Windows 8 is here at last. Some love it, and some hate it. Regardless of how you feel about Microsoft’s new operating system, one thing is undeniable: it’s arrived at a pretty good time to upgrade.
AMD has just refreshed its processor lineup from top to bottom, countering Ivy Bridge with what might be its most compelling alternatives yet. Those alternatives include chips like the A10-5800K and the FX-8350, which are great performers despite their relatively high thermal envelopes. Intel has also expanded its Ivy Bridge lineup with dual-core offerings like the Core i3-3220 and i3-3225, which seem ripe for our budget Econobox build.
Things have been moving on the GPU front, too. AMD and Nvidia have treated us to a handful of new cards like the Radeon HD 7850 1GB and GeForce GTX 660. Some of those happen to ship with extremely tantalizing game bundles. Also, as usual, memory and solid-state storage prices have continued their steady decline, inviting us to recommend ever-larger SSDs and RAM kits.
Just as you’d expect, we’ve carefully updated our four staple builds to account for all of these changes. We didn’t stop there, though. We’ve also outlined a number of complementary Windows 8- and Windows RT-powered mobile systems, some of which are quite unusual, and we’ve updated our operating system section with the lowdown on the new OS—which editions are available, which version to get. Keep reading 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, 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 about $600, $1,000, $1,500, and $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 i3-3220 3.3GHz||$129.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$35.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 7770||$124.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$84.99|
|Enclosure||Antec Three Hundred||$54.99|
|Power supply||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
In light of this month’s releases, perhaps some of you expected us to put an AMD processor here. We certainly came close—closer than we have to recommending an all-AMD Econobox in quite a while. In the end, however, we had to give this one to Intel’s Ivy Brige-infused Core i3-3220. Three factors played into our decision.
First, the Core i3 is substantially more power-efficient than its new rivals. The FX-4300 and A10-5800K have TDPs of 95W and 100W, respectively, while the Intel chip is rated for only 55W. That difference matters; it means the Econobox is going to run cooler and quieter, and we do like our PCs to be cool and quiet. Second, when paired with a discrete graphics processor, the Core i3 performs better in games than the AMD chips. In fact, this little $130 CPU is on even footing with AMD’s new flagship, the $220 FX-8350, in our 99th-percentile game benchmarks overall. Don’t believe us? Just look at our scatter plot. The plot shows results for the Core i3-3225, but the only difference between the i3-3220 and i3-3225 lies with their integrated graphics. Those don’t come into play here, since we tested with a discrete GPU.
Finally, the Core i3 shares a socket and a platform with some much faster processors, like the Core i7-3770K, which is unambiguously quicker than anything AMD has on the market right now. AMD’s Socket FM2 platform tops out with the A10-5800K at $130. The FX-4300’s Socket AM3+ platform allows for an upgrade to the FX-8350, but that chip still falls short of the i7-3770K—and consumes a fair bit more power, to boot.
That said, the AMD chips do have redeeming qualities. The A10-5800K, in particular, has much better integrated graphics than the i3-3220, and it’s also faster overall in non-gaming tasks. Certain users may find the A10-5800K better fits their needs, which is why we’ve featured it in the Econobox alternatives 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.
So, it turns out 8GB DDR3-1600 memory kits are down to around 35 bucks now.
There isn’t much point in getting anything less, is there? This Corsair kit’s 1600MHz clock speed will keep our Ivy Bridge processor on a full diet of bits and bytes, and the 8GB capacity will, in all likelihood, be all you need throughout the life of this machine. Otherwise, you can always toss in a second 8GB kit for a sweet 16GB of total system RAM.
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 the latest Radeon GPU series, the 7770 also features 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. In games, the 7770 should let you play most recent titles at 1920×1080, provided you don’t mind occasionally toning down the eye candy a couple of notches.
Nvidia finally has a competing solution in this price range, the GeForce GTX 650, but AMD’s 7770 still performs better overall. If you want an Nvidia card, we’d recommend springing for the GeForce GTX 660. That card will set you back an extra $100 or so, but it’ll represent a nice step up in performance. Skip ahead to our alternatives section for more details.
Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 1TB hard drive still isn’t quite as cheap as it used to be, but at $85, 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 $70-80. Losing a half-terabyte of storage to save 10 or 20 bucks 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 A10-5800K 3.8GHz||$129.99|
|Motherboard||ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6||$99.99|
|Storage||OCZ Agility 3 64GB||$64.99|
|Samsung 830 Series 128GB||$89.99|
|Graphics||PowerColor Radeon HD 7850 1GB||$169.99|
|Asus GeForce GTX 660||$239.99|
As we said earlier, some folks may find that the A10-5800K fits their needs better than the Core i3-3225. This AMD APU performs better overall in non-gaming applications, and its integrated graphics are clearly superior—not just because they’re faster (and they are, by quite a bit), but also because game compatibility tends to be better with AMD and Nvidia graphics solutions than with Intel IGPs. In other words, if you’re someone who plays games infrequently, you can skip the Radeon HD 7770 without forfeiting your right to a nice round of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or some Skyrim dungeoning every now and then.
Of course, the caveats we outlined on the previous page are still worth keeping in mind. The A10-5800K sucks up a lot more power under load than the Core i3, is slower in games with a discrete GPU, and doesn’t have much of an upgrade path.
Why aren’t we recommending the FX-4300? Well, that chip costs the same as the A10-5800K, and while it has 4MB of L3 cache, it also has a lower Turbo speed than the A10. We haven’t had a chance to test both processors side by side (and we can’t find many comparisons out on the web), but in our experience, Bulldozer-derived offerings need as high a clock speed as they can get to perform well—especially in single-threaded tasks. The FX-4300 also lacks integrated graphics, which makes it harder to justify as an alternative to the Core i3.
There’s a surprising dearth of Socket FM2 motherboards with full ATX layouts out there. One of the few offerings bucking that trend is ASRock’s FM2A85X Extreme6, which is pretty decked-out for its $100 price tag.
This mobo features three physical PCI Express Gen2 x16 slots (which can be arranged in x16/x8/x4 or x8/x8/x4 lane configurations), seven 6Gbps Serial ATA ports (including one eSATA port), four USB 3.0 ports, an 8+2 power phase design, a CMOS reset switch on the rear port cluster, and slick black heatsinks that belie the low asking price. ASRock also includes plenty of display outputs for the A10-5800K’s integrated graphics, including DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, and good-ol’ VGA.
The Econboox may benefit more from a graphics or CPU upgrade than from faster storage. However, the advantages of a speedy SSD can’t be overstated. Boot times, application startup times, and game level load times will all shrink noticeably with an SSD, and your system will feel generally snappier and more responsive.
A cheap way to get on the SSD bandwagon is to snag one of OCZ’s 64GB Agility 3 drives, which should have enough storage capacity for your Windows 8 installation and a handful of games and apps. Performance should be solid, and for $65 or so, the Agility 3 doesn’t break the bank.
However, we strongly recommend paying a little more and getting a 128GB Samsung 830 Series. 830 Series drives are some of the highest-performing SSDs we’ve tested to date, and the extra storage capacity will be more than welcome. 64GB can feel a little constricting with today’s multi-gigabyte game installations. Of course, you’re probably still going to want the 1TB Spinpoint from the previous page, both for mass-storage duties and as a spillover drive in case your games and apps don’t all fit on the SSD.
Getting a Radeon HD 7850 1GB instead of the 7770 is well worth it if you can afford the upgrade. Stock 7850 1GB cards like this PowerColor model handily outperform even higher-clocked variants of the 7770, and they’re also quicker than hot-clocked versions of Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 650 Ti.
In fact, the 7850 1GB can handle most games at 1920×1080 with the detail settings cranked up. The only exceptions are titles that couple very high levels of antialiasing with high-res textures, like Skyrim, in which case a 2GB graphics card like the GeForce GTX 660 might be a better bet.
At $239.99, Asus’ GeForce GTX 660 DirectCU II OC is a little pricey for the Econobox. However, it’s almost on the same level as AMD’s Radeon HD 7950 in our 99th-percentile scatter plots, and it’s more power-efficient than the comparatively slower Radeon HD 7870. This is a very powerful card—one that won’t bat an eye if you ever pick up a 27″ monitor and try to play games at 2560×1440. To top it off, this particular Asus model has an extremely quiet cooler. Slap this puppy into the Econobox, and you’ll have one heck of a budget gaming rig.
By the way, the Econobox’s 380W EarthWatts PSU should have enough juice to power the GTX 660. The card has only a single six-pin PCI Express power connector, and when we tested it on a much faster machine with a higher-wattage CPU than either the Core i3-3220 or the A10-5800K, total system power consumption under load peaked at only 232W. The EarthWatts PSU, for reference, can feed a combined 336W through its dual 12V rails.
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.
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-8350 4.0GHz||$219.99|
|Motherboard||Asus M5A97 R2.0||$89.99|
|Graphics||Asus GeForce GTX 660||$239.99|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 240GB||$199.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$129.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$69.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
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.
If you’d prefer an AMD processor, then your best bet has to be the FX-8350. This bad boy performs better overall than the i5-3570K in applications other than games, and it, too, has a fully unlocked upper multiplier. As we noted earlier, though, the FX-8350 isn’t nearly as power efficient as the competition (with a 125W TDP to the i5-3570K’s 77W, that’s no surprise), and its performance in games is only about on par with that of the Core i3-3220 from our Econobox build.
One last caveat that deserves mentioning: while the FX-8350 allows painless overclocking by raising multipliers, our sample wasn’t hugely cooperative. It maxed out at 4.5GHz with a 4.8GHz Turbo speed (up from the stock 4.0/4.2GHz), which required a sizable voltage increase. Full-system power consumption under load went from 196W to 262W. Overclocking aficionados may find the i5-3570K offers more overclocking headroom with less voltage.
Another advantage of the FX-8350 is that good Socket AM3+ motherboards cost quite a bit less than their Intel siblings. Despite being priced at only $90, Asus’ M5A97 R2.0 has six Serial ATA 6Gbps ports, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots with CrossFire support (in a x16/x4-lane config), USB 3.0, heatsinks on the CPU power regulation circuitry, and Asus’ excellent UEFI firmware. Newegg shoppers gave this board’s predecessor rather good reviews overall, and enthusiasm for the R2.0 model appears to be on the same level.
If you won’t let yourself be bribed with free games—or you have no interest in the ones accompanying the Radeon HD 7950—then Asus’ GeForce GTX 660 DirectCU II OC may be the graphics card for you. According to our 99th-percentile frame time metric, its performance isn’t much lower than that of the 7950 Boost on the previous page. This particular Asus solution also has an exceptionally quiet cooler, and it draws less power than the 7950. Some folks might simply be more partial to Nvidia’s driver support, too.
We were hoping to include the 256GB version of Samsung’s 830 Series SSD here as an alternative, but the drive is fading out of stock online. In its stead, we’re giving our nod to the 240GB Kingston HyperX 3K, which pairs one of SandForce’s latest controllers with synchronous NAND and boasts rated read and write speeds north of 500MB/s. The performance difference between it and the 830 Series should be relatively small. Also, our Editor in Chief has been running four of the HyperX drives in his labs, with no problems to report. If Intel’s new 335 Series SSD were available at its suggested retail price of $184, we’d choose it over the Kingston drive. However, the 335 Series is selling for $210 online right now, and its 20-nm NAND isn’t as proven as the 25-nm flash in the HyperX.
Samsung’s 2TB EcoGreen F4, meanwhile, ought to please users who value capacity over speed, including those who spring for a 256GB SSD and feel comfortable relegating their mechanical hard drive(s) to mass-storage duties. This drive is a little sluggish for housing 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 case 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||$139.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$40.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost||$304.99|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 240GB||$199.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$84.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$69.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$52.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$189.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX650W||$119.99|
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 is 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’re of the opinion that 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.
We’ve used these particular Corsair Vengeance modules on our test systems for quite a while, and they haven’t given us any issues. They have lower timings than the ValueSelect modules we paired with the Econobox and Sweet Spot, and they also have big, spiky heatsinks.
The Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost is such a good deal with its free game bundle, we’ve included it in our Editor’s Choice build, too. (Remember, the card comes with free copies of Sleeping Dogs, Hitman: Absolution, and Far Cry 3, plus a 20%-off coupon for Medal of Honor Warfighter Deluxe Edition.)
AMD offers the same game package with the Radeon HD 7970, but the stock version of that card costs about $100 more, and it’s barely any faster than “Boost”-enabled variants of the 7950 like this one. The 7950 Boost should chew through today’s games like butter on 27″ and 30″ displays at their native resolution, so we’re not exactly left wanting more GPU power.
Our budget for the Editor’s Choice leaves room for the 240GB Kingston HyperX as our primary pick. We’d have preferred a 256GB drive, but the HyperX offers a pretty compelling combination of performance and capacity at this price point.
Again, 256GB may not cover all your games and software, so we recommend grabbing 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 $1,400 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 recommended 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||$319.99|
|Graphics||Zotac GeForce GTX 660 Ti AMP!||$299.99|
|Storage||Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$129.99|
|Case||Corsair Graphite Series 600T||$159.99|
As we said on the previous page, we don’t consider the Core i7-3770K to be a particularly good deal—all it gets you, compared to the i5-3570K, is a slight clock speed increase and Hyper-Threading capabilities. However, we acknowledge that some users will want the top-of-the-line chip, be it for bragging rights or because their multitasking needs justify the extra threads. If that’s the case, go right ahead.
The GeForce GTX 660 Ti is the Radeon HD 7950’s natural adversary, and this Zotac version of the GTX 660 Ti has clock speeds well above those of Nvidia’s reference. Our scatter plots show this card on par with the 7950 Boost overall.
Sadly, as far as we’re aware, the GTX 660 Ti doesn’t come with any free games. Nvidia fans and folks not eager to play Sleeping Dogs, Hitman: Absolution, and Far Cry 3 probably won’t mind, but if you’re considering buying even one of those titles, the Radeon is the better deal.
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||$304.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$78.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition||$454.99|
|Storage||Corsair Force Series GT 480GB||$439.99|
|Western Digital Red 2TB||$159.99|
|Western Digital Red 2TB||$159.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$69.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$82.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$189.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$189.99|
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 a small step down 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 CPUs should be almost identical, despite the $400 price difference, and both have unlocked multipliers to ease overclocking.
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 GPU is faster than Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 680 overall (even Zotac’s souped-up AMP! edition of that card) in our 99th percentile frame time metric.
As icing on the cake, this card comes with the same game bundle as the Radeon HD 7950 Boost from our Sweet Spot and Utiliy Player builds. That means you get free copies of Sleeping Dogs, Hitman: Absolution, and Far Cry 3, plus a 20%-off coupon for Medal of Honor Warfighter Deluxe Edition. That’s a pretty sweet deal, even if you’re already shelling out $2700 for a PC.
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 recommended a 256GB drive for this build last time, but let’s face it: with a top-of-the-line PC like this one, you don’t want to have to pick and choose what to put on the SSD. Ideally, you want to have your entire Steam library on solid-state storage—without having to uninstall older games to make room for new ones.
Samsung’s 512GB version of the 830 Series is a little pricey for our taste at $529.99. Thankfully, still-blazing-fast SandForce drives with 480GB capacities are available for around a hundred bucks less. Corsair’s Force Series GT 480GB is one of the fastest (if not the fastest) representatives of that category, so it’s a great fit for the Double-Stuff.
For mechanical storage, a couple of Western Digital’s 2TB Reds arranged in a fault-tolerant RAID 1 array should do the trick. (You could go for a striped RAID 0 array for extra speed, but that’s playing with fire, and the array would still be much slower than the SSD.) 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.
Oh my, a downgrade?
After much reflection and gnashing of teeth, we came to the conclusion that the Cooler Master Cosmos II formerly recommended for this build is just a little too… extravagant. Humongous $350 cases might have made sense back when the Double-Stuff had dual graphics cards and quad hard drives, but this config doesn’t look like that. An equally premium but more reasonably sized enclosure like Corsair’s Obsidian Series 650D has more than enough space for our system, and it’s much more manageable—not to mention cheaper.
If you’d still like a giant case, we’ve included the Cosmos II in the alternatives section one page over.
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. 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. This build therefore isn’t complete without some sort of aftermarket device.
Considering our budget for the Double Stuff and the tight fit around the LGA2011 socket, we’d be remiss not to opt for a quiet, self-contained liquid cooler like Corsair’s H80. This beast 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!||$499.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 690||$999.99|
|FireWire card||Rosewill RC-504||$24.99|
|Enclosures||Cooler Master Cosmos II||$339.99|
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 out 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 stated 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.
While we think Corsair’s Obsidian Series 650D is a more reasonable match for the Double-Stuff’s hardware payload, there’s nothing inherently wrong about getting a king-sized case—whether it’s to fit extra gear or just to make your buddies jealous.
The Cosmos II costs nearly twice as much as the 650D, but it’s also much larger 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. That’s probably why we gave this behemoth our Editor’s Choice award back in January. The Cosmos II looks rather dashing in person, too. It’s not as subdued as the 650D, but it’s still stylish and imposing.
The mobile sidekicks
We usually include iPads and Android devices in this space. However, considering the sheer variety of freshly released mobile systems toting Microsoft’s new operating system, we’re going to focus on Windows 8 (and its ARM-compatible evil twin, Windows RT) this time around.
Let’s look at some of the new poster children in order of price, from least to most expensive.
At $499, Microsoft’s Surface for Windows RT is priced right up against the new, fourth-generation iPad. That’s a little bold on Microsoft’s part, since the Surface has a lower-density screen (only 1366×768 across 10.1″, instead of 2048×1536 across 9.7″) and weighs a little more (1.5 lbs vs. 1.44 lbs). We expect the Surface’s Tegra 3 processor is a fair bit slower than the iPad’s brand-spanking-new A6X chip, as well.
Still, the Surface has some features the iPad lacks, like a full-sized USB port. Microsoft has also built the Surface with an integrated kickstand, so you can easily prop it up on a table in widescreen mode without a fold-up cover. Speaking of covers, Microsoft offers two of those. There’s the $99 Touch Cover, which has a touchpad and a pressure-sensitive keyboard with no moving parts. (Simple pressure from your fingers triggers key presses.) Then there’s the Type Cover, which doesn’t seem to be available yet, but which has a more conventional keyboard built in.
These covers snap into place via a magnet, much like Apple’s Smart Cover does on the iPad. That means they double as a screen protector when the device isn’t in use. Since there’s no hinge, however, using the Surface with those things on your lap may be a little awkward.
Asus’ $599 Vivo Tab RT avoids such awkwardness by espousing the familiar convertible design of Asus’ Transformer tablets. When docked, the Vivo Tab RT essentially looks and behaves like a 10.1″ netbook. There’s a hinge, and the keyboard dock includes both extra connectivity and an additional battery, which increases the rated run time from nine to 16 hours.
When undocked, the Vivo Tab RT looks like any other standalone tablet. It’s certainly very thin and light, at 0.33″ and 1.15 lbs. The hardware is pretty similar to what Microsoft puts in the Surface, too: a Tegra 3 system-on-a-chip, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of storage capacity on the base model. The Vivo Tab RT’s screen is slightly smaller, measuring 10.1″ instead of 10.6″.
We’ll have a full review of the Vivo Tab RT ready very soon. In the meantime, you can read our first impressions here.
Now, there is one big caveat with Windows RT devices like the Surface and Vivo Tab RT: they don’t run x86 or x64 software (i.e. basically every Windows application out there that wasn’t designed for Windows 8’s Modern UI interface). To get Windows 8 in a convertible tablet format without losing x86 compatibility, you’ll have to wait until November, which is when devices running Intel’s Clover Trail Atom processors will debut.
Devices based on those will cost a little more than their ARM counterparts. Samsung’s Ativ SmartPC XE500, for example, is listed for $749.99 at Newegg (albeit only as a pre-order). HP’s Envy x2, a similar Clover Trail-powered convertible tablet, will set you back $849.99 when it arrives on November 14. Both of these convertible tablets have 11.6″ screens, so they’re a little bigger than the Windows RT offerings. (They still have 1366×768 display resolutions, though.) Whether they’ll offer a compelling blend of performance and battery life remains to be seen, but support for legacy Windows software may tip the odds in their favor regardless.
Windows 8 has also given rise to some bizarro ultrabooks. There’s the $999 Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, whose hinge allows its 13″ screen to fold back over the bottom of the laptop. That lets you use the system like a jumbo-sized tablet, provided you don’t mind having the keyboard and touchpad exposed on the other side.
This is a proper notebook, in any case. It’s got a Core i7 processor, up to 8GB of RAM, 128GB of solid-state storage, USB 3.0, and all that good stuff. The screen even has an IPS panel with a decent 1600×900 display resolution. Lenovo quotes a thickness of 0.67″ and a weight of 3.4 lbs, which is pretty standard for ultrabooks these days.
Asus’ Vivo Book Taichi follows a similar recipe, only it costs $1,299, and it’s got two screens: one at the front and one at the back, where the display lid would normally be. That way, you can fold up the laptop normally (with the keyboard out of harm’s way) and have something that behaves pretty much like a tablet. Or you can open up the system and use it like a regular notebook, with the keyboard and touchpad controlling the inner, non-touch display.
The Taichi is smaller than the Yoga 13. Its dual screens measure 11.6″ diagonally (and both have a 1080p resolution, incidentally), and the whole system tips the scales at only 2.75 lbs. It doesn’t seem to be available at Newegg just yet, though.
We could go on, but the list of mobile devices and PCs running the new version of Windows is rather long. Well, perhaps we should mention a couple of more pedestrian offerings before we go—systems that are essentially regular, non-touch-enabled laptops, and which just happen to be running Windows 8.
The non-touch version of Asus’ Zenbook UX31A ultrabook is one such machine. As far as we can tell, it’s physically identical to the model we reviewed in September. For $1049, that’s not a bad deal at all. Asus has a touch-enabled version coming, but we can’t find it on Newegg just yet.
Similarly, HP offers a Windows 8 version of its Pavilion dm1z ultraportable for $399.99. This little 11.6″ ultraportable features AMD’s Brazos 2.0 platform (with an E1-1200 APU and Radeon HD 7300 integrated graphics) and has pretty decent specs for the price. An earlier version of the dm1z earned our coveted TR Editor’s Choice award last March. We lauded the system for not only looking great on paper, but also being exceptionally well-built for a cheap ultraportable.
The operating system
Three shades of eight
By now, chances are you’ve caught a glimpse of Windows 8—especially if you read the previous page. Several of the systems pictured there are flaunting the newfangled Start screen.
Windows 8 is the next version of Windows. It offers all of the same functionality as Windows 7, but it also attempts to bridge the gap between conventional PCs and tablets. In Windows 8, the regular desktop interface coexists with another interface dubbed “Modern UI Style,” which features big, colorful rectangular tiles and a strong emphasis on touch input. Upon starting up a Windows 8 PC, your first brush with Modern UI is going to be the new Start screen:
The Start screen is your gateway to Modern UI apps, which all run in full-screen mode and all have the same chunky, colorful look. Interestingly, Microsoft presents the regular desktop—i.e. the classic Windows interface—as just another tile on this screen. The same goes for regular desktop applications. They’re all tiles. Once you click through to the desktop, though, everything looks the way it used to in Windows 7—or close enough, anyhow.
This arrangement has some interesting side effects. If you’re inside the desktop environment, for instance, launching software will often involve a trip through the Start screen, which will then snap you back to the desktop once you’ve found the right application. (Mercifully, that behavior doesn’t apply if you’re launching apps pinned to the taskbar.) Modern UI rears its head in other ways, as well. For example, you’ll have to use the new Charms bar, activated by pointing your cusor to the top right or bottom right corner of the screen, to access the traditional desktop Control Panel. Some settings have migrated from there to the Modern UI PC Settings screen, which is accessible by performing the same maneuver from the Modern UI Start screen.
Getting used to these changes doesn’t take long, but is it worthwhile? Modern UI apps don’t seem to have much appeal for a desktop user, after all. They only run in full-screen mode, and they tend to be simplified versions of their desktop counterparts with larger fonts, bigger widgets, and fewer features. That might be great on a tablet, but it doesn’t make much sense when you have the power of a mouse, keyboard, and large display.
Well, it so happens Windows 8 also includes a number of improvements to the desktop. Among those are a better, more powerful version of Windows Explorer, which is now dubbed File Explorer and features a ribbon toolbar and fancy real-time activity graphs for file operations. The Task Manager has also gotten a makeover and a whole boatload of functionality. Microsoft has even enhanced multi-monitor support. The taskbar now shows up on multiple screens, and it can be configured to show only icons for apps running on a given display. Then there’s the fact that Windows 8 boots noticeably quicker than Windows 7, and it seems to feel generally snappier, as well.
All things considered, we recommend that you take the plunge and grab Microsoft’s latest OS. If you spend most of your time in the desktop environment, the Modern UI tomfoolery doesn’t really matter much. Heck, you might go a whole day without seeing the Modern UI Start screen more than once. However, the desktop improvements will be front and center, and we rather like those.
Now, which Windows 8 edition should you get? There are three of them: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows RT. Here’s how they stack up, based on what we’ve been able to glean from the official Windows 8 blog and website:
|Windows 8||Windows 8 Pro||Windows RT|
|Support for x86 and x64 software||X||X|
|Windows Media Player||X||X|
|BitLocker and BitLocker To Go||X|
|Boot from VHD||X|
|Encrypting File System||X|
|Remote Desktop host||X|
|Microsoft Office Home & Student RT built in||X|
|Price – upgrade (from Win7, Vista, or XP)||—||$69.99||—|
|Price – upgrade (from Windows 8)||—||$69.99||—|
|Price – OEM (64-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||—|
|Price – OEM (32-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||—|
Right away, we can rule out Windows RT. This version of the new OS is designed for ARM-powered tablets, and it’s not available as a standalone product. Even if it were and we had specced out an ARM-powered DIY build, the lack of support for x86 and x64 software is pretty much a deal-breaker. Who wants to run Windows without all the software?
That leaves Windows 8 and Windows 8 Pro. The features in the Pro version mostly cater to professional users, so you might not need them. However, things like the ability to host Remote Desktop sessions may be helpful. Also, if you own a spare copy of Windows 7, Vista, or XP, heading to Microsoft’s website and purchasing a downloadable Windows 8 Pro upgrade for $39.99 is the cheapest way to get the new operating system.
Otherwise, you’ll want to buy a stand-alone, OEM copy of either Windows 8 or Windows 8 Pro. (As far as we can see, Microsoft doesn’t offer retail-packaged, non-upgrade editions of either one.) The good news here is that OEM copies of Windows 8 are covered under a new Personal Use License, which means you have Microsoft’s blessing to install them on a home-built PC for personal use—and to transfer them to a new PC the next time you upgrade. Using OEM copies of Win8 in a virtual machine is okay, too, if you’re into that. The only caveat is that Microsoft won’t provide customer support, so if anything goes awry, you’ll have to rely on either your wits or help from Internet forums. Good thing we have some forums of our own right here.
You’re also going to have to choose whether to install a 32-bit or 64-bit version of the operating system. There, the choice is pretty straightforward. A 64-bit version of Windows is required to utilize 4GB (or more) of system memory fully, and all of our builds have at least 8GB of RAM. The only downsides with 64-bit Windows are spotty drive availability for really old hardware and a lack of 16-bit application support. However, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a modern consumer device without solid 64-bit drivers nowadays. And 16-bit apps shouldn’t matter unless you need to travel back in time to 1985.
A final addendum before we move on: Windows 8, Windows 8 Pro, and Windows RT all ship without Windows Media Center. However, Microsoft offers Media Center as a free add-on to Windows 8 Pro here. Just enter your e-mail address in the box, and you’ll get an upgrade key you can enter in the “Add features to Windows 8” control panel.
Matters of religion and taste
Now that we’ve examined the 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 the various 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 recently, 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 must be deployed in pairs to power Surround Gaming configs.
Oh, and yes, you can get stand-alone touch-screen monitors. Newegg has a number of those listed, but we’re not too thrilled with any of them—or the idea of controlling a desktop PC at arm’s reach, for that matter. Again, Windows 8’s Modern UI apps aren’t very appealing on a desktop with a good keyboard and mouse. Speaking of which…
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 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. Windows 8 has even better backup tools inherited from Windows 7, plus a new File History feature.
All you need to get Windows 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, here we are. We’ve made a lot of adjustments to our graphics recommendations, and AMD’s latest processors have earned nice spots in our alternatives sections for the Econobox and Sweet Spot. Other than that, though, it’s pretty much business as usual for a new TR system guide edition: more memory, higher SSD capacities, and the occasional tweak here and there.
At least, that’s as far as desktop hardware is concerned.
On the mobile front, Windows 8 has brought about some pretty drastic changes. We noted some of them in our “mobile sidekicks” section. It’s still too early to tell how popular the whole convertible thing is going to be, especially given the odd split between Windows 8 and Windows RT—one capable of running legacy software, the other not. Some users may prefer to avoid the confusion and simply spring for full-featured ultrabooks. Of course, things don’t get much simpler there, since some Windows 8 ultrabooks have touch screens, and others do not.
The situation is much simpler for us desktop users and gamers. Windows 8’s new desktop is a pretty clear improvement over Windows 7, so aside from the odd trip into the Modern UI twilight zone, the new OS represents a net gain. Coupled with the latest hardware refinements we just mentioned, that sets us up quite nicely for the holidays.