TR’s Christmas 2009 system guide

All of this year’s exciting hardware launches are behind us. So is Windows 7. What we’re left with, now, is the short stretch leading up to December 25. We’ve decided to give the TR system guide a last touch-up before 2010 arrives and we face another new batch of launches in the first quarter.

For better or for worse, the hardware landscape has clearly shifted since we published the previous edition of the guide in late October. On the upside, we have new budget processors to play with. However, memory prices have gone up, and AMD’s Radeon HD 5800-series cards are harder to find than ever. We’ve taken these changes into account to give you a complete, definitive, and pragmatic resource for your Christmas PC shopping.

To mix things up, we also included a new one-off build: the Console on Steroids. A small-form-factor gaming PC geared specifically for the living room, that configuration combines better gaming graphics than current-gen consoles, considerably greater versatility (including the ability to chuck in a TV tuner card), access to online distribution services like Steam, Blu-ray playback, and Microsoft’s excellent wireless Xbox 360 controller. Keep on reading for all the dirty 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 Athlon II X3 435 $89.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA770T-UD3P $79.99
Memory Crucial 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $55.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5750 1GB $144.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $31.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480 II w/380W PSU $79.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $557.93

Processor

Had it been available in time for our last guide, the Athlon II X3 435 would have been our primary pick then, too. Compared to $99 Athlon II X4 620, this processor trades one core for a 300MHz higher clock speed (2.9GHz, up from 2.6GHz) and a price drop of around $10. Even with the missing core, the higher clock speed will improve performance in everyday apps, games, and just about anything not coded to take advantage of more than three cores, which sounds just fine to us.

The quad-core processor will still pull ahead in heavy multitasking and highly multithreaded tasks, of course, so we’ve reserved a spot for one in our alternatives on the next page. We think the X3 435 will satisfy a broader range of users. Looking at the competition, the best Intel can do at this price point is the Pentium E5400, which has only two 2.7GHz cores. We’d rather have the triple-core Athlon II.

Motherboard
Gigabyte’s MA770T-UD3P returns for another round because of its low price, robust assortment of ports and connectors, and positive user reviews on Newegg.

This board only takes DDR3 memory, by the way. That used to mean paying a small premium, but DDR2 and DDR3 kits have pretty much reached price parity these days. Not only that, but DDR3 is slowly taking over the market. DDR2 will likely become more expensive as DDR3 demand increases and DDR2 production wanes. The MA770T-UD3P’s DDR3 support therefore presents an advantage from an upgrading perspective.

Memory

Our Econobox build had quite a long run with four gigs of RAM as standard. Sadly, that was only possible because of a wave of oversupply and various other factors that wreaked havoc in the memory industry. The situation has now stabilized, and memory prices are back to their pre-crunch level—good news for memory makers but bad news for us.

Until memory makers resume bankrupting themselves to flood the market with cheap RAM, we’ll have to step down to 2GB to stay within our budget. Crucial’s 2GB DDR3-1333 memory kit ought to be sufficient for everyday use and even most cross-platform games, and Crucial covers it with a lifetime warranty. Should the upgrade itch strike you some time in the future, our recommended motherboard has room for two more 1GB DIMMs. We’ve set aside a 4GB kit for inveterate multitaskers and hard-core gamers in our alternatives section, as well.

Graphics

Prices have also increased on the graphics front. The problem here is two-fold: first, yield problems at Taiwanese foundry TSMC have tightened the supply of 40-nm graphics processors. Second, the rumor mill tells us neither AMD nor Nvidia wanted too many old 55-nm parts kicking around in the channel this holiday season, and both companies failed to anticipate the 40-nm shortages. That means higher prices and short supply pretty much across the board.

AMD’s Radeon HD 5750 1GB hasn’t been immune to this trend, with prices going up a good $15 since our previous guide. Back then, we would’ve guffawed at the notion of paying almost $150 for one of these. Today, however, we have few alternatives: good Radeon HD 4850 512MB cards have largely disappeared from Newegg’s stocks, 4850 1GB models cost about as much, and the Radeon HD 4870s that previously sold for less than $150 now go for around $175.

In this new pricing and availability landscape, XFX’s Radeon HD 5750 1GB actually looks like a decent deal at this price. It ticks all the right boxes: plenty of memory, DirectX 11 support, strong performance for a budget build, excellent power efficiency, and a “double-lifetime” warranty courtesy of XFX. You could save a few bucks by going with an older, slower, and power-hungrier DX10 card, but we don’t think that’s a good compromise.

Storage

Western Digital has three 640GB hard drives in this price range, and we think the Caviar Black is the one best suited for a system drive. Not only does it have a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, a 32MB cache, 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.

For our optical storage option, Samsung’s SH-S223L makes another appearance here. We like the combination of positive user reviews and low pricing, and its Serial ATA interface is reasonably future-proof. Samsung even includes LightScribe support.

Enclosure and power

The Antec NSK 4480 II comes to us in black-and-silver garb, since the all-black model has gone out of stock. This variant has the same features as its more elegant sibling, though, including a 380W, 80%-efficient power supply, some nice noise-reduction features, plenty of room for hard drives and expansion, and a clean, easy-to-work-in layout.

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, here are some alternatives.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X4 630 $112.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H $89.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $93.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $179.99

Processor

The Athlon II X4 620’s $99 price tag may look tempting, but opting instead for the Athlon II X4 630 takes us from 2.6GHz to 2.8GHz for only $13 more. If you’re prepared to spring for four cores, it makes little sense to be stingy and constrain yourself with the slower chip.

Motherboard

Don’t play demanding games? Then why not skip the $120 Radeon and move down to integrated graphics? Gigabyte’s GA-MA785GMT-UD2H can accommodate either of our Athlon IIs, and it features AMD’s new 785G chipset with its very capable Radeon HD 4200 integrated graphics processor. That integrated GPU can handle casual games just fine, and it comes with AMD’s latest high-definition video decoding logic. For many users, more graphics horsepower simply isn’t required in a PC like the Econobox.

This little MicroATX mobo 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. The GA-MA785GMT-UD2H is almost identical to the GA-MA785GM-US2H we picked last time, in fact, but it takes DDR3 memory and costs $10 more. Now that DDR2 and DDR3 are at price parity, stepping down just to save 10 bucks doesn’t make a whole lot of sense—especially since DDR3’s faster data rates should help the board’s integrated GPU.

Memory

We aimed to keep our primary build near the $500 mark, but you don’t have to. Anyone with a little more spare cash ought to consider jumping up to 4GB of RAM, which should smooth out multitasking and long gaming sessions. Windows 7 isn’t quite as resource-intensive as Vista, but it will still put spare memory to good use thanks to technologies like SuperFetch.

Now, you’ll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of all this memory. 32-bit OSes 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, 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 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 many pre-built PCs ship with Win7 x64 these days, we’re inclined to echo that recommendation. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.

Graphics

Similarly, folks who play state-of-the-art 3D games may want to step up to the new Radeon HD 5770. We saw first-hand that this card pretty much shadows the old Radeon HD 4870 1GB, generally reaching playable frame rates at 1920×1200 with 4X antialiasing. The somewhat inflated cost isn’t hard to swallow in this price range, and you’ll notice the difference at higher resolutions and detail levels.

Why not just get the 4870 1GB for about the same price? First, the 5770 consumes quite a bit less power, generates less noise with the stock cooler, has a shorter circuit board, and has better texture filtering than its predecessor. Last, but not least, the 5770’s DirectX 11 support may bring image quality or performance bonuses in DX11 games (a couple are already out, with more to follow in early 2010).

We chose XFX’s variant of the 5770 because it has double-lifetime warranty coverage, a relatively quiet dual-slot cooler that exhausts air outside the case, and a price tag barely above that of other models.

The Utility Player
Value without major compromises

Our Utility Player build packs a Core i5 processor, a fast DirectX 11 graphics card with plenty of memory, and some nice extras, all for just over $800.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-750 $199.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P55-UD3R $139.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $93.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $179.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $31.99
Audio
Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $109.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $830.93

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. 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 enables prodigiously low idle power consumption—lower than many dual-core systems, in fact.

The Core i5 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.

Motherboard

We have a nice handful of sub-$150 P55 motherboards from which to choose, and among them, Gigabyte’s GA-P55-UD3R looks like the best solution for the Utility Player. This mobo 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 boards may have more PCIe slots, but they’re all crammed right under the primary PCIe x16 slot, which is where you’re probably putting 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, either.

Memory

Despite memory pricing increases, our budget lets us include 4GB of Crucial DDR3-1333 RAM in our primary config here. After all, the Utility Player would look a little lopsided with a quad-core CPU, DX11 graphics, and just two gigs of RAM. Just make sure you install a 64-bit operating system, or you won’t be able to make use of all this RAM easily.

Graphics

What we wrote on the previous page rings true here, also. The Radeon HD 5770 performs quite closely to the old Radeon HD 4870 1GB and costs pretty much the same, but it has lower power consumption, quieter cooling, better texture filtering, and DirectX 11 support, so we think it’s a better deal. If you’re after a little more performance and don’t mind getting a previous-gen part, see the next page.

Storage

This Caviar Black is the fastest member of Western Digital’s 640GB line, and it’s 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-S223L 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

Our inclusion of a discrete sound card in previous Utility Player builds elicited some very polarized responses, with some folks praising the Asus Xonar DX for its superior analog sound quality and others labeling it a waste of money. This time, we’ve stuck with onboard audio in our primary config—not because we now side with the latter camp, but because price increases on other components (namely memory) mean the Xonar would push us $100 over budget, making it much tougher to justify.

This decision involved a fair amount of hand-wringing and some experimentation with the Gigabyte GA-P55-UD3R’s Realtek-powered onboard sound. Our verdict is that, if you use a pair of cheap headphones or speakers, the Realtek codec will sound okay—not great, just okay. Good enough for gaming, YouTube, and listening to MP3s, certainly. Besides, with digital speakers, the burden of good digital-to-analog conversion will rest on built-in DACs in your speakers anyhow.

If you have a halfway decent analog audio device and care the slightest bit about sound quality, however, a good sound card will make a very real, palpable difference. Bass will be less boomy, mids will sound far more detailed, and highs won’t chirp away louder than they should. Everything will just sound more natural. If better analog sound is worth an extra $90 to you, then skip over to our alternatives page.

Enclosure and power

The Antec Sonata III costs more than the NSK 4480 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.

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 955, but why do that when the Core i5 and all of its perks (like better overall performance, Turbo Boost, and excellent power efficiency) are so few dollars away?

Component Item Price
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 260 OC $199.99
Diamond Radeon HD 5850 $309.99
Storage Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $74.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99

Graphics

You have two choices here: either pay a little more for a previous-gen graphics card with better performance than the Radeon HD 5770 but no DirectX 11 support, or spend an extra $100 on the Radeon HD 5850, which outclasses any previous single-GPU card and has all of that yummy DX11 goodness.

Gigabyte’s “factory-overclocked” GeForce GTX 260 fits the bill as a quicker-but-still-affordable alternative to the 5770. While it won’t win any power-efficiency contests, this card will nevertheless outrun the 5770 and 4870 1GB more often than not in current games. (Actually, this puppy has higher clock speeds than the GeForce GTX 275, which lies in a class entirely above the 4870 1GB.) We should probably mention that, being an Nvidia card, the GTX 260 also supports PhysX. So, you know, you’ll get realistically simulated debris and fog and other neat little effects in the handful of games with hardware PhysX support.

The Radeon HD 5850 doesn’t have PhysX, but it does bring DirectX 11 support and markedly higher performance than any of Nvidia’s current GPUs (and any cheaper AMD GPU, for that matter). Our review will tell you all you need to know about this product, except perhaps where to find it in stock anywhere close to its $260 suggested price. Yes, Radeon HD 5850 cards have remained in extremely tight supply since their introduction, a condition that’s pushed prices above the $300 mark in most cases. We’ve seen Newegg charge as much as $360 when one 5850 model appeared in stock for a little while.

In any case, we’re provisionally recommending Diamond’s version of the card for its relatively reasonable price, great AMD stock cooler, and likely competent after-sales support. If it’s still not in stock when you read this, feel free to look at other Newegg listings or our price search engine.

Storage

LG has apparently discontinued the Blu-ray combo drive we recommended for so many months. None of the other combo offerings we’ve come across really stand out, usually because of lackluster software bundles or high prices. In the end, we figure you’re 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.

Audio

As we said on the previous page, onboard audio can’t match the analog output quality of a good sound card like Asus’ Xonar DX. The Xonar also happens to handle real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding, and it does a pretty good job of emulating EAX 5.0 effects in games, which is an extra bonus for gamers. Just about anyone with a decent set of analog speakers or headphones should be able to appreciate the difference in output quality between the Xonar and our onboard audio.

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-dampening 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 $93.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 260 OC $199.99
Storage
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $31.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $74.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX650W $99.99
Enclosure Antec P183 $139.99
Total  Buy this complete system at Newegg $1,265.90

Processor

The Core i7-860 may cost 90 bucks more than the Utility Player’s Core i5-750, but it has two major upsides: a higher clock speed and Hyper-Threading. Thanks to Windows 7 and its SMT parking in particular, HT can help quite considerably in certain tasks without compromising performance in others. We’ve found that Core i7 CPUs are considerably faster than the i5-750 with 7-Zip compression, two-pass video encoding, and 3D rendering, all of which take advantage of the Core i7’s support for additional threads. We think that’s worth the premium in a $1,300 system.

Motherboard

Our chosen processor 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 controllers, and somewhat more elaborate 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 system voltages.

What about 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 4GB kit of DDR3-1333 RAM easily fits into the Sweeter Spot’s budget. Four gigs of RAM should be plenty even for multitasking-crazy overclockers.

Graphics

Well, isn’t this a shame? Radeon HD 5850 availability is so dire that we just can’t bring ourselves to recommend one for the Sweeter Spot’s primary configuration. Finding a card in stock involves a lot of patience, and actually getting it requires deep pockets—the last 5850 we saw pop up in Newegg’s stock went for $100 more than AMD’s $259 suggested retail price.

In the absence of any worthwhile, attractively priced alternatives (the GeForce GTX 285 is marked up to high heaven, too), we suggest you opt for one of Gigabyte’s “factory-overclocked” GeForce GTX 260s if you need a new PC in time for the holidays. The card doesn’t have DirectX 11 support or a particularly power-efficient GPU, but it will get you some of the highest frame rates you can buy south of $300. That means smooth performance at 1920×1200 in newer games with high detail levels and antialiasing.

Those prepared to wait a few days or weeks to get a faster card with DX11 support will want to check out our alternatives on the following page, where we, again, provide a tentative Radeon HD 5850 recommendation.

Storage

Older versions of the Sweeter Spot included a dual-hard-drive setup. However, overwhelmed by the wealth of choices in this price range, we’re now going with a straightforward single-drive config and leaving more exotic suggestions to the alternatives page. The 640GB Western Digital Caviar Black remains an excellent option, and we expect most users will find its storage capacity sufficient unless they need to store hundreds of gigs of, ahem, Linux ISOs.

Stepping up to this drive’s 1TB sibling wouldn’t add that much to the Sweeter Spot’s total price, but the 1TB Black is quite a bit louder than other drives. Since practically everything else in this build is quiet (or can be cooled quietly), we’d rather stick with the 640GB model. Samsung’s 1TB SpinPoint F3 would be a reasonably quiet alternative, and it looks good on paper, but our dearth of first-hand experience with it makes us shy away from a recommendation in our primary build. The drive has claimed a spot in the alternatives list, instead.

As for our optical storage, the dual-drive solution we suggested on the previous page should also work well here: Samsung’s SH-S223L will be in charge of DVD burning, while Lite-On’s iHOS104-08 will take care of Blu-ray playback.

Audio

We may not have had room for Asus’ Xonar DX in the Utility Player, but we do 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 more potent than a case-and-PSU bundle, so we’ve picked out a Corsair TX650W. This power supply has a single 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 user 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 snake 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 to wait for your fill of DirectX goodness, or maybe you’d just like more storage capacity. Either way, our alternatives should cover your needs.

Component Item Price
Graphics Diamond Radeon HD 5850 $309.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $84.99
Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $84.99
TV tuner
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit $99.99

Graphics

Diamond’s version of the Radeon HD 5850 happens to be among the cheaper models on Newegg, and it hails from a U.S.-based firm with presumably competent after-sales support. That’s good enough to earn our vote, even if the card (like all 5850s at Newegg) is unavailable right now. If you’d like to broaden your search for a 5850 that’s actually in stock, don’t hesitate to peruse other Newegg listings or hit our price search engine.

Storage

You have many choices here. You can pair up two Caviar Black 640GBs in a RAID 1 array for extra redundancy, toss in one of Samsung’s 1TB SpinPoint F3s as extra mass storage, or even house your system partition on a dual SpinPoint F3 array. If you value storage capacity over redundancy, nothing stops you from combining drives in massive JBOD arrays, either, or even setting up riskier but potentially faster RAID 0 configurations.

The Caviar Black is a safe bet, since it offers excellent performance while producing little noise and is covered by a five-year warranty. We’re not quite as confident in the SpinPoint, since we haven’t tested it yet, but its specs look solid: a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, 32MB of cache, and two 500GB platters, which should translate into lower noise levels than with the three-platter 1TB Caviar Black.

TV tuner

The AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe tuner of system guides past has faded out of online listings. In its absence, we’ve chosen Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit. 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 remote that works with Windows Media Center. Newegg customers sound fairly happy with it, too.

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 $239.99
Memory Corsair 6GB (3 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $179.99
Corsair 6GB (3 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $179.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 260 OC $199.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 260 OC $199.99
Storage Intel X25-M G2 160GB $549.00
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $199.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $199.99
Samsung SH-S223B $31.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $74.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX850W $139.99
Enclosure Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 $189.99
Total   $3,045.87

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 have a couple of good reasons for picking the Core i7-950 anyway.

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.

A few sharp-eyed folks will have also noticed the new Core i7-960 in Intel’s latest price list. That processor is meant to supplant the i7-950 with a slightly higher clock speed and identical price tag, which sounds great to us. Too bad we can’t actually find the retail-boxed version in stock anywhere right now.

Finally, some might argue we should have sprung for the Core i7-975 Extreme Edition, 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 around $3,000.

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 Corsair DDR3-1600 kit only raises the full system’s price by about 6%. The extra memory will surely come in handy for users faced with actual workstation tasks, and who wouldn’t enjoy the bragging rights?

Graphics

We’re in the same position here as with the Sweeter Spot. AMD’s Radeon HD 5870 would be our first choice for this config, but it’s as tough to find in stock as the Radeon HD 5850. Until AMD can get more cards in the channel, we’re recommending a pair of those “factory-overclocked” GeForce GTX 260 graphics cards from Gigabyte. Two dual-slot cards will take more room and produce more heat than a single one like the 5870, but performance shouldn’t be any worse in SLI mode—the 5870 is typically about as fast as two previous-gen GPUs put together. Some new games might not work in SLI mode right away; however, Nvidia’s tight relationships with game developers should make those cases exceptions rather than the rule. Besides, falling back on a single supercharged GTX 260 is hardly the end of the world.

Storage

Now that Intel’s latest solid-state drives have TRIM support, a good part of our rationale for excluding SSDs from the Double-Stuff’s primary config has faded. So, we chose to replace our dual WD VelociRaptors with a single 160GB X25-M G2 SSD from Intel. This drive has about half the capacity of a VelociRaptor (or a VelociRaptor RAID 1 array, which we recommended), but it has even lower access times, better performance, an immunity to mechanical failures, and zero noise output. TRIM support also means performance shouldn’t degrade significantly as the drive gets used, because the X25-M won’t have to deal with the dreaded block-rewrite penalty as you delete files and write over them later. You’ll have to make sure you’re running Windows 7 for TRIM to work, of course… but it’s not like you’d install an eight-year-old operating system on a state-of-the-art PC like this one, now, is it?

For mass storage, we’re backing the X25-M with a pair of 2TB Western Digital Caviar Greens. These would be a little too sluggish to fill in as system drives, but they’re affordable and should store bulky multimedia content—or even a backup of your SSD’s contents—more than adequately. We advise you run these two drives in a RAID 1 array for extra redundancy, so your data remains safe even if one mechanical drive kicks the bucket.

On the optical side of things, the Sweeter Spot also features our standalone Samsung DVD burner and Lite-On Blu-ray reader. A combo drive might have pleased some folks more, but we have a huge case and plenty of SATA ports. Why limit ourselves, especially when retail copies of games demand you keep your installation DVD in the drive to play? At least this way, you’ll have one drive free no matter what.

Audio

Asus’ Xonar DX fits in just as well here as in the Sweeter Spot. 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 doesn’t do much for performance, anyway.

Power Supply
Corsair’s TX850W is essentially a higher-wattage version of the Sweeter Spot’s PSU with similar perks—a greater-than-80% efficiency rating, five-year warranty, and a single 12V rail—but more juice and more cables (including two pairs of eight-pin PCIe power connectors). This unit might be louder than some lower-wattage models, 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

A good workstation can really use 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 space inside 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.

Graphics

Despite everything we’ve said, you might just get lucky and stumble upon a Radeon HD 5870 that’s actually available when making your purchase. That’s why we’ve tentatively chucked in one of Diamond’s Radeon HD 5870s as our alternative here. If it’s out of stock, you can poke around Newegg’s other listings and our price search engine to track down a model that is available.

Storage

Intel’s X25-M SSDs are just more attractive than 10,000-RPM mechanical hard drives now that they have TRIM support—we’ve established that. However, you don’t necessarily have to go with a single 160GB SSD. For the same same amount of dough, you can grab a pair of 80GB X25-M G2s and configure them in a RAID 0 or RAID 1 array. RAID 1 will give you 80GB of failure-tolerant storage, while RAID 0 will deliver a full 160GB and potentially better performance than the single 160GB X25-M, albeit at the cost of an increased likelihood of data loss. (If one drive fails, the entire RAID 0 array loses its data.)

You might also want faster mechanical hard drives sitting alongside the Double-Stuff’s SSD(s), if only because some of your games and applications might spill over the 160GB mark. If you can afford them, a pair of WD’s 2TB Caviar Blacks will do a fine job of melding high capacity and high performance.

Sound card

Asus’ Xonar DX will perform fantastically 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, just with more bundled cables and 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 two GPUs, this tuner card, and a PCIe Xonar, so you’ll have to run the PCI-based Xonar D2 instead if you go with dual GeForces instead of the single Radeon.

Enclosure

If you’re building a high-powered workstation/gaming rig and like to tinker and upgrade often, then enclosures don’t get much better than Corsair’s Obsidian 800D. Oh, sure, $300 is downright exorbitant, but this case has it all: exceptionally roomy internals, hot-swap hard drive bays at the front, excellent cable management with oodles of cable routing holes, a gap in the motherboard backplate for easy access to the back of the CPU socket, three included 140-mm fans, room for an additional four 120-mm fans, support for all kinds of liquid cooling setups, a tough steel frame, and a window.

We really do mean it when we say this thing is roomy. At two feet tall and two feet deep, the Obsidian 800D absolutely dwarfs a full-sized ATX motherboard—see the image below. Anyone who’s ever cut his hands on a sharp case corner while trying to plug in an unruly connector should see the appeal.

The Console on Steroids
Living-room gaming, PC style

Three and four years into their respective life cycles, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 have matured into formidable gaming systems with attractive price tags, loads of good games, and robust online services. The success of these consoles has led to new cries that “PC gaming is dying,” which, as usual, are a tad premature. Most major titles come out on all three platforms, and PC gaming has the advantage of great online distribution (thanks to services like Steam) as well as better-quality graphics, since console GPUs are several generations behind at this point.

PC gaming usually tends to be a desk-bound affair, but in this edition of the system guide, we figured we’d try something new. What if you could have a no-frills gaming PC in your living room? It would cost more than a console, sure, but you’d get the aforementioned perks plus the ability to emulate old MAME games, chuck in a TV tuner to turn the system into a DVR, and watch just about any kind of video online or offline. You could even use an Xbox 360 controller, since most ports and cross-platform titles support it, and Microsoft sells a wireless version especially for PC users.

Thus was born the Console on Steroids.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X2 250 $67.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H $89.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $93.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 1GB $179.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $74.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Silverstone SUGO SG02-BF $69.99
Power Seasonic SS-350ET Bronze $44.99
Networking D-Link DWA556 $69.99
Subtotal   $696.92
     
Controller Xbox 360 wireless controller for Windows $54.99
Mouse/keyboard Logitech LX310 black $49.99
OS Windows 7 Home Premium x64 OEM $104.99
Total  Buy this complete system at Newegg $906.89

Processor

You don’t need a state-of-the-art processor to play games—just a couple of cores running at a reasonably high clock speed. AMD’s Athlon II X2 250 delivers just that at an attractive price, and the matching platform still has at least a year or two of life ahead of it.

Motherboard

We wanted our living-room gaming PC to have a small form factor, either microATX or Mini-ITX. The former seems more reasonable to us; it leaves room for more than one expansion slot and allows us to pick an enclosure that can handle this build’s thermal output more comfortably. We would’ve liked a small motherboard based on AMD’s low-cost 770 chipset, but pretty much all microATX AMD motherboards have integrated graphics. So, we brought back the Gigabyte GA-MA785GMT-UD2H mobo from our Econobox alternatives. This board has all the expansion we need (including DDR3 memory slots), and it includes the new 785G chipset with Radeon HD 4200 integrated graphics, to boot.

Memory

We contemplated outfitting this system with 2GB of RAM like the Econobox, but for a pure gaming box with a better graphics card, Crucial’s 4GB DDR3-1333 kit seems like a wiser pick.

Graphics

The Utility Player’s favorite returns here. XFX’s Radeon HD 5770 1GB fulfills all of our requirements: the performance to run almost any recent game comfortably at 1080p, low power consumption, a quiet cooler that exhausts hot air outside the case, and an HDMI port. The DirectX 11 support and double-lifetime warranty coverage don’t hurt, either.

We should pause for a moment to note that, although the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 can output 1080p signals, they certainly don’t run all games at that resolution. Far from it. Modern Warfare 2, for instance, reportedly runs at a 600p resolution on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3—that’s 1024×600, the same number of pixels as on a 10″ netbook display. The Radeon HD 5770, by contrast, will churn out buttery-smooth frame rates in Modern Warfare 2 at a full 1920×1080 with 4X antialiasing and all of the eye candy cranked up.

To put the hardware in perspective, the Xbox 360’s Xenos graphics processor is architecturally older than the ATI R600 GPU, which powered the original Radeon HD 2900 XT on the PC. That card has since been supplanted by the Radeon HD 3870, the Radeon HD 4870, and the Radeon HD 5870. The 5770 we picked for this system is something like 3.5 generations ahead in terms of capabilities and a tad less in terms of performance. It’s really no contest. (And in case you’re wondering, the PlayStation 3’s GPU is based on an even older design than the Xenos.)

Storage

You’re going to want all your games installed on this thing, which rules out a low-capacity solid-state drive or a slower mechanical hard drive that would stretch load times. Western Digital’s Caviar Black 640GB has an ample capacity, great performance, and low noise levels, so it’s perfect for this system.

As far as optical storage goes, we’re going toe-to-toe with the PlayStation 3 and chucking in a Blu-ray drive. Our Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader only costs $30-40 more than a DVD burner, though, so it’s not exactly a frivolous expense for a PC you’re gonna hook up to an HDTV. The Lite-On drive’s black bezel will look right at home on our recommended case, too.

Enclosure

We’re building the Console on Steroids for the living room, so we need an enclosure that won’t stand out like a sore thumb next to your TV and other home-entertainment equipment. As far as we can see, the Silverstone Sugo SG02-BF will do that just fine. This case is a little larger than a console, sure, but it has room for our microATX motherboard, two optical drives, two hard drives, four expansion cards, and a full-sized ATX power supply. The Sugo SG02 also looks very sleek, with front-panel ports that hide under a door below the optical bays.

Our only gripe is that Silverstone didn’t include mounts for fans larger than 80 mm. However, none of our components are going to generate that much heat, so you should have no trouble keeping this system quiet at idle. Fans will spin up under load, but that’s a fact of life with stock cooling—or consoles, for that matter, which aren’t exactly known for their silence when things kick into high gear.

Power

No need for a monster power supply here, just something efficient and quiet. Seasonic’s SS-350ET has a 350W output rating, which should be plenty for all of our components. Just as importantly, the SS-350ET earned 80 Plus Bronze certification, meaning its efficiency should reach 85% at a 50% load and 82% at loads of 20% and 100%. Not bad for less than 50 bucks.

Networking

Most people don’t like having ugly CAT-5 cables running through their living rooms, so Wi-Fi is a must. Here, we’ve gone with a 802.11n PCIe x1 adapter from D-Link, the DWA556. The price looks decent, 67% of Newegg reviewers gave it a five-star rating, and the PCIe x1 interface leaves one PCI slot free on the motherboard. 802.11n will be quick enough to stream high-definition video and move things around without spending all day waiting, as well.

Peripherals

Since wires are out, we also require a good wireless keyboard and mouse. Logitech’s LX310 bundle fits the bill with a low price tag and a laser mouse that should have no trouble tracking on your coffee table, couch, or thigh.

Of course, actually playing games on your couch is much more convenient with a controller. Here, Microsoft’s Xbox 360 wireless controller for Windows brings us the exact same device that comes with the titular console, plus a USB adapter to make it work on your PC. Many cross-platform titles will recognize the controller and configure it automatically to work like on a 360, so there’s very little hassle involved. The dearth of split-screen games on the PC led us to include only one controller in our primary config, but you can always chuck in an extra one if you’re dying to play Lego Indiana Jones with a friend.

Operating system

We’ll talk about operating systems in more detail a couple of pages over, but in the interest of laying out a complete system, we’re factoring in the price of Windows 7 Home Premium x64 OEM. The x64 version is a must to take advantage of our 4GB memory kit, and the OEM license will help you save money, provided you don’t plan a top-to-bottom hardware upgrade before Windows 8 comes out.

Console on Steroids alternatives

Here, we offer two paths: you can turn the Console on Steroids into an even more home-theater-centric system, or you can turn it into a regular gaming PC with a different enclosure.

Component Item Price
TV tuner
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE Kit $99.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB $84.99
Enclosure Antec Mini P180 $79.99

TV tuner

We’ve trumpeted the merits of Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit a few times on the previous pages, so we won’t repeat ourselves here. Coupled with Windows 7 Home Premium’s Windows Media Center, this tuner card will help you turn the Console on Steroids into a DVR on steroids. Do keep in mind, however, that full access to Hulu and other online TV sites means this tuner isn’t a requirement to watch television content.

Storage

If you’re going to use this system to record hours upon hours of TV broadcasts, you might want some extra storage capacity. With Western Digital’s 1TB Caviar Green, you’ll have a whole terabyte of quiet, power-efficient storage at your disposal.

Enclosure

The Console on Steroids is a different enclosure away from simply being a sweet little gaming PC for your bedroom or dorm room. Antec’s Mini P180 brings many of the great features of the Sweeter Spot’s P183, including noise-dampening composite panels and a bottom-mounted PSU, in a smaller form factor designed specifically for microATX motherboards. This is a match made in heaven, not to mention a good way to make the Console on Steroids deadly silent, provided you also chip in for aftermarket CPU and GPU cooling.

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 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.

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.

Just like its predecessors, Windows 7 comes in several different editions, three of which you’ll find in stores: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. What makes them different from one another? The table below should help answer that question:

  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    
Price—full license $183.49 $274.49 $291.99
Price—upgrade license $109.99 $179.49 $199.99
Price—OEM (64-bit) license $104.99 $139.99 $174.99
Price—OEM (32-bit) license $104.99 $139.99 $174.99
Price—Anytime Upgrade $89.99 $139.99

As you can see, Windows 7 editions follow a kind of Russian nesting doll pattern: Professional has all of the Home Premium features, and Ultimate has everything. Since most users probably won’t find the Ultimate edition’s extras terribly exciting, the choice ought to come down to Home Premium vs. Professional for almost everyone.

Some of TR’s 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.

To save even more, you could also opt for an OEM license. Microsoft aims these at pre-built PCs, and for that reason, it prohibits users from carrying an OEM license over from one PC to another one. You may therefore be forced to buy a new copy of Windows 7 after a major upgrade. (Retail editions have no such limitation, as far as we’re aware.) Also unlike their retail brethren, OEM licenses only cover one version of the software—32-bit or 64-bit—so you’ll have to pick one or the other up front and stick with it.

That brings us to another point: should you go 32-bit or 64-bit? Since all of the processors we recommend in this guide are 64-bit-capable and all but one of our systems has 4GB of memory or more, the x64 release strikes us as the most sensible choice. This recommendation is relevant to folks who buy retail and upgrade editions, too—you might have to ask Microsoft to ship you x64 installation media first, but installing an x64 variant looks like the best idea.

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 OSes 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 something like a really old printer. (For some background on what makes 64-bit computing different at a hardware level, have a look at our take on the subject.)

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 HP’s LP2475w or Dell’s UltraSharp U2410, both of which have IPS panels and reasonable price tags. 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.

By the way, we should point out that the Radeon HD 5000-series graphics cards we recommended throughout this guide support triple-monitor configurations. This scheme, which AMD calls Eyefinity, even works in existing games. You’ll just need either an adapter or a display with a native HDMI or DisplayPort input, since new Radeons all have two DVI outputs with one DisplayPort and one HDMI on the side.

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 (over $100), 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 traditionally included a floppy drive/card reader combo, but we’re almost in 2010 now. Windows Vista is already three years old, and Windows 7 is now out. 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, yet has good user reviews on Newegg, and 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, and a new version of it that supports all current Intel and AMD socket types is now available. This mass of metal is exceedingly quiet with the accompanying fan, and it managed to keep our test CPU a couple degrees cooler than a pricier liquid-cooling setup. Impressive stuff.

For a cheaper solution, we suggest taking a look at Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus. Despite the $30 price tag, this heatsink has a large, tower-style design, three copper heat pipes, and a 120-mm fan with a four-pin PWM connector. The mounting system also works happily with LGA1156, LGA775, AM2, and AM3 sockets, so like the Noctua, you can use it with any of our recommended builds.

Conclusions

With higher memory prices and the scarceness of AMD’s new Radeon HD 5800-series graphics cards, this system guide is a bit of a downer. In a way, we’ve taken a step back from the previous edition to account for negative developments in the hardware landscape.

That view doesn’t account for how far we’ve come, though. Just six months ago, including a quad-core Nehalem processor in our $800 Utility Player build was unthinkable, you still had to choose between Windows Vista and Windows XP, and DirectX 11 wasn’t much more than a few vague bullet points in a PowerPoint presentation. Having to pay a little more for RAM and wait for DX11 Radeons to trickle into stock… those are hardly major setbacks.

What’s next? Budget users can probably look forward to 32-nm Clarkdale dual-core processors from Intel and new budget DX11 Radeons from AMD early next year, and Nvidia will introduce its first DX11 GPU—a high-end one, most likely—some time in the first quarter. Unless you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel or shooting for the absolute high end, though, we don’t see any point in holding off on an upgrade right now.

If you need assistance, 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
    • grizzlybirds
    • 10 years ago

    I just built the Sweeter Spot. I would like a wireless connection to the internet, printers etc. Is there a special PCI card I need for that? I have a d link n router already.

    Also, I just wanted to note that the graphics card & audio card are scrunched up together. It isn’t a roomy motherboard. Also, updated instructions for how to put together computers would be great.

    But I love the new computer! Thanks for helping with the build.

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    On the OS page, /[

    • zeoth
    • 10 years ago

    Great report as usual. One thing. I’m interested in doing a couple HTPC builds. Any chance of adding that in the future? It’s a pretty big topic especially when movie streaming is getting more and more popular.

    • JCMS
    • 10 years ago

    Very nice guide. But in the “Sweeter Spot”, why not add a dual 5750 or 5770 config? 2 5750 are as good as 1 5850 but still cost less/more available.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 10 years ago

    Great guide. The only thing I don’t agree on this time is the X58 config. To me it’s a dead socket. Sure you will be able to pop in on of those 6 core CPU’s coming out but I have a feeling like it’s going to be very expensive. It seems to be the same thing whenever Intel releases a new platform. The have 2 sockets and the first just does not have a long life. There just seems to be more life and options in the P55 world.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 10 years ago

      Both of them are dead sockets as far as I’m concerned. Sandy Bridge is going to be a total freaking beast and will require a new chipset/socket.

    • Freon
    • 10 years ago

    Lots of tough choices this time around. The memory and video card pricing situation sucks. Sad to say, I think overall things have actually gotten worse since the last system round up. Pretty much unheard since the dawn of the PC era.

      • indeego
      • 10 years ago

      Inflation is going to get quite ugly in the next yearg{<.<}g

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    It was just about 3 years ago I built a system based on the 2007 TR system guide. That system is still my main rig, with a few drives and GPU(8600 to 9600fanless) upgrades here and there. It does everything marvelously, I really don’t really feel like I /[

    • mcnabney
    • 10 years ago

    Did not include the cost of software when adding Blu-Ray drives.

    Maybe all you need is stereo audio, but one of the main reasons to get Blu-Ray is access to those beautiful 7.1 uncompressed audio tracks. So add another $100 for uncrippled BluRay software.

    • Nutmeg
    • 10 years ago

    Why are you still using only 4 gigs of ram? You’ve been using 4 gigs for like a year and a half. With the price of ram so cheap, i would reccommend going to at least 8 gigs on the sweeter spot.

      • indeego
      • 10 years ago

      Memory costs have gone up in price, and at this point in time there’s little value beyond 4 for most peopleg{<.<}g

        • clhensle
        • 10 years ago

        I still have a smile on my face that I bought 8gb for around $120 a year and a half ago, granted it is DDR2 1066, but I wont have to touch the memory for the life of it as my main rig, or when it is moved to server duty.

    • ElderDruid
    • 10 years ago

    I’m wondering why the continual recommendation of the Cosmos 1000 case. Doesn’t that thing cook your hard drives like little toaster ovens?

    I would think something like the Antec 1200 would be a much better choice. I’m using that case with a 300GB velociraptor that’s kept at a cool 77F, in addition to 4 other drives.

    • shaq_mobile
    • 10 years ago

    i just got done buying parts for my rebuilt 350, curse you tech report…. cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuurse yooooooooooooou. if it werent for you meddling system builders, i would have been comfortable in my phenom 2 955 +gtx 275 blissss

    • Ryhadar
    • 10 years ago

    Anybody hear anything more about the socket problems some of the P55 boards were having? I know gigabyte was one of the manufacturers that were using the poor-quality Foxconn sockets so I wouldn’t feel comfortable getting one if nothing was resolved.

      • JCMS
      • 10 years ago

      It’s a manufacturing defect that causes some pins to not make contact with this cpu, this increasing amperage. There is no problem if you do not overclock, but it causes one for massive OCs. While the i5 750 can witstand 5,5ghz, the socket melts at 4.5., so you can go OC like crazy.No problems on normal use though.

    • Dually
    • 10 years ago

    If you need the threading more than the clockspeed, the Xeon X3440 is a sweet number-cheapest way to Hyperthreading. Drops right in to any P55 motherboard.

    • Dposcorp
    • 10 years ago

    Thanks TR.
    I just built my early Christmas present, and you guys picked most of the same parts. I picked up some stuff even cheaper.

    $200 i7-920 @Microcenter
    $150 (after rebate) MSI X58M board. (Matx, SLI and CF support)
    ( Already had a cheap $60 set of ram, 6GB G.skill.)
    $160 XFX 5770 (TigerDirect)
    $44 Ultra 650Watt SLI/CF PS, lifetime warranty.
    $22 SATA burner from Newegg on sale.
    $38 Windows 7 Pro upgrade.
    Around $600 total.
    Reused case and HD.

    Just for fun, I ran 3dMark 2006.
    Old system was a AMD X2 6000+ & GeForce 260 GTX
    Scored 10246 3DMarks

    §[< http://service.futuremark.com/resultComparison.action?compareResultId=12134525&compareResultType=14< ]§ New system scored 19014 3DMarks §[<http://service.futuremark.com/resultComparison.action?compareResultId=12566191&compareResultType=14<]§ Not a bad deal at all when you think about how much I sold my board, CPU, ram and video card for, which was around $250. EDIT: CPU was Overclocked on Air with stock HSF to 3.5. 5770 was also overclocked to the max allowed via Overdrive.

    • grantmeaname
    • 10 years ago

    pg 1 l[

      • Rakhmaninov3
      • 10 years ago

      5800 chips will eventually come around, I’d either wait to buy the system or plop in an old card until they become available and then upgrade.

      EDIT: Sorry, this was meant to be its own post.

      • Cyril
      • 10 years ago

      Fixed. Thanks. Don’t see a problem with the last one, though. All Lynnfield (Core i5 and i7-800) and Bloomfield (Core i7-900) processors are based on the Nehalem architecture.

        • grantmeaname
        • 10 years ago

        yeah, that’s my bad. I had thought of Nehalem as Bloomfield, in the more restrictive sense…

    • dpaus
    • 10 years ago

    LOL – just hours before this was posted, I ordered the parts for my Christmas present from-me-to-me:

    Gigabyte GA-MA770T-UD3P
    AMD Phenom II X4 965 (to be OC’d to about 4 GHz)
    4 GBytes of Kingston DDR3 1333 memory
    500 GBytes Seagate 7,200.12
    ATI 5770 1 GByte video card
    42″ 1920×1200 LCD display (yes, 1200, /[

      • derFunkenstein
      • 10 years ago

      XP mode does nothing for 3D acceleration. That would be a wast of money.

        • dpaus
        • 10 years ago

        No, it’s not a matter of 3D acceleration; it’s just being able to run older games /[

          • Meadows
          • 10 years ago

          If a game is old enough not to use 3D, then it has problems with XP to begin with. Unless it’s some crazy Unreal Engine title, perhaps.

            • dpaus
            • 10 years ago

            Perhaps I’m misunderstanding – are you saying that 3D doesn’t work at all under XP Mode? (not that I care at this point, but if I can reduce my ignorance level a smidgeon, why not?)

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            No, saying the exact opposite.
            Non-3D games are too old even for XP.
            3D games are not helped by Virtual XP.

            Solution: 3D games should work with Vista and above, and non-3D games should work with DOSbox or something similar. XP mode is for outdated workplace or banking software that’s immensely specific or old.

            • dpaus
            • 10 years ago

            But, but… When Vista came out, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth because many games would no longer run, even under “compatibility mode” Since those games had been running fine under XP, why wouldn’t they run fine under “XP mode” on Win7?

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            Win 7 XP mode is a virtualized XP OS not a compatability mode. The two are different in that a virtualized OS doesn’t have all the access to hardware that a real OS does.

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            I have three older games right here, and I’ve played them under Vista _[

    • Coar
    • 10 years ago

    It’d be nice to see a SSD recommendation somewhere in there at some point. Even if it is just as an alternative storage solution.

      • Freon
      • 10 years ago

      Did you read the article?

    • boing
    • 10 years ago

    Error on page 12: 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 EconoBox only had 2 gb.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 10 years ago

      Previous Econobox builds had 4GB, but they dropped it due to rising RAM costs. I’m sure it’s just leftover from previous articles.

        • UberGerbil
        • 10 years ago

        Yeah, and with any luck memory prices will drop again and it’ll be correct for the /[

          • FireGryphon
          • 10 years ago

          Seeing 2 GB recommended for /any/ new system these days makes me do a double take. For most applications that amount is fine, of course, but still…

            • MadManOriginal
            • 10 years ago

            Yeah but the only place to cut is the graphics card and the build is already $50+ over the price goal as is. Unfortuanately increased graphics card cost over MSRP and increased RAM prices make it hard to fit in 4GB unless one wanted to give up a fair bit in the graphics for RAM.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 10 years ago

            Still, I’d rather see a GTS250 or Radeon 4850 recommended with 4GB of memory.

    • Meadows
    • 10 years ago

    g{

      • indeego
      • 10 years ago

      I’ve never used the blu ray burner in my system to read actual blu ray disks. And likely won’t be building my next system with optical at allg{<.<}g

      • Skrying
      • 10 years ago

      Really? Personally I have no plans on putting an optical drive in my new computer. Don’t have a need for one, let alone a Blu-Ray drive.

        • Meadows
        • 10 years ago

        You really are a minority. The vast majority of people will need an optical drive at one point or another to:

        – install drivers if they don’t have a working internet connection on a new computer without them,
        – install programs sold on physical media,
        – set up non-floppy DOS booting easier than it would be with USB (for BIOS flashing for example)
        – look cool ejecting and retracting the tray on and on.

          • Skrying
          • 10 years ago

          I’m well aware. I do have an optical drive but it is in my laptop. For those games where DVD media is needed I’ll simply make an image. I will continue to rip CDs using the laptop.

          As for drivers… USB drive’d over from the laptop. Same with BIOS flashing.

          I will miss the opening and closing of said tray though.

            • Kurotetsu
            • 10 years ago

            l[

            • Meadows
            • 10 years ago

            Yes, that’s why there are cracks for said images, with both floating together on bittorrent. Imagine that.

          • Flying Fox
          • 10 years ago

          The “majority” of TR, may be minus most that are in dorms with limited space, do have 2 or more machines where they can download the drivers on USB sticks first.

            • grantmeaname
            • 10 years ago

            and those of us in dorms have roommates.

        • yogibbear
        • 10 years ago

        But… what about so you can stick your finger inside the disc tray and press close button and watch the hilarity ensue!

          • SomeOtherGeek
          • 10 years ago

          And… It make a great coffee cup holder!

        • Byte Storm
        • 10 years ago

        So I really have to know. Do you expect your operating system to never fail, or that you will never have to reinstall it, or upgrade it? Or do you use Network method for that?

          • Skrying
          • 10 years ago

          I’ll be installing my own OS seeing as how the machine is assembled by me. I’ll be using my flash drive to install the OS. It is both much more handy and much quicker than using the DVD. It is also very easy to do and requires no modifications of the files, just a quick proper format of the flash drive done on laptop.

      • flip-mode
      • 10 years ago

      Dunno. Maybe for some, but I don’t think all. I don’t have any intention of putting a Blu-ray in my computer. That may change.

        • khands
        • 10 years ago

        I like my PC in my living room, where a BR player/reader makes sense.

          • flip-mode
          • 10 years ago

          ok

    • Obsidian
    • 10 years ago

    I highly recommend against the Xbox 360 wireless controller for Windows. The wireless receiver died on me after about two months. After some digging I found an incredible failure rate from the little things. You’re better off just suffering with wires or getting something from Logitech that will actually work.

    • FireGryphon
    • 10 years ago

    Nice console replacement system, but I think you should include a sound card on the alternatives page. Home theaters usually have decent speakers that integrated audio (unless the system is digital) will underpower.

      • Skrying
      • 10 years ago

      Eh? People with decent speaker setups have a decent receiver.

      • mcnabney
      • 10 years ago

      Why on earth would you ever need a sound card when you have a Radeon 5770?!?!!

      That video card does up to EAX3, 7.1 LPCM, and can bitstream HD audio over HDMI to your receiver. Putting a Sound Blaster in there is like crapping on a steak.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 10 years ago

      It’s designed to be a system that outputs audio over HDMI.

    • RickyTick
    • 10 years ago

    I understand the need to keep the Budget Build within a certain price range, but the Sonata III is only $30 more than the NSK4480 and is such a better choice. Maybe you could cut back on the hard drive or something, idk. Just sorta thinking out loud.

    • shank15217
    • 10 years ago

    So the Phenom II 965 isn’t even on the radar? The last I checked it did fairly well against the i5 750 in both price and performance.

    • Krogoth
    • 10 years ago

    (Looks at Gigabyte LGA1156 board that “claims” triple-channel support)

    I thought the IMC on LGA1156 chips only supported dual-channel DDR3. Any explanations?

    • GokieKS
    • 10 years ago

    I must say I’m a bit surprised at the GTX260 OC recommendations at $200, considering the HD 4890 can be found for the same price (or even lower if you count mail-in rebates) and, if memory serves, is usually faster.

    And yes, the availability issue with videocards right now is ridiculous.

    • herothezero
    • 10 years ago

    So glad I upgraded when I did; scored an 860 for $200 at MicroCenter and snagged a 5870 the day of release at Newegg.

    Availability of products and general pricing trends really suck right now.

    Oh, and the Xonar could never be a waste of money–unless you’re deaf; it’s just a great card.

    • SecretMaster
    • 10 years ago

    I have to concur. This graphics generation is going to be remembered in history as an ugly one I have a feeling. Between poor availability and Nvidia’s delayed architecture. It’s a shame one has to spend all their time prowling Newegg to pounce on a 58xx available.

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    The link to “given our system guide” doesn’t go where I think you mean it to gog{<...<}g

    • indeego
    • 10 years ago

    Second… time I’ve read a system guide todayg{

    • flip-mode
    • 10 years ago

    First…… time I’ve read a sys guide in weeks.

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