At long last, the wait is over. Intel’s Ivy Bridge processors are here, as are graphics cards based on Nvidia’s new Kepler GPU. AMD has churned out a couple of new Radeons since our last guide update, as well: the 7870 GHz Edition and the 7850. We’re looking at a heaping helping of brand-new hardware, and that, of course, calls for a brand-new system guide.
The arrival of Ivy Bridge has helped us revamp our two middle-of-the-road builds, the $1000 Sweet Spot and $1500 Editor’s Choice, though Intel’s new chip is still too pricey for the sub-$600 Econobox. Nvidia’s new GPUs have made appearances in the Editor’s Choice and Double-Stuff Workstation, either as primary choices or, when availability problems got in the way, as alternatives. That, coupled with the arrival of AMD’s latest Radeons, has allowed us to equip all four of our builds—yes, even the Econobox—with state-of-the-art 28-nm GPUs.
There’s something else. Substantial price drops in solid-state storage have democratized 60-64GB SSDs, so for the first time, our $1000 Sweet Spot build boasts an SSD by default alongside its 7,200-RPM mechanical hard drive. The 128GB and 256GB SSDs in our higher-end builds have gotten cheaper, too, which has left enough room in our budgets to include faster graphics cards while also lowering total system costs.
All in all, we’d say this is a pretty exciting guide update. Come peruse it with us.
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||$124.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$24.99|
|Graphics||PowerColor Radeon HD 7770||$129.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 500GB||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Antec Three Hundred||$54.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
These are dark times for CPU shoppers on a budget. The arrival of AMD’s Llano APUs 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 A8-series APUs, and AMD’s FX-4100.
It’s not much of a contest. The A8-3870 may have an unlocked multiplier and better integrated graphics than the Core i3-2120, but it also has lower CPU performance, and its power envelope is quite a bit higher—100W, up from the i3-2120’s 65W TDP. Higher power envelopes mean more heat and more noise, and we’re fans of neither. Losing Llano’s Radeon GPU is regrettable, but since we’re outfitting this system with a discrete graphics card, the processor’s integrated GPU is largely irrelevant.
The H67 motherboard we used to recommend for this build has vanished, as have most other H67-powered offerings. They’ve been replaced by mobos featuring the new H77 Express chipset. What’s the difference? The H67 and H77 have very similar features, really, but the latter adds native USB 3.0 connectivity.
For this latest iteration of the Econobox, we’re going with the H77-based GA-H77-DS3H from Gigabyte. This mobo has a full ATX layout, can tap into the Core i3’s integrated graphics (if need be), and has two 6Gbps SATA ports. Two USB 3.0 ports can be found at the rear, and there are internal headers for two more. Gigabyte saw fit to include dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, as well, although the lower one has only four lanes of connectivity running to it. The GA-H77-DS3H also comes with Gigabyte’s new-and-improved UEFI interface. Other boards may have better fan speed controls, but not at this price and with all these other features.
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 Kingston. It’s rated for operation at 1333MHz on 1.5V, and Kingston covers the kit with a lifetime warranty.
We had some complaints about the Radeon HD 7770 GHz Edition when we reviewed it in February. While the card achieved solid performance, low power consumption, and quiet noise levels with the stock cooler, its $159 launch price made it an unappealing proposition compared to cheaper, slightly faster last-gen offerings.
Three months have passed since then, and things have changed. PowerColor’s Radeon HD 7770 sells for a penny under $130 and comes with a free copy of DiRT Showdown, which makes it a better deal than any previous-generation offering. It comes fitted with AMD’s excellent stock cooling solution, and PowerColor’s warranty covers the card for two years, which is perfectly decent, all things considered. Being part of AMD’s latest GPU series, the 7770 also gives you two additional features that older Radeons do not: AMD’s VCE block, which can speed up video transcoding in supported apps, and ZeroCore Power, which saves energy by shutting off power to most of the GPU when the display goes to sleep.
Mechanical storage prices are slowly inching back to last year’s levels, before flooding in Thailand caused shortages and subsequent price hikes, but they’re not quite there yet. Until things have fully returned to normal, we’re going to trim the Econobox’s storage solution ever so slightly in order to keep our total build price reasonable. That means equipping the Econobox with the 500GB version of Samsung’s excellent Spinpoint F3 hard drive. Folks with a little spare cash might want to splurge on the 1TB model, but right now, the higher capacity will set you back an extra $40—not a negligible increase for a sub-$600 system.
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.
Our cost-cutting efforts continue on the enclosure front, where we’ve traded the prior Econobox’s Fractal Design Core 3000 case for the Antec Three Hundred. This trade saves us a few bucks, and it’s not really much of a downgrade: the Three Hundred is well built and has many of the same amenities as the Core 3000, including a bottom-mounted PSU compartment, a cut-out in the motherboard tray behind the CPU socket, and built-in fans at the top and rear. The Three Hundred doesn’t let you route cables behind the motherboard tray, though, and it doesn’t have sideways hard-drive bays with removable caddies.
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||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$41.99|
|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 x16/x4-lane 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 board 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 Corsair 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 7770 got the nod in our primary picks because of its low price, solid performance, and power-sipping 28-nm GPU. If you’d be more partial to an Nvidia card, then a superclocked GeForce GTX 460 like this Gigabyte offering ought to make you happy. The GeForce costs more but should perform slightly better, and we’ve found Nvidia tends to provide better driver support for freshly released games.
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 i5-3450 3.1GHz||$199.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$149.99|
|Memory||Mushkin 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$42.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon HD 7850 (975MHz)||$259.99|
|Storage||OCZ Agility 3 60GB||$69.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$109.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DG||$26.94|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$59.99|
Ivy Bridge is here. And, lacking serious competition from AMD, Intel is charging a pretty penny for it. The cheapest two desktop variants right now are the Core i5-3450 and Core i5-3450S, and they’re both priced at $199.99. Their specifications are similar: four cores, four threads, a 3.5GHz Turbo peak, and 6MB of L3 cache. However, the i5-3450 has a 3.1GHz base speed and a 77W thermal envelope, while the i5-3450S runs at 2.8GHz with a 65W TDP.
Given the identical pricing, we’re giving the nod to the 77W model. 77W is already quite low for a quad-core processor, and given that we’re building a full-sized system with plentiful cooling capabilities, we figure the higher base speed will be more valuable than the lower TDP on the “S” variant.
Technically, the Econobox’s motherboard would work just fine here. That said, our bigger budget allows us to spring for the Intel Z77 Express-based Asus P8Z77-V LK, which fits the “sweet spot” designation a little better.
This mobo has two more external USB 3.0 ports than the GA-H77-DS3H (for a total of four), and it also delivers sideways-mounted Serial ATA ports (which won’t get in the way of long GPU coolers), dual PCIe x16 slots with proper support for CrossFire and SLI (with an x8/x8 lane configuration), and Asus’ excellent fan speed controls, which other motherboard vendors haven’t quite caught up to yet. We would have liked to see an Intel Ethernet controller instead of a Realtek one, but considering this mobo’s low price and well-rounded feature set, it’s hard to complain.
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 upgrade yields real performance benefits. Note that we’ve selected DDR3-1600 modules, because Ivy Bridge supports 1600MHz memory speeds out of the box.
There’s little not to like about the Radeon HD 7850: not only is it faster than previous-generation offerings, but it’s more power-efficient, as well. This Gigabyte variant features a GPU clock speed of 975MHz (up from the default 860MHz) and a custom cooler with two large fans, so it ought to be even faster and quieter than the reference model we tested. (Gigabyte’s GPU coolers have impressed us with their low noise levels in the past.) There’s even a free copy of DiRT Showdown in the mix. Gigabyte does charge slightly more for this card than other vendors do for reference-clocked 7850 models, but we think the $10 price difference is worth it.
Forgive us if we seem over-indulgent, but recent price drops on 60-64GB SSDs have made it hard to resist. For only $70, we can now outfit the Sweet Spot with OCZ’s 60GB Agility 3, a SandForce-based solid-state drive with top read and write speeds in the neighborhood of 500MB/s. Slap your Windows 7 installation on this bad boy, and you won’t need a stopwatch to tell the difference; the increased responsiveness and shorter boot and load times will feel like night and day. The performance leap from mechanical to solid-state storage is so great that, in our view, it’s more valuable than a few CPU speed bin increases—hence our decision to set up the Sweet Spot with an SSD and a modestly priced Ivy Bridge variant.
60GB may hold your Windows 7 installation and a handful of apps and games, but in all likelihood, it won’t be enough for everything you plan to load onto the Sweet Spot. That’s why we’re pairing the Agility 3 with a mechanical sidekick: Samsung’s 1TB Spinpoint F3. The 1TB Spinpoint F3 is a long-time TR favorite because of its high performance and low noise. Now that hard-drive prices have gotten more reasonable, we can safely include it in our $1000 build once again.
Thanks to the Z77’s Smart Response Technology, it’s possible to configure the SSD as a cache for the mechanical drive. SSD caching can deliver substantial performance improvements without forcing users to pick and choose what gets stored on the SSD.
We’ve borrowed the optical drive from the Econbox. 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.
The Antec Three Hundred 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 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.
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.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3570K 3.4GHz||$239.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 560 Ti Superclocked||$254.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 128GB||$149.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$119.99|
|LG WH12LS39 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
Feeling the overclocking itch? Don’t mind paying a little extra? The Core i5-3570K might be the processor for you, then. For a $40 premium over the Core i5-3450, this chip serves up higher base and Turbo speeds—3.4GHz and 3.8GHz, respectively, up from 3.1GHz and 3.5GHz—and a fully unlocked upper multiplier, which allows for unfettered overclocking in combination with our Z77 motherboard.
Folks more partial to AMD may be more interested in the FX-8150. We haven’t tested the AMD FX-8150 and the Core i5-3450 side by side, so we can’t give you exact performance numbers. However, based on how the FX-8150 matched up against Intel’s prior-generation offerings, we can assume the two chips are, overall, on roughly even footing.
That doesn’t mean the FX-8150 is just as good in every respect, though. For one thing, the Core i5-3450 has a 77W power envelope, while the FX-8150 has a whopping 125W TDP. Also, our first-ever look at “inside the second” gaming performance on different CPUs made one thing crystal clear: Intel chips deliver smoother, more consistent frame times than the FX-8150—sometimes quite dramatically so. The poor single-threaded performance of AMD’s Bulldozer architecture turns out to be a liability in games, and it actually results in a palpably worse experience, even if the average frame rates may seem sufficient.
If you’re going to skip the Core i5-3450 in favor of the FX-8150, keep these caveats in mind. The AMD processor isn’t a bad choice, strictly speaking, but… well, rooting for the underdog has its disadvantages right now.
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 Intel board from our primary recommendations. It even has more 6Gbps Serial ATA ports. You won’t find display outputs for integrated graphics here, though.
The cheapst GeForce based on Nvidia’s new Kepler architecture costs around $400, so we’ve had to source our GPU alternative from Nvidia’s previous-generation lineup. The GeForce GTX 560 Ti is only a little slower than our primary Radeon HD 7850. EVGA’s “SuperClocked” version of the GTX 560 Ti has both its core and memory clocked at 900MHz, compared to 822MHz and 800MHz for the stock model, and EVGA covers the card with a lifetime warranty.
If you have a little extra scratch at your disposal, then a higher-capacity SSD is a worthy investment. Chances are you’ll be able to fit your operating system, productivity software, and a small collection of recent games onto a 128GB drive. Samsung’s 830 Series 128GB gets the nod here for its attractive price and blistering performance.
Samsung’s 2TB EcoGreen F4, meanwhile, ought to please folks who value capacity over speed—such as those who spring for a 128GB SSD and feel comfortable relegating their mechanical hard drive(s) to mass-storage duties. This drive is a little too sluggish to store software and games, but it’s plenty fast for videos, photos, and other data that doesn’t benefit so much from fast access times. We’re more partial to the EcoGreen than to other 2TB “Green” hard drives because it’s cheaper and has fewer negative reviews on Newegg.
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 i5-3570K 3.4GHz||$239.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$149.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$54.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 670||$399.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 128GB||$129.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$109.99|
|LG WH12LS39 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$80.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$179.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX650W||$129.99|
We’ve got a few more dollars to throw at our CPU for the Editor’s Choice, and that means an upgrade to the Core i5-3570K, the most affordable member of the Ivy Bridge family with a fully unlocked upper multiplier. You’ll be able to overclock this processor to your heart’s content without touching the base clock or having to worry about artificial limitations.
We considered stepping all the way up to the Core i7-3770K, the fastest fully unlocked Ivy model, but $320 is a lot of scratch for a processor. Compared to the 3570K, all the 3770K has to offer are slightly faster base and Turbo speeds (3.4GHz and 3.9GHz, respectively, up from 3.3GHz and 3.8GHz) and Hyper-Threading capabilities. Having eight graphs in the Task Manager is nice, no question about it, and the extra threads can help with heavy multitasking. If you think that’s worth $80, see the alternatives section on the next page.
Pricier motherboards may get us more bells and whistles, but the Asus P8Z77-V LK from our Sweet Spot already has plenty. Besides, the point of the Editor’s Choice is to be a well-balanced system that does everything TR’s editors would want their own PCs to do—not to splurge on the cream of the crop in every department. Saving a little money here gives us more room for a faster graphics card, too.
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.
Okay, so a $400 graphics card may seem a little pricey for a build like the Editor’s Choice. Hear us out, though. The next step down from the GeForce GTX 670 is AMD’s Radeon HD 7870 GHz Edition, which is a fair bit slower and not all that much cheaper. (Prices for the 7870 start at $330, and some of the nicer variants are closer to $350.) The GTX 670, meanwhile, manages to perform awfully close to the GTX 680, which means it’s nearly as fast as today’s fastest single-GPU graphics card. If that isn’t worth a little extra cash, we don’t know what is.
We’re going with EVGA’s take on the GTX 670 here, mainly because it’s one of the few models in stock right now. Too bad 670 variants with custom coolers aren’t on virtual shelves, though. The GTX 670’s stock fan is noisy at idle and doesn’t cool the card as quietly as it should under load.
Our generous budget allows us to spec the Editor’s Choice with a 128GB solid-state drive by default. 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.)
If your applications and games spill over, it’s helpful to have a relatively speedy mechanical hard drive to pick up the slack. Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 1TB should fulfill that task admirably; it’s fast, quiet, and reasonably priced by today’s standards.
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 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||Intel Core i7-3770K 3.5GHz||$349.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon HD 7950||$399.99|
|Storage||Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$119.99|
|Case||Corsair Graphite Series 600T||$159.99|
As we said on the previous page, we don’t consider the Core i7-3770K to be a particularly good deal—all it gets you, compared to the i5-3570K, is a slight clock speed increase and Hyper-Threading capabilities. However, we acknowledge that some users will want the top-of-the-line chip, be it for bragging rights or because their multitasking needs justify the extra threads. If that’s the case, go right ahead.
The Radeon HD 7950 isn’t quite as fast as Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 670, even though it costs about the same. However, the Gigabyte model we’ve picked has higher-than-normal clock speeds, a nice, triple-fan cooler (which should be fairly quiet, based on our experience), and coupons for free copies of DiRT Showdown, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Nexuiz.
For our alternative mechanical sidekick, we’re bringing back the 2TB EcoGreen F4 from the Sweet Spot alternatives. Again, this drive is a little cheaper than the competition, and it seems to have better reviews overall.
Although it’s bulkier and doesn’t look quite as good as the 650D, Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T enclosure costs 24 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||$589.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P9X79 Pro||$319.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$97.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7970 Black Edition||$549.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 256GB||$274.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$119.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$119.99|
|LG WH12LS39 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$80.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$199.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master Cosmos II||$349.99|
Ivy Bridge may rule below $320 or so, but for those who can afford it, Sandy Bridge-E remains the crown jewel of Intel’s desktop lineup. The processor and its associated platform offer more memory channels, more PCI Express lanes, and more importantly, higher overall performance. Those advantages do come at the cost of higher power consumption, though.
We haven’t tested the Sandy Bridge-E-based Core i7-3930K, but it’s a very small step down from the thousand-dollar Core i7-3960X we reviewed. The cheaper offering features the same six Hyper-Threaded cores, four memory channels, unlocked upper multiplier, and 130W thermal envelope. The only changes are from a 3.3GHz base clock and a 3.9GHz Turbo peak to 3.2/3.8GHz, and from 15MB of L3 cache to 12MB. The performance of these two models should be almost identical, despite the $400 price difference.
Sandy Bridge-E requires 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 vote—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.
As we noted earlier, the GeForce GTX 670 is a great performer, but its stock cooler isn’t terribly quiet. The GeForce GTX 680 would be the natural solution to that problem, since it’s even faster than the GTX 670 and has a better cooler. Unfortunately, the GTX 680 is also in very tight supply, and we’ve had an awfully hard time finding it in stock.
Since we want this high-end build to include an appropriately spiffy graphics card, we’ve decided to equip the Double-Stuff with XFX’s Radeon HD 7970 Black Edition, one of the the finest graphics cards we’ve tested to date. Thanks to a 1GHz GPU clock, this card should be roughly as fast as the GTX 680, and it comes with an excellent dual-fan cooler. XFX also throws in a trio of free games: DiRT Showdown, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and Nexuiz. It’s hard to argue with that, especially when the competition is out of stock almost everywhere.
Why not two of these cards instead of one? A look at our 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 somewhat choppy experience for the end user that isn’t necessarily all that much better than what you’d get from a single-GPU solution.
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 EcoGreen F4s drives ought to provide sufficient mass-storage capacity. You can run the EcoGreens 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 make 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 serves up 80 Plus Gold certification, modular cabling, a whopping seven years of warranty coverage, and certification for 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 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 other ideas for how to fill it out.
|Graphics||Zotac GeForce GTX 680||$549.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 690||$999.99|
|FireWire card||Rosewill RC-504||$19.99|
We have two alternative propositions for the Double-Stuff’s graphics. The first one is the GeForce GTX 680, or more specifically, Zotac’s factory-overclocked GeForce GTX 680 AMP!. This card clocks both its GPU and memory well above stock specs (1098MHz and 1652MHz, respectively, up from 1006MHz and 1500MHz), so it should be faster than the Radeon in our primary recommendations. It also features an impressive triple-slot cooler with dual fans and copper heatpipes up the wazoo. We tested this card a few weeks back, and we were impressed with it. The only downside is that, like all GTX 680s on the market right now, it’s hard to find in stock.
For folks who want it all, it doesn’t get much better than Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 690. You might stifle a laugh at the $999.99 asking price, but don’t be so quick to judge. The GTX 690 actually hides two GK104 GPUs under its cooler, so it’s equivalent to a pair of GeForce GTX 680 cards running in tandem—and as it happens, two of those cards would cost the exact same amount. Unlike such a dual-card config, though, the GTX 690 only takes up two expansion slots, and it’s tuned for lower noise and power consumption. In our testing, the 690 consumed 50W less and had a noise level 3 dB lower than dual 680s, despite offering virtually identical performance.
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 mobile sidekicks
This system guide has arrived at the the tail end of a boatload of desktop hardware launches, but sadly, we can’t say as much about the mobile side of things. Most of the notebooks we recommended in the last guide—ultrabooks included—are out of stock or de-listed, awaiting replacements based on Intel’s upcoming dual-core Ivy Bridge processors. A few stragglers remain, like Acer’s Aspire S3 (which gets you a 13″ display, Sandy Bridge processor, and hybrid storage solution for $899.99). The truth is, though, we’d recommend waiting a few weeks for dual-core Ivy systems to start rolling out. They should offer better performance and battery life than their Sandy Bridge-based predecessors. Graphics performance, especially, has improved quite a lot with Ivy Bridge.
We can’t really recommend AMD-powered alternatives, either, because AMD also has new mobile chips in the pipeline. We already got a chance to review the company’s new Trinity APU, and for the most part, we’ve come away impressed. Just like the dual-core version of Ivy Bridge, Trinity is supposed to fit into 35W, 25W, and 17W power envelopes, so we’re going to see it in everything from full-sized notebooks to ultrabooks. Some have already been announced, but we’re not seeing any listed quite yet. Trinity-based notebooks will likely be cheaper than their Ivy-toting counterparts, though.
Below $500, AMD Zacate-powered ultraportables are still worth considering—they’re cheaper and smaller than ultrabooks are or will be for the foreseeable future. Our favorite system in that category is HP’s dm1z, which starts at $399.99 with an 11.6″ 1366×768 display, an AMD E-300 APU, Radeon HD 6310M integrated graphics, 4GB of RAM, and a 320GB mechanical hard drive.
The dm1z earned our coveted TR Editor’s Choice award last March. Not only does this system look great on paper, but it’s also exceptionally well-built for a cheap ultraportable.
At least the winds of change aren’t blowing quite so hard in the tablet world. There, Apple’s third-generation iPad is getting all the attention—as it should, considering it features a whopper of a display with a 2048×1536 resolution, and it has the same $499 price tag as last year’s model. Speaking of which, the iPad 2 is now available at a discount for $399. You can nab both tablets directly from Apple’s online store.
If iOS doesn’t float your boat, Asus’ Ice Cream Sandwich-powered Eee Pad Transformer Prime is definitely worth a look. It’s not particularly cheap by Android tablet standards, at $499 for the base, 32GB model. However, it has twice the storage capacity of the base iPad model, and for $128.99, you can augment it with a keyboard dock that adds physical input peripherals, extra connectivity, and an auxiliary battery. The dock unfortunately appears to be out of stock at Newegg, but you may be able to find it at other e-tailers if you search for the model code (TF201-DOCK).
Asus now offers a cheaper alternative to the Prime, too: the Transformer Pad 300, which costs only $399 with 32GB of storage capacity. The 300 has very similar specs to the Prime, but its Tegra 3 processor is clocked a little lower. The 300 is also a little thicker and heavier than the Prime. And yes, it’s also available with an optional, battery-life-augmenting keyboard dock (asking price: $149).
We should point out that a version of the Transformer Prime with a 1920×1200 display (the regular Prime has a 1280×800 panel) is due out later this quarter. Evidence suggests that model has even showed up at the FCC’s certification labs already.
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, 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.
Besides obvious differences in sizes and aspect ratios, LCD monitors 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 ZR24w, HP ZR2440W, 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 either a Kepler-based GeForce GTX 600-series graphics card or dual GPUs from previous generations.
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 (nearly $150), 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 Vengeance K60 and Vengeance 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 they bottom out, that is). This switch design makes a lot of sense for games, since it enables quick, repetitive key-presses. These 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. The K60 earned our TR Recommended award when we reviewed it last month.
This section traditionally included a floppy drive/card reader combo, but we’re in 2012 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 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.
That’s all, folks! Until next time, at least.
Aside from a couple of notable snags—the GeForce GTX 680’s scarce availability and the fact that hard-drive prices remain inflated—this has been a pretty successful update to the TR system guide. The Sweet Spot may have benefited from this refresh the most, since it now packs an Ivy Bridge processor, a Radeon HD 7850, and an SSD in its standard configuration. Of course, we’ve also managed to make the Econobox a little more affordable without sacrificing performance, and our Editor’s Choice and Double-Stuff configs have gotten some nice performance upgrades.
We always wrap things up by talking about what’s on the horizon, so let’s do that now.
Dual-core versions of Ivy Bridge are on the way, as are desktop iterations of AMD’s Trinity APU. More likely than not, those introductions will lead to a slightly revised Econobox in our next system guide. We’re also expecting more derivatives of Nvidia’s Kepler GPU, since right now, Nvidia lacks 28-nm competitors to the Radeon HD 7700 and 7800 series. There’s no telling how competitive they’ll really be, though, or their arrival will trigger a round of price cuts from the competition.