Has it already been two months since we published our last system guide? Excuse us. We kept our noses down testing the latest processors, graphics cards, solid-state drives, and enclosures, which might have made us lose track of time just a tad. On the flip side, we now have a rather fresh perspective—and some new fodder for an updated edition of the guide.
This latest guide update is well timed, too, because we’re amid one of the busiest game release seasons we’ve had the pleasure of witnessing in quite some time. id Software’s Rage is fresh out of the gate, and still to come are titles like Battlefield 3 and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, to name a few. Now’s a great time to make sure you have an up-to-date gaming rig. I mean, how else are you going to get the best experience in these titles? With a console? Puh-leeze.
Join us as we reveal the latest updates and additions we’ve made to our four classic builds: the $600 Econobox, the $900 Utility Player, the $1,500 Sweeter Spot, and the cheaper-than-before-but-still-quite-expensive Double-Stuff Workstation.
Rules and regulations
Before we get into our component recommendations, we should explain our methodology a little bit. Before that, though, a short disclaimer: this is a component selection guide, not a PC assembly guide or a performance comparison. If you’re seeking help with the business of putting components together, we have a handy how-to article just for that. If you’re after reviews and benchmarks, might we suggest heading to our front page and starting from there.
Over the next few pages, you’ll see us recommend and discuss components for four sample builds. Those builds have target budgets of $600, $900, $1,500, and around $3,000. Within each budget, we will attempt to hit the sweet spot of performance and value while mentally juggling variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the manufacturer’s size and reputation. We’ll try to avoid both overly cheap parts and needlessly expensive ones. We’ll also favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.
Beyond a strenuous vetting process, we will also aim to produce balanced configurations. While it can be tempting to settle on a $50 motherboard or a no-name power supply just to make room for a faster CPU, such decisions are fraught with peril—and likely disappointment. Similarly, we will avoid favoring processor performance at the expense of graphics performance, or vice versa, keeping in mind that hardware enthusiasts who build their own PCs tend to be gamers, as well.
Now that we’ve addressed the “how,” let’s talk about the “where.” See that “powered by Newegg.com” logo at the top of the page? Newegg sponsors our system guides, and more often than not, it will double as our source for component prices. However, Newegg has no input on our editorial content nor sway over our component selections. If we want to recommend something it doesn’t carry, we’ll do just that.
We think sourcing prices from a huge online retailer gives us more realistic figures, though—so much so that we quoted Newegg prices long before this guide got a sponsor. Dedicated price search engines can find better deals, but they often pull up unrealistically low prices from small and potentially unreliable e-tailers. If you’re going to spend several hundred (or thousand) dollars on a PC, we think you’ll be more comfortable doing so at a large e-tailer with a proven track record and a decent return policy. That vendor doesn’t have to be as big as Newegg, but it probably shouldn’t be as small as Joe Bob’s Discount Computer Warehouse, either.
Because speed doesn’t have to cost a fortune
The Econobox may be the baby of the bunch, but it can handle a little bit of everything, including modern games in all their glory. We haven’t scraped the bottom of the bargain bin or cut any corners, resulting in a surprisingly potent budget build.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz||$124.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$26.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 1GB||$149.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$69.99|
|Enclosure||Antec One Hundred||$49.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$39.99|
These are dark times for CPU shoppers on a budget. The arrival of AMD’s Llano APUs has led to the disappearance of the $100 Phenom II X4 840, our long-time favorite choice for the Econobox, as well as its more appealing siblings in the Athlon II X4 family. In their absence, avoiding a downgrade forces us to climb another rung up the price ladder, where the options are AMD’s A6-3650 at $120 and Intel’s Core i3-2100 at $125.
Considering the i3-2100 has higher overall CPU performance than the $140 A8-3850, which is clocked 300MHz faster than the A6-3650, we think it’s really no contest. The tables might turn if we were concerned about integrated graphics performance, but we’ve expressly configured the Econobox with a proper graphics card that has genuine gaming chops. Choosing an inferior processor in order to secure less mediocre integrated graphics doesn’t appeal to us at all.
Besides, slow CPU performance isn’t the A6-3650’s only flaw. The chip also has a 100W thermal envelope, which is quite a bit larger than the Core i3-2100’s 65W TDP. Even if you don’t care about saving polar bears or trimming your power bill, there’s always the issue of noise, since power-hungrier CPUs typically run hotter and are harder to cool quietly. AMD would have given Llano a fighting chance had it opted for more aggressive pricing, but alas, that hasn’t happened yet.
The Core i3-2100 doesn’t have an unlocked upper multiplier, so we can dispense with motherboards based on Intel’s P67 and Z68 chipsets, since we won’t be overclocking much. At the same time, we don’t want to cheap out too much by selecting an H61-powered offering, since the H61 Express chipset allows only one DIMM per memory channel, lacks 6Gbps Serial ATA support, and sacrifices PCI Express lanes and USB 2.0 ports.
A nice, H67-based, full-ATX motherboard like Asus’ P8H67-V is more up our alley. This particular model features two 6Gbps SATA ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a pair of physical PCIe x16 slots (albeit with a 16/4-lane configuration), two PCIe x1 slots, and three old-school PCI slots. It can also tap into the Core i3-2100’s integrated graphics with HDMI, VGA, and HDMI outputs, so you can use Lucid’s Virtu GPU virtualization scheme to enable QuickSync video transcoding technology alongside a discrete graphics card.
Based on our experience, Asus has the best and most mature UEFI implementation of the top three motherboard makers. The UEFI’s fan controls are excellent, making us more eager to go with Asus than one of its competitors.
Memory is relatively cheap these days, so we don’t have to splurge to put 4GB of RAM into the Econobox. At less than $30 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, and they’re covered by a lifetime warranty.
This spring, AMD and Nvidia both introduced graphics cards that would appear to be ripe for the Econobox: the GeForce GTX 550 Ti and the Radeon HD 6790. Those cards are plenty fast, and they’ve come down in price since their release. However, our budget leaves room for the Radeon HD 6850, which lies higher up the food chain and packs a much stronger punch.
This particular Sapphire model comes with stock clock speeds and a custom cooler with a large fan, which bodes well for low noise levels. The card is bundled with a coupon for a free copy of DiRT 3, as well, further sweetening the pot.
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. 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. The DRW-24B1ST offers DVD burning speeds up to 24X behind a black face plate that will blend in nicely with our system’s enclosure.
The Antec One Hundred 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.
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.
Want a faster processor, more RAM, or an Nvidia graphics card? Read on.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-2300 2.8GHz||$179.99|
|Memory||Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$44.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 460 1GB||$159.99|
The Core i3-2100 in our primary picks is a fine processor, and thanks to Hyper-Threading, it can juggle four threads at once. For heavy multitasking and heavily multithreaded applications, though, nothing beats a genuine quad-core processor like the Core i5-2300, which is Intel’s most affordable Sandy Bridge quad.
The i5-2300 does have a lower base clock speed than the i3-2100 (2.8 vs 3.1GHz), but it also has Turbo Boost, a feature Intel kept out of the i3-2100’s bag of tricks. The i5-2300’s top Turbo speed is the same as the i3-2100’s base speed—3.1GHz—so the quad-core offering shouldn’t be handicapped in single-threaded tasks. In fact, the i5 might actually have an advantage in such tasks thanks to its larger L3 cache.
For the reasons we noted on the previous page, we don’t feel comfortable recommending one of AMD’s Llano APUs, even in our alternatives section. AMD’s A-series chips are simply too expensive, too power-hungry, and saddled with CPU cores that are too underpowered. That makes them wholly unappealing for a build like this one, in which integrated graphics performance isn’t a priority.
RAM is so cheap right now that, if you have a few bucks to spare, you might as well grab this 8GB Crucial 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.
The Radeon HD 6850 got the nod in our primary picks because it’s slightly faster than the reference GeForce GTX 460 1GB for the money. However, higher-clocked versions of the GTX 460 like this EVGA model are available for not much more, and they have perks of their own. Nvidia did a much better job of promptly providing drivers optimized for Rage and Battlefield 3 than AMD earlier this month, which bodes well for this year’s other upcoming releases. We recognize some folks are partial to Nvidia-specific features like PhysX, as well.
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.
|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|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DG||$21.99|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$89.99|
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.
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.
Utility Player alternatives
As with the Econobox, we have some alternative propositions for how to fill out the Utility Player.
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X6 1100T BE 3.2GHz||$189.99|
|Motherboard||Asus M5A97 EVO AM3+||$119.99|
|Graphics||Asus Radeon HD 6870 1GB TOP||$189.99|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC||$234.99|
|Gigabyte Radeon HD 6950 1GB OC
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 3 60GB||$134.99|
|Crucial m4 64GB||$109.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$109.99|
|LG WH12LS30 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
Now that AMD’s A- and FX-series processors are out, you might be wondering what the heck the Phenom II X6 1100T Black Edition is doing here. Alas, its presence owes to the underwhelming performance and awkward positioning of AMD latest processors. You see, the fastest A-series APU doesn’t come anywhere close to the performance of Intel’s quad-core Sandy Bridge processors. AMD’s FX-series offerings do, but they’re either unavailable, overpriced, or both.
Take the new AMD FX-8120 processor. While Newegg lists it for the same price as the Core i5-2500K ($220), our overall performance index suggests it’s quite a bit slower and really more in the same league as the Phenom II X6 1100T. The Phenom II is actually $30 cheaper, and despite being fabbed on an older process, it has the same 125W power envelope. The FX-8120 would be tough to recommend… if it weren’t out of stock to begin with.
If you really must buy an AMD processor in this price range—and we recommend thinking that decision through carefully—the Phenom II X6 is the way to go. While it’s a bit slower and hungrier for power than the similarly priced Core i5-2400, the Phenom II X6 does have an unlocked upper multiplier, and matching motherboards are a wee bit cheaper than their Intel counterparts with comparable features. That ain’t much, but it’s the best AMD has to offer in this segment right now.
Motherboards like the Asus M5A97 EVO are the silver lining in the dark raincloud of AMD’s competitive prospects. For less money than equivalent Intel offerings, this mobo serves up all the rear I/O ports one could hope for, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, and six 6Gbps Serial ATA ports, not to mention Asus’ excellent UEFI and fan controls, which other motherboard makers have yet to equal. The EVO’s AM3+ socket will accommodate FX-series chips, too, should those turn out to be more compelling upgrades in the future.
We have a second alternative motherboard in the mix for those seeking an upgrade path on the Intel side. MSI’s Z68A-GD55 has the same chipset and a roughly comparable feature loadout to the Asus Z68 mobo from the previous page, but it promises support for next-year’s 22-nm Ivy Bridge processors, complete with third-generation PCI Express connectivity. MSI’s gen-three motherboards feature a newer UEFI that has more in common with Asus’ excellent firmware, although we’ll have to reserve judgment until we can spend a little more time with thus updated MSI firmware.
The GeForce GTX 560 got our vote on the last page, but the Radeon HD 6870 is a close second in terms of performance, and it has perks of its own like lower power consumption and a cheaper asking price. This particular Asus variant has higher-than-reference clock speeds and an uncannily quiet cooler—in fact, this was the quietest of all the cards we tested in our GeForce GTX 560 review earlier this year. The free DiRT 3 coupon doesn’t hurt, either.
Now, just because we settled on $200-ish graphics cards to stay within our budget for the Utitliy Player doesn’t mean you have to. Indeed, with all of this year’s new and upcoming games, some folks might want to get a double helping of GPU goodness. We recommend that those users check out either Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC or Radeon HD 6950 1GB OC.
The two cards have rather similar performance and pricing. We do expect the GeForce to consume more power, but prefer it for some of the reasons we noted on the previous page, including the fact Nvidia has done a better job of providing drivers tuned for newer games than AMD has of late. This particular Gigabyte card comes with a spiffy dual-fan cooler and a free copy of Batman: Arkham City, too.
AMD’s Radeon HD 6950 1GB is still a fine choice, of course. The Gigabyte variant we’ve selected earned our Editor’s Choice award last week for its low price, quiet and effective cooler, and solid performance. In this case, Gigabyte sweetens the pot with a free copy of DiRT 3. This card is definitely a worthwhile step up from the Radeon HD 6870, because its Cayman GPU offers better antialiasing, geometry processing, and shader scheduling than the Barts chip that powers 6800-series Radeons.
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.
We have two solid-state boot drives on our short list. The first, OCZ’s Vertex 3 60GB, is a speed demon with top read and write speeds of 535 and 480MB/s, respectively. On paper, it’s a superior choice to Crucial’s m4 64GB, which has a top write speed of only 95MB/s and doesn’t cost a whole lot less. (The m4’s write performance trailed the Vertex 3’s by a fair amount in our testing.) Things get a little more complicated in practice, because some folks have complained of stability issues with SandForce SF-2200-powered drives like the Vertex 3. OCZ recently released a firmware update that purportedly addresses those problems, but it’s too early to tell if the bugs have been squashed for good. After much deliberation, we’ve decided to give the Vertex 3 our tentative nod while recommending the m4 as a fallback solution for folks who can’t afford to compromise stability.
Around 60GB of 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 not much 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.)
The catastrophic flooding that has put much of Thailand under water has had a severe impact on the hard drive industry, forcing the suspension of production at several factories and sending prices skyward. The price of the EcoGreen we’re recommending has shot up by $30 in just the last few days, and other mechanical hard drives have followed suit. Supply disruptions are expected to persist for the next few months, making mechanical storage a pricier proposition for potentially the remainder of the year.
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 NZXT H2 in our primary picks is tuned for quiet operation, which isn’t the strong suit of Corsair’s Carbide 400R. However, if you’re not terribly concerned with low noise levels, the 400R looks like a step up. The Carbide has a roomy interior with top-notch cable management, childishly easy-to-use drive bays, support for USB 3.0 connectivity via a motherboard header, and best of all, excellent cooling capabilities—better than the H2’s according to our testing. This bad boy is worth a look for sure, especially considering its low asking price.
The Sweeter Spot
Indulgence without excess
Staying within the Utility Player’s budget requires a measure of restraint. With the Sweeter Spot, we’ve loosened the purse strings to accommodate beefier hardware and additional functionality.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz||$314.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$51.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC||$234.99|
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 3 120GB||$199.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$69.99|
|LG WH12LS30 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DG||$21.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$189.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX650W||$132.99|
At first glance, the Core i7-2600K may look like little more than a 100MHz clock-speed jump over the i5-2500K 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/GEN3 isn’t cheap, but it has several desirable advantages over the LE board we chose for the Utility Player. This board is capable of hosting a pair of PCI Express graphics cards in a dual-x8 config, for starters, and two of its PCIe x16 slots will support the third-generation PCI Express connectivity built into Intel’s upcoming Ivy Bridge processors. This GEN3 model also has onboard FireWire, extra SATA ports, and the excellent UEFI and fan controls you’d expect from a recent Asus motherboard.
MSI has a similar but slightly cheaper Z68 board that also features gen-three-ready PCI Express slots. However, the Asus board has external Serial ATA connectivity, integrated Bluetooth, additional USB 2.0 ports, and more proven firmware than the MSI.
As 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.
Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC returns from our Utility Player alternatives, for pretty much the same reasons. Absent substantial performance or pricing differences between the AMD and Nvidia camps, we’re going to go with the card whose manufacturer has the best track record of supporting new games as they become available. It doesn’t hurt that this model comes with a free coupon for Batman: Arkham City.
The Sweeter Spot’s generous budget allows us to spec the system with a solid-state drive. Now that OCZ has released a firmware fix for that nasty blue-screen-of-death bug, we’re tentatively recommending the 120GB Vertex 3 SSD for its excellent all-around performance and competitive pricing. Folks not yet sold on the effectiveness of the firmware fix will want to check our alternatives section on the next page for a safer, albeit slower, choice.
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. At least for now, the Spinpoint appears unaffected by the Thailand flooding that has sent other hard drive prices spiraling upward.
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 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.
We’re keeping the same Corsair HX650W power supply as in our last few guides. This 650W unit has plenty of power and 80 Plus Bronze certification. It also features 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.
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon HD 6950 1GB||$239.99|
|Storage||Crucial m4 128GB||$199.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$109.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$109.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$79.99|
|Case||Corsair Graphite Series 600T||$159.99|
Driver hurdles aside, the Radeon HD 6950 1GB is about as fast as the GeForce GTX 560 Ti and has lower power consumption. This Gigabyte model is an Editor’s Choice award winner, and it even comes with a coupon for a free copy of DiRT 3. That makes it a fine alternative to our primary GeForce recommendation.
Crucial’s 128GB m4 fills in as the slower-yet-potentially-safer alternative to our primary SSD. If stability concerns trump your hunger for top-of-the-line performance, then this is the drive for you.
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 quite a few 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.
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.
Although it’s bulkier and doesn’t look quite as good as the 650D, Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T enclosure costs 30 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.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz||$314.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z68-V Pro/GEN3||$199.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$51.99|
|Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$51.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 570||$339.99|
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 3 240GB||$369.99|
|Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 3TB||$219.99|
|Hitachi Deskstar 7K3000 3TB||$219.99|
|LG WH12LS30 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$72.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$189.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 800D||$279.99|
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 performance-per-dollar scatter plot, in which the Core i7-2600K trails the old Core i7-970 by a relatively small margin despite its much lower asking price. The new Core i7-980 isn’t much faster, and neither are “Extreme” editions of Gulftown, even though 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 and i7-980. 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 i7-980.
Pairing Miss Sandy with the right motherboard also presents one more advantage: an upgrade path to Intel’s 22-nm Ivy Bridge processors when they come out next year. Gulftown’s LGA1366 socket, by contrast, has already reached the end of its run and will soon pass the torch to LGA2011.
It was the arrival of Intel’s Z68 Express chipset that really tipped 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 GPU virtualization, Serial ATA 6Gbps, and an SSD caching scheme dubbed Smart Response Technology.
The Z68’s GPU virtualization capability enables discrete graphics cards to be used alongside QuickSync, the video transcoding acceleration hardware 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/GEN3 motherboard—a PCI Express 3.0-fortified version of the model that earned our Editor’s Choice award not too long ago. This board has it all: a great UEFI implementation, fast onboard peripherals, ports and slots out the wazoo, Bluetooth, and gen-three PCIe lanes ready for Ivy Bridge. No doubt about it: this is a mobo worthy of the Double-Stuff.
We’re outfitting the Double Stuff with two of those Corsair Vengeance kits we featured in our earlier builds. The price of that second kit is a drop in the bucket when you’re building a high-powered workstation worth over two grand.
What’s that? No dual-GPU setup in the Double-Stuff?
A look at our recent article, Inside the second: A new look at game benchmarking, should shed some light on our deliberation process. Multi-GPU setups can certainly produce the highest frame rates, but they don’t necessarily churn out the lowest or most consistent frame times, which can mean a jumpy and somewhat choppy experience for the end user. Not everybody notices, but those who do may find themselves regretting their purchase of a second graphics card.
Multi-GPU configs can present other problems in times like these, when new games are coming out in quick succession. AMD showed earlier this month that supporting two new releases on single-GPU cards was a challenge, so we’re not terribly confident that a dual-GPU rig will serve you best as titles like Battlefield 3, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and Batman: Arkham City roll out over the coming weeks.
Rather, we’re more comfortable recommending a very fast single-GPU card like the GeForce GTX 570, which should be your best chance to enjoy a smooth, hassle-free experience with new and upcoming releases. This EVGA version of the GTX 570 has reference clock speeds and comes with a free coupon for Arkham City.
Of course, multi-GPU configs have advantages that trump the aforementioned inconveniences, particularly if you’re trying to run games across multiple displays or to enjoy stereoscopic 3D graphics. We’ve singled out a couple of multi-GPU options in our alternatives section on the following page.
As in the Sweeter Spot, we’re tentatively recommending one of OCZ’s Vertex 3 drives—a 240GB model, to be exact. The Vertex 3 family delivers outstanding performance for the money, and the recent 2.15 firmware release will hopefully spell the end of the stability issues some users have encountered. If you’d still rather play it safe, check the next page for our SSD alternative.
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. These Deskstars provide plentiful mass storage and solid performance.
Our LG Blu-ray burner almost feels a little too pedestrian for a system as exotic as the Double-Stuff… but good luck finding a more exciting alternative in the world of optical storage.
The Xonar DX offers the best of both worlds: excellent analog signal quality combined with the ability to encode multi-channel digital bitstreams on the fly. Audiophiles with fancy headphones might want to consider indulging in our alternative sound card, though.
Our second-favorite workstation enclosure, the Cooler Master Cosmos, has gone out of stock at Newegg. That leaves no question that Corsair’s Obsidian Series 800D is the best case for the Double-Stuff. This beastly tower has something for everyone, including hot-swap drive bays, an upside-down internal layout, loads of cable routing cut-outs, and that all-important access panel to the area on the backside of the CPU socket. 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.
Note that, although the 800D we reviewed didn’t have USB 3.0 ports out of the box, Corsair tells us it has been shipping an updated version of the 800D with USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA connectivity since the summer. If you happen to get one of the original 800D cases, you can still get SuperSpeed goodness via $15 front-panel upgrade kit Corsair sells on its website.
We’re gonna need a beefy PSU 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, and we’ve been running 650W versions of the AX series on our storage test rigs for a couple of months now with no complaints.
As complete as our Double-Stuff Workstation is, we still have some alternative ideas for how to fill it out.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-980 3.33GHz||$549.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 12GB (3 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$74.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 570||$339.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 570||$339.99|
|XFX Radeon HD 6970 2GB||$379.99|
|XFX Radeon HD 6970 2GB||$379.99|
|Storage||Crucial m4 256GB||$380.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$109.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$109.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar Xense||$296.46|
Gulftown sees Sandy Bridge’s four cores and raises her two. Throw in Hyper-Threading, and the Core i7-980 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 one more 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 GPU setups with the right motherboard.
We don’t actually need a motherboard with four-way SLI support, but we’ll take one that’ll do a three-way. Asus’ P6X58-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. It even has built-in Bluetooth.
There are a number of relatively affordable X58 boards on the market, but we’ve gone with an Asus model because the company’s boards tend to offer better 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? Gigabit Ethernet. Specifically, the Sabertooth X58 board’s reliance on a slow PCI-based networking chip that caps throughput at around 700Mbps—more than 200Mbps shy of what you get with PCI Express GigE chips. Adding a PCIe x1 networking card to the Sabertooth would alleviate the issue, but we have other plans for the Double-Stuff’s expansion slots.
At least three DIMMs are required to fully tap Gulftown’s triple-channel memory controller. Corsair has a 12GB Vengeance kit that fits the bill and still leaves half of the motherboard’s memory slots available for future upgrades.
As we said earlier, multi-GPU configurations have certain downsides, but they’re still worth considering if you’d like to play games across multiple displays, enjoy stereosopic 3D graphics, or both.
On the Nvidia side, you might as well grab a second GeForce GTX 570. For AMD fans, a pair of Radeon HD 6970s like this XFX card ought to do the trick. Our testing shows that dual 6970s slightly outpace a pair of GTX 570s. The XFXs card we’ve singled out also have nice coolers with blowers that direct hot air out of the system, and they feature double-lifetime warranty coverage, which gives them added resale value.
Again, if you’d rather not deal with potential stability hassles (even ones that are supposed to be fixed) and don’t mind reduced write performance, Crucial m4 SSDs like this 256GB offering are fine alternatives to OCZ’s Vertex 3 drives.
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 will lose a a terabyte of redundant storage and some performance, but a 2TB array ought to be enough for a lot of folks.
We’ve called the Xense a sort of greatest hits package for the Xonar lineup. The card has everything: replaceable OPAMPs, excellent analog playback quality, real-time multichannel encoding capabilities, and chunky 1/4″ headphone and microphone jacks. Heck, it even comes with a PC-350 gaming headset from Sennheiser. The $300 asking price might seem steep, but it’s actually quite reasonable for a high-end sound card and a headset.
The mobile sidekicks
Nothing beats a high-powered desktop for gaming and productivity, but you can’t exactly lug around a machine like the Utility Player or Double-Stuff Workstation. That’s why all of us here at TR complement our desktop machines with laptops or tablets—and, if we have all the horsepower we need at home, then we’re free to prioritize mobility and grab compact, lightweight, and affordable devices with long-running batteries. Here are a few recommendations along those lines.
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.
Higher up the food chain, you may want to take a look at a new category of laptops called ultrabooks. The first ultrabooks trickled into e-tail listings not long ago and look very tantalizing, with razor-thin frames, Sandy Bridge processors, and solid-state storage.
One of the cheapest ultrabooks out and about right now is Acer’s Aspire S3, which has a 13″ display, a Core i5-2467M processor clocked at 1.6GHz, 20GB of solid-state storage, 320GB of mechanical storage, and a battery rated for up to six hours of run time. The system will set you back only $899.99, which is a rather nice deal considering. Asus also has 11.6-inch and 13.3-inch Zenbook ultrabooks priced at a respective $999 and $1,199. While they’re not as cheap as the Aspire S3, the Zenbooks forgo mechanical storage entirely and instead pack 128GB solid-state drives.
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 operating system
Which one is right for you?
Before we begin, we should acknowledge that some readers may not feel comfortable with Windows’ prominent place on this page. We hold no particular grudge against Linux or other desktop operating systems, but we think most TR readers will want to stick with Windows. For starters, most of you play PC games, and we’ve tuned all of our main configs for gaming—something Linux doesn’t do nearly as well as Microsoft’s OSes. Also, we figure enthusiasts with enough expertise to run Linux on their primary desktops will already have a favorite Linux distribution picked out. As for Mac OS X, we find both the dubious legality and the lack of official support for running it on standard PCs too off-putting.
Now, if you’re buying a copy of Windows today, you should really be thinking about Windows 7. We explained in our review that this OS may well be Microsoft’s finest to date, because it draws from Vista’s strengths while adding a healthy dose of polish, not to mention improved performance and non-disastrous backward compatibility. Building a new system with Windows 7 instead of Vista or XP is really a no-brainer at this point.
Just like its predecessors, Windows 7 comes in several different editions, three of which you’ll find in stores: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. What makes them different from one another? The table below should help answer that question:
|Windows 7 Home Premium
||Windows 7 Professional
||Windows 7 Ultimate
|New Aero features||X||X||X|
|Internet Explorer 8||X||X||X|
|Windows Media Center||X||X||X|
|Full-system Backup and Restore||X||X||X|
|Remote Desktop client||X||X||X|
|Backups across network||X||X|
|Remote Desktop host||X||X|
|Windows XP Mode||X||X|
|Interface language switching||X|
|Price—OEM (64-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||$189.99|
|Price—OEM (32-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||$189.99|
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 of our systems have 4GB of memory or more, the x64 release strikes us as the most sensible choice. This recommendation is relevant to folks who buy retail and upgrade editions, too—you might have to ask Microsoft to ship you x64 installation media first, but installing an x64 variant looks like the best idea.
As we’ve already explained, 32-bit flavors of Windows only support up to 4GB of RAM, and that upper limit covers things like video memory. In practice, that means that your 32-bit OS will only be able to use 3-3.5GB of system RAM on average and even less than 3GB if you have more than one discrete GPU. With new OSes and games pushing the envelope in terms of memory use, the 4GB limit can get a little uncomfortable for an enthusiast PC.
There are some caveats, however. 64-bit versions of Windows don’t support 32-bit drivers, and they won’t run 16-bit software. You’ll probably want to make sure all of your peripherals have compatible drivers, and vintage game lovers may also have to check out emulators like DOSBox. Still, hardware makers have improved x64 support quite a bit since Vista came out three years ago, so you’ll probably be fine unless you have something like a really old printer. (For some background on what makes 64-bit computing different at a hardware level, have a look at our take on the subject.)
Matters of religion and taste
Now that we’ve examined operating system choices in detail, let’s have a look at some accessories. We don’t have a full set of recommendations at multiple price levels in the categories below, but we can make general observations and point out specific products that are worthy of your consideration. What you ultimately choose in these areas will probably depend heavily on your own personal preferences.
The world of monitors has enough scope and variety that we can’t keep track of it all, especially because we don’t often review monitors. However, we do appreciate a good display—or two or three of them, since several of us are multi-monitor fanatics—so we can offer a few pieces of advice.
Let’s get one thing clear before we begin: LCDs have long since supplanted CRTs as the display type of choice for gamers and enthusiasts. LCDs might have been small and of insufficient quality for gaming and photo editing six or seven years ago, but the latest models have huge panels, lightning-quick response times, and impressive color definition. Unless you’re already content with a massive, power-guzzling CRT, there’s little reason to avoid LCDs.
Despite their near-universal sharpness and thin form factors, not all LCDs are created equal. Besides obvious differences in sizes and aspect ratios, LCDs have different panel types. Wikipedia has a good run-down of different kinds of LCD panels in this article, but most users will probably care about one major differentiating attribute: whether their display has a 6-bit twisted nematic + film (TN+film) panel or not. The majority of sub-$500 monitors have 6-bit TN panels, which means 18-bit, rather than 24-bit, color definition. Those panels use dithering to simulate colors that are out of their scope, yielding sub-optimal color accuracy, and they often have poor viewing angles on top of that. 8-bit panels typically look better, although they tend to have higher response times and prices.
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. Cheaper alternatives to the Das Keyboard can be found among Rosewill’s line of mechanical keyboards, which come outfitted with all types and variations of MX Cherry key switches, from the clicky and tactile blue switches to the linear and non-tactile black ones. We also like the combination of mechanical switches, macro keys, and backlighting offered by the new Razer BlackWidow Ultimate.
This section traditionally included a floppy drive/card reader combo, but we’re in 2011 now. We’ve had the Internet, USB thumb drives, and Windows-based BIOS flashing tools for many years. It’s time to let go.
If you absolutely must stick something in that external 3.5″ drive bay, we suggest this all-in-one card reader. It costs just over $10 yet has good user reviews on Newegg, and it should happily accept any flash card you find lying around.
You might have noticed that all of our recommended processors are retail-boxed variants packaged with stock heatsinks and fans. Retail processors have longer warranties than “tray” or OEM CPUs, and their coolers tend to be at least adequate, with fans that work with motherboard-based temperature control and stay reasonably quiet at idle.
That said, anyone aspiring to overclock or to build a truly quiet PC will likely want to explore aftermarket alternatives. We’ve singled out three options that ought to suit most needs and budgets: Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus, Thermaltake’s Frio, and Corsair’s H60.
Priced just under $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 about 10 bucks 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 about the same price as the H60 right now. The NH-U12P SE2 may be as close to the ultimate air tower as you can get, though.
You know what they say: it’s all fun and games until someone’s hard drive starts developing bad sectors and kicks the bucket in a dissonant avalanche of clicking and crunching sounds. If you’re unsure how to formulate a backup strategy, you can check out our article on the subject, which recommends a fairly straightforward approach. That article deals with Windows Vista’s built-in backup software, which isn’t bad. Win7’s backup tools are even better, though, and Microsoft has included them in the Home Premium edition of the OS.
All you need to get Windows 7 backups going is a decent external hard drive. For that purpose, Thermaltake’s BlacX docking station should work well with any of the hard drives we’ve recommended throughout this guide (perhaps the 2TB Samsung EcoGreen F4). This newer USB 3.0 version of the BlacX made a pretty good impression on us, and backing up large files and drive images with it should be a snap.
Well, that’s it for our fall 2011 system guide. We’re happy with the amount of value we’ve managed to pack into our four builds, but we’re left with a tinge of regret over the relative stagnation of the CPU market.
Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors haven’t gotten any cheaper since they came out nearly 10 months ago, and all this time, AMD has failed to produce truly compelling alternatives from a pure CPU performance standpoint. We were sad to see AMD discontinue its Phenom II X4 840, which used to imbue the Econobox with quad-core performance for only $100, and we were frustrated to realize that the only way to avoid a performance downgrade was to choose a more expensive chip. That’s not how things are supposed to go. The cost of performance is supposed to go down as time passes.
Our only hope is that AMD will go back to pricing its CPUs aggressively. AMD products haven’t always been faster, but they’ve almost always delivered more bang per buck—and AMD seems to have strayed from that legacy as of late.
Oh well. That doesn’t mean this isn’t a good time to buy a new PC. After all, Intel has some very fine processors on offer today. If you’re worried about premature obsolescence, relax. Intel’s 22-nm Ivy Bridge aren’t due until next spring, and although Intel has some LGA2011 Sandy Bridge-E processors planned for this year, they should only supplant Gulftown at the very high end of the lineup. Things may move quicker on the graphics front, where some reports say we might see AMD unleash 28-nm Radeons in December. However, it’s still unclear exactly what class of chips will be released and in what quantities.