This is pretty good time to build a gaming rig, all things considered. We’ve seen a slew of new titles hit the market over the past three months—Crysis 3,
SimCity, Tomb Raider, BioShock Infinite—and there are many more on the way. Not only that, but both AMD and Nvidia have released new graphics cards like the Radeon HD 7790, the GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost, and the GeForce GTX Titan recently, helping to rejuvenate both the mid range and the high end.
Other happy developments have taken place, as well. 3TB and 4TB hard drives have become not just commonplace, but also affordable enough to matter. New, higher-capacity solid-state drives have hit stores, and we’ve seen existing models come down in price.
Join us for this new edition of the TR System Guide, in which we’ve retooled our staple builds to account for the new product arrivals and price fluctuations. We’ve also spiced things up with a brand-new build: the Ultrabox, a small-form-factor machine based on Intel’s Next Unit of Computing barebones PC. Keep reading for all the details.
Rules and regulations
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 build a PC 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’s target price has fluctuated over the years, but our aim has always been the same: to spec out a solid budget gaming PC without ugly compromises. Decent graphics performance is a must here, as is a strong upgrade path.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-3220 3.3GHz||$129.99|
|Memory||Corsair 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1600||$37.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 650 Ti||$129.99|
|Storage||Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 1TB||$74.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 200R||$59.99|
|Power supply||Corsair CX430M||$49.99|
Little has changed in the world of budget processors since December. AMD still offers two alternatives to the Core i3-3220: the FX-4300 and the A10-5800K. Both have power envelopes around 100W, which dwarf the Core i3’s surprisingly modest 55W TDP. Tighter power envelopes are what we want, since they translate into lower power consumption and quieter cooling. Both AMD chips also fail to match the Core i3-3220’s gaming performance with a discrete graphics card.
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 GeForce GTX 650 Ti. That renders the A10’s superior IGP superfluous.
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.
Our Intel CPU doesn’t need a terribly expensive motherboard. At a little under $100, Gigabyte’s GA-H77-DS3H delivers everything we should need for the Econobox: 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.
PC memory prices are on the rise. They’ve climbed substantially since we published our last guide, and there’s no reversal in sight—quite the opposite, actually. As a result, we think it makes sense to downgrade the Econobox from an 8GB DDR3 kit to a 4GB one like this Corsair DDR3-1600 bundle. (DDR-1600 is the maximum speed supported out of the box by our processor.) The downgrade saves us about $23, and it should have a fairly minimal impact on performance, unless you’re planning to use the Econobox for seriously memory-intensive tasks like HD video editing, extreme Photoshopping, or digging into the huge spreadsheets from our GPU reviews.
AMD and Nvidia both unleashed new GPUs in the $150-200 price range last month. We tested them and reviewed them, and they’re great products—but they’re a little pricey for the Econobox.
Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t do better than the Radeon HD 7770 we included last time. Variants of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 650 Ti like this Gigabyte model are quicker than the 7770, and they’ve come come down to just $130. Radeon fans will point out that the 7770 ships with Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, which is true. However, we don’t think a free copy of a cheesy 80s-inspired shooter is worth settling for lower performance, especially given all the new, eye-candy-filled PC games that have rolled out lately. The GTX 650 Ti is just a better card for the money at this point.
Solid-state drives still aren’t cheap enough to fit into the Econobox. (Not in our primary recommendations, anyhow, since we also need a mechanical drive for mass storage.) Even sadder, our old mechanical workhorse, Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 1TB, appears to have been discontinued.
Don’t reach for the Prozac just yet, though, because we’ve managed to upgrade our storage by selecting a 1TB Seagate Barracuda drive with a 7,200-RPM spindle speed, a 64MB cache, and 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity available for just $75. Western Digital offers a similar drive, the 1TB Blue, in this price range, but we prefer the Seagate. The ‘cuda has fewer, denser platters (just one of ’em, actually), higher performance, and comparable user ratings on Newegg. Our only beef is the two-year warranty, which is unfortunately standard fare in the hard-drive space nowadays.
We’re rounding out our storage recs with a DVD burner. Optical drives are almost unnecessary in modern PCs, but this is a full-sized desktop, and we have three 5.25″ drive bays just waiting to be filled. A DVD burner like Asus’ DRW-24B1ST only costs an extra $20 or so, and it can always come in handy.
We used to recommend Antec’s Three Hundred case for this build, but Corsair has bested Antec pretty much across the board with its Carbide Series 200R case. The 200R sells for $60 and packs a wealth of enthusiast-friendly goodness. Thumbscrews abound, the cable-routing holes are nice and wide, the 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 tested the 200R right alongside the Three Hundred Two, an improved version of the Three Hundred, and working in the Corsair case was far more comfortable and convenient. The 200R only had one disadvantage: it didn’t keep components quite as cool as the Three Hundred Two. The difference was relatively small, however, and we were stress-testing with high-end, power-hungry components. The Econobox has a 55W CPU and a power-sipping GPU, so thermals aren’t a big challenge here.
This system doesn’t draw a lot of power, so we don’t need a very beefy PSU. 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 can be frighteningly prone to failures that can take out other components. No thanks. We’ll spend a little more on a branded, high-efficiency unit with good reviews.
The Corsair CX430M ticks all of the right boxes: 80 Plus Bronze certification, modular cabling, a jumbo intake fan that should be reasonably quiet, a three-year warranty, and a low price. Antec’s competing EA-430 is similar, but it lacks modular cables—and we’ve been spoiled by the ease of use and convenience of modular power supplies in higher-end builds. Since that convenience comes at no extra cost here (the Corsair unit is actually cheaper), we’d be fools to pass it up.
Want an AMD processor, more RAM, or a faster graphics card? Read on.
|Processor||AMD A10-5800K 3.8GHz||$129.99|
|Motherboard||ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6||$99.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$60.99|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 3K 120GB||$119.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB||$99.99|
|Graphics||HIS Radeon HD 7850 2GB||$179.99|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost||$169.99|
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. In that instance, you can skip the discrete graphics and rely solely on the IGP for gaming.
There’s no good way to spin the A10’s 100W power envelope and currently ambiguous upgrade path, though. This is a fairly power-hungry chip, and it’s the quickest one available for its socket.
If you don’t mind 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 we dislike its lower clock speed. 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 accommodate the A10-5800K conform to the microATX form factor, which means 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.
Not happy with our downgrade to 4GB of RAM? Then feel free to spring for an 8GB kit, instead.
The Econobox’s storage config can be beefed up in one of three ways.
You can get a solid-state drive and load it up with your operating system and applications. A 120-128GB offering is probably your best bet for a system like this one. Among the solutions in that capacity range, Kingston’s HyperX 3K 120GB is perhaps the best deal. Thanks to its use of synchronous flash memory, the HyperX 3K is quicker than more affordable SSDs based on the same SandForce controller—and much faster than solutions based on TLC flash, like Samsung’s sub-$100 840 Series 120GB. Nevertheless, the HyperX 3K is inexpensive enough to undercut drives like the 128GB Samsung 840 Pro Series, which offers slightly higher performance than the HyperX 3K at a not-so-slight premium.
An alternative storage upgrade for the Econobox is to replace the 1TB Seagate Barracuda with a 2TB version of the same drive. The extra terabyte only raises the price by $25, and you get the same 7,200-RPM spindle speed and 64MB cache as in the lower-capacity model. That means you don’t miss out on performance like you would with “Green” 2TB offerings. Going with a Western Digital Black drive would mean even higher performance with random I/O… but the 1TB Black costs the exact same as the 2TB ‘cuda, which makes it a rather poor value.
Your third option is to get both the 120GB Kingston SSD and the 2TB Barracuda. You’ll have to shell out an extra $150 over the price of our recommended build, but you’ll get the best of both worlds: fast solid-state storage for your OS and software and plentiful mechanical mass storage for music, movies, TV shows, and other files.
Our graphics alternative for the Econobox is also a multiple-choice deal.
You could nab AMD’s Radeon HD 7850 2GB, which is a big upgrade over our primary recommendation—and ships with free copies of BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, to boot. Or you could save $10 and go with Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost, which doesn’t come with free games but does sweeten the pot with $75 of free-to-play credit (redeemable in PlanetSide, World of Tanks, and Hawken).
These two cards offer largely comparable performance overall, with the GeForce edging out the Radeon in some games and falling a little behind in others. It’s really kind of a toss-up. If you put a gun to our heads, we’d probably pick the 7850 2GB, just because it has the nicer game bundle. Frame latency issues made us wary of recommending Radeons in the past, but AMD’s latest drivers have mostly ironed out those problems. In fact, some of our recent testing shows the Radeons faring better than their GeForce rivals in our latency-focused metrics.
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 enough added wiggle room to include a faster processor, a quicker graphics card, solid-state storage, and other luxuries.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3470 3.2GHz||$199.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$134.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$60.99|
|Graphics||Diamond Radeon HD 7870||$234.99|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 3K 120GB||$119.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB||$99.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$59.99|
|Power supply||Corsair CX600M||$79.99|
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.
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 advantage 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.
We were tempted to pick the Core i5-3570K, with its unlocked multiplier for easy overclocking. However, we are trying to keep to a budget, and not everyone will want to dabble in the dark art of pushing a processor beyond its intended speed. We have included the 3570K in the alternatives section, though. If you think you might want to overclock your CPU, consider paying the extra 30 bucks or so for the 3570K instead.
Asus’ Z77 Express-based P8Z77-V LK motherboard has powered several versions of our Sweet Spot builds, and we see no reason to retire it. This mobo doesn’t break the bank and has everything we might want: USB 3.0 connectivity, SLI and CrossFire support via two PCIe x16 slots (which are configurable in a x8/x8 lane setup), sideways-mounted SATA 6Gbps ports (which shouldn’t interfere with long graphics cards), and Asus’ excellent UEFI firmware and fan speed controls. Even Lucid’s Virtu MVP software is included.
Corsair’s 8GB DDR3-1600 kit is one of the most affordable listed at Newegg; also, it runs at the maximum speed supported by our processor out of the box, and it’s covered by a lifetime warranty.
If you read our last edition of the guide, you might notice that the Sweet Spot has gotten a slight graphics downgrade this time around. That’s because we’re trying to keep within spitting distance of our $1,000 budget. The Radeon HD 7870 is slower than the GeForce GTX 660 Ti we picked last time, but it costs about 70 bucks less, and it’s still more than quick enough to deliver smooth gameplay at 1080p in today’s games. Gaming at higher resolutions is also feasible, though doing so smoothly may require the use of lower detail levels.
Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 660 non-Ti is even more affordable than the 7870. However, it’s not quite as fast in recent titles, and the Radeon has a much better game bundle: BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon. (The GeForce comes with $150 of credit for free-to-play games—nowhere near as exciting.)
Option C from the Econobox’s storage alternatives doubles as our primary config for the Sweet Spot. We have Kingston’s HyperX 3K 120GB, which should ensure speedy boot and application load times, and Seagate’s 2TB Barracuda 7,200 RPM, which should deliver reasonably quick mass storage at a great price.
There’s an optical drive in the mix, too. 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’s not a luxury suitable for this budget.
Yeah, yeah, we know some of you think sound cards are relics from the 1990s. However, every time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete cards wind up sounding noticeably better than motherboard audio. We’re not using audiophile-grade speakers, either. 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.
Folks with S/PDIF- or USB-based speakers or headphones can skip the Xonar. Those solutions 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 Econobox’s Corsair Carbide Series 200R case for the Sweet Spot. 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.
Corsair’s CX600M has everything we like about the Econobox’s CX430W—modular cables, 80 Plus Bronze certification, and a big, quiet fan—and it also features a higher output capacity and a longer (five-year) warranty. It’s priced quite competitively, too.
Sweet Spot alternatives
Don’t like our primary picks? As with the Econobox, we’ve singled out alternative selections that better fit your needs and budget.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-3570K 3.4GHz||$229.99|
|AMD FX-8350 4.0GHz||$189.99|
|Motherboard||Asus M5A97 R2.0||$94.99|
|Graphics||PowerColor Radeon HD 7950 Boost||$299.99|
|MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti PE||$299.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 Pro Series 256GB||$219.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB||$134.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$69.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
Oh my, another multiple-choice recommendation.
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 faster 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 are 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 less than $100, yet it features dual PCI Express x16 slots (arranged in a x16/x4 lane setup), six 6Gbps ATA ports, USB 3.0, and Asus’ excellent UEFI and fan control firmware. The big heatsinks on the power regulation circuitry may help with overclocking, too.
Technically, we should be sticking a GeForce GTX 660 in here, since that’s obvious alternative to the Radeon HD 7870.
We don’t think the GTX 660 is all that appealing, though. Instead, we think you’re better off going up a tier and considering either the GeForce GTX 660 Ti (represented here by MSI’s excellent Power Edition) or the Radeon HD 7950 Boost (included in the form of this PowerColor model).
These are, by and large, comparable performers—and the extra punch they pack over the 7870 means they’re more capable at resolutions above 1080p. The 7950 Boost costs a little more than the GTX 660 Ti and ships with free copies of BioShock Infinite, Crysis 3, and Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon. The 660 Ti, on the other hand, draws a little less power under load and comes with $150 worth of credit for free-to-play games. The 7950 Boost seems like the best bargain to us, but you can’t really go wrong with either card.
Our standard Sweet Spot build has a fine storage config—but there’s always room for more capacity.
On the SSD front, it’s hard to find a better drive in the 240-256GB range than Samsung’s 840 Pro Series 256GB. The 840 Pro costs about the same as 240GB SandForce drives like the Intel 335 Series and the larger version of Kingston’s HyperX 3K. However, the Samsung is both faster and more capacious than those offerings. The 840 Pro also has a large performance advantage over the more affordable 840 Series 250GB, which is based on TLC flash memory that has lower write performance.
On the mechanical side of things, Seagate offers a 3TB version of its 7,200-RPM Barracuda. There isn’t much else to say about this drive, except that it costs $30 less than Western Digital’s 2TB Black, and it’s priced almost identically to WD’s 3TB Green, which has a lower spindle speed and thus lower performance.
Finally, if you’re keen 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||$219.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P8Z77-V LK||$134.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$69.99|
|Graphics||PowerColor Radeon HD 7950 Boost||$299.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 Pro Series 256GB||$219.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB||$134.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$69.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$59.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$189.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX650W||$119.99|
|CPU cooler||Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus||$29.99|
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 kits adds up to all of nine 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.
As we said on the previous page, the Radeon HD 7950 Boost is probably the best bargain at the $300 price point. It’s on par with the competing GeForce GTX 660 Ti—which is speedy enough for smooth gaming at 2560×1440 in most games—and it has an excellent game bundle that includes BioShock Infinite, Crysis 3, and Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon.
Speaking of the Samsung, it appears to be on sale right now, and Newegg is concealing the drive’s price until you get part of the way into the checkout process. We don’t mind jumping through hoops to get the best product at the best price, but if it makes you uncomfortable—or the 840 Pro’s price has gone up by the time you read this—then check the next page for an alternative SSD recommendation.
Oh, and we might as well throw in that Blu-ray burner from the Sweet Spot alternatives.
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 in. Thanks to the huge amount of space around the motherboard tray and the almost excessive number of cable-routing holes, installation is smooth and painless. There’s hardly a better option for the Editor’s Choice right now… except perhaps for Corsair’s own Graphite Series 600T, which we’ve included as an alternative on the next page.
Our nod goes to the Corsair HX650W, a modular unit with 80 Plus Gold certification and connectors galore. We wouldn’t dream of getting a non-modular unit. 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.
We shied away from recommending aftermarket cooling with previous versions of the Editor’s Choice, but we’ve changed our mind this time. Part of the appeal of the Core i5-3570K is its fully unlocked upper multiplier, and overclocking is no fun if you’re constrained by a stock cooler. Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus is a popular and very affordable alternative to the flimsy stock heatsink. It has a tower-style design with three copper heat pipes, a decent-sized array of aluminum fins, and a 120-mm PWM fan. Newegg shoppers seem to like it a lot: they’ve given the Hyper 212 a five-star average out of over 4,000 reviews.
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||MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti PE||$299.99|
|Storage||Intel 335 Series 240GB||$189.99|
|Seagate Desktop HDD.15 4TB||$189.99|
|Case||Corsair Graphite Series 600T||$149.99|
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 clock, 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.
The Radeon HD 7950 Boost has a nicer game bundle than the GeForce GTX 660 Ti, but what if you don’t care? In that case, our MSI GeForce GTX 660 Ti will suit your needs just as well as the Radeon—and if you ever feel like pairing up two of these cards in a dual-GPU config, Nvidia’s frame metering tech will deliver smoother, more fluid gameplay than what you’d get with dual Radeons. See this article for more details.
Like we said, Newegg makes it unnecessarily difficult to check the price of the Samsung 840 Pro Series 256GB right now. Intel’s 335 Series 240GB costs less and doesn’t make you jump through hoops. It is a little slower than the Samsung drive, though, and it has a slightly lower capacity.
We prefer the metal construction of the Obsidian Series 650D, but 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 based on molded plastic. 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 of the 600T 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||$309.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$136.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition Double D||$449.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 Pro||$519.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200-RPM 3TB||$134.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200-RPM 3TB||$134.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$69.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$169.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$189.99|
Sandy Bridge-E systems still deliver unquestionably higher performance than their newer Ivy Bridge cousins. They’re more expensive, but the extra performance can be worth it. And LGA2011 doesn’t just get you more cores; it also offers more memory channels and PCI Express lanes.
Intel’s fastest processor right now is the thousand-dollar Core i7-3970X. For about half that price, 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 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 this board’s firmware 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 DIMMs. 16GB of RAM might seem like overkill, but we’re talking about a workstation-class system here.
The Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition sits one tier up from the 7950 Boost on the performance scale. This bad boy delivers smoother performance at higher resolutions, even opening the door to multi-monitor gaming. Like the 7950, the 7970 also ships with free copies of BioShock Infinite, Crysis 3, and Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon. There doesn’t seem to be much of a difference in terms of either pricing or speed between this card and the competing GeForce GTX 680. Since the Radeon has the more appealing game bundle, it gets our vote for the Double-Stuff.
However, if you plan to buy a second card down the line, then you’ll probably be better off with the GeForce. Radeon CrossFire configs have some serious issues with uneven or partial frame delivery. The frame metering tech built into Nvidia’s SLI multi-GPU scheme helps compensate for that problem. (This article has more details.) If you think you might upgrade to a multi-GPU solution, consider starting with a GeForce GTX 680. You’ll find our Nvidia graphics card recommendation on the next page.
What’s better than a 256GB solid-state drive? Why, a 512GB solid-state drive, of course, like the Samsung 840 Pro we’ve chosen. This drive doesn’t cost much more per gigabyte than 480GB SandForce offerings, and since the 256GB 840 Pro handled itself well in our benchmarks, we expect the 512GB version to be equally speedy.
For our mechanical sidekicks, we’re selecting two of Seagate’s 3TB Barracudas. These are quick, roomy, and inexpensive. Having two of them means you can set up a RAID 1 array, which will provide a measure of redundancy and fault-tolerance. Users who want to live dangerously can also configure a striped RAID 0 array; in that case, a single drive failure will take down the entire array, but performance will be a lot snappier than with RAID 1 or individual drives.
Oh, and if 3TB isn’t enough to satisfy your mass-storage needs, check the next page. We’ve featured a couple of 4TB mechanical offerings there.
The LG Blu-ray burner from our Editor’s Choice config is perfectly fine as our optical drive. We could spring for a fancier solution, but we see no reason to do so.
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 close to three grand.
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. Today’s 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. This unit has 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 need to pick 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 H80i. 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. The H80i has better fans than the H80 we recommended last time, and it also supports Corsair’s Link feature, which lets you keep an eye on coolant temperatures and control fan speeds from Windows.
Just as with our other builds, there are other ways you can configure the Double-Stuff.
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 680||$469.99|
|Asus GeForce GTX Titan||$999.99|
|Storage||Seagate Desktop HDD.15 4TB||$189.99|
|Seagate Desktop HDD.15 4TB||$189.99|
|Western Digital Black 4TB||$299.99|
|Western Digital Black 4TB||$299.99|
|Crucial M500 960GB||$599.99|
|FireWire card||Rosewill RC-506E||$29.99|
|Enclosures||Cooler Master Cosmos II||$349.99|
The GeForce GTX 680 is the Radeon HD 7970 GHz’s direct rival. It costs about the same, performs about the same, and draws a wee bit more power under load. It also comes with free-to-play credit instead of bundled triple-A games. And, like our Sapphire 7970, this Gigabyte GTX 680 has a dual-fan cooler that seems to be pretty quiet. We think the Radeon is the better deal for a single-GPU setup. In a multi-GPU config, however, Nvidia’s frame metering technology gives the GTX 680 the upper hand—unless, for some reason, you happen to like runt frames and microstuttering problems.
Our other graphics alternative isn’t available at Newegg today, but we thought it’d be a shame to leave it out. The GeForce GTX Titan‘s jumbo single GPU allows it to nip at the heels of the dual-GPU GeForce GTX 690, all while drawing less power and generating less noise. The GTX 690 and the Titan are both horrendously expensive at $999.99, but the Titan is probably the better option, especially if the potential compatibility quirks of multi-GPU configs worry you.
If they don’t, and you have an extra thousand bucks burning a hole in your pocket, you can also get two GTX Titans to run in SLI. It’s hard to imagine a better graphics setup than that.
The dual 3TB, 7,200-RPM ‘cudas on the previous page offer decent performance and plentiful storage capacity. If you’re still hungry for more, though, there are two ways you can go.
You can nab a pair of Seagate’s 4TB Desktop HDD.15 drives, which cost about the same per gig but are saddled with a lower, 5,900-RPM spindle speed (and thus slower performance). Or you can spring for WD’s 4TB Blacks, which feature five years of warranty coverage and should be even quicker than the 3TB ‘cudas with random I/O. The only downside is that the Blacks cost $299.99 each, which means a dual-drive RAID would ring in at almost $600. That’s pretty pricey for mechanical storage nowadays.
Like the GTX Titan, Crucial’s M500 960GB solid-state drive is out of stock at Newegg right as we’re about to post this revision of the guide. We’re including it anyway, since it’s easily the most affordable near-terabyte SSD on the market. You’ll get better performance out of the 512GB Samsung 840 Pro Series, but the M500 offers nearly double the capacity for only 80 bucks more. 960GB at 63 cents/GB is worth at least considering.
Our chosen LGA2011 motherboard lacks FireWire connectivity. If you must have FireWire, then we recommend slipping Rosewill’s RC-506E into one of your free PCI Express slots. This card is inexpensive, compact enough not to obstruct airflow, and compatible with both A and B FireWire ports.
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, gull-wing doors, and sliding metal covers. We gave it our Editor’s Choice award.
An ultrabook in desktop form
Our wildcard builds in the System Guide are usually home-theater PCs or small-form-factor gaming rigs, but we felt like doing something a little different this time. The Ultrabox is based on Intel’s Next Unit of Computing, a barebones PC that packs ultrabook-class hardware into a tiny chassis measuring just 4.6″ x 4.4″ x 1.6″. This machine is small, quiet, affordable, and powerful enough for basic desktop tasks. Not only that, but the presence of Thunderbolt connectivity opens the door to all kinds of future expansion, from external graphics to daisy-chained storage arrays.
|Barebones PC||Intel NUC BOXDC3217BY||$314.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 SO-DIMM||$45.99|
|Wi-Fi adapter||Intel Centrino 6235 IEEE 802.11n||$31.99|
|Storage||Mushkin Atlas 120GB mSATA||$109.99|
|Power cable||Cables To Go 3-slot power cord||$3.99|
|HDMI cable||Coboc 6′ HDMI cable||$1.99|
|OS||Windows 8 64-bit OEM||$99.99|
There are several versions of the NUC floating around e-tail stocks. The BOXDC3217BY (gesundheit) is the nicest of the bunch; it has the quickest processor, a Core i3-3217U clocked at 1.8GHz, and it’s the only one with Thunderbolt connectivity. There’s a VESA mounting bracket in the box, as well, so the system can be bolted to the back of a monitor to save space.
You might recall that we had overheating issues with this version of the NUC after testing it in January. Since then, Intel has released a new BIOS with a tweaked fan profile, which prevents ugly system crashes when the Wi-Fi adapter and SSD get too hot.
4GB of RAM is probably enough for this sort of system, but we have to be careful to choose SO-DIMMs, not full-sized desktop modules (which the NUC doesn’t support). This Kingston HyperX kit is one of the cheapest 4GB dual-channel SO-DIMM bundles around, and it’s rated for the maximum speed our CPU supports: 1600MHz. Kingston offers lifetime warranty coverage, too.
Intel’s Centrino 6235 adapter fits inside the NUC’s Mini PCI Express slot, and it delivers both 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity. That’s about all the wireless goodness we need here. For what it’s worth, the Centrino 6235 is the same Wi-Fi adapter Intel sent us in our NUC review unit.
The NUC doesn’t have room for an internal hard drive. All it has is an mSATA slot primed for a diminutive SSD.
mSATA SSDs are difficult to find at retail, but we managed to track down a suitable drive: Mushkin’s Atlas 120GB, which has a SandForce controller, good performance ratings, and pricing per gigabyte on par with desktop offerings. That’s all we could ask for, really.
Too bad there’s no room in the NUC for a mechanical mass-storage drive. If you want one of those, you’ll have to connect an external model via USB or Thunderbolt.
We thought we’d have to pair the Ultrabox with a cheap TN monitor in order to maintain a reasonable, ultrabook-like budget. As it turns out, though, there are some new, very affordable IPS monitors out there.
One of them, Asus’ VS229H-P, is available for only $140. It sports a 21.5″ panel with 1080p resolution and the same 178-degree viewing angles as any other IPS monitor. Given the price, we suspect this display may have one of those lower-quality 6-bit IPS panels we’ve seen around. Even if that’s the case, though, it’s still preferable to an el-cheapo TN monitor with narrower viewing angles.
By the way, this monitor has VESA mounting holes at the back. That means we can fasten the NUC to it.
Keyboard and mouse
Enermax’s Briskie combines a nice laptop-style keyboard with a capable wireless mouse. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s cheap and decent, and TR’s Scott Wasson is a fan.
Power and HDMI cables
The NUC ships with a power brick, but somehow, it doesn’t include the power lead needed to connect the brick to a wall outlet. We have to buy that separately. Similarly, we need an HDMI cable, since our monitor only comes with DVI and VGA leads, and the NUC’s only display outputs are Mini DisplayPort and HDMI.
Ultrabooks ship with Windows 8, as do pretty much all newer PCs, so that’s what we’re going with—specifically, the 64-bit OEM edition of Windows. Skip ahead a couple of pages for more details about Microsoft’s latest OS.
We won’t devote a whole other page to our alternative recommendations for this build, since there are only two of them.
Some ultrabooks have touch-screen displays, and you may want the Ultrabox to mimic them.
We’re not thrilled about the price premium required to get touch input on a desktop monitor, but if you really want to go there, then the Planar PXL2430MW looks like a solid choice. For $350, it has a 23.6″ panel with a 1080p resolution, multi-touch input, and a low-profile stand appropriate for touch use. There’s an HDMI input, as well, which means out-of-the-box compatibility with the NUC sans adapters. (You do have to connect both the HDMI and USB cables to take advantage of touch input, though.)
Unfortunately, the PXL2430MW doesn’t appear to use an IPS panel. Planar’s website doesn’t mention the exact panel type, but the 160° vertical viewing angle sounds more like TN than IPS to us.
Another, more affordable way to endow the Ultrabox with touch input is to nab one of Logitech’s T650 touchpads. The T650 supports multi-touch gestures, is pretty comfortable to use, and has a pleasantly large tracking surface similar to that of Apple’s Magic Trackpad. Unlike the Apple offering, though, the T650 is designed for use with Windows.
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. 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 liked the Nexus 7 when we reviewed it last 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 only costs $439 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 sweetens the pot with a neat, laptop-style keyboard dock (asking price: $125) 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). The Surface’s Tegra 3 processor is a fair bit slower than the iPad’s 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’ $500 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 stand-alone 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 or Ivy Bridge processors.
Clover Trail-based convertibles include Samsung’s Ativ SmartPC XE500, which is listed for $699.99 at Newegg, and HP’s Envy x2, which is available for just $599.99. 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, and performance should be adequate for basic productivity work and web browsing. Just don’t expect anything close to ultrabook-level performance.
If you don’t need a proper convertible, Asus’ Clover Trail-based VivoTab Smart may be worth a look. It costs only $449.99 and had a 10.1″ 1366×768 screen, 64GB of storage capacity, and Windows 8. There’s no detachable keyboard in the box, though. Asus offers an ersatz Smart Cover and Bluetooth keyboard combo for $106.99, but that’s a separate purchase, and the keyboard doesn’t actually dock with the tablet—it just latches on to the floppy, foldable cover.
If you want the best performance, then you’ll have to pony up for something with an Ivy Bridge CPU. Options there include Samsung’s ATIV SmartPC Pro 700T, which is pretty much an ultrabook turned into a convertible, touch-enabled tablet. It costs just under $1,100 at Newegg, weighs 3.53 lbs with the dock, and features an 11.6″ 1080p display, a Core i3-3317U processor, and 128GB of solid-state storage. We measured battery life at 6.4 hours during web browsing and 5.3 hours in our video playback test, although battery life took a small hit when he had the dock connected. See here for our full review.
Windows 8 has also given rise to some… unusual systems, like the $900 IdeaPad Yoga 13 from Lenovo. This machine’s 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, though. It has a Core i3 processor, 4GB 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 $999.99, that’s not a bad deal at all.
Folks seeking a touch screen and a lower price tag may like Asus’ VivoBook X202E, which sells for only $549.99 at Newegg right now and features an 11.6″, 1366×768 capacitive touch screen. With a 17W Ivy Bridge processor, 2.9-pound weight, and 0.8-0.9″ thickness, it doesn’t stray far from the ultrabook formula. We weren’t very impressed with the system’s performance, battery life, or display quality, but hey—you get what you pay for.
Further still down the price ladder, HP offers a Windows 8 version of its Pavilion dm1z ultraportable for $399.99. This little 11.6″ machine 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. 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 cursor 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||—||$199.99||—|
|Price – upgrade from Windows 8 (non-Pro)||—||$111.10||—|
|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.
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 an add-on to Windows 8 Pro for $9.99. You can find instructions for downloading it here.
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 G215HVBbd, which costs $110 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 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.
As we noted earlier, there are now small-ish IPS monitors priced well under $200, like Asus’ 21.5″ VS229H-P and 23″ VS239H-P. We suspect those monitors have less expensive 6-bit IPS panels, but their viewing angles are still much wider than those of cheaper TN-based offerings.
Also in the IPS department, those Korean monitors we wrote about last summer are excellent deals. 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. And Korean monitors are very affordable. 27″ models with 2560×1440 resolutions can be found for only $370 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 $398.99. By contrast, a similar offering from, say, Dell will cost you $650 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 $450 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 $1,100 for one of Dell’s 30-inch behemoths. Scott 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 $110 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. Corsair has some all-mechanical versions of those keyboards in the pipeline, but they don’t seem to be available yet.
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.
Scott also has a couple of recommendations to throw in. If mechanical keyboards aren’t your thing, then Enermax’s Briskie combo offers a very affordable laptop-style keyboard with a surprisingly snappy key feel and a nicely shaped optical mouse. (Don’t let the silly name fool you.) Also, if you plan to stick your PC in the living room and use it from the couch, the Rii N7 is another option worth considering. 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.
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 $80, it doesn’t break the bank. Logitech’s M510 costs about half that and offers an ambidextrous shape that should 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 cost you just $65 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, Scott recommends 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 Acoustics’ 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 $4 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 $17 and slides into any 3.5″ 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.
And that about wraps up our April guide.
We’ve got it pretty good, all things considered. There’s a bit of a price war going on in the GPU market, and AMD’s game bundles are making already sweet bargains even sweeter. I mean, how can you say no to free copies of BioShock Infinite and Crysis 3? It would be nice if memory prices stayed put—or even went down a little—but our builds still pack tremendous value for the money.
That’s not to say the future isn’t even brighter. According to the rumor mill, Intel will unleash its next-gen Haswell processors in early June, and AMD should have desktop versions of its new Richland APUs out in the not-too-distant future, too. We also know AMD has a dual-GPU Radeon HD 7990 on the way, which may spur a pricing skirmish at the top end of the PC graphics market.
For now, it’s a great time to be a PC enthusiast—and a great time to build a new PC.