processor but DDR2 is just fine if you are not a heavy gamer

        • flip-mode
        • 10 years ago

        DDR2 is ‘fine’ but I can’t say is it a ‘wise choice’. Next year, a 2*4 GB DDR3 upgrade will probably be a pretty cheap option, but not if your stuck with a DDR2 mobo. It’s not that DDR2 itself is a bad choice, it is that if you buy a DDR2 mobo now, you’ve just put yourself at the end of the road – adding more DDR2 later is a comparatively unattractive proposition – it’s going to get more expensive, and you’ll probably be limited to 2GiB modules.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 10 years ago

          why not? If AM3 chips are going to work on AM2+ boards, at least…

          • flip-mode
          • 10 years ago

          Again, it’s about the future memory upgrade. DDR2: going to be getting more expensive, 4GiB sticks very rare. DDR3: going to be getting cheaper, 4GiB sticks eventually common. If you’re getting a new mobo, a DDR2 mobo is a shortsighted pick. Having said that, now is one of the WORST times to be building, IMO, with Lynnfield imminent, and the new AMD chipset semi-immanent. So the whole DDR2 vs DDR3 thing is a sideshow.

          Edit: imminent, not immanent.

            • kuraegomon
            • 10 years ago

            Sorry to be a spelling/grammar wonk, but your typo on “imminent” ended up being rather amusing:

            §[<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immanent<]§ Rather seems to invest Lynnfield with a disproportionate significance ;)

            • RickyTick
            • 10 years ago

            “/[

            • SomeOtherGeek
            • 10 years ago

            Then you better wait 3 years cuz it’ll take that long to save up for the new expensive parts…

            • flip-mode
            • 10 years ago

            I have waited 3 years!

            • Dagwood
            • 10 years ago

            Here is my elbow…

            The motherboard, processor and memory should be thought of as one purchase. Yes sometimes you can save a buck or two if you have the right upgrade path, but you more than likely what you are gaining is just more spare parts.

            What your saying is sometime down the road, your planning on upgrading to what ever shinny new 6/8 core thing AMD releases 6 months from now. Well in that time Intels shiny new 6/8 core thing-a-ma-bob will be out, and so will PCIe 3.5 and USB 6.0 and a whole bunch more stuff your going to need that will require a new motherboard. So if you’re lucky you can re-use that 4 GB of DDR3 ram you bought for 60 bucks that is now on sale for 30 — except for the fact that you need that ram because your giving the old system to your brother so you need to buy new ram anyways.

            • designerfx
            • 10 years ago

            why not? This makes sense to me.

            It’s like:

            you’re getting a cheap processor that is faster and works on DDR2. Meanwhile you can upgrade the processor AND get DDR3 when it’s cheaper. That concept makes complete sense and is smart from a buyer perspective especially considering cheaper and faster DDR3 is still on the way.

    • Shinare
    • 10 years ago

    Does that Antec P182 case fit a GTX295 single PCB?

      • [+Duracell-]
      • 10 years ago

      It should if you take out the upper hard drive cage.

      • Thresher
      • 10 years ago

      You have to take out the upper HD bay. The issue I really have though is that the card blocks access to my SATA connectors. I may have to get another motherboard.

    • StuffMaster
    • 10 years ago

    Hmmm. I was planning on getting DDR3-2000 (3x2GB) for my next build. I expected to see it somewhere here.

      • KilgoreTrout
      • 10 years ago

      Have a look at AnandTech today. It seems like it’s not really worth the money.

        • zima
        • 10 years ago

        OTOH ddr3 promises sensibly prized 4gb modules. Give nice future headroom.

        • StuffMaster
        • 10 years ago

        Yeah, maybe I should look at DDR3-1600 CAS 7 instead of DDR3-2000 CAS 9. I think it’s just the number 2000 that draws me…

          • MadManOriginal
          • 10 years ago

          DDR-Y2K!

        • SomeOtherGeek
        • 10 years ago

        Or maybe if you wanna save a little energy, not much but every little counts. Get the 2000 and scale it down to 1600 (you won’t lost much in performance) and the voltage will be around 1.5 instead of 1.65…

        Whatcha think?

          • StuffMaster
          • 10 years ago

          Would I be able to reduce the timings too? Say, CAS 6-7? Otherwise I think I’ll go with the 1600 for best performance.

    • bthylafh
    • 10 years ago

    I would have put a recommendation in for the Dell Ultrasharp 2209WA monitor, with its 8-bit E-IPS panel for only $200 to $260, depending on the phase of the moon. I’m really pleased with mine.

      • Prototyped
      • 10 years ago

      I came in here to suggest the very same thing.

      And for those who want FullHD resolution (1920×1080) or larger, LG is expected to launch the W2220P display late in Q2 or early Q3. It’s a 22″, 16:10, 1920×1200 display with an e-IPS panel that reportedly should cost around EUR 260 (so maybe $300 or so). It was meant to launch next month, but rumors suggest it’s been delayed to September or October.

      I’m personally waiting to pick up one of those displays when they finally become available.

      Another reportedly good alternative is the Samsung SyncMaster F2380 display. This one uses “cPVA” technology, a cheaper, de-tuned alternative to S-PVA. It’s a 23″ 16:9 1920×1080 panel, and a review of it (in Chinese) suggests it’s really very good for the price:

      §[<http://product.pconline.com.cn/lcd/samsung/334507_review.html<]§ Machine translation into English: §[<http://translate.google.com/translate_c?hl=en&sl=zh-CN&u=http://product.pconline.com.cn/lcd/samsung/334507_review.html<]§ Both these e-IPS and cPVA technologies seem to be targeted at consumers searching for 20" and larger displays in the premium TN+film range, providing superior image quality and viewing angles at similar prices. I look forward to seeing many more displays using these technologies in the near-to-medium term. I hope both are out and reviewed before your next system guide so they can make it into your recommendations.

    • kuraegomon
    • 10 years ago

    I’m running Windows 7 RC1, as per my sig, and I’d have to agree that it’s Microsoft’s best OS yet. You probably were better off mentioning it right at the top of the OS section. I’ve also had amazingly little pain migrating to W7 (x64) from Vista. And W7 is _more_ stable than Vista (which was more stable than XP SP2 on my setup).

    A case I’d like to throw out there for anyone building the Sweeter Spot or Double-Stuff systems is the Cooler Master HAF 932. I helped a friend build a system a couple of weeks back, and this was the case he chose. Awesome airflow, and significantly quieter than you’d expect for all those (HUGE!) fans. I also found it amazingly pleasant to work in, even without a removable motherboard tray. For those of you who’re skeptical about this, I have a Silverstone TJ-09, which _does_ have a removable tray, and the HAF was _still_ better to work with than that (already very good) case. Tool-free hard-drive and optical drive installation FTW! Plus, many cutouts for routing all cabling behind the motherboard tray, and extra depth back there to make sure you’re not crowding the right-side panel when you do so.

    We also used the Noctua NH-U12P in that (Core i7 920) build, and CPU temperatures were 26-28 degrees Celsius at idle, and 48-50 at 100% CPU load, after a day+ of burn-in. I’d expect those temperatures to drop a bit more as the thermal paste cures further. Granted, this PC is in a relatively cool basement, but still excellent results. We used the same 6×2 OCZ DDR3-1600 config outlined in the Double-stuff with a P6T Deluxe V2, and had zero installation issues (again with Windows 7 RC1).

    I also second the WD recommendations. Caviar Blacks are absolutely awesome drives, and the V-Raptor is still a really nice compromise if you don’t want to go SSD. I’d really wait for Intel’s X-25M successor (and/or) the next wave of Indilinx-based drives (and Windows 7 to release) before pulling the SSD trigger, especially if you’re still not happy about the current state of TRIM support, and current firmware solutions for the used-drive performance penalties. Intel’s done a decent job with their latest firmware, though.

    One more thing for anyone thinking about going Core i7 is that the 920 is likely to go away pretty quickly once the Lynnfield’s come out, and if you’re thinking of building a system to take advantage of all that Core i7 bandwidth, that definitely will change the price equation. For desktop/gaming usage, Lynnfield (and it’s advanced turbo mode) will be a better choice, but if you have more workstation needs, then squirreling away a late-run i7 920 may be a good idea.

      • kuraegomon
      • 10 years ago

      Re my Ci7 920 comment, the assumption is that you’re planning to overclock that CPU. An overclocked i7 920 is just the bees’ knees if you have an application to use all those CPU cycles, or if you have a crazy multi-GPU setup (i.e. tri-SLI or quad-SLI/Crossfire).

      • [+Duracell-]
      • 10 years ago

      Going to have to second the Coolermaster HAF 932. Although I bought it’s smaller sibling the HAF 922, they are both identical in the fact that they are so easy to work with and are great cases.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 10 years ago

    For the Swiss Army Knife you’ve made a bit of a mistake I believe limiting it to single-slot graphics card. That case has two expansion slots (look at your pictures ;)) and can use double-slot cards. The length limitation still applies and you want to use at most a 4850 or 9″ GTS 250 according to Silverstone because of the PSU.

    I’d also be curious to know how much height there is between a motherboard and the bottom of the PSU in that case. It’s just begging for a mini Ninja for CPU cooling if it fits.

      • eitje
      • 10 years ago

      I’d like clarification on where the single-slot requirement came from, as well.

        • fr500
        • 10 years ago

        Might be because mini-itx only has one PCI/PCI-e slot, mini-dtx also compatible with this case on the other hand can use both slots.

        You can use a GPU with a two slot cooler just fine, some guys have even fitted GTX260s in there but probably it won’t last.

        As for the CPU cooler, you can fit a 78mm tall heatsink, I used a CoolerMaster GeminII and replaced the front fan with a 1400rpm CoolerMaster fan.

        Some pics of my setup:

        §[<https://files.getdropbox.com/u/149537/Photos/DSC02645%20(640×480).jpg<]§ §[<https://files.getdropbox.com/u/149537/Photos/DSC02649%20(640×480).jpg<]§ §[<https://files.getdropbox.com/u/149537/Photos/DSC02656%20(640×480).jpg<]§

          • eitje
          • 10 years ago

          Understood on the single PCI-E slot information; it was not new information to me.

          The trouble is, even with a single slot on the motherboard, the case has TWO slots available on the backplane. This would seem to accomodate a dual-slot cooler on a GPU.

            • fr500
            • 10 years ago

            yes it does, just fine

            • eitje
            • 10 years ago

            and i see that the system guide has now been updated (so that it no longer excludes dual-slot GPUs from the build), so these questions make us look pretty silly. 🙂

          • SomeOtherGeek
          • 10 years ago

          Pretty niffy system build you got there! Thanks for sharing. Might steal your idea for one of my builds… 😉

            • fr500
            • 10 years ago

            It’s so good it makes my other PC pointless sometimes, I reckon a low power quad would help “TV” gaming like prototype and GTA IV more than the e8400, if you build it show let me know how it goes PM or whatever

            • SomeOtherGeek
            • 10 years ago

            You got it! I’m in love with the E8400, so I might stay with that… But then prices are going down, so we’ll see, but you got a deal, I will keep ya posted. Somehow.

    • Fighterpilot
    • 10 years ago

    I imagine there must be millions of people out there with analog photo albums and boxes of VHS and home video 8mm that need/would love to have it all saved into digital format.
    It would be a cool thing if TR could spec an “all in one” rig designed just for that purpose.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 10 years ago

    Huh. Wasn’t expecting a system guide. That econobox looks pretty tempting!!

    I’m also digging that Swiss Army build. Way neato. Quick question: Are you sure that enclosure will have enough clearance to fit the aftermarket cooler?

    • potatochobit
    • 10 years ago

    on the Utility Player
    you could save a little more using the motherboard with SPDIF out
    and not have to buy a sound card
    though some people might argue against onboard audio, but I do not think the one on this board is a bad option for most people

    • Anvil
    • 10 years ago

    Looks like a good one, what with it incorporating all the market shifts since April. 🙂

    The addition of an HTPC section is nice as well, but on the monitor side, where’s the 2209WA? It would seem to be more or less the best of both worlds, what with it being an IPS screen at TN prices. The only drawbacks are the fact that it and the E-IPS panel type in general only come in 22″ and 1680×1050 resolution, which might be a deal breaker for some.

    • Skrying
    • 10 years ago

    Some thoughts:

    The SG05 is such an awesome little case. The power inside a mini ITX machine is just insane. A full blown gaming system can be put into that little sucker with basically no sacrifices except a dedicated sound card. That’s why we have awesome external DACs available though.

    Really glad to see a change on the heatsink recommendation. A choice much more fitting to the options available on the market today. I would like to see more heatsink reviews coming out of TR.

    I think I would still stick with the X-25M for the storage recommendations on the Double-Stuff. The size limitations just don’t see like a big deal considering what would really be done on the systems. Having a few of your seldom played games coming off the other drives seems like a very minor nitpick compared to the massive increase in noise the Raptor’s will bring.

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