TR’s back-to-school system guide

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We expected to have the material for a more exciting update to our system guide this time, but to tell you the truth, the world of PC hardware has remained shockingly stagnant these past few months. Aside from sinking memory prices and the arrival of AMD’s Llano processors, little has been done to upset the status quo.

Nevertheless, we’re entering the back-to-school season, and we realize many of you will be building PCs in the near future. For that reason, we’ve refreshed our system guide to account for the very latest pricing shifts and availability changes, not to mention new insights into product reliability, particularly on the storage side of things.

In addition to that, we’ve concocted a new system configuration specially geared toward students returning to dorms this fall—or entering them the first time. The Dorm PC crams a Sandy Bridge processor and a surprisingly potent discrete GPU into a compact Mini-ITX chassis. We’ve also included some recommendations for student-friendly mobile gear, including laptops and tablets.

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.

The Dorm PC
Because playing Halo on Xbox is so last decade

With the Dorm PC, we sought not to build an uber-cheap box for cash-strapped students—rather, we tried to pack sufficient computing brawn inside a small-form-factor enclosure that’s easy to manage within the confines of a crowded dorm room.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i3-2100 $124.99
Motherboard Asus P8H61-I $84.99
Memory Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333 $48.99
Graphics MSI Radeon HD 6850 Cyclone $169.99
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $59.99
Samsung SN-2088BB $25.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure & power supply
Silverstone SG05BB-450 $119.99
Total $647.92

We’ve also taken the liberty of suggesting some accessories for the Dorm PC: a display, some speakers, and a keyboard and mouse. Chances are you’ll need to buy everything together, and as we found, you can get some pretty decent peripherals without breaking the bank.

Display Acer G235HAbd $149.99
Speakers Logitech Z523 $74.99
Keyboard Logitech K200 $19.99
Mouse Logitech M505 $28.99
Total $273.96

Processor

While it has only two physical cores, Intel’s Core i3-2100 more than holds its own against AMD’s latest budget quad-core offerings. More important, this Sandy Bridge chip has a 65W power envelope that makes it much better suited to a small-form-factor build. Under load, you’re looking at power savings of roughly 40-50W versus AMD’s A8-3850 or Phenom II X4 840. Translation: less heat, less noise, and more polar bears saved. What’s not to like?

Motherboard

Going with a Mini-ITX enclosure for the dorm PC restricts our selection of motherboards quite a bit. We’re not thrilled with the selection of budget Mini-ITX offerings available today, but Asus’ P8H61-I has a reassuring number of folks vouching for it with positive Newegg user reviews. The P8H61-I also has a nice features-to-price ratio despite its H61 Express chipset.

The H61 has a somewhat spartan feature set compared to the H67. In addition to being limited to one DIMM per memory channel, you lose 6Gbps SATA support, a few PCI Express lanes, and some USB 2.0 ports. Those shortcomings have largely kept us from recommending H61 mobos, but they don’t really concern us here. The Dorm PC’s motherboard has only one PCIe slot and two DIMM slots, and the system’s mechanical hard drive isn’t fast enough to need a 6Gbps interface. The important thing is that the P8H61-I looks like a solid, trustworthy board. Perks like USB 3.0 connectivity and the excellent tandem of Asus’ state-of-the-art UEFI interface and Fan Xpert software controls make it even more attractive.

Memory

Right now, the difference between 4GB and 8GB of RAM amounts to something like $25. Considering our budget for this build is reasonably ample, we figured you might as well grab an 8GB kit—of, say, Corsair memory—and rest easy knowing a future upgrade probably isn’t necessary. This kit is covered by a lifetime warranty and is made up of two 4GB DIMMs rated for operation at 1333MHz with 9-9-9-24 timings and a 1.5V signal voltage.

Graphics

Higher learning is great, but everybody needs a break once in a while. MSI’s Radeon HD 6850 Cyclone should make those breaks refreshing by letting you run most PC games at 1920×1080 with the eye candy cranked up. We chose this card over the competing GeForce GTX 460 1GB because, in our tests, the 6850 GPU proved to be a fair bit more power-efficient under load… and slightly quicker overall. The MSI card comes with a Cyclone cooler that we’ve found to be generally quiet, too. We would have selected a faster GPU, but our enclosure only supports expansion cards up to 9″ long.

Storage

Students probably don’t have enough cash to spring for a solid-state drive, which leaves us with Samsung’s 1TB SpinPoint F3 as the most desirable and affordable option. That’s no great loss, because the SpinPoint delivers 1TB of whisper-quiet, 7,200-RPM mechanical storage at a bargain price.

Samsung’s slim SN-2088BB DVD writer serves as the hard drive’s sidekick. Although most content is available online these days, it’s probably too early to drop the optical drive completely—at least for a desktop system. We’d have picked a cheaper, full-sized burner, but our Mini-ITX enclosure only accepts slim optical drives.

Enclosure and power supply

The latest iteration of the Silverstone SG05 case has everything we want for the Dorm PC: a cuboid shape with a small footprint, a sleek graphite paint job, vents aplenty, a 120-mm intake fan, and a 450W 80 Plus Bronze-rated power supply. The overwhelmingly positive user reviews don’t hurt, either.

Display, speakers, keyboard, and mouse

We won’t dwell on these accessories for too long, since they’re more suggestions than hard recommendations like our primary component choices. Still, we think the extras will complement the Dorm PC quite well.

The Acer G23HAbd display manages to serve up a 1080p panel with a DVI input and three-year warranty for only $149.99, and the 352 user reviews averaging five stars are, shall we say, encouraging. This is a TN panel, of course, but IPS comes at a premium we think inappropriate for a relatively affordable college build. If you disagree, see our peripherals section on the last page for more monitor recommendations.

Logitech’s K523 speaker setup is almost as popular as the Acer LCD, and it should let you pump out enjoyably loud music. As for the keyboard and mouse, our own Editor-in-Chief can vouch for the pint-sized Logitech M505 wireless mouse. Meanwhile, the Logitech K200 keyboard looks well-received and is, mercifully, one of the few budget keyboards not to mangle the arrangement of arrow keys, home row, and enter/backspace keys.

The Dorm PC’s mobile sidekicks

If you’re in school, chances are a desktop PC isn’t going to be enough. You’re going to need a mobile computing device to jot down notes in class or catch up on homework outside your dorm room. Laptops and tablets don’t require users to carefully select and assemble individual parts, but nevertheless, we’ve taken the liberty of garnishing our system guide with a few suggestions.

Perhaps the best bang for your buck in the world of ultraportables is Acer’s Aspire One 522, which can be had for $289.99 at Newegg. The system earned our Editor’s Choice award earlier this year for shooting higher than most 10″ netbooks, offering a 1280×720 display resolution, an AMD Ontario APU with fairly capable integrated graphics, and a low asking price. This isn’t a panacea, though; the 1GB of built-in RAM is a little on the light side, and we found the keyboard fairly cramped. For under 300 bucks, though, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better netbook.

Folks with a little more cash on hand will want to step up to HP’s dm1z, which combines a faster Zacate APU with an 11.6″ display and more grown-up base specifications. Newegg sells a variant of the dm1z with 3GB of RAM and a 320GB 7,200-RPM hard drive for $499.99 before a $50 mail-in rebate. If you head over to HP’s online store, you should find the base configuration (with 250GB of mechanical storage) selling for as little as $399.99.

The dm1z earned our coveted TR Editor’s Choice award back in March. Not only does this notebook look great on paper, but it’s also exceptionally well-built for a cheap ultraportable. Although the dm1z’s battery life isn’t quite as long as that of the Aspire One 522 (6.2 hours for web surfing versus 6.6), we think it makes sense to sacrifice a little run time for a faster CPU, a larger and higher-resolution display, and more plentiful RAM and storage.

If conventional laptops are too old-school for you, then may we interest you in a tablet? Asus’ Android-powered Eee Pad Transformer seems almost ideally suited to students. Not only is it affordable, with the 16GB variant starting at $399, but it can also be turned into a quasi-notebook with the detachable TF101 docking station (price: $149). The TF101 dock gives the Transformer a full keyboard and touchpad—great for taking notes—and boosts the device’s battery life to a purported 16 hours. We were quite impressed with both the Transformer and its dock after a prolonged testing stint that lasted one month, and we’re sure students with an affinity for touchscreens will feel the same way.

Speaking of tablets, we’d be remiss not to mention the most popular one of all: Apple’s iPad 2. No tablet has quite as many apps or quite as much horsepower for gaming. The iOS operating system does feel a tad more dumbed-down than Android, though. Then again, it also feels faster and smoother. You’ll find the base 16GB iPad 2 selling for $499 at Apple’s online store.

What about larger notebooks? We have no specific recommendations in that category, but the market is rife with relatively affordable machines based on Intel’s dual-core Sandy Bridge processors and AMD’s new Fusion A-series APUs (a.k.a. Llano). Llano machines should offer much better integrated graphics performance and competitive battery life, but Intel’s Sandy Bridge chips bring superior CPU performance.

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 $104.99
Motherboard Asus M5A97 EVO $119.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $26.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 6850 1GB $159.99
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $59.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $20.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec One Hundred $54.99
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $39.99
Total $587.92

Processor

As it turns out, AMD’s Llano processors aren’t all they were cracked up to be. The A8-3850 isn’t a bad product in the grand scheme of things—and it does have excellent integrated graphics. However, for a system like the Econobox, the Phenom II X4 840 is an all-around better choice.

The Phenom II isn’t just faster overall than the A8. It costs slightly less, which leaves us with more cash to put toward a good discrete graphics card. On top of that, the Phenom II can be coupled with a Socket AM3+ motherboard, giving the Econobox an upgrade path to AMD’s upcoming Bulldozer processors. (The A8, meanwhile, only works in Socket FM1 motherboards.) Going with the A8 does get you lower idle power consumption, but that’s just not enough to redeem it.

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 costs $20 more. We’re not too thrilled about stretching our budget—and stretching there would be. In addition to being more expensive on their own, Core i3 CPUs require 6-series motherboards that are pricier than AMD counterparts with equivalent features. We’ll save the Intel gear for our alternative selections on the next page.

Motherboard

Now that Socket AM3+ boards are out and about, we’re free to stick one in our Econobox. Considering the socket grants an upgrade path to Bulldozer, we’d be crazy not to. Asus’ M5A97 EVO serves up that Bulldozer upgrade path on a silver platter, with an AMD 970 chipset, all the rear I/O ports one could hope for, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, and six 6Gbps Serial ATA ports. Being a recent Asus board, the EVO also comes with the firm’s excellent UEFI and fan controls, which other motherboard makers have yet to equal.

Memory

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 less than $39 for 4GB, we can afford the extra couple of bucks. These Kingston modules are good for speeds up to 1333MHz at the standard DDR3 voltage of 1.5V.

Graphics

This spring, AMD and Nvidia both 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 has room for the Radeon HD 6850, which lies higher up the food chain and packs a much stronger punch.

This particular XFX model comes with stock clock speeds and AMD’s rather quiet reference cooler. XFX also covers the card with a “double lifetime” warranty, which applies even to second-hand cards, if you register on the company’s website after your purchase.

Storage

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 had 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.

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 back of the CPU socket, 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 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.

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 P8Z68-V LE $132.99
Asus M5A88-V EVO $129.99
Memory Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333 $48.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 460 1GB $164.99
Storage WD Caviar Black 1TB $89.99

Processor

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.

You might have noticed that we’ve given AMD’s A8-3850 APU the cold shoulder even here. Even for enthusiasts who want integrated graphics, the Phenom II X4 840 seems like a more sensible purchase to us. It’s faster, cheaper, and gives us an upgrade path to Bulldozer via Socket AM3+ boards—including those with chipset-level integrated graphics like the one discussed below. The A8-3850 does have faster integrated graphics than chipset-based solutions, but let’s face it: if you really care about graphics performance and gaming, you should be buying a discrete GPU.

Motherboard

Asus’ P8Z68-V LE fulfills a dual purpose, pairing the Core i3-2100 with all of the bells and whistles enthusiasts can expect (in this price range, at least) and offering integrated graphics capabilities for non-gamers. The Z68 chipset isn’t strictly necessary with the Core i3-2100, since that CPU doesn’t have an unlocked upper multiplier for easy overclocking. Finding good, full-sized H67 boards is harder than you’d think, though.

What’s the Asus M5A88-V EVO doing here? The board won’t work with the Core i3-2100, but its AM3+ socket will work with the Phenom II from our primary recommendations and accommodate Bulldozer processors when they come out later this year. The M5A88-V also 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.

Memory

RAM is so cheap right now that, if you have a few bucks to spare, you might as well grab this 8GB Corsair DDR3-1333 kit instead of the 4GB bundle from the previous page. Windows 7 puts extra memory to good use as a disk cache, so you should be able to enjoy the additional four gigabytes even if you don’t edit high-definition video or juggle huge Photoshop files.

Graphics

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 offers competitive performance and pricing. We recognize 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, so it’s a little more exotic than the Radeon we singled out earlier.

Storage

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 quality components, 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.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-2500K 3.3GHz $219.99
Motherboard Asus P8Z68-V LE $132.99
Memory Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333 $48.99
Graphics Asus Radeon HD 6870 1GB TOP $189.99
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $59.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $20.99
Audio Asus Xonar DG $26.00
Enclosure NZXT H2 $89.99
Power supply Seasonic M12II 520W $92.99
Total $881.92

Processor

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. Notably, 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.

Motherboard

If the Utility Player’s Asus P8Z68-V 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, especially now that the Z68’s overclocking capabilities can be put to use. This mobo happens to feature the best UEFI implementation around, not to mention great fan controls, a wide range of connectivity options, and a second PCI Express x16 slot. The competition is still a ways behind on the UEFI and fan-control fronts, so Asus continues to get our nod.

Memory

Yes, we’re stuffing 8GB of RAM into our $900 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 real performance benefits.

Graphics

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. This value scatter plot shows that the 6870 is clearly a rung up the ladder.

Storage

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 in the alternatives section instead.

Audio

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.

Enclosure

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.

Power supply

Not being tied 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 rating, 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.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X6 1100T BE 3.2GHz $189.99
Motherboard Asus M5A97 EVO AM3+ $119.99
Asus P8Z68-V $179.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 560 OC $199.99
Storage Crucial m4 64GB $114.99
Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB $79.99
LG WH12LS30 Blu-ray burner $69.99

Processor

With Llano failing to outpace $100 quad-core Phenom IIs 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’s performance 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 P8Z68-V LE. On top of that, the motherboard we selected to go along with the X6 has an AM3+ socket, which means it should 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 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.

Motherboard

The Econobox’s Asus M5A97 EVO motherboard returns for an encore performance in the Utility Player alternatives, largely for the same reasons it was fit for the Econobox: generous connectivity and expansion options, an AM3+ socket with Bulldozer support, and so forth.

We have a second alternative motherboard in the mix for multi-GPU aficionados. The Asus P8Z68-V will work only with Intel CPUs, and unlike the LE model from the previous page, it’s capable of powering a pair of PCI Express graphics cards in a dual-x8 config. There are other Z68-based mobos with the same capability, but none that match the P8Z68-V’s generous array of integrated peripherals or its excellent UEFI implementation.

Graphics

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 OC is actually a smidgen faster and more expensive than the Radeon HD 6870 you saw on the previous page, but it should be comparably quiet thanks to a dual-fan cooler we’ve seen deliver excellent results on other cards. If you prefer an Nvidia card for whatever reason, this is the card for you.

Storage

With 8GB of RAM, the Utility Player should be plenty responsive. However, a smart 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 strong 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 that Intel puts in its new 320 Series SSDs.)

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, Samsung’s EcoGreen F4 2TB doubles the SpinPoint’s terabyte for only $20 more. A 5,400-RPM spindle speed does hinder the EcoGreen’s performance, but it also makes the drive a quiet sidekick for a silent SSD. (Note that we’re no longer recommending WD’s 2TB Caviar Green. There’s been a surge in the number of reports of dead or failing 2TB Greens at Newegg lately, and the EcoGreen seems like a safer buy right now.)

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.

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

Processor

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.

Motherboard

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.

Memory

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.

Graphics

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.

Storage

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.

Audio

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.

Enclosure

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.

Sweeter Spot alternatives

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

Component Item Price
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ti 1GB OC $234.99
Storage Crucial M4 128GB $218.99
Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB $79.99
Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB $79.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $92.99
Case Corsair Graphite Series 600T $149.99

Graphics

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 these 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 big 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.

Storage

Here, too, reliability concerns have led us to amend our recommendations. Crucial’s 128GB M4 fills in as a cheaper (and slower) alternative to our primary SSD. We’d originally planned to go with a 120GB version of Intel’s 320 Series, but a bug in that product line can reduce the SSD’s capacity to just 8MB, taking your data with it. Intel has acknowledged the issue and says it’s working on a firmware fix. Given the potential for data loss, we’ll wait for that fix to materialize before solidly endorsing the 320 Series.

On the mechanical front, folks wishing for a little more capacity may want to grab a pair of 2TB Samsung EcoGreen F4 drives. (Again, we feel better about recommending the EcoGreens over WD’s Caviar Greens, which have accumulated negative user reports lately.) Running these either of these drives 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 real-time recovery should one drive meet an untimely demise. We like that peace of mind.

Audio

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 with 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.

Case

It’s bulkier and doesn’t look quite as good as the 650D, but Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T enclosure costs 40 bucks less and is good enough for a Editor’s Choice Award. Also, it’s available in white, if you’re into that sort of thing.

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.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz $314.99
Motherboard Asus P8Z68-V Pro $199.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $60.99
Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $60.99
Graphics MSI Radeon HD 6950 2GB $279.99
MSI Radeon HD 6950 2GB $279.99
Storage Intel 510 Series 240GB $579.99
Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 3TB $159.99
Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 3TB $159.99
LG WH12LS30 Blu-ray burner $69.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $92.99
Power supply Corsair AX850W $189.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian Series 800D $279.99
Total $2,729.87

Processor

We won’t pretend the six-core Gulftown chip isn’t 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.

Motherboard

It was the arrival of Intel’s Z68 Express chipset that really tips the odds in Sandy’s favor. 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 UEFI 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.

Memory

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.

Graphics

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 have beefy dual-fan coolers, and their 2GB of onboard memory is perfect for ultra-high-res gaming.

Storage

As in the Sweeter Spot, we’re substituting an Intel 510 Series drive for the OCZ Vertex 3 because of concerns over reliability. While the Intel drive costs more and is slightly slower than its OCZ counterpart, fewer of its users complain about bluescreens and miscellaneous problems.

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.

Audio

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.

Enclosure

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.

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. Corsair’s 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.

Double-Stuff alternatives

As complete as our Double-Stuff Workstation is, we still have some alternative ideas for how to fill it out.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-970 3.2GHz $549.99
Motherboard Asus P6X58D-E $199.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 12GB (3 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $89.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 570 1280MB $329.99
EVGA GeForce GTX 570 1280MB $329.99
Storage Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB $79.99
Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB $79.99
Audio Asus Xonar Xense $299.99

Processor

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.

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 $5 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.

Memory

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.

Graphics

Although the Radeon HD 6950 2GB is a pretty sweet 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. The thing is, Newegg is fresh out of 6970s, which are apparently difficult to find elsewhere online.

With the 6970 in short supply, we’re going to stick with a pair of GeForce GTX 570s. They may not have as much memory as the equivalent Radeons, but workstation users who like to dabble in programming might be interested in playing around with GPU-accelerated computing. GeForce cards are backed by a CUDA API that’s much more robust than what you get from AMD.

Storage

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 Samsung EcoGreen F4s. You do lose a couple of terabytes and some performance, but a 2TB array ought to be enough for a lot of folks.

Audio

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 a headset.

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 $189.99 $264.99 $274.99
Price—upgrade license $114.99 $178.99 $183.97
Price—OEM (64-bit) license $99.99 $139.99 $184.99
Price—OEM (32-bit) license $99.99 $139.99 $184.99
Price—Anytime Upgrade —> $89.99 $139.99

As you can see, Windows 7 editions follow a kind of Russian nesting doll pattern: Professional has all of the Home Premium features, and Ultimate has everything. Since most users probably won’t find the Ultimate edition’s extras terribly exciting, the choice ought to come down to Home Premium vs. Professional for almost everyone.

Some of TR’s editors like hosting Remote Desktop sessions and running network backups, so we’d probably go with the Professional package unless we were on a tight budget. However, we should also note that Windows 7 Home Premium includes some features formerly exclusive to more upscale editions, namely full-system backups and Previous Versions (a.k.a. Shadow Copy). See our review for more details.

If you go with Home Premium and find you need some of the Professional features down the road, you can always use the Anytime Upgrade program to step up. It’ll only set you back $90.

Speaking of upgrades, you’ll notice upgrade licenses are quite a bit cheaper than full ones. That’s because you need a legit version of Windows XP or Windows Vista to use them. The edition doesn’t matter, but you do need the previous OS to be activated and installed on your hard drive for the Windows 7 upgrade to work. Mind you, Vista upgrade installers don’t seem to protest when a user does a clean install of Vista without a product key and then runs an upgrade installation over that. Windows 7 could allow for the same trick. Microsoft doesn’t sanction this method, however, and who knows how future updates to the Windows activation system might affect it.

To save even more, you could also opt for an OEM license. Microsoft aims these at pre-built PCs, and for that reason, it prohibits users from carrying an OEM license over from one PC to another one. You may therefore be forced to buy a new copy of Windows 7 after a major upgrade. (Retail editions have no such limitation, as far as we’re aware.) Also unlike their retail brethren, OEM licenses only cover one version of the software—32-bit or 64-bit—so you’ll have to pick one or the other up front and stick with it.

That brings us to another point: should you go 32-bit or 64-bit? Since all of the processors we recommend in this guide are 64-bit-capable and all but one of our systems has 4GB of memory or more, the x64 release strikes us as the most sensible choice. This recommendation is relevant to folks who buy retail and upgrade editions, too—you might have to ask Microsoft to ship you x64 installation media first, but installing an x64 variant looks like the best idea.

As we’ve already explained, 32-bit flavors of Windows only support up to 4GB of RAM, and that upper limit covers things like video memory. In practice, that means that your 32-bit OS will only be able to use 3-3.5GB of system RAM on average and even less than 3GB if you have more than one discrete GPU. With new OSes and games pushing the envelope in terms of memory use, the 4GB limit can get a little uncomfortable for an enthusiast PC.

There are some caveats, however. 64-bit versions of Windows don’t support 32-bit drivers, and they won’t run 16-bit software. You’ll probably want to make sure all of your peripherals have compatible drivers, and vintage game lovers may also have to check out emulators like DOSBox. Still, hardware makers have improved x64 support quite a bit since Vista came out three years ago, so you’ll probably be fine unless you have something like a really old printer. (For some background on what makes 64-bit computing different at a hardware level, have a look at our take on the subject.)

Peripherals, accessories, and extras
Matters of religion and taste

Now that we’ve examined operating system choices in detail, let’s have a look at some accessories. We don’t have a full set of recommendations at multiple price levels in the categories below, but we can make general observations and point out specific products that are worthy of your consideration. What you ultimately choose in these areas will probably depend heavily on your own personal preferences.

Displays

The world of monitors has enough scope and variety that we can’t keep track of it all, especially because we don’t often review monitors. However, we do appreciate a good display—or two or three of them, since several of us are multi-monitor fanatics—so we can offer a few pieces of advice.

Let’s get one thing clear before we begin: LCDs have long since supplanted CRTs as the display type of choice for gamers and enthusiasts. LCDs might have been small and of insufficient quality for gaming and photo editing six or seven years ago, but the latest models have huge panels, lightning-quick response times, and impressive color definition. Unless you’re already content with a massive, power-guzzling CRT, there’s little reason to avoid LCDs.

Despite their near-universal sharpness and thin form factors, not all LCDs are created equal. Besides obvious differences in sizes and aspect ratios, LCDs have different panel types. Wikipedia has a good run-down of different kinds of LCD panels in this article, but most users will probably care about one major differentiating attribute: whether their display has a 6-bit twisted nematic + film (TN+film) panel or not. The majority of sub-$500 monitors have 6-bit TN panels, which means 18-bit, rather than 24-bit, color definition. Those panels use dithering to simulate colors that are out of their scope, yielding sub-optimal color accuracy, and they often have poor viewing angles on top of that. 8-bit panels typically look better, although they tend to have higher response times and prices.

Don’t assume that all IPS panels have eight bits per color channel, either. A new breed of e-IPS displays has emerged with only 6-bit color for each channel. These displays purportedly offer better color reproduction and viewing angles than their TN counterparts, but be aware that you’re not getting the full 24-bit experience.

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. We do like the combination of mechanical switches, macro keys, and backlighting offered by the new Razer BlackWidow Ultimate, though.

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.

Cooling

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.

Backups

You know what they say: it’s all fun and games until someone’s hard drive starts developing bad sectors and kicks the bucket in a dissonant avalanche of clicking and crunching sounds. If you’re unsure how to formulate a backup strategy, you can check out our article on the subject, which recommends a fairly straightforward approach. That article deals with Windows Vista’s built-in backup software, which isn’t bad. Win7’s backup tools are even better, though, and Microsoft has included them in the Home Premium edition of the OS.

All you need to get Windows 7 backups going is a decent external hard drive. For that purpose, Thermaltake’s BlacX docking station should work well with any of the hard drives we’ve recommended throughout this guide (perhaps the 2TB Samsung EcoGreen F4). This newer USB 3.0 version of the BlacX left us with a pretty good impression on us, and backing up large files and drive images with it should be a snap.

Conclusions

That’s it for our back-to-school guide. No doubt you’ve noticed just how little has changed since our previous edition of the guide; it’s not because we’ve gotten soft or lazy, but simply because the new hardware just ain’t there yet.

That should change as we head toward the holiday season. Word around the web suggests AMD will start shipping mass quantities of Bulldozer desktop CPUs in October, and the company has promised that it will have 28-nm Radeons out by the end of the year. Intel’s eight-core Sandy Bridge-E processors should be out in a similar time frame. Nvidia, meanwhile, doesn’t expect its 28-nm GeForces to hit production before 2012.

For the most part, though, now’s a fine time to buy a new system. Unless Bulldozer turns out to be dramatically faster than Sandy Bridge (which seems doubtful, based on what we heard at Computex), or spectacularly speedy 28-nm Radeons come out swinging in a few weeks (also doubtful), you’ll be perfectly happy with any of the builds we detailed over the previous pages. Buyer’s remorse usually only hits if there’s something to be remorseful about.

Comments closed
    • InfiniteBiscuits
    • 8 years ago

    I just bought the Utility Player configuration. Should I purchasing any extra case or CPU fans? I’m not going to over clock it or anything, I just don’t know what it comes with in terms of cooling.

    Thanks

    • indeego
    • 8 years ago

    I’d take optical out of all these guides. 2011 is the year optical died, for me at least.

    • WillBach
    • 8 years ago

    I, too, noticed the negative reviews of the Western Digital hard drives popping up on Newegg. It looks like more than half of the negative reviews have to do with not supporting Windows XP 32-bit beyond 2TB. The other half have to do with malfunction that occurred immediately and within warranty. Now, DOA doesn’t make me happy, but shouldn’t newegg have a filter for people who buy a 3TB drive for an operating system that can access 2TB out of the box? I know there are workarounds that some drive makers use, but, still.

    • Evil_Sheep
    • 8 years ago

    Nice work, it would be great to see a SFF recommendation with every update of the system guide.

    Having suffered dorm life for years, I have a couple of suggestions of my own for dorm newbies or seasoned dorm veterans alike:

    1. The Logitech Z523’s suck. I feel Logitech products in general have been getting steadily worse. Also, why bother to go the SFF route if you’re still having to lug around a sub that is bigger and heavier than the case? I think a solid 2.0 recommendation would make more sense here…although there aren’t many choices. The Creative Gigaworks T20/T40 are the most obvious pick.

    For a 2.1 choice, I think the legendary Logitech Z2300’s or Klipsch Promedia 2.1’s are definitely worth the little bit extra if you care at all about sound, otherwise, just get some $30-50 cheapies.

    2. Headphones are a dorm room essential! Both for keeping out noise during all-night cramming sessions, and for keeping in noise when you insist on blasting Metallica during those same all-nighters. Even a cheap pair of Sennheiser headphones, such as the HD202 (like $30-40), sound better than any speaker you can buy in the $0-150 range.

    3. A wireless mouse is an iffy choice for a gaming system, especially when you are in a dorm environment already saturated with 2.4Ghz signals. Also I think most people would find the M505 a bit small for gaming. How about a wired recommendation?

    4. And my final suggestion is, don’t buy a desktop! I lugged one around for years, and though it made sense for me, I often paid for that choice. Dorms are painfully short of space, and students move around a lot. I moved at least 8 times in 4 years and most students are the same. When you have to hump that heavy desktop, monitor, and sub up and down stairs, ship it around the country, you have to have a pretty good reason to do that. A good laptop makes a lot more sense for the majority of the unwashed student masses.

    • Voldenuit
    • 8 years ago

    I think the decision to go mini-ITX for the dorm PC restricts options unnecessarily. When I last lived in a dorm, my micro-ATX box was perfectly sized, and most other people were using full ATX builds.

      • obarthelemy
      • 8 years ago

      what did you fill that big box with ? what could it take that the current mini-itx can’t ?

        • JustAnEngineer
        • 8 years ago

        My micro-ATX motherboard can take four PCIe cards, while your mini-ITX board has only one slot. For example, you might want a graphics card plus a TV tuner card.

    • perosh
    • 8 years ago

    Cooler Master’s RR-LEE-L911-GP is socket 775 cooler. Is it possible to mount it onto socket 1155 board?

      • Damage
      • 8 years ago

      No, totally not compatible. My bad! I’ve removed this cooler. We’ll stick with the stock one, which is sure to fit into that case and mobo.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 8 years ago

    Not really a typo, but…

    [quote<]At less than $39 for 4GB, we can afford the extra couple of bucks.[/quote<] Did you mean "at less than $30"? I mean, less than 39 is technically true, but the RAM is WAY under 39. :p

    • Kurotetsu
    • 8 years ago

    As someone who is currently living in student housing and has had various roommates, I would suggest not even bothering with speakers in the accessory recommendations for the Dorm PC. Besides the fact that those speakers will sound like crap, there is an extremely good chance that your roommate will not appreciate the music you listen to (be it different tastes, or time of night). You’d be better off investing in good, affordable headphones instead, such as the [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16826402014&Tpk=AD700<]Audio-Technica ATH-AD700[/url<], which is only $15 more than the speakers you suggested. Or for the more budget minded, the [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16826262102<]JVC HA-RX700[/url<]. They also have the added benefit of being as mobile as your laptop.

      • wagsbags
      • 8 years ago

      I completely agree. I bought ~$75, 40watt logitech z-540 speakers for college 10 years ago (God I’m old) and I’ve never been able to use even a fraction of the power. Spend the money on $20 speakers and a good pair of headphones.

      • eitje
      • 8 years ago

      Agreed. This switch-up is an excellent idea, and gives TR a chance to pimp their headphones of choice. 🙂

      • travbrad
      • 8 years ago

      I agree. In case you don’t care about annoying your roommates, headphones will also help with the other way around, if you need to drown out your room mates terrible music. 🙂 On top of that headphones generally have much better sound quality at any given price point than speakers will.

      I guess you might need speakers if you are going to have a party or something, but I’m sure you can borrow a stereo or something.

    • Johnny5
    • 8 years ago

    The mobile section spiced things up nicely.

    • tbone8ty
    • 8 years ago

    in regards to the mobile dorm section….for $10 more you can get the Acer Aspire AS5250-BZ641…….(great model number/name im sure ill remember that :p)

    [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16834215112[/url<] which has a 15.6" screen and 3 gb of memory i know its not as "ultra" portable awesome system guide as always! also sidenote: i do agree the desktop llano is not as desirable but the mobile side for llano is much more appealing and is where llano fits best...also if u need a small form factor where u can't fit a graphics card, then llano is a good option like a small htpc/nettop.

    • jensend
    • 8 years ago

    While system prices have trended downwards so much over the past decade, your system guide’s prices have trended upwards. Your econobox is now more expensive than the vast majority of (non-Apple) systems being sold today, and there are plenty of reasons why “enthusiasts” might still be interested in systems which are actually [i<]inexpensive[/i<] rather than just "not quite as expensive." Substitute an A8-3850 and appropriate motherboard* for your Athlon X4 and mobo [u<]and graphics card[/u<], and you have a system which actually deserves the econobox name (coming in at <$450), has the same performance in most apps as the system you specced, has much lower power consumption, and still has reasonable gaming performance. Why not make putting together a <$450 system a normal part of your system guide? The econobox was an IGP system for several years, and there was plenty of interest in seeing what would be recommended for such a system even though the IGPs of that era were much worse at meeting people's needs than SB and Llano integrated graphics are. As for upgradability of FM1 systems, I've been hearing claims that there will be Trinity FM1 processors even if some Trinity models use a different socket with a third memory channel. If that's the case, Trinity will be a fantastic upgrade for people buying Llano today. * e.g. [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813128516[/url<]

      • jensend
      • 8 years ago

      Another reason to be interested in a FM1 system is that the A75 FCH is actually new and improved (and has amenities like USB3 built in) while AMD’s 900-series chipsets are basically warmed-over versions of the 700-series gear they’ve been selling since 2007. While you will be able to upgrade to BD with a current-gen AM3+ board, I would hope they have more serious improvements for BD chipsets up their sleeves.

      • OneArmedScissor
      • 8 years ago

      It used to make sense to put together a cheap desktop if you just wanted to save money, but this is the day and age of $400-500 laptops that equal a similarly priced desktop in performance, and do a whole lot more.

      I think it’s safe to say at this point that new desktops are for people who want a graphics card.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 8 years ago

        [quote<]but this is the day and age of $400-500 laptops that equal a similarly priced desktop in performance[/quote<] No it isn't.

        • obarthelemy
        • 8 years ago

        Not in my case. I have 2 screens off my Asus E-350, plenty of USB ports for charging/synching stuff, it’s passive thus totally silent.

        Only hardcore gamers need graphic cards nowadays. I can play Civ4 perfectly well on my E-350.

    • thermistor
    • 8 years ago

    Not to be contrarian. Any tablet will make a lousy school work device, without a mechanical input method. I’ve heard told that many claim to be able to type almost as fast on a tablet as on a keyboard. OK, how about a full ribbon/menu for doing all the formatting/drag-drop/aligning that you need to do to use a full-fledged word processor? do you really want to word process on something smaller than a 19″ screen? Really?

    And if you’re in sciences/engineering, any decent CAD or numerical software (Matlab) is going to require at least Econobox-level horsepower.

    Yeah, you can get peripherals for tablets at a premium, but you can’t fix slow.

      • Johnny5
      • 8 years ago

      “do you really want to word process on something smaller than a 19″ screen? Really?”
      I’m now imagining this being said by the guy in class with the massive gaming laptop.

      • obarthelemy
      • 8 years ago

      peripherals for tablets are not really at a premium: BT keyboards and mice and headsets, HDMI screens, USB drives/sticks… It’s just a matter of buying a sensible tablet with serviceable connectivity, and not a toy.

    • Duck
    • 8 years ago

    Hey, don’t forget that Win7 Home Premium is crippleware. There is an artificial limit on the amount of RAM you can have. Win7 Pro doesn’t have that. Win7 Pro also have offical support that lasts years longer than Home Premium. I forget exactly how much but could be as much as 5 years longer.

      • no51
      • 8 years ago

      [quote<]Version --- Limit on X86 --- Limit on X64 Ultimate --- 4 GB --- 192 GB Enterprise --- 4 GB --- 192 GB Professional --- 4 GB --- 192 GB Home Premium --- 4 GB --- 16 GB Home Basic --- 4 GB --- 8 GB[/quote<] If you can afford more than 16gb of ram, let alone have/afford a motherboard that'll fit all those dimms. I'm pretty sure you can afford the $40 difference between Home Premium and Pro.

      • UberGerbil
      • 8 years ago

      16GB is going to last through most 4 year degree program

        • Duck
        • 8 years ago

        Sure, but it’s an artificial limitation which will force it to become obsolete.

        If you are buying the Pro version, you could make it last for a heck of a lot longer.

          • paulWTAMU
          • 8 years ago

          How long do you think it’ll take 16 gigs of ram to be inadequate? I’m thinking at least 5-6 years more likely 8+.

            • kuraegomon
            • 8 years ago

            Unless you’re running multiple VM’s on your machine. Depending on what you’re doing with them, you can suck your RAM up pretty quickly. And when 24 GB of DDR3-1600 can be had for $225+ tax… well then.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            Not to mention $40 is a small price to pay to step up to a version of Windows that can do it.

            • flip-mode
            • 8 years ago

            Kinda depends on the VMs too, obviously. I’ve had as many as 10 active VMs running on ESXi with just 16GB of total host RAM. Right now I’ve got 7 active. Two are Win 2008, 2 are Win 2003, 3 are Ubuntu.

            • paulWTAMU
            • 8 years ago

            Anyone running multiple VMs is probably an edge case and already knows what they need though. It’s not exactly typical even for a PC enthusiast to run half a dozen of them at once.

      • stdRaichu
      • 8 years ago

      By that definition, almost every edition of windows is “crippleware” since they almost all include functionality that isn’t enabled. It’s been a staple of the computer industry, both software and hardware, since the year dot since it’s cheaper to mass-produce one codebase/chip and then limit (artifically or otherwise) certain segments.

      Reductio ad absurdum: we should all be running Windows 2008 R2 enterprise on cryogenically cooled POWER7 systems with at least an exabyte of RAM and a Pixar/ILM renderfarm for graphics, since anything else is less than the biggest/best possible and therefore crippleware.

      In the real world, 16GB should be enough for 90% of everybody.

        • cygnus1
        • 8 years ago

        i’d go as far as 99.999% of everybody

      • flip-mode
      • 8 years ago

      Duck, your comment is a good one and taught me things I didn’t know, so I don’t understand the -4 score. Thumbs up from me, dude.

      • obarthelemy
      • 8 years ago

      16 GB should be enough for everybody ^^
      who cares about years of support when Win8 is coming up in 2 yrs tops ?

    • UberGerbil
    • 8 years ago

    Care to suggest a thin optical (probably BR) for the Dorm PC? Slot-load in particular seem to be thin on the ground, and I haven’t seen much in the way of reviews either.

    Yes, I realize physical media is so last century and streaming/downloads/torrents are all the kids care about (do they even know what a DVD is?) But the case has that ugly bay cover on it asking for [i<]something[/i<] to be stuck in there. Fan controller? Single-line LCD? .

      • Damage
      • 8 years ago

      There’s a DVD drive in the main config. Miss it?

        • dpaus
        • 8 years ago

        Yeah, but it’s not in the [i<]picture[/i<], is it? And kids are so [i<]visual[/i<] these days...

      • obarthelemy
      • 8 years ago

      minimalism is a good thing. it’s not because there’s a slot that you HAVE to fill it, thank god.

    • juampa_valve_rde
    • 8 years ago

    I like the guide 🙂
    Proud to see that my 6850 cyclone is still a good choice
    Really cool the fact that an am3+ board could get inside the econobox

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