TR’s Summer 2012 system guide
Summer is here at last. For most people, that probably means sunglasses, chilled cocktails with little umbrellas in them, and roasting under the hot sun at a trendy vacation spot. It probably means spending long days outside and short nights recovering from extensive drinking and partying. And this week in particular, it probably means fireworks—lots of them.
For us geeks, though, this is more likely an occasion to draw the blinds, crank up the air conditioning, and immerse ourselves in some of the season’s hottest games. We’d rather keep our skin a translucent shade of white than miss out on, say, the new Skyrim expansion, Max Payne 3, or exciting indie titles like Quantum Conundrum.
In a nod to our geeky brethren, we’ve refreshed our system guide to account for the latest releases and price fluctuations in the ever-changing hardware market. Among other changes, we’ve made our sub-$1,000 Sweet Spot rig faster, and we’ve outfitted our decked-out Editor’s Choice config with a higher-capacity solid-state drive. We’ve even included a brand-new config, the Next-Gen Console, which packs a quad-core Ivy Bridge CPU and a Radeon HD 7850 graphics card inside a diminutive Mini-ITX enclosure—and can be configured to fulfill home-theater duties in addition to showing off the eye candy in the latest games.
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||Crucial 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$24.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 7770||$124.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$94.99|
|Enclosure||Antec Three Hundred||$54.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
AMD’s desktop Trinity APUs are due out soon, but they’re not here yet. Right now, our options in this price range still consist of Intel’s Core i3-2120, AMD’s A8-series APUs, and AMD’s FX-4100.
And really, 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 equipping this system with a discrete graphics card, the processor’s integrated GPU is largely irrelevant.
The FX-4100 has neither integrated graphics nor a tight power envelope, and we’re not thrilled with its 95W TDP. The chip’s performance doesn’t appear to be any better than the Core i3-2100, either. We’re happier with the Core i3 as a primary pick, but we’ve still included the FX-4100 in our alternatives on the next page.
The H67 motherboard we used to recommend for this build has vanished, as have most other motherboards powered by the last-gen platform hub. 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 Crucial. It’s rated for operation at 1333MHz on 1.5V, and Crucial 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, consumed little power, and produced little noise with the stock cooler, its $159 asking price made the card an unappealing proposition compared to cheaper, slightly faster models from the previous generation.
Things have changed since then. MSI’s Radeon HD 7770 sells for a penny under $125, and it comes with a chunky dual-slot cooler, whose large fan should be able to move plenty of air without making much noise. Being part of AMD’s latest GPU series, the 7770 also gives you two 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.
Recent evidence suggests hard drive prices aren’t going to return to normal for a while—maybe not for a couple of years. Even though the impact of last year’s Thailand floods has abated, hard drive makers seem content to charge higher prices for their products. That’s not good for budget shoppers, and it’s not good for the Econobox.
In light of the disappointing news, we’ve decided to bite the bullet and outfit our budget system with Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 1TB hard drive once again. This drive seems to have slipped just under the $100 mark, though there’s no telling if it will stay there. That’s not an ideal price, but all things considered, we think it’s a better deal than the 500GB version we recommended last time. If we were building the Econobox for ourselves, we’d pay the $30 premium for double the storage capacity.
The Econobox doesn’t need a fancy optical drive, so we’ve selected a basic Asus model with more than a thousand five-star ratings on Newegg. The DRW-24B1ST offers DVD burning speeds up to 24X behind a black face plate that will blend in nicely with our system’s enclosure.
The Antec Three Hundred returns as our case recommendation. It’s a little cheaper than our former pick, the Fractal Design Core 3000, but 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||Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$45.99|
|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. Our sense is that the FX tends to be faster in some applications 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 Crucial DDR3-1600 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 GeForce GTX 460 with higher-than-normal clock speeds, like this Gigabyte model, ought to make you happy. The GeForce costs more but should perform slightly better than the Radeon. We’ve found Nvidia tends to provide better driver support for freshly released games, too. Other than the price, the GeForce’s only real downside is its higher power draw.
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 i5-3570K 3.4GHz||$229.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$149.99|
|Memory||Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$45.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7850||$229.99|
|Storage||OCZ Agility 3 60GB||$65.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$94.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DG||$23.99|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$59.99|
We caught some flak in our last guide for going with the $200 Core i5-3450 instead of a quicker, more expensive model with a fully unlocked upper multiplier. The thing is, we wanted to stick to our $1,000 budget without skimping on graphics or the other bells and whistles we had in mind for this machine. So, we compromised. Perhaps a little too much.
This time, we don’t need to compromise at all. The fully unlocked Core i5-3570K has come down in price, and so has AMD’s Radeon HD 7850, so we can feature both in the Sweet Spot without going over-budget. That’s good news, too, because the Core i5-3570K is a nice upgrade over the i5-3450. Despite fitting within the same 77W thermal envelope, its base and Turbo speeds are 300MHz higher (3.4GHz and 3.8GHz, respectively). With the aid of our Z77 motherboard, you should be able to overclock the 3570K as far as it’ll go without touching the base clock.
If we stuck with the H77 motherboard from the Econobox, we’d lose unfettered control over the CPU multiplier, making overclocking more difficult. Fortunately, our bigger budget allows us to spring for the Z77 Express-based Asus P8Z77-V LK, which fits the “sweet spot” designation a little better.
In addition to offering full multiplier control, this mobo has two more external USB 3.0 ports than the GA-H77-DS3H (for a total of four). The P8Z77-V LK 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. 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 a lot 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 time, we’ve eschewed Gigabyte’s amped-up version of the card in favor of XFX’s Radeon HD 7850 Core Edition. Gigabyte’s 975MHz card was a fine deal when it cost only $10 more than reference models, but these days, its premium is several times that. The reference XFX model isn’t going to be much slower, and besides, you can always overclock it yourself. 7000-series Radeons generally take kindly to overclocking, based on what we’ve seen.
Forgive us if we seem over-indulgent, but recent price drops on 60-64GB SSDs have made it hard to resist. For less than $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 faster CPU.
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 Econobox. 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.
|Graphics||Zotac GeForce GTX 560 Ti AMP!||$209.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 128GB||$144.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$119.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
Folks partial to AMD may be interested in the FX-8150. Our numbers show that it’s sometimes faster and sometimes slower than the Core i5-3570K. Also, at $199.99, it’s about 30 bucks cheaper. Sounds like a good deal, right?
Not necessarily. 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.
The FX-8150 has another notable downside: its power consumption. AMD rates the chip for 125W of maximum power draw, considerably higher than the Intel processor’s 77W. In our tests, we found that the FX-8150 actually drew almost twice as much power under load as the Core i7-3770K, the fastest desktop Ivy Bridge variant.
If you’re going to grab the FX-8150 instead of the Intel alternative, keep those caveats in mind. The AMD processor isn’t a bad choice, strictly speaking, and it does cost a little bit less than fully unlocked Intel alternative. 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 one from our primary recommendations. It even has more 6Gbps Serial ATA ports. You won’t find display outputs for integrated graphics here, though.
The cheapest GeForce based on Nvidia’s new Kepler architecture costs around $100, and the next step up is about $400, so we’ve had to source our GPU alternative from Nvidia’s previous-generation lineup. The stock GeForce GTX 560 Ti is a little slower than the Radeon HD 7850 from our primary recs, but Zotac’s AMP! version of the GTX 560 Ti has a 950MHz core speed and a 1100MHz memory speed, both considerably higher than the 822MHz and 800MHz stock clocks. The AMP! might even be faster than the 7850 as a result. However, its power draw will likely be higher, too.
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 house software and games, but it’s plenty fast for videos, photos, and other data that doesn’t benefit so much from faster solid-state 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 WH14NS40 costs the same and can burn Blu-ray media at 14X speeds. Just as importantly, this seems to be 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||$229.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$149.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$53.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 670||$399.99|
|Storage||Corsair Force Series 3 240GB||$199.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$94.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$71.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$179.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX650W||$129.99|
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 Core i5-3570K, all the 3770K has to offer are slightly faster base and Turbo speeds (3.5GHz and 3.9GHz, respectively, up from 3.4GHz 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. We think the i5-3570K is a better deal.
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 $290, but the nicer variants are over the $300 mark.) The GTX 670, meanwhile, manages to perform awfully close to the GTX 680, which means it’s nearly in the same league as one of today’s fastest single-GPU graphics cards. 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.
Thanks to ever-plummeting solid-state storage prices, we can outfit the Editor’s Choice with a 240GB Force Series 3 SSD from Corsair. The drive does cost a little more than the 128GB Samsung SSD featured in our last version of this config, but it also has way more storage capacity. In fact, the Force Series 3 gets you 88% more capacity but costs only 39% more. We think that’s a great deal, especially considering that the Corsair SSD has a fast SandForce SF-2281 controller, 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity, peak read and write speeds above 500MB/s, and a three-year warranty. The extra capacity should help ensure your apps and games don’t spill over onto a slower drive.
In case there is some spillover, then of course, 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 WH14NS40 seems to be 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.
Core i7-3770K 3.5GHz
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon HD 7950||$349.99|
|Storage||Crucial m4 256GB||$209.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$119.99|
Graphite Series 600T
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 and a nice, triple-fan cooler (which should be fairly quiet, based on our experience).
Corsair’s 240GB Force Series 3 SSD offers an excellent combination of pricing, capacity, and performance. Some users may wish to sacrifice performance for a little extra capacity. Those folks should check out Crucial’s m4 256GB solid-state drive, which costs only $10 more than the Corsair yet delivers 16GB of additional space. That drive’s peak write speed is only 260MB/s, though, and its write performance is measurably slower than the Corsair’s.
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||$569.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P9X79 Pro||$319.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$97.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7970 Black Edition||$469.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 256GB||$274.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$119.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$119.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$71.99|
|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 by changing a firmware setting. The UEFI firmware interface is really slick, as is Asus’ Windows tweaking. 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 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. AMD’s newly introduced Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition would perhaps be a better choice for $500, but we’re not seeing it listed at Newegg yet.
Why not two of these cards instead of one? Reading 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 that isn’t necessarily 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.
For some time, the Double-Stuff was encased by Corsair’s Obsidian Series 800D enclosure, an awe-inspiring tower 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. After reviewing this case (and giving it our Editor’s Choice award), we knew the Cosmos II would make its way into our Double-Stuff config. The Cooler Master case does cost more than the Corsair, 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 Next-Gen Console
Rumor has it the next generation of game consoles will be out next year. With today’s PC components, though, we think you can get pretty close to the level of performance the next Xbox and PlayStation might offer—and you can get there today in a Mini-ITX system.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3450S||$199.99|
|Memory||Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$42.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7850||$229.99|
|Storage||Crucial M4 256GB||$209.99|
|Enclosure/PSU||Silverstone Sugo SG05BB-450||$114.99|
||Xbox 360 controller for Windows||$47.99|
The Core i5-3450S may have the lowest clock speeds of Intel’s desktop Ivy Bridge quads, but with four 2.8GHz cores and a 3.5GHz Turbo peak, it’s not exactly slow. More importantly, this chip costs the same as the 77W Core i5-3450 yet has a lower 65W power envelope. That’s helpful, since we’ve made the Next-Gen Console a small-form-factor build. There’s no need to prioritize performance over power and noise levels, or vice versa; we can have it all.
We don’t recommend ASRock motherboards every day—we’re often more partial to offerings from bigger manufacturers—but the firm’s Z77E-ITX fits our needs to a tee. It’s the right size for our Mini-ITX chassis, and it features one of Intel’s latest 7-series chipsets (the best of the bunch, actually). The Z77E-ITX also has built-in Wi-Fi, which removes the need for an external dongle.
Mainly, though, the ASRock board does all of these things for less than $150, while the cheapest comparable motherboard from a bigger vendor costs $200. We’re trying to keep the Next-Gen Console reasonably affordable, and the Z77E-ITX mobo is just a better deal. In fact, it has better Newegg user reviews than the alternative right now. We’ll be testing one of these boards very soon.
Eight gigs of DDR3-1600, 1.5V RAM should do the trick for this diminutive gaming box. Here, we’re simply bringing back the Crucial kit from our Sweet Spot and Econobox alternative configs.
This XFX Radeon HD 7850 Core Edition meets two important criteria. First, it’s very fast—fast enough to handle anything you throw at it, provided you stick to a 1080p resolution (which we assume you will, considering this is an ersatz console). Second, this 7850 has a stubby circuit board, which means it can comfortably fit within the confines of our small-form-factor enclosure. (The case takes cards as long as 9″, and the XFX 7850 Core Edition is only 7.8″ long.) We can’t think of a better match for this PC.
Today’s consoles have mechanical storage, but tomorrow’s consoles will probably have solid-state drives. Why wouldn’t they? SSDs are immune to mechanical failures, and they offer substantially better performance and lower access times, which translates into lightning-quick level loads. On top of that, they’re getting cheaper all the time.
Crucial’s m4 256GB gets our nod for the Next-Gen Console, because it maximizes storage capacity per dollar, and its somewhat lackluster write performance shouldn’t be much of an impediment here. 256GB should be enough to store plenty of games alongside your operating system, unless you’re planning to keep your entire game collection on local storage (in which case we suggest checking out our alternatives section on the next page).
Note that we’re not recommending an optical drive—at least not for our primary picks. Optical storage is fast becoming obsolete, and any self-respecting gamer today is going to be more comfortable using Steam, Origin, or any number of other online distribution services out there. Even old titles from bygone days can be nabbed online, and you don’t need to go hunting for old CDs while hoping they’re not too scratched to work. If you absolutely must have an optical drive, then check out our Blu-ray recommendation on the next page.
This wouldn’t be a console substitute without a small-form-factor enclosure, now, would it? Silverstone’s Sugo SG05BB-450 is a long-time favorite of ours, thanks to its small size, beefy 120-mm intake fan, 450W 80 Plus Bronze-rated power supply,. The Sugo’s generous assortment of vents should help keep power-hungry components cool, as well. Also, for what it’s worth, the case doesn’t have a single user review on Newegg below three stars.
Now, the finishing touch: the Windows version of Microsoft’s excellent Xbox 360 wireless controller. You’ll need this bad boy if you plan to stick the Next-Gen Console in your living room. You might need it anyway, since some cross-platform games still have… unfortunate control schemes on the PC. Some games are just more fun to play with a controller, too.
Next-Gen Console alternatives
What if you envision the Next-Gen Console as a part-time home-theater PC? Perhaps you’d like some mechanical storage to accompany the SSD? We’ve singled out some alternatives for such scenarios.
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$94.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$119.99|
|Sony BC-5650H-01 slim Blu-ray combo drive||$114.99|
|TV tuner||Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-950Q USB TV Tuner||$69.99|
If you’re afraid 256GB won’t be enough to hold your game collection, then your best option may be to bolster the SSD with a 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F3. The Spinpoint is plenty fast for a mechanical hard drive, and it boasts four times the capacity of our Crucial SSD. It just won’t offer the same lightning-quick response times.
If you need mechanical storage only to turn the Next-Gen Console into an HTPC, then a slower, higher-capacity hard drive should be a better option. In this case, we’d recommend the 2TB EcoGreen F4 you’ve seen earlier in the guide.
Last, but not least, the Next-Gen Console will need Blu-ray to fulfill home-theater duties in an optimal fashion. Silverstone’s Sugo SG05 enclosure requires a slim optical drive, which limits our choices somewhat, so we’ve gone with the Sony BC-5650H-01. This slim combo drive will happily read Blu-ray discs and burn DVDs, but it won’t burn Blu-ray media.
Since we’re constrained to a Mini-ITX form factor, and we want the Next-Gen Console to have a discrete graphics card, we have no spare expansion slots to accommodate a full-sized TV tuner. Thankfully, USB solutions exist—though there aren’t many of them. Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR-950Q looks like a decent choice. It connects to a standard USB 2.0 port, supports ATSC, NTSC, and ClearQAM standards, and has both a coaxial input and a portable digital antenna. User reviews on Newegg look pretty good overall, too.
The WinTV-HVR-950Q comes with a remote in the box, but it’s a tiny one with rather small-looking buttons. Keyspan’s ER-V2 is a more fleshed-out alternative that mimics the design of Microsoft’s original Windows Media Center remote.
The mobile sidekicks
Ivy Bridge-based ultrabooks are just starting to pop up in stores and on e-tail listings. The same goes for notebooks based on Trinity, AMD’s latest APU, which should be available in both pseudo-ultrabook and full-sized formats.
On the ultrabook front, options include an Ivy-powered successor to Asus’ excellent Zenbook UX31. We reviewed the Sandy Bridge-powered UX31 last October, and we were pretty impressed overall. The UX32VD looks similar from the outside but now features 1920×1080 pixels on its 13.3″ display, which has also been upgraded to IPS panel technology. Inside, the system has a faster, Ivy Bridge processor and GeForce GT 620M discrete graphics from Nvidia. That sounds like a winning combination, even if it comes at the cost of some extra bulk. (The UX32VD is a little thicker than its predecessor, and it weighs slightly more, at 3.2 lbs.) You’ll find the UX32 at Newegg for $1,299.
Those looking for a cheaper, thinner option may be interested in HP’s 13-inch Spectre XT, which starts at $999.99, weighs just 3.07 lbs, and has a 0.69″-thick metallic chassis with a tapered front edge. The Spectre has all-solid-state storage and purportedly features up to eight hours of battery run time. There’s no discrete GPU under the hood, though, and the display resolution tops out at 1366×768.
Sony’s Vaio T13, which sells for $799.99 right now, is also worth a look. That system doesn’t have the wedge-shaped chassis of a MacBook Air lookalike, but it does have a 17W Ivy Bridge CPU and a 13.3″ panel. Sony has cut corners somewhat by using a hybrid storage solution, which is made up of a 32GB SSD and a 500GB mechanical hard drive. Still, this machine is only 0.71″ thick, and it’s a relative lightweight at 3.54 lbs. That’s not bad for a penny under eight hundred bucks—just don’t expect a fancy display.
Trinity can’t quite replicate the blend of power-efficient performance that 17W versions of Ivy Bridge offer, but it still serves up a decent mix of speed and battery life. So far, it seems AMD’s latest APU has mainly taken up residence in larger machines like Toshiba’s Satellite C855D—a 15.6″ notebook that runs a dual-core, 35W version of Trinity and sports a $599.99 price tag. Thinner alternatives are available, like HP’s Sleekbook 6, which couples the same display size with a 0.78″ chassis. The Sleekbook 6 costs $649.99.
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.
In the tablet world, Apple’s third-generation iPad is getting all the attention—as it should. The tablet costs the same $499 as last year’s model, but it features a whopper of a display with a 2048×1536 resolution. Speaking of the iPad 2, it’s is now available 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 might seem tempting. It’s not particularly cheap by Android tablet standards, at $479 for the base, 32GB model. However, it has twice the storage capacity of the base iPad 3, and you can augment it with a keyboard dock that adds physical input peripherals, extra connectivity, and an auxiliary battery.
We’d be keen to recommend the Prime if it weren’t for the Transformer Pad Infinity, which is similar but features a faster CPU, improved wireless performance, and a high-density 1920×1200 display. We’ve reviewed the Infinity, and we like it in conjunction with the optional keyboard dock, though the iPad 3 still has a better display. The new Transformer Pad will start at $499 for the 32GB model, and the dock will add $149 on top of that. Expect to see the Infinity on shelves soon.
Asus has refreshed its budget Transformer, too: the Transformer Pad 300 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. And yes, it’s also available with an optional, battery-life-augmenting keyboard dock (asking price: $149).
A note on Windows 8
We’d like to preface our regularly scheduled operating system section with a few words about Microsoft’s next OS. As you know, Windows 8 is due out this fall, and it’s going to feature a new user interface called Metro, which will coexist with the traditional desktop. Microsoft has decided to put Metro front and center, replacing the old Start menu and forcing desktop users into a strange dance between old and new design philosophies. Well, some of us aren’t thrilled with that design decision; we might end up holding on to Windows 7 for the foreseeable future. If you plan to skip Windows 8, then feel free to skip this preface, as well.
If you do expect to run Microsoft’s latest and greatest, though, then you might want to read on. Building a PC now would normally force you to buy a Windows 7 license first and then purchase a Windows 8 license at full price in a few months—not exactly an appealing proposition. However, there are two ways of avoiding that.
The first is through a new Microsoft promotion, as part of which discounted Windows 8 upgrades will be available to Windows 7 users until January 30, 2013. You’ll find the details in this blog post. Microsoft previously announced a similar program (with a steeper discount) for pre-built Windows 7 machines, but this latest offer applies to all Windows 7 users. Essentially, it means that once Windows 8 comes out, you can upgrade to Windows 8 Professional for $39.99 instead of paying full price for the new OS.
The second option skips Windows 7 entirely in favor of using the Windows 8 Release Preview as a stopgap. Right now, anyone can grab the Release Preview and install it on any compatible PC, free of charge, without running afoul of Microsoft’s licensing restrictions. Installation images are even available in ISO format. From what we’ve been able to gather, the Release Preview won’t expire until mid-January 2013, which should be long after Windows 8’s retail debut this fall. You can buy the full version of the OS once it’s available.
The only downside to that option, as far as we can tell, is that in-place upgrades from the Release Preview to the full version of Windows 8 apparently won’t be supported. The Windows 8 installer should let you keep personal data, but that’s it—no personal settings will be saved, unlike with an upgrade from Windows 7. We don’t think such a minor limitation will give adventurous enthusiasts cold feet, especially if the alternative involves spending an extra hundred bucks or so, but it’s worth pointing out nonetheless.
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||$124.99|
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.)
Peripherals, accessories, and extras
Matters of religion and taste
Now that we’ve examined operating system choices in detail, let’s have a look at some accessories. We don’t have a full set of recommendations at multiple price levels in the categories below, but we can make general observations and point out specific products that are worthy of your consideration. What you ultimately choose in these areas will probably depend heavily on your own personal preferences.
The world of monitors has enough scope and variety that we can’t keep track of it all, especially because we don’t often review monitors. However, we do appreciate a good display—or two or three of them, since several of us are multi-monitor fanatics—so we can offer a few pieces of advice.
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 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 smorgasbords 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 keyboard 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 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 earlier this year.
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. 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.
So, that’s our summer system guide. Aside from some price changes, a few clever product substitutions, and our new Next-Gen Console build, very little has changed in the past few months. Things may stay that way for a while yet, too.
We’re still awaiting AMD’s desktop-bound Trinity APUs, but those are only going to matter at the low end of the market, and there’s no telling whether they’ll make us rethink our primary picks for the Econobox. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. On the graphics side of things, the only missing piece is Nvidia’s mid-range Kepler GPU, which the company has yet to announce or quote a launch time frame for. Everything else is in place already.
The biggest thing on the horizon is probably Windows 8, which should hit stores some time this fall. As we noted on the previous page, the impending arrival of Microsoft’s new OS is no call to hold off on an upgrade. You can safely run the Release Preview until Windows 8 hits stores, and it won’t cost you a dime.
All in all, then, this seems like a great time to slap together a new gaming rig (or a high-powered workstation for, er, real work). Prices may shift slightly, and new solid-state drives will probably keep appearing at a breakneck pace, but for the time being, it appears that we’re all set.