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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 $129.99
Memory Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333 $44.99
Graphics Asus GeForce GTX 560 DirectCU II OC $199.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $69.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Audio Asus Xonar DG $21.99
Enclosure NZXT H2 $99.99
Power supply Seasonic M12II 520W $89.99
Total $896.91

The Core i5-2500K is arguably the best deal 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.

It's just too bad the 2500K hasn't gone down in price a bit since its launch in January. Ah, if only AMD had come out with a competitive and more aggressively priced offering...

Our choice of an unlocked Sandy Bridge processor calls for a chipset that doesn't restrict overclocking—a chipset like the Z68, which supports multiplier fiddling alongside GPU virtualization via Lucid's Virtu software. The Asus P8Z68-V LE serves up the Z68 in a fairly affordable package complete with the best UEFI implementation around, great fan controls, a wide range of connectivity options, and a second PCI Express x16 slot (with four lanes of connectivity). The competition is still a ways behind on the UEFI and fan-control fronts, so Asus continues to get our nod.

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.

We're going to give AMD's Radeon HD 6870 the cold shoulder here, even though it costs a little bit less and has lower power consumption than the GeForce GTX 560. The truth is, the GeForce is faster, has better antialiasing, has much higher peak geometry throughput, and features a shader layout that's arguably better suited to general-purpose computing. As we said on the previous page, we're also not very impressed by the way AMD's graphics driver team handled the releases of Rage and the Battlefield 3 beta earlier this month. Nvidia tends to have more close relationships with game developers than AMD, and that might have had something to do with it. In any case, with several other high-profile game releases due this year, we're left thinking the GTX 560 is the best choice for the Utility Player.

Asus' GeForce GTX 560 DirectCU II OC card is clocked a little bit lower than the other Asus GTX 560 we looked at this spring, but it has the same great dual-fan cooler, which produced some of the lowest noise levels of all the cards we tested for that review. This card also comes with three years of warranty coverage and a free voucher for Batman: Arkham City.

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 what 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.

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 can even sound more pleasing to the ear than pricier offerings. The Xonar DG has a TR Editor's Choice award in its trophy cabinet, too.

The Antec One Hundred has enough 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 right boxes—bottom-mounted power supply emplacement, cut-outs in the motherboard tray, generous cable-routing options, and tool-less hard-drive bays—while adding 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 fits easily within our budget, too.

Power supply
Our budget also has room for 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.