To be perfectly honest, we haven’t exactly drowned under a deluge of new hardware since we published our last guide. It’s true that we’ve witnessed the arrival of new SSDs, new cases, and a few next-generation Radeons (some tantalizing, others not so much). Overall, though, the PC hardware landscape has remained disappointingly static—down to the inflated mechanical storage prices caused by last year’s Thai floods.
Of course, people build new PCs every day, and our readers deserve the most up-to-date component selection guidance. That’s why we’ve put together a fresh system guide update with small changes and pricing tweaks, plus occasional major substitutions where necessary. Today’s update should tide us over until we see new batches of next-generation processors and graphics cards arrive in the next few months.
To keep things interesting, we’ve augmented this guide with a fresh one-of-a-kind build: the Schooner. Our other builds are the result of careful deliberations and debates between TR’s editors, but the Schooner is the unfiltered brainchild of TR Editor-in-Chief Scott Wasson. You can think of it as the build Scott might put together if he were shopping for new gear himself.
Read on for the scoop on the Schooner and our other builds.
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 i3-2120 3.3GHz||$127.99|
|Memory||Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$21.99|
|Graphics||HIS Radeon HD 6850 1GB||$139.99|
|Storage||Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D 750GB||$99.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Core 3000||$69.99|
||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 include Intel’s Core i3-2120, AMD’s A6-series APUs, and AMD’s FX-4100.
It’s not much of a contest. The Core i3-2120 has higher overall CPU performance than the A6-3650 (and probably the A6-3670K, as well). Although the benchmark results we saw around the web suggest the FX-4100 is a little faster, that chip also has a higher thermal envelope—95W, up from the i3-2120’s 65W TDP. 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 full.
The Core i3-2120’s lack of a fully unlocked upper multiplier prevents us from really pushing the CPU, 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 i3-2120’s integrated graphics with HDMI, VGA, and HDMI outputs, so you can use Lucid’s Virtu GPU virtualization scheme to enable QuickSync video transcoding 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 particularly good, making us more inclined to recommend Asus boards over their competitors.
Memory prices seem to have hit rock-bottom, so putting 4GB of RAM into the Econobox is a no-brainer. The cheapest 4GB kit we feel comfortable recommending this time around hails from Crucial. It’s rated for operation at 1333MHz on just 1.35V, and Crucial covers the kit with a lifetime warranty.
If you’ve read our review of the new Radeon HD 7770, this pick shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Yes, the 7770 has certain unique bells and whistles, like a hardware video encoding block and very low power consumption, but the Radeon HD 6850 remains the a better deal. The older card offers better all-around performance thanks to its larger GPU and 256-bit memory interface, and it costs $20 less than the 7770 right now. The 7770 is a shaky proposition even as an alternative.
This particular HIS variant of the Radeon HD 6850 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 last year’s flooding in Thailand. 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 looked at Fractal Design’s Core 3000 enclosure last November, we wondered out loud whether the case would find its way into a future Econobox build. Well, it has. This enclosure admittedly costs a little more than our previous pick, the Antec One Hundred. Swapping in a more expensive case 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. Although the Core 3000 isn’t the quietest case we’ve tested, 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||$109.99|
|Memory||Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$39.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB||$139.99|
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 i3-2120. That isn’t quite the case. If the performance figures 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 facilitates easy overclocking (provided the chip has a decent amount of clock 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 overall than its most direct rival, the GeForce GTX 460 1GB. Higher-clocked versions of the GTX 460 like this Gigabyte offering should narrow the performance gap and deliver a few perks of their own, such as PhysX support in titles like Batman: Arkham City. Nvidia has a history of providing better driver support for freshly released games, too.
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||$224.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z68-V LE||$137.99|
|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||$29.99|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$79.99|
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 over a year ago. Ah, 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.
Last fall, the Sweet Spot was called the Utility Player; it cost less than $900 and was outfitted with a $200 graphics card. We’ve since given ourselves a little more breathing room in the budget and opted for a faster GPU—hence the name change. A good GeForce GTX 560 Ti will only set you back around $250, and it represents a palpable step up over $200 offerings. Also, it’s simply a more fitting sidekick to components like our Core i5-2500K, eight gigs of RAM, and discrete sound card.
EVGA’s take on the GTX 560 Ti gets our vote here thanks to its 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 still a little concerned about the way AMD’s graphics driver team handled the releases of Rage and the Battlefield 3 beta last year. 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 the 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 the 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. Those itching to outfit the Sweet Spot with more exciting storage solutions should check out the alternatives on the next page.
If your PC’s audio output is piped through a set of iPod earbuds or some circa-1996 beige speakers, 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||XFX Radeon HD 6950 2GB||$269.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 64GB||$119.99|
|Corsair Force GT 60GB||$109.99|
|Seagate Barracuda Green 2TB||$129.99|
|LG WH12LS39 Blu-ray burner||$74.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
Strictly speaking, AMD’s most comparable alternative to the Core i5-2500K is the FX-8150. But the FX-8150 costs $250, is slightly slower overall than its Intel counterpart, and consumes more power. That makes it awfully difficult to recommend.
Fortunately, AMD’s cheaper FX-8120 is now stocked at Newegg. With a base clock speed of 3.1GHz instead of 3.6GHz, the FX-8120 is markedly slower than the FX-8150—and the i5-2500K overall. However, it costs $50 less and still has an unlocked upper multiplier to help simplify overclocking. All things considered, we find the FX-8120 to be a more paletable AMD alternative than the overpriced FX-8150, at least for a build like the Sweet Spot.
Asus’ 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 the $130 Intel model from our primary recommendations. It even has more 6Gbps Serial ATA ports. You won’t find display outputs for 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 2GB is a fine choice that should deliver largely equivalent performance to the GeForce GTX 560 Ti. The Radeon’s 2GB of memory may come in handy at high resolutions and with multi-monitor gaming setups, too. The XFX variant we’ve chosen features a custom cooler, lifetime warranty coverage, and a free copy of DiRT 3.
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 is is the lowest-capacity derviative of Samsung’s blazing-fast (and TR Editor’s Choice award-winning) 830 Series SSD. We only reviewed the 256GB model, but based on our findings, we expect its 64GB sibling to be at least a solid performer. Samsung also has a good track record for SSD firmware reliability. We’ve heard no complaints about show-stopping bugs… so far. The drive ships with a free copy of Batman: Arkham City, too.
Corsair’s 60GB Force GT isn’t blessed with an umblemished record. Like other SSDs based on SandForce’s SF-2281 controller, the Force GT suffered from a BSOD bug that affected some users. The latest firmware releases seem to have addressed the issue, but it’s hard to tell if it’s been squashed for good. We do, however, know that the 60GB Force GT is very fast despite its small capacity. (Remember, lower-capacity solid-state drives normally have fewer flash chips working in parallel, which translates to slower performance.)
Whichever drive you choose, 60-64GB 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. However, if oodles of mass storage are what you’re after, and performance is a secondary concern, Seagate’s 2TB Barracuda Green is worth a look. This drive is a little too sluggish to house a Windows installation, but it’s more than fast enough for mass storage and backups. It’s reasonably affordable, too, at $130.
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 WH12LS39 costs the same and seems to have identical features, including LightScribe support and the ability to burn Blu-ray discs at 12X speeds. 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||$329.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$49.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448||$289.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 128GB||$199.99|
|Hitachi Deskstar 7K1000.D 750GB||$99.99|
|LG WH12LS39 Blu-ray burner||$74.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$179.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX650W||$129.99|
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.
Again, 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.
Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448 may only be a slightly tweaked version of the GeForce GTX 570, but it’s a welcome addition until we can sate our thirst for true next-generation GPUs in this price range. 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 one of the cheapest Ti 448 cards listed at Newegg despite its high clock speed and three-year warranty.
Our generous budget allows us to spec the Editor’s Choice with a solid-state drive. Samsung’s 830 Series 128GB SSD may not be quite as fast as the 256GB model we reviewed, but we expect it to keep up with the competition—if not come out ahead. We also find comfort in the fact that, at least so far, we haven’t heard users complain of show-stopping stability issues with the 830 Series. (Firmware bugs seem to be an all-too-common blight on otherwise excellent SSDs these days.) The free copy of Batman: Arkham City in the box doesn’t hurt, either.
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 WH12LS39 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.
|Processor||AMD FX-8150 3.6GHz||$249.99|
|Motherboard||Asus Sabertooth 990FX||$184.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon HD 7950||$489.99|
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 3 120GB||$169.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$159.99|
|Seagate Barracuda Green 2TB||$129.99|
|Case||Corsair Graphite Series 600T||$159.99|
We have mixed feelings about the AMD FX-8150. On one hand, it is a capable processor, and it’s not that much slower than the cheaper Core i5-2500K overall. On the other hand… well, it is slower, more expensive, more power-hungry, and (at least as far as our sample was concerned) not all that overclockable. We’re including this chip mainly as a gesture toward supporters of the CPU industry’s perennial underdog, but we do so with the following caveat: Intel has a better all-around product right now. It’s really not even close.
If you’re going to build a top-of-the-line AMD rig, you might as well get a top-of-the-line motherboard to go with it. Asus’ Sabertooth 990FX can put even the finest Intel Z68 motherboards to shame, with six Serial ATA 6Gbps ports, three PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots (usable in dual-x16 or x16/x8/x8 configurations with either SLI or CrossFire multi-GPU setups), dual external Serial ATA ports, dual USB 3.0 ports, Asus’ excellent UEFI interface, top-notch temperature sensors and fan-speed controls, and five-year warranty coverage. Those green-and-grey heatsinks look rather nice, too.
Since AMD lacks a direct competitor to the GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448, we’re going to think outside the box and throw in one of the company’s Radeon HD 7950 graphics cards. Yes, we’re aware that the 7950 costs a good $200 more than the GTX 560 Ti 448. We’re also aware that the 7950 is substantially faster, courtesy of AMD’s freshly minted, 28-nm Tahiti graphics processor. Don’t believe us? Have a look at our review.
Whether you prefer Radeons or simply want a faster card than the GTX 560 Ti 448, the 7950 is an excellent choice. The Gigabyte model we’ve picked out has higher-than-normal clock speeds, a nice, triple-fan cooler (which should be fairly quiet, based on our experience), and a coupon for a free copy of DiRT 3.
Again, since we haven’t tested variants of the Samsung 830 Series below 256GB, SandForce-based offerings remain a known quantity—we know they’re very fast, and we also know they suffered from a BSOD bug that took ages to resolve. SandForce’s latest firmware revisions seem to have fixed the BSOD bug, and if you like the controller’s performance characteristics, OCZ’s Vertex 3 120GB is the drive for you.
(We’re recommending the OCZ drive instead of equivalent models based on the same controller and synchronous NAND because, at the time of writing, it’s the cheapest option. SSD prices go up and down almost daily, though, so keep an eye on similar drives like the Force GT 120GB before making your puchase.)
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||$694.00|
|Motherboard||Asus P9X79 Pro||$319.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$89.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon HD 7950||$489.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 256GB||$399.99|
|Seagate Barracuda Green 2TB||$129.99|
|Seagate Barracuda Green 2TB||$129.99|
|LG WH12LS39 Blu-ray burner||$74.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$189.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master Cosmos II||$349.99|
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 November, 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 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.
AMD’s new Radeon HD 7950 may be a little too pricey for the Editor’s Choice, but it’s right at home here in the Double-Stuff. The Gigabyte variant we picked is particularly fitting, because it runs a little faster than the vanilla 7950 and looks to have a quieter cooler (albeit one that circulates hot air inside the case rather than exhausting it through venting in the back plate).
We could go all-out and pick a Radeon HD 7970, but hot-clocked 7950 variants like the one above are more affordable and almost as fast—which means they can drive the latest games at 2560×1600 with maxed-out graphical settings. The Double-Stuff may be a top-of-the-line system, but we still don’t want to throw money out the window.
Why not two of these cards instead of one? A look at our recent article, Inside the second: A new look at game benchmarking, should answer that question to some degree. 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 also present problems when new games come out in quick succession. AMD showed last year that supporting two new releases (Battlefield 3 and Rage) on single-GPU cards was a challenge, so we’re not terribly confident that a dual-GPU rig will serve you best as fresh titles roll out.
Of course, multi-GPU configs have advantages that trump the aforementioned inconveniences, particularly if you’re trying to run games across multiple displays or enjoy stereoscopic 3D graphics. We’ve singled out a couple of multi-GPU options in our alternatives section on the following page.
We recommend a Samsung 830 Series solid-state drive without reservations here. This 256GB model went through our strenuous benchmark suite and came out the other end with an Editor’s Choice award—and performance numbers above and beyond those of even the fastest SandForce drives.
For mechanical storage, a couple of 2TB Barracuda Green drives ought to provide sufficient capacity. You can run the Greens separately or in a RAID 1 array, which provides 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.
Our former pick, Corsair’s Obsidian Series 800D, is an awe-inspiring enclosure with enough bells and whistles to make any enthusiast’s mouth water. We didn’t switch our recommendation to the Cooler Master Cosmos II lightly. Ever since we reviewed this case (and gave it our Editor’s Choice award), though, we’ve known it would makes its way into our Double-Stuff config. The Cosmos II does cost more than the Obsidian, but it’s also bigger and more impressive in just about every respect, from its sideways gullwing doors and sliding metal covers to the almost ridiculous amount of space inside. Nothing says “double-stuff” quite like the Cosmos II.
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 about six months now with no complaints.
We usually leave it up to our readers to choose whether or not they want an aftermarket CPU cooler—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 beast 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||Gigabyte Radeon HD 7950||$489.99|
|Gigabyte Radeon HD 7950||$489.99|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 580||$489.99|
|FireWire card||Rosewill RC-504||$19.99|
Keeping in mind the caveats we mentioned on the previous page, multi-GPU setups do have their uses—particularly if you’re thinking of gaming across multiple monitors or putting a set of 3D glasses to use (or both). If that’s the case, we suggest doubling up on the Gigabyte Radeon HD 7950. Despite its blistering-fast performance, this card consumes no more power under load than a $250 Radeon HD 6950 (and it’s quite a bit more power-efficient at idle), so it should play nice in a dual-card config. Just keep in mind that even a single 7950 can drive the latest games at 2560×1600 with detail levels turned all the way up.
If you have a moral objection to getting a Radeon, might we recommend a nice GeForce GTX 580? The GTX 580 can’t quite match the 7950 in terms of performance or power efficiency, but it’s the fastest single-GPU offering currently in Nvidia’s lineup. Plus, this Gigabyte flavor has the same triple-fan cooler as our 7950, and it also has higher-than-stock clock speeds.
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.
A rare attempt at cohesion
Hey, Scott here. We have a tradition of augmenting our four main builds with a one-off system in each guide, and I decided to try my hand at something a little bit different this time. As you can probably tell by the name and the specs, this system is very heavy on components from one company: Corsair. That’s an intentional choice on my part. Although Corsair is a long-time supporter and sponsor of TR, they had no involvement in this build other than, you know, building stuff I wanted to use.
You see, practically since I began building PCs, I’ve been a little bit jealous of one aspect of pre-built systems from major manufacturers that is very hard to replicate in a DIY box: the use of a consistent theme or, to put it more snootily, design language throughout a build. Finding enthusiast components that look nice is relatively easy to do, but putting together a coherent-looking collection of them is tough. Assembling a coherent collection of parts that are all high-quality examples of their type is even harder. Granted, PC components have gotten better on this front, simply by converging on a sort of bruise-inspired black-and-blue color palette in recent years. Still, even the best builds tend to have a bit of a Franken-feeling to them. It’s practically unavoidable.
Happily, Corsair’s decision to move from memory modules into a broader offering of PC parts has enabled the construction of a really solid PC, built from generally excellent components, that looks like it belongs together. That fact inspired a half-way attempt on my part at cohesiveness in the making of the Damagebox 2011. I’m enjoying the system, but that project was a mix of old, new, and intermediate-aged spare parts I happened to have available. For this guide build, I wanted to put together something from scratch, assembled from some of my current favorite components, that would look as slick and integrated as any pre-fab system. I also wanted to find a spot in between the Editor’s Choice and Double-Stuff systems where I could match the core hardware components with the case, PSU, and cooler of my choice.
Oh, and I recognize that several other companies now offer product lineups that are similar to Corsair’s in scope and coherent design, including firms like Thermaltake and Cooler Master. We may explore another themed based on one of those lineups in the future. For today, though, we have our first such build: The Schooner.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-3820||$341.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$89.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7950||$499.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 128GB||$199.99|
|Seagate Barracuda Green 2TB||$129.99|
|Seagate Barracuda Green 2TB||$129.99|
|LG WH12LS39 Blu-ray burner||$74.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$179.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX750 750W||$169.99|
|CPU cooler||Corsair H60||$69.99|
|Monitor||Dell UltraSharp U2711 27″||$979.99|
For under 350 bucks, the Core i7-3820 is the cheapest entry point into Intel’s Sandy Bridge-E processors and X79 platform. With quad cores, eight threads, 10MB of L3 cache, and a peak Turbo frequency of 3.8GHz, I’d wager this chip is more than enough CPU for the vast majority of PC enthusiasts. More notably, those cores are likely to be kept well fed at all times courtesy of the ridiculous amounts of bandwidth built into this platform, enabled by quad channels of DDR3 1600MHz memory and 40 lanes of PCIe Express Gen3 connectivity. Just think: when the next great thing in mid-range desktop CPUs arrives later this year, in the form of the Ivy Bridge processor, it will have half the bandwidth of this platform. Sandy Bridge now has well less than half. As a result, any chip in this socket is likely to perform well on games and other desktop applications deep into the future—and there’s always the possibility of an upgrade to Ivy Bridge-E, rumored to have as many as 10 cores, at some point down the road.
We’ve been pretty sweet on Asus motherboards in the past year, and rightly so, since Asus made the conversion from BIOS to EFI more gracefully than the rest of the industry. However, I’ve been spending some time with Gigabyte’s X79-UD3 lately, and I have been pleased with Gigabyte’s latest firmware, which replicates the basic layout and functionality of an enthusiast-class BIOS without being too cluttered or sluggish. Even the mouse support in it is quite good.
I’ve chosen the X79-UD3 over the Asus board we used in the Double-Stuff for several reasons, including the fact that, at $270, the UD3 is relatively affordable for an X79 board. Gigabyte also seems to have sidestepped some problems Asus has with its X79 offering, such as relatively high power draw at idle and a strange tendency to modify the Turbo Boost clocking policy, effectively overclocking the CPU, without the user choosing it.
Although the UD3 isn’t Gigabyte’s top-end X79 board, it features one of the richest collections of expansion options anywhere, including dual x16 and dual x8 slots, making crazy configs like quad CrossFire a possibility. I’m not advocating for such madness, but I’m happy to build in the headroom.
16GB of 1600MHz memory in four matched DIMMs for 90 bucks? Works for me.
This one is a no-brainer. The Radeon HD 7900 series is the only game in town if you want PCIe Gen3, and it also happens to have the best GPUs. Of the two offerings, the 7950 is the more sensible choice, and XFX’s Black Edition version of the 7950 is nearly as fast as a stock-clocked 7970. Not only that, but the aluminum-shrouded cooler on this card is incredibly handsome, and it should nicely complement the look of our 650D enclosure. Be careful not to pick this version of the XFX 7950, though. The colors are all wrong.
Ok, so we’ve forsaken Corsair at this one spot in our build, skipping over the Force Series GT for a new offering from Samsung. Geoff says the Samsung 830 the better drive, although it’s awfully close. Corsair didn’t do itself any favors by abandoning its design theme and slapping a bright-red case on the Force GT. The understated Samsung enclosure is actually a better fit with our overall look.
The Xonar DX is an obvious choice here, since it will snap into any of the PCIe slots on our UD3 mobo and offer a clear upgrade in analog signal quality.
I’ll admit, I very much disagreed when we failed to award the 650D with an Editor’s Choice selection in our initial review. The 650D was marked down for costing more than the similar-sized Corsair 600T, but I would happily pay the extra for the 650D’s all-metal construction and stately, composed aesthetic. Beyond that, the 650D has that same excellent interior as the 600T, which is a joy to navigate during a build. This case is very large for essentially a mid-tower enclosure, but the extra space goes into all of the right places: extra depth to make mobo and video card installation easy, and extra width to allow plenty of room on the underside of the mobo for cable routing. Easily my favorite PC case.
The AX750 matches the 650D, is fully modular, and is smart enough to bring its cooling fan to a stop when the total power load is below 20% of its peak capacity. Combine that with the ZeroCore power feature of the Radeon HD 7950 and the 650D’s large fans, and you could have an impressively quiet system at idle.
On the X79-UD3, the DIMM slots and the primary PCIe slot nestle up very closely to the CPU socket, which means cramming in a big tower cooler is an iffy proposition at best. Seriously, some things won’t fit, and freeing a PCIe graphics card from the retention tab is a struggle. You really want a water cooler for this setup; it’s almost a requirement, given the placements. I’ve been using the H60 in the Damagebox for months now, and it’s been excellent—quiet and effective. Fits perfectly into this case interior, too.
Corsair recently introduced a pair of new gaming-focused keyboards with mechanical switches, and my choice between the two is the FPS-oriented K60, which has a smaller desktop footprint and some nifty textured WASD keys you can swap in for gaming use. I’m typing on a K60 now, and the light, linear action of the Cherry red switches is very pleasing. I do occasionally double-tap letters by accident when writing, but that same easy keystroke repetition makes a double-tap jump or dodge in Unreal Tournament easier to achieve. This is a gaming-focused keyboard, and it’s geared for that mission.
It helps that the K60 is stunning, with the black, sculpted keys hovering over a brushed aluminum backdrop. Should really tie together our build, I think. The only downside? The top-row function keys, escape key, and the insert/home/delete cluster all inexplicably use rubber dome switches rather than mechanicals. Those keys have a decidedly different feel, with seemingly less travel and more actuation force. I could forgive the function keys, but the others are a problem when I’m editing text or using a command line. Feels like skimping to have rubber domes on a $110 keyboard; that fact mars an otherwise-stellar product. I’m still picking the K60 for this build because I really like its overall look and feel, but it comes with that caveat.
I instantly loved the size, shape, and textured feel of this device, which is more than I can say for the majority of gaming-focused mice out there. The weighting and placement of the buttons and wheel are nearly ideal, too. Rarely am I tempted away from my beloved Logitech mice by an enthusiast-focused mouse, but this one manages to avoid strange excesses and to improve on my preferred template for small rodentia.
I’ll admit I haven’t spent enough time with the M60 to have a clear sense of its every feature. Specifically, I haven’t installed the software and attempted to set up any macros or such. I don’t know that I even care to do so—I almost never install mouse software if I can avoid it—but I’ve heard via the Twitters that the software may have some teething problems, for what it’s worth.
I’m not going to offer my own build of this class without a specific display suggestion. One of my biggest worries about our system guide is the prospect of folks ponying up real money for a nicely appointed system and then attaching it to a sub-standard TN panel with middling resolution. That shouldn’t happen too often, or we aren’t communicating our priorities very well. My own system has been attached to a 30″ Dell monster for years now, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Skimp on your CPU budget if you have to in order to purchase a good display.
In the interest of matching the rest of this system in terms of price and priorities, I’ve chosen to recommend a smaller (but still large) 27″ monitor based on an IPS panel with a resolution of 2560×1440. With excellent color reproduction and superior viewing angles, IPS panels are worth the extra scratch. The 3.7 megapixels in this display are worth every penny in my book, too. I do tend to prefer the 16:10 aspect ratio of the 30″ displays, but when you have this many pixels, including 1440 vertical ones, your complaints will be overcome as your rods and cones are bathed in glory.
Please note that, for whatever reason, Newegg’s price on the U2711 is currently a little high at $979. You may be able to snag it for about 100 bucks less at other major vendors, if you look around. Perhaps Newegg’s price will have fallen in line by the time you read this.
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 around $300 online. 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 $379.99.
The dm1z also earned our coveted TR Editor’s Choice award last 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 last fall, and they typically combine razor-thin frames, Sandy Bridge processors, and solid-state storage. We tested one of those machines, Asus’ Zenbook UX31, last October. We liked the 13-inch system’s slick design, fast performance, and $1100 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 $950.
Cheaper ultrabooks include Acer’s Aspire S3, which you can nab for only $799.99. This machine has similar specs to the 13-inch 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. That said, we should note that the rumor mill expects the iPad 3 to come out of hiding in the very near future. The very near future. So, you may want to hold off on grabbing an iPad 2 right away, unless you have no other choice.
Speaking of choices, Asus’ Ice Cream Sandwich-powered Eee Pad Transformer Prime isn’t awaiting a replacement anytime soon, and it’s a fantastic tablet—though not a particularly cheap one at $499 for the base, 32GB model. As we wrote in our review, the Prime has much in common with the iPad 2, including a metallic back with tapered edges and an excellent IPS display. The Prime also serves up more storage capacity per dollar and a quad-core Tegra 3 processor from Nvidia. And then there’s the icing on the cake: the detachable keyboard dock, which sports a full-sized USB port and SD slot, adds hours of run time thanks to an auxiliary battery, and turns the Prime into a bona-fide smartbook. The dock is unfortunately out of stock at Newegg right now, but you may be able to find it at other e-tailers if you search for the model code (TF201-DOCK).
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 Fusion A-series APUs (a.k.a. Llano). Llano machines should offer much better integrated graphics performance and competitive battery life, but Intel’s Sandy Bridge chips bring superior CPU performance.
The operating system
Which one is right for you?
Before we begin, we should acknowledge that some readers may not feel comfortable with Windows’ prominent place on this page. We hold no particular grudge against Linux or other desktop operating systems, but we think most TR readers will want to stick with Windows. For starters, most of you play PC games, and we’ve tuned all of our main configs for gaming—something Linux doesn’t do nearly as well as Microsoft’s OSes. Also, we figure enthusiasts with enough expertise to run Linux on their primary desktops will already have a favorite Linux distribution picked out. As for Mac OS X, we find both the dubious legality and the lack of official support for running it on standard PCs too off-putting.
Now, if you’re buying a copy of Windows today, you should really be thinking about Windows 7. We explained in our review that this OS may well be Microsoft’s finest to date, because it draws from Vista’s strengths while adding a healthy dose of polish, not to mention improved performance and non-disastrous backward compatibility. Building a new system with Windows 7 instead of Vista or XP is really a no-brainer at this point.
Just like its predecessors, Windows 7 comes in several different editions, three of which you’ll find in stores: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. What makes them different from one another? The table below should help answer that question:
|Windows 7 Home Premium
||Windows 7 Professional
||Windows 7 Ultimate
|New Aero features||X||X||X|
|Internet Explorer 8||X||X||X|
|Windows Media Center||X||X||X|
|Full-system Backup and Restore||X||X||X|
|Remote Desktop client||X||X||X|
|Backups across network||X||X|
|Remote Desktop host||X||X|
|Windows XP Mode||X||X|
|Interface language switching||X|
|Price—OEM (64-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||$189.99|
|Price—OEM (32-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||$189.99|
As you can see, Windows 7 editions follow a kind of Russian nesting doll pattern: Professional has all of the Home Premium features, and Ultimate has everything. Since most users probably won’t find the Ultimate edition’s extras terribly exciting, the choice ought to come down to Home Premium vs. Professional for almost everyone.
Some of TR’s editors like hosting Remote Desktop sessions and running network backups, so we’d probably go with the Professional package unless we were on a tight budget. However, we should also note that Windows 7 Home Premium includes some features formerly exclusive to more upscale editions, namely full-system backups and Previous Versions (a.k.a. Shadow Copy). See our review for more details.
If you go with Home Premium and find you need some of the Professional features down the road, you can always use the Anytime Upgrade program to step up. It’ll only set you back $90.
Speaking of upgrades, you’ll notice upgrade licenses are quite a bit cheaper than full ones. That’s because you need a legit version of Windows XP or Windows Vista to use them. The edition doesn’t matter, but you do need the previous OS to be activated and installed on your hard drive for the Windows 7 upgrade to work. Mind you, Vista upgrade installers don’t seem to protest when a user does a clean install of Vista without a product key and then runs an upgrade installation over that. Windows 7 could allow for the same trick. Microsoft doesn’t sanction this method, however, and who knows how future updates to the Windows activation system might affect it.
To save even more, you could also opt for an OEM license. Microsoft aims these at pre-built PCs, and for that reason, it prohibits users from carrying an OEM license over from one PC to another one. You may therefore be forced to buy a new copy of Windows 7 after a major upgrade. (Retail editions have no such limitation, as far as we’re aware.) Also unlike their retail brethren, OEM licenses only cover one version of the software—32-bit or 64-bit—so you’ll have to pick one or the other up front and stick with it.
That brings us to another point: should you go 32-bit or 64-bit? Since all of the processors we recommend in this guide are 64-bit-capable and all of our systems have 4GB of memory or more, the x64 release strikes us as the most sensible choice. This recommendation is relevant to folks who buy retail and upgrade editions, too—you might have to ask Microsoft to ship you x64 installation media first, but installing an x64 variant looks like the best idea.
As we’ve already explained, 32-bit flavors of Windows only support up to 4GB of RAM, and that upper limit covers things like video memory. In practice, that means that your 32-bit OS will only be able to use 3-3.5GB of system RAM on average and even less than 3GB if you have more than one discrete GPU. With new OSes and games pushing the envelope in terms of memory use, the 4GB limit can get a little uncomfortable for an enthusiast PC.
There are some caveats, however. 64-bit versions of Windows don’t support 32-bit drivers, and they won’t run 16-bit software. You’ll probably want to make sure all of your peripherals have compatible drivers, and vintage game lovers may also have to check out emulators like DOSBox. Still, hardware makers have improved x64 support quite a bit since Vista came out three years ago, so you’ll probably be fine unless you have something like a really old printer. (For some background on what makes 64-bit computing different at a hardware level, have a look at our take on the subject.)
Matters of religion and taste
Now that we’ve examined operating system choices in detail, let’s have a look at some accessories. We don’t have a full set of recommendations at multiple price levels in the categories below, but we can make general observations and point out specific products that are worthy of your consideration. What you ultimately choose in these areas will probably depend heavily on your own personal preferences.
The world of monitors has enough scope and variety that we can’t keep track of it all, especially because we don’t often review monitors. However, we do appreciate a good display—or two or three of them, since several of us are multi-monitor fanatics—so we can offer a few pieces of advice.
Let’s get one thing clear before we begin: LCDs have long since supplanted CRTs as the display type of choice for gamers and enthusiasts. LCDs might have been small and of insufficient quality for gaming and photo editing six or seven years ago, but the latest models have huge panels, lightning-quick response times, and impressive color definition. Unless you’re already content with a massive, power-guzzling CRT, there’s little reason to avoid LCDs.
Despite their near-universal sharpness and thin form factors, not all LCDs are created equal. Besides obvious differences in sizes and aspect ratios, LCDs have different panel types. Wikipedia has a good run-down of different kinds of LCD panels in this article, but most users will probably care about one major differentiating attribute: whether their display has a 6-bit twisted nematic + film (TN+film) panel or not. The majority of sub-$500 monitors have 6-bit TN panels, which means 18-bit, rather than 24-bit, color definition. Those panels use dithering to simulate colors that are out of their scope, yielding sub-optimal color accuracy, and they often have poor viewing angles on top of that. 8-bit panels typically look better, although they tend to have higher response times and prices.
Don’t assume that all IPS panels have eight bits per color channel, either. A new breed of e-IPS displays has emerged with only 6-bit color for each channel. These displays purportedly offer better color reproduction and viewing angles than their TN counterparts, but be aware that you’re not getting the full 24-bit experience.
What should you get? We think that largely depends on which of our builds you’re going with. For instance, those who purchase the 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- and 7000-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.
Folks more interested in gaming than typing may also want to look at Corsair’s K60 and K90 keyboards, which feature linear, non-tactile, and non-clicky Cherry Red switches. In layman’s terms, the keys are mechanical but don’t produce noticeable feedback when actuated (unless you bottom out, that is). We hear gamers are partial to this switch design. The two keyboards use Cherry Red switches for the alpha keys and standard rubber-dome switches for the F-key row and the paging block. The K90 is backlit, and it features a set of 18 macro keys, to boot.
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 Seagate Barracuda Green). 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.
This late-winter update to the guide is a bit of a downer, frankly speaking. It’s not that things have gotten worse or prices have risen; it’s just that we’re still waiting for things to get qualitatively better.
AMD’s FX-series processors are finally in stock, but they’re still overpriced compared to Intel’s finest. Samsung’s 830 Series solid-state drives are tantalizing alternatives to SandForce-based drives, at least from a stability standpoint, but you might not be able to notice the difference without a stopwatch at hand. AMD’s new Radeon HD 7900-series graphics cards are an unequivocal step up from the previous generation, but only if you can spare $450 or more. (The 7700 series is still a disappointment.)
We said this back in December, and it’s still true today: the stagnation of mid-range and low-end CPU prices is bothersome. Faced with no strong competition from AMD, Intel has held the prices of sub-$300 desktop CPU prices largely steady over the past year. We’re really itching for some genuine upgrades.
Thankfully, we may get our wish before long. Whispers from the rumor mill suggest Intel’s next-generation, 22-nm Ivy Bridge processors will arrive in April, at least on the desktop. AMD should have next-gen Trinity APUs in stores around the mid-year time frame, as well. Here’s hoping they’ll be priced more aggressively than AMD’s current A-series Llano APUs.
There are new graphics processors on the horizon, too. AMD’s Pitcairn GPU should slot in between the 7700 and 7900 series in the not-too-distant future, and Nvidia’s next-gen Kepler GPUs are expected soonish, as well. It’s too early to tell if all that new gear warrants holding off on an upgrade, but at least things aren’t likely to stay still for much longer.