reviewtrs spring 2011 system guide

TR’s Spring 2011 system guide

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From the first time I laid eyes on the sweet Miss Sandy Bridge, I knew she had to be mine. Intel’s new girl first strutted her stuff in early January, but it turns out she plays hard to get. Sandy wanted to see if we’d really hold off on that system purchase until she was good and ready. And, well, there was also this embarrassing little chipset bug she needed to get taken care of before we could really be, you know, intimate.

That bug was a flaw with the Serial ATA implementation of the accompanying 6-series chipsets—Sandy’s baggage, as it were. Almost as suddenly as our love affair with Intel’s latest starlet began, the whole thing came grinding to a halt. That was more than two months ago, and we’ve eagerly awaited the arrival of new motherboards with fixed B3-revision chipsets ever since. Those boards have finally started turning up at online retailers, prompting a much-needed refresh of our system guide.

Sandy’s the sort of girl who can dress down for the Econobox or slip into something expensive and glamorous for the Double-Stuff Workstation, so her fingerprints are all over this edition of the guide. She’s not the only new girl in town, either. A couple of cute little budget GPUs from AMD and Nvidia have turned heads since our last system guide was published, and several new SSDs have put themselves on the market. Sandy might be the star, but there’s plenty of new hotness to go around. To celebrate the occasion, we’ve concocted some tantalizingly potent configurations to suit a range of budgets. So, let’s get down to it.

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 $600, $900, $1,500, and around $3,000. Within each budget, we will attempt to hit the sweet spot of performance and value while mentally juggling variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the manufacturer’s size and reputation. We’ll try to avoid both overly cheap parts and needlessly expensive ones. We’ll also favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.

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

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

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

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

The Econobox may be the baby of the bunch, but it can handle a little bit of everything, including modern games in all their glory. We haven’t scraped the bottom of the bargain bin or cut any corners, resulting in a surprisingly potent budget build.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X4 840 3.2GHz $109.99
Motherboard Asus M4A87TD EVO $109.99
Memory Corsair 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $39.99
Graphics Gigabyte Radeon HD 6850 1GB $174.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $59.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $20.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec One Hundred $49.99
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $44.99
Total $610.92

AMD cut processor prices after Sandy Bridge arrived, allowing the quad-core Phenom II X4 840 to slip comfortably into the Econobox’s tight budget. Really, it’s hard to argue with four 3.2GHz Phenom cores for just over $100. The individual cores are fast enough to handle single-threaded apps and games, and there are enough of ’em in reserve for obsessive multitaskers.

So, what about Miss Sandy? She’s an expensive date. The cheapest Sandy Bridge CPU on the market right now costs $15 more than the Phenom II X4 840, and that’s before factoring in the comparatively high cost of 6-series motherboards. Quite a few cheaper 6-series mobos seem to be out of stock online, further compounding the issue. We do, however, have some suggestions for a Sandy Bridge spin on the Econobox covered in our alternatives section on the next page.

The Phenom II X4 840 was paired with Asus’ M4A87TD EVO motherboard in our last guide, and we see no reason to break up the two here. Indeed, the EVO is a perfect example of just how much goodness you can get in an inexpensive Socket AM3 motherboard. It has all the trappings of a contemporary enthusiast board, including USB 3.0, 6Gbps SATA, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet, and eSATA connectivity. You also get a second physical PCI Express x16 slot (albeit with only four lanes of bandwidth) and a digital audio output. Try finding a comparable feature set with a 6-series motherboard for anything close to the EVO’s $110 asking price.

Cheaper Socket AM3 alternatives are available, but then you have to sacrifice features like FireWire, eSATA, and the extra PCIe x16 slot. We’ve gone with the EVO over a similarly equipped but slightly cheaper model from Gigabyte because Asus tends to do a much better job with BIOS-level fan speed controls. PCs should be as quiet as possible.

Memory is relatively cheap these days, so we don’t have to splurge to put 4GB of RAM into the Econobox. We’re spending a little more to get name-brand DIMMs equipped with heatspreaders, though. At $45 for 4GB, we can afford the extra couple of bucks. These Corsair modules are good for speeds up to 1333MHz at the standard DDR3 voltage of 1.5V.

As we mentioned in the intro, AMD and Nvidia have released new $150 graphics cards since our last guide was published. We’ve reviewed both of them—the Radeon HD 6790 and the GeForce GTX 550 Ti—but don’t like either for the Econobox. While the cards cost what you might expect given the performance they deliver, you’re better off spending a little extra on the much more potent Radeon HD 6850. For just $175, the 6850 delivers much better overall performance than the latest budget offerings from AMD and Nvidia.

This particular Gigabyte model has faster GPU and memory speeds than stock-clocked 6850s, so you get a touch of extra oomph right out of the box. The card also features a dual-fan cooler that, based on our experience with other Gigabyte GPU coolers that share a similar design, should be pretty quiet.

Samsung’s SpinPoint F3 1TB hard drive is a favorite of ours. It took home an Editor’s Choice award in our round-up of 7,200-RPM terabyte hard drives on the strength of excellent all-around performance and surprisingly low noise levels. Simply put, you won’t find a better desktop drive for around $60. We’re not the only ones smitten with the drive, either. The SpinPoint has become so popular that Newegg has trouble keeping it in stock.

The Econobox doesn’t need a fancy optical drive, so we’ve selected a basic Asus model with more than a thousand five-star ratings on Newegg. For about $20, the DRW-24B1ST offers DVD burning speeds up to 24X behind a black face plate that will blend in nicely with our system’s enclosure.

The Antec One Hundred has dropped in price by $10 since we featured the case in our last system guide. Now just $50, the One Hundred is a phenomenal deal for anyone looking for a stealthy enclosure. In addition to cut-outs that facilitate clean cable routing and provide access to the CPU socket’s back plate, Antec throws in a 2.5″ drive bay for SSDs and four front-mounted USB ports. The included 120- and 140-mm fans should offer adequate cooling for our Econobox config, and the whole case is nicely finished in black. Good luck finding a better budget mid-tower.

Power supply
Repeat after me: friends don’t let friends use crappy PSUs. We don’t need a lot of juice to power the Econobox, but that doesn’t mean we’re gonna skimp on a no-name PSU that weighs less than a bag of chips. Antec’s EarthWatts Green 380W PSU is a solid choice that offers enough wattage for the Econobox alongside 80 Plus Bronze certification. Good budget PSUs can be hard to find, but the EarthWatts has proven its mettle solo and when sold inside Antec’s own cases.

Econobox alternatives
We couldn’t keep Sandy Bridge out of the Econobox completely, now could we?

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz $124.99
Motherboard Asus P8P67 LE $144.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 460 768MB $149.99
Storage WD Caviar Black 1TB $89.99

Thanks to the wonders of Hyper-Threading, the Core i3-2100 matches the thread count of the Phenom II X4 from our primary recommendations with only two physical cores. The cheapest member of the Sandy Bridge desktop lineup does cost $15 more than the Phenom, but we can understand why some folks might be inclined to pay a small premium to get a taste of Intel’s latest. After all, the i3-2100 offers better gaming performance than the Phenom while consuming considerably less power.

Although B3-revision motherboards have started to become available online, the pickings are still a little slim at the budget end of the spectrum, especially among ATX offerings. Of the boards available right now, we think Asus’ P8P67 LE is the best option. Sure, it’s a little expensive at $145 online, but the board serves up all the features you’d expect from an enthusiast-oriented model. The LE also features Asus’ excellent UEFI BIOS, which is much better than all the other attempts at next-gen BIOSes we’ve seen to date.

If you take away the chipsets and sockets, you’ll notice that the P8P67 LE has a similar set of features to the M4A87TD EVO from the previous page. The Sandy Bridge board costs $35 more, which is why you often see AMD trumpeting the lower platform costs associated with its CPUs.

The Radeon HD 6850 from our primary recommendations is a pretty sweet deal. However, the point of the Econobox is pinching pennies, and there’s $25 to be saved by stepping down to a GeForce GTX 460 768MB. The GTX 460 may be a little slower than the Radeon (especially at higher resolutions where 768MB of memory becomes a hindrance), but it’s still very capable of playing the hottest games with smooth frame rates and plenty of eye candy. This particular MSI model comes with a swanky dual-fan cooler and higher-than-stock clock speeds of 750MHz for the GPU core and 1500MHz for the shaders. By default, the GTX 460 has a 675MHz core and 1350MHz shaders.

Although the SpinPoint F3 is easily the best all-around value in a desktop hard drive, it’s missing one little thing: a five-year warranty. Like just about every other desktop drive, the SpinPoint is covered by a three-year warranty. Only premium models like Western Digital’s Caviar Black 1TB offer five years of coverage.

Of course, the Black also has a premium price and higher noise levels than the SpinPoint, which is why it’s an alternative rather than the primary recommendation. The Caviar is a little bit faster overall, but that’s not enough to tip the scales in its favor.

The Utility Player
Stunning value short on compromise

The Econobox doesn’t skimp on cut-rate hardware, but we did have to make some sacrifices to keep the system on budget. Our budget grows with the Utility Player, allowing us to spec a stacked system for well under $900.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-2500K 3.3GHz $224.99
Motherboard Asus P8P67 LE $144.99
Memory Corsair XMS 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $49.99
Graphics Asus Radeon HD 6870 1GB $219.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $59.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $20.99
Audio Asus Xonar DG $29.99
Enclosure Antec One Hundred $49.99
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 500W $69.99
Total $870.91

The Core i5-2500K is arguably the best value in Intel’s Sandy Bridge lineup. For just $225, it offers four cores clocked at 3.3GHz with a 3.7GHz Turbo peak. More importantly, the K designation denotes the presence of unlocked multipliers that, due to how Intel has architected Sandy’s internal clock, are really the only way to get a decent overclock out of the CPU.

In our experience, Sandy Bridge CPUs have loads of overclocking headroom just waiting to be exploited by a little multiplier fiddling. Even at stock speeds, the 2500K has better performance and lower power consumption than anything else in its class. There’s really no better CPU for the Utility Player.

If the Utility Player’s P8P67 LE motherboard looks familiar, that’s because it appeared in the Econobox alternatives on the previous page. There’s no reason to change boards just because we’ve switched the CPU over to a 2500K. Tapping the unlocked multipliers of K-series CPUs requires a P67 chipset, and the LE is one of the cheapest P67 boards online at just $145.

We didn’t choose the LE just because it’s cheap, though. The board also happens to feature the best UEFI BIOS implementation around. Couple that with a wide range of connectivity options and a second PCI Express x16 slot, and you’ve got a very appealing entry-level enthusiast board.

The unlocked memory multiplier on K-series CPUs makes it easy to run fancy DIMMs at high speeds. We haven’t found much real-world performance benefit to pairing Sandy Bridge CPUs with ultra-fast memory. However, we couldn’t resist spending $5 more on some slightly more exotic Corsair XMS modules for the Utility Player. These DIMMs are rated for operation at speeds up to 1600MHz, so you’ll get a little more memory bandwidth without going overboard or spending too much.

A string of graphics card releases has flooded the market with fresh products over the last few months. To make room for these new entrants, prices have fallen on existing models, including members of the Radeon HD 6800 family. Take the Radeon HD 6870, which launched at $240 last fall and was often seen selling for quite a bit more. Today, hot-clocked versions like this Asus model are down to $220.

With performance that falls between the Radeon HD 6850 and 6950 1GB, the 6870 offers a nice step up from the graphics card in the Econobox without busting our budget. The GeForce GTX 560 Ti is also an intriguing option in this segment of the market, but we prefer the Radeon for its slightly lower price.

Yeah, we just copied the storage section from the Econobox. You caught us. Here’s the thing: you won’t find a better 7,200-RPM desktop drive than the SpinPoint F3, and we wouldn’t spend any more on a DVD burner than the $21 we’re dropping on the Asus model listed above. If we were going to open our wallets for anything else on the storage front, it’d be on an SSD that would put us way over budget. So, we’ve put an SSD into the alternatives section instead.

If your PC’s audio output is piped through a set of iPod earbuds or a crappy pair of speakers old enough to be beige, you’re probably fine using the Utility Player’s integrated motherboard audio. Ditto if you’re piping audio to a compatible receiver or speakers over a digital S/PDIF connection. However, if you’ve spent more than the cost of dinner and a movie on a set of halfway decent analog headphones and speakers, you’d do well to upgrade to Asus’ excellent Xonar DG sound card. According to the results of our blind listening tests, this $30 wonder is a cut above integrated audio and even sounds better than cards that cost several times as much. The Xonar DG has a TR Editor’s Choice award in its trophy cabinet, too.

Antec’s Sonata III enclosure has popped up in several Utility Player builds. However, the old-school design is getting a little long in the tooth, and we really like the modern touches applied to the newer One Hundred case used in the Econobox. With an upside-down design, good cable routing options, and a handy cut-out behind the CPU socket, the One Hundred should be easier to work with than the Sonata. The One Hundred also has more front-panel USB ports, an extra fan, and an internal 2.5″ drive bay for the SSD upgrade in our alternatives section.

Power supply
One of the nice things about the Sonata is the Antec PSU that comes with the case. The One Hundred is sold sans PSU, so we’ve selected a 500W unit from PC Power & Cooling’s venerable Silencer line. Silencer PSUs have powered many of the systems we use to test hardware here at TR, and we’ve been impressed by their stable operation, low noise levels, and high efficiency. This 500W model looks like it was designed specifically for Dell, but that won’t stop us from putting it inside the Utility Player. $70 is an excellent price on a PSU with this much power, a solid reputation, and five years of warranty coverage.

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

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X6 1090T BE 3.2GHz $199.99
Motherboard Asus M4A87TD EVO $109.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $103.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB OC $189.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1GB OC $234.99
Storage Intel 320 Series 120GB $239.99
WD Caviar Green 2TB $79.99
LG WH10LS30 Blu-ray burner $89.99

Not swayed by Sandy’s charms? Perhaps AMD’s Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition is more your style. This six-core CPU has two more cores than the Core i5-2500K from our primary recommendations. As a Black Edition model, the 1090T also offers an unlocked upper multiplier that makes overclocking a snap.

The 1090T will be slower than the 2500K in most tasks, and it’ll consume more power at idle and under load. You’ll save a good $60 going the AMD route, though. The CPU is $25 cheaper, and the lower cost of Socket AM3 motherboards makes up the rest. There’s also a slight chance you’ll get a warm, fuzzy feeling from supporting the CPU industry’s perennial underdog.

We could actually spend a little less on an AM3 motherboard and still get features like 6Gbps SATA and USB 3.0. In a system like the Utility Player, however, we’d rather have all the bells and whistles included on the Asus M4A87TD EVO. After all, those extras are only setting us back $110, which is barely enough to get a basic Sandy Bridge board.

With memory prices as low as they are, it’s mighty tempting to upgrade the Utility Player to 8GB of RAM. Doing so only adds $50 to the cost of the system, and we don’t have to populate all of the motherboard’s DIMM slots. Corsair’s 8GB Vengeance kit serves up a pair of 4GB modules for an even $100. The Vengeance modules are good for speeds up to 1600MHz on just 1.5V, and you can always add a second pair when 8GB of RAM becomes passé.

The world of PC graphics is particularly polarized along fanboy lines, so we’ve come up with a couple of alternatives to our Radeon recommendation for folks who prefer to shop in the green aisle. If you’re looking to save a few bucks, it’s hard to go wrong with a GeForce GTX 460 1GB on steroids. This Gigabyte model has higher-than-stock GPU clocks and a dual-fan cooler that should be pretty quiet.

For $50 more than its hot-clocked GTX 460, Gigabyte offers a similar spin on Nvidia’s newer GeForce GTX 560 Ti. This card should offer performance similar to the Radeon HD 6870 from the previous page, and it only costs $15 more.

We know you’re hot for solid-state storage. So are we. SSDs are a little too pricey to squeeze into our standard Utility Player configuration, but they’re perfect upgrade fodder. Initially, we were leaning toward a new version of OCZ’s Vertex 2 using 25-nano flash. However, we’ve seen reports of that drive offering lower performance than its 34-nm forebear and less usable storage capacity. Intel’s new 320 Series 120GB costs a little more than the Vertex and probably won’t be quite as fast with highly random access patterns. We doubt users will notice, though. The difference in responsiveness between a mechanical hard drive and a competent SSD is much larger than the gap between individual SSD models. We’re also comforted by the low failure rates we’ve seen reported for Intel SSDs. It’s best not to mess around when dealing with something that holds your precious data.

The 320 Series’ 120GB capacity probably won’t be enough to house your massive MP3 collection, movie archive, Steam folder, and all those Linux ISOs you’ve been downloading off BitTorrent. Secondary storage is in order, and that’s best handled by a mechanical hard drive. If that drive will be housing games you want to load quickly, we’d stick with the SpinPoint from the previous page. However, if you’re more interested in the capacity of your secondary drive, Western Digital’s Caviar Green 2TB doubles the SpinPoint’s terabyte for only $20 more. A 5,400-RPM spindle speed does hinder the Green’s performance, but it also makes the drive a quiet sidekick for a silent SSD.

DVDs are so last decade. Blu-ray is in, and compatible burners are surprisingly cheap these days. LG’s WH10LS30 costs only $90, yet it can burn Blu-ray discs at speeds up to 10X. You could spend more on a Blu-ray burner, but we don’t see the point, especially when this one comes with LightScribe support.

The Sweeter Spot
Indulgence without excess

Staying within the Utility Player’s budget requires a measure of restraint. With the Sweeter Spot, we’ve loosened the purse strings to accommodate beefier hardware and additional functionality.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz $314.99
Motherboard Asus P8P67 PRO $189.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $103.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB $244.99
Storage Intel 320 Series 120GB $239.99
Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $59.99
LG WH10LS30 Blu-ray burner $89.99
Audio Asus Xonar DG $29.99
Enclosure Corsair Graphite Series 600T $159.99
Power supply Corsair TX750W $109.99
Total $1,543.90

At first glance, the Core i7-2600K may look like little more than a 100MHz clock-speed jump over the i5-2600K from the Utility Player. There’s more to the i7 than marginally higher clock speeds, though. Despite sharing the same quad-core silicon as the 2500K, the 2600K has Hyper-Threading support that allows it to process eight threads in parallel. That additional capacity won’t come in handy unless you’re a compulsive multitasker or use applications that are effectively multithreaded. However, anyone considering dropping $1,500 on a system probably falls into one of those camps, if not both.

Also, you’ll totally get a kick out of seeing eight cores in the Windows Task Manager.

When you think about it, the 2600K’s $315 asking price is really quite reasonable. This is Intel’s real desktop flagship—the sweet Miss Sandy all dolled up.

The Asus P8P67 LE is a nice board, but its second PCI Express x16 slot only has four lanes of bandwidth. That just won’t do for the Sweeter Spot, which we’d like to have a pair of x16 slots capable of running in a dual-x8 configuration for CrossFire or SLI. The P8P67 PRO is the cheapest member of Asus’ Sandy Bridge lineup that fits the bill, and it includes a number of other perks: integrated Bluetooth, additional internal and external SATA connectivity, and a third PCIe x16 slot.

At $190 online, the PRO certainly isn’t cheap. Still, it’s an Editor’s Choice winner that offers more extras and a much better BIOS than rivals in the same price range. We expected other motherboard makers to be more competitive with their Sandy Bridge offerings, but Asus really hit it out of the park with the P8P67 family.

We couldn’t resist going with 8GB of RAM for the Sweeter Spot. The extra $50 is a drop in the bucket when you consider the total cost of the system. We’ve been using these particular Vengeance modules on several of our Sandy Bridge test systems for months now, and they haven’t given us any issues.

The new Cayman GPU behind the Radeon HD 6900 series offers several improvements over the Barts silicon found in the 6800 family, such as better antialiasing, geometry processing, and shader scheduling. When Cayman debuted, the cheapest version was a Radeon HD 6950 2GB that cost $300. Today, you can get a 1GB flavor of the very same card for only $245. A gig of graphics memory should still be plenty for most folks, especially those running 24″ monitors.

XFX’s stock-clocked take on the 6950 1GB is one of the cheapest options available right now. It also comes with a “double-lifetime” warranty that covers the card through its first resale, which is a nice upgrade over the three-year warranties typical of graphics cards. Sold!

The Sweeter Spot’s generous budget allows us to spec the system with an SSD, and we’re sticking with the Intel 320 Series 120GB from our Utility Player alternatives. Although the 320 Series isn’t the fastest option on the market, its performance is competitive with other SSDs in the same price range. Flubbed firmware updates aside, Intel SSDs also have an excellent reputation for reliability.

For secondary storage, we’re sticking with the SpinPoint F3 for one reason: games. Once you add up the footprint of Windows 7, associated applications, and all the data we’d want on our solid-state system drive, there isn’t going to be a whole lot of room left for games or a Steam folder overstuffed with the spoils of all too many impulse purchases. The 7,200-RPM SpinPoint will load games noticeably faster than low-power alternatives, and it’s quiet enough to leave no room for regret.

Would you spend $1,500 on a new system without a Blu-ray burner? Probably not. LG’s $90 WH10LS30 is the cheapest option available at Newegg, and we see no reason to spend more.

The results of our blind listening tests suggest that Asus’ $30 Xonar DG more than holds its own against pricier sound cards. Since spending more won’t necessarily get us something that sounds better, we’re going to stick with the Xonar DG and save our audio upgrade for the alternatives section.

Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T is arguably the best PC case on the market right now. This Editor’s Choice winner may be a little expensive at $160, but we view that as an investment likely to pay dividends for years. The case is a delight to work in and offers loads of expansion capacity, cooling options, and thoughtful little touches. Throw in USB 3.0 ports up front, mounting holes for 2.5″ drives in every 3.5″ bay, and understated good looks, and the 600T has everything we look for in a home for the Sweeter Spot.

Power supply
Like most high-end cases, the 600T is sold without a PSU. There are several good candidates for this build, but none is sweeter than Corsair’s own TX750W. The PSU’s 750W capacity gives us plenty of room for upgrades, and there are enough PCIe power connectors to fuel demanding two-way CrossFire or SLI configs.

We’re mindful not to put too much stock into Newegg user reviews, but the fact that the TX750W has more than 1,700 five-star ratings can’t be ignored. Only about 230 user reviews give the PSU three stars or less, which is really quite impressive.

Sweeter Spot alternatives
Believe it or not, the Sweeter Spot can get even tastier.

Component Item Price
Motherboard Asus Sabertooth P67 $219.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1GB OC $234.99
Storage Intel 510 Series 120GB $284.99
WD Caviar Green 2TB $79.99
WD Caviar Green 2TB $79.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $91.99
TV Tuner Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 2250 $109.99
AVS Gear MCE remote $21.20

There’s no improving upon the Core i7-2600K without switching sockets. However, we can splurge on a nicer motherboard to go along with Sandy’s finest. Asus’ Sabertooth P67 has all the important bits from the P8P67 PRO, like a slick UEFI BIOS, dual-x8 CrossFire and SLI support, and loads of connectivity options. To that foundation, Asus adds higher-grade electrical components and backs up claims of improved durability with five years of warranty coverage—two more than you get with most mobos.

As an added twist, the Sabertooth P67 has a nifty shroud dubbed Thermal Armor. This plastic skin is designed to direct residual airflow around the CPU socket to cool surface-level components like the chipset and USB 3.0 controller. At the same time, the shroud’s smooth exterior is said to encourage cleaner airflow within a system’s chassis.

The jacked-up clock speeds on Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC might not be enough to catch the Radeon HD 6950 that serves as our first choice, but the GeForce is slightly cheaper. Either of those cards is going to be comfortable playing the latest games with all their eye candy turned up plus healthy doses of antialiasing and anisotropic filtering on monitors as large as 24″. You should be able to get smooth frame rates on even larger displays if you’re willing to back off on the AA and aniso.

Intel’s 320 Series SSD is the best mid-range option on the market right now. If you’re willing to spend a little more, though, you can get an even faster drive that will take full advantage of our motherboard’s 6Gbps SATA ports. The drive we really want to recommend is OCZ’s Vertex 3 128GB, which is currently out of stock at Newegg. Our second choice is Intel’s 510 Series 120GB, which just happens to be $15 cheaper than the Vertex. Given the difference in performance between higher-capacity versions of the same drives, that sounds like a reasonable discount.

At least two TR editors run mirrored RAID 1 arrays in their primary desktops, so we have an appreciation for built-in redundancy. RAIDing SSDs would be too expensive, so we’re pairing up a couple of Caviar Greens to serve as secondary storage. Mirroring won’t protect your data from viruses or other forms of corruption, but it does offer a real-time backup should one drive meet an untimely demise. We like that peace of mind.

The Xonar DG is awesome, no doubt about it. As one might expect from a budget card, however, the DG lacks some of the features available on more expensive Xonars. One of those is the ability to encode Dolby Digital Live bitstreams on the fly. Real-time encoding is a handy feature for gamers who want to pass multichannel audio over a single digital cable rather than a bundle of analog ones. The Xonar DX is up to the task, and it carries on the Xonar tradition of impeccable analog sound quality, as well.

TV Tuner
With Windows 7’s built-in PVR capabilities, it’s mighty tempting to add a TV tuner to the Sweeter spot. The Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 2250 bundle we usually recommend is out of stock at the moment, but you can buy the card on its own for $110. Throw in a cheap MCE-compatible remote, and you’re good to go.

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

The Sweeter Spot is a nice step up from the Utility Player—but it’s a small step, all things considered. The Double-Stuff is more of a leap in both hardware and budget.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-970 $594.99
Motherboard Asus P6X58D-E $229.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 12GB (3 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $154.99
Graphics MSI Radeon HD 6950 2GB $269.99
MSI Radeon HD 6950 2GB $269.99
Storage Intel 510 Series 250GB $614.99
Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 3TB $179.99
Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 3TB $179.99
LG WH10LS30K Blu-ray burner $89.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $91.99
Power supply Corsair HX850W $164.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian 800D $274.99
Total $3,116.88

Gulftown sees Sandy Bridge’s four cores and raises her two. Throw in Hyper-Threading, and the Core i7-970 will juggle an even dozen threads in parallel. Sandy’s going to be faster in games and applications that aren’t highly multithreaded. However, workstation users are far more likely to be using heavily multithreaded apps, and they’ll probably benefit from the third memory channel that Gulftown provides.

There’s another thing, too. Sandy Bridge has only 16 lanes of built-in PCI Express connectivity, limiting its CrossFire and SLI support to dual-x8 configs. Gulftown’s X58 Express chipset has enough PCIe bandwidth to supply a pair of graphics cards with 16 lanes each, and it can also handle exotic three- and four-way setups with the right motherboard. Oh my.

We don’t actually need a motherboard with four-way SLI support, but we’ll take one that’ll do a three-way. Asus’ P6X58D-E has a trio of PCI Express x16 slots that can be configured as x16/x16/x1 or x16/x8/x8. The board also features all the ports and connectivity options we covet most, including USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA.

There are a number of relatively affordable X58 boards on the market, but we’ve gone with an Asus because they tend to offer better BIOS-level fan speed controls than the competition. We don’t need the Double-Stuff to be unnecessarily loud, and it’s frustrating that some mobo makers give users so little control over something as vital as the behavior of their system’s CPU fan.

Why didn’t we go with Asus’ Sabertooth X58, which has the same 5-year warranty as its P67 cousin and costs $30 less than the P6X58D-E? Gigabit Ethernet. Specifically, the Sabertooth X58 board’s reliance on a slow PCI-based networking chip that caps throughput at around 700Mbps—more than 200Mbps shy of what you get with PCI Express GigE chips. Adding a PCIe x1 networking card to the Sabertooth would alleviate the issue, but we have other plans for the Double-Stuff’s expansion slots.

At least three DIMMs are required to fully tap Gulftown’s triple-channel memory controller. Corsair has a 12GB Vengeance kit that fits the bill and still leaves half of the motherboard’s memory slots available for future upgrades.

We envision the Double-Stuff attached to at least one 30″ monitor, if not a wall of large displays packing some serious megapixels. To keep gaming frame rates smooth, we’re gonna need at least two GPUs. Squeezing them onto a single card like the Radeon HD 6990 is fraught with problems, including high noise levels and a hefty price premium. Instead, we’re going to kick it old-school with a traditional CrossFire config using a pair of Radeon HD 6950 2GB cards. These MSI cards are the cheapest ones available from a big-name manufacturer, and their 2GB memory footprint is perfect for ultra-high-res gaming.

Even worse than the 120GB Vertex 3 being out of stock at Newegg is the fact that a 240GB variant isn’t even listed yet. The 240GB drives were put into production after the 120s, and we’ll have to wait even longer for them to arrive. Fortunately, a 250GB version of Intel’s 510 Series SSD is already out, and it’s almost as fast as a Vertex 3 240GB. Brace yourself, though. The 510 Series’ $615 asking price is as steep as you’d expect from a drive that’s waiting on its most dangerous rival.

Our last system guide paired the Double-Stuff’s solid-state system drive with a pair of 2TB Caviar Blacks. This time around, and for only $10 more per drive, we’re going with a pair of Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000s with 50% more capacity. Amazingly, these 7,200-RPM Deskstars are cheaper than Western Digital’s 3TB Caviar Greens, which have a much slower 5,400-RPM spindle speed.

Our LG Blu-ray burner almost feels a little too pedestrian for a system as exotic as the Double-Stuff. Good luck finding an exciting alternative in the world of optical storage.

The Xonar DX offers the best of both worlds: excellent analog signal quality combined with the ability to encode multi-channel digital bitstreams on the fly. Audiophiles with fancy headphones might want to consider indulging in our alternative sound card, though.

Our second-favorite workstation enclosure, the Cooler Master Cosmos, has gone out of stock at Newegg. That leaves no question that Corsair’s Obsidian Series 800D is the best case for the Double-Stuff. This beastly tower has something for everyone, including hot-swap drive bays, an upside-down internal layout, loads of cable routing cut-outs, and that all-important access panel to the socket backplate area. With three 140-mm fans, the 850D should have plenty of airflow to keep this loaded rig cool, and you can add more fans or liquid cooling if you’d like.

More than anything else, we love how easy it is to build a system inside the 850D. The case’s cavernous internals were made to accommodate multiple graphics cards, hard drives, and the mess of cabling that goes along with them.

Power supply
Most of that cabling comes from the power supply, and we’re gonna need a beefy one to handle everything that’s been packed into the Double-Stuff. This 850W Corsair unit looks like just the ticket. 80 Plus Silver certification ensures the system won’t pull too much wattage when it’s idling, and there’s plenty of power on tap when you want to fire up that CrossFire tandem for some gaming. The HX serves up six 6+2-pin PCIe connectors for three-way graphics configs, too.

In a market loaded with high-wattage PSUs, the HX Series stands out thanks to its modular cables and seven-year warranty. The PSU’s blacked-out exterior is a little more subdued, but that’ll blend in nicely with the Double-Stuff’s enclosure.

Double-Stuff alternatives
Well well, Sandy Bridge has infiltrated all four of our builds.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz $314.99
Motherboard Asus Sabertooth P67 $219.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $103.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 570 1280MB $334.99
MSI GeForce GTX 570 1280MB $334.99
MSI Radeon HD 6970 2GB $339.99
MSI Radeon HD 6970 2GB $339.99
Storage Intel 320 Series 120GB $239.99
WD Caviar Green 2TB $79.99
WD Caviar Green 2TB $79.99
Audio Asus Xonar Xense $289.34
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 910W $179.99
TV tuner Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 2250 $109.99
AVS Gear MCE remote $21.20

As impressive as Gulftown’s six cores are, we’d almost rather have four of Sandy’s. Besides, the Core i7-2600K is about half the price of the i7-970 from our primary recommendations. And it’s easier to overclock. And it comes with 6-series chipsets that offer native 6Gbps SATA support. And… well, you get the picture. Unless you require Gulftown’s extra cores, memory channels, or PCIe lanes, the Double-Stuff is better off succumbing to Sandy’s charms.

Switching the CPU over to a 2600K necessitates a new motherboard, and we think the Sabertooth P67 is absolutely the right choice for this workstation build. The board has all the expansion slots we need, and the extra warranty coverage is much appreciated. Plus, if any system can benefit from the improved thermals that the Sabertooth’s outer skin is supposed to provide, it’ll be an overstuffed rig like this one.

Although the Radeon HD 6950 2GB is a pretty good deal, there’s a good case to be made for stepping up to a couple of more expensive cards like the GeForce GTX 570 or Radeon HD 6970. As with the 6950 from our primary recs, MSI has the least expensive options of all the big-name manufacturers.

So, which do you choose when there’s only a $5 difference between ’em? Gamers are probably better off with a couple of 6970s, whose additional graphics memory will surely come in handy with future games and at extremely high resolutions. However, if you’re the sort of workstation user who likes to dabble in programming and might be interested in playing around with GPU-accelerated computing, the GeForce cards are backed by a much more robust CUDA API.

Want to scale the Double-Stuff’s storage payload back a bit? Pop in a cheaper, smaller SSD like Intel’s 320 Series 120GB and drop the secondary storage array down to a pair of 2TB Caviar Greens. The resulting storage configuration is nicely balanced and still costs quite a bit less than just the SSD component of our primary recommendation.

We’ve called the Xense a sort of greatest hits package for the Xonar lineup. The card has everything: replaceable OPAMPs, excellent analog playback quality, real-time multichannel encoding capabilities, and chunky 1/4″ headphone and microphone jacks. Heck, it even comes with a PC-350 gaming headset from Sennheiser. The $300 asking price might seem steep, but it’s actually quite reasonable for a high-end sound card and headset.

Power Supply
Yep, we’re big fans of PC Power & Cooling’s Silencer series. This 910W unit is a nice alternative to the Corsair PSU on the previous page. You don’t get modular cables, but there’s 60W more under the hood and 80 Plus Silver certification for good measure. One word of caution: the Silencer may have six PCIe power connectors, but only two of them have eight pins. Despite its lower wattage rating, the Corsair unit is better equipped to tackle multiple power-hungry graphics cards.

TV tuner
Why would you hook an HD tuner card and remote up to a workstation? Why not? The duo doesn’t add much to the system’s total cost, and thanks to Windows 7’s built-in PVR functionality, you’ll never have to miss an episode of Jersey Shore.

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.

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 Utility Player 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 Utility Player 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 or the pricey GeForce GTX 590.

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.

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.

Well, that was quite an update. Four systems, four different ways to get a taste of Sandy Bridge. She may not be the best option for every budget, but we’re really rather impressed with the flexibility—and affordability—of Intel’s new girl.

A fresh challenge to her dominance looms just over the horizon, though. AMD has already begun shipping production-grade Llano APUs, and they’re likely to hit the market before our next guide update is due. Llano will surely make a play for the Econobox. The 2500K is probably safe in the Utility Player, but Llano’s built-in Radeon could be good enough to warrant us revisiting a cheaper integrated graphics build.

On the Intel front, we can look forward to a new Z68 chipset in a couple of months’ time. Next-gen SSDs like Crucial’s m4 and OCZ’s Vertex 3 should be readily available soon, and something tells me that AMD and Nvidia might be cooking up some new graphics goodness for Computex in early June. That’s a couple of months away, so enjoy the calm while it lasts.

Geoff Gasior

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