reviewtrs spring 2010 system guide

TR’s Spring 2010 system guide

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Going into this system guide, we weren’t expecting to make too many dramatic changes. Not much new hardware has come out since we published our last guide in February, right? That’s true to an extent, but there’s been room for more than enough little tweaks and modifications to keep us occupied.

At the low end, our Econobox has now drifted closer to our $500 target price, and we’ve started to recommend a more enthusiast-friendly enclosure in the alternatives. The $850 Utility Player has gained a new motherboard with more ports, connectors, and other little perks than before, as well. At the high end, our Double-Stuff Workstation now has a hexa-core processor almost fast enough to become sentient and start building man-killing humanoid robots.

To keep things even spicier, we’ve thrown together a completely new configuration: a microATX system that favors not low power and low cost, but a mix of strong performance and low noise levels. That build includes a Core i5-750, a Radeon HD 5770, a 1TB hard drive, and some very quiet cooling options, all for about the same price as the Utility Player. 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

As our cheapest build, the Econobox presents an affordable formula for gaming and general use. Rather than picking leftover components from the bottom of the bargain bin, we tried to balance low cost with decent performance and headroom for upgrades, which should result in a surprisingly well-rounded system for the price.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X4 630 $99.00
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-770TA-UD3 $94.99
Memory Crucial 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $57.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5670 $94.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4482 w/380W PSU $79.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $528.94

Little has changed in the Econobox. The value numbers from our latest CPU showdown (and our subsequent blog post) remain quite relevant here, and they still tell us that AMD’s Athlon II X4 630 delivers the most bang for your buck within the Econobox’s budget—no wonder, considering this CPU packs four 2.8GHz cores yet sells for just under $100.

Just as in our March guide, we debated including Intel’s Core i3-530 in our list of primary picks. While the i3-530 doesn’t perform quite as well as the Athlon II overall, it has a tighter thermal envelope (73W vs. 95W), better power efficiency, and incredible overclocking potential. Unfortunately, going that route would distend our already stretched budget, so we’ve relegated the Core i3 to the alternatives. Folks who really care about overclocking and power efficiency should look there.

USB 3.0 and 6Gbps Serial ATA ports have recently flooded the motherboard market. Part of the Econobox’s appeal comes from its low cost, and it turns out you can get next-gen I/O on relatively cheap boards like Gigabyte’s GA-770TA-UD3. USB 3.0 alone promises substantial performance improvements with all manner of external devices, and 6Gbps SATA could make a big difference with future solid-state drives, so not spending the extra $10-15 now seems a little short-sighted.

The GA-770TA-UD3 has a nicely rounded set of features, too, with a gaggle of ports (including external SATA and FireWire) plus an 8+2 power-phase design capable of fueling 140W CPUs.

This board’s DDR3 memory slots might seem like a downside now that DDR3 has regained its slight price premium over DDR2. Here, too, however, we’re prioritizing future expansion over small, short-term savings. DDR3 is taking over the system memory market, and DDR2 will likely become more expensive as DDR3 demand increases and DDR2 production wanes. That means adding more RAM down the line could be cheaper with DDR3, and you may be able to re-use memory from this system in your next one.

Our Econobox 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 it’s covered by 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, as well.

As much as we want to fashion the Econobox into a lean, mean gaming machine, we have to make minor sacrifices to keep close to our $500 budget. XFX’s Radeon HD 5670 is a good compromise. This graphics card doesn’t quite have the muscle of the Radeon HD 5750, but as we saw in our review, the 5670 is still powerful enough to run the latest and greatest games at 1680×1050 with antialiasing turned up. Fittingly, 1680×1050 happens to be the native resolution of most budget 20″ and 22″ monitors with 16:10 aspect ratios—ideal companions for the Econboox. If you feel the urge to pair the Econobox with a bigger, higher-resolution display, head on to our alternatives for a meatier GPU recomendation.

Western Digital has three 640GB hard drives in this price range, and we think the Caviar Black works best as a system drive. Not only does it have a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, 32MB of 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 its 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
In this edition of the guide, the Antec NSK 4482B is out, and the NSK 4482 is in. These two enclosures are actually identical in virtually all respects except for color and price, but Newegg inexplicably charges more for the all-black 4482B. The plain 4482’s silver front panel brings down the price by about 20 bucks, but buyers are still getting a 380W, 80%-efficient power supply (with 80 Plus Bronze certification), 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 once the cost of a PSU is factored into the equation. 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
Want to tweak the Econobox with a more overclockable and power-efficient CPU, more RAM, or a different graphics config? Read on.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i3-530 $119.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3 $109.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $99.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $159.99
Enclosure Antec Three Hundred w/ 430W PSU $99.95

As we noted on the previous page, the Core i3-530 falls a little behind the Athlon II X4 630 in our benchmark suite overall. However, the Intel CPU also happens to have much better power efficiency and incredible overclocking potential. We got ours to just over 4.4GHz after swapping the stock cooler for a tower-style heatsink; the chip subsequently ran our Cinebench test almost as quickly as the $200 Core i5-750 at that speed, despite having two fewer cores.

The icing on the cake? Even with a relatively power-hungry H57 motherboard, our Core i3-530 system overclocked to 4.4GHz only drew about 5W more under load than the Athlon II X4 630 build running at stock speeds. Just make sure to check out this guide’s last page for our aftermarket cooler recommendations.

We usually feature a motherboard with integrated graphics in our Econobox alternatives. Today, Gigabyte’s GA-H55M-USB3 fills in as both our Intel motherboard and our IGP option, since it can pipe the Core i3-530’s integrated graphics through VGA, DVI, DisplayPort, and HDMI outputs. (Clarkdale processors all have integrated graphics cores on the actual CPU package.) In spite of its microATX form factor, this puppy also features dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, USB 3.0, external SATA, and FireWire connectivity. Slightly cheaper H55 mobos do exist, but none have those kinds of perks.

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 (here in the form of an affordable Crucial kit), 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.

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 5770 also 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 like Battlefield: Bad Company 2, DiRT 2, and Metro 2033.

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

Enclosure and power
We’ve always stuck with an affordable, quiet case and PSU bundle for the Econobox. Considering some of the hardware we’re now throwing into this build, though, a more enthusiast-focused alternative seems to be in order. The Antec Three Hundred should fit that role quite well. Compared to the NSK 4482 from our primary picks, this case has a more powerful, bottom-mounted 430W power supply, several additional fan mounts (including one 140-mm fan at the top and room for two 120-mm front fans), extra storage bays, and a more attractive mesh front panel.

The Three Hundred admittedly lacks some of the NSK 4482’s noise-reduction features, like hard drive mounting grommets, an 80 Plus-certified PSU, and a limited number of vents for noise to escape through. Still, we find this a more appropriate choice for, say, someone who might want to grab one of those Core i3-530s and see how far they can overclock it.

The Utility Player
Value without major compromises

For an extra fistful of Franklins, the Utility Player gives us more of everything—processing power, graphics performance, memory, storage capacity—you name it—while remaining tantalizingly affordable.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-750 $199.99
Motherboard Asus P7P55D-E $144.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $99.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $159.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB (6Gbps) $119.99
Samsung SH-S223L $26.99
Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $119.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $871.93

We ran the numbers on the Core i5-750 in our latest processor roundup’s value section. When we accounted for the price of a full system much like the Utility Player, this CPU came out on top of both our performance-per-dollar and power-efficiency-per-dollar rankings. With four Nehalem cores, a 95W thermal envelope, and a sub-$200 price tag, it’s no wonder the Core i5-750 does so well. What better choice for this build?

Our Utility Player keeps its shiny USB 3.0 and 6Gbps Serial ATA ports, but they’re now coming out of a slightly different motherboard. In March, we picked Gigabyte’s GA-P55A-UD3 over Asus’ P7P55D-E because we felt the latter’s extras weren’t worth a $25 premium. Well, today, the Asus board only costs $10 more than the alternative—and since it adds external Serial ATA and FireWire to the mix, we feel it’s now the better deal of the two.

Both contestants otherwise have very similar feature sets: two of each next-gen I/O port, six 300MB/s Serial ATA ports, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots (one of which has only four lanes of PCIe connectivity), CrossFire certification, and heatsinks covering the processor’s power-regulation circuitry. The Asus board trades one 32-bit PCI slot for a PCIe x1, however.

This build’s budget lets us include 4GB of Crucial DDR3-1333 RAM in our primary config despite recent memory price increases. The Utility Player would look a little lopsided with a $200 CPU, $160 graphics card, and just two gigs of RAM, after all. Just make sure you install a 64-bit operating system, or you won’t be able to make use of all this RAM easily.

We’re not going to re-hash what we wrote about this card on the last page, but suffice it to say the Radeon HD 5770 can run most games at 1920×1200 with antialiasing, at the same time delivering great image quality, low power consumption, and relatively low noise levels. Now that the old Radeon HD 4870 1GB has all but disappeared from e-tail listings, the 5770 also has virtually no competition in this price range. Nvidia’s GeForce GTS 250 1GB might count if it weren’t an older, slower, and power-hungrier DirectX 10 product.

There’s plenty of room to go up from the 5770, of course. If you’d like more performance and have some wiggle room in your budget, see the next page.

For what seems like ages, we recommended 640GB Western Digital hard drives across our three cheapest builds. We prolonged this tradition for lack of a 1TB drive with the same mix of great performance and low noise levels. In light of today’s prices and the release of WD’s 1TB Caviar Black with 6Gbps SATA, however, we’ve decided to compromise a little bit. The new 1TB drive might have relatively high seek noise levels, but it also has more storage capacity, better performance, the same five-year warranty as the Econobox’s 640GB Caviar Black, and roughly the same cost per gigabyte.

For a cheaper, potentially quieter 1TB alternative, see the next page.

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.

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 well over budget, making it much tougher to justify.

This decision involved a fair amount of hand-wringing. However, we reckon onboard audio will sound okay—not great, just okay—to folks with cheap headphones or speakers. Good enough for gaming, YouTube, and listening to MP3s, certainly. If you’re running a receiver or speakers with a digital input, the burden of good digital-to-analog conversion will rest with those components rather than the motherboard.

Should you happen to have a halfway decent analog audio device and the slightest amount of concern about sound quality, though, 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 sound distinctly, unmistakably 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 4482 we selected for the Econobox, but it has several big 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, in case you want to be able 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. We noted earlier that the Core i5-750 outclasses all of its competitors in our value rankings. You could go with a Phenom II X4 965 for a few dollars less, but why do that when the Core i5-750 has both better overall performance and substantially lower power consumption?

Component Item Price
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5850 $309.99
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $89.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $64.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99

The Radeon HD 5770 might be quick enough to run most games at 1920×1200 with antialiasing on, but the Radeon HD 5850 guarantees smoother frame rates at those settings and the ability to run a good number of titles at 2560×1600 with AA enabled, as well. Not only that, but the 5850 should yield higher frame rates in DirectX 11 games that put a greater strain on the GPU than vanilla cross-platform titles. An XFX card gets our nod of approval here because of its double-lifetime manufacturer warranty and relatively competitive pricing.

At this point, some readers may be wondering why they haven’t yet seen the $230-240 Radeon HD 5830 anywhere in this article. May we suggest you peruse our review of that product to understand our decision. In a nutshell, the 5830 costs too much for the relatively small performance jump it provides over the Radeon HD 5770. You’d be better off saving up a little more and getting the 5850, which is considerably faster than both the 5830 and the 5770.

We’re not quite as confident in the 1TB SpinPoint F3 as we are in the Caviar Black, since we haven’t tested the Samsung drive yet. However, the SpinPoint’s specs look solid: a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, 32MB of cache, and two 500GB platters. More importantly, Samsung quotes noise levels of up to 29 dB during seeks, which should be quieter than the new 1TB Caviar Black, for which WD quotes maximum seek noise of 33 dB. On the flip side, we wouldn’t be surprised if the SpinPoint had poorer random access times and lower overall performance than the Caviar.

Looking at Blu-ray drives, Lite-On’s iHOS104-08 should do a fine job as a stand-alone reader; it has great user reviews, relatively recent software (PowerDVD 8), and an affordable price. None of the combo offerings we’ve come across lately really stand out, usually because of lackluster software bundles or high prices. In the end, we figure you’re better off pairing a Blu-ray reader with the DVD burner from our primary parts list.

Again, 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 positional audio effects, 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

Where the Utility Player probably has enough goodies to satisfy the majority of enthusiasts, the Sweeter Spot goes the extra mile to bring you even more processing and graphics power, plus extras like a fancier motherboard, Blu-ray, a bigger enclosure with more elaborate noise-dampening features, and a beefier power supply.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-860 $279.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD4P $184.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $99.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5850 $309.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB (6Gbps) $119.99
Samsung SH-S223L $26.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $64.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX650W $89.99
Enclosure Antec P183 $139.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1,416.90

The Core i7-860 costs a good 80 bucks more than the Utility Player’s Core i5-750, but it has both a higher clock speed and Hyper-Threading functionality. Thanks to Windows 7 and its SMT parking feature in particular, HT can help quite considerably in certain tasks without compromising performance in others. We’ve found that Core i7 CPUs are notably faster than the i5-750 in 7-Zip compression, video encoding, and 3D rendering, all of which take advantage of the Core i7’s support for additional threads. Surely that’s worth the premium in a system of this caliber.

Just like our previous two motherboard picks, the Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD4P brings both USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA connectivity to the mix. Why does it cost a good $50 more than the Utility Player’s board? Support for both CrossFire and SLI multi-GPU configurations with a proper eight lanes for the second PCIe x16 slot, for starters. There are also two external Serial ATA ports, two FireWire ports, two Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and 12 processor power phases, all of which fits with the Sweeter Spot’s higher-end pedigree.

We considered Asus’ P7P55D-E Pro, since it costs about the same and comes from an equally reputable manufacturer. The Asus board has fewer eSATA, FireWire, and Gigabit Ethernet ports, but unlike its Gigabyte rival, the Asus model doesn’t drop its 6Gbps SATA and USB 3.0 controllers to PCI Express 1.0 mode when playing host to a CrossFire multi-GPU setup. We don’t think that advantage necessarily justifies turning down the Gigabyte’s extra connectivity, though, since a single PCIe 1.0 lane can already push 250MB/s of bandwidth in each direction—more than enough for the benefits of USB 3.0 to be felt, at the very least.

Asus does have one other trick up its sleeve: all of its “Pro” motherboards with P55 chipsets are eligible for advance replacement within the first year of warranty coverage. If you hate the thought of having to part with a faulty motherboard before receiving the replacement, and you want to enjoy full 6Gbps SATA speeds when running dual graphics cards, then the P7P55D-E Pro may be the board for you. We’d rather stick with the slightly cheaper Gigabyte mobo and its extra ports, though.

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 types.

Now that AMD’s 40-nm supply issues have eased somewhat, we can safely recommend a Radeon HD 5850 for the Sweeter Spot’s primary config. We already talked about this card on the previous page; the 5850 has enough horsepower to handle many games at 2560×1600 with 4X antialiasing and the rest of the eye candy turned up. Most gamers probably don’t need anything faster at the moment.

Mirroring the Utility Player again, we’ve singled out Western Digital’s 1TB Caviar Black with 6Gbps SATA for its excellent all-around performance and a five-year warranty. The Black isn’t the quietest drive out there, so if low noise is a priority, you’ll want to peruse our alternatives section.

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.

We may not have had room for Asus’ Xonar DX in our cheaper builds, 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 to go with an empty enclosure. 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.

Antec’s P183 case isn’t particularly cheap, but it has many worthwhile features, including composite panels, adjustable-speed 120-mm fans, partitioned cooling zones, and a cable-management system that lets you snake 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 to max out your RAM, or maybe you’d like a different hard drive and some TV tuning options. Regardless, our alternatives should cover your needs.

Component Item Price
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $99.99
Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $99.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 470 $349.99
Storage Corsair Nova 128GB $369.00
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $139.99
TV tuner
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit $99.99

Sure, RAM isn’t anywhere near as cheap now as it was last year, but some folks may still want to fill each of our recommended motherboard’s memory slots with a 2GB DDR3 module (using a pair of 4GB Kingston kits). Anyone who goes that route will need only ensure they run a 64-bit operating system; otherwise, making use of more than 4GB or so will prove problematic.

As we saw in our testing, Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 470 fails to outpace the Radeon HD 5850 substantially in real-world games, actually falling behind it in many cases. That’s not terribly enticing for a card with not only a higher price tag, but also higher noise levels, higher temperatures, and higher power draw. To make matters worse, the GeForce GTX 470 still isn’t available right now.

These shortcomings don’t warrant shunning Nvidia entirely for another edition of the guide, though. Newer Radeons have been dogged by supply problems, so we’re happy to have a DX11-capable alternative to recommend. Plus, some folks may find value in this card despite its handicaps. For one, the GF100 GPU has formidable geometry processing capabilities that may become an advantage in future games. We also suspect the GF100 has great GPU computing performance, which could come in handy if OpenCL-enabled consumer applications start flooding the market. On top of that, the GeForce has PhysX and 3D Vision—two features that lack alternatives on the AMD side right now. (To its credit, though, our Radeon HD 5850 can drive one more monitor than the GeForce.)

We’ve included this Asus variant of the GTX 470 as a provisional recommendation, because Asus offers three years of warranty coverage regardless of whether the user registers or not—almost better than some of the lifetime deals we’ve seen, which often fall back to one year if you forget to sign up. No retail-boxed GTX 470s seem to be available right now, though, so you may have to wait a little bit… or check out what else Newegg has in stock. Our price search engine might also be a good resource.

Some folks might want to complement all of this nice hardware with a state-of-the-art storage solution, so we’ve thrown an SSD into the mix. Corsair’s Nova 128GB solid-state drive delivers a fine combination of performance and capacity at a fairly reasonable price (about 130 bucks less than Intel’s 160GB X25-M). Corsair has implemented TRIM support, which should keep used-state write speeds from sinking too low in WIndows 7, and the firm quotes top sequential transfer speeds of 270MB/s while reading and 195MB/s while writing. 128GB should be enough room to store an operating system and a few applications, too.

Other apps and files will have to sit on an auxiliary, mechanical hard drive, which is where WD’s 2TB Caviar Green comes in. The Green may be slower than 7,200-RPM models, but it’s much quieter, and you’ll have to work hard to fill the drive up.

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 i7-980X $1,099.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD3R $209.99
Memory Corsair 12GB (6 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $369.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5870 $419.99
Storage Intel X25-M G2 160GB $499.00
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $149.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $149.99
Pioneer BDR-205BKS Blu-ray burner $184.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair HX750W $169.99
Enclosure Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 $169.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $3,513.90

Okay, so a $1,100 processor might be a little onerous for the Double-Stuff, a system we’ve striven to keep at least somewhat reasonable over the years. But after seeing what the Core i7-980X can do, there was no way we weren’t going to recommend that processor here. Despite running at the same clock speed with two extra cores, this 32-nm CPU actually has lower power consumption under a load than Intel’s previous flagship, the 45-nm Core i7-975 Extreme—and it’s considerably faster, of course. The i7-980X is so much quicker, in fact, that it landed at the top of our value charts when we accounted for the price of a full workstation system like this one.

Gigabyte’s GA-X58A-UD3R may be the cheapest X58 motherboard with USB 3.0 and 6Gbps Serial ATA, but it has a very nice, well-rounded feature set, with perks ranging from SLI and CrossFire support to dual eSATA/USB combo ports, 10 internal SATA ports, and four physical PCIe x16 slots. The only other X58 mobos with next-gen I/O cost $290 and up, and we don’t think the few little additions they bring warrant spending that much more.

Instead of two 6GB kits, we’ve opted for a bona-fide 12GB DDR3-1600 memory kit from Corsair this time around. This bundle actually includes six 2GB memory modules, but Corsair has tested them together, and the kit doesn’t actually cost much more than separate 6GB triple-channel packs. Sounds good to us.

With a single Radeon HD 5870, you’ll be able to enjoy virtually all of the latest games at 2560×1600 with the eye candy cranked up. What more could you ask for? Our motherboard has multi-GPU support just in case, but we think a single 5870 has more than enough horsepower for even the Double-Stuff. Here, also, XFX gets our vote for its superior warranty coverage.

Nvidia fans will want to skip to the next page for our GF100 recommendation. Be aware, though, that while the GeForce GTX 480 may be a little faster than the 5870, it also costs $100 more, draws more power, runs hotter, and generates more noise. We don’t think those are particularly good trade-offs—not for our primary set of recommendations, at least.

Western Digital’s new VelociRaptor is an intriguing option for workstations like the Double-Stuff. However, the VR200M can’t keep up with near-instantaneous SSD access times, so we’re sticking with a 160GB X25-M G2 SSD from Intel. This drive has less than a third the capacity of the new ‘raptor, but it offers much better performance, an immunity to mechanical failures, and zero noise output. TRIM support should also help the drive skirt flash memory’s dreaded block-rewrite penalty, preventing the drive’s write performance from degrading dramatically as the drive is used. You’ll have to make sure you’re running Windows 7 for TRIM to work, of course.

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 files—or even a backup of your SSD’s contents—more than adequately. We advise you run two of these drives in a RAID 1 array for extra redundancy, so your data remains safe even if one mechanical drive kicks the bucket.

We should note that Seagate’s low-power Barracuda LP 2TB is a credible alternative to the Caviar Green. The ‘cuda is a little quieter, too. However, we haven’t been impressed by the reliability of Seagate drives of late, so we’re going to stick with the Green, which has more positive Newegg reviews than the LP.

On the optical side of things, Blu-ray burners have gone down in price sufficiently to become worthy candidates for inclusion in the Double-Stuff. The LG drive we recommended before seems to have deserted online listings, so in its absence, we’ve opted for Pioneer’s similarly priced BDR-205BKS. This drive can also write to Blu-ray discs (single- and dual-layer), DVDs, and CDs, and it ships with CyberLink PowerDVD playback software. Newegg reviews look overwhelmingly positive, too.

Asus’ Xonar DX fits just as well in the Double-Stuff as in our Sweeter Spot build. That said, musicians and others who require more connectivity options might want to consider the Xonar D2X from our alternatives section.

Power Supply
The victor from our latest PSU roundup has found its way here. Corsair’s HX750W earned our Editor’s Choice award for its near-90% efficiency, great modular cabling system, (relatively) low price, and seven-year warranty. This unit’s long, detachable cables in particular should nicely complement our tall case.

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.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-960 $559.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 480 $499.99
Storage Corsair Nova 128GB $369.00
Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB $279.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB $279.99
Sound card
Asus Xonar D2X $199.99
TV tuner Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit $99.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian 800D $299.99

Those who just don’t need six screaming-fast cores can save a few bucks by grabbing Intel’s Core i7-960, which provides four slightly lower-clocked cores for about half the price.

The contest is a close one, but the GeForce GTX 480 has the virtue of being the fastest overall single-GPU graphics card on the market right now. It also works with PhysX, CUDA, 3D Vision, and whatever other trademarks Nvidia likes to slap on product boxes and launch presentations. If those extras are worth an extra 100 bucks to you, then go nuts… assuming you can actually find a card in stock, that is, because we’re not seeing any right now. We’re provisionally recommending an Asus card for the three-year, no-strings-attached warranty, but you can try to look for other models that might be in stock either at Newegg or through our price search engine.

Corsair’s Nova 128GB is back, this time for those in search of a more affordable alternative to our 160GB Intel X25-M. This drive has TRIM support and its performance is competitive with the X25-M, making for an attractive alternative to the Intel SSD. So why isn’t the Nova our primary recommentation? Because it has 32 fewer gigabytes than the X25-M, and because Corsair’s warranty tops out at two years, while Intel’s extends to three.

One could also opt for a pair of faster mechanical hard drives to complement either SSD. If you can afford them, a pair of WD’s 2TB Caviar Blacks in RAID 1 will do a fine job of melding high capacity, high performance, and fault tolerance. Hopefully, you won’t grow too impatient while apps that didn’t fit on the SSD load up from the mechanical array.

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 will be a fine addition to this system. Should anyone give you funny looks, just tell them how fast this beast can encode video.

For someone building a high-powered workstation/gaming rig who wants to tinker and upgrade often, it doesn’t get much better than Corsair’s Obsidian 800D. Sure, $290 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 back plate for easy access to the back of the CPU socket, three 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.

Honey, I shrunk the Utility Player!
microATX and proud

And now, for the Spring system guide’s one-off configuration, we present “Honey, I shrunk the Utility Player”—an apt description of what’s happened here. We took some of the core components from our mid-range Utility Player build, strapped them to a microATX motherboard and enclosure, and biased our component choices in favor of low noise levels. The result is a smaller, more discreet system that’s just as potent and nearly as cheap.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-750 $199.99
CPU cooler
Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus $34.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H57M-USB3 $119.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $99.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $159.99
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $89.99
Samsung SH-S223L $26.99
Integrated $0
Power supply
OCZ ModXStream Pro 500W $64.99
Antec Mini P180 $79.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $876.91

No, nothing has changed over the last few pages. The Core i5-750 is still the best deal for a system of this caliber, according to the value numbers from our latest processor roundup. Just as importantly for a microATX system, this processor marries four speedy cores with low power consumption, so it shouldn’t be difficult to cool quietly.

Processor cooler
Since silence is our secondary priority in building this machine, we’ve splurged for some third-party CPU cooling. Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus tower-style heatsink has a nice, big surface area with four heat pipes, and it comes with a 120-mm variable-speed PWM fan. Compared to Intel’s stock cooler, this contraption should do a better job of not drawing attention to itself in the warm(er) confines of a microATX enclosure. Cooler Master’s mounting system bolts through the motherboard, as well, so you won’t need to deal with those finicky push pins.

Although the Hyper 212 Plus is rather tall, we’re confident it’ll fit in the P180. One of our editors actually runs the same cooler in a regular P180, which is a little narrower than the Mini version but still leaves plenty of clearance between the top of the cooler and the side panel.

Our other motherboard picks won’t fit in a microATX system, so we’ve instead selected Gigabyte’s diminutive GA-H57M-USB3 for its well-rounded feature set and relatively low price. That $120 price tag conceals USB 3.0 connectivity, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, RAID, eSATA, FireWire, and a Realtek ALC889 audio codec. Gigabyte also includes a host of display outputs, but those won’t be much help here, since our Core i5-750 processor lacks integrated graphics (and we’re going with a speedy discrete graphics card, anyway).

We can’t think of a reason not to use the same 4GB Crucial DDR3-1333 kit as in the Utility Player. Naturally, you’ll still want to run a 64-bit operating system to make use of four gigs of RAM without complicated workarounds.

The Radeon HD 5770 fits in this build perfectly, and not just because it’s another transplant from the full-sized Utility Player. Despite having the brawn to run most games at 1920×1200 with some antialiasing, the 5770 has very modest power draw. Well, more modest than any other product in or above its performance class, certainly. Low power means less heat output and reduced fan noise, which brings us back to this build’s second priority.

Samsung’s 1TB SpinPoint F3 hard drive usually stands in as our quieter but potentially slower alternative to the WD Caviar Black, so it’s also a nice match for the smaller Utility Player.

On the optical front, the Samsung SH-S223L should be quiet enough as it is, and we like its SATA connectivity and reasonable price tag.

Power supply
Building a small-form-factor system often means trying to squeeze cables, plugs, and components in cramped spaces, so a quiet, modular power supply would be ideal here. We know just such a product: OCZ’s ModXStream Pro 500W, which earned our Editor’s Choice award a little over a year ago. Not content with being modular and quiet, the ModXStream Pro also has high efficiency, a surprisingly low asking price, and good user reviews on Newegg.

And last, but not least, the piece de resistance, Antec’s Mini P180. We already discussed the merits of the Antec P183 in the Sweeter Spot section; the Mini P180 gives you similar noise-dampening panels, adjustable-speed fans, partitioned cooling zones, and intelligent cable management options—just in a smaller, more economically priced package. Antec places a big 140-mm fan at the top, too. Provided you don’t let it run too fast, that fan should help make up for the case’s confined quarters with increased airflow and lower noise levels than a 120-mm fan pushing the same amount of air.

Note that we’re recommending the white version of the Mini P180 here, simply because it seems to be about $40 cheaper than the black version. (40 bucks strikes us as a little onerous for a paint job.) If you’d rather have the black version, though, you can find it through our price search engine.

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 X X X
Windows Search X X X
Internet Explorer 8 X X X
Windows Media Center X X X
HomeGroups X X X
Full-system Backup and Restore X X X
Remote Desktop client X X X
Backups across network X X
Remote Desktop host X X
Windows XP Mode X X
Domain Join X X
BitLocker X
Interface language switching X
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 three 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.

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 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, reasonable price tags, and a cornucopia of input ports. 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 27″ UltraSharp U2711 or 30″ UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC, for use with the Double-Stuff Workstation. Our workstation build has a very high-end graphics card, after all, and you ought to have an ample monitor budget if you’re purchasing a $3,000 machine.

At 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 need either an adapter or a display with a native DisplayPort input if you want to run three monitors, though. The first two may be connected to a Radeon’s DVI or HDMI outputs, but the third needs to be driven by the card’s DisplayPort out. If you want to run more than three screens, the Radeon HD 5870 Eyefinity6 can feed a maximum of six displays through half a dozen DisplayPort outputs. These cards have now made it out into the wild, and you can find them retailing for around $500, like this MSI model.

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 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 only costs $10 yet has good user reviews on Newegg, and it should happily accept any flash card you find lying around.

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 allows for exceedingly low noise levels with the accompanying fan, and it managed to keep our test CPU a couple degrees cooler than a pricier liquid-cooling setup. Impressive.

For a cheaper solution, we suggest taking a look at Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus. Although the $35 price tag might suggest mediocrity, 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 LGA1366, LGA1156, LGA775, AM2, and AM3 sockets, so like the Noctua, you can use it with any of our recommended builds.

You know what they say: it’s all fun and games until someone’s hard drive starts developing bad sectors and kicks the bucket in a dissonant avalanche of clicking and crunching sounds. If you unsure how to formulate a backup strategy, you can check out our article on the subject, which recommends a fairly straightforward approach. That article deals with Windows Vista’s built-in backup software, which isn’t bad. Win7’s backup tools are even better, though, and Microsoft has included them standard in the Home Premium edition of the OS.

All you need to get Windows 7 backups going is a decent external hard drive. For that purpose, Thermaltake’s BlacX docking station should work well with any of the hard drives we’ve recommended throughout this guide (perhaps the 2TB Caviar Green). The USB 2.0 version of the BlacX left a pretty good impression on us, and the version we’re recommending today has external Serial ATA connectivity, so backing up large files and drive images should be a snap.

Well, that’s another system guide under our belts. Unlike many previous editions, this one seems to have been more about fine-tuning than anything else. We switched motherboards, added solid-state drive alternatives to our Sweeter Spot config, and honed in on an enthusiast-worthy enclosure option to the Econobox, for instance—updates we might have overlooked had we had to deal with another boatload of new hardware.

These calm waters are also a hint that this is a good time to upgrade. Oh, sure, you might see some novelties over the coming weeks and months, but nothing too likely to shake up our primary recommendations. The real exciting changes should come later this year and early next, when we’ll hopefully start seeing a more competitive DirectX 11 graphics market, as well as some new 32-nm processors from AMD and Intel.

If you need assistance in the meantime, 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.

Cyril Kowaliski

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