reviewtrs summer 2010 system guide

TR’s Summer 2010 system guide

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With new processors and solid-state drives launching left and right these past few weeks, we felt it was prudent to wait for things to settle down before updating our system guide. Now, with the Fourth of July weekend coming up and the great summer lull well on its way, we’ve finally gotten a breather—and a chance to review our component recommendations.

The latest round of CPU introductions has clearly left its mark on this guide, since three of our four builds have gotten upgrades. (Spoiler: we now have AMD processors in two of those builds, including the $840 Utility Player.) Best of all, we were able to make these upgrades largely without hiking system prices.

We’ve also taken cues from our recent SSD coverage, outfitting some of our builds with Crucial’s freshly released RealSSD C300 drives. The super-high-end Double-Stuff Workstation now packs a 256GB SSD in its default config. Read on 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 635 $99.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-870A-UD3 $94.99
Memory Crucial 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $57.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 5670 $89.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $21.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Three Hundred $59.95
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $44.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $544.88

According to our latest round of value calculations, the Athlon II X4 635 offers the most performance per dollar in this price range by a healthy margin. With four 2.9GHz cores and a sub-$100 price tag, that’s not too surprising. The AMD processor doesn’t quite match the power efficiency or overclocking potential of Intel’s Core i3-530, but since that processor costs more, as do compatible motherboards, we’ve relegated it to our alternatives. We suspect overclockers, environmentalists, and those obsessed with low noise levels may be inclined to pay more for the Intel hardware; most others will not.

AMD has a new line of chipsets out, so we figured we’d give our Econobox a little platform upgrade. The AMD 870’s north-bridge component isn’t particularly exciting, but its SB850 south bridge has a leg up on the competition with built-in 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity. Our Gigabyte GA-870A-UD3 motherboard no fewer than six third-gen SATA ports, a number unequaled even by top-of-the-line Intel motherboards. Not bad for a sub-$550 build, huh?

We had other reasons for choosing the 870A-UD3, of course. The board has dual USB 3.0, dual external Serial ATA, and dual FireWire connectors on its back panel. Gigabyte has even included a pair of physical PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots, although one of them only has four lanes of connectivity. (Another small caveat: when all four of those lanes are taken, the board’s two PCIe x1 slots go offline.) Nitpicking aside, that’s a remarkable set of features for a budget mobo.

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 at 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. Sapphire’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 Econbox. If you feel the urge to pair the Econobox with a bigger, higher-resolution display, head on to our alternatives for a meatier GPU recommendation.

If you’re wondering why we’re not going with XFX’s variant of the 5670, it’s because that card has a tiny, likely noisier fan. XFX’s double-lifetime warranty coverage would sway us… if we weren’t looking at a sub-$100 card. We expect you’ll want to upgrade by the time Sapphire’s two-year warranty runs out.

The 640GB Caviar Black stays on as our weapon of choice for the Econobox. Not only does it have a 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. If you don’t mind shooting in the dark somewhat, though, Samsung does offer a 1TB drive for only a few more bucks. See the next page for more details.

For our optical storage option, Samsung’s SH-S223L makes yet 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.

Power supply
What, no more case-and-PSU bundle in the Econobox? Truth is, we got a little bit weary of our previous favorite—Antec’s NSK 4482. Despite its undeniably ugly design and fairly run-of-the-mill expansion capabilities, that Antec bundle continues to hover around the $100 mark. For about the same amount of dough, we can outfit the Econobox with the same power supply and a much better case. So we did.

Antec’s EarthWatts Green 380W is available both inside the NSK 4482 and as a stand-alone unit. We looked around for a better deal, but this one has a very low price tag, 80 Plus Bronze certification, and more than enough juice for this system. Also, because the model name includes both of the words “earth” and “green,” we assume it’s much better at saving polar bears than other, comparatively priced units.

With more than a thousand five-star reviews on Newegg, the Antec Three Hundred looks like a popular choice indeed. It’s no secret why. Few enclosures provide a roomy interior, bottom-mounted PSU area, generous cooling options, oodles of storage bays, and fairly tasteful design for just $60. We had a surprisingly good experience putting together a build in a Three Hundred a while back. The case’s 120- and 140-mm speed-controlled fans and generous venting keep airflow noise to a minimum, making it relatively quiet for a budget enclosure.

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 $114.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H57M-USB3 $119.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $104.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $159.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $79.99

The Core i3-530 costs more and calls for a pricier motherboard than our quad-core Athlon II, despite not doing any better 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 635 build running at stock speeds. Just make sure to check out this guide’s last page for our aftermarket cooler recommendations.

We wanted an Intel motherboard that would also serve up integrated graphics, for the few non-gamers out there. The Core i3-530 actually houses this platform’s integrated graphics component, but sadly, using the IGP involves paying extra for a board with an H55 or H57 chipset. (Intel’s Q-series chipsets also support integrated graphics, but they’re for business PCs.)

After looking at several H55 and H57 options, we found Gigabyte’s GA-H57M-USB3 to be one of the better deals around. This board costs about the same as H55-based alternatives with USB 3.0 and otherwise similar features, but unlike them, it also gives you RAID support. User reviews look reassuringly positive overall, as well. Too bad adding 6Gbps Serial ATA to the mix would push us too far out of our budget.

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.

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.

We’ve already singled out an alternative for non-gamers. What about folks who long to play state-of-the-art 3D games? The Radeon HD 5770 seems like the natural step up. This $160 card packs enough of a punch to reach playable frame rates at 1920×1200 with 4X antialiasing more often than not, yet it has very spartan power consumption and relatively low noise output with the stock cooler. Thanks to its DirectX 11 support, users should be able to enjoy the best eye candy newer games like Battlefield: Bad Company 2, DiRT 2, and Metro 2033 have to offer.

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

As we write these lines, the 1TB Spinpoint F3 is selling for only $10 more than WD’s 640GB Caviar Black. We haven’t been able to test the Samsung drive yet, but we know it has a shorter warranty (three years instead of five), and we expect it’s slower overall, particularly when it comes to random access times. Those are the reasons we stuck with the Caviar Black as our primary pick. However, the Spinpoint’s price per gigabyte and good user reviews make it a tempting alternative.

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 AMD Phenom II X6 1055T $199.99
Motherboard Asus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3 $139.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $104.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $159.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB (6Gbps) $94.99
Samsung SH-S223L $21.99
Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $119.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $841.93

In a move sure to shock fanboys everywhere, we’ve defected to AMD for this edition of the Utility Player. This is no deliberate attempt to spark a flame wars in the comments section. Rather, after looking at the latest AMD motherboards and studying our value numbers, we realized that the Phenom II X6 1055T has better performance per dollar, better overall performance, and lower platform costs than our previous pick, Intel’s Core i5-750.

The Intel product has one redeeming attribute: lower power consumption. We don’t think the difference in thermals warrants going with a slower, more expensive option, however. If you disagree, skip forward a page and check out our alternative recommendation.

Not only does AMD provide a better platform for less money than Intel, but it also gives us native 6Gbps Serial ATA, a feat Intel has yet to match. The Asus M4A89GTD PRO/USB3 has six Serial ATA 6Gbps ports running off AMD’s new SB850 south bridge, two second-gen PCI Express x16 slots capable of working in an 8/8-lane configuration, integrated Radeon HD 4200 graphics with HDMI out, USB 3.0, FireWire, and eSATA… all for a cool $150.

Don’t think that’s cheap? Try finding a similarly priced P55 mobo with more than four lanes running to its second PCIe x16 slot. Also, we know of no Intel boards with six SATA 6Gbps ports—not even at the very high end.

Gigabyte does offer a comparable 890GX mobo for $10 less, which we could have gone with, but that product lacks external Serial ATA. We think eSATA is definitely worth 10 bucks, especially since we’re not too badly over-budget here.

We can also 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’ve 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
Although we’ve gone with a separate case and power supply in our Econobox, the Antec Sonata III lives on here. We think this bundle makes sense in light of its beefy, 80 Plus-certified 500W PSU, clean internal layout, sideways-mounted hard drive bays, and plentiful noise-reduction features. We can’t say we hate the way this thing looks, either. Antec even slaps an eSATA port on the Sonata’s front bezel, should you need to plug in a fast external hard drive without crawling behind the system.

Utility Player alternatives
As with the Econobox, we have some alternative propositions for how to fill out the Utility Player.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-750 $194.99
Motherboard Asus P7P55D-E $159.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5850 $294.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $79.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $59.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $79.99

Picking up the Core i5-750 is sensible if you value power efficiency over raw performance and platform features. We didn’t measure the i5-750’s power draw against the Phenom II X6 1055T’s directly, but we did find that the Intel chip drew a good 25W less at idle and 52W less under load than the quicker Phenom II X6 1090T. Those are big gaps, and they mean the Core i5-750 should enable quieter cooling and help save some polar bears along the way. Those polar bears might go on to play with dogs in adorable YouTube videos.

The Asus P7P55D-E served as the Core i5-750’s sidekick in our last guide, and we think it belongs here, too. We could have gone with a cheaper P55 alternative, but that would have meant sacrificing Serial ATA and FireWire connectivity. Siding with Intel already deprives us of the AMD 890GX chipset’s many bells and whistles, so we wouldn’t feel particularly good about picking an even more stripped-down offering just to save a few bucks.

We wouldn’t quite call the P7P55D-E stripped-down, of course. In addition to the aforementioned external connectivity, this thing has dual USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA ports, six 300MB/s Serial ATA ports, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots (one of which has only four lanes running to it), CrossFire certification, and heatsinks covering the processor’s power-regulation circuitry. The Newegg user reviews look overwhelmingly positive, too. We considered Gigabyte’s GA-P55A-UD3P as an alternative to the Asus, but that product costs the same and lacks FireWire.

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.

You might now be wondering when we’re going to recommend the Radeon HD 5830 or GeForce GTX 465. To be blunt, we aren’t. We already ruled out the 5830 last time—as we explained in our review of that product, the 5830 costs too much for the relatively small performance jump it provides over the Radeon HD 5770. Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 465 performs marginally better, but at the cost of considerably higher power consumption and noise levels. You’re better off saving up an extra $50 or so and grabbing a real high-end card with decent power efficiency like the 5850.

We’re not quite as confident in the 1TB Spinpoint F3 as we are in the Caviar Black. However, the Spinpoint’s specs look solid: a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, 32MB of cache, two 500GB platters, and rated seek noise level of 29 dB (lower than the 33dB WD quotes for the 1TB Caviar Black). Just as importantly, the Samsung drive retails for only $70. We wouldn’t be surprised if the Spinpoint had poorer random access times and lower overall performance than the Caviar, though.

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 i7-875K $329.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD4P $174.99
Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $104.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5850 $294.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB (6Gbps) $94.99
Samsung SH-S223L $24.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $59.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $79.99
Power supply Corsair TX650W $89.99
Enclosure Antec P183 $149.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1,401.90

After seeing what the Core i7-875K can do, there was no way we weren’t gonna recommend it here. Even at stock speeds, this processor pulverizes the competition in our value charts, delivering both the highest performance per dollar when we account for system pricing and the highest power efficiency per dollar. Then there’s the overclocking.

The Core i7-875K has an unlocked upper multiplier, which lets users overclock it with ease. We got ours from the default 2.93GHz clock speed to a top speed of 4.13GHz for all four cores. Intel actually offers control over Turbo Boost multipliers, so you can set different maximum speeds depending on how many cores are busy. Enthusiast CPUs don’t get much better than this.

Unlike other retail-boxed Intel processors, though, the Core i7-875K doesn’t come with a stock cooler. You’ll want to skip ahead to our peripherals page at the end of this article for some aftermarket cooler recommendations.

For an extra $15 over the alternative mobo we pointed out on the last page, the Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD4P brings proper support for both CrossFire and SLI multi-GPU configurations with eight lanes for the second PCIe x16 slot. Gigabyte also serves up two external Serial ATA ports, two FireWire ports, two Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and 12 processor power phases—all of which contribute to 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. Unlike its Gigabyte rival, the Asus board 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. However, the P7P55D-E Pro also has fewer eSATA, FireWire, and Gigabit Ethernet ports, and we don’t think potentially quicker next-gen I/O in multi-GPU mode warrants turning down extra connectivity. After all, 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 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, but reviews around the web suggest the TX650W is quieter. 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 facilitate 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 $104.99
Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $104.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 470 $324.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB $374.00
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $119.99
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 Crucial kits). Anyone who goes that route will want to 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.

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, 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.

We may have exceeded our budget slightly with the Sweeter Spot’s primary set of parts, but some folks might still want to splurge on a solid-state drive. Looking for a worthy candidate proved easy here. Crucial pretty much hit a home run with the RealSSD C300 256GB, and we think the 128GB model is equally attractive—even if it might not be every bit as fast as its big brother.

If you store your operating system and applications on an SSD for speed, other apps and files will have to sit on an auxiliary, mechanical hard drive. That’s where WD’s 2TB Caviar Green comes in. The Green doesn’t perform as well as 7,200-RPM models, but it’s much quieter, and you’ll have to work hard to fill two terabytes of capacity.

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 $999.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD3R $209.99
Memory Corsair 12GB (6 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $329.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5870 $379.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 256GB $679.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $119.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $119.99
LG WH10LS30 Blu-ray burner $159.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $79.99
Power supply Corsair HX750W $149.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian 800D $279.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $3,509.89

Okay, so a thousand-dollar CPU is a little onerous for the Double-Stuff. The Core i7-980X is simply too good for us to recommend anything else, however. This six-core processor not only has the same clock speed, two more cores, and considerably higher performance than Intel’s previous flagship, the 45-nm Core i7-975 Extreme, it also has lower power consumption under load. When we accounted for the price of a full workstation system like this one, the i7-980X actually worked its way to the top of our value charts.

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. Other X58 mobos with next-gen I/O cost a lot more, and we don’t think the few little additions they bring warrant spending a whole lot of extra dough.

Instead of two 6GB kits, we’ve opted for a bona-fide 12GB DDR3-1600 memory kit from Corsair. This bundle actually includes six 2GB memory modules, but Corsair has tested them together, and the kit sells for only a little bit 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 enough horsepower for 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 outperforms the 5870 a little bit, it also costs $100 more, draws more power, and generates more noise. We don’t think those are particularly great 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. We’ve therefore chosen the 256GB variant of Crucial’s RealSSD C300 to house the Double-Stuff’s operating system and applications. 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 write performance from degrading dramatically over time. You’ll have to make sure you’re running Windows 7 or a newer version of Linux for TRIM to work, of course.

For mass storage, we’re backing the C300 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 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, shuffling in the availability of Blu-ray burners has made us switch our pick to LG’s WH10LS30. This offering can write to Blu-ray discs, DVDs, and CDs, and from what we hear, it ships with CyberLink PowerDVD playback software. Newegg customers seem happy with the OEM version of this drive, which ships without software, so the retail-boxed variant seems like a safe bet.

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.

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, the $280 asking price 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.

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 $569.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 480 $469.99
XFX Radeon HD 5870 $379.99
XFX Radeon HD 5870 $379.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB $374.00
Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB $189.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB $189.99
Sound card
Asus Xonar D2X $179.99
TV tuner Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit $99.99
Enclosure Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 $169.99

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 i7-960 technically isn’t a great deal compared to the Core i7-875K, which offers most of the performance and an unlocked upper multiplier for a lower price. That said, the i7-960 opens the door to Intel X58 motherboards, which have more memory slots and more PCI Express lanes than their P55 counterparts.

The contest is a close one, but Nvidia’s 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. If those extras are worth an extra 100 bucks to you, then go nuts. We’re recommending an Asus card for the three-year, no-strings-attached warranty here, as well.

Otherwise, a pair of Radeon HD 5870s will trump any single-GPU solution out today—a useful trait for multi-monitor gaming, among other things.

Can’t afford the 256GB RealSSD C300? Then why not step down to the 128GB model? Just make sure your operating system and vital applications will fit within the lower capacity.

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.

The Corsair Obsidian 800D ain’t exactly cheap, and some folks might be just as happy downgrading to Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000. That enclosure shares some design elements with the 800D, like a flipped internal layout that houses the power supply at the bottom, but it’s smaller and much less extravagant. Still, the Cosmos has four 120-mm fans that generate plenty of airflow, and and there’s enough space inside to accommodate six hard drives, five 5.25″ drives, multi-GPU configurations, and internal liquid cooling systems.

Cooler Master primed this case for quiet operation by using insulated side panels and low-speed fans, as well. Hit our full review of the Cosmos for additional details on this case’s unique features and swanky design.

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 $179.99 $257.99 $275.99
Price—upgrade license $119.99 $161.99 $175.99
Price—OEM (64-bit) license $94.99 $139.99 $174.99
Price—OEM (32-bit) license $99.99 $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.

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 like the HP LP2475w, HP ZR24w, or Dell UltraSharp U2410, all of which have IPS panels, reasonable price tags, and a cornucopia of input ports. (The ZR24w is the only one with a normal sRGB color gamut, though.) 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 XFX 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 Premium, 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.

Comparing this edition of the guide to the last one, we came to an interesting realization: the Utility Player’s price tag has dropped by about 30 bucks, and all other configurations have stayed pretty much where they were in terms of pricing. Considering we’ve made some upgrades, that’s good news. PC hardware is getting cheaper—or at least better for the money—once again. At last!

If we have one regret, it’s the price-performance stagnation in graphics cards. The Radeon HD 5830 and GeForce GTX 465 are both disappointing, and they haven’t really helped populate the wasteland that lies between the Radeon HD 5770 and good $300 cards. If the rumor mill is to be believed, however, Nvidia will soon take another stab at landscaping that no-man’s land.

Aside from that rumored product launch, we’re not seeing too many new goodies on the horizon. Perhaps we’ll see some speed bumps from AMD and Intel before Christmas, but we’re not expecting anything too exciting until AMD’s Llano and Intel’s Sandy Bridge—both next-generation designs with built-in GPUs—show up next year.

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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