You know how it is. You spend the first half of December occupied with other things, and then all of a sudden, Christmas is a week away. You grab your coat, run outside, and scramble to find gifts for your loved ones. Sometimes, others have beaten you to the punch and left store shelves maddeningly empty.
Today, we’re giving stragglers a hand with their last-minute shopping. We’ve put together a freshly revamped set of PC build recommendations—because, sometimes, a shiny new gaming PC is the best gift you can give. (Besides, you know, love and togetherness and all that nonsense.) There’s still enough time to shop and get parts before the big day.
We’ve adjusted our customary configs to account for our latest performance findings and recent changes in availability. Our GPU selections have been tweaked in light of the performance problems we recently encountered with AMD’s Radeon HD 7950. We’ve also altered our SSD recommendations to replace previously favored drives that have become harder to find.
We’ve spiced things up by revamping the peripherals section at the end of the guide, too. If you need a hand picking monitors, keyboards, mice, and other gadgets, you’ll definitely want to check it out… once you’re done perusing our newly updated PC builds, that is.
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, you’ll want to have a look at our handy how-to article—and the accompanying video:
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
Our budget build has seen its target price fluctuate over the years, but our aim has always been the same: to spec out a solid budget gaming PC without ugly compromises. Solid graphics performance is a must here, as is a decent upgrade path.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-3220 3.3GHz||$119.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$37.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 7770||$119.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$84.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 200R||$59.99|
|Power supply||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
An Intel processor in a budget system? Sacrilege!
Well, maybe not. AMD currently offers two alternatives to the Core i3-3220: the FX-4300 and the A10-5800K. Both have power envelopes around 100W, dwarfing the Core i3’s surprisingly modest 55W TDP. Lower TDPs mean less power consumption and lower noise levels. Both AMD chips also fail to match the Core i3-3220’s gaming performance when discrete graphics cards are used.
To its credit, the A10-5800K has much better integrated graphics performance than the Intel CPU. However, the A10’s IGP is still far slower than even a relatively inexpensive discrete card, and we have room in our budget for one of those—the Radeon HD 7770. That renders the A10’s IGP advantage essentially moot.
Granted, the AMD processors are a little faster overall in multithreaded applications, but the i3-3220’s mix of superior single-threaded performance and lower power consumption is hard to argue against. On top of that, Intel’s LGA1155 platform gives us an upgrade path all the way up to the Core i7-3770K—a fully unlocked, quad-core, eight-thread monster that trounces anything AMD has on the market today.
Just because we’re picking an Intel CPU doesn’t mean we need an expensive motherboard. At a penny under $100, Gigabyte’s GA-H77-DS3H delivers everything we might need for the Econboox: a full ATX layout, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots (albeit with four lanes of connectivity running through the second one), 6Gbps Serial ATA, USB 3.0, and Gigabyte’s latest UEFI interface, which is much improved over the company’s older designs. Gigabyte doesn’t have the finest fan speed controls around, but with the GA-H77-DS3H, it delivers a very compelling package for the price.
Rock-bottom memory prices enable us to outfit the Econobox with a whopping 8GB of DDR3-1600 RAM—in the form of a Corsair kit with lifetime warranty coverage—without stretching our budget in the slightest. We could save about $18 by going with a four-gig kit, but we don’t really want to. Windows is designed to cache frequently used applications in available system memory, which is particularly helpful in a system with only mechanical storage.
We envision the Econobox as a budget gaming system, and that calls for an affordable graphics card that’s still reasonably powerful. MSI’s Radeon HD 7770 is very well suited to that task. It should let you play most of today’s games at 1920×1080, so long as you dial down the eye candy a bit. Also, thanks to its beefy dual-slot cooler, this card won’t deafen you when you’re trying to listen for footsteps in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
Nvidia doesn’t offer a terribly compelling alternative to the Radeon HD 7770 right now. The GeForce GTX 650 is slower overall than its AMD rival. The GeForce GTX 650 Ti performs a little better, but it’s also priced within spitting distance of the markedly quicker Radeon HD 7850 1GB (which we’ve included in our alternatives on the next page). We think you’re better off getting an AMD card in this price range.
Alas, solid-state drives aren’t cheap enough to fit in our Econobox yet. Not the good ones, at least. Don’t despair, though, because Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 1TB is excellent as far as mechanical hard drives go. It performs well, emits very little noise, and has a nice, low price tag. We even gave the thing an award a couple of years back.
Optical drives are almost unnecessary in modern PCs, but this is a full-sized desktop, and we’ve got three 5.25″ drive bays just waiting to be filled. A DVD burner like Asus’ DRW-24B1ST only sets us back an extra 20 bucks, and it can always come in handy.
Since the early days of the TR System Guide, we’ve favored Antec cases for the Econobox. It was no accident. Antec has a reputation for building sturdy, well-made budget enclosures. Offerings like the Antec Three Hundred are almost legendary among budget-conscious enthusiasts.
With the new Carbide Series 200R, however, Corsair has one-upped Antec almost across the board. Thumbscrews abound, cable-routing holes are nice and wide, tool-less drive bays work effortlessly, and Corsair even offers four dedicated 2.5″ bays—handy, should you ever upgrade the Econobox with an SSD. We compared the 200R to the Three Hundred Two, an improved version of the Three Hundred, and the Corsair case was far more comfortable to work in.
The 200R only had one disadvantage. It didn’t keep components quite as cool as the Three Hundred Two. The difference was relatively small, though, and we tested with high-end parts. The Econobox has a 55W CPU and a power-sipping low-end GPU, so thermals aren’t a big challenge.
This system doesn’t suck a lot of power. That means we don’t need a very beefy PSU to power it. We do, however, want a modicum of quality. Bargain-basement power supplies might be tantalizingly cheap, but they often fail to deliver where it counts. Also, they’re frighteningly prone to failures that can take out other components. No thanks; we’ll spend the extra 20 bucks or so on a branded, high-efficiency unit with good reviews.
Antec’s EarhtWatts Green 380W has been our pick for quite some time, and we see no reason to switch. This unit has 80 Plus Bronze certification, excellent Newegg reviews, a three-year warranty, and all the right connectors for the Econobox’s hardware. 380W might seem a little on the low side, especially in light of GPU vendors’ conservative recommendations, but you’d be surprised how little power a fully loaded PC draws. When we tested the Radeon HD 7770 on a system with a more power-hungry processor than the Core i3-3220, power consumption peaked at just 157W in games.
Want an AMD processor, more RAM, or an Nvidia graphics card? Read on.
|Processor||AMD A10-5800K 3.8GHz||$119.99|
|Motherboard||ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6||$107.99|
|Storage||OCZ Vertex 3 60GB||$74.99|
|Corsair Force Series GT 120GB||$129.99|
|Graphics||PowerColor Radeon HD 7850 1GB||$169.99|
|Asus GeForce GTX 660||$214.99|
We think the Core i3-3220 is a better fit for the Econobox, but that doesn’t mean AMD’s A10-5800K lacks redeeming qualities. The A10 performs better than the Core i3 in many non-gaming tasks, and its integrated graphics are superior. That’s an appealing combo if you’re more of a casual gamer who tends to run demanding productivity applications, since you can save a few bucks by skipping the discrete graphics card.
There’s no good way to spin the A10’s 100W power envelope and currently non-existent upgrade path, though. This is a fairly power-hungry chip, and since it’s the quickest one available for its socket, a future processor upgrade will likely require a change of motherboard, as well.
If you’re happy with that, then the A10 may be the processor for you.
Note that we’re picking the A10-5800K over the FX-4300. The FX does have a marginally better upgrade path than the A10, but it lacks integrated graphics, and its lower clock speed doesn’t bode well. In our experience, processors based on AMD’s Bulldozer architecture need all the GHz they can get in order to perform well. That holds especially true in applications that don’t make use of multiple threads.
Most motherboards designed to mate with the A10-5800K have a microATX form factor, which means they have smaller circuit boards and fewer expansion slots. We prefer a full-sized offering. Among the few ATX models available, we like the ASRock’s FM2A85X Extreme6 the most.
This mobo actually costs slightly more than our Intel board, but it’s clearly worth the dough. It has three PCI Express x16 slots, which are configurable in a x16/x8/x4- or x8/x8/x4-lane setup, and it boasts no fewer than seven 6Gbps SATA ports and four USB 3.0 ports. ASRock even puts a CMOS reset switch in the port cluster, so in the event of a failed overclock or some other snafu, there’s no need to pop the side panel to get everything back to normal.
Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 is a fine hard drive, but it’s no match for the responsiveness of an SSD. We have two budget SSD recommendations for the Econbox. The first one is OCZ’s Vertex 3 60GB, which is currently available for around $75. This is a very speedy drive that will accommodate your Windows installation and a few apps, but it probably won’t be roomy enough to hold all your games.
If you’d like a little more wiggle room, then Corsair’s Force Series GT 120GB is hard to beat. This drive was so quick it earned our Editor’s Choice award in a matchup last year, and at around a dollar a gig, it’s now relatively affordable. You’ll find cheaper 120-128GB SSDs listed at Newegg, but none quite this fast.
Nvidia’s sub-$200 graphics offerings aren’t quite up to par with the AMD solutions. That means the best alternative to the Radeon HD 7770 is another AMD card: the Radeon HD 7850 1GB.
The 7850 1GB is noticeably faster. In fact, it’s quick enough to handle almost all games at 1080p with the detail settings cranked up. You’ll only start to see performance suffer in titles like Skyrim, whose ultra-high-resolution textures can butt up against the 1GB memory limit—especially if you turn up the antialiasing, too. The 7850 1GB is a fairly inexpensive upgrade; PowerColor’s version is available for around $170. As a bonus, it comes with a free copy of Sleeping Dogs.
Nvidia regains the upper hand above the $200 mark. Our scatter plots demonstrate that the GeForce GTX 660 outpaces the 99th-percentile frame times of AMD’s competing Radeon HD 7870. Not only that, but our latest testing with the Radeon HD 7950 and GeForce GTX 660 Ti shows AMD has trouble warding off disruptive frame-time spikes. The same may hold true with lower-end solutions, in which case the GTX 660 could also deliver a noticeably smoother gaming experience than competing Radeons.
Regardless, the GTX 660 represents a sizable upgrade from both the Radeon HD 7770 and the Radeon HD 7850 1GB. This card is quick enough to handle many games on a 27″ monitor at 2560×1440. Perhaps that’s overkill for the Econobox… but then again, those 27″ Korean monitors are awfully affordable.
You probably don’t need to worry about getting a more powerful PSU if you opt for the GTX 660, by the way. The card only requires a single PCIe power connector, and in our testing with a much quicker CPU than either the Core i3-3220 or the A10-5800K, power draw with a GTX 660 peaked at 232W. (That was for the whole system, sans monitor.) Our 380W Antec PSU should have no trouble pumping out that kind of power.
The Sweet Spot
Stunning value short on compromise
The Econobox makes a pretty solid gaming machine, but it’s still somewhat limited. The Sweet Spot’s more generous budget gives us the wiggle room to add a faster processor, a quicker graphics card, solid-state storage, and other luxuries.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3470 3.3GHz||$199.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$139.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$37.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti||$299.99|
|Storage||Corsair Force Series GT 120GB||$129.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$84.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$64.99|
|Power supply||Seasonic M12II 520W||$79.99|
We face a similar competitive scenario at this price point. Intel’s Core i5-3470 offers better gaming performance and lower power utilization than the competition from AMD. However, AMD’s FX-8350 has an edge in non-gaming apps.
Here, too, we think the Intel chip is the better pick for our primary recommendations. Its 77W TDP is quite a bit lower than the AMD chip’s 125W thermal envelope, and as you can see in our scatter plots, the Core i5 has a clear edge in gaming performance. The difference in general-purpose tasks is much smaller. In our view, it doesn’t make up for the FX-8350’s other downsides.
Note that we’re also skipping Intel’s Core i5-3570K, despite its fully unlocked upper multiplier. Having free rein to overclock is nice, no question about it. However, the i5-3470 is already very fast, and its lower price gives us extra cash to spend on other components, like a faster graphics card.
We’ve been recommending this Z77 Express-based Asus P8Z77-V LK for a few editions of the guide now, and we see no reason to stop. This mobo doesn’t break the bank and has just about everything we might want for the Sweet Spot. There’s SLI and CrossFire support via two PCIe x16 slots, which are configurable in a x8/x8 lane setup. There are sideways-mounted SATA 6Gbps ports, which shouldn’t interfere with long graphics cards. There’s USB 3.0, of course, and Asus’s excellent UEFI firmware and fan speed controls. Lucid’s Virtu MVP software is included, as well.
If we had room in the Econobox’s budget for an 8GB DDR3-1600 kit, we certainly have room for one here. Let’s re-use the same Corsair kit, since its 1600MHz maximum speed is, coincidentally, the fastest supported by our processor out of the box.
Our latest benchmarks—both in Windows 7 and Windows 8—make it pretty clear that AMD’s Radeon HD 7950 doesn’t perform as well as the GeForce GTX 660 Ti in the latest crop of games. Although the 7950 pumped out quite a few frames per second in our tests, it didn’t deliver those frames as consistently as the GeForce. Those intermittent frame latency spikes sometimes cause perceptible hitches in in-game animation. We documented the phenomenon on video here.
Given the Radeon’s struggles, we’ve switched our recommendation to the GTX 660 Ti. That’s kind of a bummer, because the Radeon comes with more free games, but freebies unfortunately can’t make up for a genuine performance issue that reduces gameplay fluidity.
Besides, MSI’s GeForce GTX 660 Ti Power Edition comes with a freebie of its own: a copy of Assassin’s Creed III. This card also costs a little less than the Radeon HD 7950 we picked last time, and it’s an Editor’s Choice winner. Coupled with the smoother gaming performance, that makes it a pretty nice pick.
Faster drives than Corsair’s Force GT 120GB do exist, but they tend to be marked up quite a bit—and we don’t think shelling out $150 or more for a 120-128GB SSD is a particularly good use of our budget. The Force Series GT is already blazing-fast as it is. Also, again, this is an Editor’s Choice winner.
120GB should be sufficient to contain your operating system and many of your games and applications, but it won’t be enough for everything. That’s why we recommend pairing the SSD with a terabyte of speedy mechanical storage, in the form of Samsung’s 1TB Spinpoint F3. You can run the SSD and mechanical drive separately, or if you’re in an experimental mood, you can try using Intel’s Smart Response Technology (which is supported by our Z77 chipset) to turn the SSD into a high-speed cache for the hard drive. We’ve found Smart Response improves performance nicely. It’s more straightforward to use, too, because you don’t have to pick and choose which files and what software goes on which drive.
Finally, we’re rounding out our storage setup with an optical drive. After all, you never know when you might need to use an old DVD—or burn a new one. The Econobox’s Asus DVD burner is just as good a fit for the Sweet Spot. We considered upgrading to a Blu-ray burner, but that’d be a tad out of our price range. (We did include one in the alternatives on the next page, though.)
We’ve caught a lot of flak for recommending sound cards. However, every time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete cards wind up sounding noticeably better than motherboard audio. We’re not even using audiophile-grade speakers. Our tests are done with a pair of lowly Sennheiser HD 555 headphones.
If you’re using analog headphones or speakers that weren’t scavenged from a circa-1995 Compaq, a discrete sound card like Asus’ Xonar DSX is a worthwhile purchase. This card doesn’t just beat onboard audio; it also has a more balanced sound profile than cheaper offerings like Asus’ Xonar DG and DGX. We liked this card so much that we gave it our Editor’s Choice award earlier this year.
Folks with S/PDIF- or USB-based speakers or headphones can skip the Xonar. Those digital alternatives take care of the digital-to-analog conversion internally, which makes a discrete sound card somewhat redundant. Any halfway-decent analog audio device will benefit from the Xonar, though.
We got pretty close to selecting the same Corsair Carbide Series 200R for the Sweet Spot and Econobox. However, after further reflection, we decided the NZXT H2 is still a better fit for our slightly enlarged budget. This case has more premium features, like hot-swappable front fans, a three-setting fan control switch, a built-in drive dock, rubber-grommeted cable routing holes, and a top ventilation cover that prevents dust and debris from falling straight down into the case. The H2 is built for quiet, too, and it fared remarkably well in our noise testing.
A 380W PSU may suffice for the Econobox, and it would probably power the Sweet Spot just fine. However, we can afford a nicer unit with a little bit of extra headroom. Seasonic’s M12II 520 Bronze can deliver up to 520W of power, and it has another perk that more than justifies the price premium: modular cabling. Instead of having to stow away a big bundle of unused cables somewhere, you only plug in the cords you need. The five-year warranty doesn’t hurt, either.
Sweet Spot alternatives
Don’t like our primary picks? As with the Econobox, we’ve singled out alternative selections that may please certain users.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3570K 3.4GHz||$214.99|
|AMD FX-8350 4.0GHz||$209.99|
|Motherboard||Asus M5A97 R2.0||$99.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost||$299.99|
|Storage||Intel 335 Series 240GB||$169.99|
|Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$129.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$69.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$89.99|
The way we see it, you have two good alternatives to the Core i5-3470. The first is Intel’s slightly quicker Core i5-3570K, whose fully unlocked upper multiplier allows for relatively effortless overclocking (provided the chip itself can take it). Our value scatter plots show the i5-3470 is the better deal at stock speed, but if you plan to overclock, the i5-3570K is clearly a superior choice.
Our second alternative comes from the AMD camp. Although the FX-8350 falls behind its Intel rivals in games, it’s actually a little quicker than the Core i5-3570K in non-gaming applications overall. If you’re not much of a gamer—or you don’t mind sacrificing some in-game fluidity in order to get optimal productivity performance—then the FX-8350 may be your best bet. This puppy even has an unlocked upper multiplier, just like the i5-3570K.
Keep in mind, though, that the FX-8350 is a 125W chip. That means power consumption and heat dissipation will both be substantially higher than with the Intel solutions, which are rated for 77W. Overclocking headroom may also be limited unless you’re prepared to invest in liquid cooling. Our own experience overclocking the FX-8350 wasn’t anything to write home about. Overclockers will probably be able to extract more “free” performance out of the i5-3570K.
The FX-8350 has another, somewhat indirect perk: the Socket AM3+ motherboards meant to accommodate it are very affordable. Our chosen Asus’ M5A97 R2.0 costs only $90, yet it features dual PCI Express x16 slots (arranged in a x16/x4 lane setup), six 6Gbps ATA ports, USB 3.0, and Asus’ trademark UEFI and fan control firmware, of which we’re so fond. The big heatsinks on the power regulation circuitry may help with overclocking, too.
Again, at present, the GeForce GTX 660 Ti appears to offer markedly better performance in the latest games than the Radeon HD 7950. We’re hoping AMD can even the score with a driver update.
If it does, the Radeon HD 7950 could become an attractive alternative to GeForce GTX 660 Ti. After all, it has more powerful hardware on paper—including 50% more memory bandwidth—and it currently ships with not one, not two, but three free games: Far Cry 3, Hitman: Absolution, and Sleeping Dogs. (There’s a 20%-off coupon for Medal of Honor Warfighter Limited Edition in the box, but after playing that game, we wouldn’t recommend spending any money on it at all.)
Sapphire’s take on the 7950 has a dual-fan cooler, good Newegg reviews, and Boost functionality that dynamically raises clock speeds, so it gets our vote.
If you can afford it, a 240GB solid-state drive like Intel’s 335 Series 240GB is a better buy than the 120GB model on the previous page. The $200 price tag is a little on the hefty side, but 240GB will give you a lot more room to store games. We all know how much level load times benefit from speedy solid-state storage.
Why not simply go for the 240GB version of the Force Series GT? We could, really, but the 335 Series is cheaper right now, and our benchmarks show it’s a teeny bit faster.
On the mechanical front, you might want to bolster the Sweet Spot’s mass storage capabilities with something like Samsung’s 2TB EcoGreen F4. This is a low-speed, low-power, low-noise offering, which makes it a poor choice for storing apps and other performance-sensitive data. Movies, music, and other documents, though? No problem—and the drive’s cost per gigabyte is hard to beat. (Other 2TB “green” hard drives are available, but the EcoGreen is very affordable and seems to have fewer negative reviews on Newegg.)
Finally, if you’ve been known to watch movies on your computer (or you’ve ever wanted to back up humongous files to physical media) then springing for a Blu-ray burner makes plenty of sense. LG’s WH14NS40 doesn’t break the bank, and it’s capable of both reading Blu-ray discs and burning them at up to a 14X speed.
The NZXT H2’s emphasis on silence means it’s not the coolest-running case around. Folks more worried about keeping temperatures low than favoring their eardrums may take a liking to Corsair’s Carbide 400R. This enclosure is a little roomier, and its interior layout and build quality are top notch. We especially like the fact that the 3.5″/2.5″ drive bays are rotated 90 degrees, so they face out toward the user for easy installation and removal.
The Editor’s Choice
What TR’s editors would get—if they had time to upgrade
The name of this build says it all. If we were buying a PC for ourselves right now, we’d splurge on nicer components than those found in the Sweet Spot and Econobox. However, we still wouldn’t want to waste hard-earned cash on needlessly expensive parts.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3570K 3.4GHz||$214.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$139.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$44.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti||$289.99|
|Storage||Intel 335 Series 240GB||$169.99|
|Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$84.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$69.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$64.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$189.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX650W||$119.99|
There’s no sense being stingy here. Intel’s Core i5-3570K is the right pick for this build, thanks to its unlocked upper multiplier and excellent performance per dollar.
Oh, sure, we could nab a state-of-the-art motherboard with ridiculous heatsinks and a self-aware AI inside the UEFI. However, the Asus P8Z77-V LK from the Sweet Spot already does everything we want. Why pay more? The Editor’s Choice is all about building a balanced system, not burning cash on pointless extras.
We’re making allowances for overclocking here, which is why we’ve upgraded from our Corsair ValueSelect bundle to a Corsair Vengeance kit with fancy heatsinks. The price difference between the two kids adds up to all of seven dollars right now, so we don’t feel bad for splurging (if we can call it that). Just keep in mind those spiky heatsinks may interfere with some of the chunkier CPU coolers out there.
We could have upgraded to the GeForce GTX 670 for this build, but the truth is, the GeForce GTX 660 Ti is more than fast enough for gaming on a 2560×1440 display. The GTX 670 doesn’t offer a very substantial performance boost for the money, either. And the next step up, the GeForce GTX 680, is well outside our price range.
No, we’re perfectly happy with the MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti Power Edition. It’s just as good a pick for the Editor’s Choice as it is for the Sweet Spot.
What we didn’t spend on an extravagant motherboard or an overpriced graphics card, we now can allocate to a higher-capacity solid state drive—something that will make day-to-day gaming and productivity palpably quicker, since you’ll have more room to store more applications and games.
We already know the drive we want: the Intel 335 Series 240GB from the Sweet Spot alternatives. Here, our budget allows for its inclusion in our primary picks.
Of course, we still want a decent mechanical hard drive to provide additional storage capacity, since it’s doubtful everything on your PC will fit into 240GB. Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 1TB offers a terabyte of fast, quiet, and reasonably priced storage, so it makes an excellent sidekick.
Oh, and we might as well throw in that Blu-ray burner from the Sweet Spot alternatives.
If we thought a sound card was worth including in the Sweet Spot, we’re certainly not going to fall back to integrated audio here. But we’re not going to splurge on a higher-end discrete card, either. Asus’ Xonar DSX offers better value than Asus’ more expensive Xonar DX, which costs more and adds little besides Dolby Headphone support. In our blind listening tests, those two cards sounded very close. You might as well save your money.
Corsair’s Obsidian Series 650D is probably our favorite enclosure right now. We like its good looks and generous cooling capabilities, and we love how effortless it is to work inside. Everything from the huge amount of space around the motherboard tray (and the almost excessive number of cable-routing holes) to the built-in drive dock and recessed front-panel ports helps make installation as smooth and painless as possible. There’s hardly a better option for the Editor’s Choice right now… well, except perhaps for Corsair’s own Graphite Series 600T, which we’ve included as an alternative on the next page.
We have room in our budget for a nicer, higher-efficiency PSU than the one in the Sweet Spot. This time, our nod goes to the Corsair HX650W, a modular unit with 80 Plus Bronze certification and connectors galore. We wouldn’t dream of getting a non-modular unit, of course. Our enclosure is designed to make cable management as elegant as possible, so having a big clump of cords and connectors at the bottom just wouldn’t do.
Editor’s Choice alternatives
Just because the Editor’s Choice is full of our favorites doesn’t mean we don’t have a few alternative propositions in mind.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-3770K 3.5GHz||$319.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost||$299.99|
|Storage||Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB||$129.99|
|Case||Corsair Graphite Series 600T||$159.99|
As far as 22-nm Ivy Bridge processors go, it doesn’t get much better than the Core i7-3770K. This monster has four cores, eight threads, a 3.5GHz base speed, a 3.9GHz Turbo speed, and somehow, despite it all, a power envelope of only 77W. We still think the Core i5-3570K offers better performance per dollar, simply because it’s cheaper and not that much slower. If you want the best this platform has to offer, though, the Core i7-3770K is the way to go.
For extra mass storage, we’re still recommending the Samsung EcoGreen F4 2TB. Just don’t put your operating system on this thing, because it has a low spindle speed aimed at cutting noise and power consumption.
While we prefer the Obsidian Series 650D, Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T is certainly worth considering as an alternative. It’s cheaper, has a TR Editor’s Choice award, and offers finer-grained fan speed controls than the 650D. The 600T also has a more rounded, pudgy-looking external design. Internally, though, the two cases are almost identical. The only other major functional difference is that the 600T doesn’t have a drive dock at the top like the 650D.
Oh, and there’s a white version available.
The Double-Stuff Workstation
Because more is very often better
Editor’s Choice not fast enough for you? Then you may like our Double-Stuff workstation, which is jam-packed with some of the fastest hardware on the market today. We’ve attempted to balance performance and cost to some degree, in order to avoid wasting cash on pointless bells and whistles.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-3930K||$569.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P9X79 Pro||$304.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$86.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 680||$459.99|
|Storage||Corsair Force Series GT 480GB||$439.99|
|Western Digital Red 2TB||$109.99|
|Western Digital Red 2TB||$109.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$69.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$80.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$189.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$199.99|
Intel is sort of neglecting its flagship desktop platform—processors for it are still based on last year’s Sandy Bridge architecture. Nevertheless, LGA2011 Sandy Bridge-E systems deliver unquestionably higher performance than their newer Ivy Bridge cousins. They’re more expensive, too, but the extra performance can be worth it. And LGA2011 doesn’t just get you more cores; you also get more memory channels and PCI Express lanes.
Intel’s fastest processor right now is the thousand-dollar Core i7-3970X. For half a grand less, the Core i7-3930K packs only slightly less of a punch and still opens the door to this platform’s benefits. The Core i7-3930K has six Hyper-Threaded cores (for a total of 12 threads) clocked at 3.2GHz with a peak Turbo speed of 3.8GHz. Intel feeds those cores with a whopping 12MB of L3 cache, and there’s even an unlocked upper multiplier.
The only real downside of the Core i7-3930K is its 130W thermal envelope—but with six cores and four memory channels, that’s actually pretty darned reasonable.
The LGA1155 motherboards from our previous builds won’t accommodate the Core i7-3930K. We need something with an LGA2011 socket. We’ve reviewed a number of LGA2011 boards in the past, and based on our experiences, we’ve given the nod to Asus’ P9X79 Pro. This is a very well-rounded and relatively affordable solution, and it features the Asus UEFI interface and fan controls we like so much. We’re not so thrilled with the way the UEFI silently raises Turbo multipliers when you set the memory clock manually, but that’s easy enough to disable, provided you’re aware of it.
Despite cramming the board with other functionality, Asus has neglected to include a FireWire port. We doubt that’s going to bother most folks, but if you need FireWire, check our alternatives section on the next page.
That Corsair Vengeance kit from the Editor’s Choice would fit in perfectly here—except we need at least four identical modules to feed the Core i7-3930K’s quad memory channels. Good thing Corsair makes a similar kit with four matched 4GB modules. 16GB of RAM might seem like overkill, but we’re talking about a workstation-class system here, and memory is dirt-cheap these days.
We’ve got more scratch to spend on a higher-end GPU, so we’ve selected a GeForce GTX 680. The GTX 680 isn’t exactly necessary for gaming at 2560×1440, but it will offer smoother gameplay at that resolution with all the options maxed out. Also, the card is quick enough to drive games across multiple displays, which you might want to do with a system like this.
Gigabyte’s version of the card is priced quite reasonably, and it’s got a big, triple-fan cooler. Our experience with similar Gigabyte coolers suggests this one should be pretty quiet. This card comes with free copies of both Borderlands 2 and Assassin’s Creed III.
Note that we’re only recommending a single card. The Double-Stuff used to have multi-GPU graphics, but the findings from our original “inside the second” article showed that combining multiple GPUs doesn’t always offer the performance benefits one might think due to synchronization issues between the GPUs. Multi-GPU schemes can nearly double FPS averages in benchmarks without reducing overall frame latencies by nearly as much. Bottom line: your gameplay may not be much smoother, even though you’ve invested twice as much into your graphics cards.
Multi-GPU configs have another obvious disavantage: when new games come out in rapid succession, it sometimes takes GPU vendors a while to catch up and deliver the right application profiles. With a single card, you can usually expect to load up a new release and enjoy it as the developers intended right away.
What’s better than a 240GB solid-state drive? Why, a 480GB solid-state drive, of course. We’re reverting to Corsair’s Force Series GT family here, since the 480GB member of that lineup is priced competitively, and Intel doesn’t offer a 335 Series rival at the same capacity. The 240GB Force Series GT is an Editor’s Choice winner, so we’re confident the 480GB model will serve the Double-Stuff Workstation well.
For our mechanical sidekicks, we’ve chosen a pair of Western Digital’s 2TB Reds. Unlike the EcoGreen F4 from previous builds, these drives have a Time-Limited Error Recovery function that makes them ideally suited for RAID arrays. (Regular drives, by contrast, might spend too long recovering errors on their own and end up dropping out of the array as a result.) We recommend arranging the 2TB Reds in a RAID 1 array for extra redundancy, but you can do whatever you please with them.
On the optical front, the LG Blu-ray burner from our Editor’s Choice config is perfectly fine here. We could spring for a fancier drive, but we see no reason to. It’s not like they make Blu-ray burners that cook dinner and remember your significant other’s birthday, anyhow.
Asus’ Xonar DX would have been too indulgent for the Editor’s Choice, but it’s right at home here in the Double-Stuff. Paying a little extra for Dolby Headphone virtualization isn’t such a crime when your total system costs more than $2,500.
We did say the Corsair Obsidian Series 650D is probably our favorite case, didn’t we?
There was a time when the Double-Stuff warranted a jumbo enclosure with room for a dual-socket motherboard and a plethora of hard drives. That time is long past, though. The Double-Stuff packs workstation-class performance into a desktop-sized package, and the way we see it, the Obsidian Series 650D is about as nice as it gets for regular-sized desktop enclosures.
If you disagree, well, we’ve singled out a larger, roomier alternative on the next page.
The Double-Stuff ought to suck up a decent amount of power, so we want a PSU with plenty of headroom. Corsair’s AX850W looks like an excellent match. It’s got 80 Plus Gold certification, which implies efficiency up to 90%, and it has a whopping seven-year warranty. Its cabling is modular, too. We’ve been using some of these AX units to power our own test rigs, and we’re happy with them.
Unlike the other processors we’ve recommended throughout the guide, the Core i7-3930K doesn’t ship with a stock cooler in the box. That means we’ve got to pick out an aftermarket solution to make the Double-Stuff Workstation whole.
Cheap heatsinks and fans are a dime a dozen, but given this machine’s high-end pedigree and the tight space around the CPU socket on X79 boards, we’ve decided to opt for the Corsair H80. This is a closed-loop liquid cooler with a large radiator that’s designed to sit between a pair of 120-mm fans. Given the Core i7-3930K’s 130W TDP, we think a solution like this makes sense—even if it costs a little more than a regular heatsink and fan.
Just as with our other builds, there are other ways you can configure the Double-Stuff.
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition||$454.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 690||$999.99|
|FireWire card||Rosewill RC-504||$19.99|
|Enclosures||Cooler Master Cosmos II||$349.99|
Were it not for the performance issues we discovered in recent games, AMD’s Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition would be the fastest single-GPU graphics card on the market right now. It still has the best game bundle: Far Cry 3, Hitman: Absolution, Sleeping Dogs, and 20% off Medal of Honor Warfighter Limited Edition.
What about multi-GPU configs? We explained our reservations about those on the previous page. However, we realize some users might want more than one graphics processor anyway, especially if they need extra horsepower to drive multiple monitor and/or stereoscopic 3D setups. To those folks, we recommend the GeForce GTX 690. This offering sticks two Kepler GPUs on a single circuit board, and it performs about on par with a pair of GeForce GTX 680 cards. However, it draws about 50W less and manages to cool both chips (and their memory) quietly using a single, dual-slot heatsink and fan. That way, you get all of the benefits of a dual-GPU setup with as few of the downsides as possible. The GTX 690 does cost a little more than dual GTX 680s, but we think the premium is worth it.
Our chosen LGA2011 motherboard lacks FireWire connectivity. If you must have FireWire, then we recommend slipping Rosewill’s RC-504 into one of your free PCI Express slots. This card is cheap, compact enough not to obstruct airflow, and well-liked by Newegg customers who reviewed it.
For those who want a humongous case to show off—or to fill with expansion cards and hard drives—then it doesn’t get much better than Cooler Master’s Cosmos II.
Yes, this enclosure is huge, and yes, it costs twice as much as the Obsidian Series 650D. However, it’s unarguably impressive, with much roomier innards, gullwing doors, and sliding metal covers. We gave it our Editor’s Choice award earlier this year.
The mobile sidekicks
These days, a good desktop PC usually isn’t enough. Tablets and laptops are everywhere, tempting us with their slim, slick enclosures and glossy displays. But which ones should you buy? We’ve put together a short list of some of our favorites, which may help you decide.
Let’s start with tablets and the big daddy in that world: Apple’s iPad. We’re up to the fourth generation, which offers essentially the same features at the same $499 starting price as the third-gen model—just with higher-performance internals and one of those newfangled Lightning connectors.
We’ve made extensive use of the second- and third-generation iPads here at TR, and we like them quite a lot. The 2048×1536 Retina display on the latest models looks gorgeous, and both default iOS apps and third-party software usually feel fast, smooth, and responsive. Those foldable Smart Covers are pretty nifty, too.
This is Google’s Nexus 7, which you may have heard of before. The tablet will set you back only $199, yet it’s surprisingly well outfitted, with a Tegra 3 processor, 1GB of RAM, 16GB of solid-state storage on the base model, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and the pièce de résistance, a seven-inch IPS panel with a 1280×800 resolution. We really dug the Nexus 7 when we reviewed it this summer—so much so that it earned a TR Editor’s Choice award.
You can also get Android in a larger package. Asus’ Transformer Pad Infinity boasts a 1920×1200 resolution that’s nearly as dense as the iPad’s, and the base model will only set you back $475 with 32GB of solid-state storage. We’ve reviewed the Transformer Pad Infinity, and while we think the iPad has a more fluid interface overall, we’re quite fond of the Transformer. Asus also sweetens the pot with a neat, laptop-style keyboard dock (asking price: $149) that boosts battery life to a whopping 16.6 hours in our web browsing and video playback tests.
Now, what about those new Windows 8 slates?
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 10.6″, 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 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 VivoTab RT avoids such awkwardness by adopting 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 VivoTab 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 VivoTab RT’s screen is slightly smaller, measuring 10.1″ instead of 10.6″. You can read our review of the VivoTab RT right here.
Now, there is one big caveat with Windows RT devices like the Surface and VivoTab 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 want devices running Intel’s Clover Trail Atom processors.
Devices based on those cost a little more than their ARM counterparts. Samsung’s Ativ SmartPC XE500, for example, is listed for $749.99 at Newegg. HP’s Envy x2, a similar Clover Trail-powered convertible tablet, will set you back $849.99. 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.) The rated battery run times seem decent, but some folks have questioned whether these are really speedy enough to handle Windows 8. Rumor has it Intel is prepping lower-wattage Ivy Bridge processors to give x86 Windows tablets a performance boost.
Windows 8 has also given rise to some bizarro ultrabooks. There’s the $999 Lenovo IdeaPad Yoga 13, whose hinge allows the 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 has 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 uses 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.
Of course, there are also more conventional laptops out there running Windows 8. One of those is the non-touch version of Asus’ Zenbook UX31A ultrabook. As far as we can tell, it’s physically identical to the model we reviewed in September, save for the bundled operating system. For $1049, that’s not a bad deal at all. Asus has a touch-enabled version coming, too, but we can’t find it on Newegg just yet.
Folks seeking a touch screen and a lower price tag may like Asus’ VivoBook X202E, which sells for only $599.99 at Newegg right now and boasts an 11.6″, 1366×768 capacitive touch screen. I’m not sure if this technically qualifies as an ultrabook, but given the 17W Ivy Bridge processor, 2.9-pound weight, and 0.8-0.9″ thickness, it at least doesn’t stray far from the formula. We’ve got a review of this puppy on the way, so stay tuned.
Even lower down the price ladder, 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 driver 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
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 1920×1080 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 2560×1440 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.