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 under $1,100.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3470 3.3GHz||$199.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$149.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$35.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost||$304.99|
|Storage||Samsung 830 Series 128GB||$89.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$84.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$52.99|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$69.99|
The Core i5-3470 gets our nod for this build once again. Overclockers may favor the 3570K because of its fully unlocked upper multiplier, and they'll find the CPU in our alternatives on the next page. Folks wary of tinkering with an already blazing-fast chip will be much better off sticking with the cheaper Core i5-3470, though. The two chips perform very similarly at stock speeds, and the i5-3470's lower price gives us more spare cash to allocate to a faster graphics card. (See below.)
AMD's new FX-8350 processor is another compelling alternative. However, we're not in love with its 125W power envelope, which is much higher than the i5-3470's 77W. To make matters worse, our scatter plots clearly show the i5-3470 is the better gaming chip. We've still included the FX-8350 as an alternative on the next page, since it has redeeming qualities (like generally higher non-gaming performance). Nevertheless, we find the i5-3470 to be a better match for the Sweet Spot overall.
Asus' Z77 Express-based Asus P8Z77-V LK has four USB 3.0 ports, 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 UEFI firmware and 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, and we want 1600MHz DDR3, which is the fastest memory Ivy Bridge supports out of the box. The Corsair kit from a couple of pages back fits in just fine here.
If we were concerned solely about raw performance per dollar, we'd put a GeForce GTX 660 here—likely the $240 Asus card from the Econboox alternatives. Price and performance aren't the only parameters in the equation, though.
Right now, Radeon HD 7950 cards like this Sapphire model come with three free games—Sleeping Dogs, Hitman: Absolution, and Far Cry 3—plus a 20%-off coupon for Medal of Honor Warfighter Deluxe Edition. Those are all triple-A titles, and two of them aren't out yet, so it's unlikely you'll have them already. (Hitman: Absolution is due on November 20, and Far Cry 3 will arrive on November 29.)
If you bought the GTX 660 for $240 and grabbed just one of those upcoming $60 titles, you'd be paying the same as for the 7950. Grabbing the 7950 still gets you two more games for free, a coupon for a third title, and higher overall performance. The math is pretty simple, and it overwhelmingly favors the AMD offering.
Samsung's 830 Series drives are generally faster than the competition, and now that the 128GB 830 Series is available for close to the same price, we can easily justify it as our primary pick for the Sweet Spot. You can't go wrong with this puppy. The 128GB capacity may not be enough for all your games and apps, but it should accommodate most of them. If not, head on over to the alternatives on the next page for a higher-capacity recommendation.
Now, even with a bigger SSD, you're still going to want a mechanical sidekick. Samsung's 1TB Spinpoint F3 complements the 830 Series nicely with a full terabyte of fast, quiet mechanical storage. If you're feeling adventurous, the Intel Z77 chipset's Smart Response Technology lets you configure the SSD as a cache for the mechanical drive. SSD caching can deliver nice 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 Xonars 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 a little while back. 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 unit with a five-year warranty.