review trs back to school 2010 system guide

TR’s back-to-school 2010 system guide

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The days are getting shorter again, and everywhere, schools and colleges are getting ready to re-open their doors—if they haven’t already done so. Meanwhile, in the world of PC hardware, freshly released graphics cards and processors are yearning for places in our shopping carts. Most surprising of all, system memory has gotten to be relatively affordable again.

This all calls for a fresh edition of TR’s system guide, don’t you think?

Sure enough, we’ve tuned up our four signature builds for the back-to-school season, trimming prices across the board. Our Utility Player system in particular has turned out rather nicely, retaining its speedy six-core processor and gaining a GeForce GTX 460 768MB, all for a little less than $800. Our workstation build has been discounted, too, despite featuring faster-than-ever graphics thanks to a pair of GTX 460 1GB cards. And let’s not forget the Econobox, which now packs a 3GHz quad-core processor and a 1TB hard drive.

After the price hikes and stagnating graphics options we saw in the first part of the year, it’s nice to see deals we can actually get excited about once again. Keep reading for all the nitty-gritty details.

Rules and regulations
Before we get into our component recommendations, we should explain our methodology a little bit. Before that, though, a short disclaimer: this is a component selection guide, not a PC assembly guide or a performance comparison. If you’re seeking help with the business of putting components together, we have a handy how-to article just for that. If you’re after reviews and benchmarks, might we suggest heading to our front page and starting from there.

Over the next few pages, you’ll see us recommend and discuss components for four sample builds. Those builds have target budgets of $500, $800, $1200, and around $3,000. Within each budget, we will attempt to hit the sweet spot of performance and value while mentally juggling variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the manufacturer’s size and reputation. We’ll try to avoid both overly cheap parts and needlessly expensive ones. We’ll also favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.

Beyond a strenuous vetting process, we will also aim to produce balanced configurations. While it can be tempting to settle on a $50 motherboard or a no-name power supply just to make room for a faster CPU, such decisions are fraught with peril—and likely disappointment. Similarly, we will avoid favoring processor performance at the expense of graphics performance, or vice versa, keeping in mind that hardware enthusiasts who build their own PCs tend to be gamers, as well.

Now that we’ve addressed the “how,” let’s talk about the “where.” See that “powered by” logo at the top of the page? Newegg sponsors our system guides, and more often than not, it will double as our source for component prices. However, Newegg has no input on our editorial content nor sway over our component selections. If we want to recommend something it doesn’t carry, we’ll do just that.

We think sourcing prices from a huge online retailer gives us more realistic figures, though—so much so that we quoted Newegg prices long before this guide got a sponsor. Dedicated price search engines can find better deals, but they often pull up unrealistically low prices from small and potentially unreliable e-tailers. If you’re going to spend several hundred (or thousand) dollars on a PC, we think you’ll be more comfortable doing so at a large e-tailer with a proven track record and a decent return policy. That vendor doesn’t have to be as big as Newegg, but it probably shouldn’t be as small as Joe Bob’s Discount Computer Warehouse, either.

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 640 $104.99
Motherboard Asus M4A87TD EVO $109.99
Memory Crucial 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $44.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 5670 $79.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $24.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Three Hundred $59.95
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $39.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $539.88

Luckily for the Econobox, AMD keeps cutting prices among its quad-core Athlon II X4 processors. Those cuts usually follow the introduction of a new flagship in the lineup, but AMD slashed the price of the quickest model pretty much out of the blue last month. We can’t complain. The Athlon II X4 640 is an almost irresistible choice at just over $100, thanks to its four 3GHz cores and still-reasonable 95W power envelope.

Users seeking overclocking bliss—or lower power consumption—may want to contemplate the Core i3 alternative on the next page. That said, our value numbers from earlier this year clearly showed that the Athlon II X4 series has an overall performance-per-dollar edge over the Core i3. AMD also enjoys a somewhat more compelling platform, with slightly cheaper motherboards that have native support for 6Gbps Serial ATA. Speaking of which…

Thanks to AMD’s new SB850 south bridge, our Asus M4A87TD EVO motherboard offers six third-gen SATA ports, a number unequaled even by top-of-the-line Intel motherboards. The rest of the M4A87TD EVO’s features are also remarkable considering the price tag: dual USB 3.0 ports, external Serial ATA connectivity, FireWire, and two physical PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots, although one of those only has four lanes of connectivity. Gigabyte offers a similar motherboard with additional eSATA and FireWire ports for about the same price, but Asus offers much better fan-control functionality—and we would find that more useful on a budget system than a couple of extra I/O ports.

Memory prices are trending downward lately, but four-gig kits still aren’t affordable enough for our Econobox. We’re already over-budget as it is. 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 DIMMs. We’ve set aside a 4GB kit for inveterate multitaskers and hard-core gamers in our alternatives, as well.

We’d love to turn the Econobox into a gaming hot rod, but unless we want to scale back to an underpowered CPU or a motherboard made from bits of string glued together, staying within reach of our $500 budget involves some compromises. Sapphire’s Radeon HD 5670 is one such compromise. As we saw in our review, the 5670 is powerful enough to run recent games at 1680×1050 with antialiasing enabled. Most budget monitors we see out there have resolutions of 1680×1050 or lower, so this card seems like a decent fit for a system in the Econobox’s price range. Again, though, we’ve singled out an alternative for more performance-hungry users on the next page.

Based on the findings of our latest 7,200-RPM hard drive roundup, the 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F3 combines excellent desktop performance and low noise levels in a surprisingly affordable package. We were so impressed, in fact, that we gave this drive our Editor’s Choice award. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better deal in this price range—at $74.99, this thing is actually no more expensive than the 640GB Western Digital Caviar Black we recommended in our summer system guide. The Samsung does have a shorter three-year warranty (the Caviar Black gets five years of coverage), but three-year warranties are pretty much the standard for desktop drives.

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
As we noted last time, we’ve gotten a 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 roughly 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 power supply is available both inside the NSK 4482 and as a stand-alone unit. We looked around for a better option, but this one has a very low price tag, 80 Plus Bronze certification, and more than enough juice for the Econobox. Also, because the model name includes the words “earth” and “green,” we assume this PSU is 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, too. The case’s 120- and 140-mm speed-controlled fans and generous venting also 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-H55M-USB3 $109.99
Memory Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $79.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 5770 $154.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $89.99

The Core i3-530 is more of a mixed bag than our Athlon II. It costs more, calls for a pricier motherboard, and based on our benchmarks, should be slower overall when running at stock speed. However, the Intel CPU 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 CPU subsequently ran our Cinebench test almost as quickly as the $200 Core i5-750, despite having two fewer cores.

We’re not kidding about the power efficiency part, either. With a relatively power-hungry H57 motherboard, our overclocked Core i3-530 system only drew about 5W more under load than a similarly equipped Athlon II X4 635 build running at stock speeds. The X4 635 is slightly slower than the X4 640 from the previous page, but for all intents and purposes, we’d expect the two Athlon IIs to have similar power draw.

If you’re planning to overclock the Core i3, make sure to check out this guide’s last page for our aftermarket cooler recommendations. You wouldn’t want a dinky little stock cooler holding you back.

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 that 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.)

Studying prices this time around has led us to choose Gigabyte’s GA-H55M-USB3, which offers an H55 chipset, USB 3.0, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, and single external Serial ATA and FireWire ports, all for about the same price as our AMD mobo. However, when compared to the AMD board, this specimen does have a smaller form factor, less expansion capacity, fewer I/O ports, and no 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity at all. Opting for Intel hardware in this price range usually involves either paying more or sacrificing some bells and whistles; we went with the second option.

Anyone with a little extra spare cash really 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.

Just keep in mind 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 cheap and cheerful Mushkin 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.

The Core i3 CPU and H55 motherboard already provide an integrated graphics alternative. Now here’s something for folks who want more graphics brawn, not less. AMD’s Radeon HD 5770 seems like the natural step up from the 5670. This sub-$150 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.

Some folks may want a terabyte of affordable storage and a five-year warranty. The Samsung drive on the previous page only has three-year of coverage, but Western Digital offers five years with the 1TB Caviar Black. Do note, however, that this drive costs $15 more than the Samsung and doesn’t have noise levels anywhere near as low.

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 $197.99
Motherboard Asus M4A87TD EVO $109.99
Memory Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $79.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce GTX 460 768MB $189.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $24.99
Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $119.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $797.93

AMD continues to get our seal of approval for the Utility Player. That choice stems not from amusement at the ensuing flame wars in the comments section, but from our latest value numbers, as well as our knowledge of the latest motherboards and chipsets. Our data tell us that AMD’s Phenom II X6 1055T has better performance per dollar, better overall performance, and lower platform costs than Intel’s Core i5-750 by a solid margin. Not only that, but our cheapo AMD motherboard gives us six Serial ATA 6Gbps ports, too.

Intel did recently replace the Core i5-750 with the i5-760, which is clocked 133MHz higher by default. Considering the performance delta between the 1055T and the i5-750 in our overall performance numbers, we don’t think this small clock speed increase turns the tables. The Intel product has one redeeming attribute, however: lower power consumption. If you feel that’s worth spending more money and sacrificing some overall performance, then skip forward a page and check out our alternatives.

In the summer system guide, we selected a motherboard based on AMD’s excellent 890GX north bridge and SB850 south bridge tag-team. That dynamic duo delivers dual-x8-lane multi-GPU support and next-generation I/O at a very compelling price. Our choice of graphics card in this edition of the guide has led us to pick a cheaper AMD 870 board with more rudimentary multi-GPU capabilities, however. Paying extra for better CrossFire support was all well and good with a Radeon, but we’ve gone with a GeForce this time around, and none of AMD’s chipsets support SLI. (No, we’re not not too terribly excited about surviving nForce motherboards from Nvidia’s now-defunct chipset division.)

The Asus M4A87TD EVO motherboard we picked for the Econobox works just as well here. We may have come in slightly under budget, but with SATA 6Gbps, USB 3.0, eSATA, FireWire, and dual physical PCIe x16 slots, the EVO really does everything we need. Just keep in mind that the second x16 slot only has four lanes of bandwidth.

In light of the downward trend in memory pricing, we feel pretty good about throwing 4GB of DDR3 RAM in the Utility Player (via a Mushkin kit). Just make sure you install a 64-bit operating system, or you won’t be able to make use of all this RAM easily.

Here we were, beginning to lose hope that a good graphics card would carry on the tradition of excellent overall value at the $200 mark. Our prayers were finally answered a few weeks ago when Nvidia released the GeForce GTX 460. We’ve selected the 768MB version of that card here, since it’s not much slower than its 1GB big brother, and we can get this particular Zotac card for only $190 right now. Good one-gig cards go for $230 or so, which would push us over our budget.

The GTX 460 768MB represents a rather considerable leap over the Radeon HD 5770, enabling, for instance, much smoother frame rates in demanding DirectX 11 titles. We think that’s definitely worth the price premium for those who can afford it—and in this build, we can.

Before you think we’ve forgotten about AMD’s $200 Radeon HD 5830, we have not. We have, however, shunned the Radeon because of its higher cost, lower overall performance, and higher power draw compared to the GeForce GTX 460 768MB. The GeForce just happens to be an all-around better product.

As in our Econobox, the Samsung Spinpoint F3 has displaced WD’s Caviar Black. Again, we didn’t give the Spinpoint our Editor’s Choice award on a whim. This is a fantastic drive with a unique blend of great desktop performance, low noise levels, and attractive pricing. Our only regret is that warranty coverage tops out at three years, not five. Check out our alternatives if you value long warranty coverage more than low noise levels.

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 in the Utiliy Player. 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 i5-760 $209.99
Motherboard Asus P7P55D-E $149.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB $229.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $89.99
Lite-On iHES208-08 Blu-ray combo drive $89.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $79.99

The Core i5-760 looks like the logical Intel alternative to AMD’s hexa-core Phenom II. This processor costs about the same and should perform only a little bit slower overall. If it’s anything like the Core i5-750, the i5-760 should also have modest power consumption and decent overclocking headroom. Just keep in mind that getting a solid Intel motherboard involves spending a little extra cash.

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 6Gbps Serial ATA, external Serial ATA, and FireWire connectivity. Siding with Intel already deprives us of the AMD SB850 south bridge’s native SATA 6Gbps support, so making further compromises wasn’t high on our agenda.

Choosing the P7P55D-E doesn’t involve too much compromise, of course. In addition to the aforementioned SATA 6Gbps, FireWire, and eSATA connectivity, this mobo has dual USB 3.0 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 lacks FireWire and doesn’t cost much less.

If you’ve got a little extra cash kicking around, and you expect to game at very high resolutions or with oodles of DirectX 11 eye candy, the 1GB version of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 460 could well be worth the price premium. This Gigabyte variant also happens to be “factory overclocked” to 715MHz and feature a custom cooler with two large fans. Multiple Newegg user reviews attest to this card’s low noise levels, and its 768MB sibling did exceedingly well in our latest noise tests.

You should know the deal if you’ve read the past few pages. If you want a five-year warranty and don’t mind a somewhat louder hard drive, WD’s 1TB Caviar Black should make you happy.

For our alternative optical recommendation, we’ve ventured into the world of Blu-ray combo drives. The Lite-On iHES208-08 only costs a little more than standalone readers, but it lets you burn DVDs, too—so no need to spend $25 on an auxiliary DVD burner. We picked the retail version of this drive because it ships with Blu-ray playback software from CyberLink.

Onboard audio just 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 motherboard’s 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
Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus $29.99
Motherboard Asus P7P55D-E Pro $179.99
Memory Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $79.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB $229.99
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $74.99
LG WH10LS30K Blu-ray burner $109.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $79.99
Power supply Corsair TX650W $89.99
Enclosure Antec P183 $154.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1,359.90

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 without having to fiddle with base clock speeds or memory dividers. We got our chip from the default 2.93GHz 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, the Core i7-875K doesn’t come with a stock cooler. We’ve therefore thrown in Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus. Despite its $30 price tag, this cooler has a nice tower-style design with copper heat pipes, a 120-mm PWM fan, and masses of positive reviews on Newegg. If you’d like something fancier or more powerful, check out our cooling section on the last page of this article.

Asus and Gigabyte are the two biggest motherboard makers right now, and choosing between their products is often tantamount to flipping a coin. Last time, a Gigabyte motherboard found its way into this build thanks to its lower price and extra I/O ports. Right now, Asus’ competing product, the P7P55D-E Pro, sells for a little less. We’ve also taken a liking to Asus’ overclocking and fan-control features, which we find to be superior to what Gigabyte currently offers. So, Asus it is.

Some may question whether this board is really worth the price premium over the pick from the previous page. For starters, the P7P55D-E Pro has Nvidia SLI support with a proper dual-x8-lane configuration, so you can toss in a second GeForce GTX 460 and enjoy a sizable jump in performance down the road. Asus has rigged this board so that enabling SLI doesn’t drop next-generation I/O controllers to PCI Express 1.0 speeds, too, which is a nice touch. In addition, the firm offers advance replacement within the first year of warranty coverage for all its “Pro” P55 offerings. If this board starts going coo-coo for Cocoa Puffs, Asus will ship you a new, saner board before you send the old one back. These are the kinds of upscale perks we like to see in the Sweeter Spot.

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.

Since the Sweeter Spot is all about paying a bit more to get nice little extras, that “factory overclocked,” custom-cooled Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB from the previous page looks right at home.

Selecting the 1GB card for this SLI-capable build also opens the door to better multi-GPU performance. As we saw in our recent multi-GPU roundup, the extra graphics memory allows GTX 460 1GB SLI configs to perform quite a bit better than their 768MB siblings in some situations—like in DiRT 2 at 2560×1600 with DX11 effects enabled. Since high-res gaming is one of the key advantages of multiple GPUs, we wouldn’t want to limit ourselves just to save a few bucks on this $1,300 system.

The 1TB Spinpoint F3 returns for its second encore. We’d love to splurge on a better drive to get longer warranty coverage, but nothing out in stores today has quite the same mix of high performance with common desktop tasks and low noise levels. Those low noise levels in particular are just too nice to pass up, in our view.

With a price tag just over $100, LG’s WH10LS30K can record Blu-ray discs, DVDs, and CDs—and Newegg customers seem happy with it. Although this is an “OEM” drive that doesn’t come with retail packaging, it currently ships with a free CyberLink software suite that will let you play back Blu-ray movies, along with a pair of cheesy red/blue 3D glasses. The software deal is slated to end on 9/30/10, though, and we’ve had problems with the disc burning program included. You might be better off with free alternatives, like CDBurnerXP, for burning discs.

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 may not be 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 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 Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $79.99
Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $79.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 470 $299.99
Gigabyte Radeon HD 5870 $359.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB $276.00
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $119.99
TV tuner
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit $99.99

Sure, RAM prices are still far from 2009 levels, but some folks may still want to go all out and fill each of our recommended motherboard’s memory slots with a 2GB DDR3 module (using a pair of 4GB Mushkin kits). Anyone who goes that route will want to run a 64-bit operating system, naturally; making use of more than half of that memory would otherwise prove problematic.

What’s the best step up from the GeForce GTX 460 1GB? AMD’s $300 Radeon HD 5850 technically performs better, but not by much. Rather, our numbers suggest Nvidia’s own GeForce GTX 470 presents the most compelling upgrade.

Mind you, we would have reached a different conclusion before the release of Nvidia’s Big Bang graphics drivers. When it first came out, the GTX 470 was actually about neck-and-neck with the Radeon HD 5850—and the GeForce’s higher power consumption made it an unattractive second choice. Now that Nvidia has tuned its drivers for the new Fermi architecture, though, the GTX 470 tends to shadow the quicker Radeon HD 5870. That makes the GTX 470 a tantalizing alternative, considering its $300 price tag is a good 50 bucks cheaper than even the most affordable 5870… and the power consumption delta between the two products amounts to very little.

We’ve selected a Gigabyte variant of the GeForce GTX 470 for three simple reasons: it’s one of the cheapest models listed, it features Nvidia’s very decent stock cooler, and we trust Gigabyte to provide competent after-sales support.

Despite the GeForce GTX 470’s raw bang-for-buck superiority, we’re still including it alongside a Radeon HD 5870. The 5870 may cost more despite not performing much better or drawing much less power, but it does have one feature Nvidia can’t match right now: triple-display support with a single GPU. Hooking up three displays to the Sweeter Spot while staying in the Nvidia camp would require the use of two GeForces, which is just overkill for many folks. Gigabyte’s take on the Radeon HD 5870 looks like a solid choice, being one of the cheapest cards around and having plenty of positive Newegg reviews. (Some of those reviews praise the dual-fan cooler’s low noise, too.)

The Sweeter Spot’s primary set of parts are already a wee bit over-budget, but some folks might still want to splurge on a solid-state drive. Looking for a worthy candidate proved easy. 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 its 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, 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 Asus Sabertooth X58 $199.99
Memory Corsair 12GB (6 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $299.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB $229.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB $229.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 256GB $569.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $119.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $119.99
LG WH10LS30K Blu-ray burner $109.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $79.99
Power supply Corsair HX750W $149.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian 800D $269.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $3,379.88

We’ll freely admit that a thousand-dollar CPU is a little out there, even for a system like 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.

You might have seen that Intel recently released a slower Gulftown processor, the Core i7-970. That’s a nice alternative, but considering its $900 price tag and locked upper multiplier, we’d rather spend the extra hundred bucks on the i7-980X—at least for our primary build.

Gigabyte no longer undercuts Asus’ cheapest Intel X58 motherboard with USB 3.0 and SATA 6Gbps connectivity—the Asus Sabertooth X58 is now slightly cheaper than Gigabyte’s least expensive alternative. For an even $200, the Sabertooth gives us everything we need for the Double-Stuff: dual, full-bandwidth PCI Express x16 2.0 slots with SLI support, next-gen I/O, external SATA, FireWire, those Asus-specific fan control and overclocking features we’ve grown fond of, and plenty of little extras, like an extensive network of meaty-looking heatsinks. Going for the cheapest board in Asus’ X58 repertoire might seem absurd for a system like this, but we really don’t need anything more.

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.

For the latest few editions of the guide, the Double-Stuff Workstation has only included a single graphics card, the Radeon HD 5870. We felt that card was more than quick enough for even high-resolution gaming, and we didn’t find multi-GPU alternatives particularly tantalizing.

Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 460 has changed all that. As our latest multi-GPU roundup can attest, dual GTX 460s provide a huge overall frame rate increase over the Radeon HD 5870 for only about $100 more. Power consumption is admittedly a good bit higher, but with stereoscopic 3D and multi-monitor gaming taking root, the extra GPU power is far from superfluous. Besides, the Double-Stuff is supposed to be all about parallelism, isn’t it?

Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 460 1GB was good enough for our Sweeter Spot build, so we think two of ’em will work quite well in this build. That purportedly quiet custom cooler should help keep noise levels reasonable with two cards scrunched together, too.

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 serve 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, that LG Blu-ray burner from the previous page seems like a fine addition to the Double-Stuff. (Just keep in mind that it doesn’t ship with Blu-ray playback software.)

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.

Sharp-eyed shoppers might notice Corsair has an 80 Plus Gold-rated AX750W unit selling for a few bucks more. Thing is, a look at the 80 Plus website shows that the HX750W actually made the cut for 80 Plus Gold certification, too. The HX750W also has a larger fan and masses of positive user reviews. The AX750W is more of an unknown quantity at this point, so we feel more confident recommending the HX750W.

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 i7-970 $899.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce GTX 480 $439.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB $276.00
Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB $179.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB $179.99
Sound card
Asus Xonar D2X $179.99
TV tuner Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit $99.99
Enclosure Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 $169.99

As we explained on the last page, Intel’s Core i7-970 only saves you about $100 over the Core i7-980X, and it doesn’t have an unlocked upper multiplier. If you don’t particularly feel like overclocking, though, trading a little performance for $100 doesn’t seem like a bad proposition. (The Core i7-970 has a rated clock speed of 3.2GHz, slightly below the i7-980X’s 3.33GHz.)

Multi-GPU setups can deliver mind-blowing performance, but not everybody wants their workstation to have four expansion slots dedicated to graphics. Some folks might also be uncomfortable with the prospect of having to fall back on a single GPU in games with half-baked multi-GPU support. If, for whatever reason, you’d like a single, fast graphics card instead of two slower ones running in tandem, then the GeForce GTX 480 seems like a straightforward choice. It is, after all, the fastest single-GPU card on the market by a fair margin.

Zotac’s version of the GeForce GTX 480 has gotten our vote for being one of the cheapest variants available and coming with a lifetime warranty.

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 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 $180.93 $266.99 $269.99
Price—upgrade license $109.99 $179.99 $183.97
Price—OEM (64-bit) license $99.99 $139.99 $179.99
Price—OEM (32-bit) license $99.99 $139.99 $179.99
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 in 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.

Nvidia has a competing feature similar to Eyefinity, called Surround Gaming, that enables gaming across three monitors, as well. However, that feature requires the use of dual graphics cards, such as the GTX 460 SLI setup in our Double-Stuff build.

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 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. Sadly, the ABS M1 we used to recommend in this section seems to have been discontinued. More expensive clicky keyboards with similar designs can be purchased at the EliteKeyboards online store.

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 came out over three years ago, and Windows 7 has now been out for almost a year. 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 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. With the exception of the Core i7-875K, 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 last cooler roundup left us particularly impressed with Noctua’s NH-U12P tower-style cooler, and a version of it that supports all current Intel and AMD socket types is 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 $30 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.

We’ve also had good results with the Thermaltake Frio, which fits in between the aforementioned Noctua and Cooler Master heatsinks on the price scale, yet features a nice tower design with five heat pipes and multi-socket compatibility.

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.

We said at the beginning of this guide that the bang-for-buck situation has improved across the board, and we don’t think that claim was overblown. Seeing how much value we could pack into each of our builds used to be what these system guides were all about, and it’s nice to see a return to normalcy, so to speak.

Of course, a TR system guide wouldn’t be complete without a brief overview of what lies ahead. At this point, we’re fairly certain that neither AMD nor Intel will release next-generation microprocessors before next year. The graphics side of things looks a little more promising, though. Cheaper 400-series GeForces should be out in the not-too-distant future, if Nvidia’s recent mobile GPU launch is any indication. Also, the rumor mill has been making some noise about the next-generation, 6000-series Radeons that could be available in time for the holidays.

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.

0 responses to “TR’s back-to-school 2010 system guide

  1. I’m currently trying to piece together the necessary parts for a Double-Stuff type of setup and in my research I came across this guide. Thanks for putting it together! As a result I found some good alternatives to what I had initially and independently selected.

    I have a question about the Asus Sabertooth MB and the Corsair XMS3 12GB memory for the workstation build. Looking at the supported DRAM doco from the Asus site for that MB the above memory isn’t listed. Going to the Corsair site and using their Memory Configurator utility doesn’t show this set of RAM being supported. Have you actually got this memory to work on this MB? Or was/is this build more or less theoretical in nature?

    Thanks again for the guide.

  2. I’m more suprised that they put a six core on a system with only 4 Gb of ram. Sorry but there is no way to ever utilize that much CPU with so little ram. If you want to truely multi task a intensive program will use 2 plus gigs and atleast one core. you could only probably support 2, maybe 3 full fledged applications with that setup, the other 3 cores are kinda wasted. I never saw my quad able to really handle multiple large apps till I dropped 8 Gb in it.

    If you are wondering what I mean by Multi Tasking I mean running Dreamweaver, Fireworks, Photoshop and Solid works all at once across 2 or 3 displays. Only way to get things done today.

  3. well, one way to be disappointed in a TN monitor is to run it through the tests at

    Another way is to try to use it in portrait orientation (though of course most don’t have that option, because the results are so poor).

    The good TN monitors have become good enough that you don’t see some of the awfulness (visible banding, etc) that you used to see — and still do, on the cheapest and worst of the TN panels. Good enough that for people who don’t care about color calibration (and/or care more about gtg rates, etc) it’s hard to justify the price for anything else. But you can’t get around the color-shift you get as your viewing angle increases, and your viewing angle just to the corners of the panel when your eyes are centered gets worse as the panels get larger, which is one of the reasons you don’t see TN in the very large panel sizes.

  4. A coworker has the ZR24w and I didn’t spend enough time with it to make a judgement call, he likes the same Windows 98 wallpaper he had in 1999 on it. Nothing stuck out as all that impressive about it while working on it, other than the size was nice compared to the 19″ it was replacingg{.}g

    And I guess the NEC is a 23″. EA231WMI-BK, and I got it for $310 off newegg apparently (sorry I order so much random equipment through work I can’t keep it straight.)

  5. That’s too bad. Which NEC model? Have you had a chance to get an impression of other recent IPS models like the ZR24w or the U2410?

  6. Got an 24″ NEC IPS for $350 and honestly I can’t really tell much of a difference between it and the 4-year old Dell 22″ TN next to itg{<.<}g I had to turn off all the eco/power saving crap on the NEC to get it where I wantedg{<.<}g

  7. I’m going to wait for Bulldozer to come out, and hoping for it to drop prices on the AMD line. I want to get a Phenom II x6 on the cheap! 🙂

  8. I think its the fact that you mention a sound card at all (alternative or otherwise) is what’s making AbRASiON froth at the mouth. I guess he got beat up by one as a kid or something?

  9. That’s your opinion. And yes, your spamming the system builds with the same opinion over and over and over.

  10. Usually they include Dell’s 23″ IPS, which is $300 when there’s not a sale: §[<<]§ Th U2410 frequently dips below $500 with deals (see JustAnEngineer's thread in the the Hot Deals forum). The HP ZR24w is consistently below $400 from multiple vendors (but Newegg's not one of them): §[<<]§ §[<<]§

  11. Actually “shopping cards” sound right where I come from. I do my research (e.g. read TR), download the latest price lists from the local forums, and write down on a piece of paper or a card where I should go to buy which component. Then I take my little trolley, spend an hour or so hopping from shop to shop, each time showing the salesperson my card to have him bring my stuff to the cashier. Finally an evening of elbow grease and tada!

    Anyway, here’s my latest build for my wife last weekend:
    Athlon II X4 640 – bingo!
    Gigabyte 880GM-UD2H – for $100, it ran so smoothly that I didn’t realise it uses the old SB710
    Kingston 2x2GB DDR3-1333 RAM – never skimp on RAM
    WD Caviar Black 640GB – still the gold standard
    OCZ ModXtreme 520W modular PSU – a great PSU for $65
    Powercolor HD5770 – enough to run DIRT at 1920×1080
    Coolermaster mATX casing – plain looks, mounts 120mm fans, didn’t cut my hand, for $40
    Samsung XL2370 LED monitor – $250 at a trade show!

  12. Or you could just use the included Molex to PCI-e adaptor cable that comes bundled with the GTX460 to provide the required connectors.

    I have done exactly this on my wife’s pc which is using my ‘old’ GTX460 and a Earthwatts 380w PSU.

  13. It’d be a good idea to not admit to being a spammer if you want people to take your suggestion seriously.

  14. Can’t believe you recommend IPS panels for the sweeter spot. I’d still say TN at that cost. Those 24inch IPS panels cost 500 dollars, whilst you can grab good 27inch TN panels from Hewlett Packard for 300. Just doesn’t seem like a solid recommendation…

  15. Appreciated, though many GTX 460 1GBs appear to come with a pair of molex -> 6pin adapters.

    That said, I’m a little worried about the PSU providing enough wattage. TR’s 460 review shows a total system draw with this card at < 300W. I have no idea how factory overclocked versions behave.

  16. Fair warning, the GTX460 requires 2 x 6-pin power connectors. The Earthwatts 380W PSU only has 1 x 6/8-pin power connector. You’ll need a new PSU to use that GTX460.

  17. I’m running the integrated ATI 4250 right now. I don’t even have the mobo drivers installed or the box connected to the network yet.

    A vid card is on the shopping list. My total budget is ~$800, including Windows. That’s plenty left over for a 460 GTX 1GB, right? 🙂

    Honestly, I’m not really sure what I’m doing on the GPU.
    It’s been so long since I’ve had a modern desktop, I’m not really sure how much I’ll need, what’s unbalanced, or what my PSU will handle.
    So I thought I’d play with this a while and flush out any problems before going further. Maybe snake an 8800GT my friend has in his garage, of all places.

  18. That all sounds good. Personally, my next mobo will support Crossfire, though, as it would be badass to be able to drop in a second 4850 right now and have 5850 performance for $100. As it is, if I want better performance than I’ve got I’d have to spend $200+ on a new graphics card for it to be a worthy upgrade, but that still wouldn’t get me 5850 level performance. Multi-gpu is making more and more sense as time goes on.

  19. Holy mother of Moses, you’re right! In that case:

    Flintstones, Meet the Flintstones
    They’re a modern stone age family
    From the, town of Bedrock
    They’re a page right out of history
    Let’s ride, with the family down the street
    Through the, courtesy of Fred’s two feet
    When you’re, with the Flintstones
    Have a yabba, dabba, doo time
    A dabba doo time
    We’ll have a gay, old time!

    Flintstones, Meet the Flintstones
    They’re a modern stone age family
    From the, town of Bedrock
    They’re a page right out of history
    Someday, maybe Fred will win the fight
    And that, cat will stay out for the night
    When you’re, with the Flintstones
    Have a yabba, dabba, doo time
    A dabba doo time
    We’ll have a gay, old time!

  20. Yeah, but you can get a good Antec combo for less thant he 300 + separate PSU. Like a 300 + BP450 for $90. Right there is 30% of the extra cost.

    The other cost savings I’d make is to go with a slightly older tech motherboard like a Gigabyte 770T-USB3 for $80.

    Now you’ve got $40 saved and that money can go to the RAM and now you’ve got 4GB and a quad core for the $535-ish that TR went wih 2GB.

    I know it’s just a recommendation, but my recommendation is different. :p

  21. I’m tempted to agree but it is a hard call. A case and power suppply tend to carry over for a couple of builds, or at least have that potential. RAM is something that can always be added in a month or two from now.

  22. Get over it dude. Get over it. You have to get over it. Every single system guide you have to spam with this. It is nothing more than an option. No one is forced to buy any of these components; all are free to modify each system recommendation as desired. There are components in every category that I’d change, and I’d never personally purchase a sound card, but there is absolutely no reason that TR need to remove the recommendation – those that like to have discreet sounds cards will be happy to have the recommendation, while those that do not want a discreet sound card will be happy to pass over the recommendation. It is time for you to stop spamming the system build threads with protests of sound card recommendations.

  23. Except that I added that I could hear the difference even without a discrete sound card.

  24. Agreed. I have a pair of Sennheiser HD555s, and even on my laptop’s integrated sound, where I can hear the adjacent USB ports transferring data, it’s definitely a step up from my cheapo Logitech 2.1 system, where I couldn’t hear the USB ports. On my PC’s Audigy 2 Value, crystal clear. Headphones first, sound card second.

  25. Yes, but they’re on a quarter system. The normal academic year is three quarters: an Autumn one that lasts until the winter break, and then two (Winter and Spring) in the new year, so the school year runs well into June. Which sucks for anybody looking for a summer job, since they’re pretty much all gone by then. But hey, at Spring Break you have the beaches almost all to yourself (no distracting bikinis from other schools)

  26. Right, because (a) there’s no way he’d ever figure out how to dual boot into Windows (or just reinstall) and (b) there are absolutely no enormous time-sponges on the internet. Or is that some version of Ubuntu without a web-browser? Or perhaps one specifically engineered not to resolve

  27. What? No mention of Ubuntu? If I had a kid livnig in a dorm room and I don’t want him spending hours playing games instead of doing research, I’d give him Ubuntu.

  28. That heatsink fan on that Micro-ATX motherboard reminds me of the ribs on the Flintstone’s car at the BrontoBurger in the show’s closing scene.

  29. I’d be really tempted to find a cheaper case and power supply combination for the Econobox so that you could get 2×2 GiB of memory.

  30. In what has scientists saying “Huh, how about that”, I’m typing this up on my laptop while my brand new DIY desktop is slugging through the double install of Win 7 Pro Upgrade. (Legitmately, of course.)

    And what’s in it?

    Athlon II X4 640
    ASUS M4A88TD-M
    2x2GB OCZ DDR3-1333
    Samsung Spinpoint F3 500GB (wanted a single platter drive)
    Lian Li A03 (matx)
    Antec Earthwatts 380W
    Win 7 Pro Upgrade

    …for $580.10, minus the OD and PSU which I already had.

    I was trying to hold out for an update to the guide but wasn’t sure when it was coming! Nice to get mostly validated by the TR crew anyway.

    If you go with the ASUS mobo, hit up their website and check their list of compatible RAM. Just in case.

  31. As always, you click on the picture.

    Not exactly intuitive, I know, but it’s worked for years (especially back in the days when there was /[

  32. First paragraph: “shopping cards” should be, “shopping carts”. Other than that, great article.

  33. I’ve had a great system going for about 16 months. I’m going to try to hold onto it for another 8 or so. Maybe I’ll celebrate school ending with a new box.

  34. with all of the kids back outside, it’s the perfect time to build a new computer for yourself. 🙂