TR’s Christmas 2011 system guide
Everything seemed perfectly normal as we hit the “publish” button and watched our last system guide go up. Not long afterward, we noticed a disturbing trend: hard-drive prices were climbing, and climbing… and climbing. Drives that were once on sale for $64.99 were suddenly priced over $150, and higher-capacity offerings were soaring well above the $200 mark. The rise in prices was connected to those nasty floods in Thailand, which submerged numerous factories associated with mechanical hard drive production under several feet of water.
Though we hoped for a prompt recovery, it soon became clear there was no easy fix. In November, Seagate’s CEO predicted the industry wouldn’t get fully back on its feet for another year. Last week, Western Digital announced production had finally resumed… at one of its Thai facilities. We’re not out of the woods yet—far from it.
Those developments have left us with the unpleasant task of rethinking a system guide once tuned for dirt-cheap mechanical drives. As you’ll see over the following pages, the sudden rise in hard-drive prices has forced us to reconfigure all of our usual builds extensively. We’ve had to rename some systems and do a little soul-searching to determine their true target audiences. We’re happy with the end result, but this may be the first time we’ve had to make so many changes due to price increases rather than price cuts or new component releases.
Now, things aren’t all doom and gloom. Some of AMD’s FX-series chips are finally in stock, and we were able to include them as alternatives in a couple of our configs. Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448 has earned a choice spot in one build, and Sandy Bridge-E now reigns supreme in the Double-Stuff Workstation. To keep things interesting, we’ve also added a fresh home-theater PC to the mix, complete with a Blu-ray drive, an optional CableCard tuner, and a neat keyboard-and-touchpad combo the size of a remote. Read on for all the details.
Rules and regulations
Before we get into our component recommendations, we should explain our methodology a little bit. Before that, though, a short disclaimer: this is a component selection guide, not a PC assembly guide or a performance comparison. If you’re seeking help with the business of putting components together, we have a handy how-to article just for that. If you’re after reviews and benchmarks, might we suggest heading to our front page and starting from there.
Over the next few pages, you’ll see us recommend and discuss components for four sample builds. Those builds have target budgets of $600, $900, $1,500, and around $3,000. Within each budget, we will attempt to hit the sweet spot of performance and value while mentally juggling variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the manufacturer’s size and reputation. We’ll try to avoid both overly cheap parts and needlessly expensive ones. We’ll also favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.
Beyond a strenuous vetting process, we will also aim to produce balanced configurations. While it can be tempting to settle on a $50 motherboard or a no-name power supply just to make room for a faster CPU, such decisions are fraught with peril—and likely disappointment. Similarly, we will avoid favoring processor performance at the expense of graphics performance, or vice versa, keeping in mind that hardware enthusiasts who build their own PCs tend to be gamers, as well.
Now that we’ve addressed the how, let’s talk about the where. See that “powered by Newegg.com” logo at the top of the page? Newegg sponsors our system guides, and more often than not, it will double as our source for component prices. However, Newegg has no input on our editorial content nor sway over our component selections. If we want to recommend something it doesn’t carry, we’ll do just that.
We think sourcing prices from a huge online retailer gives us more realistic figures, though—so much so that we quoted Newegg prices long before this guide got a sponsor. Dedicated price search engines can find better deals, but they often pull up unrealistically low prices from small and potentially unreliable e-tailers. If you’re going to spend several hundred (or thousand) dollars on a PC, we think you’ll be more comfortable doing so at a large e-tailer with a proven track record and a decent return policy. That vendor doesn’t have to be as big as Newegg, but it probably shouldn’t be as small as Joe Bob’s Discount Computer Warehouse, either.
Because speed doesn’t have to cost a fortune
The Econobox may be the baby of the bunch, but it can handle a little bit of everything, including modern games in all their glory. We haven’t scraped the bottom of the bargain bin or cut any corners, resulting in a surprisingly potent budget build.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-2100 3.1GHz||$124.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$19.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 6850 1GB||$144.99|
|Storage||Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D 750GB||$99.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Core 3000||$64.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
These are dark times for CPU shoppers on a budget. The arrival of AMD’s Llano APUs has led to the disappearance of the $100 Phenom II X4 840, our long-time favorite choice for the Econobox, as well as its more appealing siblings in the Athlon II X4 family. In their absence, avoiding a downgrade forces us to climb another rung up the price ladder, where the options are Intel’s Core i3-2100 at $125 and AMD’s A6-3650 and FX-4100 at $120.
It’s not much of a contest. The i3-2100 has higher overall CPU performance than the A6-3650, and although the benchmark results we saw around the web suggest that the FX-4100 is a little faster, that chip also has a higher thermal envelope—95W, up from the i3-2100’s 65W. Higher power envelopes mean more heat and more noise, and we’re fans of neither. The A6’s only saving grace might be its relatively decent integrated graphics processor, but we’re outfitting this build with a discrete Radeon, so we have no need for integrated graphics. Besides, Llano’s IGP isn’t really fast enough to enjoy the latest games in all their glory.
The Core i3-2100’s lack of an unlocked upper multiplier prevents us from overclocking the CPU easily, but that also means we can save a few bucks by skipping motherboards based on Intel’s overclocking-friendly P67 and Z68 chipsets. We don’t want to cheap out too much by selecting a motherboard with an H61 chipset, though. The H61 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 ATX motherboard like Asus’ P8H67-V is more up our alley. This particular model features two 6Gbps SATA ports, two USB 3.0 ports, a pair of physical PCIe x16 slots (albeit with a 16/4-lane configuration), two PCIe x1 slots, and three old-school PCI slots. It can also tap into the Core i3-2100’s integrated graphics with HDMI, VGA, and HDMI outputs, so you can use Lucid’s Virtu GPU virtualization scheme to enable QuickSync video transcoding technology alongside a discrete graphics card.
Based on our experience, Asus has the best and most mature UEFI implementation of the top three motherboard makers. The UEFI’s fan controls are excellent, making us more eager to go with Asus than one of its competitors.
Memory is relatively cheap these days, so putting 4GB of RAM into the Econobox is a no-brainer. At around $20 for 4GB, we can afford the extra couple of bucks. These Kingston modules are good for speeds up to 1333MHz at the standard DDR3 voltage of 1.5V, and they’re covered by a lifetime warranty.
This spring, AMD and Nvidia both introduced graphics cards that would appear to be well-suited 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 card 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, further sweetening the pot.
Our old favorite, Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 1TB, has seen its price balloon up to around $150 because of the Thai flooding. To stay true to this build’s name, we’ve downgraded to Hitachi’s Deskstar 7K1000.D 750GB, which offers three quarters the capacity for roughly 50 bucks less. This drive might not be as quiet or as fast as the Spinpoint—we haven’t had a chance to test it ourselves—but it has a 7,200-RPM spindle speed, a 32MB cache, a 6Gbps Serial ATA interface, and a three-year warranty. Those specifications are typical for a modern 3.5″ desktop drive.
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.
When we reviewed Fractal Design’s Core 3000 enclosure last month, we wondered out loud whether the case would find its way into a future Econobox build. Here’s your answer. Yes, this enclosure is slightly more expensive than our previous pick, the Antec One Hundred. Swapping in a more expensive part may seem indulgent in light of the current hard-drive situation, but we love the Core 3000’s rotated hard-drive sleds and its ability to maintain impressively low component temperatures. The Core 3000 isn’t the quietest case we’ve tested, but we think it offers a decent set of positive traits and compromises for the price.
Repeat after me: friends don’t let friends use shoddy power supplies. We don’t need a lot of juice to power the Econobox, but that doesn’t mean we’re gonna skimp on the PSU and grab a unit that weighs less than a bag of chips. Antec’s EarthWatts Green 380W is a solid choice that offers 80 Plus Bronze certification with enough wattage for the Econobox. Good budget PSUs can be hard to find, but the EarthWatts has proven its mettle solo and when sold inside Antec’s own cases.
Want an AMD processor, more RAM, or an Nvidia graphics card? Read on.
|Processor||AMD FX-4100 3.6GHz||$119.99|
|Memory||Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$39.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 460 1GB||$169.99|
AMD advertises the FX-4100 as a quad-core processor, and since the chip runs at 3.6GHz, you might be misled into thinking it’s far superior to the Core i3-2100. That isn’t quite the case. If the performance data we’ve seen around the web are any indication, the two processors are pretty much on equal footing. The FX tends to be faster in some tests and slower in others.
We prefer the Core i3 because of its lower thermal envelope, but that doesn’t mean the FX-4100 isn’t worth a look. The AMD offering costs slightly less and can be paired with a more affordable motherboard without sacrificing functionality. Also, AMD touts the FX-4100’s unlocked upper multiplier, which should facilitate overclocking (provided the chip has a decent amount of overclocking headroom, of course). Just keep in mind that, unlike the Core i3, the FX-4100 doesn’t have integrated graphics.
Asus’ M5A97 is richly adorned despite its sub-$100 asking price. This motherboard has six Serial ATA 6Gbps ports, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots with CrossFire support (in a x8/x8 config), USB 3.0, passively cooled CPU power regulation circuitry, and Asus’ excellent UEFI firmware. Newegg shoppers have given this mobo rather good reviews overall, too. Provided you don’t need integrated graphics, this should be a fine complement to the FX-4100.
RAM is so cheap right now that, if you have a few bucks to spare, you might as well grab this 8GB Crucial DDR3-1333 kit instead of the 4GB bundle from the previous page. Windows 7 puts extra memory to good use as a disk cache, so you should be able to enjoy the additional four gigabytes even if you don’t edit high-definition video or juggle huge Photoshop files.
The Radeon HD 6850 got the nod in our primary picks because it’s slightly faster and a fair bit cheaper than its most direct rival, the GeForce GTX 460 1GB. Higher-clocked versions of the GTX 460 like this EVGA offering should narrow the performance gap and deliver a few perks of their own. Nvidia did a much better job of promptly providing drivers optimized for Rage and Battlefield 3 than AMD earlier this year, which bodes well for future releases.
The Sweet Spot
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 Sweet Spot, allowing us to spec out a stacked system for under $1,000.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-2500K 3.3GHz||$219.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z68-V LE||$132.99|
|Memory||Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$39.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 560 Ti Superclocked||$249.99|
|Storage||Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D 750GB||$99.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DG||$20.99|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$91.99|
The Core i5-2500K is arguably the best deal in Intel’s Sandy Bridge lineup. For a little over 200 bucks, it offers four cores clocked at 3.3GHz with a 3.7GHz Turbo peak. The K designation denotes a fully unlocked upper multiplier that enables easy overclocking, as well. 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 Sweet Spot.
The only downside to the 2500K is the fact that it hasn’t gone down in price a bit since debuting in January. If only AMD had come out with a more compelling alternative.
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 and GPU virtualization via Lucid’s Virtu software. Virtu is necessary to enjoy the QuickSync video transcoding acceleration built into Sandy’s IGP alongside a discrete graphics card.
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 in the motherboard department.
Yes, we’re stuffing 8GB of RAM into our mid-range 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.
You might have noticed that this build’s name has changed—the former Utility Player has become the new Sweet Spot. Our choice of graphics card was partly responsible for that change. Our previous guide settled on a vanilla GeForce GTX 560 for this system, but it only cost us $50 to step up to a faster 560 Ti this time around. We think the Ti is a more appropriate selection considering the other components we’ve chosen—a Core i5-2500K, eight gigs of RAM, and a discrete sound card. Avoiding the best mid-range GPU at our disposal would have felt like misplaced stinginess.
EVGA’s take on the GTX 560 Ti gets our vote here thanks to its affordable price, higher-than-normal clock speeds, beefy dual-fan cooler, and three-year warranty. We’re relegating the competing Radeon HD 6950 to our alternatives section. The Radeon costs about the same, but the GeForce has higher geometry processing throughput, and we’re not impressed by the way AMD’s graphics driver team handled the releases of Rage and the Battlefield 3 beta earlier this fall. Nvidia tends to have better relationships with game developers than AMD, and that might explain why GeForce cards tend to offer a better experience with newly minted titles.
We’ve still got a budget to stick to, and current prices make it difficult to justify adding a higher-capacity mechanical drive or springing for an SSD. Instead, we’re sticking with the 750GB Hitachi drive from our Econobox. The 750GB capacity is about as high as we can go without paying out the wazoo for extra gigabytes, and this drive should be plenty fast thanks to its 7,200-RPM spindle speed, 32MB cache, and the high areal density of its single platter.
We’ve also borrowed the optical drive from our Econboox. Higher-end DVD burners don’t seem like they’re worth the premium, and Blu-ray is a little out of our price range. If you’re itching to outfit the Sweet Spot with more exciting storage solutions, check out our alternatives on the next page.
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 Sweet Spot’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.
Feel free to yell at us for including this card amid mechanical storage price hikes, but keep in mind it costs only 30 bucks. Reallocating that money wouldn’t have gotten us a higher-capacity 7,200-RPM hard drive or an accompanying SSD.
The Fractal Design Core 3000 has enough features to get our nod for the Econobox, but we wanted something a little nicer for the Sweet Spot. Enter NZXT’s H2 case, which we also reviewed not long ago. The H2 ticks all of the right boxes—bottom-mounted power supply emplacement, cut-outs in the motherboard tray, generous cable-routing options, and tool-less hard-drive bays—while adding noise-dampening foam, a cleverly designed external hard-drive dock, tool-less front fan mounts, and a whole host of other niceties. At $100, the H2 fits easily within our budget, too.
Our budget also leaves 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 Sweet Spot, and the mix of features and price is tough to beat. Seasonic even covers this puppy with a five-year warranty.
Sweet Spot alternatives
As with the Econobox, we have some alternative propositions for how to fill out the Sweet Spot.
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon HD 6950 1GB OC
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 3 60GB||$104.99|
|Crucial m4 64GB||$108.99|
|LG WH12LS38 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
The real alternative to Intel’s Core i5-2500K is the FX-8150, which sells for close to $300 and seems to be out of stock everywhere right now. The next step down is the FX-8120, which is a little slower and cheaper… and also happens to be out of stock at Newegg. That leaves the FX-6100, a six-core design that, while unquestionably slower than the i5-2500K, is also considerably cheaper.
You can think of the FX-6100 as a middle ground between the Core i3-2100 and the Core i5-2500K. For AMD fans more concerned about gaming performance than raw number-crunching capabilities, that ought to be sufficient. AMD says the FX-6100 has an unlocked upper multiplier for easy overclocking, too.
The M5A97 returns from the Econobox alternatives on the strength of its low price and well-rounded features. In many respects, this $95 AMD board is comparable to our $130 Intel alternative. It even has more 6Gbps Serial ATA ports. You won’t find integrated graphics here, though.
Even if we prefer the competing Nvidia GPU (for the reasons we outlined on the previous page), AMD’s Radeon HD 6950 is a fine choice that should deliver largely equivalent performance to the GeForce GTX 560 Ti. The Gigabyte variant we’ve selected earned our Editor’s Choice award last month for its low price, solid performance, and quiet-and-effective cooler.
With 8GB of RAM, the Sweet Spot 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 hard 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 Deskstar from the previous page.
DVDs are so last decade. Blu-ray is in, and compatible burners are surprisingly cheap these days. Our favored LG Blu-ray burner has gone out of stock, but the WH12LS38 costs the same and seems to have identical features, including 12X Blu-ray burning capabilities and LightScribe support. Just as importantly, this is the cheapest Blu-ray burner listed at Newegg right now.
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 Editor’s Choice
What TR’s editors would get—if they had time to upgrade
Staying within the Sweet Spot’s budget requires a measure of restraint. With the Editor’s Choice, we’ve loosened the purse strings to accommodate beefier hardware and additional functionality—the kind TR’s editors would opt for if they were building a PC for themselves.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-2600K 3.4GHz||$319.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$46.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448||$289.99|
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 3 120GB||$189.99|
|Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D 750GB||$99.99|
|LG WH12LS38 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$81.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$189.99|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 620W||$94.99|
At first glance, the Core i7-2600K may look like little more than a 100MHz clock-speed jump over the i5-2500K from the Sweet Spot. There’s more to the 2600K than marginally higher clock speeds, though. Despite sharing the same quad-core silicon as the 2500K, the 2600K has Hyper-Threading support that allows it to process eight threads in parallel. That additional capacity won’t come in handy unless you’re a compulsive multitasker or use applications that are effectively multithreaded. However, anyone considering dropping $1,500 on a system probably falls into one of those camps, if not both.
Also, you’ll totally get a kick out of seeing eight activity graphs in the Windows Task Manager.
The Asus P8Z68-V/GEN3 isn’t cheap, but it has several desirable advantages over the LE board we chose for the Sweet Spot. This model 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 variant also has onboard FireWire, extra SATA ports, and the excellent UEFI and fan controls you’d expect from a recent Asus motherboard.
MSI has a similar but slightly cheaper Z68 board that also features gen-three-ready PCI Express slots. However, the Asus board has external Serial ATA connectivity, integrated Bluetooth, additional USB 2.0 ports, and more proven firmware than the MSI.
As with the Sweet Spot, 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.
There’s a new kid in town—Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448. Okay, so this is really just a slightly tweaked version of the GeForce GTX 570, but it’s a welcome addition until we can sate our thirst for new blood with true next-generation GPUs. The key thing to note here is that the GTX 560 Ti 448 offers performance close to that of the vanilla GTX 570 (and is thus much faster than the regular GTX 560 Ti) for quite a bit less money. At $290, this superclocked EVGA model looks perfect for the Editor’s Choice. It’s actually the cheapest Ti 448 listed at Newegg despite having the highest clock speed and three-year warranty.
Our generous budget allows us to spec the Editor’s Choice 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 750GB Hitachi Deskstar 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 Deskstar can store plenty of games, and it’ll load them noticeably faster than one of those low-power mass-storage drives. We could have opted for a 1TB 7,200-RPM offering, but we’re not dying for extra capacity, and we think the Deskstar is a better deal than the terabyte drives out there right now.
Would you spend $1,500 on a new system without a Blu-ray burner? Probably not. LG’s WH12LS38 is the cheapest option available at Newegg, and we see no reason to spend more.
The results of our blind listening tests suggest Asus’ shockingly cheap Xonar DG holds its own against pricier sound cards, and that’s true for the most part. However, the DG filters sound to give it extra pop, and we’ve found that such EQ fiddling can induce listener fatigue if you have sensitive ears. The Xonar DX should reproduce music in a more accurate, neutral fashion, and it has other perks, such as the ability to encode Dolby Digital Live audio 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.
Oh, and the Xonar DX also happens to fit into PCI Express slots, whereas the Xonar DG uses an old-school PCI interface. We figure you’re going to hold on to a sound card for several years through multiple builds, and PCI slots are on the way out. (Some newer motherboards already dispense with them entirely.) A PCIe sound card seems like a better investment if you can afford the price premium. In this case, we can.
As we explained in our review, Corsair’s Obsidian Series 650D enclosure essentially melds the innards of the Graphite Series 600T with the exterior design of the bigger and more expensive 800D, all the while retaining Corsair’s famous attention to detail. The 650D has fewer front-panel USB 2.0 ports and less granular fan control than the 600T, and it costs a little more. The more we think about it, though, the more we prefer the Obsidian’s overall looks, lighter weight, and less bulky design.
We’re keeping the same Corsair HX650W power supply as in our last few guides. This 650W unit has plenty of power and 80 Plus Bronze certification. It also features modular cabling that should make it easy to keep the case’s internals clean. The 650D may have excellent cable management options, but we’d prefer to have fewer cables to manage, as well.
Editor’s Choice alternatives
The build on the previous page may resemble what TR editors would build for themselves, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a few careful substitutions while retaining the spirit of the Editor’s Choice.
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 6950 2GB||$269.99|
|Storage||Crucial m4 128GB||$209.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$149.99|
|Case||Corsair Graphite Series 600T||$159.99|
AMD doesn’t have a direct competitor to the GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448 right now; the Radeon HD 6950 2GB is slower overall, and the Radeon HD 6970 is more expensive. The former looks like the most sensible selection for our Editor’s Choice alternatives, since its extra memory can come in handy in certain situations, like if you’re gaming with multiple monitors or in 3D. XFX’s Radeon HD 6950 2GB is a decent deal at $270, and it comes with a free coupon for DiRT 3.
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 than the 750GB Deskstar from our primary recs will want to consider one of Samsung’s 1TB Spinpoint F3 drives. The Spinpoint has a 7,200-RPM spindle speed, so it’s a lot faster than low-power drives that spin their platters at around 5,400 RPM.
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 earned a TR Editor’s Choice Award. Also, it’s available in white, if you’re into that sort of thing. (Note that the exact flavor of the Graphite 600T we reviewed is no longer in stock; the version that’s now selling has a mesh window on the left side panel. The case’s other features look identical, though, and the price hasn’t changed.)
The Double-Stuff Workstation
Because more is very often better
The Editor’s Choice is a nice step up from the Sweet Spot, but it’s a small step, all things considered. The Double-Stuff represents more of a leap in both hardware and budget.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-3930K||$649.15|
|Motherboard||Asus P9X79 Pro||$319.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$86.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 570||$359.99|
|Storage||Corsair Force GT 240GB||$409.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$199.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$199.99|
|LG WH12LS38 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$81.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$189.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 800D||$259.99|
After picking apart Intel’s new Sandy Bridge-E processor, there’s no way we weren’t going to include a variant of it in the Double-Stuff. Nothing comes even remotely close to SB-E’s performance right now.
We admittedly haven’t reviewed the Core i7-3930K, but it’s a very small step down from the thousand-dollar Core i7-3960X we tested. The cheaper offering features the same six Hyper-Threaded cores, four memory channels, unlocked upper multiplier, and 130W thermal envelope; you’re only going down from 3.3GHz with a 3.9GHz Turbo peak to 3.2/3.8GHz, and from 15MB of L3 cache to 12MB. The performance of these two puppies should be almost neck and neck, despite the $400 price difference.
Sandy Bridge-E requires new motherboards with LGA2011 sockets. We looked at a few of those last month, and Asus’ P9X79 Pro struck us as a solid performer with a very complete feature set. We did chastise the board for silently ramping up Turbo multipliers when the memory clock was set manually, but that impudence can be rectified manually. The P9X79 Pro also has some really sweet features, such as Asus’ excellent UEFI firmware and slick Windows tweaking software. Since none of the other X79 mobos we’ve tested is perfect, the P9X79 Pro gets our nod—for now.
A note to video editing buffs: despite its loaded port cluster, this board lacks a FireWire port. That probably won’t bother most folks, but users who need FireWire connectivity will want to check our alternatives section on the next page, which includes a PCIe FireWire card.
We’re outfitting the Double Stuff with a kit that features four of the Corsair Vengeance modules we included in our earlier builds. We need four modules to populate all four of the Core i7-3930K’s memory channels, and the price difference between 8GB and 16GB amounts to a drop in the bucket with a top-of-the-line system like this one.
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 new titles roll out.
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 higher-than-normal clock speeds and Nvidia’s reference cooler, which runs quietly, exhausts hot air directly outside the case, and should be able to tolerate expansion cards placed in adjacent slots.
Of course, multi-GPU configs have advantages that trump the aforementioned inconveniences, particularly if you’re trying to run games across multiple displays or to enjoy stereoscopic 3D graphics. We’ve singled out a couple of multi-GPU options in our alternatives section on the following page.
As in the Editor’s Choice, we’re recommending an SSD that pairs SandForce’s SF-2281 controller with synchronous flash memory. OCZ’s Vertex 3 is the cheapest option at 120GB, but Corsair’s Force GT costs less at 240GB, at least for now. The raging SSD price war has these things changing on an almost daily basis. We haven’t seen much of a performance difference between SandForce drives from different partners, though. The Force GT offers the same firmware-level fix for the SandForce BSOD bug as the Vertex 3, which 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, a couple of 2TB Samsung EcoGreen F4 drives ought to provide sufficient mass storage capacity. You can run the EcoGreens separately or in a RAID-1 array, which should provide a measure of fault tolerance should one of the drives go bad.
Our LG Blu-ray burner almost feels a little too pedestrian for a system as exotic as the Double-Stuff… but good luck finding a more exciting alternative in the world of optical storage.
The Xonar DX offers the best of both worlds: excellent analog signal quality combined with the ability to encode multi-channel digital bitstreams on the fly. Audiophiles with fancy headphones might want to consider indulging in our alternative sound card, though.
Corsair’s beastly Obsidian Series 800D 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 using a $15 front-panel upgrade kit Corsair sells on its website.
We’re gonna need a beefy PSU to handle everything that’s been packed into the Double-Stuff. Corsair’s flagship 850W unit looks like just the ticket. The AX850W delivers 80 Plus Gold certification, modular cabling, a whopping seven years of warranty coverage, and certification for both multi-GPU schemes from AMD and Nvidia. 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.
We usually leave it up to our readers to choose whether or not they want an aftermarket CPU coolers—we’ve actually got a number of recommendations on our peripherals and accessories page at the end of the guide. The thing is, Intel’s Core i7-3930K doesn’t come with a stock cooler to begin with. This build therefore isn’t complete without some sort of aftermarket device.
Considering our budget for the Sweeter Spot, we’d be remiss not to opt for a quiet, self-contained liquid cooler like Corsair’s H80. This bad boy will fit our LGA2011 socket, and it features a beefy radiator that can be sandwiched between a pair of 120-mm fans. Sure, it costs a few bucks more than aftermarket air coolers, but we think the H80 is worth the premium in a system like this one.
As complete as our Double-Stuff Workstation is, we still have some alternative ideas for how to fill it out.
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 570||$359.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 570||$359.99|
|XFX Radeon HD 6970 2GB||$349.99|
|XFX Radeon HD 6970 2GB||$349.99|
|Storage||Crucial m4 256GB||$369.99|
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 stereoscopic 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 XFX card we’ve singled out also have nice coolers with blowers that direct hot air out of the system, and they feature double-lifetime warranty coverage, which gives them added resale value.
Again, if you’d rather not deal with potential stability hassles (even ones that are supposed to be fixed) and don’t mind reduced write performance, Crucial m4 SSDs like this 256GB offering are fine alternatives to SandForce-powered drives like OCZ’s Vertex 3.
As we noted earlier, our selected motherboard doesn’t have FireWire connectivity. If you need FireWire for whatever reason, simply pop Rosewill’s RC-504 adapter into a free PCI Express slot. It’s only $20, and the circuit board is small enough not to obscure airflow.
The Couch Potato Reloaded
Because consoles and DVRs don’t have a monopoly on the living room
The Couch Potato has appeared, under various guises, in a number of past system guides. Its latest incarnation combines a 35W Sandy Bridge processor, ATSC or CableCard TV tuning, Blu-ray, and some neat peripherals.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-2100T||$134.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$19.99|
|Storage||Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$199.99|
|LG WH12LS38 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
||Seasonic S12II 380W||$68.99|
||Loftek Rii mini wireless keyboard||$39.99|
||Cooler Master GeminII S||$38.45|
The Couch Potato doesn’t need a particularly fast CPU, nor does it need terribly speedy integrated graphics. (Intel’s IGP handle HD video decoding quite well, and gaming at HD resolutions really requires a discrete graphics card, anyway.) What we want here is adequate performance and very low power consumption, to avoid marring the living room with a hot, hissing computer. Intel’s Core i3-2100T fulfills our requirements beautifully, with a pair of Hyper-Threaded Sandy Bridge cores clocked at 2.5GHz, the HD 2000 version of Intel’s current integrated graphics, and a thermal envelope of just 35W—the same as that of many notebook CPUs.
We’ve singled out an AMD APU in our alternatives on the next page, but unfortunately, AMD’s lowest-power A-series offerings have much higher 65W TDPs. AMD’s E-series APUs slip under 20W, but they’re much, much slower—certainly not Couch Potato material.
Our enclosure of choice can accommodate full-sized ATX motherboards, so we see no reason not to bring back the board we picked for the Econobox. The Asus P8H67-V has HDMI and optical audio outputs, USB 3.0 ports, and plenty of expansion slots. Asus’ excellent fan-control options will come in handy for such a stealthy build.
Another Econobox pick is transplanted here. At only $20, this four-gig DDR3 memory kit is perfect for the Couch Potato.
We have to admit, we thought high-end HTPCs passed through some dark days in recent years, because their usefulness as DVRs was somewhat questionable. Our own experiences with recording a handful of unencrypted HD cable channels on our local Time Warner network weren’t terribly encouraging, and we were forced instead to use a dreadful dedicated cable box to access many channels.
Fortunately, several developments have converged to revive our interest. First, now that the conversion to digital broadcast television in the U.S. is well in the rear-view mirror and many of the issues are sorted, pairing an HTPC with a decent antenna can unlock access to loads of HD channels in most areas. That’s why we’ve included a dual-tuner Hauppage card in the primary recs for this system; it can tune two ATSC channels at once and can pick up FM radio, too. (The card will tune ClearQAM, as well, if you still want to go that route.) Second, the rise of services like Netflix and iTunes has opened up access to all sorts of premium content via online streaming, supplementing the over-the-air programming and making cable service seem like a raw deal for some of us. (One of us, Scott, has recently cut the cord on his cable provider in favor of an OTA tuner and some streaming services.) Third, after way too many years of abject failure, it appears CableCard-based tuners for the PC have finally become a viable option. We’ve seen the Ceton CableCard tuner in the alternatives in action on Comcast, and it really works, tuning a multitude of premium channels without the need for a lousy cable box.
We can’t compensate for the surge in hard-drive prices by selecting a lower-capacity alternative here. If the Couch Potato will double as your DVR, you’ll need all the gigabytes you can get. Samsung’s EcoGreen F4 2TB isn’t cheap at $200, but its low spindle speed guarantees quiet operation, and its two terabytes of storage capacity should leave plenty of room for recorded video content.
Silverstone’s slick-looking LC17-B enclosure is designed specifically for home theater PCs, and making it blend in with the rest of the equipment around your TV set shouldn’t be difficult. Nevertheless, this case offers enough internal space for our full-sized ATX motherboard, plenty of expansion cards, as many as two 5.25″ optical drives, and six 3.5″ hard drives. The LC17-B keeps internal components cool with two 80-mm exhaust fans as well as a cooling vent strategically placed next to the CPU socket area. TR Editor in Chief Scott Wasson used this enclosure for his own HTPC, and he can vouch for it.
Quiet efficiency is the name of the game with the Couch Potato. Seasonic’s 380W S12II power supply has a peak efficiency rating of 85%, and its 380W of output power will be more than sufficient for this build, even if you decide to throw in a discrete graphics card.
Keyboard and remote
We normally leave peripheral recommendations for the last page of the guide, but we have two specific picks for the Couch Potato. Our Editor in Chief has taken a liking to Loftek’s Rii mini wireless keyboard, which crams two halves of a smart-phone-style QWERTY keyboard on either side of a diminutive touchpad, all in a device no bigger than a typical remote. With the Rii, you can set up the Couch Potato or browse YouTube from your sofa without having to keep a chunky keyboard on your lap.
As convenient as the Rii is, there’s no beating a Windows Media Center remote in applications that support it—like Microsoft’s own Media Center software, which comes in all versions of Windows 7 from Home Premium on up. Keyspan’s ER-V2 mimics the design of the original Microsoft remote we like, and at less than $40, it doesn’t break the bank.
Intel ships the Core i3-2100T with a cooler, but we want this build to be dead quiet, so an aftermarket offering is in order. Cooler Master’s Gemini S should have no trouble fitting within the confines of our chassis. With a PWM-controlled 120-mm fan fastened atop a huge array of fins and five copper heat pipes, cooling our 35W CPU quietly shouldn’t present much of a challenge, either.
Couch Potato Reloaded alternatives
Here are a few alternatives and additions to our latest HTPC build.
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 6850||$164.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$81.99|
||Ceton InfiniTV 4||$289.99|
AMD’s triple-core A6-3500 is the fastest member of AMD’s low-power A-series lineup. Even the slowest members of that family have the same 65W TDP, making them harder to cool quietly than our Core i3-2100T. There’s a silver lining in the form of the A6 chip’s integrated Radeon HD 6530D graphics, which should be quicker than the Core i3’s Intel HD Graphics 2000. That said, neither IGP is going to prove terribly useful for anything beyond casual gaming. You’ll want a discrete GPU to play real games at the 1080p resolution typical of most modern home theaters.
The Gigabyte GA-A75M-D2H can tap into the A6-3500’s integrated graphics, and it does so with a nice mix of connectivity and expansion options, from USB 2.0 to 6Gbps Serial ATA, with a sprinkling of HDMI and optical S/PDIF. This board costs a fair bit less than our Intel recommendation from the previous page, too. Considering the A6-3500 is also more affordable than our Core i3, this AMD alternative may be a worthwhile option for penny pinchers. Just remember the drawback: higher power consumption.
As we’ve noted, serious gaming on the Couch Potato calls for a discrete graphics card. We’d recommend MSI’s Radeon HD 6850 for that purpose. It has the brawn to handle today’s games at 1080p, but it’s not powerful enough to turn our little system into a furnace full of hissing fans. We also know for a fact that MSI’s Cyclone cooler is quiet and does a good job of keeping GPU temperatures low. As icing on the cake, the card comes with a free coupon for DiRT 3 right now.
We expect most users will hook up the Couch Potato’s motherboard to a receiver using a digital S/PDIF cable and call it a day. Pristine digital audio can also be passed over HDMI with either integrated graphics configuration. Those who need their audio to come from an analog source should consider the Xonar DX, which offers noticeably superior sound quality to the analog jacks on the average motherboard (assuming you’re using half-way decent home-theater speakers). The Xonar can also encode Dolby Digital Live bitstreams in real time, something our motherboards’ integrated audio can’t do.
It ain’t cheap, but Ceton’s CableCard tuner finally fulfills the long-pending promise of tuning and recording a full suite of premium cable channels on an HTPC with Windows Media Center. The InfiniTV will tune four channels simultaneously, making your HTPC the equal of the best set-top box anywhere. You’ll need to work with your cable provider to set it up, but it should work.
Don’t let our inclusion of an antenna in the alternative recs confuse you; this baby is intended for use with the Hauppage dual tuner card in the primaries, not the Ceton card in the alts, but it’s hanging out here since we hardly style ourselves as antenna experts. This RCA amplified antenna is the one Scott chose for his own use in the suburban Kansas City area, about 20 miles from the broadcast towers, and it has performed admirably so far for him. The HD picture quality is, if anything, generally superior to digital cable. This amplified model is probably slight overkill for his area, but it’s small, cheap, and unobtrusive enough to be an easy rec. For most of us, there’s just no need to mount a monstrosity on the roof. Grab one if these if you have doubts about a passive antenna. If you want to know what sort of antenna would serve well for you own location, you can also check out antennaweb.org. You can input your address there and receive very specific recommendations about the type of antenna needed to receive various channels.
The mobile sidekicks
Nothing beats a high-powered desktop for gaming and productivity, but you can’t exactly lug around a machine like the Sweet Spot or Double-Stuff Workstation. That’s why all of us here at TR complement our desktop machines with laptops or tablets. Since we have all the horsepower we need at home, 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, 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 an updated variant of the dm1z with an E-450 APU, 4GB of RAM, and a 320GB 7,200-RPM hard drive for $479.99. If you head over to HP’s online store, you should find the base configuration (with a slower APU and only 320GB 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 this fall, and they typically combine razor-thin frames, Sandy Bridge processors, and solid-state storage. We tested one of those machines, Asus’ Zenbook UX31, back in October. We liked the 13-inch system’s slick design, fast performance, and $1099 asking price (less than that of Apple’s comparable MacBook Air), although we did run into issues with its touchpad. Asus also has a 11.6-inch version of the Zenbook priced at $999.
Cheaper ultrabooks include Acer’s Aspire S3, which you can nab for only $899.99. This machine has similar specs to the Zenbook, but instead of a 128GB SSD, Acer outfits it with 20GB of solid-state storage and a 320GB mechanical hard drive.
If conventional laptops are too old-school for you, then may we interest you in a tablet? Right now, no tablet has quite as many apps or quite as much horsepower for gaming as the iPad 2. The iOS operating system does feel a tad more dumbed-down than Android, but then again, it also feels faster and smoother. You’ll find the base 16GB iPad 2 selling at Newegg for $519.99 with free shipping.
Asus’ Android-powered Eee Pad Transformer used to be a fine deal at $399, but it’s gone out of stock, presumably as e-tailers anticipate the arrival of the Eee Pad Transformer Prime. You should be able to find the Prime at Newegg some later this month. The new device features Nvidia’s new Tegra 3 processor, and like the original Prime, it can be turned into a pseudo-laptop using a detachable docking station.
What about larger notebooks? We have no specific recommendations in that category, but the market is rife with relatively affordable machines based on Intel’s dual-core Sandy Bridge processors and AMD’s new Fusion A-series APUs (a.k.a. Llano). Llano machines should offer much better integrated graphics performance and competitive battery life, but Intel’s Sandy Bridge chips bring superior CPU performance.
The operating system
Which one is right for you?
Before we begin, we should acknowledge that some readers may not feel comfortable with Windows’ prominent place on this page. We hold no particular grudge against Linux or other desktop operating systems, but we think most TR readers will want to stick with Windows. For starters, most of you play PC games, and we’ve tuned all of our main configs for gaming—something Linux doesn’t do nearly as well as Microsoft’s OSes. Also, we figure enthusiasts with enough expertise to run Linux on their primary desktops will already have a favorite Linux distribution picked out. As for Mac OS X, we find both the dubious legality and the lack of official support for running it on standard PCs too off-putting.
Now, if you’re buying a copy of Windows today, you should really be thinking about Windows 7. We explained in our review that this OS may well be Microsoft’s finest to date, because it draws from Vista’s strengths while adding a healthy dose of polish, not to mention improved performance and non-disastrous backward compatibility. Building a new system with Windows 7 instead of Vista or XP is really a no-brainer at this point.
Just like its predecessors, Windows 7 comes in several different editions, three of which you’ll find in stores: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. What makes them different from one another? The table below should help answer that question:
|Windows 7 Home Premium
||Windows 7 Professional
||Windows 7 Ultimate
|New Aero features||X||X||X|
|Internet Explorer 8||X||X||X|
|Windows Media Center||X||X||X|
|Full-system Backup and Restore||X||X||X|
|Remote Desktop client||X||X||X|
|Backups across network||X||X|
|Remote Desktop host||X||X|
|Windows XP Mode||X||X|
|Interface language switching||X|
|Price—OEM (64-bit) license||$99.99||$129.99||$189.99|
|Price—OEM (32-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||$189.99|
As you can see, Windows 7 editions follow a kind of Russian nesting doll pattern: Professional has all of the Home Premium features, and Ultimate has everything. Since most users probably won’t find the Ultimate edition’s extras terribly exciting, the choice ought to come down to Home Premium vs. Professional for almost everyone.
Some of TR’s editors like hosting Remote Desktop sessions and running network backups, so we’d probably go with the Professional package unless we were on a tight budget. However, we should also note that Windows 7 Home Premium includes some features formerly exclusive to more upscale editions, namely full-system backups and Previous Versions (a.k.a. Shadow Copy). See our review for more details.
If you go with Home Premium and find you need some of the Professional features down the road, you can always use the Anytime Upgrade program to step up. It’ll only set you back $90.
Speaking of upgrades, you’ll notice upgrade licenses are quite a bit cheaper than full ones. That’s because you need a legit version of Windows XP or Windows Vista to use them. The edition doesn’t matter, but you do need the previous OS to be activated and installed on your hard drive for the Windows 7 upgrade to work. Mind you, Vista upgrade installers don’t seem to protest when a user does a clean install of Vista without a product key and then runs an upgrade installation over that. Windows 7 could allow for the same trick. Microsoft doesn’t sanction this method, however, and who knows how future updates to the Windows activation system might affect it.
To save even more, you could also opt for an OEM license. Microsoft aims these at pre-built PCs, and for that reason, it prohibits users from carrying an OEM license over from one PC to another one. You may therefore be forced to buy a new copy of Windows 7 after a major upgrade. (Retail editions have no such limitation, as far as we’re aware.) Also unlike their retail brethren, OEM licenses only cover one version of the software—32-bit or 64-bit—so you’ll have to pick one or the other up front and stick with it.
That brings us to another point: should you go 32-bit or 64-bit? Since all of the processors we recommend in this guide are 64-bit-capable and all of our systems have 4GB of memory or more, the x64 release strikes us as the most sensible choice. This recommendation is relevant to folks who buy retail and upgrade editions, too—you might have to ask Microsoft to ship you x64 installation media first, but installing an x64 variant looks like the best idea.
As we’ve already explained, 32-bit flavors of Windows only support up to 4GB of RAM, and that upper limit covers things like video memory. In practice, that means that your 32-bit OS will only be able to use 3-3.5GB of system RAM on average and even less than 3GB if you have more than one discrete GPU. With new OSes and games pushing the envelope in terms of memory use, the 4GB limit can get a little uncomfortable for an enthusiast PC.
There are some caveats, however. 64-bit versions of Windows don’t support 32-bit drivers, and they won’t run 16-bit software. You’ll probably want to make sure all of your peripherals have compatible drivers, and vintage game lovers may also have to check out emulators like DOSBox. Still, hardware makers have improved x64 support quite a bit since Vista came out three years ago, so you’ll probably be fine unless you have something like a really old printer. (For some background on what makes 64-bit computing different at a hardware level, have a look at our take on the subject.)
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.
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 Sweet Spot ought to splurge on a nice 8-bit, 24″ display like the HP LP2475w, HP ZR24w, Dell UltraSharp U2410, or Asus PA246Q, 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 Editor’s Choice build. Don’t be shy about adding more than one screen, either.
By the way, we should point out that the Radeon HD 6000-series graphics cards we recommended in this guide support triple-monitor configurations. This scheme, which AMD calls Eyefinity, even works in existing games. You’ll need either an adapter or a display with a native DisplayPort input if you want to run three monitors, though. The first two may be connected to a Radeon’s DVI or HDMI outputs, but the third needs to be driven by the card’s DisplayPort out.
Nvidia has a competing feature similar to Eyefinity, called Surround Gaming, that enables gaming across three monitors, as well. However, that feature requires the use of dual graphics cards or the pricey GeForce GTX 590.
Mice and keyboards
New mice seem to crop up every other week, but we tend to favor offerings from Logitech and Microsoft because both companies typically make quality products and offer great warranty coverage. (Nothing beats getting a free, retail-boxed mouse if your old one starts behaving erratically.) Everyone has his preferences when it comes to scroll wheel behavior, the number of buttons present, and control panel software features. But here, too, one particular attribute lies at the heart of many debates: wirelessness.
Wireless mice have come a long way over the past few years, and you can expect a relatively high-end one to feel just as responsive as a wired mouse. However, certain folks—typically hard-core gamers—find all wireless mice laggy, and they don’t like the extra weight of the batteries. Tactile preferences are largely subjective, but wireless mice do have a few clear advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, you can use them anywhere on your desk or from a distance, and you don’t run the risk of snagging the cable. That said, good wireless mice cost more than their wired cousins, and they force you to keep an eye on battery life. Because of that last issue, some favor wireless mice with docking cradles, which let you charge your mouse at night and not have to worry about finding charged AAs during a Team Fortress 2 match.
We can also find two distinct schools of thoughts on the keyboard front. Some users will prefer the latest and fanciest offerings from Logitech and Microsoft, with their smorgasbord of media keys, sliders, knobs, scroll wheels, and even built-in LCD displays. Others like their keyboards simple, clicky, and heavy enough to beat a man to death with. If you’re one of the old-school types, you may want to try a Unicomp Customizer 101/104 or an original vintage-dated IBM Model M. $50-70 is a lot to put down for a keyboard, but these beasts can easily last a couple of decades.
If you’re part of the mechanical keyboard club and are looking for something a little less… well, ugly, then Metadot’s Das Keyboard Professional might interest you. The Das Keyboard is pretty pricey (over $100), but it has a more stylish look and a softer feel than the Model M and its modern derivatives. Cheaper alternatives to the Das Keyboard can be found among Rosewill’s line of mechanical keyboards, which come outfitted with all types and variations of MX Cherry key switches, from the clicky and tactile blue switches to the linear and non-tactile black ones. We also like the combination of mechanical switches, macro keys, and backlighting offered by the new Razer BlackWidow Ultimate.
This section traditionally included a floppy drive/card reader combo, but we’re in 2011 now. We’ve had the Internet, USB thumb drives, and Windows-based BIOS flashing tools for many years. It’s time to let go.
If you absolutely must stick something in that external 3.5″ drive bay, we suggest this all-in-one card reader. It costs just over $10 yet has good user reviews on Newegg, and it should happily accept any flash card you find lying around.
You might have noticed that all of our recommended processors are retail-boxed variants packaged with stock heatsinks and fans. Retail processors have longer warranties than “tray” or OEM CPUs, and their coolers tend to be at least adequate, with fans that work with motherboard-based temperature control and stay reasonably quiet at idle.
That said, anyone aspiring to overclock or to build a truly quiet PC will likely want to explore aftermarket alternatives. We’ve singled out three options that ought to suit most needs and budgets: Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus, Thermaltake’s Frio, and Corsair’s H60.
Priced just under $30, the Hyper 212 Plus is a fine no-frills substitute for stock coolers. Its four copper heat pipes, tower-style design, and 120-mm PWM fan should allow for quieter, more effective cooling. Our next step up, the Frio, costs a little under twice as much but provides beefier cooling capabilities that should make it sufficient for air-cooled overclocking setups. Finally, Corsair’s H60 is a closed-loop liquid cooler whose radiator mounts over your enclosure’s 120-mm exhaust fan. The H60 will set you back about 10 bucks more than the Frio, and we’d recommend it to folks who want a truly quiet PC.
Noctua’s NH-U12P SE2 cooler deserves an honorable mention in this section, if only because it now supports Sandy Bridge processors. The original NH-U12P did rather well in our air vs. water CPU cooler showdown a couple of years back. Things have changed somewhat since then, though, and the Noctua cooler no longer costs less than closed-loop liquid-cooling alternatives. In fact, it’s about the same price as the H60 right now. The NH-U12P SE2 may be as close to the ultimate air tower as you can get, though.
You know what they say: it’s all fun and games until someone’s hard drive starts developing bad sectors and kicks the bucket in a dissonant avalanche of clicking and crunching sounds. If you’re unsure how to formulate a backup strategy, you can check out our article on the subject, which recommends a fairly straightforward approach. That article deals with Windows Vista’s built-in backup software, which isn’t bad. Win7’s backup tools are even better, though, and Microsoft has included them in the Home Premium edition of the OS.
All you need to get Windows 7 backups going is a decent external hard drive. For that purpose, Thermaltake’s BlacX docking station should work well with any of the hard drives we’ve recommended throughout this guide (perhaps the 2TB Samsung EcoGreen F4). This newer USB 3.0 version of the BlacX made a pretty good impression on us, and backing up large files and drive images with it should be a snap.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the recent storage price hikes have been tough to swallow, and we hope things get back to normal in Thailand soon. We’ve been able to work around the price increases in a lot of cases, but our Couch Potato build is a good example of a situation where that just wasn’t possible. Mere months ago, that build’s 2TB hard drive would have set us back $80-90; now, the same drive costs around $200. That made for a very palpable price increase in a system designed to be affordable.
All things considered, though, we’re pleased with our latest round of builds. The Sweet Spot and Editor’s Choice rigs are new takes on older concepts, and they work well, even if we weren’t able to squeeze in as many gigabytes per dollar as we hoped. The Double-Stuff Workstation has gotten a new lease on life, too, thanks to Sandy Bridge-E.
Before we call it a day, let’s talk briefly about what’s on the horizon. Both AMD and Nvidia are prepping next-generation, 28-nm graphics processors. Although we don’t know exactly when they’re going to come out, rumor has it we’ll see the first high-end offerings from the AMD camp early next year. On the CPU front, Intel’s 22-nm Ivy Bridge processors should be out next spring. Waiting to upgrade may be worthwhile if you have a reasonably recent system and a hankering for next-gen gear. That said, today’s parts already run the latest games as smooth as butter with all the eye candy turned on.