review trs christmas 2010 system guide

TR’s Christmas 2010 system guide

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It’s that time of year again. Christmas is but a few days away, and seemingly every tech site on the web has celebrated the occasion with a holiday gift guide. We did that once. However, we haven’t since, perhaps because our regular system guides do such a good job of detailing the hardware we most recommend and covet.

In the more than a month and a half since we published our last guide, we’ve witnessed the arrival of fresh 6900-series Radeons from AMD and 500-series GeForce cards from Nvidia. AMD has also chipped in a batch of new mid-range and budget desktop processors to shore up its lineup ahead of Intel’s next-gen Sandy Bridge CPUs. Sandy Bridge debuts in early January, and since it’s kind of a big deal, we’re going to wait for Intel’s new hotness before updating the collection of desktop systems that usually appear in our system guide.

Those regulars—the Econobox, Utility Player, Sweeter Spot, and Double-Stuff Workstation—cover a wide range of budgets. They all follow the basic ATX desktop formula, though. To mix things up, we’ll occasionally throw in a one-off build with an entirely different or altogether narrower focus. Exploring these tangents has been so refreshing that we’ve decided to put together a new guide made up exclusively of side projects.

We haven’t abandoned the desktop entirely, however. In addition to a home-theater PC for the living room, a tiny gaming system for LAN parties, and an over-indulgent workstation to impress your friends, we’ve also come up with an Editor’s Choice build that details what we’d actually buy if we had to replace our desktops today. Let’s get down to it, then. The Couch Potato, Roadster, Editor’s Choice, and some Straight-up Excess await.

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. For three of them, we’ll 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. Components for the fourth system were chosen based on similar criteria, but we’ve thrown any sense of budgetary constraint out the window.

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 Couch Potato
Your living room deserves a PC, too

The only PC that gets more use than the desktop in my office is the system sitting under the big-screen TV in my living room. Home-theater PCs make excellent entertainment platforms, whether they’re playing BitTorrent downloads, offering TiVo-like PVR functionality with no monthly fee, serving up the latest games, or simply enabling Facebook-stalking from the couch. Here’s one that’s ready for a little bit of everything, including blending in seamlessly with your living room.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X2 240 $50.99
Cooler Scythe SCSK-1100 $34.99
Motherboard Asus M4A88TD-M/USB3 $99.99
Graphics Integrated Radeon HD 4250 $0
Memory Mushkin Enhanced 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $41.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $99.99
Lite-On iHOS104-06 Blu-ray reader $39.99
Audio Asus Xonar DG $29.95
TV Tuner Hauppauge WinTV-HV3 1850 $99.99
Enclosure Silverstone SG02 $74.99
Power supply
Seasonic M12II 520 Bronze $74.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $647.90

You don’t need a lot of horsepower to handle basic home-theater PC duties, which is why we’re only spending $50 on this system’s CPU. Intel’s offerings in this price range bear the Celeron name, and they don’t look all that impressive next to the Athlon II X2 240’s dual 2.8GHz cores. The Athlon also has the benefit of compatibility with AMD’s superior integrated graphics chipsets. You could spend more and get higher clock speeds, but the alternative on the next page is a better way to add more power to this home-theater PC.

Really, this base configuration only needs a cheap CPU that’ll plug into a standard socket. The 240 fills that role by letting us use a Socket AM3 motherboard that’s ripe for future upgrades. As an added bonus, the processor’s 65W TDP should make it easy to cool without generating a racket.

We’ll need an aftermarket cooler, too, because this particular CPU is an unboxed OEM model that doesn’t come with a heatsink of its own. For that role, we’ve selected Scythe’s SCSK-1100. The last thing you want from a home-theater PC is the dull whir of fan noise invading your living room, and the SCSK-1100 looks like it should be pretty quiet. We also need a low-profile cooler that will fit within the confines of the microATX enclosure we’re using for this build—taller tower-style designs simply won’t do. Newegg’s user reviews of the SCSK-1100 are overwhelmingly positive, with 90% giving this cooler four or more stars. Sounds like a good option.

AMD’s new 880G integrated graphics chipset does a little of everything. Its integrated Radeon HD 4250 graphics core has enough grunt to handle older and casual games, plus you get a video decode block primed to accelerate playback of all three HD formats commonly used by Blu-ray movies. Team that with the SB850 south bridge, which offers plenty of second-gen PCI Express connectivity and 6Gbps SATA ports, and you have the most cutting-edge integrated graphics platform around. Heck, the SB850 even has more advanced PCIe and SATA implementations than Intel’s mid-range and high-end desktop chipsets.

Asus’ microATX M4A88TD-M/USB3 is one of only a handful of 880G-based motherboards to feature AMD’s new south bridge. This board has a trio of video outputs for the integrated graphics, a dedicated S/PDIF output for audio, and the usual mix of Gigabit Ethernet, SATA, and USB connectivity. A couple of USB 3.0 ports are also provided if you want to take advantage of SuperSpeed devices.

Cheaper 880G boards are available, but most of them use an older SB710 south bridge we’d prefer to avoid. Asus also tends to offer better BIOS-level fan speed controls than its competitors. That’s already an important feature on the desktop, and it’s even more vital for a home-theater PC.

Do you need 4GB of RAM to watch downloaded legally acquired episodes of The Walking Dead? No. But memory is cheap again, relatively speaking. This 4GB Mushkin kit costs just $5 more than what we paid for a 2GB kit in the last guide. 4GB kits were selling for around $70 back then, making it foolish not to splurge now.

Keep in mind that exploiting 4GB of memory all but requires a 64-bit operating system. If you’re planning on using an older 32-bit version of Windows XP to fuel your HTPC (and we would never condone reusing Windows licenses in such a manner), we’ll forgive you for cheaping out and only going with 2GB of memory.

Speedy storage isn’t necessary for a home-theater PC. In fact, opting for a faster mechanical hard drive can often be counter-productive, as 7,200-RPM models tend to make more noise than low-power drives that spin their platters closer to 5,400 RPM. This is especially true at higher platter counts, and we want to pack our HTPC with as much storage as possible.

Western Digital’s Caviar Green 2TB fits the bill perfectly. There’s plenty of storage capacity for HD content, plus a low spindle speed to reduce noise levels. Seagate’s 5,900-RPM Barracuda LP 2TB is available at the same price as the Caviar Green, and it’s actually a little quieter. However, we’ve had reliability issues with a couple of other Seagate models, and the ‘cuda does have a higher percentage of negative Newegg reviews than the Caviar.

On the optical front, we definitely want to be able to play Blu-ray movies. Lite-On’s iHOS104-06 Blu-ray reader obliges, and it can also play and burn standard CDs and DVDs. This is an OEM drive, so it doesn’t come with cables or the software necessary for Blu-ray movie playback. If you need either, step up to the iHOS104-08, which costs an additional $20.

Unless your speakers or receiver accept multi-channel digital output, the Couch Potato really needs a discrete sound card. You don’t have to spend much for a big upgrade in sound quality, though. Asus’ Xonar DG is a recent Editor’s Choice award winner that can be had for just $30. The card’s excellent sound quality belies its bargain price. You do miss out on a few features of the fancier Xonar DX we’ve included in the alternatives, but the DG is all you need to power a set of 6-channel analog speakers. If you have a halfway decent set of speakers or headphones, your ears will thank us. If you don’t, you should absolutely consider a complementary upgrade to your sound system.

TV tuner
Our TV tuner of choice used to be Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR 1800. That model has since been replaced with an updated 1850, which retains the original’s PCI Express x1 interface, NTSC and ATSC/clear QAM tuners, and hardware MPEG2 encoder. Hauppauge also throws in an all-important MCE-compatible remote. With a four-star rating based on nearly 400 Newegg user reviews, the 1850 looks like an excellent choice for the Couch Potato.

There is no shortage of microATX cases on the market, but precious few are compatible with standard ATX PSUs and full-height expansion cards. Silverstone’s SG02 can handle both, and its understated looks won’t upset the aesthetic balance of your living room. The case also features an 80-mm auxiliary fan that should hold up better than the smaller-diameter fans commonly found in microATX enclosures. We’ve found that tiny fans tend to whine at a higher, more annoying pitch than larger ones. All fans get noisier over time, but in our experience, the smaller ones start to squeal earlier than their big brothers.

With dual 5.25″ drive bays and room for two 3.5″ internal drives, the SG02 offers decent expansion capacity if you want to beef up the Couch Potato. The case’s internals are also large enough to accommodate 12″ graphics cards should you wish to do a little gaming on your big-screen TV. See the alternatives section on the next page for a more specific suggestion on that front.

Power supply
Seasonic’s M12II 520W looks just about perfect for our home-theater PC. The modular design will make it a lot easier to clean up the cable routing inside our cramped microATX enclosure. With a claimed efficiency of greater than 87% and 80 Plus Bronze certification, the M12II shouldn’t radiate much wasted energy as excess heat. That should allow the 120-mm fan to keep the unit cool without making too much noise—a common trait among the Seasonic PSUs we’ve used.

We don’t need all 520W for this particular configuration, but the extra juice gives us some headroom for future upgrades. With five years of warranty coverage, we’d expect this unit to last for a while.

Couch Potato alternatives
Although we didn’t start with a set budget, we kept our primary build a little restrained to focus on typical HTPC duties. The beauty of a home-theater PC is that it’s still a PC. With just a few upgrades, the Couch Potato becomes a much more capable system.

Component Item Price
Processor Athlon II X4 610e $137.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 460 768MB DirectCU $169.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $59.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $84.99

I know what you’re thinking, and yes, four cores is overkill for a home-theater PC. However, if you’re going to be doing any media encoding, whether it’s to cut down on the footprint of MPEG2 TV recordings or to convert files for viewing on portable devices, a couple of extra cores will definitely come in handy.

The Athlon II X4 610e plugs into the motherboard featured in our primary recommendations, making it an easy upgrade. Despite its two extra cores, the chip actually has a lower 45W TDP than the X2 from the previous page. The Couch Potato should run cooler and quieter with the X4 onboard, although each of that CPU’s cores runs 400MHz slower than what you get with the X2. Even with that disadvantage, the quad-core chip should deliver a nice reduction in media encoding times.

Consoles are great and all, but if you’re going to put together a home-theater PC for the living room, there’s no reason why it can’t be a gaming system, too. The Radeon HD 4250 integrated graphics component in our primary recommendations will get you through casual arcade titles and older big-name releases. If you want to play the latest and greatest, you’ll need something discrete. We suggest a GeForce GTX 460 768MB.

For a desktop system, we might be inclined to recommend AMD’s new Radeon HD 6850 because it offers a full gig of video memory. A home-theater PC probably won’t be connected to a display with more than 1920×1080 pixels, though. At that 1080p resolution, we don’t anticipate that the GTX 460’s 768MB of memory will be a serious detriment. Besides, most 6850s are selling for between $190 and $200, above AMD’s initial launch price of $179. At only $170, the GTX 460 768MB is a relative bargain.

The Asus card we’ve selected is among the cheapest of the breed on Newegg right now. It also has a new DirectCU cooler that we’ve found to be particularly quiet. If you’re wondering how the card might hook into the big-screen TV you have in the living room, Asus throws a DVI-to-HDMI adapter into the box.

Although the low-power hard drive from our first batch of recommendations is perfect for the Couch Potato’s primary mission as a home-theater PC, gamers who opt for our graphics alternative would be wise to go with a faster hard drive. The Caviar Green is more than fast enough for media playback and other HTPC duties. However, Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 can deliver quicker load times for games and snappier overall performance while making less noise than the low-power Caviar.

How can a 7,200-RPM drive be quieter than a 5,400-RPM model? Because it has fewer platters. Drives with lower platter counts tend to make less noise than ones that stack a higher number. The Spinpoint has only two platters to the Caviar’s four—and just one terabyte of storage to the Green’s 2TB. A terabyte is still capacious enough for a generous collection of games and media content, making this Samsung drive the perfect alternative for those who want more of a PC for their home theaters.

The Xonar DG is easily the best budget sound card we’ve ever encountered. Like all low-end models, it does lack some of the features and extras available a few rungs up the ladder. The Xonar DX, which is another Editor’s Choice winner, is the next logical step up. Instead of the DG’s six analog output channels, the DX offers eight. The DX also supports on-the-fly Dolby Digital Live encoding, which allows multi-channel game audio to be passed to a compatible receiver or speakers using a single, pristine digital connection.

If you’re worried that the Xonar DG might not be able to match the DX’s sound quality, don’t. We pitted the DG against a high-end Xonar Xense in a series of blind listening tests, and our subjects actually preferred the output of the budget card. We’re going with the DX here to get a few specific features, not because we think it’s going to sound appreciably better than the DG.

The Roadster
Gaming goes Mini-ITX

LAN parties can be a lot of fun. Lugging a full-sized desktop system to one? Not so much. Fortunately, today’s Mini-ITX motherboards make it easy to build a potent gaming systems no bigger than a shoebox. We assembled such a rig back in September, and we liked it so much that we couldn’t resist including something similar in this guide. Meet the Roadster.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i3-550 $124.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H55N-USB3 $104.99
Memory Mushkin Enhanced 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $41.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 460 1GB DirectCU $209.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $59.99
Sony AD-7700S slim DVD burner $38.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Silverstone SG07 w/600W PSU $209.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $790.93

The graphics card is the bottleneck for most modern games, so we’re better off spending our money there and saving a few dollars with a dual-core CPU. Well, a dual-core CPU that masquerades as a quad-core design thanks to Hyper-Threading. The Core i3-550 offers two physical cores that tick along at an impressive 3.2GHz. That’s only 133MHz slower than the i3-560, which costs $25 more. The premium attached to Intel’s Turbo Boost technology isn’t worthwhile, either. To get a Turbo-equipped Core i5-650 with the same 3.2GHz base clock speed, you’ll need to spend $180. Turbo Boost can only bring the i5-650 up to 3.46GHz, so you’re looking at a 44% increase in price for less than a 10% jump in clock speed. No thanks.

Why no love for AMD? Because you’re not going to find an Athlon or Phenom CPU in the same price range as the i3-550 that delivers better gaming performance within a comparable thermal envelope. Heat output counts for a lot when you’re stuffing everything into a case the size of a breadbox. So does the availability of Mini-ITX motherboards, and the selection is much better on the Intel side.

Just a few years ago, you’d be lucky to find a Mini-ITX motherboard with a modern CPU socket and a PCI Express x16 graphics card slot. Today, there are plenty of options that meet those requirements. Among them is Gigabyte’s GA-H55N-USB3. As its name implies, the board features SuperSpeed USB ports—a hugely important feature for anyone who uses external storage devices. You also get a couple of full-size DIMM slots, a PCI Express x16 slot, and most of the perks one might expect from a standard ATX motherboard.

Only Zotac also offers USB 3.0 in a Mini-ITX LGA1156 motherboard, and you’ll pay $25 more for it than the Gigabyte’s $105 asking price. The Zotac mobo does add integrated Wi-Fi, which may be worth the premium for some. However, we think gamers will be perfectly happy with a wired Gigabit Ethernet connection. A rat’s nest of Cat 5 tangled cabling is a staple of LAN parties, after all.

If this memory kit looks familiar, that’s because it’s the same one we recommended for the Couch Potato. We don’t need anything more exotic for the Roadster. There’s no sense in skimping on a 2GB kit, either. Our Mini-ITX motherboard has only two DIMM slots, so we can’t start with a dual-channel config and add modules down the road.

When AMD released its 6800-series Radeons, the company insisted that Nvidia’s retaliatory price cuts to the GeForce GTX 460 family wouldn’t last. Somewhat of the opposite has been true. The price of cards in the Radeon HD 6800 series have crept upward, while GTX 460s have held steady and in some cases become cheaper. Betcha can’t guess what we’ve included in the Roadster.

Ok, you probably can. The GeForce GTX 460 is the best mid-range graphics card around, and it’s only looks more attractive after the arrival of AMD’s Cayman-based Radeon HD 6900 series. That Cayman GPU features a number of enhancements that move AMD closer to what Nvidia offers with GPUs based on its Fermi architecture. The Fermi-derived GeForce GTX 460 has all that goodness, while the Barts GPU behind direct rivals in the the Radeon HD 6800 series does not.

The Asus GTX 460 we’ve chosen has a full gig of memory to give us a little headroom for future games and higher resolutions. We’ve found the card’s DirectCU cooler to be especially quiet, at least when compared with some alternatives in this price range. In the past, we’ve recommended spending a little more on one of EVGA’s FTW variants, whose higher clock speeds yield better performance. Newegg’s user reviews for those models are littered with one-star ratings and complaints of dead or unstable cards, though. If you want higher frame rates, we suggest checking out the alternative graphics option on the next page.

Two-platter, 7,200-RPM hard drives tend to offer the tastiest blend of performance, acoustics, and cost per gigabyte. Simply put, Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 is the best one around. The Spinpoint’s performance is second only to that of Western Digital’s Caviar Black. But the Caviar is much louder than the Spinpoint under load, which is why we named the Samsung drive our Editor’s Choice among two-platter terabytes. The Spinpoint has become rather popular in our system guides ever since. You can’t go wrong for only $60.

Our Mini-ITX enclosure lacks a 5.25″ external drive bay, so we’re stuck using a slim optical drive. This Sony model looks like the best bet among admittedly few options. Blu-ray discs aren’t supported, but the drive can burn CDs and DVDs. It also has more positive reviews than the only cheaper offering listed on Newegg.

Enclosure and power
Compromises are inevitable in the Mini-ITX world. Fortunately, the Silverstone SG07 makes fewer of them than any other Mini-ITX enclosure we’ve encountered. Not only can it swallow gargantuan dual-slot graphics cards more than a foot in length, but it also has a 600W ATX PSU equipped to power them. Up top, a filtered 180-mm exhaust fan provides plenty of cooling for a beefier CPU. Generous venting for graphics cards? Check. Dual internal 2.5″ bays for solid-state storage? Check. Sinister aesthetic to maintain your street cred with the LAN party crowd? Yep.

What really impresses us about the SG07 is that it can house an incredibly powerful system despite being no bigger than a large toaster. That’s huge—or, rather, not. The $210 asking price is a little expensive, but keep in mind that you’re getting a 600W PSU as a part of the deal. That power will come in handy should you want to plug in a faster CPU or graphics card, which is just what we’ve done on the next page.

Roadster alternatives
Want to pop the Roadster’s hood and tinker a little? Here are a couple of upgrades designed to give the system a boost in power, gaming prowess, and overall responsiveness. Your hands won’t get greasy, we promise.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-760 $204.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 6950 $309.99
Storage Corsair Nova V128 $219.99

For a little more than $200, the Core i5-760 serves up four Nehalem-derived cores clocked at 2.8GHz. Turbo Boost will kick them up to 3.33GHz when thermals permit, so we may not lose any ground to the i3-550 in lightly multithreaded apps. Anything that takes advantage of more than a couple of cores should be much faster on the i5-760.

At this point, our Editor in Chief would like to point out that spending a little more on a CPU with Hyper-Threading support will improve performance in heavily multithreaded apps by as much as 30%. If you use such applications often, by all means consider stepping up to the $280 Core i7-870 or the unlocked i7-875K at $320. Hyper-Threading isn’t going to offer much assistance to four physical cores in games, so we’re happy to put the money we saved with the i5-760 into a faster graphics card.

It’s tempting to throw the GeForce GTX 580 into the Roadster just because we can. If you run a 30″ monitor, that’s probably not a bad idea. But, since it’s unlikely you’ll be dragging a display that large to LAN parties, we’ve gone with something a little more reasonable: the Radeon HD 6950. Based on AMD’s latest Cayman GPU, the 6950 is rather unique in that it lacks direct competition at $300. The GeForce GTX 460 and Radeon HD 6870 cost considerably less, while the GeForce GTX 570 will run you a good $50-70 more.

Neither the GeForce GTX 570 nor the more exotic 580 can match the 6950’s 2GB of video memory. The 6950 also draws less power and is quieter than both of those cards. And it has more display outputs: five in total, which is enough to enable all kinds of Eyefinity configurations.

Like most Radeons, the XFX model we’ve selected sticks with AMD’s stock clock speeds. However, XFX kicks in “double” lifetime warranty coverage that’s better than what you get with the other Radeons.

Our primary recommendations fill out most of the SG07’s internal drive bays, but there are still a couple of 2.5-inchers available. We couldn’t resist throwing in an SSD. For a moment, a pair of budget SSDs in a RAID 0 array was tempting. However, the lack of TRIM support for solid-state members of RAID arrays prompted makes the single-drive route a better option.

For the Roadster’s OS and applications drive, we’ve selected Corsair’s Indilinx-based Nova V128. Indilinx’s Barefoot controller has been around for a while and really hit its stride when TRIM support arrived with Windows 7. Based on our latest value numbers, the Nova V128 is one of the best deals around. The drive’s overall performance is second only to Crucial’s RealSSD C300, yet the Nova costs considerably less per gigabyte. 128GB should be plenty for Windows 7 and a handful of games. Remember, you’ll still have a terabyte of capacity on the Spinpoint.

The Editor’s Choice
What we’d build if it were our money

Every time we put together one of our usual guides, we end up thinking that the system we’d actually build sits somewhere between the Utility Player and Sweeter Spot configs, usually with a few of the alternatives thrown in for good measure. That system looks a whole lot like the Editor’s Choice, which is designed to be a desktop workhorse with credible gaming chops and a solid storage subsystem. Since consensus is a difficult thing to achieve among picky editors, we have a healthy helping of alternative choices on the following page.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-760 $204.99
Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus $29.99
Motherboard Asus P7P55D-E Pro $179.99
Memory Mushkin Enhanced 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $41.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 460 1GB DirectCU $209.99
Storage Corsair Nova V128 $219.99
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $59.99
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $59.99
LG WH10LS30K Blu-ray burner $79.99
Audio Asus Xonar DG $29.99
Power supply Seasonic M12II 520W Bronze $74.99
Enclosure Corsair Graphite Series 600T $159.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1,421.88

Intel’s budget quads have been popular choices in our system guides for some time. The Core i5-760 nicely illustrates why. For just a smidgen over $200, the i5-760 delivers four Nehalem-derived cores clocked at 2.8GHz. Thanks to Turbo Boost, those cores are capable of scaling up to 3.33GHz when thermals are favorable. You may not get Hyper-Threading or an unlocked upper multiplier, but those perks aren’t strictly necessary, especially since we’re quite comfortable overclocking the old-fashioned way.

At this point, AMD aficionados will point out that six-core Phenoms can be had for $25 less than the i5-760. The Phenom’s associated chipsets also offer native 6Gbps SATA ports and full-speed PCIe 2.0 lanes—features missing from Intel’s current crop of core-logic offerings. While nice additions, those upgrades aren’t enough to tempt us away from Lynnfield’s superior performance, low power draw, and excellent overclocking potential.

Speaking of overclocking, you’ll want to upgrade Intel’s stock cooler before turning the screws on the i5-760. Even at stock speeds, we’d opt for aftermarket cooling. Our current favorite is Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 tower, which features a beefy 120-mm cooling fan and a truly stunning number of positive user reviews on Newegg. For only $30, you’d be hard pressed to find something better.

A holdover from our last Sweeter Spot build, Asus’ P7P55D-E Pro has become our mid-range P55 motherboard of choice. It has a little bit of everything: a secondary x16 slot if you want to mix things up with multi-GPU configs, 6Gbps SATA and USB 3.0, plus the usual mix of last-gen peripherals. This is hardly a unique formula in the world of mid-range P55 boards. Asus’ version is just a little bit more refined than everyone else’s. In particular, we’re fond of the company’s BIOS-level fan speed controls, which are better than what’s currently being offered by Gigabyte, MSI, and others.

You can find cheaper P55 boards with similar feature sets. However, we’re inclined to spend a little extra on this model for several reasons. Cheaper P55 boards tend to pipe fewer PCI Express lanes to their secondary x16 slots, and that can affect performance with multi-GPU configurations. Asus has also rigged the board to maintain the speed of its USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA peripherals when the second x16 slot is in use—a feature missing on many P55 mobos. Take into account the year of advance replacement service that Asus offers as a part of the warranty coverage for all its “Pro” models, and the P7P55D-E looks very sweet indeed.

Yep, that’s the same 4GB Mushkin kit from the Couch Potato and Roadster builds. When we find an affordable kit from a reputable manufacturer with a good reputation, we tend to stick with it. There’s no need to equip this system with more than 4GB of RAM, although it’s a little tempting with current prices.

We’re reusing components again. This time, it’s the Asus GeForce GTX 460 1GB from the Roadster. Nvidia has a history of hitting the mid-range sweet spot with classics like the GeForce4 Ti 4200 and GeForce 8800 GT. The GeForce GTX 460 is too early in its life to be mentioned in the same breath, but it’s already more attractive than Radeon rivals in the 6800 series. We also quite like Asus’ DirectCU cooler, whose fan spins quietly while maintaining low GPU temperatures. Departures from Nvidia’s traditionally excellent reference coolers don’t always work out, making this custom design particularly impressive.

Among our editors, most run 24″ monitors with 1920×1200 display resolutions. The GeForce GTX 460 1GB has more than enough horsepower to drive the latest games at that resolution and with most if not all of the eye candy turned all the way up. However, if you’re rocking a 30″ panel like Scott, you’d best consider one of the graphics alternatives on the next page.

One could argue that 2010 has been the year of the SSD. Prices have continued on a downward trend, competition is booming in an increasingly crowded market, TRIM has nicely sidestepped the block-rewrite penalty, and it’s no longer uncommon to see solid-state storage deployed as a desktop’s OS and applications drive. We’d plunk down for one, as well. 128GB drives like the Nova V128 are affordable indulgences. The difference in performance versus a speedy 7,200-RPM drive may not be substantial with day-to-day tasks, but game levels will definitely load faster, and the SSD should be more responsive under disk-intensive multitasking.

We’re going to need some secondary storage to back the Nova. To provide a simple layer of redundancy, we’ve opted for a couple of Spinpoint F3s in a mirrored RAID 1 array. Initially, we had a pair of low-power 2TB drives as our primary recommendation. However, four-platter drives like those are quite a bit louder than the two-platter Spinpoints. With network-attached storage easily accessible, we don’t really need the space. Besides, the Spinpoint’s higher spindle speed will come in handy for games and data that spill onto the mechanical array.

Blu-ray burners have become affordable enough that we’d put one inside our ideal desktop. This LG model is among the cheapest you’ll find. Hundreds of Newegg user reviews rate it highly, and you get a copy of PowerDVD 9 plus some dorky 3D glasses for free.

We really, really like the Xonar DG. This $30 sound card offers a big step up in playback quality over integrated motherboard audio. You don’t need exceptionally fancy headphones or speakers to tell the difference, either.

Power Supply
Our primary picks don’t include a lot of power-hungry components. A 520W PSU like Seasonic’s M12II 520W is all the power we need for this particular configuration. We want this PSU in our desktop for the same reasons we’d put it in the living room: modular cables, a high efficiency rating, Seasonic’s focus on quiet cooling, an affordable price tag, and five years of warranty coverage.

If you’re contemplating upgrades that call for more wattage, feel free to flip the page to our alternatives section. We’ve kicked things up to 750W with a Silencer redux.

An Editor’s Choice winner back in September, Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T remains our favorite mid-tower enclosure. The 600T takes the best features from Corsair’s massive Obsidian Series 800D tower and puts them in a compact chassis with a few new tricks up its sleeve. We wouldn’t go without the cut-out in the motherboard tray that provides access to the underside of the CPU socket, the mounting options for 2.5″ SSDs, or the USB 3.0 ports up front. An easy-to-work-in interior and oodles of cable routing options will make assembling the Editor’s Choice inside the 600T a pleasure and future upgrades a breeze.

Oh, and did we mention that the 600T’s fans move plenty of air while making very little noise? The case is a looker, too, with a matte black finish that’s nicely understated. $160 isn’t all that much to spend on a case if you look at it as an investment. One this good will last through several upgrade cycles.

Editor’s Choice alternatives
Our primary Editor’s Choice config is a pretty sweet build. Still, there’s room for improvement if you want to do some serious overclocking or build in more graphics headroom to drive higher display resolutions.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-875K $319.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 570 $359.99
XFX Radeon HD 6950 $309.99
Storage Intel X25-M 120GB $229.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $99.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $99.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $84.99
PSU PC Power & Cooling Silencer Mk II 750W $119.99

Intel is on a path to restrict overclocking to K-series chips with unlocked upper multipliers. Fortunately, these K-series processors don’t carry jaw-dropping premiums like Intel’s Extreme Editions. $320 isn’t unreasonable for a quad-core CPU with Hyper-Threading, a 2.93GHz base frequency, and an unlocked multiplier made more interesting by the ability to manipulate Turbo frequencies. We hit over 4GHz with our Core i7-875K, and getting there couldn’t have been easier.

Although the GeForce GTX 460 1GB is good enough for a 24″ monitor, we’d step up to something fancier to drive a 30″ panel. There’s no shortage of new graphics options from which to choose. AMD and Nvidia have both released fresh cards that creep into high-end territory, and which one is best depends largely on how much you have to spend.

Around $300, there’s really no competition for the Radeon HD 6950. In fact, you won’t find a competing GeForce at any price that can match the 6950’s wealth of display outputs and 2GB of video memory. You’ll recognize this XFX card from our Roadster alternatives, and we like it just as much here. The “double” lifetime warranty, which covers cards through their first resale, is an awfully nice bonus.

The Radeon HD 6970 is the faster of AMD’s new Cayman-based graphics cards. However, it’s a more expensive proposition that bumps into the GeForce GTX 570 north of the $350 mark. The GeForce offers comparable overall performance while generating less noise and drawing fewer watts. We’ll take it—specifically, this EVGA model. The EVGA card costs $10 more than the cheapest GTX 570s but offers lifetime warranty coverage in return. Sold.

The diverse range of options in the solid-state storage market begs for an alternative to our OS and system drive. Crucial’s RealSSD C300 seems to be the fastest drive around, but the 128GB model is quite expensive at $280. Drives based on SandForce’s SF-1200 controller are considerably more affordable. We’re intrigued by SandForce’s secret cocktail of compression and encryption techniques; however, the drop in performance we observed when switching from a 100GB drive with 28% overprovisioning to a 120GB model with the more typical 7% overprovisioning is enough to give us pause.

Besides, there’s another intriguing option at 120GB: a new X25-M from Intel. New, in this case, refers only to the drive’s capacity. The latest X25-M doesn’t offer anything fresh on the controller or flash fronts. It does carry performance ratings that match those of the 160GB X25-M, so this new model should be plenty quick.

On the mechanical front, we’re sticking with a RAID 1 array to provide redundant secondary storage. The array is no substitute for a strong backup solution, but it will let us survive a mechanical drive failure without losing data. Windows 7’s built-in backup software makes it easy to create a backup image of our OS and system drive to guard against catastrophic SSD failure, as well. Should you wish to store that and other large chunks of data, we suggest ditching the terabyte Spinpoints in favor of 2TB Caviar Greens. The low-power drives will be substantially quieter than four-platter mechanical drives with equivalent capacities at 7,200-RPM.

In a perfect world, every motherboard’s integrated audio codec would support real-time Dolby Digital Live or DTS encoding to allow gamers to pass multichannel bitstreams to compatible speakers or receivers over a single S/PDIF cable. Alas, such implementations are few and far between. Our Asus motherboard isn’t equipped for the task, so we’ve called up the Xonar DX to fill the gap. The DX also happens to have exceptional sound quality if you’re going to be plugging in analog speakers, and it supports two more output channels than the DG from our primary recommendations.

Power supply
We don’t like to cut things too close on the power front. If you’re going to be dipping into serious overclocking or graphics upgrades, we’d suggest spending a little extra on PC Power & Cooling’s Silencer redux. The original Silencer 750W was an Editor’s Choice winner and a staple of quite a few system guides before being phased out in favor of the Mk II. This new model looks to be just as good. Not only does it have 80 Plus Silver certification, you also get seven years of warranty coverage. Nearly 90% of the Newegg user reviews give the new Silencer five stars, and the rest settle on four. At $120, the Mk II looks like a pretty good deal to us.

Straight-up Excess
Good sense gets thrown out the window

The Double-Stuff Workstation has been a prominent member of our system guides for quite some time. It started out as a dual-socket affair but migrated to a single CPU as core counts rose. The latest versions have featured six-core Gulftown silicon that’s also available in Xeon packaging designed for multi-socket systems. As you might imagine, the prospect of a dozen-core workstation is too tempting to resist. Forget budgets, prudence, and even alternatives. This final build is Straight-up Excess all around.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Xeon X5680 $1,690.76
Intel Xeon X5680 $1,690.76
Cooler Noctua NH-U12DX $79.99
Noctua NH-U12DX $79.99
Motherboard EVGA Classified SR-2 $589.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 12GB (3 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $219.99
Corsair Vengeance 12GB (3 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $219.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 580 $524.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 580 $524.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 256GB $539.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB $190.24
Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB $190.24
LG WH10LS30K Blu-ray burner $79.99
Audio Asus Xonar Xense $279.99
Power supply Corsair AX1200 1200W $289.99
Enclosure Lian Li PC-V2120B $429.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $7,621.88

The fastest desktop CPU on the planet is Intel’s Core i7-980X Extreme Edition. With six Gulftown cores clocked at 3.33GHz, this monster of a processor makes an excellent case for single-socket workstations. But wouldn’t you rather have two of ’em? Intel has just the thing in the Xeon X5680, which uses the same Gulftown silicon, has an identical 3.33GHz clock speed, and is primed for dual-socket motherboards. Let’s just not talk about the cost, which is nearly $1,700 per CPU!

Amusingly, spending that much on a retail-boxed Xeon doesn’t get you a stock cooler. We have to supply two of our own, and we’ll need something special. Modern Xeon sockets are designed to have heatsinks screwed directly into the motherboard. Most of the aftermarket solutions seem to be designed for low-profile servers that don’t need to be particularly quiet. We’d rather not compromise noise levels, so we’re going with a couple of Noctua towers with massive 120-mm cooling fans. We were impressed with a version of this cooler designed for desktop sockets, so we think it’s a safe bet here.

EVGA’s Classified SR-2 motherboard is the sort of product that seems designed primarily to make a big splash at trade shows. This is more than just a dual-socket Xeon board; it’s the unlikely marriage of enthusiast sensibilities with modern workstation hardware, a combination that’s truly greater than the sum of its parts. EVGA had to come up with its own HPTX motherboard standard because the Extended ATX form factor wasn’t big enough to squeeze in dual CPU sockets, a dozen DIMM slots, and seven physical x16 slots. There’s enough PCI Express 2.0 bandwidth on board to run 16 lanes of connectivity through four of those slots. You can also opt for a single full-speed x16 slot, while the rest get eight lanes each.

Unlike buttoned-down workstation boards for the corporate set, the Classified is lavished with 6Gbps SATA and SuperSpeed USB connectivity. Going without in such an expensive system would be uncivilized. So would giving up overclocking options, which the Classified provides for those crazy enough to void the warranty on a couple of $1,700 processors.

What’s this? A moment of restraint? We’re only going with 24GB of memory split between two three-DIMM kits. That nicely covers all the available memory channels while leaving room for future upgrades. These new Corsair Vengeance modules are rated for speeds up to 1600MHz on just 1.5V, and we expect there’s some additional clock speed headroom available if you push the voltage a little.

The GeForce GTX 580 is the fastest single graphics card around. Period. Put two of them together, and you have the fastest multi-GPU tandem on the planet. We can’t think of a better graphics payload for this build short of adding more GTX 580s. We’ve found that SLI doesn’t scale as gracefully up to three and four cards, though. Two will do for today.

All of the GeForce GTX 580s available on Newegg use the same Nvidia reference design. Only the Galaxy and Gigabyte models are actually in stock right now, and the latter costs a few dollars more. We’re inclined to pay the premium because the Gigabyte card offers an additional year of warranty coverage. Small differences in price kind of melt away when you’re dealing with a system of this caliber, especially when there are other differentiating factors to consider.

Our motherboard has 6Gbps SATA ports, so why not add something that can actually use them: Crucial’s RealSSD C300? This solid-state drive uses second-gen ONFI flash memory and a Marvell controller to achieve the best overall performance we’ve seen from a consumer-grade SSD. The 256GB model is actually more affordable, at least on a cost-per-gigabyte basis, than the 128GB variant. Since we have no budget for this build, we’ve gone for broke with the 256GB drive. We’d be tempted to add a second for an ultra-fast RAID 0 array if only TRIM were supported in such a configuration.

We’ll still need secondary storage to back up the RealSSD. For this role, we’ve called up an old favorite in Western Digital’s Caviar Black 2TB. This is the fastest 2TB hard drive around, and while it might be louder than low-power alternatives with slower spindle speeds, our system isn’t sacrificing performance elsewhere. Keeping these drives in a mirrored RAID 1 array gives us a reassuring dose of redundancy. The five-year warranty offered with Caviar Black drives is also a nice step up from the three years of coverage that’s typical of desktop drives and SSDs.

The Blu-ray burner from our Editor’s Choice build makes a second appearance here. Next to the other components in the system, adding this accessory doesn’t seem excessive at all.

As much as we like the Xonar DX, it’s still missing a few features available on high-end Xonars, such as headphone amplification, 1/4″ jacks for fancy headsets, and replaceable OPAMPs. All those extras are present on the Xonar Xense, which is the first Xonar equipped to handle high-end headphones and multichannel analog speakers. Speaking of analog output, the Xense’s signal quality is excellent. Asus doesn’t mess with the output to amplify vocals and other instrumentation, resulting in a balanced overall sound.

The Xense is a special edition of sorts. To celebrate three years of Xonar sound cards, Asus is bundling it with quite a nice PC-350 gaming headset from Sennheiser. Considering what the PC-350 costs on its own, $280 is a pretty good deal for the pair.

Power Supply
Scotty, we’re gonna need more power. The realm of kilowatt PSUs doesn’t seem so silly when you’re talking about a dozen CPU cores, two of the fastest graphics cards around, six high-density memory modules, multiple hard drives, and no doubt the burning desire to upgrade when you encounter someone with a faster system. To keep this mix of high-end components fed with clean power, we’re calling on Corsair’s AX1200. $290 sounds like a lot to pay for a PSU, but this one packs 1200W of capacity and a whopping six 8-pin PCIe power connectors. The 140-mm cooling fan should be relatively quiet, too.

We’ve been pretty impressed with all the Corsair PSUs we’ve used over the years. This new Professional Series looks every bit as good, and the overwhelmingly positive Newegg user reviews seem to agree.

Very few cases support the oversized HPTX dimensions of our dual-socket motherboard. Lian Li’s PC-V2120B is one of a handful that does, and it has plenty of other attractive features. Up front, there are four USB 3.0 ports alongside eSATA and audio jacks. Through the case’s internals, you’ll five large-diameter fans plus mounting holes for three more. There’s also room for four 2.5″ drives and more than 14 inches of graphics card clearance for our GTX 580s.

At over two feet tall, the PC-V2120B’s profile is as imposing as this system’s performance potential. The case’s all-aluminum construction looks exquisite, too, and Lian Li has lined the front and side panels with noise-reducing foam. We couldn’t have a beast this expensive be noisy and unattractive, now could we?

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 Roadster or Editor’s Choice 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.) Opting for a smaller, $200 display might make sense for the Roadster, but you’re really not getting that much more portability. We’d rather enjoy games on a slightly larger screen with a better-looking panel.

We recommend something bigger, like Dell’s 27″ UltraSharp U2711 or 30″ UltraSharp U3011, for use with our opulent workstation or an upgraded Editor’s Choice build. Don’t be shy about adding more than one screen, either.

By the way, we should point out that the Radeon HD 6000-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.

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 580 SLI setup in our last 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.

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.

We hope you’ve enjoyed some of the new directions this special edition of our system guide has pursued. Some of those tangents, like the Roadster and Couch Potato, are builds we’re likely to explore again in the coming year. First, we’re going to hold our breath to see what Sandy Bridge has in store. Intel’s next-gen CPUs will surely shake up our usual mix of desktop builds, and we’re curious to see just how many of our configs will be affected by their arrival.

Although Sandy Bridge will surely alter the landscape on the CPU and motherboard fronts, we may not see much movement elsewhere. AMD is working on a new high-end card with dual Cayman GPUs, but we’re unsure what else is in store in the graphics department. Perhaps we’ll see some shuffling if prices fall on 6800-series Radeons.

We’re also due for a few new SSDs and mechanical drives. Those should start tickling out soon, and I’m sure we’ll have more of an idea what to expect after the Consumer Electronics Show in a couple of weeks. CES is sure to be brimming with other interesting tidbits looking for a spot in our next batch of system guides, as well.

Geoff Gasior

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