TR’s fall 2009 system guide

Intel’s new Lynnfield processors have been out for a week. Where’s the new system guide already? Right here, at last. Over the past few days, we’ve been scrambling to update our usual builds with the latest and greatest hardware, including (but not limited to) the new Core i5 and i7-800-series processors and matching P55 motherboards.

Boy, do we have surprises in store for you. We were able to outfit our Utility Player build with a Core i5-750, a great little P55 mobo, a fast single-GPU graphics card, four gigs of RAM, and other goodies for only around $870. More impressive still, our Econobox build now pairs a triple-core Phenom II with a Radeon HD 4850, all for around $580.

Oh, and we’ve refreshed our operating system section with the latest Windows 7 tips, including suggestions on how to upgrade before the operating system’s October 22 launch without missing out. Keep reading for all the details.

Rules and regulations

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

Before tackling our recommended systems, we should explain some of the rules and guidelines we used to select components. The guiding philosophy behind our choices was to seek the best bang for the buck. That means we avoided recommending super-cheap parts that are barely capable of performing their jobs, just as we 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 X3 720 Black Edition $119.00
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA770T-UD3P $79.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $73.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4850 512MB $114.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223B $30.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480B II w/380W PSU $84.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $578.94

Processor

Yep. Our entry-level build now has three CPU cores. We were pretty excited about being able to include the Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition in our mid-range Utility Player config seven months ago, but prices have dropped enough to make it a reasonable choice for the Econobox. Sure, we’re going a little over-budget this time, but put it this way: sticking with our previous recommendation, the dual-core Phenom II X2 550, would only save around 20 bucks. An el-cheapo dual-core with a locked multiplier would shave off maybe another $20-30. For a relatively reasonable premium, the X3 720 gets you both an unlocked multiplier and a third core that can make all the difference in heavily multithreaded apps.

We continue to shun Intel in this category. The rival chipmaker only offers dual-core processors below $150, and the LGA775 platform those parts use is an evolutionary dead-end. Mainstream Intel parts will use LGA1156 going forward, while AMD will hold on to Socket AM3 through next year. You might even be able to upgrade that triple-core Phenom II to a six-core behemoth in a year or so.

Incidentally, the Phenom II X3 720 is based on the same silicon as quad-core Phenom IIs, but it has one core disabled. Our recommended motherboard includes a feature that lets you re-enable that core, in case it happens to be fully functional.

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 boards with that nifty core unlocking feature we just talked about.

This board only takes DDR3 memory, which 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 $10-20 for a four-gig kit. DDR3 is slowly taking over the market, and DDR2 will likely become more expensive as DDR3 demand increases and DDR2 production wanes. That makes the UD3P’s DDR3 exclusivity an advantage looking forward.

Memory

We hunted for the cheapest 4GB DDR3 dual-channel kit from a big name-brand company with lifetime warranty coverage, and we ended up with this Crucial DDR3-1333 offering. Again, stepping down to (good) DDR2 would only save us around $10-20, 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. Considering how mature Vista and Win7 x64 are these days, we’d be inclined to echo that recommendation. 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 just over $100. 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 the 4850 has enough brawn to run games like Far Cry 2 at 1680×1050 with antialiasing enabled. Certain titles, like Left 4 Dead, are even playable at 2560×1600 with 4X AA.

Storage

Western Digital has three 640GB hard drives priced 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 cache, 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-S223B has supplanted the apparently discontinued SH-S223Q from our last guide. As far as we can tell, the B has the exact same specs minus LightScribe support—no great loss. We like the combination of positive user reviews and low pricing, in any case, and the Serial ATA interface is reasonably future-proof.

Enclosure and power

Antec looks to have retired the original NSK 4480 we used to recommend for the Econobox. Thankfully, Newegg now stocks the NSK 4480B II. This newer enclosure has a slightly different look, but it includes a 380W, 80%-efficient power supply and delivers the same features.

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 triple-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 X2 550 Black Edition $102.00
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA785GM-US2H $79.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $54.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB $144.99

Processor

For folks wishing to save a few bucks, stepping down to the Phenom II X2 550 Black Edition will trim the Econobox’s price by around $20 without taking away the unlocked multiplier and Socket AM3 upgrade path. You might even get better performance in single- or dual-threaded apps like games, since the X2 550’s cores run at a higher clock speed than the X3 720’s. This processor is also based on quad-core silicon, so the unlocking trick we talked about on the previous page might work here, too.

Motherboard

Don’t play demanding games? Then why not skip the $105 Radeon and move down to integrated graphics? Gigabyte’s GA-MA785G-US2H can accommodate either the Phenom II X3 720 or the Phenom II X2 550, and it features AMD’s new 785G chipset with the very capable Radeon HD 4200 integrated graphics processor. That integrated GPU can handle casual games just fine, and it features AMD’s latest high-definition video decoding logic. Many users don’t need much more graphics horsepower from a $500 PC.

This board also happens to have a nice set of features, including external Serial ATA, FireWire, HDMI, and Realtek’s ALC889A audio codec, which can do on-the-fly Dolby Digital Live and DTS encoding. It only takes DDR2 memory, however. Keep reading for our matching RAM recommendation.

Memory

Our selected 4GB Crucial DDR2-800 memory kit completes the dual-core, 785G, and DDR2 budget trifecta. Because DDR2 still costs a little bit less than DDR3 right now, going with our alternative budget parts can shrink the price of the Econobox to around $430 overall. Not bad, right?

Graphics

Some may need more graphics power from the Econobox, not less. In those cases, we suggest taking a look at the Sapphire’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 DirectX 10.1 lineup, 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 are more expensive than the Radeon and not really any faster. We’re also passing on an XFX-branded Radeon here despite the nicer warranty—sadly, the XFX 4870 1GB we used to recommend is now discontinued, and its replacement has a worryingly small cooler.

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 tempted 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 a Core i5 processor, a fast graphics card with plenty of memory, and some nice extras—all for just under $900.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-750 $206.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P55-UD3R $139.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $73.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB $154.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223B $30.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $109.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $881.92

Processor

If you’ve read our review of Intel’s new Lynnfield-based Core i5 and i7 processors, then this pick should be self-explanatory. If not, well… we recommend reading the review anyway. To sum up, the Core i5-750 performs better overall than any previous-generation processor in its price range. Thanks to the matching P55 chipset, it also has prodigiously low idle power consumption—drawing fewer watts than many dual-core systems, in fact.

This performance and power-efficiency comes with very reasonable platform costs, too, since P55 motherboards and dual-channel DDR3 memory kits don’t suffer from the same markups as their X58 and triple-channel counterparts. We can therefore squeeze the Core i5-750 into this build without cutting corners. Oh, we might be stretching our budget a tad, but it’s worth it.

Motherboard

We had a nice handful of sub-$150 P55 boards to choose from, and among those, Gigabyte’s GA-P55-UD3R looked like the best solution for the Utility Player. This board has dual PCI Express graphics slots with AMD CrossFire support, eight internal SATA ports, 10 USB 2.0 ports, a pair of external Serial ATA ports, and heatsinks on the power regulation circuitry.

Competing Asus mobos may have more PCIe slots, but those slots are all crammed right under the primary PCIe x16 where you’d put a double-wide graphics card. The GA-P55-UD3R smartly positions one PCIe x1 slot above the primary x16, so you can use it without impeding airflow even in a dual-GPU setup. Not even Asus’ more expensive P7P55D has as many USB and SATA ports as the UD3R.

Memory

The 4GB Crucial kit we picked for our Econobox should work just as well here. DDR3-1333 happens to be the fastest speed the Core i7-750 processor supports out of the box, so you shouldn’t miss out on any extra performance, either.

Graphics

We don’t want to splurge too much, so the Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB from our Econobox alternatives returns here, too. This card delivers excellent performance for the price, with 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. The Black should be pretty quiet, too, making it a great all-around choice for both the Econobox and the Utility Player.

We’re sticking with the Samsung SH-S223B 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

Sound cards were absent from our first few Utility Player builds. We made that choice mainly because we were sticking with dual- or triple-core processors at the time, and we didn’t want to have to cut more corners to include a sound card. Today, however, we can outfit this system with a Core i5 processor, four gigs of RAM, a very fast graphics card, and other goodies with enough cash left over to grab a Xonar DX. And we’re doing just that.

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 4480 II we selected for the Econobox, but it has several advantages over it, 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.

You might notice we’re not throwing in a processor alternative here. As we said earlier, the Core i5 outclasses all competitors in its price range. We mean that. You could go with a cheaper-but-still-capable quad-core CPU, like AMD’s Phenom II X4 945, but why do that when the Core i5 and all of its perks (like great overall performance, Turbo Boost, and excellent idle power efficiency) are so few dollars away?

Component Item Price
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4890 $199.99
BFG GeForce GTX 260 OC Maxcore 55 $209.99
Storage Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $67.99

Graphics

Nvidia’s vanilla GeForce GTX 260 would be the logical alternative to AMD’s Radeon HD 4870 1GB, since the two cards perform about the same overall. However, even the cheapest GTX 260s are around $20 pricier than our Radeon. For that reason, we believe folks seeking alternatives should look at cards in the next performance tier: the Radeon HD 4890 and GeForce GTX 275.

The plain-jane XFX Radeon HD 4890 costs only $195, so it’s cheaper than competing Nvidia cards, and XFX happens to cover it with a double-lifetime warranty. Our experience tell us you can expect noticeably higher frame rates than with the 4870 1GB in many games, but you should also brace for higher noise levels under load.

Meanwhile, the cheapest GeForce GTX 275 on Newegg is a $210 Sparkle model. However, we can get a souped-up BFG GeForce GTX 260 with a higher core clock speed and a similar memory speed for the exact same price. This BFG card may have fewer stream processors than a GTX 275, but we expect it to perform about the same. Plus, BFG offers lifetime warranty coverage and 24/7 tech support, neither of which you get with Sparkle. To us, the BFG GTX 260 OC card seems like the better deal.

Since the GTX 275 and 4890 ran pretty much neck-and-neck in our tests, we can probably assume these two cards are about even, too.

Storage

LG has apparently discontinued the Blu-ray combo drive we’ve been recommending for so many months. None of the other combo offerings we came across really stood out, usually because of lackluster software bundles or high prices. In the end, we figured you’d be better off pairing a standalone Blu-ray reader with the DVD burner from our primary parts list. Lite-On’s iHOS104-08 should do a fine job as a standalone Blu-ray reader; it has great user reviews, relatively recent software (PowerDVD 8), and an affordable price.

The Sweeter Spot
Indulgence without excess

The Utility Player might be good enough for many users, but the Sweeter Spot goes the extra mile to bring you more processing power, faster graphics, Blu-ray, and a bigger enclosure with more elaborate noise-reduction features.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-860 $289.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P55-UD4P $169.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $73.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4890 $199.99
Storage
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223B $30.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $70.75
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX650W $99.99
Enclosure Antec P183 $144.95
Total   $1,245.62

Processor

Unlike our last two builds, the Sweeter Spot has actually come down in price since the previous edition of the guide. You can credit the Core i7-860 for that. Not only does this processor have a higher base clock speed, more powerful Turbo Boost capabilities, and lower idle power consumption than our previous pick, the Core i7-920, but it costs almost the same and works with cheaper motherboards and memory kits. What’s not to like?

Motherboard

The Core i7-860 would work happily in the Utility Player’s motherboard, but our budget lets us spring for something a little nicer here. For an extra $30, Gigabyte’s GA-P55-UD4P adds more PCIe slots, FireWire, support for Nvidia SLI multi-GPU setups, dual Gigabit Ethernet, and somewhat beefier cooling. This looks to be a mean overclocker, too: in our labs, we were able to push its base clock from 133MHz to 210MHz without increasing the voltage.

Why not opt for the slightly cheaper MSI P55-GD65 we gave such good marks to in our review? As good a board as that is, it doesn’t have as generous a feature set as the GA-P55-UD4P, and it doesn’t overclock as well. We’d rather spend $10 more on the Gigabyte board.

Memory

Our high-end config hasn’t shared the Econobox’s memory recommendation in quite a while. However, the reality here is that four gigs of DDR3-1333 RAM should be plenty even for multitasking-crazy overclockers.

Graphics

With the Radeon HD 4890 now down below 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 an Nvidia rival because our chosen XFX card has both double-lifetime warranty coverage and great user reviews, and it costs less than the cheapest GeForce GTX 275s or “superclocked” GeForce GTX 260s. That said, we’ve singled out an Nvidia alternative on the next page.

Storage

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 chose 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 unless they need to store hundreds of gigs of, ahem, Linux ISOs.

As for our optical storage, the same dual-drive solution we suggested on the previous page should also work great here: Samsung’s SH-S223B will be in charge of DVD burning, while Lite-On’s iHOS104-08 will take care of Blu-ray playback.

Audio

If we had room for Asus’ Xonar DX in the $800 Utility Player, we certainly have a place 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 P183 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, or maybe you’d just like more storage capacity. Either way, our alternatives should cover your needs.

Component Item Price
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB $144.99
Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB $144.99
Sparkle GeForce GTX 260 $164.99
Sparkle GeForce GTX 260 $164.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB $84.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB $84.99
TV tuner
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit $105.99

Graphics

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

On the Nvidia side of the fence, we’re going with a couple of vanilla GeForce GTX 260s from Sparkle. These cards may not have all the advantages of the GeForce GTX 275 or BFG’s high-end GTX 260, but they’re quite a bit cheaper—roughly $90 for the pair, by our count. The performance difference shouldn’t amount to much, either. This setup still cost more than the dual Radeons, but there are advantages to choosing SLI over CrossFire. 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 card.

Storage

In our view, three 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 eco-friendly, Prius-driving 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 in massive JBOD arrays, or setting up riskier but potentially faster RAID 0 configurations.

TV tuner

The AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe tuner of system guides past has faded out of online listings. In its absence, we chose Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit to fill in. Just like the AVerTV, 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, a hardware MPEG encoder, Windows Vista certification, and a Windows Media Center-certified remote control. Newegg customers sound fairly happy with it, as well.

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 $119.99
OCZ 6GB (3 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $119.99
Graphics BFG GeForce GTX 260 OC Maxcore 55 $209.99
BFG GeForce GTX 260 OC Maxcore 55 $209.99
Storage Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB $247.00
Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB $247.00
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $94.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $94.99
Samsung SH-S223B $30.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $70.75
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 $119.99
Enclosure Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 $159.99
Total   $2,635.63

Processor

Some readers might now be asking themselves, “Hey, isn’t there a Lynnfield processor with the same price as the Core i7-950, similar or better performance, and lower power consumption?” That’s all true; you’re thinking of the Core i7-870. We had a couple of good reasons to pick the i7-950 anyway, however.

First, Intel plans to release six-core, 32-nm Gulftown processors next year, and those parts will fit exclusively in LGA1366 sockets. (They should be compatible with existing X58 mobos, as well.) On top of that, the i7-950’s three memory channels allow for both more RAM and more memory bandwidth. Gigabyte does make a top-of-the-line P55 board with three DIMM slots per channel, but it costs exactly the same as our X58-powered Asus P6T and supports less total memory.

Some might argue that we should have sprung for the new Core i7-975 Extreme Edition, too, since it’s even faster and has an unlocked upper multiplier. Problem is, that CPU also 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 users 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 $200 graphics card, you pretty much need dual GPUs. Here, our ample budget allows us to spring for a pair of “factory overclocked” GeForce GTX 260 cards from BFG.

Why not dual Radeon HD 4890s? 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 our dual superclocked GTX 260s 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

Thanks to their 10K-RPM spindle speed, Western Digital’s 300GB VelociRaptors have quicker access times than more pedestrian 7,200-RPM hard drives. We’re recommending two of ’em, which you can set 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 no SSDs? Intel’s new X25-Ms are formidable products, but after using the first-gen 80GB X25-M 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 great performance at a lower per-gigabyte cost, and their 300GB capacities will lift the constant threat of running out of space.

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. As for the 1.5TB Caviar Greens, we’re not thrilled about their user reviews on Newegg. On the optical side of things, we’re featuring our standalone Samsung DVD burner and Lite-On Blu-ray reader once again.

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

A series of unfavorable Newegg reviews made us shy away from PC & Power Cooling’s 750W Silencer for a few months. Recent reviews suggest any momentary quality-control issues have passed, though, so this power supply is back in the Double-Stuff.

The Silencer won an Editor’s Choice Award in our enthusiast power supply round-up in October 2007, and it retained that crown in last summer’s PSU comparo. With a five-year warranty, remarkably low noise levels, very clean power delivery, high efficiency, and dual 8-pin PCI Express power connectors, the Silencer should accommodate the Double-Stuff’s components perfectly.

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 P183 (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.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-975 Extreme Edition $999.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $219.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $219.99
Sound card
Asus Xonar D2X $199.99
TV tuner Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit $105.99
Enclosure Thermaltake Spedo $169.99

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, Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit 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, our Asus P6T motherboard doesn’t have enough PCIe slots for this tuner card and a PCIe 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, however: 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 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 or other desktop 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 OS’s. 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.

Now, if you’re buying a copy of Windows today, you should really be thinking about Windows 7. We explained in our review that this OS may well be Microsoft’s finest to date, because it draws from Vista’s strengths while adding a healthy dose of polish, not to mention improved performance and non-disastrous backward compatibility. Building a new system with Windows 7 instead of Vista or XP is really a no-brainer at this point.

Trouble is, Windows 7 won’t hit stores until October 22. A number of online retailers are already offering pre-orders, but folks who need a new OS before launch day are in a bit of a bind. We’ve done a little research and come up with a few solutions, though.

It turns out you can buy a retail-boxed copy of Vista today and use Microsoft’s Windows 7 Upgrade Option scheme to get a free copy of Windows 7 when it comes out. Simply head to the fulfillment page, enter the product key of a retail Vista license purchased after June 26, 2009, enter payment information for shipping and handling fees, and then wait. The Windows 7 copy you receive will correspond to the Vista license you purchased. In other words, Home Premium, Business, and Ultimate editions of Vista will turn into Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate editions of Windows 7, respectively.

Another solution is to grab a Windows 7 installation disc image and use the Microsoft-sanctioned “slmgr -rearm” trick to run it without an activation key for up to four months (as long as you don’t mind being nagged to activate, that is). This method will give you plenty of time to get hold of a retail copy and enter its product key. Take note, however: unless you end up purchasing the same edition you installed via a disc image, you may have to reinstall for your product key to work.

Windows 7 installation ISOs should be available to MSDN and TechNet subscribers, so bugging your developer buddies could be a good way to snag one. Those ISOs can be modified to let you install any edition you wish, making the aforementioned reinstallation step unnecessary. Last, but not least, Microsoft offers a free, 90-day trial of Windows 7 Enterprise (which has the same features as Windows 7 Ultimate) to IT professionals who don’t mind filling out a quick survey form.

As you can see, Windows 7’s pre-release period doesn’t have to be one of confusion and angst—just be aware of your options. Or run Ubuntu Linux until Windows 7 comes out, whatever. You definitely don’t need to hold off an upgrade until October 22, in any case.

With all that in mind, let’s look at the Windows 7 editions. We’re not going to delve into the Vista editions, since unless you just skipped to this paragraph and ignored the advice above, you shouldn’t have to run Vista for very long, if at all. Those who really care about Vista can check out the OS page from our previous guide.

  Windows 7 Home Premium
Windows 7 Professional
Windows 7 Ultimate
New Aero features
Windows Search
Internet Explorer 8
Windows Media Center
HomeGroups
Full-system Backup and Restore
Remote Desktop client
Backups across network  
Remote Desktop host  
Windows XP Mode  
Domain Join  
BitLocker    
Interface language switching    
Full license price $199.99 $299.99 $319.99
Upgrade license price $119.99 $199.99 $219.99
Anytime Upgrade price $89.99 $139.99

Because Windows 7 Professional includes all of the Windows 7 Home Premium features, and most users probably won’t find Windows 7 Ultimate’s additions terribly exciting, the choice effectively comes down to Home Premium vs. Professional. Some TR editors like hosting Remote Desktop sessions and running network backups, so we’d probably go with the Professional package unless we were on a tight budget. However, we should also note that Windows 7 Home Premium includes some features formerly exclusive to more upscale editions—namely full-system backups and Previous Versions (a.k.a. Shadow Copy). See our review for more details.

If you go with Home Premium and find you need some of the Professional features down the road, you can always use the Anytime Upgrade program to step up. It’ll only set you back $90.

Speaking of upgrades, you’ll notice upgrade licenses are quite a bit cheaper than full ones. That’s because you need a legit version of Windows XP or Windows Vista to use them. The edition doesn’t matter, but you do need the previous OS to be activated and installed on your hard drive for the Windows 7 upgrade to work. Mind you, Vista upgrade installers don’t seem to protest when a user does a clean install of Vista without a product key and then runs an upgrade installation over that. Windows 7 could allow for the same trick. Microsoft doesn’t sanction this method, however, and who knows how future updates to the Windows activation system might affect it.

Finally, retail Windows 7 licenses cover both 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the OS. You might have to ask Microsoft to ship you x64 installation media if you need it, but you’ll still find yourself facing a choice: should you install the x86 or x64 edition? Since all of the processors we recommend in this guide are 64-bit-capable and all of our systems have 4GB of memory or more, the x64 release strikes us as 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.)

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 new OS’s and games pushing the envelope in terms of memory use, the 4GB limit can get a little uncomfortable for an enthusiast PC.

There are some caveats, however. 64-bit versions of Windows don’t support 32-bit drivers, and they won’t run 16-bit software. You’ll probably want to make sure all of your peripherals have compatible drivers, and vintage game lovers may also have to check out emulators like DOSBox. Still, hardware makers have improved x64 support quite a bit since Vista came out two and a half years ago, so you’ll probably be fine unless you have a really old printer or something.

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 going 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 UltraSharp 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 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, 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 impressively managed to keep our test CPU a couple degrees cooler than a pricier liquid-cooling setup.

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.

By the way, the LGA1156 sockets in our Utility Player and Sweeter Spot systems require new heatsink mounts, so the aforementioned coolers probably won’t work until they’re updated (or their manfuacturers provide new mounting kits). In the meantime, something like Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus should do the trick.

hyper 212 plus also works w/ lga775, am2/am3

Conclusions

Cores, cores, and more cores. Also threads. That’s one way we could sum up this guide. After all, who would have thought we’d ever drop a triple-core processor into our entry-level configuration? This trend should only become more pronounced as Intel squeezes AMD into lower and lower price brackets. Before long, we reckon you’ll have triple-core AMD CPUs and dual-core, quad-thread Intel CPUs battling it out under $100.

We can’t help but be excited about our new Lynnfield builds, too. The latest Utility Player packs incredible value with a modest price tag, and the Sweeter Spot has become more powerful and versatile than ever. It’s even cheaper than last time.

On the graphics side of things, the status quo should soon shift as AMD introduces next-generation DirectX 11 graphics cards. Nvidia may follow up not long after. If you have a graphics card that will hold you over for a week or three, you might want to hold off on ordering one for your new build just yet. That’s definitely true if you’re going to drop the bucks for a multi-GPU setup. Good new things are coming soon, and you’ll be sorry if you pull the trigger immediately.

If you need assistance, always feel free to head over 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
    • Dede
    • 10 years ago

    #103, Hi Boss Drum,

    Thank you for your very informative reply, I appreciate it!

    Sorry that I didn’t say I had the latest Sweeter Spot in mind for my build.

    I have an electronics background but am hesitant since I don’t have much computer knowledge as I said. Moreover, I’m an old buck: 82 years old!

    You mentioned “step down…in the video area “, what would you suggest I get?

    If I put all folders on the drive and not do any partitioning, how would I get the most used folders on and near the outer periphery and keep them there during a defrag?

    Mention of Windows 7, what do you think of it?

    Lastly, For backup, what do you think of an esata 640 GB Caviar Black Western Digital drive with Rebit software on it ?

    Again,Thanks,
    Dede

    • Salda007
    • 10 years ago

    A quick question about the Double Stuff workstation. A friend of mine pointed out that the memory it uses, the OCZ DDR3-1600, is actually on the overclock list for the Asus P6T motherboard. Was this intentional? If so, can you recommend a non-overclock memory set for the same motherboard? I don’t see a similar OCZ set in DDR3-1333.

    • Dede
    • 10 years ago

    TR’s fall 2009 system guide

    Advise please:
    I have never built a computer and would like to using “TR’s fall 2009 system guide” exactly as stated. I plan on using the on board audio and leave the audio card out, if possible.

    I plan on installing 64 bit Windows 7. Would it be better using 6GB instead of 4?

    I would appreciate any advjce on that build. I am not going to use it for gaming, mostly use it for surfing, email, photo work and some video editing.

    I also want to it be upgradable.

    So is this a good build for my wants?

    I was told by a PC building company that I should not put partitions on my drives. Instead put folders.

    Is that good advice? If not, how many partitions should I put on my drives?
    I plan on adding drives later.

    Thanks in advance.

      • BossDrum
      • 10 years ago

      Building a PC ain’t for the faint of heart. It can be a great learning experience, but make sure you conscously make the choice. Your ability to methodically troubleshoot is critical – this is different from simply building something frm a box of Lego.

      You don’t mention which configuration you were looking at (econobox/Sweetspot/etc).

      I’d suggest the Utility Player if you’re doing mostly surfing/email and casual video and photo editing. If you’re doing more high-end “prosumer” photo/video editing, you might want to jump up to the Sweeter Spot.

      4GB should be more than enough for most “prosumer” video/photo editing activities.

      Partitions may be helpful for some folks’ back-up strategies, but really, today, there is little practical need for drive partitioning in Windows.

      Integrated audio sounds like it would be “good enough” for you. On-board audio is often quite good these days anyway.

      Heck, you could step down a good bit in the video area as well if you aren’t doing any gaming.

      I’m not sure what kind of “upgradability” you want. Unfortunately a lot of people new to PC building think they can build a PC and simply make regular upgrades to it to keep it at the top of the performance pile for years. It doesn’t really work like that. Buy the best you can today with the budget that you have available.

      You can (almost) always add more drives, more RAM, or an upgraded video card, but there are very practical limits in terms of what kind of upgrading you can do in the future. Sure the i7-965 will be $100 someday, but by that time, it will likely make more sense (features and $) to switch to a new mobo/processor combo rather than just perform a “magic” upgrade. Think SATA 600, USB 3.0, or better/faster bus architectures, etc.

        • Dede
        • 10 years ago

        #103, Hi Boss Drum,

        Thank you for your very informative reply, I appreciate it!

        Sorry that I didn’t say I had the latest Sweeter Spot in mind for my build.

        I have an electronics background but am hesitant since I don’t have much computer knowledge as I said. Moreover, I’m an old buck: 82 years old!

        You mentioned “step down…in the video area “, what would you suggest I get?

        If I put all folders on the drive and not do any partitioning, how would I get the most used folders on and near the outer periphery and keep them there during a defrag?

        Mention of Windows 7, what do you think of it?

        Lastly, For backup, what do you think of an esata 640 GB Caviar Black Western Digital drive with Rebit software on it ?

        Again,Thanks,
        Dede

    • BossDrum
    • 10 years ago

    I wish we could get a refresh on this. It seems like it came out so soon after the new i7/i5’s it might have been a bit rushed and with limited mobo access. I’m sure with the better perspective a month later, a refreshed guide might have some very different elements.

    Maybe just a quickie Oct 09 guide refresh. Pleeeeeeeze?

    • mboza
    • 10 years ago

    So, do you now want to squeeze a 5870 into the sweeter spot, or wait another week for the 5850. Do you drop back to a i5 to pay for it? Or is the 4890 or GTX260 good enough at 1920×1200?

    • MarkD
    • 10 years ago

    Kudos for the guides. They are most valuable as starting points, because many of us have different requirements or uses for a PC.

    The soundcard debate here is a good example. I sure don’t need one for 10% of the cost of my system – the extra money was the difference between my Dell 2209WA vs a generic TN monitor. The 640GB drive has its place, but I had a need for more space, hence my 1TB drive – it’s well worth the extra $25 to me, and a total waste for most others.

    I won’t knock competitor’s sites by name, but I recently saw a back to school recommendation that sank far too much of the budget into a fancy case and power supply.

    Thanks.

    • Bashiba
    • 10 years ago

    Where is the Micro ATX system?

    • Rakhmaninov3
    • 10 years ago

    Just clicked on the “buy the complete system at Newegg” and it only came up to $565!

    Not shopping right now. I’m just click happy.

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 10 years ago

      Yup. An item might have been removed because it’s out of stock, or prices move down that fast.

    • eitje
    • 10 years ago

    I think these guides should always be prefaced (by at least a week) with a cost/performance review of the hardware intended to be used in them.

    at least, it would cut down on some of the crazy comments, arguing about dollars and cents. 😛

    • Meadows
    • 10 years ago

    g{

    • designerfx
    • 10 years ago

    one thing overestimated: That 750 watt pcpro power supply will *not* handle the processor it is bundled with, with the ram it has, along with the 2 graphics cards. It’ll burn out within 6 months, guaranteed.

    Granted, pc power has a great RMA team and does it fast/legitimately, but you can expect to blow a power supply quite often. 800+watts is the barrier for 6 strips of ram.

    How do I know? Exact same setup burned up the psupply for me, had to RMA it twice – it was especially too much power demand if you overclock *at all*

    • thermistor
    • 10 years ago

    #53…thank you for articulating what I’ve also been thinking for quite some time. I *like* the sound of $50-70 Logitech and Creative speakers, but that is because I don’t know what I’m missing, really. Plus good onboard really has exceeded what $25 sound cards can do.

    Yeah, have an audiophile relative with a tube amp and a granite turntable, etc., and he can point out subtleties in recordings that I wouldn’t begin to notice.

      • Meadows
      • 10 years ago

      g{

        • thermistor
        • 10 years ago

        Really, why?

    • albundy
    • 10 years ago

    oops, wrong reply

    • MixedPower
    • 10 years ago

    For what it’s worth, Dell has refreshed their 24″ Ultrasharp line with the U2410, which has an IPS screen instead of PVA.

    §[< http://accessories.us.dell.com/sna/products/Monitors/productdetail.aspx?c=us&l=en&s=dhs&cs=19&sku=320-8277<]§

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 10 years ago

    Oh just one thing:

    The 380w PSU with the econobox. I’m all for penny-pinching, but are you guys SURE that thing will power a Radeon 4850 ?? Seems like that would be cutting it close…

    • albundy
    • 10 years ago

    wow, that i5 combo is pretty disappointing…I expected better pricing and quality, not slapping it on the cheapest board you can find.

      • wibeasley
      • 10 years ago

      I’ll bite. What specifically do you find disappointing about it?

        • ssidbroadcast
        • 10 years ago

        It’s a trap. Get an axe.

          • Scrotos
          • 10 years ago

          The next one of you primates… even… TOUCHES me…

        • albundy
        • 10 years ago

        ummm…the price.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 10 years ago

          so in short you’re crying that high-end performance requires you to pay for it. Nice.

          • wibeasley
          • 10 years ago

          You’re objecting to the price? For a build with equivalent performance and quality, what components are cheaper?

            • albundy
            • 10 years ago

            i’m objecting to the price because it was promised to be oriented towards a budget build. But I guess its too early for that price drop to occur. Nevertheless, the cpu should have sold under the $170 mark, and the highest end p55 boards should have not surpassed $150. This price point could have easily overtaken AMDs offerings.

            • wibeasley
            • 10 years ago

            The X4 940 was listed at $189 in the previous Utility Build. The i5 750 is selling for $199 at Newegg now. I think it’s extreme to demand “the cpu should have sold under the $170 mark”.

            • UberGerbil
            • 10 years ago

            g[http://img.hexus.net/v2/news/intel/nehalem-roadmap-large.jpg<]§

      • Krogoth
      • 10 years ago

      You are looking at the wrong category my friend. i5 was meant to be a Core 2 Quad replacement. It fits perfectly in the grand experiment and sweeter spot.

    • shaq_mobile
    • 10 years ago

    granted, the 750 is a sweet cpu. but the cpu,mobo, ram combo adds an aweful lot to that utility player. with the use of a 4870 (4890 being reserved for alternative) that combo seems really bottom heavy. not a big deal, i suppose it is neat when a new cpu comes out and forking over a few extra bucks makes it a nice treat.

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 10 years ago

    Oh man that econobox is so damn tempting. God damn it TR, you guys are drug pushers.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 10 years ago

      I might have selected a DDR3 785G motherboard like the Asus M4A785TD-M EVO or the Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H for the Econobox alternative.

    • SS4
    • 10 years ago

    What about the AMD Athlon II X4 620 at 99$ ???

    taken from AnandTech:
    Processor Clock Speed L2 Cache L3 Cache TDP Price
    AMD Phenom II X4 965 BE 3.4GHz 2MB 6MB 140W $245
    AMD Phenom II X4 955 BE 3.2GHz 2MB 6MB 125W $245
    AMD Phenom II X4 945 3.0GHz 2MB 6MB 125W $225
    AMD Phenom II X3 720 BE 2.8GHz 1.5MB 6MB 95W $145
    AMD Phenom II X2 550 BE 3.1GHz 1MB 6MB 80W $105
    AMD Athlon II X4 630 2.8GHz 2MB 0MB 95W $122
    AMD Athlon II X4 620 2.6GHz 2MB 0MB 95W $99
    AMD Athlon II X2 250 3.0GHz 2MB 0MB 65W $87

    It seems like a better value than the X3 given the performance and price….

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 10 years ago

      Yeah, but why have four cores when you can have /[

        • SecretMaster
        • 10 years ago

        Damage already answered this on another comment.

          • SS4
          • 10 years ago

          oh yeah i just read it, i didnt see it at first, thx for pointing it out m8 ^^

        • FatherXmas
        • 10 years ago

        Because just about every review points out that games suffer a noticeable hit in frame rate without the L3 cache which outweighed any benefit a 4th core gave in return.

        Of course if you aren’t a gamer but are looking for encoding/transcoding of video then 4 cores without L3 beats 3 cores with.

    • SecretMaster
    • 10 years ago

    I’m curious as to why the new system guide was published before AMD releases their new GPU’s. Isn’t it this week or next week?

      • khands
      • 10 years ago

      ^This, the first week of fall is next week, I was hoping this would show up with the new cards out because some of this might be changed right after it came out.

      • UberGerbil
      • 10 years ago

      If TR had cards under NDA and they knew their performance would change their recommendations and they knew they the NDAs were going to be lifted next week, they probably would’ve delayed the guide. If you assume that to be true, then you can surmise that either they don’t have such cards, they do but the cards wouldn’t change their recommendations, or the cards won’t be available (or at least available to talk about) next week.

    • FatherXmas
    • 10 years ago

    I have a problem with the Gigabyte GA-P55-UD3R in the Utility Player system. The 2nd PCIe graphics slot is actually just tied to the P55, is only x4 and each channel is at PCIe 1.0 speed.Meaning the 2nd PCIe slot has 1/8th the bandwidth as the primary. And since the P55 is connected to the CPU via a very bandwidth limited bus, 1/9th to 1/12th the bandwidth of the QPI for the X58, it’s just a recipe for disappointment.

    I know CrossFireX can handle multiple cards with differing interface speeds but I can’t imagine how small the performance boost would be if someone decided to stick a 2nd card into their system.

    At least on Intel’s version of this setup, they used a PCIex4 socket with an open rear so it could still take a x16 card but the average Joe/Jane DIYer won’t jump to the wrong conclusion glancing at the board. The least Gigabyte could do is use a different color for this pseudo graphics slot so it’s obvious that’s something’s different with it.

    I loved the UD3R series of boards from Gigabyte but this one just rubs me the wrong way.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 10 years ago

      I’d consider the Gigabyte GA-P55M-UD4 or Asus P7P55D Pro for the PCIe options.

      • mboza
      • 10 years ago

      I think the UD4 and above have a 8/8 split when running two cards, the UD3 boards do not even support SLI, though it would be interesting to see the crossfire results comparison.

      If I were considering a SLI setup as a new build (rather than a hand-wavy six months down the line upgrade), I would probably just pick a X58 board and a 920, even though the lost couple of % of fps seems well above the 60 the monitor can show.

    • shank15217
    • 10 years ago

    On the workstation build it maybe more cost effective to have 6 WD black 1TB drives in a raid 5 configuration. It would provide very good performance under most situation as well as a very large storage pool. The problem with 2TB drives mirrored is that you lose half the storage and if you aren’t gonna mirror a 2TB drive you are asking to lose a lot of data if the drive fails.

      • Tamale
      • 10 years ago

      good point, I was thinking about mentioning the raid 5 option in the alternatives page myself.

      • flip-mode
      • 10 years ago

      And since your going down that road, it’d make good sense for TR to maybe consider a RAID card review and include that in the build… if they’re running low on things to review, that is.

        • indeego
        • 10 years ago

        Too busy bloggingg{.}g

    • emorgoch
    • 10 years ago

    Overall, I have to disagree with you guys regarding SSDs. After work allowed me to drop one into my laptop, I won’t be building any new computer for myself without putting one in. The velociraptor may be 1/3 the price (150GB VR vs. what’s suppose to be the MSRP on the X-25M 160GB [will eventually reach that price when current G1 stocks are depleted]), the performance difference is that great. And 120GB on the Vertex series is large enough that I can install everything I want, and if I run out of room, it means that I’ve got too many games hanging around that I haven’t played recently.

      • alphaGulp
      • 10 years ago

      I agree with you. I don’t see myself ever building another machine that does not have a good SSD as it’s primary drive, and I don’t understand how a component that has such a noticeable impact on performance could be ignored by TR’s builds the last year & more.

      I mean, even the silly double stuff workstation doesn’t even use ’em. RAID0 a few intel SSDs and you have some ridiculously-fast HD performance with low risk.

      • indeego
      • 10 years ago

      According to TR, the Vertex performs better than many mechanicals, but at 10% of the capacity and a good 50% more $. We’re talking a difference of ~5% performance here versus the best mechanicals.

      SSD’s apparently do have better reliability, power draw, noise. It’s all a matter of weighing your options. There still is a significant price premium for getting SSD and the performance advantage isn’t always justifying that price gapg{<.<}g

      • potatochobit
      • 10 years ago

      GREAT DEAL!@

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 10 years ago

    Nice write up, now I’m going to have wet dreams! Thanks a lot, TR!

    • potatochobit
    • 10 years ago

    oh, one other thing I noticed
    with the imminent coming of windows 7 it seems you guys still don’t think an SSD is a worthwhile option in a desktop? I saw you mentioned storage space limits but more important to me would be hardware issues that still need to be resolved.
    however, right now I am running 89GB on windows 7 with just the OS and porgram files so I can see your point.

    • StuG
    • 10 years ago

    The reason you would want to go with a Phenom rather than an i5 is because the motherboard is where the price cut really occurs. I mean, yes the Phenom 955 and the i5 are relatively but usually AMD based motherboards can be found much cheaper than Intel ones.

    • liquidsquid
    • 10 years ago

    Where the heck was this two weeks ago!!!! Thanks TR.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 10 years ago

      didn’t make sense 2 weeks ago since Lynnfield wasn’t out yet. 😉

        • indeego
        • 10 years ago

        Needs a week more for fall to get here, alsog{<.<}g

        • liquidsquid
        • 10 years ago

        Nah, I pulled the trigger last week, but had a heck of a time sorting through recommendations, ratings, price, performance, features, brands…. I trust TR enough that I would have picked on of the builds, made a few minor changes, and been done.

          • UberGerbil
          • 10 years ago

          So you didn’t use the Summer Guide from a couple of months ago? It’s not that different.

    • idgarad
    • 10 years ago

    Where is the “Buy It Now” option?

    • Game_boy
    • 10 years ago

    Was Propus not out in time for the writing of this guide, or did you make a choice in favour of the X3 720?

      • Damage
      • 10 years ago

      We were aware of Propus. I’d rather have the X3 with higher clock speeds and more cache (and thus higher single/dual-threaded performance) than another core, and I think most folks would, too. If you don’t play games and you do a lot of video encoding or 3D rendering, perhaps the additional core would be worth having. But if you’re serious about such things, you really should get a Phenom II X4. 😉

        • Game_boy
        • 10 years ago

        Thanks.

        • Meadows
        • 10 years ago

        The X3 is indeed detectably faster in some games, but who knows if Propus will offer more overclocking return-on-investment or simply an identical (or lower) price or what have you?

        I suppose it will be an alternative?

          • ssidbroadcast
          • 10 years ago

          Nah. I am betting that as you overclock, having more cache becomes more and more important.

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    On the OS page there are questionmarks where there should be bullets/checkmarksg{

    • potatochobit
    • 10 years ago

    you guys really like those ASUS sound cards, w

    I think starting with the sweeter spot I might have gone with more than 4GB
    I might upgrade to intel at the end of the year, currently i have a 720
    Honestly, though, I have never seen my processor hit 50% usage… unless running benchmarks or encodes; usually it is at 0 to 5%…
    Just watching where everything is going right now, performance this year has been changing so fast.

      • pullmyfoot
      • 10 years ago

      same I have a 720 @ 3.6 and I see no need to upgrade whatsoever. I play games and do a lot of photoshop work with this computer too. Maybe next year Ill get me one of those stepping 3 125W Phenom II X4s if the price is right/I have money.

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