Peripherals, accessories, and extras
Matters of religion and taste
There's no way we can walk you through every monitor, keyboard, mouse, and PC speaker system out there. We probably could if we worked on it for a month, but the resulting article would be extremely long and, in all likelihood, very boring to read.
What we can do is present you with a list of our favorites—and perhaps some other, notable options—in each category. Most of our waking hours are spent basking in the glow of big IPS displays and rattling away on expensive keyboards, so we have a good grasp of the subject. You might disagree with our preferences, of course, but we think our experience can help users who haven't already decided what they want.
Folks shopping for a monitor these days pretty much have two choices.
If they don't mind poor viewing angles and sub-par color reproduction, they can grab themselves a cheap and cheerful display with a TN panel—maybe something like Acer's G215HVAbd, which costs $120 and crams a 1920x1080 resolution into a 21.5" screen. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that approach, and you might wind up being completely satisfied. Users who spend most of their time gaming and browsing the web will probably be happy enough with a TN monitor.
The alternative is to set aside a little extra dough and spring for an IPS display. IPS panels usually display a full eight bits of color per pixel, and they always have excellent viewing angles, which means looking at them off-center doesn't result in awful contrast and color shifting. We're discerning types here at TR, so unsurprisingly, we all favor IPS screens.
Easily the best bargains among IPS displays right now are those Korean monitors we wrote about back in July. They sometimes lack features like OSD interfaces and HDCP support, but the important part, the panel, is usually the same kind one might find on pricier offerings from big vendors. Korean monitors aren't pricey, though. 27" models with 2560x1440 resolutions can be found for only $330 on eBay.
If ordering straight from Korea makes you nervous, similar offerings are available in the U.S. from retailers like Micro Center. For instance, this 27" Auria can be nabbed for $399.99. By contrast, a similar offering from, say, Dell will set you back well over $700 at Newegg right now. The Dell will probably have a better warranty and more bells and whistles, but it's easy to see the appeal of the cheaper solutions.
There are also plenty of excellent 24" IPS displays from big manufacturers. Our own Geoff Gasior uses a trio of Asus' PA246Q screens, which are a little pricey at almost $500 each but have excellent image quality. Similarly, we've had good luck with HP's 24-inch IPS offerings. The most recent one, the ZR2440w, looks like a pretty solid buy—and it costs less than the Asus.
Or, you know, you could go all out and fork over nearly $1,200 for one of Dell's 30-inch behemoths. TR Editor in Chief Scott Wasson has a couple of those, and he loves 'em. Just make sure you have enough room on your desk.
We're not throwing in any recommendations for touch-screen monitors. Touch input works great on phones and tablets, and it might be nice on the right laptop, but we're not eager to use our desktop PCs at arm's reach. Not when we have a perfectly good keyboard and mouse at our disposal. Speaking of which...
Keyboards and mice
We won't lie; we like our keyboards here at TR. We routinely type thousands of words a day, so we need the finest keyboards we can get our mildly RSI-addled mitts on.
These days, keyboards with mechanical key switches—that is, keyboard whose switches have actual springs inside them instead of collapsible rubber domes—are all the rage among enthusiasts. The most popular offerings are based on Cherry's MX key switches, which are available in a several different variants.
Rosewill offers RK-9000-series keyboards with each major Cherry MX key switch type, and we reviewed all of of 'em earlier this year. Our verdict? The kind with Cherry MX brown switches offers the nicest mix of typing comfort and gaming responsiveness. (The brown switches have a tactile "bump" in their response curve, but they don't produce an audible click upon actuation.) We're not seeing the exact model we reviewed in Newegg's listings right now, but the white and backlit versions of it are available for around $90 and $120, respectively.
Metadot's Das Keyboard Professional is also a good choice—albeit a higher-priced one. It's built better than the Rosewill keyboards, its F keys double as media keys, and it's available with the same great Cherry MX brown switches, which Metadot calls "soft pressure point." Too bad about the glossy finish, though.
Users who game more than they type may prefer Cherry's MX red switches, which have a linear response curve with no bump or click. One of Rosewill's keyboards has the red switches, but we're a little more partial to Corsair's Vengeance K60 and Vengeance K90, which pair the MX red switches with sexy-looking aluminum frames and shockingly reasonable price tags. We reviewed those, too, and ended up giving the K60 our TR Recommended award. Our only gripe is that not all of its keys are mechanical. The F-keys and paging block have gummy rubber-dome switches, and jumping between them and the mechanical switches as you type (or game) can be unsettling.
Otherwise, certain users argue that the nirvana of clicky keyboards was reached long ago by IBM's famous Model M. That keyboard's trademark buckling spring switches feel different from the Cherry MX designs, and some like the tactile feedback better. You can find original, vintage-dated Model M keyboards here. Unicomp also offers more recent keyboards based on the same buckling spring design. Neither the Model M nor the Unicomp offerings look as sexy as the Corsair or Razer keyboards, though.
Oh, and if you plan to stick your PC in the living room and use it from the couch, you may want to consider the Rii N7. This is a tiny, remote-sized wireless keyboard with a built-in touchpad, and it's perfect for small amounts of couch-typing—like if you need to search Netflix or Google something quickly. Our Editor in Chief has one and is happy with it.
On the mousing front, we're quite keen on Corsair's Vengeance M60. It's a $50 wired mouse with a high-precision sensor and a very pleasing shape. For double that price, Cyborg's Rat 7 is a fully adjustable rodent with removable panels and a sci-fi-esque design that favors function over form. There's a similar wireless model, the Rat 9, but that one costs an eye-popping $130.
Luckily, there are much more affordable wireless mice on the market. Logitech's G700 is one of those; it's a gaming mouse with a high-DPI sensor, on-the-fly DPI adjustments, and almost too many buttons. At $70, it doesn't break the bank. Logitech's M510 costs about half that and offers an ambitdextrous shape that will be comfortable for both right- and left-handed users, or even ambitdextrous types. The M505 is a smaller mouse meant for mobile use, but its excellent shape makes it a good candidate for all-day use with a desktop, especially for those with smaller hands.
Except for the Core i7-3930K, all of the processors we recommend come with stock coolers in the box. Those coolers offer passable performance and may not be overly loud. That said, there's no beating some of the aftermarket solutions out there. Those coolers couple much larger heatsinks with bigger fans that move more air and produce less noise.
For 30 bucks, Cooler Master's Hyper 212 Plus is a nice entry into the world of big, tower-style coolers. It has four copper heat pipes and a 120-mm PWM fan that's reasonably quiet.
Thermaltake's Frio is also a popular choice. It ships with two 120-mm fans (which can be mounted on either side of the fin array) and has a total of five nickel-plated heat pipes. The Frio should provide better cooling performance and lower noise levels than the Hyper 212 Plus.
Noctua's even pricier NH-U12P SE2 has fewer heat pipes than the Frio, but it deserves a mention here for its excellent performance and delightfully low noise levels. It even bested liquid-cooling solutions in our air vs. water cooler showdown a while back.
However, anyone ready to spend over $60 on CPU cooling ought at least to consider some of those closed-loop liquid coolers that strap to the inside of the case. They tend to deliver superior performance and lower noise levels than simple air coolers, and they've become very affordable. The new version of Corsair's H60 will set you back just over $75 right now. Corsair also offers the H80i and H100i, both of which have Corsair's Link functionality. That feature lets you monitor temperatures and control fan speeds via a USB cable and associated software. The H80i takes up a single fan emplacement with 120-mm fans on either side, while the H100i has a double-length radiator that requires a corresponding dual-fan emplacement at the top of the enclosure. Corsair's 200R, 650D, and 600T cases should all be compatible with the H100i, as should the Cosmos II.
Speakers and headphones
It's been a while since we reviewed our last set of speakers. The truth is, we're more partial to the privacy and comfort of a good pair of headphones. Sennheiser's HD 555 cans used to be a TR favorite, but they're now discontinued. Their apparent replacement, the Sennheiser HD 558s, have similar specs and look like worthy successors. The glowing Newegg reviews certainly suggest so.
Otherwise, there's nothing wrong with a cheap pair of speakers, for those times when you need to show someone a funny YouTube clip or infuriate them by playing Gangnam Style at full blast. In that department, our Editor in Chief recommends both the Creative Inspire T12 and the slightly cheaper Cyber Acoustics CA-3602. Both have decent bass reproduction for the price, and the Creative also has very nice highs. The Cyber Acousitics' mids aren't anything to write home about, though.
Windows 8 has two different backup systems: Windows 7 File Recovery and Data History. The former allows you to schedule full backups of your system drive and user data, while the latter keeps backups of old revisions of files as you update them. We like option A, since it creates full system images that can be recovered in a pinch.
Now, you could run backups directly on your main PC, but that arrangement doesn't offer good protection if anything happens to the machine (like, say, a power surge frying all of your internal drives). It's usually better to keep backups on external storage, which you can always hide in a safe or a filing cabinet when you're not using it.
Thermaltake's USB 3.0 BlacX drive dock should help with the easy insertion and removal of backup drives—and, really, any other hard drive you care to stick in there. We quite like it ourselves. Otherwise, three of the enclosures we recommend (the Corsair Obsidian Series 650D, NZXT H2, and Cooler Master Cosmos II) have integrated drive docks. Those should hook straight up to the motherboard's Serial ATA ports.
Another backup solution worth considering is CrashPlan. For $3 a month, this service lets you back up unlimited amounts of data to the cloud. Backups are encrypted, naturally, and you have the option of setting a private password that can't be recovered if forgotten. At least two TR staffers, including our in-house developer Bruno Ferreira, use CrashPlan, and they have no complaints.
Other odds and ends
Hmm. What else?
We should probably toss in a recommendation for the Windows version of the Xbox 360 controller. In theory, PC games are all playable with a keyboard and mouse. In practice, however, quite a few cross-platform titles are simply easier to play with a controller.
None of our configs have built-in card readers. If you'd like one of those, Rosewill offers one with an integrated USB 2.0 and 3.0 hub (not to mention external Serial ATA) that costs only $30 and slides into any 5.25" drive bay. Every case we recommend already has front-panel USB ports, but more of those can't hurt, and being able to insert an SD card straight from your camera is always handy.
Finally, some might like Wi-Fi connectivity in their desktops. There are plenty of PCI Express Wi-Fi adapters out there, but you can now get bite-sized USB dongle adapters, like this Edimax model, for only $10 a pop. Based on the small dimensions and the lack of a big, external antenna, one might expect poor performance. However, that doesn't seem to be the case—58% of the nearly 600 Newegg reviews award it five stars. Either way, for $10, it's not much of a gamble.
Well, that's it for this guide—and this year, in fact, since this is our last TR System Guide of 2012.
We've certainly come a long way since last Christmas. In our end-of-year 2011 guide, solid-state drives were a rarity. Sandy Bridge processors were still state-of-the-art, and the AMD alternatives paled in comparison. Also, on the graphics side of things, AMD hadn't yet released its 7000-series Radeons, and Nvidia was still offering 500-series GeForces.
Today's builds are much nicer. They're probably going to get even better over the coming year, though. In 2013, we expect to see Intel's next-generation Haswell processors, new lineups of graphics processors from both AMD and Nvidia, and hopefully, even cheaper and quicker solid-state drives as new manufacturing processes increase the density of flash chips.