We presently stand at a crossroads in the realm of PC hardware. AMD and Nvidia have expertly arranged their various graphics processors to match each other dollar-for-dollar, and we’re enjoying an abundance of memory, storage, enclosures, and other components with unprecedentedly low prices. Yet we’re still waiting for AMD to unleash its answer to Sandy Bridge—first with mainstream Llano accelerated processing units, then with Bulldozer-based FX CPUs to fill out the middle and high end of the spectrum.
Unfortunately, not all of us have the luxury of being able to wait. For users who need to buy a PC now, the promise of fresh AMD chips that may or may not be competitive showing up in several weeks or months isn’t much help.
This summer edition of our system guide is for users who desperately need to ditch their tattered old gaming rigs or desktops sitting on the brink of obsolescence. We’ve tweaked our four usual system configurations to reap the rewards of today’s exceptionally cheap, fast, and capable components. Although you may ask yourself after the fact, “what if I’d waited,” we doubt you’ll regret jumping the gun. In fact, we’ve made provisions in some of our builds to provide an upgrade path to Bulldozer.
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 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.
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.
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X4 840 3.2GHz||$104.99|
|Motherboard||Asus M4A87TD EVO||$104.99|
|Memory||Corsair 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$39.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon HD 6850 1GB||$169.99|
|Storage||Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB||$64.99|
|Enclosure||Antec One Hundred||$54.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
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.
Why not give Sandy a chance? Well, early benchmarks around the web suggest that Intel’s new Sandy Bridge-based Pentiums are a fair bit slower than this Phenom. The Core i3-2100 outruns its AMD rival, but it also costs $20 more. We’re not too thrilled about stretching our budget—and stretching there would be. In addition to being more expensive, Core i3 CPUs require 6-series motherboards that are less affordable than AMD counterparts with equivalent features. We’ll save the Intel gear for our alternative selections on the next page.
Asus’ M4A87TD 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 asking price.
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, and we like having control over such variables.
Note that this board doesn’t have support for AMD’s upcoming Bulldozer processors—see our alternatives on the next page for a pricier model with the AM3+ socket required for the next-gen chip. Cheaper AM3+ offerings do exist, but they either have microATX form factors with fewer expansion slots or a dearth of I/O connectors. (One model, whose name we shan’t mention, even trades some USB 2.0 connectivity for old-school parallel and serial ports.) We think ampler connectivity will be more immediately useful than the option to upgrade to a faster processor down the line.
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.
AMD and Nvidia both recently introduced graphics cards that would appear to be ripe for the Econobox: the GeForce GTX 550 Ti and Radeon HD 6790. These cards are plenty fast, and they’ve come down in price since their release. However, our budget allows us to spring for the Radeon HD 6850, which lies higher up the food chain and packs a much stronger punch.
This particular Gigabyte model has faster GPU and memory speeds than reference-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.
Now just $55, the Antec One Hundred is a phenomenal deal for anyone seeking 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.
Repeat after me: friends don’t let friends use shoddy power supplies. We don’t need a lot of juice to power the Econobox, but that doesn’t mean we’re gonna skimp on the PSU and grab a unit that weighs less than a bag of chips. Antec’s EarthWatts Green 380W is a solid choice that offers 80 Plus Bronze certification with enough wattage for the Econobox. Good budget PSUs can be hard to find, but the EarthWatts has proven its mettle solo and when sold inside Antec’s own cases.
We couldn’t keep Sandy Bridge out of the Econobox completely, now could we?
|Processor||Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz||$124.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8P67 LE||$139.99|
|Asus M5A88-V EVO||$129.99|
|Graphics||Asus GeForce GTX 460 1GB||$159.99|
|Storage||WD Caviar Black 1TB||$89.99|
Intel’s Core i3-2100 might only have two physical cores, but this Sandy Bridge specimen slightly outpaced AMD’s Phenom II X4 840 overall across our test suite, and it did so with lower power draw—especially under load. (See our latest CPU review for the data.) On the flip side, the i3-2100 costs a few bucks more by itself, and so do matching motherboards with the same features as our primary pick.
The Asus P8P67 LE admittedly isn’t the cheapest P67 motherboard around. However, it serves up a similar set of features to the M4A87TD EVO from the previous page, and it throws in Asus’ excellent UEFI firmware, which is much better than all the other attempts at next-gen BIOSes we’ve seen to date.
If you were hoping to see a Z68-based motherboard recommended here, well, you’re as disappointed as we are. Turns out Z68 mobos with similar perks cost quite a bit more than their P67 siblings, so they don’t really belong in a build like the Econobox.
What’s the Asus M5A88V-EVO doing here? That board won’t work with the Core i3-2100, but it’s an alternative worth considering for our AMD processor for a couple of reasons. First, this board’s AM3+ socket will accommodate Bulldozer processors when they come out later this year. (We’d have been happier listing a cheap, 870-based AM3+ board on the previous page, but the pickings are slim right now.) Second, the M5A88V-EVO packs Radeon HD 4250 integrated graphics with a trio of display output options, which makes it a worthy choice for non-gamers. Otherwise, this board’s feature loadout closely resembles that of our primary pick, the M4A87TD EVO.
The Radeon HD 6850 got the nod in our primary picks because of its higher overall performance and sweet dual-fan cooler, but the GeForce GTX 460 1GB is very close in both performance and price. We recognize that some folks are partial to Nvidia-specific features like PhysX, as well. The point is, you can’t go wrong with either card—flip a coin. If it comes up tails, consider picking up EVGA’s GeForce GTX 460 1GB. This card comes out of the box with higher-than-normal clock speeds, just like the Radeon we singled out earlier.
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 for just three years. 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 under $1,000.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-2500K 3.3GHz||$219.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8P67 LE||$139.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$84.99|
|Graphics||Asus Radeon HD 6870 1GB TOP||$199.99|
|Storage||Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB||$64.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DG||$34.99|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$89.99|
The Core i5-2500K is arguably the best value in Intel’s Sandy Bridge lineup. For a little over 200 bucks, it offers four cores clocked at 3.3GHz with a 3.7GHz Turbo peak. More important, the K designation denotes unlocked multipliers. Because of the way Intel has architected Sandy’s internal clock, multiplier tweaking is really the only way to get a decent overclock out of the CPU.
In our experience, Sandy Bridge processors 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 Asus 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. This mobo happens to feature the best UEFI BIOS implementation around, not to mention a wide range of connectivity options and a second PCI Express x16 slot.
Note that we’re also giving Z68 offerings the cold shoulder in this build. The Z68 motherboards we like are priced too close to the $200 mark to be reasonable choices for the Utility Player, and we don’t like the compromises associated with cheaper Z68-based offerings (namely poor UEFI/BIOS implementations or lackluster connectivity and expansion options). QuickSync support is nice to have, but not at the expense of other features. If you’d like to spend the extra cash to have it all, though, by all means have a look at our alternatives.
Yes, we’re sticking 8GB of RAM into our $1,000 build. Memory is dirt-cheap right now, and thanks to Windows 7’s clever caching system (which keeps oft-used programs in memory unless you need the RAM for something else), this kind of upgrades yields genuine, palpable performance benefits.
We’ve brought back the Corsair Vengeance modules we recommended in the last edition of the guide. These modules have been ticking away on our various Sandy Bridge test systems for some time now, so we’re confident in their reliability. They’re also a solid value despite sporting tall heatspreaders and being rated for operation at 1600MHz on just 1.5V.
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 200 bucks. We tested this particular card alongside Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 560, and we found that the Radeon offered very competitive performance per dollar with remarkably low noise levels—the lowest of the cards we tested, in fact.
The 6870’s extra horsepower over the Radeon HD 6850 in our Econobox allows it to produce smooth, playable frame rates at settings that would make its slower sibling sputter. Our performance-per-dollar scatter plot on this page shows that the 6870 is clearly a rung up the food chain.
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. Were we 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 running 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 or speakers, you’d do well to upgrade to Asus’ excellent Xonar DG sound card. According to the results of our blind listening tests, this budget 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.
As you might have noticed in the last edition of the guide, our long-term relationship with Antec’s Sonata series has ended. Don’t feel bad, Antec—it’s not you, it’s us.
Okay, maybe it is you. Newer versions of the Sonata have been coming out at higher and higher price points, and they’ve grown old-fashioned, failing to include features we’re starting to take for granted—bottom-mounted power supplies, CPU socket cut-outs in the motherboard tray, generous cable-routing options, and tool-less hard-drive bays, to name a few.
The Antec One Hundred has enough of those features to get our nod for the Econobox, but we wanted something a little nicer for the Utility Player. Enter NZXT’s H2 case, which is fresh out of our labs. The H2 ticks all of the aforementioned boxes and adds noise-dampening foam, a cleverly designed external hard-drive dock, tool-less front fan mounts, and a whole host of other niceties. At $100, the H2 is easily within our budget—although the combination of this case and our chosen power supply does cost a bit more than the latest Sonata.
Not being constrained to a case-and-PSU bundle means we can indulge ourselves with a modular, 80 Plus Bronze-rated power supply from Seasonic (which, incidentally, happens to make PSUs for some of the more enthusiast-focused hardware companies out there). The M12II 520 Bronze doesn’t have the highest wattage in the world, but 520W is almost overkill for a build like the Utility Player, and the mix of features and price is tough to beat. Seasonic even covers this puppy with a five-year warranty.
Utility Player alternatives
As with the Econobox, we have some alternative propositions for how to fill out the Utility Player.
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X6 1100T BE 3.2GHz||$189.99|
|Motherboard||Asus M5A88-V EVO||$129.99|
|Graphics||Asus GeForce GTX 560 TOP||$219.99|
|Storage||Crucial m4 64GB||$119.99|
|WD Caviar Green 2TB||$79.99|
|LG WH12LS30 Blu-ray burner||$94.99|
With Llano and Bulldozer still disappointingly absent from store shelves, the Phenom II X6 1100T Black Edition remains AMD’s strongest weapon against Sandy Bridge. As we saw when crunching our last batch of CPU performance numbers, the 1100T trails the Core i5-2500K by a decent margin overall despite having two more cores, a higher TDP, and none of its die area dedicated to graphics.
No question about it, Sandy Bridge is unbeatable in this price range.
The Phenom II X6 does, however, have a few saving graces. It offers an unlocked upper multiplier for less money than the 2500K, and our matching motherboard is slightly cheaper than the similarly equipped P8P67 LE. On top of that, the motherboard we selected to go along with the X6 has an AM3+ socket, which means it will support AMD’s Bulldozer desktop chips when they arrive later this year.
In light of the uncertainty about Bulldozer’s future performance, we don’t think those few consolation prizes warrant placing the Phenom II X6 in our primary set of picks. That doesn’t mean it’s not a solid alternative, though—especially if you’re the type to get a warm, fuzzy feeling from backing the CPU industry’s perennial silver medalist.
As we just pointed out, Asus’ M5A88-V EVO has more or less all of the same features as our Intel motherboard of choice. You’ve got dual physical PCI Express x16 slots with CrossFire support, SATA 6Gbps, FireWire, eSATA, and USB 3.0. The M5A88-V EVO also chucks in an integrated Radeon HD 4250 graphics processor, which doesn’t hurt. Finally, the board’s black AM3+ socket guarantees Bulldozer support, which is about as good an upgrade path as you can hope for.
We have a second alternative motherboard in the mix. The Asus P8Z68-V will work only with Intel CPUs, and it’s a more feature-packed (and pricier) step up from our primary selection. The main attraction here is Intel’s new Z68 Express chipset, which uniquely supports both CPU overclocking and QuickSync video transcoding with a discrete GPU installed. This board is a cheaper variant of the P8Z68-V Pro that earned our Editor’s Choice award, so we’re fairly confident in it. There are other Z68-based options out there, but none with which we’re particularly comfortable—either because of poor UEFI/BIOS implementations or limited expansion and connectivity capacity.
The endless tug of war between AMD and Nvidia continues to give us Radeons and GeForces with similar price tags and performance. Asus’ GeForce GTX 560 TOP is actually a smidgen faster and more expensive than the Radeon HD 6870 you saw on the previous page, yet it’s almost as quiet (the second-quietest card we tested in this price range). If you favor Nvidia products for whatever reason, or you simply can’t do without PhysX or other little Nvidia-specific goodies, this is the card for you.
With 8GB of RAM, the Utility Player should be plenty responsive. However, a great way to reduce startup and application load times further is to grab a low-capacity solid-state boot drive. Crucial’s 64GB m4 is a great candidate for that position thanks to its solid performance and very low asking price. (This bad boy actually uses the same kind of 25-nm NAND flash Intel puts in its new 320 Series drives.)
The m4’s 64GB 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 WH12LS30 looks like a slightly faster successor to our previous Blu-ray burner of choice. Despite its low price, the drive can burn Blu-ray discs at speeds up to 12X. You could spend more, but we don’t see the point, especially when this offering 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.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz||$314.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$84.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 6950 1GB||$249.99|
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 3 120GB||$269.99|
|Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB||$64.99|
|LG WH12LS30 Blu-ray burner||$94.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DG||$34.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Graphite Series 600T||$149.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX650W||$119.99|
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 activity graphs in the Windows Task Manager.
The Asus P8Z68-V returns from the Utility Player alternatives, thanks to its Z68 chipset and similarity to the TR Editor’s Choice award-winning P8Z68-V Pro. These two boards are almost identical, but the Pro variant has a few extra bells and whistles like extra SATA ports and onboard FireWire. Since the Pro variant commands a $20 premium right now, the standard model looks like the better deal.
Just like with the Utility Player, we think 8GB DDR3 kits are affordable enough—and their performance benefits sufficiently palpable—to warrant inclusion in our primary list of picks. 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 $250. 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 a solid-state drive. Now that OCZ’s formidable Vertex 3 SSDs are available, we can’t resist the temptation to stick one—specifically, the 120GB Vertex 3—in the Sweeter Spot. This isn’t the most affordable 120GB drive out there, but we’ve found that it offers higher overall performance than both Intel’s 510 Series and Crucial’s RealSSD C300 (which, in turn, performs similarly to the new Crucial m4 series).
We’re sticking with the SpinPoint F3 on the secondary storage front 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 WH12LS30 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’ shockingly cheap 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 among the best PC cases on the market right now. It was certainly good enough to earn our Editor’s Choice award. The 600T may be a little expensive, 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 seek in a home for the Sweeter Spot.
We’ve given the Sweeter Spot a slight PSU upgrade—or a downgrade, depending on how you look at it. Corsair’s HX650W‘s peak wattage is 100W lower than the last pick, but it makes up for the drop with 80 Plus Bronze certification (a mark of higher power efficiency) and modular cabling. Enclosures like the Graphite Series 600T greatly emphasize cable management, but it’s much harder to do a clean job when you’re forced to tuck away a high-wattage PSU’s unruly appendages. Some might balk at paying this kind of premium, but trust us: the convenience factor alone justifies the additional cost.
Sweeter Spot alternatives
Believe it or not, the Sweeter Spot can get even tastier.
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1GB OC||$244.99|
|Storage||Intel 320 Series 120GB||$224.99|
|WD Caviar Green 2TB||$79.99|
|WD Caviar Green 2TB||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Case||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$189.99|
|TV Tuner||Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 2250||$109.99|
|AVS Gear MCE remote||$21.20|
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 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.
OCZ’s Vertex 3 solid-state drives may well be the fastest 2.5″ SSDs we’ve tested, and their pricing is surprisingly reasonable to boot. Why consider Intel’s 120GB 320 Series SSD as an alternative, then? Easy: the Intel drive comes backed with a five-year warranty, which is a good two years longer than the competition. There’s probably a good reason for that. Data leaked by a European retailer last year suggested that Intel SSDs have considerably lower return rates than their rivals. While those numbers apply to the previous generation of Intel drives, the 320 Series includes a few new enhancements aimed at bolstering reliability.
On the mechanical front, some folks might wish for a little more capacity. (All of those completely legal BitTorrent downloads add up, after all.) A pair of WD’s 2TB Caviar Green hard drives—run separately or in a redundant RAID-1 array—provides a cost-effective way to beef up the Sweeter Spot’s storage space.
For what it’s worth, at least two TR editors run mirrored RAID 1 arrays in their primary desktops. 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.
We love Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T here at TR, but we’ll freely admit that the enclosure’s pudgy design and plastic shell aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Those longing for a case with the 600T’s perks but a more sober design now have an option: Corsair’s own Obsidian Series 650D. As we explained in our review, this enclosure basically melds the innards of the 600T with the exterior design of the bigger and more expensive 800D, all the while retaining Corsair’s famous attention to detail. The 650D does have fewer front-panel USB 2.0 ports and less granular fan control than the 600T, though, and it costs a little more.
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
Because more is very often better
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.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz||$314.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z68-V Pro||$209.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$84.99|
|Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$84.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 6950 2GB||$279.99|
|MSI Radeon HD 6950 2GB||$279.99|
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 3 240GB||$464.99|
|Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 3TB||$179.99|
|Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 3TB||$179.99|
|LG WH12LS30 Blu-ray burner||$94.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$189.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 800D||$269.99|
Oh my, what have we done? Yes, this summer, Gulftown is out and Sandy Bridge is in. We won’t pretend that Gulftown isn’t still capable of outrunning even the fastest Sandy Bridge CPUs, because it is. Miss Sandy, however, offers a more compelling value proposition with a state-of-the-art platform to go with it. Just look at our latest performance-per-dollar scatter plot, in which the Core i7-2600K trails the Core i7-970 by a relatively small margin despite its much lower asking price. “Extreme” editions of Gulftown aren’t a whole lot faster than the i7-970, yet they cost over $400 more.
Miss Sandy also happens to sip wattage where Mr. Gulftown chugs it, as evidenced by our latest batch of power numbers. Part of that has to do with the platform, but the i7-2600K does have a thermal envelope of just 95W, compared to 130W for the hexa-core Core i7-970. While the Double-Stuff will be a fairly power-hungry system anyway, the i7-2600K should be more amenable to quiet cooling than something like the i7-970.
It was the arrival of Intel’s Z68 Express chipset that really tipped the odds in Sandy’s favor this time. The Z68 may not match the sheer number of PCI Express lanes served up by the X58, but it supports dual x8 PCI Express 2.0 links, which suffices for screaming-fast dual-GPU configurations. Don’t forget the Z68’s built-in support for newer technologies like Serial ATA 6Gbps, GPU virtualization, and an SSD caching scheme dubbed Smart Response Technology.
The Z68’s GPU virtualization capability enables support for QuickSync, the video transcoding acceleration scheme built into Sandy Bridge processors. When we tested it on a slower Core i5-2500K processor, QuickSync cut encoding times almost in half compared to a regular software encode. Smart Response, meanwhile, pays dividends if you’re planning to pair solid-state and mechanical storage in the same system, as we are.
Our vessel for bringing the Z68 into the Double-Stuff is the fully loaded Asus P8Z68-V Pro motherboard—the very same model that earned an Editor’s Choice award when we reviewed it last month. This board has it all: a great EFI implementation, fast onboard peripherals, ports and slots up the wazoo, and even Bluetooth. No doubt about it, the Pro is a mobo worthy of the Double-Stuff.
Just because we’ve technically downgraded our processor doesn’t mean we need to settle for less on the memory front. Instead, we’re outfitting the Double Stuff with two of those Corsair Vengeance kits we featured in our earlier builds. $85 for an extra 8GB is a drop in the bucket when you’re building a high-powered workstation worth close to three grand.
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 models have beefy dual-fan coolers, and their 2GB of onboard memory is perfect for ultra-high-res gaming.
Now that OCZ’s Vertex 3 drives are in stock, we can outfit the Double-Stuff with the 240GB Vertex 3 variant. This drive doesn’t have the five-year warranty coverage of Intel’s 320 Series SSDs, but it should be blazing-fast—and 240GB ought to be roomy enough to store most, if not all, of your critical apps and games.
On the mechanical storage front, we’re sticking with a duo of Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 drives, which squeeze 3TB of storage capacity onto platters that spin at 7,200-RPM. With these bad boys, you get plentiful mass storage and solid performance.
Our LG Blu-ray burner almost feels a little too pedestrian for a system as exotic as the Double-Stuff… but good luck finding a more 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 800D 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 800D. The case’s cavernous internals were made to accommodate multiple graphics cards, hard drives, and the mess of cabling that goes along with them.
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. Corsair’s new flagship 850W unit looks like just the ticket. The AX850W delivers 80 Plus Gold certification, modular cabling, a whopping seven years of warranty coverage, and certification for both AMD’s and Nvidia’s multi-GPU schemes. It doesn’t get much better than that.
As complete as our Double-Stuff Workstation is, we still have some alternative ideas for how to fill it out.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-970 3.2GHz||$589.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 12GB (3 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$129.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 570 1280MB||$339.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 570 1280MB||$339.99|
|MSI Radeon HD 6970 2GB||$339.99|
|MSI Radeon HD 6970 2GB||$339.99|
|Storage||WD Caviar Green 2TB||$79.99|
|WD Caviar Green 2TB||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar Xense||$299.99|
||Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 2250||$109.99|
|AVS Gear MCE remote||$21.20|
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, but Gulftown will speed ahead in more heavily parallelized apps. Gulftown’s third memory channel can help, too.
There’s another thing. 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.
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.
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? 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? You can save a good couple hundred dollars by dropping the secondary storage array down to a pair of 2TB Caviar Greens. You do lose a couple of terabytes and some performance, but a 2TB array ought to be enough for a lot of folks.
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.
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|
|Internet Explorer 8||X||X||X|
|Windows Media Center||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|
|Interface language switching||X|
|Price—OEM (64-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||$184.99|
|Price—OEM (32-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||$184.99|
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.)
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.
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 might have noticed that all of our recommended processors are retail-boxed variants packaged with stock heatsinks and fans. Retail processors have longer warranties than “tray” or OEM CPUs, and their coolers tend to be at least adequate, with fans that work with motherboard-based temperature control and stay reasonably quiet at idle.
That said, anyone aspiring to overclock or to build a truly quiet PC will likely want to explore aftermarket alternatives. We’ve singled out three options that ought to suit most needs and budgets: Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus, Thermaltake’s Frio, and Corsair’s H60.
Priced just above $30, the Hyper 212 Plus is a fine no-frills substitute for stock coolers. Its four copper heat pipes, tower-style design, and 120-mm PWM fan should allow for quieter, more effective cooling. Our next step up, the Frio, costs a little under twice as much but provides beefier cooling capabilities that should make it sufficient for air-cooled overclocking setups. Finally, Corsair’s H60 is a closed-loop liquid cooler whose radiator mounts over your enclosure’s 120-mm exhaust fan. The H60 will set you back roughly $10 more than the Frio, and we’d recommend it to folks who want a truly quiet PC.
Noctua’s NH-U12P SE2 cooler deserves an honorable mention in this section, if only because it now supports Sandy Bridge processors. The original NH-U12P did rather well in our air vs. water CPU cooler showdown a couple of years back. Things have changed somewhat since then, though, and the Noctua cooler no longer costs less than closed-loop liquid-cooling alternatives. In fact, it’s $10 more than the H60 right now. The NH-U12P SE2 may be as close to the ultimate air tower as you can get, though.
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.
That’s about it, then. Considering we published the previous edition of the system guide over two months ago, we expected to make more drastic changes. More often than not, we found ourselves nodding our heads as we reviewed the recommendations from the April guide.
Of course, we’re glad that we got to freshen up the guide with new releases like Intel’s Z68 chipset, OCZ’s Vertex 3 solid-state drives, Socket AM3+ motherboards for AMD processors, and Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 560 graphics cards. Recent price drops on the system memory and storage fronts were quite welcome, too.
That leaves us pondering what’s on the horizon. AMD’s Llano and Bulldozer-based Zambezi processors are coming, although for various reasons, we’re left questioning whether they’ll really be compelling enough to bump Sandy Bridge off of our primary picks. Our next edition of the guide may well see Llano replace the Phenom II X4 840 in the Econobox, but Sandy may be difficult to displace in our other builds.