TR’s March 2011 system guide

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My, what an awkward position we’re in. We’re overdue for a regular update to our system guide, yet Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors are missing in action due to an unforeseen chipset bug that took motherboards off store shelves completely. Worse, replacements aren’t due out in volume until late March or April, which is an awfully long time to wait—especially if all of this year’s game releases are making you itch for an upgrade.

We’ve attempted to minimize the damage by restructuring our recommended builds somewhat. We’ve added a $300 configuration based on AMD’s Brazos platform, which has no competition from Sandy Bridge so far, and merged our regular $800 and $1,200 builds into what we call the Grand Placeholder, a system meant for users who can’t afford to wait for bug-free Sandy mobos. Our other builds, the $500 Econobox and $2,800-ish Double-Stuff Workstation, aren’t really affected by the shortage, since the processors they feature haven’t been rendered obsolete by Intel’s new generation of chips.

The result, we hope, is a sensible survival guide to this troubled era for PC enthusiasts. As you peruse the next few pages, you might come to realize, as we did, that living without Sandy isn’t an impossible ordeal… and that there are enough new graphics cards, solid-state drives, and other goodies, not to mention price cuts, to make building a PC today not just possible, but entirely reasonable.

Rules and regulations

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

Over the next few pages, you’ll see us recommend and discuss components for four sample builds. Those builds have target budgets of $300, $500, $1,000, and a little under $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 Newegg.com” 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 Compact Fusion Reactor
Fusion that isn’t just a load of hot air

Sandy Bridge’s troubles don’t affect all categories of PCs. In the price range of this lilliputian build, only uber-cheap, low-power CPUs can compete—and there’s some new hotness from AMD that shakes up this segment almost as much as Sandy Bridge does more expensive systems.

Component Item Price
CPU/board ASRock E350M1 $109.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (1 x 4GB) DDR3-1333 $41.99
Graphics Integrated $0
Storage WD Scorpio Black 250GB $49.99
Samsung SN-S083F slim DVD-RW $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Case/PSU Antec ISK 300-65 $69.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $298.95

Processor, motherboard, and graphics

Integration is the name of the game with AMD’s new Brazos platform. Much like other Mini-ITX Brazos motherboard we’ve looked at, ASRock’s E350M1 incorporates a Zacate processor with dual 1.6GHz cores and DirectX 11 integrated graphics on a cute little 6.7″ x 6.7″ circuit board. The only difference is that, with a $109.99 asking price, the E350M1 is quite a bit cheaper than the competition.

Don’t let the low price fool you, though. The E350M1 has a surprisingly complete array of features: one physical PCI Express x16 slot, four internal Serial ATA ports, six USB 2.0 ports, one eSATA port, and a choice of DVI, HDMI, and VGA display outputs. We wish the heatsink covering both the Zacate CPU and its Hudson I/O hub weren’t crowned by a tiny fan, since such small fans can and often do get noisy over time, but active cooling seems hard to avoid among Mini-ITX Brazos mobos right now.

Unfortunately, the E350M1 unexpectedly went out of stock as we were writing this guide. We think it’s almost too good a deal to pass up, but if you can’t wait, check out the next page for a slightly pricier alternative mobo that’s actually in stock.

Memory

DDR3 prices have sunk so low that, even for a bargain-basement build like this one, we’d be remiss not to include 4GB of RAM. Since Zacate doesn’t have a dual-channel memory controller, we’ve gone with a single, high-density 4GB module, courtesy of Kingston. A dual-channel kit would cost about the same, but it’d fill both of the ASRock board’s DIMM slots. This way, if you ever feel the urge to upgrade your $300 pint-sized PC with 8GB of RAM, you can. Neat, huh?

Just remember to install a 64-bit operating system if you want to use 4GB of RAM or more. 32-bit OSes have enough address space for 4GB of RAM, but that figure is an upper limit for all memory in a system—including video RAM, which will matter if you ever feel like chucking a real graphics card into the Compact Fusion Reactor. 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. We’re inclined to echo that recommendation. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.

Storage

Our chosen enclosure doesn’t have room for full-sized hard drives and optical drives, so we’ve had to opt for mobile offerings. On the mechanical storage front, WD’s Scorpio Black 250GB looks to us like a sensible choice, considering its 7,200-RPM spindle speed, low price, five-year warranty, and overwhelmingly positive user reviews on Newegg. If you think 250GB is cutting it a little close, check our alternatives on the next page for a higher-capacity option.

On the optical side of things, Samsung’s slim SN-S083F drive appears to be an equally capable candidate, with DVD burning capabilities, Serial ATA connectivity, good user reviews, and a surprisingly affordable price tag.

Enclosure and power supply

And now, for a teeny little case to tie all of this hardware together. We’ve used boxy Mini-ITX cases before, but Antec’s ISK 300-65 takes the form factor to the next level, featuring an external power-supply brick and much slimmer dimensions: just 12.9″ x 3.8″ x 8.7″. That leaves room for only a pair of 2.5″ hard drives and a slim optical drives, but it makes for a svelte PC that’s easy to tuck away out of sight. Antec still provides space for a low-profile expansion card, too, which will come in handy as we explore home-theater-PC expansion in our alternatives section on the next page.

Compact Fusion Reactor alternatives

With its DirectX 11 integrated graphics and UVD3 video decoding logic, AMD’s Brazos platform—and, by extension, the Compact Fusion Reactor—is perfectly suited for use as a home-theater PC. We just need to add a TV tuner, some extra storage, and a nice wireless keyboard.

Component Item Price
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-E350N-USB3 $149.99
TV tuner Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-2250 $129.99
Storage WD Scorpio Black 750GB $69.99
Keyboard and

mouse

SIIG JK-WR0312-S1 $49.99
VisionTek Candyboard Black $78.99

Motherboard

Before we get into HTPC gear, let’s first throw in a recommendation for Gigabyte’s GA-E350N-USB3, which has the merit of being available right now—unlike ASRock’s E350M1. The Gigabyte mobo has much in common with its ASRock cousin, but it trades two USB 2.0 ports for USB 3.0 ports and lacks external Serial ATA connectivity. Considering the transfer speeds enabled by USB 3.0, that’s probably a net gain. The only real downside here is the $149.99 price tag, which is a little high—and doesn’t get you a passive cooler. Like we said on the previous page, small fans are the unfortunate norm on Brazos boards right now.

TV tuner

Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR-2250 seems to be one of the most popular tuner cards on Newegg, and it’s not hard to see why. Its low-profile circuit board enables compatibility with slim enclosures like our Antec ISK 300, yet it still features dual tuners with support for the ATSC, ClearQAM, and NTSC standards. There’s also MPEG-2 and MPEG-1 hardware encoding capabilities, a PCI Express x1 interface, and a Windows Media Center remote with a bundled receiver. Provided you set up everything correctly on the software end, you should be able to use this bad boy to record dual high-definition streams.

Hard drive

Recording video on the Compact Fusion Reactor may call for some additional storage capacity. That capacity could come in the form of any old external hard drive, which you could connect to the ASRock board’s eSATA port or the Gigabyte board’s USB 3.0 ports. Or, it could come in the form of WD’s Scorpio Black 750GB, which recently earned a TR Recommended award for its excellent performance, relatively large capacity, and five-year warranty.

Keyboard

We’ve singled out two candidates for driving the Compact Fusion Reactor from your couch—you know, when you leave the cushy confines of Windows Media Center (or its Linux counterparts) and need to get stuff done.

The first, SIIG’s JK-WR0312-S1, looks more or less like the bottom half of a laptop. There are 88 standard keys, a touchpad, a palm rest, and some media keys. The whole thing runs on a pair of AAA batteries; just plug in the USB receiver, and you’re good to go.

Our second, pricier pick might appeal to smartphone users. VisionTek’s Candyboard Black also has a touchpad and QWERTY keyboard, but it’s considerably smaller: only 5.8″ x 2.25″ x 0.25″, with tiny keys to match. We don’t have first-hand experience with this device, so we’re more hesitant to recommend it on the off-chance that its ergonomics might not be up to snuff. Still, the Newegg user reviews look decent, and if you don’t want a full-sized keyboard taking room on your coffee table, this device is certainly worth considering.

The Econobox
Because speed doesn’t have to cost a fortune

As our second-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 Phenom II X4 840 $109.99
Motherboard Asus M4A87TD EVO $109.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $43.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 460 768MB $149.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $64.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $18.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec One Hundred $59.99
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $44.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $602.92

Processor

There is a silver lining to the Sandy Bridge chipset snafu: AMD processors have gotten a lot cheaper all of a sudden. Thanks to AMD’s new pricing, we can outfit the Econobox with a Phenom II X4 840 processor for only $109. Now, this chip’s lack of L3 cache and Propus die really make it an honorary member of the Athlon II X4 series, but its 3.2GHz clock speed still places it above that series’ official flagship, the Athlon II X4 645—and, believe it or not, it’s actually cheaper right now.

The Phenom II X4 840 really does packs a heck of a punch. Just check out our video encoding benchmarks, where this CPU manages to keep up with much more expensive quad-core offerings from Intel… not to mention some of AMD’s own six-core Phenom IIs. The Econobox has never had it so good.

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 already had an overall performance-per-dollar edge over the Core i3—and this Phenom II X4 is essentially a faster, cheaper Athlon II X4. AMD also enjoys a more compelling platform right now, with cheaper motherboards that have native support for 6Gbps Serial ATA. Speaking of which…

Motherboard

Thanks to AMD’s new SB850 south bridge, our Asus M4A87TD EVO motherboard offers six third-gen SATA ports, a number unequaled even by top-of-the-line Intel motherboards. (Yes, we realize Intel’s Sandy Bridge chipsets have quicker native SATA 6Gpbs connectivity, but they only offer two ports of it.) The rest of the M4A87TD EVO’s features are also remarkable considering the price tag: dual USB 3.0 ports, external Serial ATA connectivity, FireWire, and two physical PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots, although one of those only has four lanes of connectivity.

Gigabyte offers a similar motherboard with additional eSATA and FireWire ports, but Asus offers superior fan-control functionality for a similar price. We don’t know about you, but we like our PCs as quiet as they can be.

Memory

Since the Econobox’s Phenom II X4 processor has a dual-channel memory controller, we’ve opted for a 4GB kit—specifically, one of Kingston’s value-oriented offerings. This two-DIMM ValueRAM kit is rated for operation at 1333MHz with a 1.5V voltage setting, which should ensure both speed and power efficiency.

Graphics

Graphics card prices are also on a downward trend, which is a blessing for the Econobox. MSI’s N460GTX Twin Frozer II SOC, a custom-cooled flavor of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 460 768MB with higher-than-normal clock speeds, can be had for a scant $149.99. Keep in mind plain-Jane GTX 460 768MB cards can happily handle demanding games like Metro 2033 at 1680×1050 or above with antialiasing and anisotropic filtering enabled.

We’ve chosen this particular MSI card because of its low price, higher-than-average clocks, and the bundled coupon for free copies of Mafia II and Just Cause 2. We trust MSI to provide good warranty support throughout the card’s three-year coverage, as well.

Storage

Based on the findings of our last 7,200-RPM, 3.5″ 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. The Samsung does have a shorter, three-year warranty (the Caviar Black gets five years of coverage), but three years is pretty much the standard for desktop drives.

For our optical storage option, we’ve taken a liking to Asus’ DRW-24B1ST DVD burner. Not only is it the best-rated DVD burner on Newegg, but it’s also remarkably cheap.

Power supply

As we’ve now noted in several editions of the guide, we’ve given up on an all-in-one case and PSU bundle for the Econobox. Our previous favorite, Antec’s NSK 4482, has an undeniably ugly design and fairly run-of-the-mill expansion capabilities, yet Antec continues to price it around the $100 mark. For a similar amount of dough, we can 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 saves more polar bears than other, comparatively priced units.

Enclosure

Our previous pick, Antec’s Three Hundred enclosure, has given way to the new Antec One Hundred. While it costs the same as its predecessor, the One Hundred offers a number of added conveniences, like cut-outs in the motherboard tray for cable routing and heatsink installation, more front-panel USB ports, liquid-cooling support, and a 2.5″ drive bay for an SSD. Also, the interior has a sleek, black paint job. What’s not to like?

Econobox alternatives

Want to tweak the Econobox with a more overclockable and power-efficient CPU or a different graphics config? Read on.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i3-550 $129.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3 $109.99
Graphics Asus Radeon HD 6850 $179.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB $189.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $89.99

Processor

Intel’s Core i3-550 is tougher to recommend than AMD’s Phenom II X4 840. It costs more, calls for a motherboard from the soon-to-be-extinct LGA1156 generation, and based on what we can infer from benchmarks of slightly slower offerings, should be slower overall when running at stock speeds. However, we expect the Intel CPU to have superior power efficiency and 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 slower than the Phenom II X4 from the previous page, but for all intents and purposes, we’d expect the two parts to have largely similar power draw—they are, after all, based on the same silicon and rated with identical power envelopes.

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.

Motherboard

We wanted an Intel motherboard that would also serve up integrated graphics, for the few non-gamers out there. The Core i3-550 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 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.

Graphics

Price cuts in the graphics card market haven’t just affected the GeForce GTX 460 768MB. For an extra $30 or so, you can step up to one of Asus’ Radeon HD 6850s, which packs 1GB of RAM and can thus deliver smoother frame rates at high resolution and with antialiasing or anisotropic filtering enabled. Some folks are partial to AMD graphics cards, too, and the Radeon is certainly a worthy competitor.

To go a rung up the performance ladder, we suggest grabbing Gigabyte’s GV-N460OC-1GI—a bona-fide GeForce GTX 460 1GB with 336 stream processors, a higher-than-normal (715MHz) core clock speed, and custom cooling. In Metro 2033, we saw a similar GTX 460 1GB card clocked at 725MHz clearly distance itself from both the 6850 and the GTX 460 768MB at 1920×1080.

You might find slightly cheaper variants of these cards on sale if you look hard enough. However, we think Asus and Gigabyte, just like MSI, are better-positioned to offer satisfactory after-sales support than smaller card vendors without established track records.

Storage

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. Remember, however, that this drive costs $25 more than the Samsung and doesn’t have noise levels anywhere near as low.

The Grand Placeholder
So long… I’ve been looking too hard, I’ve been waiting too long

Sandy Bridge’s absence didn’t hurt our first two builds too badly, if at all. As we venture forth into higher price points, however, Sandy’s leave begins to cause problems. That’s why we’ve merged our $800 and $1,200 builds into a single configuration, the Grand Placeholder, which attempts to address a very real question. What do you buy if you want a decently powerful enthusiast rig but, for whatever reason, can’t wait a few weeks for bug-free Sandy Bridge motherboards? What are your options?

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X6 1090T BE
$199.99
Motherboard Asus M4A87TD EVO $109.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $43.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC $249.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $64.99
LG WH10LS30 $90.99
Audio
Asus Xonar DG $29.99
PSU Corsair TX650W $89.99
Enclosure Corsair Graphite Series 600T $139.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1019.91

Processor

We’re aware that Intel still has LGA1156 Core i5 and Core i7 processors on the market. However, we think the Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition is the best deal in this price range, for several reasons.

First, Intel hasn’t replaced the Core i5-760 at $200 with a non-Sandy Bridge part. Our last value comparison told us the Phenom II X6 1055T was quicker overall than the Core i5-750 by a decent margin, which strongly suggests the 1090T has a solid lead over the i5-760. It’s not rocket science; the 1090T’s base clock speed is a whole 400MHz quicker than the 1055T’s, while the i5-760’s is only 133MHz above the i5-750’s. Second, being a Black Edition chip, the Phenom II X6 1090T has an unlocked upper multiplier. That means easy-as-pie overclocking. Aside from Sandy Bridge, Intel offers no similar functionality in a quad-core processor in this price range.

Finally, AMD’s 800-series chipsets are available in cheaper motherboards with more Serial ATA 6Gbps ports than any product on the Intel side. Even the first wave of (buggy) Sandy Bridge motherboards had fewer 6Gbps SATA ports, although those ports did offer better performance.

There’s only one reason we’d still recommend the Core i5-760 at this point, and that’s if you care about power efficiency. The Core i5 still has a lead there. If you really feel it’s worth spending more money and sacrificing some overall performance for, then skip forward a page and check out our alternatives.

Motherboard

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

Memory

4GB of DDR3 RAM should be plenty even for a $1,000 system, so we’re bringing back the DDR3-1333 Kingston kit from the Econobox. Again, be sure you’re running a 64-bit version of Windows if you want to use that memory fully. If you’d like to splurge on an 8GB kit, check the next page for our recommendation.

Graphics

Our budget for the Grand Placeholder gives us two clear choices: the GeForce GTX 560 Ti on the Nvidia side and the Radeon HD 6950 1GB on the AMD side. After much deliberation, we gave our nod to the GeForce—specifically, MSI’s N560GTX-TI Twin Frozr II/OC, which has a custom cooler and above-normal speeds (880MHz for the GPU and 4200MT/s for the memory).

The AMD and Nvidia cards are both capable and should perform similarly overall. However, the MSI GeForce has superior tessellation performance, was quieter than the stock-cooled Radeon HD 6950 1GB we tested, has the usual Nvidia extras (like PhysX, CUDA, and 3D Vision), and is available with a free coupon for Just Cause 2 and Mafia II. In short, it’s a sweeter deal pretty much all around. That said, we’ve decided to accommodate those who prefer Radeons with our alternative recommendation on the next page.

Storage
Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 returns from the Econobox. We didn’t give this drive our Editor’s Choice award on a whim; it’s a fantastic offering with a unique blend of great desktop performance, low noise levels, and attractive pricing. Our only nitpick 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.

Blu-ray burners have become pretty affordable, so much so that LG’s WH10LS30 is a shoo-in for the Grand Placeholder at $90. Hundreds of Newegg user reviews rate it highly, and you get a copy of PowerDVD 9 plus some dorky 3D glasses in the box.

Audio

We’re bracing for angry comments from the same handful of sound-card haters as we write this, but it has to be done. This is a $1,000 PC; Asus’ Xonar DG raises the price by a paltry 3%, and in return, it delivers starkly superior sound quality with any halfway decent set of speakers or headphones. In our blind listening tests, the difference between the Xonar and Realtek onboard audio was immediately noticeable with an $85 pair of Sennheiser HD555 headphones. We’re hardly trying to push high-end audiophile gear here. The simple reality is that onboard audio codecs on the majority of motherboards still suck, even when compared to uber-cheap sound cards like this one.

Power supply

If you’ve resigned yourself to buying a system now rather than waiting for Sandy Bridge, you might as well get a nice power supply and a separate, enthusiast-friendly case instead of a cheap bundle. The Corsair TX650W is a holdover from last season’s Sweeter Spot config, but judging by the continued influx of five-star reviews on Newegg, it’s still very much a solid choice. Looking at the unit’s single 12V rail, plentiful connectors, 80 Plus certification, single 120-mm fan, and five-year warranty, it’s easy to see why.

In the interest of full disclosure, we should point out that Corsair appears to have switched TX650W production to a different manufacturer, so the units in stores today might not be entirely like the originals. Newegg users still sound overjoyed, though, and Corsair itself claims the new units are better.

Enclosure

After getting our hands dirty with Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T enclosure, we decided it was worthy of our Editor’s Choice award. And it’s the perfect choice for the Grand Placeholder. 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 in a $1,000 PC.

Grand Placeholder alternatives

As with the Econobox, we have some alternative propositions for how to fill out the Grand Placeholder.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-760 $204.99
Motherboard Asus P7P55D-E LX $149.99
Memory Kingston 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333 $85.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB $189.99
Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 1GB $244.99
Storage OCZ Agility 2 120GB $202.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $89.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III $139.99

Processor

The Core i5-760 looks like the logical Intel alternative to AMD’s hexa-core Phenom II. This processor costs about the same and may not perform quite as well, but if it’s anything like the slightly slower Core i5-750, it should have modest power consumption and decent overclocking headroom. Just keep in mind that getting a solid Intel motherboard involves spending a little extra cash.

Motherboard

The Asus P7P55D-E served as the Core i5-760’s sidekick in our guide last fall, but it’s now out of stock. In its absence, the P7P55D-E LX is filling in. Both boards have dual SATA 6Gbps ports, six SATA 3Gbps ports, eSATA, USB 3.0, heatsinks covering the processor’s power-regulation circuitry, and overwhelmingly positive Newegg reviews. The only differences are that the LX offering lacks FireWire and CrossFire support, neither of which are huge losses—especially since CrossFire on this class of board involves the use of a physical PCIe x16 slot with only four lanes of half-speed connectivity.

Gigabyte has a slightly cheaper alternative in this price range, which trades eSATA support for CrossFire. For the reason we just cited, we think an eSATA port is more valuable than CrossFire.

Memory

There was once a time when 4GB memory kits cost nearly $100, and the prospect of building a PC with 8GB of RAM appealed to few outside of hardcore workstation users. That was, like, at least several months ago. Today, you can snag one of Kingston’s 8GB DDR3-1333 kits, which are made up of two high-density 4GB modules, for just under $90. With deals like that, it makes sense to grab the extra RAM in order to remove the need for an upgrade down the line.

Graphics

If you’re not a die-hard gamer and want to save a few bucks, stepping down to the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB we recommended for the Econobox alternatives makes sense. The GTX 460 1GB should still handle most current games at resolutions of up to 1080p, but it’s a good 50 bucks cheaper

You might also disagree with our choice of an Nvidia card at $250. If that’s the case, then you might like Sapphire’s Radeon HD 6950 1GB, which costs slightly less and should deliver roughly similar performance, albeit with potentially higher noise levels, poorer geometry performance, and no bundled games. I guess it doesn’t sound like such a great deal when described in those terms. Still, the 6950 1GB is a capable alternative to the GTX 560 Ti.

Storage

Since the Grand Placeholder is, after all, a $1,000 system, some folks might want a speedy solid-state drive playing host to the operating system. For that purpose, we think OCZ’s Agility 2 120GB SSD is an uncannily good deal, with a price tag just above $200, a fast SandForce controller that enables rated transfer speeds of 275-285MB/s, and a three-year warranty.

Since that SSD has only 120GB of storage capacity, you’ll obviously want to pair it with a high-capacity mechanical drive to make sure your BitTorrent iTunes video downloads have a place to reside. For that purpose, we can think of no better solution than Western Digital’s Caviar Green 2TB, which is dirt-cheap and provides all of the capacity most folks should need. Just don’t install an operating system on it, since the reduced spindle speed would make it somewhat sluggish as a boot drive.

Enclosure

There’s no substitute for the ease of use and convenience of Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T case. However, users who don’t need to tinker inside their PCs all that often—and don’t mind a less powerful PSU—might want to consider Antec’s Sonata III bundle as a more affordable alternative. This case has an 80 Plus-certified 500W PSU, a clean internal layout, sideways-mounted hard drive bays, and plentiful noise-reduction features. We can’t say we hate the way it 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.

The Double-Stuff Workstation
Who needs Sandy when there’s Gulftown?

Much like our first two builds, the Double-Stuff isn’t really affected by the Sandy Bridge chipset snafu. This is the realm of six-core, 32-nm processors and motherboards with more PCI Express lanes than they know what to do with.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-970 $599.99
Motherboard Asus Sabertooth X58 $199.99
Memory Kingston 12GB (3 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $169.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 2GB $276.99
Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 2GB $276.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 256GB $524.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $89.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $89.99
LG WH10LS30K $90.99
Audio Asus Xonar DG $29.99
Power supply Corsair HX750W $141.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian 800D $269.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $2,761.88

Processor

We’ve downgraded the Double-Stuff somewhat in light of the recent price cut to Intel’s Core i7-970, the cheapest six-core Gulftown model. At its $900 introductory price, the i7-970 wasn’t all that appealing when you could get a fully unlocked Core i7-980X Extreme for just a hundred bucks more. At $600, though, this CPU has become a rather sweet deal, since it performs better than the fastest Sandy Bridge Core i7 overall without costing an arm and a leg. Power consumption is higher, of course, but Intel fabs this chip using the same 32-nm process as Sandy Bridge; Gulftown just trades the newer architecture and integrated graphics for more cores.

Motherboard

As a 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 appreciate, 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.

Memory

Affordable 4GB DDR3 modules are the latest rage, and Kingston’s latest 12GB HyperX kit has three of ’em, all rated for operation at 1600MHz. Going with six 2GB modules would have saved us $10-15, but this way, we’ve got room in the Double-Stuff for an eventual upgrade to 24GB of RAM. You know, for when that Gulftown CPU becomes self-aware.

Graphics

The previous iteration of the Double-Stuff featured dual GeForce GTX 460 1GB graphics cards, but in light of the new releases the $200-300 price range, we felt we could do better.

A pair of Sapphire’s Radeon HD 6950 2GB graphics cards should provide not just better overall performance, but also better performance at ultra-high resolutions (or with multi-display gaming setups) thanks to their extra memory. We like the fact that Sapphire has stuck with AMD’s blower-style cooler, too, which exhausts hot air directly outside the case—a blessing in cramped quarters like those of a high-end workstation packed to the gills with fast hardware.

Storage

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. Similarly, 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.)

Audio

Asus’ Xonar DG might seem a tad low-end for this build, but the truth is that, unless you need more than 5.1 channels or plan to use the Double-Stuff to make music, it’s more than enough. Check out the alternatives on the next page for a fancier option.

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.

Enclosure

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 i7-990X Extreme $999.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC $249.99
MSI GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC $249.99
Storage Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB $269.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB $169.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB $169.99
Sound card
Asus Xonar Xense $279.99
TV tuner Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 2250 $129.99
Enclosure Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 $199.99

Processor

Got $400 burning a hole in your pocket? The step up from the Core i7-970 to the Core i7-990X isn’t a breathtaking one—you’re only going from 3.2GHz to 3.46GHz with a matching Turbo Boost increase— but the key selling point, in our view, is the unlocked upper multiplier. We saw first-hand that the slightly slower Core i7-980X Extreme can and does overclock quite impressively, so we expect the 990X to be no different. You haven’t tasted power until you’ve pushed a hexa-core CPU past 4GHz.

Graphics

We made our reasons for selecting dual Radeons on the previous page clear. Should you be leaning more toward GeForces, be it for their superior geometry performance or because you simply don’t expect to run a crazy-high-resolution multi-monitor setup, then a pair of the MSI GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC graphics cards we recommended for the Grand Placeholder should do fine. Do note that we’re not quite as confident in MSI cooler’s ability to keep temperatures low in a cramped dual-GPU configuration, though. We’re more partial to blower-style coolers like the Radeons’ in such instances.

Storage

Can’t afford the 256GB RealSSD C300? Then you could always step down to the 128GB model, as long as 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

We can’t seem to find our old pick, the Xonar D2X, in stock anywhere. The Xonar Xense is kind of a pricey step up, but it justifies its high asking price with an exceptionally complete set of features and a bundled Senhheiser PC350 headset worth a decent chunk of change on its own. As we said in our review comparing this card to the cheaper Xonar DG from our primary picks, the Xense combines all of the attributes that have made previous Asus Xonar sound cards appealing, like Dolby Digital Live encoding, a built-in headphone amp, socketet OPAMPs, and high-quality components.

TV tuner

If you feel like making your high-powered workstation double as a digital video recorder, Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR-2250 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.

Enclosure

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 operating system
Which one is right for you?

Before we begin, we should acknowledge that some readers may not feel comfortable with Windows’ prominent place on this page. We hold no particular grudge against Linux or other desktop operating systems, but we think most TR readers will want to stick with Windows. For starters, most of you play PC games, and we’ve tuned all of our main configs for gaming—something Linux doesn’t do nearly as well as Microsoft’s OSes. Also, we figure enthusiasts with enough expertise to run Linux on their primary desktops will already have a favorite Linux distribution picked out. As for Mac OS X, we find both the dubious legality and the lack of official support for running it on standard PCs too off-putting.

Now, if you’re buying a copy of Windows today, you should really be thinking about Windows 7. We explained in our review that this OS may well be Microsoft’s finest to date, because it draws from Vista’s strengths while adding a healthy dose of polish, not to mention improved performance and non-disastrous backward compatibility. Building a new system with Windows 7 instead of Vista or XP is really a no-brainer at this point.

Just like its predecessors, Windows 7 comes in several different editions, three of which you’ll find in stores: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. What makes them different from one another? The table below should help answer that question:

  Windows 7 Home Premium
Windows 7 Professional
Windows 7 Ultimate
New Aero features X X X
Windows Search X X X
Internet Explorer 8 X X X
Windows Media Center X X X
HomeGroups X X X
Full-system Backup and Restore X X X
Remote Desktop client X X X
Backups across network   X X
Remote Desktop host   X X
Windows XP Mode   X X
Domain Join   X X
BitLocker     X
Interface language switching     X
Price—full license $179.99 $264.99 $274.99
Price—upgrade license $119.99 $199.99 $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.

Displays

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 Grand Placeholder 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.)

We recommend something bigger, like Dell’s 27″ UltraSharp U2711 or 30″ UltraSharp U3011, for use with our opulent workstation or an upgraded Grand Placeholder 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.

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 2011 now. We’ve had the Internet, USB thumb drives, and Windows-based BIOS flashing tools for many years. 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 costs just over $10 yet has good user reviews on Newegg, and it should happily accept any flash card you find lying around.

Backups

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). This newer USB 3.0 version of the BlacX left a pretty good impression on us, and backing up large files and drive images with it should be a snap.

Conclusions

As impressive as Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors might be, I think we’ve demonstrated with this guide that they’ve by no means made alternatives irrelevant or unappealing. AMD’s Phenom II X4 840 and Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition, which power our Econobox and Grand Placeholder builds, respectively, are both great bargains capable of excellent performance. Outside of Sandy Bridge’s pricing turf, cheap small-form-factor rigs like the Compact Fusion Reactor and high-end workstations like the Double-Stuff are more appealing than ever.

That said, if you’re shopping smack dab in Sandy Bridge territory and don’t mind waiting until bug-free motherboards start shipping in late March or April, then why not hold off for a few weeks? You can get a great system in the same price range today, sure, but waiting a short while for something even nicer is by no means unreasonable, as long as you’re sufficiently patient.

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.

Comments closed
    • nomorenewegg
    • 9 years ago

    I’m a system builder and gaming enthusiast from Vegas. I buy – on average – a system a month for myself or my clients. I’ve used newegg before and at times been happy with them. Unfortunately after ordering the budget system TWICE through newegg (obviously with an alternate in-stock mobo) and them not being able to properly process my order (or explain in chat why they can’t) I’m giving up and going to look for this system on buy or amazon. I’m commenting today to see if this is unique in anyone else’s experience. If not, maybe TR could start offering new/different pre-linked options than just problematic newegg?

    • The Wanderer
    • 9 years ago

    Having recently bought one, as part of a build based on the last Double-Stuff and the Straight-up Excess, I want to point out that there’s a problem with recommending the combination of the Sabertooth X58 and 4GB DDR3-1600 DIMMs.

    [quote<]Affordable 4GB DDR3 modules are the latest rage, and Kingston's latest 12GB HyperX kit has three of 'em, all rated for operation at 1600MHz. Going with six 2GB modules would have saved us $10-15, but this way, we've got room in the Double-Stuff for an eventual upgrade to 24GB of RAM.[/quote<] Unfortunately, according to its manual and to my own observations, the Sabertooth X58 does not support using six DDR3-1600 DIMMs all at once. Reaching 24GB with that motherboard requires using either four 6GB DIMMs (of almost any speed) or six slower 4GB DIMMs.

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      I had to look it up to make sure, but dude, 6GB DDR3 DIMMS don’t exist :).

      Nor, and this is from memory (so to speak), would you really want to use four modules on a triple-channel board. It’s either three or six, for a standard X58 board, and either 2GB or 4GB DIMMS nowadays.

      Also, the X58/i900 series doesn’t officially support DDR3-1600, so it is an overclocking function. Damage and Co. probably shouldn’t have put the 24GB/DDR3-1600 setup in the list for this reason, as it won’t be a simple ‘plug’n’play’ operation.

        • The Wanderer
        • 9 years ago

        I was afraid they might not, but that doesn’t change the basic point. However, on re-examining the manual, I can’t find the statement I remember.

        The closest I can see is a statement that “Due to Intel CPU spec definition, XMP and DDR3-1600 DIMMs are supported for one DIMM per channel only” – which would mean 24GB would require three *8GB* DIMMs, which of course are scarcer than hen’s teeth these days.

        In a quick search, I don’t find a reference for the nonexistence of 6GB DDR3 DIMMs. Are they actually ruled out by the DDR3 spec, or is it just that no one has bothered to make them for whatever reason?

        (The “overclocking” aspect may not matter as much for the Sabertooth X58, since its on-motherboard “restore BIOS defaults” button apparently also triggers a feature called “MemOK!”, which automatically reboot cycles to test various ways of configuring the RAM until it finds something it considers stable.

          • Airmantharp
          • 9 years ago

          Very, very few aftermarket mainboards are not overclocking boards- and pretty much every X58 board is an overclocking board, exceptions being boards sold by Intel.

          For memory, with the right tweaking, you could probably get that board to run 6x4GB of DDR3 at 1600. You might look around and see what other people have done with it. I know that I’ve read in various places that people have been able to get 24GB of RAM on X58 boards running at 1600, but again, it’s not easy.

          And near as I can tell, 8GB DIMMS are also not available, though I would think that they should be coming soon, as cheap as 4GB DIMMS are now.

            • The Wanderer
            • 9 years ago

            Unfortunately, I don’t think tweaking will make the system accept the six-DIMM configuration in this case, unless I’m missing something serious. With all six DIMMs installed, the system won’t even POST; it doesn’t so much as try to turn on the display, it just sits there with the “DRAM LED” shining bright and steady red. I therefore can’t get into the BIOS to try to tweak settings.

            I suppose I might be able to try changing the settings with fewer DIMMs, shutting down the system, and installing the missing chips to see what happens… but that’s more than I’m really comfortable with.

            • Airmantharp
            • 9 years ago

            Well, tweaking is tweaking.

            I am using two dual-channel kits from G.Skill; with my last board, from the return bin at Fry’s, I had to be particular about the order of the DIMMs in order for the system to post, and I couldn’t run them at their rated speed or timings. That board died and I replaced it with something almost identical, and now the memory doesn’t care what order they are in, and it all runs together with rated speeds and timings without issue.

            So yes, you may very well need to drop the settings as far as you can with fewer DIMMs installed, and then try installing all of them, paying attention to the order as you do so, and adjusting until you get a POST.

    • vikramsbox
    • 9 years ago

    I have always held your review in high esteem since I first started reading them way back in 2004. But the way you guys have sort of developed a stereotyped notion of PC usage sucks now.
    In the OS page, you have mentioned that the primary driver for you testers and end users is PC gaming, and so Linux is given the short shrift as it has poor gaming compatibility. And also, there is the hint that you still hold the antiquated notion that Linux is for ‘experienced’ PC users.
    You guys need to adopt a broader perspective, for heaven’s sake. If gaming is the sole purpose of testing, then why include the fusion, the econobox builds in the test, and why at all go for non gaming tests to compare the builds?
    Also, why are you ignoring the cost impact of OS’s? Windows 7 HP costs $180 (full license), and you didn’t include the cost of an antivirus, which is essential for Windows? Add $ 20-40 for an antivirus, and what do you have? $200 for running a PC! Add to that the cost of MS Office and other software, which would easily bloat the budget and make the fusion build cost as much as the econobox hardware!
    This cost is 67% of the cost of the fusion system and 33% of the cost of the econobox. And as such, alternatives have to be considered.
    Now, have you gone over the latest Linux distros before you say that Linux is for experienced users? Try Ubuntu or Linux Mint- the former is good and the latter comes very close to Win7 in terms of usability, ease and visual candy. Even nerds can install and use Linux nowadays.
    Installation time in Win7 with the usual OS, Mobo CD, Office and internet software can take between 2-4 hrs on the econobox. It takes merely 15min in Ubuntu or Linux Mint!
    Also, Win7, with its huge dual DVD size hard disk requirement, doesn’t have wifi drivers for laptops in them. One has to load the mobo CD. Ubuntu managed to detect and connect my laptop wifi even before installation started. No need for antiviruses also. Cost $0.
    Not to mention a full suite of apps for productivity and multimedia that is free and user friendly?
    How can you just brush aside a choice that would lead to 40% savings in the Fusion reactor and 25% in the econobox?
    See guys, I am not anti Windows. Its simply a matter of cost and benefit for me, as I am an end user. There is a lot of hidden costs in the budget targets you guys are considering.
    And as far as I am concerned, if I look to you to give me the best deal in hardware, the surely you can do some work that gives me the best deal in getting the rig up and running?

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      I think you’re a little confused.

      Gaming is the most common reason to build a computer, hence one of the focuses of the System Guide, since it requires special considerations across the board. But the real reason of the System Guide, since you seem to need to be reminded, is to [u<][b<]build a system![/u<][/b<] I'd also like to point out that your pricing argument is shamefully off, by about $100. You can get the [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16832116754<]Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit 1-Pack for System Builders - OEM[/url<] for $99.99 shipped! Notice that it's 'for System Builders'? Yeah, that's us! Further, there are so many free anti-virus programs out there, that choosing amongst them is a chore itself- paying for them isn't. Among them, of course, is Microsoft's own [url=http://www.microsoft.com/security_essentials/<]Microsoft Security Essentials[/url<]. It's very well rated, light-weight, and of course, totally free! So, that brings us back to the tune of $99.99 additional investment over Linux. Now, here comes the best part: gaming on Linux is dead! I know that's offensive, but hey, from the perspective of someone that actually wants to game, it's the reality. I'm not interested, not at all, in emulators, endless driver woes, compatibility issues, virtualization, et al. to get my games running, let alone running full speed. Sorry dude, no cookie. Final point- I think Linux is incredible. I run it in my smartphone and in my router, and it does an amazing job in these devices; but these are not my home computer. I'd like to use Linux on my home computer, but the lack of gaming support is a real hangup. And while you may be comfortable with open source productivity applications, as I believe many are, some of us are not- some of us actually need Microsoft Office products because that's what our schools and businesses use. It's not a matter of functionality, it's a matter of portability; I need my work to 'work' everywhere else too!

        • vikramsbox
        • 9 years ago

        Mate, I’m not confused. I left out the ‘Gamers’ Budget points’ of $1000 and $2700/-. As I said, do you know any ‘hard core’ gamers whose life revolve around FPS to choose a $300 or $600 machine?
        And if as you say, the review is for ‘System Builders’ like you, maybe you would like to inform your buyers that you would NOT be passing on the $99 Windows license and MS Office fees to them?
        See, point is not to argue for arguments’ sake. This review is one of the most broad based ones as far as hardware is concerned- from client level to office work station to gamers’ rigs.
        And if the hardware is selected on such a broad based level with an eye at different budget points, then the software budget must also be included, at least indicatively.
        I’ve been using Linux Mint 10 for a couple of months now and I love it. Anyone who’s worked in Linux’s workspaces will never look at Windows. So too is the level of efficiency- the speed that I’m having on Linux with my Athlon II X3 435 (at 800MHz) beats the speed on Windows at full 2.90 GHZ. Practically all my software is cross platform, and I’ve had no changeover pains.
        And Linux is way ahead on the power management front. Linux completely powers off HDDs (internal and external) that are not being used. Windows does not do it completely. Check it.
        2 of the 4 price levels are not aimed at gamers and are for users on a budget. And TechReport must do some R&D on that side also. No harm is gonna happen. Its only going to benefit.
        And if TR accepts that its reviews are for gamers, then I would suggest that they stop rating components on their energy usage, and award max points to the guzzlers!

      • Tamale
      • 9 years ago

      I’ve always thought that if you’re the kind of person who wants to put linux on any of these system builds, then you probably don’t need to read the OS portion of the guide anyway. After all, the guide is about how to spend your money.. why would TR need to ‘recommend’ using something that’s completely free? Just my $0.02.

        • The Wanderer
        • 9 years ago

        Speaking as someone who has already put Linux on two systems built as near variants of TR System Guide designs, I want the OS portion of the guide to tell me whether – and, if so, how well and/or seamlessly – Linux, in the form of some reasonably recent and popular distro, supports the hardware involved. Out-of-the-box driver support for especially recent GPUs, and for many if not most discrete sound cards, can be somewhat spotty; you can usually get it working, but it doesn’t necessarily Just Work.

        Adding that sort of information wouldn’t require much additional effort; grab an ISO of the latest Ubuntu release, do a full “partition the drives” install with all default settings, and check to see what does and doesn’t work.

        If anything fails, testing it out to see why not – and whether it can be made to work with additional effort, and what would be required if so – would certainly be nice, but it’s by no means required. The basic “yes”/”no” would be more than sufficient in most cases.

        (Ubuntu isn’t my preferred distro, but it should approximate the available functionality regardless, and it’s probably the closest thing to a “for the general public” Linux distro you’re going to find these days.)

          • Airmantharp
          • 9 years ago

          I’d agree with you here, but I don’t think that the guys at Damage and Co. buy this equipment and put it together.

          Also, from the perspective of loading Linux on anything, knowing every controller and driver that you’ll be putting in the system, on the mainboard or otherwise, and having every driver ready, is part of the exercise. Price you pay for free software :).

            • The Wanderer
            • 9 years ago

            [quote=”Airmantharp”<]I'd agree with you here, but I don't think that the guys at Damage and Co. buy this equipment and put it together.[/quote<] Although they probably don't buy it, no, I'd be surprised to learn that they don't put it together - and in any case, why would they need to? If they can wipe and repartition hard drives for their storage benchmarking, and deploy their own images with their benchmarking configuration already set up, they should be able to wipe and repartition them for other purposes - including this kind of test. The only reason I can think of they might not is if they somehow don't get physical access to the equipment, but by everything I've seen in reviews on this site, I wouldn't find that particularly plausible. Edit: I've just figured out what you meant: they don't build the actual configurations they're recommending. Agreed, that makes sense. However, in most cases they've reviewed the driver-able hardware involved somewhat recently, and matching *all* of the hardware wouldn't be required for the purposes of the test; just the motherboard and any peripherals. [quote="Airmantharp"<]Also, from the perspective of loading Linux on anything, knowing every controller and driver that you'll be putting in the system, on the mainboard or otherwise, and having every driver ready, is part of the exercise. Price you pay for free software :).[/quote<] On the flip side, however, when the hardware is as new and/or as expensive as some of what gets reviewed and recommended by TR, there's no guarantee that it will ever have been tested under Linux before, to say nothing of whether drivers have even been written yet. In addition, there's distro lag to consider. Just because a driver is available in the wild somewhere, that doesn't mean it's available in something which can be actually installed and used out-of-the-box. (For example, the latest Linux kernel is 2.6.37, and 2.6.28-rc7 is available - but Debian stable, testing and unstable provide only 2.6.32, and Debian experimental provides only 2.6.36. Support for some recent GPUs in non-proprietary graphics drivers is available only in versions which won't work with anything less than 2.6.36.) That's why I specified a recent distro release, and "Just Works" as the testing criterion. That's what people would expect (to a near approximation) from Windows hardware support; it's what people *should* expect from any OS in the first place, and certainly from Linux; it's more or less what would be required for the legendary "Linux on the Desktop" widespread adoption scenario. IMO, it's worth testing for. (Also, since we have to get our knowledge of the hardware involved in any system build and whether or not it's already supported under Linux from somewhere, what's wrong with wanting to get it from a TR review or guide?)

            • JustAnEngineer
            • 9 years ago

            Didn’t you just make your own points about why recommending Linux for gaming or for the general public is a bad idea?

    • glynor
    • 9 years ago

    As an alternative, the Apple Wireless Keyboard makes a wonderful HTPC wireless keyboard. It takes a little effort to get all of the “extended feature” keys to work like you might want, but it isn’t too painful to get the portion of the Apple Boot Camp drivers you need to install on a vanilla Windows build.

    I use it at home and it has been fantastic.

    • logan666
    • 9 years ago

    Totally disagree about the X6 beating the i5-760. Faced this decision myself and Xbitlabs did an article comparing the two and the 760 won handily. This despite the X6 having two more cores and almost 600mhz faster. Here is the link:
    [url<]http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/cpu/display/cpu-benchmark-highend.html[/url<]

    • esc_in_ks
    • 9 years ago

    It is obscene, nay, irresponsible and offensive (!), to put a non-matching beige optical drive in that beautiful black 800D case. If you’re spending that kind of scratch, go ahead and pony up for a new optical drive that matches!

    I must go and wash up after having seen such an offensive display.

      • UberGerbil
      • 9 years ago

      Just pop the tray cover and bezel off and paint it…. that way you get rid of all the logos, too. 😉

        • flip-mode
        • 9 years ago

        been there done that, and it’s not ideal. best to get black plastic.

    • Mattman
    • 9 years ago

    Hey guys I’m gonna build the econobox for a friend, but gonna switch out the video card with a gigabyte gtx 560 ti soc will the Antec EA-380D Green still be enough for this build or should I get some more juice?

      • Dashak
      • 9 years ago

      For a combined 32A on those two +12V rails is enough to power a GTX560. That said, with [b<]two[/b<] rails you'll probably end up with slightly less than 32A. According to one of the specs listings on newegg, you need a minimum of 30A. I like a little more headroom just to be safe, but you could probably scrape by. Source under "details": [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814130604[/url<]

        • Mattman
        • 9 years ago

        Ok great thanks guys. So I’ll be cutting it close, maybe I’ll think about swapping the antec out for a Corsair CMPSU-430CX also?

          • Airmantharp
          • 9 years ago

          That might make things a little easier/more comfortable:

          [quote<]Pros: Great for budget gaming builds. Seems to stay cool, no noise and not a large amount of wiring compared to corsairs non-modular PSUs. Can power... AMD athlon II overclocked @ 3.75Ghz ASUS micro-ATX board DDR2 1066 memory EVGA 9800GTX+ super clocked, overclocked. 2x 7200rpm hard drives[/quote<] The video card above takes 2x6-pin PCIe connectors.

          • thermistor
          • 9 years ago

          I think the 380W is cutting it just a bit close, and PSU problems are had to diagnose as they manifest themselves as different bugaboos. Just check the 12V rail(s), that’s the most important number when the juice goes up on the GPU.

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      Like Dashak mentioned, you are going to be close- but those are the maximums specified by the vendors, which will be very hard to reach during every day use.

      I think you will be fine. I’ve used the 2x Molex to 1x PCIe 6-pin adaptors before, actually two of them to power an HD4870, without issue; the HD4870 is in the same power draw and thermal envelope as a GTX560.

      Only thing you would need to ensure would be that you use two separate peripheral leads from the PSU, and that Antec unit should have at least two leads, so you will be fine there too.

    • Dposcorp
    • 9 years ago

    Another nice guide, but why are we still so skimpy with the DDR3 in the The Econobox & The Grand Placeholder?
    4GB sticks of DDR3 can be had pretty cheap, and if caught on sale with a rebate, almost a steal.

    I am waiting on some rebates from Corsair, but if they come through I’ll have gotten 16GB of 1333 ram for around $110.

    With 64Bit systems and multi-tabbed browsing and multitasking being done by everyone, I would think 8GB would be minimum by now.

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      Memory is cheap for sure, but 8GB still costs more while providing very little realizeable benefit today.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    I’d like to see three items considered to be added:

    First, [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811163161<]Silverstone's Fortress 2 case.[/url<] Features a unique layout that tilts the mainboard up, and provides amazingly cool and quiet operation; it has earned recognition from [url=http://www.silentpcreview.com/silverstone-ft02<]silentpcreview.com[/url<] for this. It's expensive, and probably wouldn't make it into the lower configurations, but it's one of the first cases I've considered to be enough of a jump to succeed my Antec P180. It's definitely in my wishlist, and available on Newegg.com. Second, a mention of HP's excellent [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16824176177<]ZR30w 30" panel.[/url<] It's cheaper than Dell's 30" [url=http://www.amazon.com/Dell-UltraSharp-U3011-Widescreen-PremierColor/dp/B0043GDIT2/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1298674261&sr=8-1<]U3011[/url<], and is better for gaming with lower input lag, as reviewed by [url=http://www.anandtech.com/show/4070/dell-u3011-review-dells-new-30-inch-flagship/7<]Anandtech.com.[/url<] The lack of OSD features just means less to fiddle with, as this can all be adjusted by the GPU software. Using one right now, purchased off of Newegg.com, and loving it. Third, Razor's [url=http://www2.razerzone.com/blackwidow/<]Blackwidow keyboard series.[/url<] Sturdy mechanical keyboards that are designed with gaming in mind, I'm loving mine and not missing the screen off of my Logitech G15 rev.2. I'd also like to mention [url=http://www.auzentech.com/site/products/x-fi_bravura.php<]Auzentech's Bravura 7.1 Soundcard.[/url<] I don't know what's going on with this company or why their cards are not available on Newegg.com, but I can't find a card that's better suited to both gaming and powering a nice set of cans like [url=http://www.sennheiserusa.com/high-quality-headphones-around-ear_009969<]Sennheiser's HD650's.[/url<] It's on my wishlist.

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      I’d like to add that the Auzentech Bravura 7.1 listed above has had it’s last drivers released in December 2010, whereas the latest drivers I can find from Creative for the X-Fi Titanium are from July of *2010. I don’t think I’d be worried about driver updates from these guys.

      *corrected

        • JustAnEngineer
        • 9 years ago

        Your search-fu is weak.

        [url<]http://support.creative.com/downloads/welcome.aspx?nLanguageLocale=1033&nDriverType=1#type_1[/url<]

          • Airmantharp
          • 9 years ago

          You are correct sir, as usual. Make that July 2010 for Creative, thank you for noticing!

            • JustAnEngineer
            • 9 years ago

            Nevermind.

      • Flying Fox
      • 9 years ago

      We should add the new Asus P-IPS 24″ 1920x[b<]1200[/b<] (kudos for Asus not going to 16:9) to the mix as well.

        • UberGerbil
        • 9 years ago

        Yeah, after seeing the ads popping up here on TR I’ve been interested in reading a review — it’s $50 more than the discounted Dell, however (and otherwise seems to be equivalent on specs) so it has to offer something to lure me away from the devil I know (and like).

          • Airmantharp
          • 9 years ago

          I just purchased two IPS monitors, but this monitor was outside of the purchasing criteria for both of them, unfortunately. I did look at it though.

          I feel that it’s going to have to beat the HP ZR24w and Dell U2410 both on price, and at least match the HP on colors/input lag/ghosting etc. in order to gain any real traction. Brand wise, while I highly respect Asus, I’d still take an HP first, and then a Dell, depending on application of course (mine is gaming). Let’s get a couple real reviews out, at least one each from Anand and Damage, and then we can start clamoring!

            • Flying Fox
            • 9 years ago

            The Dell still sort of wins the “number of inputs” department with component and composite as well, but the “native mode” of wide gamut can be an issue for people without calibrators.

            My gut feeling is that it will slot in between the HP and the Dell. I am looking forward to the TFT central review. BTW, those richer folks at [H] may have started a thread already. Anybody want to go there and take a look?

            • Airmantharp
            • 9 years ago

            The Dell wins inputs for sure; it subsequently loses on input lag, which is introduced by all of that extra, and unnecessary, circuitry. More so than price, this is why I went with the ZR30w over the U3011, and would recommend any other gamer do the same!

    • flip-mode
    • 9 years ago

    Crazy thought: I’d love to see a “Rack Build System Guide”. I’m shopping for a rack system right now and it’s something I haven’t ever done before. On the one hand, it’s amazing what I can get from Dell for under $1,000 (a 1U quad core Xeon system with 4 hot-swap bays in the R310 starts at $650). On the other hand, that’s about 10 times the power I need and while that doesn’t bother me in itself, if I could get a more appropriately spec’d system that used 1/3 the power that’d probably be what I’d go for. Dell doesn’t sell an Atom or Brazos based rack server, so the question is what should be in the shopping cart to build one myself.

    It’s probably a safe bet that not enough people would find that interesting.

    As for this system guide, I have to admit being surprised by the 1090T pick, though that’s not to say that I disagree with it. It does seem worth mentioning that a Core i5 760 is usually faster in games and that it probably surpasses the 1090T once overclocking factors in. But I think the bottom line is that it is hard to go wrong either way.

    I’d personally consider paying a little extra for a board with 2 PCIe x16 slots though. Heck, you’re already spending $1000 so $30 more to be able to have the crossfire option doesn’t seem like a bad idea.

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      A ‘home server’ build might be a consideration, but I’m not too sure how this would differ from the Econobox, hardware wise. I think that racks would probably be outside of the scope of this article, and probably this site though, don’t you think?

      An HTPC section that considers a different case, PSU oriented on complete silence, and fans to support it, would be something I’d like to see; I’ve also just built an amateur video and photo-editing system, but I think the only consideration I made was to get a GPU that supported DisplayPort, and I don’t think that it was truly necessary.

        • FuturePastNow
        • 9 years ago

        Even the Econobox is well overpowered for a Home Server, unless you use said server for transcoding or Folding in its spare time.

        My Home Server picks, if anyone cares:
        -the cheapest Athlon AMD makes
        -two gigs of value RAM
        -a name-brand 740G or 760G board with six SATA ports
        -the six biggest drives your budget allows
        -Windows Home Server

        I stuck all that in a B-Stock Antec case with a quiet power supply and silent fans, and I couldn’t be happier with it.

          • Airmantharp
          • 9 years ago

          I agree, and that really makes the case for a separate section!

          • Flying Fox
          • 9 years ago

          [quote<]Windows Home Server[/quote<] You need to clarify this as v1, not the upcoming [s<]Fail[/s<]Vail.

            • FuturePastNow
            • 9 years ago

            Oh, definitely. I’m sure as heck not downgrading to Vail.

        • flip-mode
        • 9 years ago

        [quote<]I think that racks would probably be outside of the scope of this article, and probably this site though, don't you think?[/quote<]Yep, probably, but the only negative ramifications of that are (1) the article won't get as many reads and (2) you could be spending you time on something that gets more reads. So, essentially, it would probably be financially unprofitable and expensive at the same time. But, other than that it could be really neat!

    • Palek
    • 9 years ago

    Two comments.

    1. The Econobox PSU choice at 380W may be a little anaemic, I think. The basic setup you have will probably run okay, but throw in another HDD and/or upgrade to a beefier CPU and you’re probably in trouble. Would be safer to go with a 450~550W class PSU.

    The Newegg PSU calculator suggests 462W for the Econobox with Athlon X4.
    [url<]http://educations.newegg.com/tool/psucalc/index.html[/url<] The Antec PSU calculator suggests 333W for the Econobox with an Athlon X4 645, but goes up to 357W with a Phenom X4 955. [url<]http://www.antec.outervision.com/PSUEngine[/url<] 2. The Asus M4A87TD EVO is a good motherboard, I can only recommend it. It sits in my main machine and has been problem-free and "rock-solid" (not so "heart-touching", though). Maybe all modern systems are similar, but I was very impressed with how well Sleep worked in Windows 7. Automatic fan speed control is also very good, the machine is so quiet that it's hard to tell whether it's turned on or not unless I'm right next to it. Obviously component choices (CPU cooler, case fans etc) also heavily influence noise performance, but I'm very satisfied with the quiet whisper this machine produces even at full tilt.

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      Pretty sure the Newegg power calculator WELL overestimates what you need, and I can’t imagine Antec’s not doing the same.

      Newegg has the excuse that it’s calculator should be suitable for the lowest common denominator; that being the cheapest and crappiest PSUs available. Antec doesn’t really have an excuse, except that it’s also in their best interest to get you to spend more money on their products.

      I can’t see 380w not being enough for a majority of applications; should be able to handle any CPU, and GPU requiring just one 6-pin connector, and a pair of hard drives (or and SSD and a hard drive) with and optical drive and some fans and USB components as well.

        • stdRaichu
        • 9 years ago

        Every power calculator I’ve seen overestimates. It’s probably more a liability issue than anything else, but still annoying when calculators seem to think that each hard drive in your system require an extra 50W. As someone who doesn’t game much and hence has a modest 5770 in his rig, I can run that, three hard dives and an overclocked 2600K without pulling more than 300W from the wall (and that’s only if I really try).

        Personally I’m glad TR included sensible power supplies for the components listed, since good PSU’s tend to be at their highest efficiency at higher loads. Maxing out your components on a 1000W PSU at 20% load will eat way more power than a 400W at 80% load.

        Dunno if it’s my work attitude seeping in, but my upgrade path usually goes along the lines of “I’ll upgrade (if I feel I need to) when I get a 25% performance increase for a 15% increase in power envelope, or a 10% performance increase for 0-5% bigger power envelope”. Generally, my rigs’ power consumption goes down with every upgrade.

          • Palek
          • 9 years ago

          I understand that these power calculators tend to overestimate. The two figures I quoted have a huge gap of 130Ws. I guess I should have commented on that… Even better, I should have just left out the Newegg figure. 🙁 My bad.

          The Antec calculator does appear fairly reasonable to me, though. Look at this article here:

          [url<]https://techreport.com/articles.x/19242/12[/url<] A system featuring the GTX 460 (768MB) can suck 287W under load. If my reading of the test system spec is correct, this system did not include an optical drive, although it had a massive amount of SDRAM instead. Swap out the intel CPU for an AMD one, and power draw will probably creep upwards a bit. So, let's say that you could expect the Econobox to draw a little under 300W at max. load. Pop in an extra HDD and there goes another 10~15W. Now we're in over 300W territory. If the power supply is of excellent quality 380W should be enough, but a 450W+ unit would be a better fit, just to have a little more margin. [EDIT] Oops, the 287W figure was measured at the wall. So, a decent 380W PSU should be more than enough, after all! I stand corrected. [/EDIT] The other point to consider when buying a PSU is that it is a component that tends to survive multiple upgrades so, even taking current "green product" trends into consideration, it does not hurt to leave some legroom for expansion.

      • Flying Fox
      • 9 years ago

      Search for “required readings power” in the forums to educate yourself. 😉

        • Palek
        • 9 years ago

        Thanks, I’ll have a read. Please note, though, that I’m not a sucker for “moar is bettar” PSU marketing. My main system was loaded with a beefy CPU, GPU and lots of drives (3 HDDs and 3 optical drives) for the longest time and I ran it all on a 430W PSU.

    • BoBzeBuilder
    • 9 years ago

    On a gloomy day, I listen to Foreigner. Sigh….

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 9 years ago

      Agreed.

      Some of their songs are less gloomy than others, though.
      [url<]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wBJt-edyApo&t=1m5s[/url<]

    • phez
    • 9 years ago

    I know you guys probably wrote this article just a little while back, but with SB returning to market in literally a week or two, don’t you think you should’ve withheld and reworked your builds to include the SB chips?

      • UberGerbil
      • 9 years ago

      Has there been a system guide where somebody [b<]didn't[/b<] ask why they didn't wait a few more weeks for the next new X? It's not like there's some Law of Conservation of System Guides, whereby the existence of one [i<]now[/i<] somehow eliminates the prospect of another one at some later date (maybe that would be the Pauli System Guide Exclusion Principle?)

        • phez
        • 9 years ago

        This isn’t a matter of months. Its quite a short time frame for SB’s return. What’s the point of the article if people will be completely ignoring it and going about their merry way building SB systems in due time? Lets be serious here. Would you really recommend an i5-760 [i<]now[/i<] over an i5-2400?

          • dpaus
          • 9 years ago

          And last summer, the System Guide came out about 10 days before the Phenom II X6. As UG says, there’s [i<]always[/i<] something around the corner. Having said that, I don't think it was a good idea to 're-jig' the system configurations, either.

            • Airmantharp
            • 9 years ago

            Well, they did make a ‘Placeholder Edition,’ which is where the Phenom II X6 fell. While I understand the sentiment concerning the imminent reintroduction of Sandy Bridge P67 boards into the market, I can’t find any fault with how TR managed the situation in order to get a System Guide out.

        • thermistor
        • 9 years ago

        Can that Pauli principle involve the strategic placement of the St. Pauli girl in close proximity to me?

          • UberGerbil
          • 9 years ago

          [url<]https://techreport.com/forums/viewtopic.php?p=757390#p757390[/url<]

            • Flying Fox
            • 9 years ago

            Did you have that link bookmarked for pasting purposes all the time? 😮

            • UberGerbil
            • 9 years ago

            [url=http://www.google.com/search?q=techreport+beer+girl<]Don't have to[/url<]

      • Hattig
      • 9 years ago

      Sometimes you just have to release the article, and not hold on for vague promises that something will re-appear soon.

      SB (and chipset) for OEMs is available, and that will ramp up over the next month.

      SB and chipset for self-builders – that’s probably going to be towards the tail end of all this. If it hits the tail end of March Intel did well.

        • insulin_junkie72
        • 9 years ago

        Several of the major mobo makers have already shipped out B3 boards to resellers (thankfully ASRock is one, as I own an H67 from them); believe March 7th or so is the ballpark date for in-stock [edit: that date appears to be for Europe, so a bit longer for the US, I imagine].

        EDIT: MSI, for example:
        [url<]http://www.bit-tech.net/news/hardware/2011/02/25/msi-ships-fixed-sandy-bridge-motherboards/1[/url<]

      • syndicatedragon
      • 9 years ago

      Yeah, I have to agree. I love TR’s guides and was hoping the “Spring” one was going to feature SB builds. I hope they follow this up SOON when SB is readily available.

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      Maybe we can look forward to a special ‘Sandy Bridge Edition’ of the system guide?

        • Game_boy
        • 9 years ago

        That’ll be in April, 10 days before the Bulldozer release. TR can’t win.

          • Flying Fox
          • 9 years ago

          Exactly, you wait too long people bitch about no System Guide. Now that an article is out people bitch about SB. So let’s say TR waits until after BD release in April, we will be close to Computex.

      • Coran Fixx
      • 9 years ago

      I agree with phez. I almost agree with the econobox idea because of the gaming aspect, but there is almost no useful information in this guide. There should be a scrolling banner across the top “Unless you are going to spend the money on crack, do not build now”.

        • Flying Fox
        • 9 years ago

        That should be well covered by SBA comments, if you bother to post there. The guide gives anyone who does not really quite know of SBA’s existence to get a general direction. For the nitty-gritty you do have to go into SBA and let the forum gerbils thoroughly dissect any build proposals. 🙂

        Page 1 did mention about waiting for SB and that if you can’t wait, this is a guide for you. People who bitch about this seem to have skipped reading page 1?

          • UberGerbil
          • 9 years ago

          Some people just like to bitch; reading is entirely orthogonal to that.

            • Coran Fixx
            • 9 years ago

            Thanks for expanding my vocabulary. I did read the first page. I still agree with phez. I suppose if people really don’t know much and don’t bother to read the original Sandy Bridge review then the system guide is for them.

            • UberGerbil
            • 9 years ago

            [url=http://volokh.com/2010/01/11/orthogonal-ooh/<]Everybody[/url<] appreciates an expanded vocabulary. The AMD systems are still very good values for the money; several of them would exist as alternates even in some hypothetical (and soon-to-be-real) Sandy Bridge-oriented system guide. From the second paragraph of the article (emphasis mine): [quote="System Guide"<]We've added a $300 configuration based on AMD's Brazos platform, [b<]which has no competition from Sandy Bridge so far[/b<], and merged our regular $800 and $1,200 builds into what we call the Grand Placeholder, [b<]a system meant for users who can't afford to wait for bug-free Sandy mobos[/b<]. Our other builds, the $500 Econobox and $2,800-ish Double-Stuff Workstation, aren't really affected by the shortage, since [b<]the processors they feature haven't been rendered obsolete by Intel's new generation of chips.[/b<][/quote<] Sure, you could argue that maybe that should have gotten more emphasis and nobody reads the introduction anyway, but I don't think it's fair to say that this guide has so little value that it shouldn't exist at all while we wait for the Sandy Bridge march to resume.

      • phez
      • 9 years ago

      SB Mobos popping back up already;

      [url<]http://www.ncix.com/products/?sku=59164&vpn=GA-H67MA-UD2H-B3&manufacture=Gigabyte[/url<] [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/ProductList.aspx?Submit=ENE&N=40000280&IsNodeId=1&Description=1155&name=Intel%20Motherboards&Order=BESTMATCH[/url<]

        • Airmantharp
        • 9 years ago

        Thanks for the heads up!

        The lists look like they’re growing considerably over time; hopefully we’ll see prices stabilize again.

    • thesmileman
    • 9 years ago

    Edit: Apparently TR updated the double stuff page to remove the part which said they choose the ATI card because in the $200-$300 range there wasn’t a 2GB card from Nvidia.

    The 560 Ti come in a 2GB version that is $279 at newegg.

    Which according to the double stuff page (Edit: TR removed the part I am referencing here) means you should correct the main one and move the ati cards to the alternatives.

      • Airmantharp
      • 9 years ago

      All of these builds consider price, and try to minimize it; hence, the 970 quad core now that it’s dropped to $599. Spending more money on near-useless features would go against the spirit of this guide.

      Now, mentioning that you might want to get a card with more memory if you’re lucky enough to be using a 30″ display would be prudent I think, but again, this has to be in context.

        • thesmileman
        • 9 years ago

        I thought comments were per page and that I was commenting on the double stuff workstation. Also as you can see in my above edit of my post TR removed the part where they said they chose the ATI cards over the NVIDIAs because of memory specifically for high resolution systems and the Nvidia parts did have 2GB versions.

    • UberGerbil
    • 9 years ago

    And not a moment too soon!

      • dpaus
      • 9 years ago

      No, not ‘a moment’, about 3 weeks…

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