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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 P8Z68-V $179.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $60.99
Graphics Gigabyte Radeon HD 6950 1GB $239.99
Storage Intel 510 Series 120GB $276.99
Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $59.99
LG WH12LS30 Blu-ray burner $69.99
Audio Asus Xonar DG $26.00
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian Series 650D $189.99
Power supply Corsair HX650W $119.99
Total $1,538.91

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 2600K 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 recommendations. 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 less than $250. A gig of graphics memory should still be plenty for most folks, especially those running two-megapixel monitors.

Gigabyte's take on the Radeon HD 6950 1GB is one of the cheapest options available right now, and it has a beefy, triple-fan cooler that ought to be pretty quiet. It also comes with a free copy of DiRT 3.

The GeForce GTX 560 Ti offers similar performance, but we've relegated it to our alternatives section because of its higher power consumption.

The Sweeter Spot's generous budget allows us to spec the system with a solid-state drive. Based on user reviews at Newegg, we've switched our recommendation from OCZ's 120GB Vertex 3 to Intel's 120GB 510 Series. The Intel drive costs more and isn't quite as fast overall, but it seems to be more reliable, with fewer users complaining of instability and other issues. (22% of Newegg shoppers gave the Vertex 3 a one-star review, compared to 9% for the Intel drive.) You're free to roll the dice and go with the OCZ drive if you must, but we feel better about recommending the Intel one. Besides, the difference in performance between the two SSDs is trivial compared to the speed boost over a mechanical hard drive.

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 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.

As we explained in our review, Corsair's Obsidian Series 650D enclosure essentially melds the innards of the Graphite Series 600T with the exterior design of the bigger and more expensive 800D, all the while retaining Corsair's famous attention to detail. The 650D has fewer front-panel USB 2.0 ports and less granular fan control than the 600T, and it costs a little more. The more we think about it, though, the more we prefer the Obsidian's overall looks, lighter weight, and less bulky design.

Power supply
Despite swapping enclosures, we're keeping the same Corsair HX650W power supply as in our last guide. This 650W unit has plenty of power and 80 Plus Bronze certification. You also get modular cabling that should make it easy to keep the case's internals clean. The 650D may have excellent cable management options, but we'd prefer to have fewer cables to manage, as well.