TR’s fall 2011 system guide

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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.

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 Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz $124.99
Motherboard Asus P8H67-V $104.99
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
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec One Hundred $49.99
Power supply
Antec EarthWatts Green 380W $39.99
Total $586.92

Processor

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.

Motherboard

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

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.

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 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.

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. 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.

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.

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

Want a faster processor, more RAM, or an Nvidia graphics card? Read on.

Component Item Price
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

Processor

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.

Memory

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.

Graphics

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.

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

Processor

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…

Motherboard

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.

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

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.

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 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.

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 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.

Enclosure

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.

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
MSI Z68A-GD55 $154.99
Graphics Asus Radeon HD 6870 1GB TOP $189.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC $234.99
Gigabyte Radeon HD 6950 1GB OC
$239.99
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

Processor

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.

Motherboard

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.

Graphics

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.

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.

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.

Enclosure

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.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz $314.99
Motherboard Asus P8Z68-V/GEN3 $189.99
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
Total $1,486.90

Processor

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.

Motherboard

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.

Memory

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.

Graphics
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.

Storage

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.

Audio

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.

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

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.

Component Item Price
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

Graphics

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.

Storage
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.

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

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.

Component Item Price
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
Total $2,391.88

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 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.

Motherboard

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.

Memory

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.

Graphics

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.

Storage

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.

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 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.

Power supply

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.

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 i7-980 3.33GHz $549.99
Motherboard Asus P6X58-E $214.99
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

Processor

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.

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.

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

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.

Storage

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.

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 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
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 $289.99
Price—upgrade license $109.99 $174.99 $185.48
Price—OEM (64-bit) license $99.99 $139.99 $189.99
Price—OEM (32-bit) license $99.99 $139.99 $189.99
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 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.)

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. 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.

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 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.

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 made a pretty good impression on us, and backing up large files and drive images with it should be a snap.

Conclusions

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.

Comments closed
    • SpotTheCat
    • 8 years ago

    Do not tempt me, frodo!

    My 2007 laptop is looking and feeling long in the tooth. I miss desktop real-estate.

    • dashbarron
    • 8 years ago

    Authors, under the double-stuff workstation the link for the Vertex 3 doesn’t match the price you listed, $369. I’m seeing $439 + a MIR for $409.

    [quote<] DVDs are so last decade. Blu-ray is in, and compatible burners are surprisingly cheap these days. [/quote<] I've been a fan of physical media for backups but I wonder how many people are still going the Blu-ray route when less expensive methods (e.g. a cheap green-friendly hard drive or some online solution/other). Other than that, I only see people who demand the best HD viewing solutions. Other than that I have a hard time believing physical media will progress (with much enthusiasm) past the BR specification.

      • indeego
      • 8 years ago

      [url<]http://www.alwayslowest.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=shop.dspSpecs&part=38055874[/url<] $367 currently Decent [url=http://www.google.com/products/seller?zmi=alwayslowest.com&q=V3LT-25SAT3-240G&hl=en&ei=i4zBTrD4KKa2NI-W6OUE&ved=0CAkQwhIwAg<]Google Reseller Rating[/url<], also.

    • Bensam123
    • 8 years ago

    As per destroy.all.monsters comment. I second the notion that a new category should be introduced. The ‘omg it barely works and uses almost no technology’ category for elderly, HTPCs, and/or falls into the Nettop category.

    Essentially no price point, but close to the bare minimum to work. Last generation technology could even be evaluated. Possibly split into two categories: one for integrated chips (Atoms) and another for the mini-itx form factor with all the necessities.

      • dragosmp
      • 8 years ago

      At some point there was a Kitchen PC which in essence was a low power / low speed HTPC-like computer. I see easily a Pentium G840 easily taking care of such a HT/PC using the IGP, all below 300$ – but there’s not much glamor in such a build.

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 8 years ago

    Not a good time to be AMD, no GPU or CPU spots anywhere, WOW!

      • Yeats
      • 8 years ago

      Can’t tell if you’re trolling… there’s AMD GPU’s all over the system guide. :/

    • kamikaziechameleon
    • 8 years ago

    I love how with the arrival of this years offerings in the APU and “high end” user cpu offerings(FX series) AMD has pretty much single handedly discontinued every compelling product offering they had.

    • Ruthless Reuban
    • 8 years ago

    I thought that Tech Report is hardware site, too bad they compare watts against watts.

    Very interesting is that they actually don’t do it. Recommending Corsair HX650W 650W sounds very strange because it costs whopping $132.99.

    You can get more watts at lesser price, for example [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817341018[/url<] So why 650W power with so high price? I thought Tech report was supposed to compare watts.

      • travbrad
      • 8 years ago

      The Corsair does have more amps on the 12V rail (and longer cables) but I agree that seems like a high price to pay for a few extra amps. I’m sure the Corsair is a fine PSU, but you can find better deals out there without sacrificing quality.

        • Ruthless Reuban
        • 8 years ago

        Exactly. We cannot compare watts against watts. So main point now. I would not expect to see BS like this on any hardware site:

        [quote<]Besides, slow CPU performance isn't the A6-3650's only flaw. [b<]The chip also has a 100W thermal envelope, which is quite a bit larger than the Core i3-2100's 65W TDP[/b<]. 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.[/quote<] 1. TDP is [b<]NOT[/b<] power consumption. 2. It is useless to compare AMD and Intel TDP, just like it is useless to compare PSU watts between different manufacturers and models. 3. Undervolting Llano is easier than 2500K overclocking. No to say Llano should be recommended because no integrated craphics is needed. But this TDP = power consumption bullshit is just ridiculous. Cannot believe that hardware site editor don't know anything about it even year is 2011 and this TDP-system was introduced 2003.

          • Yeats
          • 8 years ago

          I generally agree with you. However, tests from various review sites have demonstrated that there is a very rough correlation between the TDP’s of AMD and Intel, basically that an Intel chip with a lower-rated TDP than an AMD chip does indeed draw less power. Consider it shorthand.

            • Ruthless Reuban
            • 8 years ago

            Yeats: Still, TDP is not power consumption and it should not be considered when selecting cooling system and such. Also, it is not uncommon that Intel chip consumes more power than TDP sayhs.

            OCZ has more watts and is chaper. Comparing watts, OCZ should be much better. As with this YDP watt comparison…

            indeego: Still, OCZ offers more watts/dollar, your argument is invalid.

            • Yeats
            • 8 years ago

            More watts does not equal better. You need to look at the quality of the components, and OCZ PSU’s typically use lower-quality components than Corsair. Rather than me typing out a whole bunch of blather on the matter, you should check out jonnyguru.com and the PSU reviews at hardocp.com, as well as here at TR.

            • Ruthless Reuban
            • 8 years ago

            My point was:

            – One cannot directly compare PSU watts, especially from different manufacturers.

            – One cannot directly compare TDP watts, especially from different manufacturers.

            And you already gave reasons for PSU.

            • Yeats
            • 8 years ago

            So then why did you post this:

            [quote<]You can get more watts at lesser price, for example [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817341018[/url<] So why 650W power with so high price? I thought Tech report was supposed to compare watts.[/quote<] ?

            • Ruthless Reuban
            • 8 years ago

            TR compares AMD watts against Intel watts, however they choose PSU with high price and low wattage. I smell Intel fanboys here.

            • Yeats
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]TR compares AMD watts against Intel watts, however they choose PSU with high price and low wattage. I smell Intel fanboys here.[/quote<] The [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._Kennedy_assassination_conspiracy_theories<]second shooter[/url<] is still out there, I bet.

            • Palek
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]TDP is not power consumption[/quote<] Indeed, but... [quote<]Yeats: Still, TDP is not power consumption and it should not be considered when selecting cooling system and such.[/quote<] Huh? That's EXACTLY what TDP is for: as a guide to designing the cooling system of a computer. You know that TDP stands for Thermal Design Power, right?

            • Ruthless Reuban
            • 8 years ago

            If you design cooling system, most interesting thing should be power consumption. Because TDP is not power consumption, it is useless.

            Designing cooling system for TDP when power consumption is lower sounds just stupid.

            TDP is meant for big manufacturers. So like if cooling system can handle TDP amount of power consumpion, not single machine out of million should fail because of that. For individuals with one system or so TDP is useless.

            Of course, if processor is Intel, forget it all. You can get processor that consumes more than TDP says. So comparing AMD and Intel TDP is something I would not except to see from TR, Intel fanboys clearly with no excuses.

            • Palek
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]Because TDP is not power consumption, it is useless.[/quote<] You need to stop throwing around absolute statements like that. You yourself say a couple lines down that "TDP is meant for big manufacturers." So then it's not really useless, is it? [quote<]Designing cooling system for TDP when power consumption is lower sounds just stupid.[/quote<] Good luck finding out how many watts a certain CPU consumes! What do you propose? Should we all demand that AMD/intel print the exact peak power draw on every individual CPU package so that we can customize our cooling systems to the last digit? Even two identical CPU models can have different peak/average consumption due to process variance, ongoing process improvements etc. TDP gives you a rough idea about how much heat your CPU will dissipate. Then the smart thing to do is to over-spec your cooling solution so that your system will run cool and quiet. There is really no need to know exact figures. [quote<]So comparing AMD and Intel TDP is something I would not except to see from TR, Intel fanboys clearly with no excuses.[/quote<] Don't let the door hit you on your way out.

            • Bensam123
            • 8 years ago

            You can stop throwing rocks now.

            • Palek
            • 8 years ago

            Say what now?

            • Ruthless Reuban
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]You need to stop throwing around absolute statements like that. You yourself say a couple lines down that "TDP is meant for big manufacturers." So then it's not really useless, is it?[/quote<] Because this is TR's fall 2011 system guide, we do not care about big manufacturers manufacturers like HP and Dell, right? For people reading this guide it is totally useless. [quote<]TDP gives you a rough idea about how much heat your CPU will dissipate. Then the smart thing to do is to over-spec your cooling solution so that your system will run cool and quiet. There is really no need to know exact figures.[/quote<] In fact it does not give even rough idea. It's not uncommon that new revision of certain model runs much cooler, TDP still is the same. [quote<]Don't let the door hit you on your way out.[/quote<] This TDP is not power consumption issua has been around for 8 years. Hard to believe hardware site editor do not know it. Intel fanboys of course do not know.

            • Palek
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]This TDP is not power consumption issua has been around for 8 years. Hard to believe hardware site editor do not know it. Intel fanboys of course do not know.[/quote<] TR's editors know a lot more about hardware than you ever will, I imagine. As for your fanboy accusation: I've only ever bought AMD. Oh no, now you have to think of a better way to insult me!

            • Ruthless Reuban
            • 8 years ago

            Palek: I do not care about your imaginations. Comparing AMD and Intel TDP has been out of date for 8 years. I was hardware site editor for over 10 years

            Btw, I said TR staff are fanboys, not that you are.

            [quote<]Hard to believe hardware site editor do not know it. Intel fanboys of course do not know.[/quote<] And TR staff don't seem to know.

            • Palek
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]Palek: I do not care about your imaginations. Comparing AMD and Intel TDP has been out of date for 8 years. I was hardware site editor for over 10 years[/quote<] Then you would not doubt know about TR's reputation by now. That is, that they are one of the best PC hardware sites on the web. [quote<]Btw, I said TR staff are fanboys, not that you are.[/quote<] As a long-time reader of TR, and a long-time AMD user, I find your accusation of intel bias against TR patently ridiculous. Please go away and troll somewhere else.

            • Ruthless Reuban
            • 8 years ago

            For hardware site with TR’s reputation I would not expect beginner level things to be too hard. This article is clearly Intel biased as other comments also cleatly state. As for reputation, we have seen many biased articles from “high reputation” sites like Tom’s HW and Anand’s Intel tech…

            • Palek
            • 8 years ago

            Except that Tom’s Hardware has lost its good reputation exactly because of its intel bias. I would not call Anand biased, but then I haven’t been visiting them much. No pizazz.

            TR continues to be a beacon of impartiality, as any long-time reader will tell you. Please point me to other comments that “clearly state” intel bias. Your other comments don’t count.

            • Ruthless Reuban
            • 8 years ago

            You do understand that my opinions are based on this system guide.

            As for other comments, [url<]https://techreport.com/discussions.x/21876?post=591432[/url<] And I agree. Choosing Dual core processor and crappy motherboard with H67 chipset (Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz $124.99 + Asus P8H67-V $104.99) over AMD quad core + 970 combo is clearly something Intel fanboys do: Phenom II X4 955 $119.99+GIGABYTE GA-970A-UD3 AM3+ $104.99 Motherboard was not even cheapest. AMD combo is much faster, it can be overclocked easilly, it has much better motherboard... Only Intel fanboys can recommend dual core+H67 combo over that one. Also this "overall CPU performance". I can remember times when you should choose single core CPU over dual core CPU because benchmarks says that single core is faster 😀

            • Palek
            • 8 years ago

            Zero mention of intel bias. I would love to see you explain to flip-mode that he was accusing Scott and the crew of unfairly promoting intel.

            • Ruthless Reuban
            • 8 years ago

            Recommending Intel solution over much better AMD solution is Intel bias in my eyes. At least on this article.

            • Yeats
            • 8 years ago

            Rather than accuse, why not simply – and courteously – inquire? Like, “TR Guys, for your Econobox selection, why did you ignore the AMD Phenom II X4 9xx CPU’s? They are a better contender than Llano vs Intel if you are using a discrete video card.”

            Given their body of work, TR does not have a history of pro-Intel bias.

            • Ruthless Reuban
            • 8 years ago

            My main point was TDP issue. That’s something Intel fanboys love (comparing TDP’s).

            As for Llano, everybody knows it has excellent IGP, with discrete card Phenom II is better choice. Something I would expect to be crystal clear for TR staff. If not, that smells like Intel fanboyism.

      • indeego
      • 8 years ago

      ew, OCZ.
      – They exited a market they previously raved about.
      – They have two lines of failed products where data loss or failure is common.
      – Trust them, I shall never do again.

      Your opinion is invalid.

      • Yeats
      • 8 years ago

      Because Corsair PSU > OCZ PSU.

      ABTW, did you notice that the warranty for the Corsair is over 2x as long as the warranty for the OCZ?

        • Bensam123
        • 8 years ago

        What is with all the hate on OCZ stuff? Is all of this is stemming from the SSD debacle?

        OCZ makes amazing PSUs… I’ve been using two in my computers for the last ~6 years. I had two die and both were under warranty and both received upgraded models. They don’t just replace it, they upgrade it if it’s not in production anymore.

          • indeego
          • 8 years ago

          I think you proved our point and answered your own question succinctly.

            • Bensam123
            • 8 years ago

            Or proved my point about a good warranty experience with two bad PSUs…

            An argument based on me having two bad PSUs so OCZ has overall reliability issues has a false premise.

            • indeego
            • 8 years ago

            > An argument based on me having two bad PSUs so OCZ has overall reliability issues has a false premise.

            Fool me once…

            I’m sorry that you live in a world where two failed devices is acceptable to you. Your expectations should be higher.
            I no longer do business with companies that f*ck up like that. There is competition that won’t treat my time as something to be wasted. [hah, on, TR I post this]

            In fact it was the second Vertex2 RMA from OCZ, looking through their forums for [u<]many[/u<] people with similar issues, that convinced me that it isn't such a false premise after all.

    • shank15217
    • 8 years ago

    These system guides are getting extremely boring. The competitive atmosphere is nowhere to be seen.

      • AssBall
      • 8 years ago

      I don’t know… I still enjoy reading them. Not that I plan to upgrade my core 2 duo anytime soon, but I still like the articles.

      • indeego
      • 8 years ago

      They are a great reference to see over time, though the prices have been creeping up (inflation yay!):

      [b<]Fall 2008 Sweeter Spot[/b<] Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q9400 $269.99 Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-DS3R $126.99 Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $56.99 Graphics Zotac GeForce 260 GTX Reloaded $299.99 Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $74.99 Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $74.99 Samsung SH-S223Q $26.99 Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99 Power supply Antec NeoPower 550W $49.99 Enclosure Antec P182 $119.99 Total $1190.90 [b<]Fall 2009 Sweeter Spot[/b<] Processor Intel Core i7-860 $289.99 Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P55-UD4P $169.99 Memory Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $73.99 Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4890 $199.99 Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99 Samsung SH-S223B $30.99 Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $70.75 Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99 Power supply Corsair TX650W $99.99 Enclosure Antec P183 $144.95 Total $1,245.62 [b<]Fall 2010 Sweeter spot:[/b<] Processor Intel Core i7-875K $329.99 Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus $29.99 Motherboard Asus P7P55D-E Pro $179.99 Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $69.99 Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 460 FTW $239.99 Storage Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB $69.99 LG WH10LS30K Blu-ray burner $109.99 Audio Asus Xonar DX $79.99 Power supply Corsair TX650W $89.99 Enclosure Corsair Graphite Series 600T $159.99 Total $1,359.90 [b<]Fall 2011 Sweeter Spot[/b<] Processor Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz $314.99 Motherboard Asus P8Z68-V/GEN3 $189.99 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 Total $1,486.90

        • rechicero
        • 8 years ago

        It’s not the inflation, core components cost the same. It’s how they’re forgetting the performance per buck.

        In 2008 they chose the Q9400, that wasn’t top of the line (there were several faster processor: Q9450, Q9550).

        Now they choose the best Intel can offer (the same they choose for the workstation). That’s $45 more.

        In 2008 they chose a $50 PSU and a $120 case.
        Now they choose a $133 PSU and a $190 case, that’s $150 more. And not because of inflation, you can go for a Seasonic S12II 620 for almost half that price, or a Seasonic SS-560 KM for for $110 and 80 plus gold instead of bronze. We’ve already talked about quality cases with more features for half the price.

        The motherboard, again, is top of the line (and they choose the same again for the no limits workstation). You can buy good Z68 motherboards for the same price of 2008. Add another $60.

        I could continue, but the trend is that: some of the recommendations are not the “sweet spot”. In fact, there are better choices for less money (like a top-tier 80 plus Gold PSU for less than the Corsair 80 plus bronze… with more than enough watts for the rig).

          • indeego
          • 8 years ago

          The 2600[K] is absolutely not the best that Intel offers. They offer workstation and server chips that perform 20-50% better in terms of performance. The 2500/2600 has been the sweet spot processor for easily 9 months now.

          You probably have a point with the PSU/Case.

          The motherboard was chosen mostly for its future capability and forward-thinking leaning. This is a motherboard you’ll be able to drop in another card for SLI/CF [i<]and[/i<] use the next gen PCIe interface with full compatibility. I think all the prices and all we pay for hardware is worth it. Computers are tools. Tools first, toys second. Tools are almost always a sound and valuable investment: I learn every day, a TON of information that keeps me current in my field from my computer, so pretty much all investment at almost any price-point is worthwhile. Plus it's tax write-offable. 🙂

            • rechicero
            • 8 years ago

            I said top of the line. Consumer line, in this case. Please note that in the examples from 2008 I didn’t mention server or workstation chips, I just mention 2 processors of the same “family”, I didn’t go for the best that Intel offered in that time (like the QX 9770 or the QX 9775).

            About the sweet spot processor, according to this scatter plot (https://techreport.com/articles.x/21813/19), that would be the 2400. You can go for the 2500K if you want, but never the 2600K. The 2600 K is in the same performance/dollar line of the FX-8150 and the FX-8120. And we all agree those processor are not that great in performance/dollar.

            Anyway, as you says, the big issue is the PSU/Case. A lot more money for nothing tangible at all. Somebody talks about pro-Intel bias, but I’d say there is something with Corsair…

    • elnad2000
    • 8 years ago

    Good article as always. Right when I just finish my new computer ehehehe.
    Fractal Design R3 Black
    Corsair AX750 (silent is gold)
    Gigabyte ZX68-UD3 (cheapest SLI 8x8x Z68 board)
    Intel 2500K (overclock so easily)
    G.Skill 8GB 1600mhz
    Kingston SSDNow 100+ 64GB for OS (not the best but so cheap)
    2xSamsung F3 1TB in Raid0 for Steam and iTunes (hard to find in Canada but very good HD)
    2xWD Green 1TB in Raid 1 (only drives that I took from my old computer)
    2xMSI 460GTX 768MB (Very good and silent card).

    Even a slow SSD make so much difference. I think I can boot in 18-22 seconds. That’s really fast. I cannot imagine how fast can a Vertex 3 be. It must be crazy.

    • phez
    • 8 years ago

    Can anyone recommend an alternative to the Samsung HDDs? They are no longer available in Canada. (newegg.ca doesn’t count)

      • elnad2000
      • 8 years ago

      Why don’t you count newegg.ca? I bought two Samsung F3 1TB for 49.99$ each without shipping last summer. You can watch their email specials each week and it will surely come back sometime. The two F3 in Raid0 give me very good speed for my Steam and iTunes directories.

    • halbhh2
    • 8 years ago

    Really, $1400+ *isn’t* “sweeter”. Not at all.

    There is a kind of disconnect. I bet, really, that about 80% of Tech Report readers would consider a sweet spot to be about $800, so that a “sweeter” spot would be near $1000.

    Near $1000, not $1400.

    C’mon.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 8 years ago

      I dunno, getting a system with an unlocked i7, a high-end video card, and an SSD is pretty sweet. It’d be nice if it was $1k-ish, sure.

        • paulWTAMU
        • 8 years ago

        in this economy it’s also a dream system for me 🙁 I want one though

          • derFunkenstein
          • 8 years ago

          No argument there. I’ll get by on my Phenom II for a while yet.

      • Bensam123
      • 8 years ago

      Yup, $1400 is a little pricey unless you’re throwing in monitors.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 8 years ago

    The Econobox should also mention that the PSU selected doesn’t come with a power cord (enthusiasts probably have a few laying around, but a new builder won’t necessarily) and also why separate Antec One Hundred case + 380W PSU when for $5 less you can get an Antec Three Hundred and a BP 430? It’s not listed as a sale item. The Three Hundred is allegedly a lovely case. If you want to build an Econobox-style machine, use the parts in teh guide but take a look at this case:

    [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811129065[/url<]

    • End User
    • 8 years ago

    From the Utility player on up I would go with a Corsair 500R. AnandTech has a good overview of temps and noise [url<]http://goo.gl/VCDFw[/url<] . The 500R does a great job of cooling and is quieter than the 400R. I definitely think it is worth the extra $30 over the 400R and H2 [url<]http://goo.gl/NLqUw[/url<] . While the 800D is a cool case (I have a Corsair Obsidian 700D to house my EATX server board) I don't see how anyone can justify it when the 500R has all the same cool features (apart from the hot swap bays) for less than half the price.

      • Sunburn74
      • 8 years ago

      Looks better.
      I’d pay 100 dollars for same performance and much better aesthetics.

    • ludi
    • 8 years ago

    Two little gripes with some of the Asus boards used in this round of builds: on one hand, the P8H67-V used in the Econobox build conveniently extends over the third row of ATX standoffs, but just barely, for a solid, stable installation that doesn’t occupy any unnecessary space beyond the third row. But the pricier P8Z68-V LE used in the Utility Player build, which I’m finishing up this week actually, is cropped about a half-inch away from the third row of standoffs(!) That was a fidgety RAM and PSU connector install.

    The other thing that makes no sense is why Asus omitted the extra standoff over by the expansion slots, which has probably saved people from a lot of grief when using the second graphics slot. A lot of flexing can happen over there, otherwise.

    Good looking boards otherwise, no features missing; but why compromise the mounting?

    • cobalt
    • 8 years ago

    FYI: Windows 7 upgrade version does support the same double-install trick. Or at least the family 3-upgrade pack I bought supported it, as I discovered unintentionally. (I do have a valid XP license I was upgrading, but it never asked for my XP disc. I tried doing the install again, and the second time, it worked as an upgrade, even though it never got a look at my XP license. Apparently, it required XP to be installed on the hard drive, which is a bit silly since Windows 7 cannot upgrade XP in place; it has to wipe it out anyway.)

    • vargis14
    • 8 years ago

    Just figured i would let you all know the sapphire 6950 ToXic is back in stock at newegg for 289$.But remember its factory overclckd to 6970 speeds…and can go higher,plus add it come from sapphire wth the bios switch preloaded with the 6970 bios to unlock all the shaders to 1536 from 1408,no need to flash it Sapphire did it for you.
    Its basically a 6970 for the price of a premium 6950,Its made with very good components/power circuitry.As most of you should know sapphire has been a longtime partner of ATI/AMD.
    The only con on the card is the stock type cooling system that can get pretty dang loud but its a bit quieter then AMD solution,and you get the added plus of it exhausting all the heat out of your case.
    I am very surprised Techreport did not do a review on this card considering how good it is,But i dont see alot of sapphire anything on techreport,wonder why??
    [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814102951[/url<] read the customer reviews for yourselves.

    • Jambe
    • 8 years ago

    There is no link back to the article in the comment-page blurb.

    /edit: there is, but its the image instead of a text link. Hrm.

      • UberGerbil
      • 8 years ago

      That’s been a tradition of sorts for a lot of TR articles for years and years.

        • dpaus
        • 8 years ago

        And another place where a change would be welcome…..

    • Jambe
    • 8 years ago

    Since the Utility Player motherboard has an internal USB 3.0 connector (which might be mentioned in its blurb because it’s somewhat rare on mobos atm, especially at that price) you may as well get a case with an internal USB 3.0 cable and two instead of one external ports. Corsair’s 400R is in the alternatives but the Rosewill Blackhawk is also $100 shipped — I’ve used it and like it!

    If you’re content with one external USB 3.0 port but still want an internal cable there’s this [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811112336<]beauteous new aluminum model from Lian-Li[/url<] ($110). Mmmm. They also have the PC-K9 B and W around that price. And there's Fractal Design's Arc Midi, too, probably my favorite. Well, it's a toss-up between that and the aluminium Lian-Li I guess.

    • LoneWolf15
    • 8 years ago

    “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.”

    Also, the 650D adds a 2.5″/3.5″ SATA dock on top, which might be a worthy trade-off for some over the fan control.

    I put a Lamptron FC5v2 fan controller in my 650D; I’d rather have separate control of fans (the 600T’s control is nicer than the 650D but is still one control for all fans). I don’t use the SATA dock constantly, but I’ve had a few moments where it has come in handy.

    • anotherengineer
    • 8 years ago

    “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.”

    “If you really must buy an AMD processor…..”

    Well how about no one buys AMD ever again and we get a true 100% Intel monopoly. $400 Celerons here we come!!

      • StuG
      • 8 years ago

      What would you suggest then? People ring you out for being a fanboy if you don’t buy whats best for the money, and it shard not to buy whats best for the money as that is what you are suppose to do as a consumer.

        • kamikaziechameleon
        • 8 years ago

        The thing is that AMD would have had the low end offering without competition had they not discontinued their better processors and replaced them with APUs.

        Its not about promoting monopolies or not its about showing a company how to not make the worst possible business decisions possible.

      • chuckula
      • 8 years ago

      OK! You go buy lots of AMD processors! Assuming AMD will sell you one with the way Bulldozer has(n’t) been available since launch. Meanwhile, I’ll buy Intel.. we don’t want AMD getting a monopoly now do we!

      • paulWTAMU
      • 8 years ago

      sorry but if their available products are not competitive I’m not buying them. I’m rocking an AMD CPU right now myself but if I were to build today? it’d probably be a core i3 or i5 depending on budget.

      • ludi
      • 8 years ago

      What’s the point in supporting lousy products at lousy prices just to “avoid the monopoly”?

      The rebuild history for my primary system has been K6-233MMX, K6-2/400, Athlon 500, Athlon 700 T-bird, Athlon 1.2GHz, Athlon 2800+, Athlon FX-55, Opteron 180. As of this week: Intel i2500k.

      Why? Because AMD usually had a competitive cheaper option, then they briefly had a competitive faster option, and then they had the competitive cheaper option again for a while. Now, they’ve got neither at the middle or high end.

        • kamikaziechameleon
        • 8 years ago

        Yeah I have a 1090T right now but if I had to upgrade a right now a 2600K would be going into my machine. I’m waiting to see what SB-E puts out but I will certainly not be going to AMD for a years time.

      • travbrad
      • 8 years ago

      I think we should all buy inferior products instead!!

      I bought all AMD up until the core2 era, because they had better price/perf (and better raw performance even sometimes), but that just hasn’t been the case lately. It’s funny you cry about Intel’s high prices, while Bulldozer is priced about double what it should be.

        • Airmantharp
        • 8 years ago

        Same here-

        well, I did buy Northwood P4’s because of the atrocious chipset options on AMD’s side, as I was tired of the constant instability posed by VIA/nVidia chipset and driver combinations.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 8 years ago

    The Econobox would also make a kick-ass Hackintosh as well. More power than the Mini for less money, if you like tinkering.

    • colinstu
    • 8 years ago

    Not even a single GTX 580 in the doublestuff? :S

      • Airmantharp
      • 8 years ago

      Or HD6990 or GTX590?

        • colinstu
        • 8 years ago

        Well they justified not going with CF/SLI due to microstuttering (and two GPUs on a single card still experience it, but not as bad as I recall).

        But yes… something feels a little off.

          • Airmantharp
          • 8 years ago

          Trying to avoid micro-stuttering is a noble gesture but there’s very little way to power a 30″ monitor, particularly with more demanding titles, such as The Witcher 2 which I just completed, and Battlefield 3, which I just started. I found a pair of HD6950 2GB cards to be the most economical way to do it, but I almost wish they’d had cards with more memory. A pair (or trio) of GTX580’s with 3GB of VRAM would have been ideal.

            • Synchromesh
            • 8 years ago

            Even one 6950 2GB card is sufficient to run a 30″ screen. I did that for a while and all games were quite playable on medium-high settings.

    • flip-mode
    • 8 years ago

    Yo, people, listen up: quit complaining about there not being an AMD option – or at least if you are going to complain, write a letter to AMD. We wouldn’t be in this fix if it weren’t for AMD. AMD took the Phenom II X4 840 off the market. In it’s place, AMD gives us a slower, yet hotter CPU. And despite the fact that it has a better integrated GPU than any before, it’s not worthy of a “gaming machine”. And that’s generally what Tech Report systems guides revolve around – gaming.

    If you’re not a gamer, feel free to pick different parts than outlined here. This is a system [i<]guide[/i<] and nothing here is written into law. I'll [i<]never[/i<] put a discrete sound card into my machine but I'm not going to criticize TR for suggesting one. The TR editors probably have better ears than I do and they probably actually listen to music with their computers - I do not. Just because I use my computer differently than they do does not suddenly invalidate the suggestions they have made. Beyond that, Llano is a lousy desktop CPU. If you're not a gamer, you'd be much better off with Sandy Bridge. AMD simply has not delivered any progress in CPU performance. They've spent their transistor budget and thermal budget on integrating the GPU at the low end and on delivering a new architecture at the high end that is supposedly designed for the future rather than designed for today. So AMD has delivered us a bunch of unattractive products. Not a single Llano or Buldozer deserves to be in this guide. If anything, the Econobox should have a $120 Phenom II 955 in it, which is a better choice than the Phenom II X4 840 anyway. Not only does the X4 955 have higher performance than the i3 2100 out of the box, but it is also a fully unlocked CPU, while all the hatches on the i3 2100 have been battened down. Compared the the X4 955, the i3 2100 doesn't make much sense at all and I'd say TR missed the mark on those grounds. And by the way, there's a $15 promo code on the X4 955 that expires TODAY, so if you act now, you can get the x4 955 for $95 - $30 cheaper than the i3 2100, while being faster at stock yet fully unlocked.

      • dpaus
      • 8 years ago

      So why does the Econobox not have a discrete sound card?

        • paulWTAMU
        • 8 years ago

        because with a 600 dollar budget for a gaming rig you have to cut stuff out?

          • dpaus
          • 8 years ago

          Give the man a cookie! And yes, the integrated audio is plenty ‘good enough’ for a value build, just as – IMHO, of course – the integrated graphics of an A8 are plenty ‘good enough’ for casual gaming, and the cost savings are enough to bring the build under $500 – truly an ‘Econobox’

            • paulWTAMU
            • 8 years ago

            I’m not sure you and I have the same definition of good enough then…I’m a casual gamer. I don’t have the time to be anything else anymore frankly. But the benchmarks I recall seeing for the IGPs from Llano didn’t impress me as being worth a flip for things like Civ V or New Vegas. I’ll spend the extra 150 to get a real GPU that’ll run games at my monitors native resolution (only 1680×1050). Llano, in the desktop world, is a solution without a problem. If you game beyond 2D gaming, it’s not really good enough. If you don’t, then you can just use intel integrated anyway.

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            Possibly; I don’t have time to do much gaming anymore either, so I shamelessly use my son as a gaming guinea pig. AFWIW, the games he plays (Rome and a few others) run fine on an A8 but bogged down badly on a first-gen i7 (yeah, I’m sure they’d run better on a HD3K-gen i7, but I’m only going to spend so much on the little lab rat…)

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            first-gen i7 CPUs (doesn’t matter if you mean 1366 or 1156 sockets in this case) don’t have integrated graphics.

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            You’re right; they were paired with the 965 chipset, which had the graphics in it. Still sucked 🙂

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            This just in: integrated graphics from 2007 are terrible. Also, the 965 chipset was for Core 2. I still don’t have a clue what the system you’re talking about is.

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            Now you’ve got me wondering. What was the chipset for the i7-920? Did it perhaps use the same GP as was used for the Core 2 Duo?

            • DancinJack
            • 8 years ago

            X58

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            righto, and no integrated graphics.

            • flip-mode
            • 8 years ago

            I would not build a Llano based desktop – period. I don’t care if the GPU is “good enough” for general computing (no gaming at all) – the CPU is not good enough to base a new build on. I’d pay the extra money to step up to either an i5 2500K or I’d build an X4 955 system. I don’t like the amount of lock down that Intel does to the other ix 2xxx CPUs and the X4 955 offers equivalent performance to an i3 2100 out of the box and can be overclocked by 25-30 percent, even though power consumption will admittedly be higher.

            Shockingly, Intel’s products are only attractive (to me) at and above the 2500K. The products below that are too locked down.

            What’s even more hurtful is that while you can still build a respectable 1156 based machine, the prices on those CPUs haven’t dropped one iota.

            COME ON AMD!!! MAKE A COMPETITIVE CPU!

      • Yeats
      • 8 years ago

      “Llano is a lousy desktop CPU” Oh please. It’s still more powerful than what it’s target demographic – basic budget users – will need. A serviceable integrated GPU is more useful than a higher-performing CPU for most folks who will eventually want to play the occasional game, Sims, etc.

      Llano needs to be a bit cheaper, though.

        • flip-mode
        • 8 years ago

        Nonsense. Llano does not exist in a vacuum. Sure it’s powerful enough, but Sandy Bridge is more powerful at the same price and with lower thermals and will play the Sims just fine. So next to Sandy, Llano is not powerful enough and not energy-efficient enough. The problem with Llano is that there is a better alternative.

        But what I would like is to see Tech Report get reacquainted with the X4 955, which has been completely off TR’s radar ever since the 965 launched. The X4 955 has been a better choice than the X4 840 for several months now – this is no recent development. The X4 955 has been available at $125 for several months – maybe 6 months or even more. And it’s unlocked – the 840 was not. And even though it’s arguably of little worth it has the full cache – the 840 did not.

          • Yeats
          • 8 years ago

          [quote<]Sure it's powerful enough[/quote<] That's it, right there. Of course Sandy is more powerful, but is it needed for most entry-level computer users (ELCU)? Over the last 10 years or so, I've had far more requests for video card upgrades - or rather, "how can my computer play this game?" - than CPU upgrades from ELCU's.

            • flip-mode
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]Of course Sandy is more powerful[/quote<]That's it, right there. But nevermind Sandy, why aren't you picking up on my point that the X4 955 is the real deal at the $120 price point? [quote<] but is it needed for most entry-level computer users (ELCU)?[/quote<]When you can get the X4 955 for $20 cheaper than Llano and it offers a tad higher performance at stock and it's fully unlocked, that question is entirely irrelevant. [quote<]Over the last 10 years or so, I've had far more requests for video card upgrades - or rather, "how can my computer play this game?" - than CPU upgrades from ELCU's.[/quote<]So why not give them a real video card to start with? Take the $20 savings from going with the X4 955 and then take another $20 (or more) savings you get from going with an AM3 motherboard. Now you've got $40. You can get a 5570 if you add $10 to that. You can get a 6670 if you add $30. Now you're doing your ELCU a real favor. Llano sucks. If you don't game you don't need Llano, and if you do even casual gaming you can get more than Llano offers for the same money without having to accept compromises in CPU horsepower.

            • Yeats
            • 8 years ago

            Not sure about Llano vs X4 955. According to Newegg, the A8-3850 is $15 more than the X4 955. If the Llano overclocks better, I’d rather have it.

            From an end-user perspective I agree with your point about using the X4 + AM3 mobo + 6670. But these are comparisons with Newegg prices. The differential in OEM pricing is probably less, except in situations where older inventory is being flushed. I can get an A6-3650+mobo for $155 if I order in quantity.

            One of these days I’ll play around with a Llano system, just haven’t gotten a chance.

            • flip-mode
            • 8 years ago

            Llano overclocking is not very good news.

            Frequency seems to top out at around 3800 MHz:
            [url<]http://www.legitreviews.com/article/1687/1/[/url<] I'd wager that any recently manufactured X4 955 will probably hit 4.0 GHz with 1.5 volts and maybe go higher if you're willing to do 1.55 or 1.6. I don't know what the safe voltage limit is for Phenom II. And when you overclock on part of the Fusion processor, it can cause the other parts of the processor to scale themselves back in response: [quote<]In the terms of an overclocked system, either the CPU or GPU power requirements will no longer become mobile, effectively limiting the growth of the other - the net result is that if you have an overclocked CPU, your GPU will suffer, and vice versa.[/quote<] [url<]http://www.anandtech.com/show/4478/asrock-a75-extreme6-review-and-desktop-llano-overclocking/4[/url<]

            • Yeats
            • 8 years ago

            Well that’s no fun!

            Someone over on AT has his Llano over 4 [url<]http://forums.anandtech.com/showthread.php?t=2198692&page=3[/url<] If I were going to do serious overclocking, I'd probably choose an 32mm Athlon X4, anyway. I'm still happy with my unlocked overclocked X3 710, though... 2.5 years and still enough power for me.

    • Ushio01
    • 8 years ago

    You remove the Phenom II X4 840 from the Econobox because it’s discontinued yet keep the i7 970 in the double stuff alternatives even though it was replaced by the i7 980 before the last system guide?

      • Cyril
      • 8 years ago

      Oops, you’re right, I forgot about the i7-980. I’ve just updated the Double-Stuff alternatives page with it.

      For what it’s worth, though, the Phenom II X4 840 was actually discontinued. (It’s no longer listed at Newegg.) The i7-970 is still around and in stock.

      • chuckula
      • 8 years ago

      As Cyril just mentioned, you can buy a i7 970 on Newegg (http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16819115066) (or other online etailers).

      The Phenom 840 is out of stock and never will be back in stock.

        • Ushio01
        • 8 years ago

        It’s actually the opposite here in the UK no i7 970’s but loads of Phenom 840’s and it’s replacement the 850.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 8 years ago

      The Phenom II X4 840 is still available at many e-tailers. I was never very impressed with it, anyway. It’s really just an Athlon II X4 (Propus). It’s the only “Phenom II” chip that doesn’t have any level 3 cache. The other Phenom II processors were are all Deneb cores (until the 960T appeared).

      If the 3.2 GHz Phenom II X4 840 (with zero level 3 cache) was a good idea at $105, wouldn’t the 3.2 GHz unlocked Phenom II X4 955 Black Edition (with 6 MB of L3 cache) be a good idea at $120?

    • StuG
    • 8 years ago

    Cyril, this is in regards to the Corsair 800D case. It now comes stock with the USB 3.0 front-panel, as I just bought one about a month ago and it does indeed have it. I believe that is only an upgrade that people who bought it before really need to consider, and in that regard I imagine if you contacted them and asked for it for free (as it is now included by default in the cases) you would probably get them to send it to you. Corsair is great about customer service like that.

      • StuG
      • 8 years ago

      Did this ever get seen by one of the writers?

      • Cyril
      • 8 years ago

      I’ve changed the wording of that section to clarify that the 800D [i<]we reviewed[/i<] didn't have USB 3.0 ports. I'm going to quickly double check with Corsair that all 800Ds indeed ship with SuperSpeed connectivity now, and I'll make further changes as needed. Thanks for the heads up!

    • rechicero
    • 8 years ago

    I just noticed, the alternatives for the “Econobox” are completely out of the budget. If we add the i5, the price is 642$, if we ad the memory too, that would mean like $660. If you decide a budget, why ignore it?
    Those are not alternatives, those are upgrades.
    I suppose the real alternative would be Llano and you really, really hate those processors and the idea of somebody building a non-heavygaming rig :-(.
    EDIT: I don’t understand the noise argument against Llano when you add a discrete graphic card, that is usually noisier.
    The alternative, at least, should be a Llano A-3850 without discrete graphic card. Cheaper, much more silent, similar CPU performance, weaker GPU performance (although good enough even for light gaming). Just a different thing. Better for some needs, worst for others, but well within the budget, unlike the i5.

    • rechicero
    • 8 years ago

    I can’t justify that expensive Corsair chassis when you can buy a Coolermaster CM 690 II Advanced for $90… Very similar to the Corsair and with an eSATA dock. Good quality and more features for half the money. That’s the definition of “sweeter spot”.
    Reading the guide it was almost as they had to choose one Corsair no matter what :-/

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 8 years ago

      Antec cases have been better-constructed and easier to work in than the CoolerMaster cases that I have used. The Antec Three Hundred is a reasonably-priced well-ventilated ATX case.

        • rechicero
        • 8 years ago

        It was just a quick example. I’m sure there are better cases in the $80-$100 range… (although in my experience, the CM 690 family is excellent) But those Corsair cases are simply too expensive for a sweeter spot.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 8 years ago

        Generally that’s true, but the 690 II Advanced is something else entirely – completely unlike any other CM case I’ve ever used. Thick, solid panels. It’s not a LAN party case, though – that sucker is heavy. But I love it.

      • Jambe
      • 8 years ago

      Yeah the 650D looks quite nice but if I were buying a system right now I’d get one of the many $100 cases out there and spend that extra $90 on the PSU, SSD, or GPU.

      The 690 II Advanced is nice but I wouldn’t buy one right now when CM’s own Storm Enforcer is out and has 2x USB 3.0 ports. I think the Enforcer is ostentatious but then there’s plenty of other cases in that price range with 2x USB 3.0.

    • Derfer
    • 8 years ago

    You seriously recommended an Asus LE board? Have you ever worked with this board or even researched it at all? It’s UEFI is horrendously crippled. You have to overclock from the OS if you want full access to what should be standard settings. Offerings from MSI and gigabyte in this price range are similarly awful but not as bad. Either go Biostar or Asrock in this price range. They don’t divide price points with artificial bios limitations. Having worked with both I’d recommend the ASRock Z68 PRO3 for less $$ than the LE. I just did a build with it and was able to drop the PLL to under 1.7v which makes a nice little temp decrease, something I couldn’t do with a much pricier MSI. Important as cheap builds with these boards usually use stock cooling.

      • Jambe
      • 8 years ago

      I have worked with two of those boards and they’ve been fine. Of course I put them in cases with adequate ventilation and didn’t need to futz with the BIOS at all.

      *shrug*

      • Airmantharp
      • 8 years ago

      If ASRock’s Pro3 is anything like their Extreme4, it’ll be a killer.

      Heck, I only went with the Extreme4 for the x8/x8 PCIe support.

    • dpaus
    • 8 years ago

    Hmmm, isn’t it time to drop the hard requirement for a discrete graphics card for the econobox? That would make a considerable difference in the evaluation….

      • Waco
      • 8 years ago

      This. It would make Llano far more attractive as a choice…and cheaper too!

        • Sunburn74
        • 8 years ago

        Why is going out of your way to try to make llano an attractive choice a necessity?

          • dpaus
          • 8 years ago

          That’s hardly the intent. But for a build called an ‘econobox’ where value is key, I think a $140 A8-3850 is a very compelling choice compared to a $275 Core i3-2100+Radeon 6850 combo. And saying that the i3’s 65W power requirement is a deciding factor is pretty disingenuous if you’re going to ignore the power draw of the 6850.

            • Sunburn74
            • 8 years ago

            What considered econo is an arbitrary number. They chose 600. At 600 intel offers the best value. Once the number is chosen, its chosen.

            The point is to have a do it all box for 600 and intel wins at that price. That price and goal of a do it all box necessitates a dedicated gpu because its absolutely affordable at that price. To ask that you drop the requirement of something like that just so llano can become viable is pandering imo.

          • rechicero
          • 8 years ago

          And which is “your way”?
          With Llano you’ll have a very capable system, about 30% cheaper and much more silent. It’d be a better choice (good enough for less money and less noise) for almost everything but heavy gaming. An much much better for HTPC.
          There should be, at least, a cheapo nongaming rig ($400) in the guide.
          And the sweeter spot should be in the thousend-ish at most. $1500 is more e-penis than sweeter spot IMHO. I mean, i7, Bluray and a 187 dollar case????? That’s the “sweeter spot” as in “best bang per buck”? Come on!
          The budgets should be probably something like 400-700-1000 and let your e-penis grow for the Workstation.
          This has been a great reference for years, but it’s losing perspective.
          EDIT: 30% instead of 20%

            • NeelyCam
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]This has been a great reference for years, but it's losing perspective.[/quote<] So, pointing out that AMD CPUs are crap is losing perspective? They clearly said that the current AMD CPU capabilities are well behind Intel's, and that's why they didn't pick those. Your personal preference might be different - maybe you're willing to sacrifice CPU performance for integrated GPU performance. That's really up to you. But why the attitude towards TR's opinion? I think they have a point. BTW, the cheapo non-gaming rig ($400) would be i3+H61.

            • rechicero
            • 8 years ago

            I know you have your personal hates but please, read my post again. I was talking about budgets. Since C2D good computers are much cheaper than before. And they end up throwing the money away.

            I used this guide as reference, but now I can’t say it’s as useful as before.

            We see how they call “Sweeter spot” a $1500 with a $190 case. And the CPU, according to overall performance per dollar of the Bulldozer article, the sweet spot should be the i5 2400, or the i5 2500K, never the i7. If you go for “damn the price I want the very best”, you can’t call it “Sweeter spot”.

            If we want a reference for a non gaming PC (call it a “grandma” PC if you want) we have… nothing. And we have some funny references to noisier CPU when they are using potent GPUs, always more noisier than a CPU. If we want a reference for HTPC components, nothing.

            The granularity of the budgets is also funny. We have a difference of 200-ish dollar between the alternatative Econobox and the basic Utility player. And the Sweeter Spot is $600 more expensive than the Utility player.

            IMHO, the budgets should be in the like of 500-750-1000-“damn the price, we want the best”. With alternative for non gaming-HTC rigs in the Econobox section. THAT would be more useful as a guide.

      • destroy.all.monsters
      • 8 years ago

      I should think that non-discrete graphics would be in a different category.

        • Bensam123
        • 8 years ago

        This… I VOTE FOR NETTOP/HTPC CATAGORY!

      • FuturePastNow
      • 8 years ago

      Maybe it’s time for a new low price point. Say, $400, for the… Grandma Box?

        • equivicus
        • 8 years ago

        Thrifty Box?

        My mother-in-law needs a new computer and something with non-discrete graphics should be plenty.

          • paulWTAMU
          • 8 years ago

          At 400, you’re really better served buying prebuilt though. Hell, if you don’t have an OS license laying around, you’re going to spend 1/4 of that on a Windows license (unless you want to get a Linux distro).

          • JustAnEngineer
          • 8 years ago

          [url<]https://techreport.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=33&t=78307[/url<] [url<]https://techreport.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=33&t=78276[/url<] $400 is a tough price point. $500 is doable.

      • Bensam123
      • 8 years ago

      I disagree. Perhaps in the alternatives, but it needs A graphics card… They could find a better priced one under $100 that is still quite far ahead of integrated though.

    • Sunburn74
    • 8 years ago

    I have to say, in my opinion and I’m sure others will differ, any PC over 800 USD should find a way to include a SSD especially when first gen and 2nd gen models are selling for $1 a gig.

      • CampinCarl
      • 8 years ago

      Except that you would have to get an extremely small SSD and/or sacrifice computing power in other areas. Most people are willing to take a little delay from a hard disk, and have 16 gigs of RAM and a much better video card for probably less money.

        • Sunburn74
        • 8 years ago

        $1 dollar a gig for a first gen model means for 100 dollars you can buy 100 gigs.

          • paulWTAMU
          • 8 years ago

          Which isn’t enough to hold 1/2 my steam folder + OS 🙁

            • Kurotetsu
            • 8 years ago

            Why the hell would you…actually, wait, nevermind. This is probably a trap of some sort.

            • paulWTAMU
            • 8 years ago

            huh? It isn’t a trap. just an expression of my storage requirements. If you’d told me even in 2007 that I’d have over 200 gigs of games I’d laugh. I’m not that hard core gamer guy–I game maybe 2-10 hours/week (barely any in the summer, more in the winter).

            • kamikaziechameleon
            • 8 years ago

            separating your stuff out across multiple disks is a PIA, been there, done that.

            • Sunburn74
            • 8 years ago

            You’re kidding me right?

            You do realize SSDs and storage drives are as different products as ferraris and pickup trucks.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            Are you saying you shouldn’t run games from an SSD? I find it a nice way to get at least the games I play frequently up and running in a hurry.

            • Kurotetsu
            • 8 years ago

            Of course you can games from an SSD. Nobody said you couldn’t. But you should also be at least a little intelligent with what you put on your SSD.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            It’s no secret that SSDs, right now at least, require quite a bit of manual maintenance in terms of managing what goes on them. Steam requires everything to go into a single folder, and you have to rely on 3rd party utils (http://www.traynier.com/software/steammover for example) to help manage. For some people that’s enough to put them off entirely.

            • Sunburn74
            • 8 years ago

            A ferrari has space for you, a girl, and maybe a small suitcase in the trunk. A pickup truck has space for you, your girl, and like 10 dudes in the back. The guy in the ferrari with the suitcase is always happier.

            Some would argue ferrari’s are uncomfortable because they frequently need trunk space management tools; I would argue that is stupid and that such people need their brains rewired. You should look at a ferrari, immediately know what you can fit in there, hop in and call it a day. There is no management; just obvious unforgiving reality. The same with SSDs. You have a given size, you know what you can fit in it. Find what you want to carry, and forget agonizing about the rest.

            That analogy is actually doing SSDs a disservice because considering most games are only 5-7GB even a 120 GB SSD after windows installation can accomodate 20-25 grade A type games. So you can have your cake and eat it too!

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            I think you’re over-estimating the space for games (you still need room for Windows) and under-estimating the size of current game installs. It requires manual maintenance, as I said directly above, and for some people it’s not worth it. I’ve got my 120GB Intel drive, but not everyone wants to put in the effort.

            • flip-mode
            • 8 years ago

            What a stupid analogy. Playing along with this stupidity, what if the guy in the pickup has 3 girls, a cooler with drinks, a radio, blankets, pillows, and a mattress in the back? And his pickup is a fully loaded king cab with room for all of them to sit in the cab if they want. And it’s 4 wheel drive so they can go pretty much anywhere while the dude in the Ferrari is pretty damn worried about scraping bottom just pulling out of his driveway.

            Can we please stop equating solid state drives to driving $200K cars and getting laid? How f-ing ridiculous.

            • dpaus
            • 8 years ago

            [quote<]A ferrari has space for you, a girl, and maybe a small suitcase in the trunk[/quote<] No, a Ferrari has space for you, your Ferrari-licensed mechanic, and the small suitcase of cash you will owe him for even the simplest service.

            • Sunburn74
            • 8 years ago

            A ferrari isn’t practical and affordable for everyone. Neither is a SSD.

            However a $900 PC should be able to afford a small SSD (especially those first gen models going for $1 a gig or less). When your PC costs $900, a SSD is a reasonable and practical addition despite its obvious limitations. Its reasonable somewhere between buying the sound card and buying the blu ray player, in whatever order you want to choose.

            At what price point a ferrari becomes a reasonable and practical addition is much more debateable. I’d reckon somewhere between buying the mansion and buying the private jet, again in whatever order you want to choose.

            • flip-mode
            • 8 years ago

            Falling back on the “it’s a [i<]guide[/i<]!" mantra - the most important thing is to cover the basics. You're always welcome to add a [s<]Ferrari[/s<] [s<]penis extension[/s<] SSD to your build, but that doesn't necessarily make it an obligatory default component. I'm riding the fence because I half agree with you that it should be a default component in an $800 ($900 after adding the SSD) build and half disagree and think it should be considered an optional but recommended extra.

            • paulWTAMU
            • 8 years ago

            My big question is why else would I want an SSD? Media storage? Booting the OS faster? Hell with that. I reboot maybe 2-3 times/month…and playback on movies and music? Eh.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            you would absolutely not want one for media playback. If you try a system with an SSD for a system/apps/games drive, though, you’ll want one.

            • Sunburn74
            • 8 years ago

            Not going to debate how to use a SSD. There are tons of threads that do that. Just saying at 900 bucks, the utility box should incorporate 1st gen SSDs because the price is right and there are sizeable performance gains over conventional hard drives even with those early drives. At that price point for a build and with 1st gen drives going for actually less than a dollar a gig, its very viable.

            You however appear to be the sort who believes at no price point do SSDs become reasonable which is fine if thats how you feel, but its a completely different argument than the one I posed in the first place.

            • paulWTAMU
            • 8 years ago

            No, I feel they’re certainly reasonable for some applications and instances, but just aren’t affordable in capacities I need for them to work for my applications yet. I’d love one, but I need at least 256 gigs for the games+OS and that’s still really frigging pricey. And since Steam goes in one folder I can’t split it up to pull out the games where I don’t think it’d matter.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 8 years ago

            [url<]http://www.traynier.com/software/steammover[/url<]

            • paulWTAMU
            • 8 years ago

            quit tempting me to further deplete my wallet! *sigh* I’m broke from here to Christmas

          • CampinCarl
          • 8 years ago

          You missed my point. My point is that the $100 can be better spent on other hardware that will make a gaming performance much better than what the SSD will give you.

            • Sunburn74
            • 8 years ago

            I’m under the impression these are do-it-all all around boxes for the amount being spent. Even with the plan of being mostly a gaming box, at 900 USD surely you’d expect the box to be a little bit more well rounded. After all we all game, but gaming generally isn’t the majority of what we do with our boxes.

            I also disagree with you concerning how SSDs impact gaming. Most benchmarks show some arbitrary level load for some arbitrary game and people conclude “oh thats all that is involved with SSDs and games”. You should realize benchmarks are all about finding some method of measurements and just because only somethings can be measured accurately and consistently doesn’t mean other things that are relevant but are poorly measured aren’t happening. The equivalent is judging athletic ability in an athlete or beauty in a model. You can measure height, weight, BMI, speed etc but they’ll never tell the complete picture. Its the sum of it all that matters.

            To be less abstract, I’ll talk about what the SSD has done to change my gaming experiences. l personally find the more interesting part to be game startup rather than level loads. That is from the point I hit go, how quickly I can get to the menu screen, and how quickly I can get into the game. I’m essentially talking about the equivalent of the windows bootup for each game. WIth a SSD there is a huge difference and it is very freeing. I can switch games back and forth very quickly and never feel overly committed to just one game because I know I don’t have to deal with a long lengthy boot up time. In fact, often I jump into games just to peek at what games other people are playing and then jump out, something I never would do if I didn’t have a SSD because it’d take too long and the payoff is typically pretty minimal (I take alook, say meh, and bail on the game). The other thing that is nice is that for certain games that have trouble minimizing to taskbar, I don’t feel bad closing them out when I need to look online for a guide or a tip. I know that bang I can be right back in the game as soon as I find what I’m looking for. Before, I’d stick around a bit longer, get a bit more frustrated, and so on.

            Benchmarks never tell the full story; they only tell part of it. What SSDs really do is remove all of those little mental blocks you have and don’t even realize you have concerning the way you manage your apps. You suddenly find yourself not even worrying about when you can run your virus scan, when you can run your system backup, when you can close a game, when you can start a game, how many apps you can load into windows startup, how many processes and services you can have active, etc etc You suddenly find youself free.

            Just my rant. Take it as you want.

    • Arclight
    • 8 years ago

    Really impressed by the econobox and utility player builds, quality stuff. For the “Sweeter spot” though i would have went into a different direction choosing a cheaper case and the 2500K would have probably granted enough saving to buy a GTX 580 or atleast a custom cooled 6970. But that’s me…
    Great job overall.

      • Airmantharp
      • 8 years ago

      I agree- Overclocking considered, the 2600k doesn’t really have a place in gaming builds, at least not until every other requirement has been satisfied.

      I’m finding my 2500k isn’t having any problem at 4.8GHz, BF3 aside (I got a few hours in last night).

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