reviewtrs fall 2010 system guide

TR’s Fall 2010 system guide

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To be completely honest, we didn’t think we would have enough material for a fresh system guide this fall. The releases of new graphics processors from both AMD and Nvidia have changed that, however, and we’ve seen other important product introductions and shifts in pricing, like the arrival of Corsair’s excellent Graphite Series 600T enclosure and falling cost of DDR3 memory.

Because of those changes, we now have our most powerful Econobox to date, with a quad-core Athlon II and a GeForce GTS 450. We were also able to outfit our $800 Utility Player build with its quickest GPU yet without stretching our budget, and our other two builds have gotten little upgrades here and there to keep them current for the holiday season.

As icing on the cake, we’ve thrown in a one-off build: the Vespa, which is essentially our answer to nettops. It costs less than $300, has a dual-core Athlon II with integrated graphics, and leaves room for a full-featured graphics card, extra storage, and other additions.

Keep reading to see what we’ve concocted this time around.

Rules and regulations
Before we get into our component recommendations, we should explain our methods 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 $99.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-870A-UD3 $93.99
Memory Kingston 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $36.99
Graphics Palit GeForce GTS 450 $129.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $69.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Three Hundred $59.95
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $44.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $555.88

The Athlon II X4 640 has fallen to just under $100, which is a fantastic deal for a 3GHz quad-core processor with a 95W power envelope. We can credit the arrival of the quicker Athlon II X4 645 for the price drop. If you’re wondering why we’re shunning the X4 645, it’s because the CPU costs an extra 20 bucks and only delivers a meager 100MHz clock speed increase in return. We can find better uses for that $20.

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 i3s. AMD also enjoys a somewhat more compelling platform, with slightly cheaper motherboards that have native support for 6Gbps Serial ATA. Speaking of which…

Those six third-gen Serial ATA ports on Gigabyte’s GA-870A-UD3 are only the tip of the iceberg. The board also has dual USB 3.0 ports, dual external Serial ATA ports, dual FireWire ports, and dual physical PCI Express x16 slots (one of which has four lanes of connectivity), all for less than $100. In many ways, the GA-870A-UD3’s functionality and connectivity is comparable to that of Intel P55 motherboards priced much closer to $150. Talk about a bargain.

You might notice we’re giving the Asus M4A87TD EVO, our previous pick, the cold shoulder in this edition of the guide. The Asus board sells for around $110 despite having less connectivity, and we feel Asus’ superior fan control functionality alone isn’t worth a $16 premium in this class of system.

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. Kingston’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 heavy multitaskers and hard-core gamers in our alternatives, as well.

Faced with price drops on the CPU, motherboard, and storage fronts, we figured we’d be remiss not to put some of those saved dollars toward a quicker graphics card. The Radeon HD 5670 has served us well, but it’s not getting any faster. For about an extra $50, Palit’s hopped-up GeForce GTS 450 delivers considerably better performance, especially at high resolutions and with DirectX 11 eye candy enabled. This card should let you enjoy high detail levels with antialiasing at 1440×900 or 1680×1050 in demanding games. Some titles, like DiRT 2, will even let you climb up to 1920×1080 at those same settings.

Why choose the GTS 450 over the incumbent Radeon HD 5750? Both cards sell for about the same price, but this Palit model comes out of the box with higher-than-normal clock speeds (880MHz core and 975MHz/3.9Gbps memory). We saw in our review that a slightly higher-than-stock clock speed gave the GTS 450 a nice lead over the stock 5750, so this GTS 450 variant should also be quicker than the Radeon.

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 $69.99, 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, Asus’ DRW-24B1ST makes its first appearance in our system guide. The Samsung unit we’ve been recommending is no longer in stock, but this Asus model has a similarly low price, the same SATA interface, and better Newegg user reviews than all the other $20 burners.

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 near 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. There’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 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 i3-540 $113.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3 $109.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $69.99
Graphics PowerColor Radeon HD 5750 1GB $124.99
Asus Radeon HD 6850 $179.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $89.99

Our CPU alternative has gotten a slight upgrade. The Core i3-540 runs at 3.06GHz, up from 2.93GHz for the i3-530 we featured last time, and costs only a buck more right now. That’s worth it, don’t you think?

Our overall recommendation remains the same, however. The Core i3-540 costs more, calls for a pricier motherboard, and should be slower overall when running at stock speed than the Athlon II X4 640. That said, the Intel CPU happens to have better power efficiency, and it should have great overclocking potential. We got the slower i3-530 model to just over 4.4GHz after swapping the stock cooler for a tower-style heatsink. That 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 to be held back by a dinky little stock cooler.

We wanted an Intel motherboard that would also serve up integrated graphics, for the few non-gamers out there. The Core i3-540 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 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 this 4GB Kingston kit. 32-bit OSes have enough address space for 4GB of memory, 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 and its matching motherboard take care of our integrated graphics option. The GeForce GTS 450 is hardly the only choice for folks who want a discrete card, though. We’ve singled out two alternatives.

The first one is AMD’s Radeon HD 5750 1GB. That card might have slightly lower overall performance than our up-clocked Palit GeForce, but it should consume less power, and it’s an AMD product—some folks are partial to that. Anyone who’s got an extra $50 or so kicking around would do well to consider the Radeon HD 6850, as well, which is generally fast enough to produce solid frame rates at 1920×1080 with antialiasing on. (The fact that it has a full gigabyte of memory gives the card an edge over Nvidia’s similarly priced GeForce GTX 460 768MB, too.)

We picked a PowerColor variant of the Radeon HD 5750 because it’s cheap and, let’s face it, fancy lifetime warranties aren’t as important in this price range. A more exotic version of the Radeon HD 6850 would’ve been nice, but supply is still tight right now, so we’ve got to work with what’s available. Asus offers three years of warranty coverage, and considering the size of the company, we expect its U.S. after-sales support to be decent.

Some users may want a terabyte of affordable storage and a five-year warranty. The Samsung drive on the previous page only has three years 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—while remaining tantalizingly affordable.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X6 1055T $209.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-870A-UD3 $93.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $69.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 460 1GB FTW $239.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $69.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $119.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $823.93

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.

The surprisingly affordable Gigabyte GA-870A-UD3 from our Econobox moonlights in the Utility Player, too. We considered going with the pricier Asus M4A87TD EVO, but again, we didn’t feel like the better fan control was worth turning down extra connectivity and coughing up an extra $16. (Of course, since prices fluctuate, you may want to be on the lookout for cuts on the Asus side after this guide goes up.)

We mulled opting for a fancier, 890GX- or 890X-based mobo, but the simple truth is that we just don’t need CrossFire support with an Nvidia graphics card. The 890GX’s integrated graphics processor would be entirely superfluous, as well. Our view is that it’s better to leave well enough alone and put any spare cash from our budget toward, say, a better discrete GPU—which happens to be what we did today.

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 Kingston 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.

No doubt about it, EVGA’s “factory overclocked” GeForce GTX 460 1GB FTW is the quickest graphics card to slip into the Utility Player. It might seem like an odd choice now that AMD’s Radeon HD 6870 is roaming the streets, but the numbers don’t lie: the GTX 460 1GB FTW actually has comparable or greater performance, slightly lower idle power consumption, and lower load noise levels than the stock-cooled 6870. The AMD card does draw a little less power under load, but we’re only talking about a 12W delta—nothing that really turns the tables.

In case you haven’t read our review, the EVGA GeForce GTX 460 1GB FTW runs well above standard clock speeds and features two-year warranty coverage if you register within 30 days. (Regular GTX 460 1GB cards typically run at 675MHz with 3.6Gbps memory, but the FTW card does 850MHz/4Gbps.) Also, the Newegg listing shows this card ships with a free HAWX 2 coupon, all the while costing about $10 less than the cheapest Radeon HD 6870 around.

As in our Econobox, the Samsung Spinpoint F3 has displaced WD’s Caviar Black. 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 longer warranty coverage more than lower noise levels.

We’re sticking with the Asus DRW-24B1ST 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 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 $80 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 $208.99
Motherboard Asus P7P55D-E $139.99
Graphics Asus Radeon HD 6850 $179.99
VisionTek Radeon HD 6870 $239.99
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 Intel processor costs about the same as the Phenom II 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. 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.

While the GeForce we chose looks like a slightly sweeter deal to our eyes, AMD’s new Radeons are absolutely worth considering. Opting for the Radeon HD 6850, for instance, will let you save a few bucks without sacrificing too much performance—and we think this card’s a better choice than the GeForce GTX 460 768MB, whose limited amount of onboard memory can be a handicap.

The Radeon HD 6870, meanwhile, delivers performance largely equivalent to that of EVGA’s GeForce GTX 460 1GB FTW, but it draws a wee bit less power under load and might satisfy those who prefer AMD products (or dislike Nvidia ones) for whatever reason. The Radeons will also work in multi-GPU mode on our primary, Phenom II-based motherboard pick, while the GeForce will not.

In both cases, we picked card that were cheap, available, and covered by decent warranties. That meant selecting Asus’ flavor of the 6850, which has three-year coverage, and VisionTek’s 6870, which has lifetime coverage if you register.

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 is for you.

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—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 Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $69.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 460 FTW $239.99
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $69.99
LG WH10LS30K Blu-ray burner $109.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $79.99
Power supply Corsair TX650W $89.99
Enclosure Corsair Graphite Series 600T $159.99
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 the CPU 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. In our summer guide, 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 have the option of tossing in a second GeForce and enjoying 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 Kingston RAM easily fits into the Sweeter Spot’s budget. Four gigs of RAM should be plenty even for multitasking-crazy types.

Some readers might be surprised to find the Utility Player’s graphics card pick doubling as the Sweeter Spot’s. The truth is, cards like EVGA’s GeForce GTX 460 1GB FTW are quick enough to make higher-end single-GPU offerings largely superfluous. If you haven’t seen our benchmarks, take a look at them now. This EVGA card nips at the heels of the GeForce GTX 470 and often outpaces the Radeon HD 5870. The only step up from those is the GeForce GTX 480… but that card costs well over $400.

Since we’ve already exceeded our budget, we see little point in aiming any higher than the GTX 460 1GB FTW. If you’re more interested in the largely equivalent Radeon HD 6870, though, be sure to check out our alternative recommendation on the next page. Again, there’s nothing wrong with the Radeon—we just prefer the GeForce’s slightly better overall performance and lower noise levels.

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 quiet acoustics in particular are just too nice to pass up, in our view.

With a price tag just under $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. We’ve had problems with the disc burning program included, though, so you might be better off with free alternatives like CDBurnerXP.

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.

After getting our hands dirty with Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T enclosure, we decided it was worthy of our Editor’s Choice award. And since the Sweeter Spot largely represents what TR’s editors would build for themselves, well, the 600T’s inclusion here is only logical.

Corsair’s latest might not have the most elaborate noise-reduction features around, but it’s quiet, cool, shockingly well-designed, delightful to work in, and aesthetically pleasing to boot. We’re particularly fond of the little touches, like the USB 3.0 ports and the fact that all hard drive bays can accommodate 2.5″ SSDs. We wouldn’t settle for less.

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 Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $69.99
Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $69.99
Graphics VisionTek Radeon HD 6870 $239.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB $269.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $109.99
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 Kingston 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.

Again, if you don’t mind higher load noise levels and a slight performance trade-off and would rather have an AMD card with slightly lower load power consumption, the Radeon HD 6870 is for you. We’re recommending the VisionTek model because of its affordable price and lifetime warranty coverage for users who register within 30 days.

The Sweeter Spot’s primary set of parts is already a wee bit over-budget, but some folks might still want to splurge on a solid-state drive. Finding 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.

By the way, WD recently added a 3TB Caviar Green to its portfolio, and it’s already available for sale. With a price more than double that of the 2TB model, however, the 3TB model’s just not a good deal right now.

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 $249.99
Graphics VisionTek Radeon HD 6870 $239.99
VisionTek Radeon HD 6870 $239.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 256GB $525.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $109.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $109.99
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 $3,285.88

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 near-$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.

As a recent TR Recommended award winner, Asus’ Sabertooth X58 motherboard is a great match for the Double-Stuff. This $200 board gives us dual, full-bandwidth PCI Express x16 2.0 slots with SLI and CrossFire support, next-gen I/O, external SATA, FireWire, five-year warranty coverage, 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 much more. The only real downside here is the fact that the board’s Gigabit Ethernet controller runs off a PCI interface, which limits its throughput to around 700Mbps. If you really need a full 1Gbps of Ethernet bandwidth for the the Double-Stuff, you could always throw in a cheap PCI Express Ethernet card like this $30 Intel model.

Instead of two 6GB kits, we’ve opted for a bona-fide 12GB DDR3-1600 memory bundle from Corsair. This kit actually includes six 2GB memory modules, but Corsair has tested them together, and the whole package sells for only a little bit more than separate 6GB triple-channel packs. Sounds good to us.

AMD’s Radeon HD 6870 wins out over the supercharged GeForce GTX 460 1GB for the Double-Stuff. In short, we feel more confident about the cooling performance of AMD’s blower-style stock cooler in a dual-GPU configuration. VisionTek’s flavor of the 6870 gets the nod again, not just because of its low price and limited lifetime warranty, but also because it features AMD’s stock cooler.

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. Simiarly, we’re ruling out WD’s 3TB Caviar Green, mainly on account of its excessive price tag.

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 $270 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 $879.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce GTX 480 $479.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB $269.99
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 $189.99

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, 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 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 Vespa
Your nettop, supercharged

We’ve reviewed a decent number of nettops lately, but every time, we’ve come away with a similar impression: you could build yourself a much more powerful PC for not a whole lot more, if you didn’t mind a somewhat bigger enclosure. That’s the entire idea behind the Vespa: building a microATX machine with quality components, a real processor, integrated graphics, and some room for expansion, all for a little more than your typical nettop.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X2 250 $58.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA74GM-S2 $54.99
Memory Crucial 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR2-667 $36.99
Graphics Integrated $0.00
Storage Western Digital Caviar Blue 320GB $44.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Rosewill R101-P-BK $29.99
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $44.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $290.93

AMD’s Athlon II X2 250 is among the absolute cheapest desktop processors available today, but it still packs a punch without drawing excessive amounts of power. AMD manufactures the chip’s two 3GHz cores using a 45-nm fab process and squeezes them into a 65W power envelope. The end result is an affordable CPU that can run circles around Intel’s latest dual-core Atoms.

We would’ve loved to spring for a board with an SB850 south bridge and 6Gbps SATA here, but that’s not what the Vespa is about. For only 50 bucks, Gigabyte’s GA-MA74GM-S2 covers all the bases: microATX form factor, PCI Express x16 expansion, and integrated graphics with a DVI display output. This is admittedly not the newest board around, and it forces us to settle for DDR2 memory. That’s hardly the end of the world, though, especially for a sub-$300 system—keep in mind we didn’t see much of a performance difference when going from DDR2 to DDR3 on a faster quad-core Phenom II X4 810.

The nice thing about this board is that it allows you to turn the Vespa into, well, whatever you want. You could, for example, throw in a GeForce GTS 450 or Radeon HD 5750 and start enjoying all the latest games. You could add a Wi-Fi controller and a TV capture card and make this system into a wee home-theater PC. Try finding a nettop with that kind of versatility.

Two gigs of Crucial DDR2-667 RAM should be plenty for gaming and moderate multitasking. Newer DDR3 memory wouldn’t really help the Vespa’s performance or save us any money, so we have no regrets on that front.

One thing to note is that the Vespa only has two DIMM slots. If you ever feel the need to step up to 4GB, you’ll have to buy a 4GB kit. We don’t expect folks shopping in this price range to feel much of a longing for 4GB of RAM, however. Other upgrades, like better graphics and an extra hard drive, will likely take precedence.

Speaking of hard drives, we’re outfitting the Vespa with a 320GB Western Digital Caviar Blue. $45 is dirt-cheap for that kind of capacity, which should be more than enough to accommodate a Windows installation, a handful of games, some music, and a few Linux ISOs you might end up grabbing over BitTorrent. Unlike nettops, the Vespa has multiple internal 3.5″ bays, so you can always add a 1TB Caviar Green or two down the road.

On the optical side of things, we considered not outfitting the Vespa with a DVD drive at all—but 20 bucks for a burner doesn’t exactly stretch our budget, and it should prove helpful to install retail-boxed software and make backups. In case you’re wondering, DVD drives without burning capabilities aren’t really any cheaper.

Power supply
We’re aware that more affordable power supplies exist, but the Vespa is all about packing quality components inside a tight budget. Throwing in a $20 PSU from some company we’ve never heard of wouldn’t exactly be helpful. The 380W Antec EarthWatts Green offers plenty of spare juice for upgrades, 80 Plus Bronze certification, and a three-year warranty from a reputable firm, all for an eminently reasonable asking price.

The last piece of the puzzle is an affordable yet solid microATX enclosure. With a $29.99 price tag and a five-star average out of over 250 user reviews, Rosewill’s R101-P-BK appears to meet our requirements. It’s definitely shorter than your average mid-tower PC case, but it does all the right things internally: the PSU sits above the motherboard (not hovering over the CPU cooler), the expansion bays accommodate full-width cards, there’s a total of four 3.5″ hard drive bays, and the exhaust fan is a nice and big 120-mm model. From the outside, the black paint job and Death Star-like front intake grill don’t look half bad, either.

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 U3011, 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, four 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. Corsair’s new H50 and H70 interesting options, as well. However, we’re not as fond of their use of old-school, three-pin DC fans.

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’re 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 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 USB 3.0 connectivity, so backing up large files and drive images should be a snap.

Well, here we are, at the end of another system guide. The rain of high prices we had to weather earlier this year has gone, leaving a rainbow of attractive deals right in time for everyone’s holiday shopping. How convenient! Really, though, we’re glad to be able to outfit the Econobox with a powerful graphics card again, and we’re overjoyed to have been able to pack the Utility Player with good, fast hardware without going over budget.

Upgrading over the next few months is going to be all about timing. If you must buy a system right now, we have no problem recommending any of the builds you’ve seen across the previous pages. Those prepared to wait a few weeks might seriously want to consider holding out for Intel’s next-generation Sandy Bridge processors, which promise all kinds of new goodies. We’ll see AMD counter with its Bulldozer and Llano CPUs later next year, too.

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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