We’ve got about a month of summer left, give or take, and that means the back-to-school season is in full swing. What about the PC upgrade season? Well, we’ve certainly seen the arrival of a few noteworthy components since the publication of our last system guide. Just today, Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 660 Ti raised the bar for graphics performance at $300.
Other recent arrivals include AMD’s Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition graphics card and Western Digital’s Red hard drives. We’ve seen a continued decline in the prices of solid-state drives and system memory, too. Even mechanical hard drives have come down in price ever so slightly, taking a much-needed step back toward the pricing levels we saw last year, before the flooding in Thailand threw component suppliers a curve ball.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably guessed what this new system guide is about. We’ve updated our four staple builds to account for all of the new hardware and pricing changes. SSD and memory capacities have increased, and we’ve squeezed in faster GPUs in a couple of spots. We’ve also made other, more minor revisions to account for the inevitable price fluctuations and stock changes that have occurred since last month.
As icing on the cake, our four regular builds are joined by a fifth one: the Dorm PC 2.0, a sub-$600 Mini-ITX system that packs enough of a punch to run all the latest games smoothly. This small-form-factor build should be right at home in dorm rooms—and possibly the lairs of other geeks who appreciate its small size and compelling value proposition. Read on for all the details.
Rules and regulations
Before we get into our component recommendations, we should explain our methodology a little bit. Before that, though, a short disclaimer: this is a component selection guide, not a PC assembly guide or a performance comparison. If you’re seeking help with the business of putting components together, we have a handy how-to article just for that. If you’re after reviews and benchmarks, might we suggest heading to our front page and starting from there.
Over the next few pages, you’ll see us recommend and discuss components for four sample builds. Those builds have target budgets of $600, $900, $1,500, and around $3,000. Within each budget, we will attempt to hit the sweet spot of performance and value while mentally juggling variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the manufacturer’s size and reputation. We’ll try to avoid both overly cheap parts and needlessly expensive ones. We’ll also favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.
Beyond a strenuous vetting process, we will also aim to produce balanced configurations. While it can be tempting to settle on a $50 motherboard or a no-name power supply just to make room for a faster CPU, such decisions are fraught with peril—and likely disappointment. Similarly, we will avoid favoring processor performance at the expense of graphics performance, or vice versa, keeping in mind that hardware enthusiasts who build their own PCs tend to be gamers, as well.
Now that we’ve addressed the how, let’s talk about the where. See that “powered by Newegg.com” logo at the top of the page? Newegg sponsors our system guides, and more often than not, it will double as our source for component prices. However, Newegg has no input on our editorial content nor sway over our component selections. If we want to recommend something it doesn’t carry, we’ll do just that.
We think sourcing prices from a huge online retailer gives us more realistic figures, though—so much so that we quoted Newegg prices long before this guide got a sponsor. Dedicated price search engines can find better deals, but they often pull up unrealistically low prices from small and potentially unreliable e-tailers. If you’re going to spend several hundred (or thousand) dollars on a PC, we think you’ll be more comfortable doing so at a large e-tailer with a proven track record and a decent return policy. That vendor doesn’t have to be as big as Newegg, but it probably shouldn’t be as small as Joe Bob’s Discount Computer Warehouse, either.
Because speed doesn’t have to cost a fortune
The Econobox may be the baby of the bunch, but it can handle a little bit of everything, including modern games in all their glory. We haven’t scraped the bottom of the bargain bin or cut any corners, resulting in a surprisingly potent budget build.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-2120 3.3GHz||$124.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$38.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 7770||$124.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$89.99|
|Enclosure||Antec Three Hundred||$54.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$36.99|
AMD’s desktop Trinity APUs are still missing in action, which leaves us with only Intel’s Core i3-2120, AMD’s A8-series APUs, and AMD’s FX-4100 to choose between. Frankly, it’s a pretty easy choice.
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. 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 lacks integrated graphics and has a rather large 95W power envelope. It doesn’t appear to perform any better than the Core i3-2100, either. The Core i3 makes more sense to us as a primary pick, but since the FX-4100 is AMD’s best alternative, we’ve included that chip in our secondary recommendations on the next page.
The H77-based Gigabyte GA-H77-DS3H returns as our Econobox pick. This mobo has a full ATX layout and can tap into the Core i3’s integrated graphics, if need be. Connectivity includes 6Gbps SATA, USB 3.0, and headers for a pair of USB 3.0 ports beyond the two in the port cluster. 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.
Taking advantage of rock-bottom memory prices, we’ve slapped an eight-gig DDR3 kit in the Econobox this time. The price difference between 4GB and 8GB bundles amounts to about $16 right now, so we thought we’d save you the trouble of upgrading down the line. Windows 7’s caching scheme can make use of the extra memory to store commonly used programs. We aren’t skimping on quality, either; this is a Corsair DDR3-1333 kit rated for operation at 1.5V, and it has a lifetime warranty.
We had some reservations about the Radeon HD 7770 GHz Edition when we reviewed it in February. While the card performed well, consumed little power, and produced little noise with the stock cooler, its $159 asking price made for an unappealing value 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 quietly. 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.
Nevertheless, we’ve decided to bite the bullet and outfit our budget system with Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 1TB hard drive once again. It’s not as cheap as it used to be, but at $90, it’s a reasonable option given our budget. We could save a few bucks by going with a lower-capacity drive, but the 500GB version of the Spinpoint retails for about $70. Losing a half-terabyte of storage to save $20 isn’t our idea of a good compromise.
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 is a hit, with literally thousands of Newegg reviews and a five-star average rating. Despite its low price tag, the enclosure accommodate enthusiasts with a bottom-mounted PSU compartment, a cut-out in the back of the motherboard tray (which should aid CPU heatsink installation), and adjustable 120-mm and 140-mm fans at the rear and top, respectively. There’s room for six hard drives and three optical drives, and from what we understand, the case is very well built for the price. We wish it let you route cables behind the motherboard and came with removable caddies for the hard drives, but in this price range, you can’t have it all.
Power supplies are one area where cheaping out is especially unwise. Bargain-basement PSUs can have all sorts of potentially dangerous flaws, from anemic 12V rails to low-quality components that can cause premature failure—and zap some of your other components in the process. Antec’s EarthWatts Green 380W is a solid choice that offers 80 Plus Bronze certification with enough wattage for the Econobox, and it doesn’t break the bank. 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||$44.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 560 1GB||$164.99|
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 well equipped 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.
The FX-4100 supports higher memory speeds out of the box, so if you’re choosing it over the Core i3-2120, then you might want DDR3-1600 RAM. This Crucial Ballistix combo only costs a few bucks more than the 1333MHz kit we recommended on the previous page, and it also has a 1.5V signal voltage and a lifetime warranty. Crucial dresses up the modules with slick-looking heat spreaders, too.
Nvidia appears to have discontinued the GeForce GTX 460 1GB, which we used to recommend as a slightly faster, higher-priced alternative for the Econobox. In its place, Newegg now stocks a GeForce GTX 560 SE, which has fewer ALUs, a narrower path to memory, and clock speeds too low to make up the differences in fill rate and memory bandwidth.
Yeah, we’re not thrilled with the substitution, either.
For lack of a better alternative, we’re giving a bona-fide GeForce GTX 560 the nod. It’s a bigger step up in price, but it also represents a sizable performance jump—both over the Radeon HD 7770 and over the now seemingly defunct GTX 460 1GB. EVGA’s version of the GTX 560 is clocked slightly above the reference speed and comes with a three-year warranty.
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 a little over $1,100.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3470 3.3GHz||$199.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$149.99|
|Memory||Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$44.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti Power Edition||$309.99|
|Storage||OCZ Agility 3 120GB||$94.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$89.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$48.99|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$79.99|
We stepped up from the Core i5-3470 to the Core i5-3570K in the last edition of the system guide. Now, we’re back to the 3470 again.
Call us flip-floppers if you will, but our reasoning is pretty straightforward. We benchmarked the two chips against each other, and it turns out their performance is extremely close. (Stay tuned for the results.) Overclockers may favor the 3570K because of its fully unlocked upper multiplier, and they’ll find the CPU recommended in our alternatives on the next page. Folks not as keen to tinker with an already blazing-fast chip should be much better off sticking with the cheaper Core i5-3470. That way, they can allocate the leftover funds to a faster graphics card, like Nvidia’s freshly released GeForce GTX 660 Ti. See below.
Asus’ Z77 Express-based Asus P8Z77-V LK has two more external USB 3.0 ports than the H77 mobo from the previous page, for a total of four. 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. 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. This board offers full CPU multiplier control, too, a worthwhile feature if you opt for our alternative processor on the next page.
You know the drill. Eight-gig kits are so cheap that there’s really no sense in getting anything less. Here, we’re going with 1600MHz DDR3 memory, since our Ivy Bridge processor supports the higher speed out of the box.
Since we’ve scaled back our CPU choice and have a little more cash to spend on a faster GPU, MSI’s souped-up flavor of the new GeForce GTX 660 Ti seems like an easy choice. It’s an Editor’s Choice award winner, and our 99th-percentile frame time numbers suggest it’s in the same league as AMD’s pricier Radeon HD 7950. (The 660 Ti’s average frame rates are admittedly lower, but 99th-percentile frame times are a better indicator of gameplay fluidity.)
This MSI card also has lower power consumption, both at idle and under load, and lower load noise levels than comparable solutions from the Radeon camp. The Radeons do consume a little less power when the display is switched off, but we find the MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti Power Edition’s overall proposition to be more compelling.
We’ve doubled the capacity of our solid-state drive this time around. Stepping up from OCZ’s Agility 3 60GB to the 120GB model only sets us back an extra $35 or so, which is more than worth it. We’re talking about a fast, SandForce-based solid-state drive with top read and write speeds around 500MB/s. The more apps and games you can put on the drive, the more responsive your PC will feel.
Of course, 120GB won’t be enough for everything on your computer. 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. If you’re feeling adventurous, the Z77’s Smart Response Technology lets you 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 DSX sound card. According to our blind listening tests, this card handily beats good integrated audio. It sounds better than Asus’ cheaper Xonar DG and DGX sound cards, as well. Those cheaper offerings filter audio to give it some extra pop, but we find the results too sharp-sounding and too likely to induce listener fatigue. We prefer the more neutral sound of the DSX, and we think it’s worth the small price premium.
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||$229.99|
|AMD FX-8150 3.6GHz||$189.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7850||$229.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 128GB||$119.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$119.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$59.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
As we noted on the previous page, the Core i5-3570K isn’t much quicker than the Core i5-3470, but it does have a fully unlocked upper multiplier. That means overclocking should be easy as pie—so long as you get a chip with sufficient headroom, of course. As for whether the possibility of higher overclocks is worth the $30 premium, well, that’s entirely up to you.
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? Well, 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 TDP. 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 the fully unlocked Intel alternative. But… well, supporting 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 natural alternative to the GeForce GTX 660 Ti would be the Radeon HD 7870. We had an XFX 7870 variant with a $270 price tag all picked out, but just as we were writing this, it mysteriously jumped up to $299.99. Right now, we can find no alternatives costing less. Considering the 7870 cards are slower overall than the $310 GeForce GTX 660 Ti from our primary recs, it’s harder to make a case for them at $300.
We already stretched our budget a little with our primary picks, so we thought we’d throw in a recommendation for the Radeon HD 7850, instead. It’s a steal at $230, and Nvidia still has no current-gen parts in that price range. If you don’t mind sacrificing a little bit of gaming performance to save $80 or so, the 7850 is a nice step down from the GTX 660 Ti. This XFX variant of the 7850 also comes with a free coupon for Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Samsung’s 830 Series 128GB gets you an extra eight gigs of capacity over the 120GB Agility 3, and it should be a little faster, as well. The 256GB version of this drive certainly pummeled even the finest SandForce-based offerings in our testing. Also, given the firmware issues some SandForce drives have exhibited in the past, the fact that the 830 Series uses a different controller may be considered an additional selling point.
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 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||$49.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 670||$399.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 256GB||$198.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$89.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$59.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$48.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$179.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX650W||$124.99|
We considered stepping all the way up to the Core i7-3770K, the fastest fully unlocked Ivy model, but $340 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 $110, 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 supposed to be a well-balanced system that does everything TR’s editors would want their own PCs to do—not an excuse 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. Still, the GTX 670 manages to perform awfully close to the GTX 680, which means it’s nearly in the same league as one of the fastest single-GPU graphics cards ever made. That’s worth a little extra cash, in our book.
We’re going with Gigabyte’s take on the GTX 670 here. It’s one of the cheapest models in stock, and it comes with a triple-fan custom cooler, which Newegg users seem to like. We’ve had a good experience with similar-looking Gigabyte coolers in the past. A good custom cooler is especially important here, because the stock fan on Nvidia’s reference GTX 670 is noisy at idle and doesn’t cool the card as quietly as it should under load.
Samsung’s 830 Series solid-state drives have come down in price a fair bit since our last guide, so we can now equip the Editor’s Choice with the 256GB member of that lineup. Fittingly, the drive is an Editor’s Choice award winner. A quick look through our benchmarks should provide some clues as to why. Suffice it to say 240GB SandForce-based solutions—this drive’s most compelling competitors—are just slower overall. They have less storage capacity, to boot.
256GB should be ample enough to accommodate your Windows installation plus a good assortment of games and software. In case there’s some spillover, 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.
Now that we’ve tested the Xonar DSX, we think it’s a better deal than the Xonar DX we previously recommend for this build. The DSX is about 30 bucks cheaper, and the only major feature it lacks is Dolby Headphone support. The two offerings are otherwise very similar, and they sounded very close in our blind listening tests.
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 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. The PSU 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||$339.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 7950||$349.99|
|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.
We can’t find any of those newfangled Radeon HD 7950s with “boost” in stock just yet. However, this Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 has a base clock speed of 950MHz, which is 25MHz quicker than the “boost” speed of the newer offerings and 100MHz faster than their base speed. Best of all, it costs no more than other 7950 variants, and it has a nice, dual-fan cooler that should be reasonably quiet.
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||$91.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition||$469.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 256GB||$198.99|
|Western Digital Red 2TB||$164.99|
|Western Digital Red 2TB||$164.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$59.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$83.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$189.99|
|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 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.
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 “Double D” version of the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition. As we saw in our review, the 7970 GHz Edition has allowed AMD to recapture the single-GPU performance crown. This puppy is faster than Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 680 overall (even Zotac’s souped-up AMP! edition of that card) in our 99th percentile metric.
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.
If Samsung’s 830 Series 256GB solid-state drive is good enough for our Editor’s Choice build—not to mention good enough to actually earn a TR Editor’s Choice award—then it’s undoubtedly good enough for the Double-Stuff.
For mechanical storage, a couple of Western Digital’s 2TB Reds arranged in a RAID array (either RAID 1 for fault tolerance or RAID 0 for speed) should do the trick. The Reds are better suited to RAID configurations than other 2TB drives like the EcoGreen F4, because they offer a Time-Limited Error Recover function designed to accommodate the error-correction schemes built into RAID controllers. Without TLER, a drive can spend too long trying to fix errors on its own, causing the RAID controller to think the drive has failed and drop it from the array.
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. It also has Dolby Headphone support, which provides surround-sound virtualization for stereo headphones. Given the price of this build, we think Dolby Headphone support is worth the extra $30 over the Xonar DSX.
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 potent 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 multiple models from the AX series on our 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 AMP!||$549.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 690||$999.99|
|FireWire card||Rosewill RC-504||$24.99|
We have two alternative propositions for the Double-Stuff’s graphics. The first one is the GeForce GTX 680, or more specifically, Zotac’s GeForce GTX 680 AMP! Edition. This card clocks both its GPU and memory well above stock specs (1098MHz and 1652MHz, respectively, up from 1006MHz and 1500MHz). While it may not be as quick as our Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition, the AMP is still faster than most GTX 680s. It also features an impressive triple-slot cooler with dual fans and copper heatpipes up the wazoo. We were impressed with this card when we tested it back in May.
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 takes up only 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. The card is only $20, and the circuit board is small enough not to obscure airflow.
The Dorm PC 2.0
Being broke is no excuse
For some of you, “back to school” isn’t just a term thrown around by smarmy marketing executives. Some TR readers will actually be going to college in September. Being away from home has its perks, but it’s a lot less fun without a good gaming PC. College ain’t cheap, though, and buying a top-of-the-line gaming rig is out of the question for most. Even if it isn’t, college dorms don’t always have rooms to house full-sized gaming towers.
In light of all this, we’ve slapped together a special back-to-school build that combines a low price tag, a decent gaming GPU, and a small-form-factor enclosure.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-2120||$124.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$38.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 7770||$124.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$89.99|
|Enclosure & PSU
We’ve also taken the liberty of recommending a matching display and peripherals.
|Keyboard/mouse||Logitech MK260 combo||$29.99|
We outlined our reasons for picking the Core i3-2120 over the AMD alternatives on page two. In a nutshell, the Intel chip consumes less power—which matters even more in a small-form-factor build like this one—and we expect it to perform better overall. We could have saved a few bucks by opting for one of Intel’s dual-core Pentium CPUs, but we think the performance benefits of the Core i3’s Hyper-Threading capabilities are worth the extra dough.
ASRock doesn’t often get our nod in the system guide, but in the strange and sparsely populated world of Mini-ITX motherboards, the firm has more compelling budget offerings than top-tier vendors like Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI. The ASRock H67M-ITX looks like a particularly well-rounded option. It has Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge CPU support, USB 3.0 connectivity, a pair of internal 6Gbps Serial ATA ports, one external Serial ATA port, and a PCIe 2.0 x16 slot to accommodate our discrete graphics card. Not bad for $85. The Newegg user reviews are encouraging, as well.
Given our low-budget aspirations, we considered stepping down to 4GB for this build. However, our ASRock board, like most of its Mini-ITX brethren, only has two DIMM slots. That means a future upgrade would involve tossing out the 4GB kit and buying a whole new 8GB kit. You might as well spend the extra $16 or so and use the 8GB kit from the get go.
The Radeon HD 7770 ain’t the fastest gaming GPU on the planet by any means, but it’s cheap, consumes very little power, and still performs well enough to run Battlefield 3 at the “Medium” preset with a silky-smooth frame rate. That’s just fine for the Dorm PC.
Our budget is a little too tight for a solid-state drive, so instead, we’re featuring the same 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F3 hard drive as in our other builds. A terabyte should be plenty to balance educational material with games and, er, Linux ISOs, and this is a pretty fast drive by mechanical standards. We like its low noise levels, as well.
Note that we’re skipping the optical drive. Optical storage is becoming increasingly useless, and students are better off spending the money elsewhere—like on books or crates of Ramen noodles. If you disagree, then check our alternatives section on the next page.
Enclosure and power supply
The Silverstone SG05BB-450 returns from innumerable other SFF system guide builds. There’s a reason we keep picking this enclosure. Its footprint is just the right size to accommodate Mini-ITX motherboards, yet there’s room enough for full-sized discrete graphics cards, and Silverstone puts a big honkin’ 120-mm fan at the front to keep everything cool (and quiet). To top it off, the enclosure comes with a built-in 450W power supply stamped with the 80 Plus Bronze logo, which signifies efficiency in the 82-85% range.
This particular model even has front-panel USB 3.0 ports. That’s always a plus.
Display, keyboard, mouse, and speakers
It’s surprising how affordable 1080p displays have gotten lately. Acer’s S220HQLAbd only costs around $130, yet it has a 21.5″ panel with a 1920×1080 resolution, LED backlighting, 250 cd/m² brightness, a 1000:1 contrast ratio, and of course, a DVI input. Sure, the panel is of the TN variety, but what do you expect for this kind of price? Newegg users seem overjoyed with this panel; 76% of them awarded it five eggs out of five.
There’s no reason to complicate things on the peripherals front. Logitech’s MK260 combo gets you both a wireless mouse and a wireless keyboard for very little scratch. Thankfully, that keyboard has a normal layout with a full-sized backspace key and a regular paging block. 64% of Newegg users have awarded the MK260 combo five eggs, which definitely inspires confidence.
Logitech’s K523 2.1 speaker setup is also very popular on Newegg. It looks like a solid option for filling your dorm room with the thumping beats of… well, whatever music you’re into. Less expensive speaker setups can be found, of course, but we’d rather not cheap out too much and recommend something that sounds like an old transistor radio.
Dorm PC 2.0 alternatives
We have a few ideas for how to augment the Dorm PC.
|Storage||OCZ Agility 3 120GB||$94.99|
|Samsung SN-208BB DVD burner||$23.99|
|Networking||TP-Link TL-WN722N USB Wi-Fi dongle||$27.99|
A solid-state storage recommendation might seem over-indulgent for this build, even in the alternatives. Still, throwing your Windows installation and frequently used programs and data on an SSD like OCZ’s Agility 3 120GB is an excellent way to boost system responsiveness. It’s worth considering, at least.
Our Silverstone case only takes slim-line optical drives, which limits our options somewhat. Samsung’s SN-208BB looks like the best bet if you want to equip the Dorm PC with DVD playback and burning capabilities. It’s cheap, has good user reviews, and can burn DVD+R, DVD+RW, and DVD+R DL media at a speed of 8X.
The ASRock motherboard we recommended lacks built-in Wi-Fi. We don’t consider that to be a serious handicap, since most dorms are likely to have Ethernet connectivity. Still, if you need wireless, then you can attach a USB Wi-Fi dongle like TP-Link’s TL-WN722N. This particular model seems to have the most encouraging user reviews on Newegg, and it’s very affordable. The dongle supports 802.11n networks and has its own antenna. PCI Express Wi-Fi adapters are out of the question, unfortunately, since our motherboard’s lone PCIe slot is already occupied by a graphics card.
The mobile sidekicks
Ivy Bridge-based ultrabooks are now available 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 UX31A looks similar from the outside but now features 1920×1080 pixels on its 13.3″ display, which has been upgraded to IPS panel technology. The system also has a faster, Ivy Bridge processor clocked at 1.7GHz. Though the Zenbook is 0.01″ thicker at its thickest point, Asus has reduced the weight from 3.06 lbs to just 2.86 lbs. Now there’s a good compromise if we’ve ever heard one. Total price: $1080.
Those looking for a cheaper, thinner option may be interested in HP’s 13-inch Spectre XT, which starts at $999.99, weighs 3.07 lbs, and has a 0.69″-thick metallic chassis with a similarly tapered front edge. The Spectre has all-solid-state storage and purportedly features up to eight hours of battery life. The display resolution tops out at 1366×768, though.
For $699.99, you can nab Dell’s new Inspiron 13z, which offers the same Core i5-3317U processor as the Spectre XT and Zenbook UX31, but in a slightly thicker chassis that isn’t tapered. The extra thickness doesn’t add up to much, since the machine is still only 0.82″ thick. The Inspiron 13z’s real Achilles’ heel is the fact that it includes a 500GB 5,400-RPM mechanical hard drive instead of an SSD. Expect slower storage performance and system responsiveness.
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 ThinkPad Edge E535, a 15.6″ notebook that runs a dual-core, 35W version of Trinity and sports a price tag just over $500. Thinner alternatives are available, like HP’s Sleekbook 6, which couples the same display size with a 0.78″ chassis. The Sleekbook 6 costs $599.99.
Below $500, AMD Zacate-powered ultraportables are still worth considering—they’re cheaper and smaller than ultrabooks, and they’re likely to remain that way 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 now available for $399. You can nab both tablets directly from Apple’s online store.
If iOS doesn’t float your boat, then Asus’ Ice Cream Sandwich-powered Transformer Pad Infinity is worth a look. At $488, it’s slightly cheaper than the new iPad, and it features twice as much built-in flash storage (32GB). It has a high-density display with a 1920×1200 resolution, and you can turn the Transformer into a laptop of sorts using Asus’ keyboard dock accessory, which also adds an auxiliary battery that substantially increases run times. The keyboard dock costs $144.99.
We’ve reviewed the Infinity, and we like it in conjunction with the optional keyboard dock. That said, we do think the iPad 3 has a better display.
Asus has refreshed its budget Transformer, too: the Transformer Pad 300 costs only $374 with 32GB of storage capacity. The 300 has very similar specs to the Infinity, but its Tegra 3 processor is clocked a little lower, and its 10″ screen a pedestrian 1280×800 display resolution. 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: $130).
If you’re looking for an even cheaper tablet, then you might want to take a look at Google’s Nexus 7. With a 7″ display and a $199 price tag for the 8GB model, it’s clearly a different class of device than the iPads and Transformers. Still, we were pretty impressed with the Nexus’ fast hardware, sharp display, and excellent battery life when we reviewed it earlier this summer. The Nexus 7 also comes out of the box with the new, Jelly Bean version of Google’s Android OS, which has a palpably smoother and more responsive interface than previous Android releases.
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 October 26, and it’s going to feature a new interface called
Metro Modern UI style, which will coexist with the traditional desktop. Microsoft has decided to put the new UI 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 90-day trial of Windows 8 Enterprise as a stopgap. Right now, anyone can grab it and install it on any compatible PC, free of charge, without running afoul of Microsoft’s licensing restrictions. This evaluation copy is good for 90 days, which will tide you over until Windows 8’s retail release. You won’t be able to enter a retail license key once the 90 days are up, though; you’ll have to install a clean copy of the operating system. We don’t think that limitation will give adventurous enthusiasts cold feet, especially if the alternative involves spending an extra hundred bucks or so.
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||$178.99|
|Price— Anytime Upgrade||—>||$89.99||$139.99|
As you can see, Windows 7 editions follow a kind of Russian nesting doll pattern: Professional has all of the Home Premium features, and Ultimate has everything. Since most users probably won’t find the Ultimate edition’s extras terribly exciting, the choice ought to come down to Home Premium vs. Professional for almost everyone.
Some of TR’s editors like hosting Remote Desktop sessions and running network backups, so we’d probably go with the Professional package unless we were on a tight budget. However, we should also note that Windows 7 Home Premium includes some features formerly exclusive to more upscale editions, namely full-system backups and Previous Versions (a.k.a. Shadow Copy). See our review for more details.
If you go with Home Premium and find you need some of the Professional features down the road, you can always use the Anytime Upgrade program to step up. It’ll only set you back $90.
Speaking of upgrades, you’ll notice upgrade licenses are quite a bit cheaper than full ones. That’s because you need a legit version of Windows XP or Windows Vista to use them. The edition doesn’t matter, but you do need the previous OS to be activated and installed on your hard drive for the Windows 7 upgrade to work. Mind you, Vista upgrade installers don’t seem to protest when a user does a clean install of Vista without a product key and then runs an upgrade installation over that. Windows 7 could allow for the same trick. Microsoft doesn’t sanction this method, however, and who knows how future updates to the Windows activation system might affect it.
To save even more, you could also opt for an OEM license. Microsoft aims these at pre-built PCs, and for that reason, it prohibits users from carrying an OEM license over from one PC to another one. You may therefore be forced to buy a new copy of Windows 7 after a major upgrade. (Retail editions have no such limitation, as far as we’re aware.) Also unlike their retail brethren, OEM licenses only cover one version of the software—32-bit or 64-bit—so you’ll have to pick one or the other up front and stick with it.
That brings us to another point: should you go 32-bit or 64-bit? Since all of the processors we recommend in this guide are 64-bit-capable and all of our systems have 4GB of memory or more, the x64 release strikes us as the most sensible choice. This recommendation is relevant to folks who buy retail and upgrade editions, too—you might have to ask Microsoft to ship you x64 installation media first, but installing an x64 variant looks like the best idea.
As we’ve already explained, 32-bit flavors of Windows only support up to 4GB of RAM, and that upper limit covers things like video memory. In practice, that means that your 32-bit OS will only be able to use 3-3.5GB of system RAM on average and even less than 3GB if you have more than one discrete GPU. With new OSes and games pushing the envelope in terms of memory use, the 4GB limit can get a little uncomfortable for an enthusiast PC.
There are some caveats, however. 64-bit versions of Windows don’t support 32-bit drivers, and they won’t run 16-bit software. You’ll probably want to make sure all of your peripherals have compatible drivers, and vintage game lovers may also have to check out emulators like DOSBox. Still, hardware makers have improved x64 support quite a bit since Vista came out, 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 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.
Adventurous users may also want to check out those 27″ IPS monitors from Korea that everyone’s talking about. We reviewed one of ’em last month, and we came away very impressed. While there were missing features—like an on-screen display and HDCP support—and backlight uniformity was nothing to write home about, the display still offered roughly comparable image quality to our 30″ Dell for a fraction of the price. You’ll find these bad boys on eBay with price tags in the $300-400 range. If international orders frighten you, check Micro Center. It offers a similar model for $399.99 right now, and that includes HDCP support and an on-screen display.
By the way, we should point out that the Radeon HD 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’s Surround Gaming feature also enables gaming across three monitors. You’ll need a Kepler-based GeForce GTX 600-series model to make Surround Gaming work with a single card, though. GeForce GPUs from previous generations, like the GeForce GTX 560 in the Econobox alts, must be deployed in pairs to power Surround Gaming configs.
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 thought 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 are available with different variations of MX Cherry key switches, from the clicky blues and their tactile bump to the quieter blacks with linear travel. (You can check out our review of those here.) 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 Cherry MX red switches with no tactile bump and no audible click. 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 mechanical 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.
Well, that’s it for this edition of the guide.
All in all, we’re pretty happy with the new-and-improved builds, especially the revised Sweet Spot. The combination of an almost imperceptibly slower CPU and a substantially faster GPU is a winning one for sure—and it doesn’t hurt that we’ve bumped up the SSD to a 120GB offering, either. Yes, we went a little over-budget, but it was worth it. Totally worth it.
The Dorm PC may seem a little less exciting given its budget inclinations, but cash-strapped users will no doubt see the appeal. There’s a lot to be said for keeping a PC cheap and compact without crippling performance, and we think the Dorm PC strikes the right balance.
This is a good time to upgrade, too. Nvidia still doesn’t have next-gen parts to match AMD’s Radeon HD 7850 and the Radeon HD 7770 series, but it’s got the high end of the market covered. We don’t expect Intel to release its next-generation processors until 2013, and while AMD’s Trinity APUs should hit the desktop before the year is out, they’re unlikely to affect anything but the Econboox. Even then, considering the performance of Trinity’s mobile incarnation, Intel may retain the upper hand in terms of pure CPU performance.