This spring and early summer have certainly been eventful. Over a few short months, we’ve seen the arrival of Intel’s Haswell processors and AMD’s Richland APUs. Not only that, but Nvidia has found the time to unleash three graphics cards as part of the new GeForce GTX 700 series.
That’s a lot of fresh hardware. And it means the time is right for another TR system guide.
In this edition, we’ve updated our processor and graphics picks to take the new products into account. In some cases, that meant rethinking the purpose of our builds and reevaluating our priorities. In other instances, that meant keeping things as they were—because new isn’t always better. We’ve also tweaked our memory and solid-state storage recommendations to adjust for pricing and availability shifts, which tend to happen awfully often these days.
Join us as we walk you through our four revamped builds: the Econobox, the Sweet Spot, the Editor’s Choice, and the Double-Stuff Workstation. We’ve packed each one full of the finest hardware available at each price point. And, since we seem to have reached the end of this season’s release marathon, these recommendations should stay relevant for a good few months.
At least, we hope so.
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||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1600||$46.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 650 Ti||$129.99|
|Storage||Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 1TB||$69.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 200R||$59.99|
|Power supply||Corsair CX430M||$49.99|
The arrival of AMD’s Richland processors hasn’t really changed the dynamic in this price range. AMD solutions still offer superior integrated graphics and multithreaded CPU performance at a premium, but Intel’s Ivy Bridge-based Core i3 chips continue to deliver better single-threaded performance at lower prices.
Since the Econobox is outfitted with a discrete graphics card, we’re going to give the Core i3 the nod again for our primary config. This chip performs better than competing AMD solutions in games, and as a bonus, it will consume less power doing so. Casual gamers and folks who want to prioritize multithreaded performance can skip to the Econobox alternatives section on the next page, where we recommend one of the new Richland A-series APUs.
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 have climbed further since our last edition of the guide, so there’s no way we’re going back to an 8GB kit this time. This Kingston dual-channel kit is one of the most affordable 4GB DDR-1600 bundles listed right now. It runs as fast as our processor supports, and it’s affordable enough to keep us from straying too far from our budget. What more could we want?
The GeForce GTX 650 Ti doesn’t come with free bundled games like its Radeon rivals, but it’s quicker than the Radeon HD 7770—and, among relatively low-end cards like these, every ounce of performance matters.
Our chosen GTX 650 Ti model hails from Gigabyte. It runs a fair bit quicker than Nvidia’s reference design (1032MHz, up from 928MHz), and it has a humongous fan that should keep noise levels nice and low under load. (Remember, the bigger the fan, the lower the rotational speed required to pump a given volume of air per minute.) The card also comes with $75 of credit for free-to-play games including PlanetSide 2, World of Tanks, and Hawken. The extra credit is a nice touch, although admittedly not as desirable as a free game.
If you’re more keen on Radeons, or you simply want a higher-tier card, check our alternatives on the next page.
Seagate’s 1TB Barracuda returns as our system drive of choice, since the Econobox’s budget is too tight for an SSD. The Barracuda has a 7,200-RPM spindle speed, a 64MB cache, 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity, and a very affordable price tag. Western Digital offers a similar drive in this price range, the 1TB Blue, but the ‘cuda has fewer, denser platters (just one of them, actually), higher performance, and comparable user ratings on Newegg. It’s just too bad about the two-year warranty—but WD is no better on that front.
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’ve 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, which means 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. We’ve been spoiled by the ease of use and convenience of modular power supplies in higher-end builds, and since that convenience comes cheap here, we’d be fools to pass it up.
Want an AMD processor, more RAM, or a faster graphics card? Read on.
|Processor||AMD A10-6700 3.7GHz||$148.99|
|Motherboard||ASRock FM2A85X Extreme6||$104.99|
|Memory||Corsair 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$64.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 Series 120GB||$99.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB||$99.99|
|Graphics||HIS Radeon HD 7850 2GB||$159.99|
|MSI GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost||$169.99|
If you favor integrated graphics and multithreaded CPU performance, then the A10-6700 is the processor for you. It’s not the fastest member of the Richland lineup, but it performs very closely to the top-of-the-line A10-6800K—especially on the integrated graphics front. The A10-6700 has a much tighter power envelope, though: 65W instead of 100W. These two processors cost about the same, and since we’re trying to keep the Econobox relatively cool and quiet, we think you’ll be better off with the latter.
The only big advantage the A10-6800K has over the A10-6700 is an unlocked upper multiplier. In theory, that means you’re free to overclock it to your heart’s content. In practice, though, the A10-6800K doesn’t seem to have much overclocking headroom. Turning your PC into an electric heater just to eke out insignificant performance gains seems like a waste. We think it’s wiser to stick with the A10-6700 and enjoy that chip’s lower TDP.
Most motherboards designed to accommodate A-series APUs 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 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 range, it’s hard to beat the capacity per dollar of Samsung’s 840 Series 120GB. This may not be the fastest budget drive in every benchmark, but it’s still leagues quicker than mechanical storage, and a fair bit cheaper than substantially faster solutions.
An alternative storage upgrade would be to replace the 1TB Seagate Barracuda with a 2TB version of the same drive. The extra terabyte only raises the price by 30 bucks or so, and you get the same 7,200-RPM spindle speed and 64MB cache as in the lower-capacity model. Going with one of Western Digital’s Black drives would get us 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 Samsung SSD and the 2TB Barracuda. You’ll have to shell out a fair bit more cash, 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.
Unless you’re running a solid-state system drive, we recommend staying away from “Green” hard drives, which typically have spindle speeds around 5,400 RPM. These low-power models are great for secondary storage, but they’re too slow for primary duty.
Our Econobox graphics alternative is also a multiple-choice deal.
You could nab AMD’s Radeon HD 7850 2GB. It’s a big upgrade over our primary recommendation, and it ships with free copies of BioShock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, to boot. Or you could save $5 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 2, 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 i5-4430 3.0GHz||$189.99|
|Memory||Crucial 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$64.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 7870||$214.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 Series 120GB||$99.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB||$99.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$59.99|
|Power supply||Corsair CX600M||$79.99|
As the most affordable member of Intel’s Haswell lineup, the Core i5-4430 isn’t the most exciting processor in the world. However, with four cores, a 3GHz clock speed (3.2GHz with Turbo), and an 84W power envelope, it’s going to deliver solid, power-efficient performance. We don’t need much else for the Sweet Spot. Upgrading to the unlocked Core i5-4670K would open the door to overclocking, but it would also cost us an extra $50 or so—and we’re over-budget as it is. Given the diminishing returns from CPU performance gains these days, we think it’s wiser to spend less on the processor and more on other components, like graphics and solid-state storage.
The Core i5-4430 has another leg up over the i5-4670K besides price, too: support for Intel’s Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, also known as VT-d. That feature is inexplicably absent from the unlocked model. Not everybody uses virtualization, of course, but those who do may want the slower chip even if they can afford the 4670K.
We’ve already reviewed a fair number of motherboards based on Intel’s Z87 chipset. Our favorite so far is the Asus Z87-Pro. That board is a little out of the Sweet Spot’s price range, but Asus offers a more suitably priced derivative: the Z87-K.
The Z87-K has the same polished firmware as the Pro model. While it doesn’t have quite as many bells and whistles, it does take care of all the essentials. There’s USB 3.0, 6Gbps Serial ATA, dual PCI Express x16 slots (albeit with only four lanes running through the second one), a couple of legacy PCI slots, and the all-important LGA1150 socket our Haswell processor requires.
We’ve singled out a Gigabyte motherboard with more USB 3.0 ports and better integrated audio for our alternatives on the next page. That said, we think the quality of Asus’ firmware and software justifies the Z87-K’s selection as our primary pick. Also, we have little use for onboard audio here, since we’re recommending a discrete sound card.
This Crucial 8GB DDR3-1600 kit is one of the most affordable listed at Newegg. Also, it runs at the maximum speed officially supported by our processor, and it’s covered by a lifetime warranty. Yep, add that to the shopping list.
The Radeon HD 7870 was a no-brainer for the Sweet Spot when AMD’s Never Settle Reloaded bundle was in full force. Now, though, it’s difficult to find a bundle with more than just one title: Crysis 3. Is the 7870 still a better choice than Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 660?
Well, the GeForce does come with Metro: Last Light, and it is a little more affordable and more power-efficient than the Radeon. However, the 7870 is faster and doesn’t cost very much more. Because we can’t afford to climb to the next rung up the graphics performance ladder without stretching our budget too much, we figure we might as well get the quickest solution at this rung. That’s the 7870—or, more specifically, the Sapphire version we picked out, which has a nice dual-fan cooler and is clocked 50MHz higher than the reference frequency.
If you disagree with us and would prefer a GTX 660, check our alternatives on the next page.
Option C from the Econobox’s storage alternatives doubles as our primary config for the Sweet Spot. We have Samsung’s 840 Series 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 came pretty close to selecting the Econobox’s Corsair Carbide Series 200R case for the Sweet Spot. After further reflection, though, 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 may better fit your needs and budget.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4670K 3.4GHz||$239.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 660||$199.99|
|Zotac GeForce GTX 760||$249.99|
|Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost||$269.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 Series 250GB||$189.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB||$134.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$68.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
Wanna overclock? Then you probably ought to outfit the Sweet Spot with the Core i5-4670K. This is the most affordable Haswell variant with a K-series suffix, which is a requirement for overclocking this generation. Non-K-series Ivy Bridge chips could go a few “bins” above the base clock, but corresponding Haswell models cannot.
Just make sure you get a good cooler for this processor. (You’ll find recommendations on the second-to-last page of this article.) Our overclocking attempt with the Core i7-4770K, the i5-4670K’s big brother, suggested that Haswell requires beefier cooling than Ivy Bridge when pushed much beyond 4GHz.
Not everybody will heed our recommendation and splurge on a discrete sound card. If you plan to use onboard audio, then the Gigabyte GA-Z87-D3HP is an arguably better option than the Asus mobo on the previous page. It has a Realtek ALC892 codec and a full set of audio ports, including S/PDIF for digital output and analog jacks for surround setups. As icing on the cake, the GA-Z87-D3HP delivers more USB 3.0 ports. Our only reservation is with its firmware, which isn’t as polished and has somewhat confusing fan controls. Gigabyte’s tweaking software isn’t on quite the same level as Asus’, either.
The Radeon HD 7870 may be faster than the GeForce GTX 660, but the GeForce has benefits of its own: lower power consumption, a lower price, and nice little touches like Nvidia’s GeForce Experience auto-config software. Also, the game bundled with it, Metro: Last Light, has a higher Metacritic score than Crysis 3. The MSI version of the GTX 660 we’ve chosen runs a fair bit faster than reference-clocked offerings, too, so it may not lag very far behind the Radeon.
Perhaps you’re not shooting for performance equivalency. Perhaps you just want a faster card. In that case, you can spring for either the GeForce GTX 760 or the Radeon HD 7950 Boost. These are such close contestants that we balked at declaring a winner in our latest review. Practically speaking, the real differences are as follows: the GTX 760 consumes a bit more power, costs a bit less, and comes with Metro: Last Light. The 7950 Boost is priced a little higher but ships with more games—BioShock Infinite, Crysis 3, Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, and Tomb Raider. Yeah; it’s pretty much a toss-up.
Our standard Sweet Spot build has a decent storage config, but there’s always room for more capacity. On the solid-state front, it’s hard to beat Samsung’s 840 Series 250GB. Speedier solutions with SandForce controllers are available, but they have only 240GB of capacity, and they tend to cost upwards of $200. For a mid-range build like the Sweet Spot, the 840 Series is more than good enough.
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 less than Western Digital’s 2TB Black, and it’s priced similarly 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 speeds up to 14X.
The NZXT H2’s emphasis on silence means it’s not the coolest-running case around. Folks more worried about low temperatures than low noise levels 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 i5-4670K 3.4GHz||$239.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$72.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost||$269.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 Pro Series 256GB||$249.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB||$134.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$68.99|
|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 EVO||$34.99|
We’d probably want the option to overclock If we were building a system for ourselves. The Core i5-4670K gives us that ability without costing an arm and a leg.
Asus’ Z87-A is a little nicer than the Z87-K from our previous build. It has more USB 3.0 ports, Realtek ALC892 audio with digital output, and two gen-three PCI Express x16 slots that can be run in an x8/x8 configuration, allowing for either CrossFire or SLI multi-GPU configs.
We’re making allowances for overclocking here, which is why we’ve upgraded to a Corsair Vengeance kit with fancy heatsinks. The price difference between the two kits doesn’t amount to much 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, it’s difficult to choose between the Radeon HD 7950 Boost and GeForce GTX 760. We’re recommending the Radeon here because we have a soft spot for its generous game bundle (which, again, includes Crysis 3, Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, and Tomb Raider). However, you’ll be served just as well by the GeForce, which we’ve featured in our alternatives section on the next page.
Our budget allows for ample capacity on both the solid-state and mechanical fronts. Our SSD nod goes to Samsung’s 840 Pro Series 256GB, which is pricier but also a fair bit quicker than the standard 840 Series from the previous page. We’re also going with Seagate’s Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB as our mechanical drive, since we can afford it. Oh, and we might as well throw in that Blu-ray burner from the Sweet Spot alternatives, too.
We’re certainly not falling 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. 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.
Corsair’s HX650W is an excellent modular unit with 80 Plus Gold certification and connectors galore. We wouldn’t dream of getting a non-modular PSU. 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 i5-4670K is its fully unlocked upper multiplier, and overclocking is no fun if you’re constrained by a stock cooler. Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 EVO is a popular and very affordable alternative to the flimsy stock heatsink. It has a tower-style design with four 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 EVO a five-star average out of over 1,600 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||Core i7-4770K 3.5GHz||$349.99|
|Graphics||Zotac GeForce GTX 760||$249.99|
|Storage||Seagate Desktop HDD.15 4TB||$179.99|
|Case||Corsair Graphite Series 600T||$129.99|
The Core i7-4770K is the flagship of the Haswell processor family. It’s clocked higher than the i5-4670K, packs 2MB of extra cache, and features Hyper-Threading, so it can juggle up to eight threads in parallel. That K suffix in the model number means the multiplier is fully unlocked, too.
Again, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 760 comes with fewer free games than the Radeon HD 7950 Boost (only Metro: Last Light is included), but it has a lower asking price, lower power draw, and nifty software extras. If you’re more partial to that formula, then by all means, give the Radeon the cold shoulder and go for the Nvidia card. This Zotac version of the GTX 760 is clocked a little above the reference speed, yet it retains the nice, blower-style stock cooler, which exhausts hot air directly outside the case and features Nvidia’s revised fan-control algorithm.
Seagate’s Desktop HDD.15 4TB hard drive has a lower spindle speed than the 3TB ‘cuda from the previous page, but it offers a terabyte of extra capacity. That makes it a worthwhile upgrade for mass storage purposes. Just try not to install any apps on it. (Running applications off a low-speed drive like the Desktop HDD.15 induces side-effects such as long load times, frustration, and regret.)
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|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$144.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 780||$649.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 Pro 512GB
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200-RPM 3TB||$134.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200-RPM 3TB||$134.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$68.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX850W||$169.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 650D||$189.99|
Despite all of its architectural refinements, Haswell isn’t much faster than Ivy Bridge, and it’s still a fair bit slower than the Sandy Bridge-E chips from Intel’s top-of-the-line desktop platform. Sandy Bridge-E gets you not just more cores and more threads, but also more memory channels and a greater number of 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 LGA1150 motherboards from our previous builds won’t accommodate the Core i7-3930K. We need something with an LGA2011 socket. This time, we’re going with a Gigabyte motherboard: the GA-X79-UP4. We used to recommend an Asus mobo, but we’ve found that Asus’ X79 solutions tend to draw a fair bit more power than their rivals. Since X79 boards in this price range all tend to be pretty similar from a functional standpoint, we’d rather opt for a more power-efficient model. The GA-X79-UP4 is still packed to the gills with connectivity and expansion, and it’s more affordable than the Asus P9X79 Pro we chose last time. We’ve also confirmed that that the third revision of the UP4, which is what’s selling now, is compatible with upcoming Ivy Bridge-E CPUs.
The GA-X79-UP4 lacks FireWire, though, just like our former Asus selection. If you need FireWire, check our alternatives on the next page for a FireWire card recommendation.
That Corsair Vengeance kit from the Editor’s Choice would fit in perfectly here, but we need at least four identical modules to exploit 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 GeForce GTX 780 doesn’t have any games bundled with it, which is a shame. However, this card offers a unique level of performance per dollar that makes it simply too good to pass up. It’s fairly close in performance to the thousand-dollar GeForce GTX Titan, and it has a similarly quiet and effective reference cooler, but it’s priced at a far more reasonable $650.
Also, because the GTX 780 is a single-GPU offering, it lets you avoid the pitfalls of SLI and CrossFire. (Those pitfalls usually include high noise levels, high power consumption, and sometimes game compatibility problems and uneven frame delivery.) There’s really no other graphics card quite like the GTX 780 on the market right now. AMD’s fastest single-GPU solution is the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition, which costs less but is also substantially slower.
What’s better than a 256GB solid-state drive? Why, a 512GB solid-state drive, of course. We’ve chosen the Samsung 840 Pro. 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.
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 rings in at 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||MSI GeForce GTX 770||$399.99|
|Sapphire Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition||$369.99|
|Storage||Seagate Desktop HDD.15 4TB||$189.99|
|Seagate Desktop HDD.15 4TB||$189.99|
|Western Digital Black 4TB||$289.99|
|Western Digital Black 4TB||$289.99|
|Crucial M500 960GB||$599.99|
|FireWire card||Rosewill RC-506E||$29.99|
|Enclosures||Cooler Master Cosmos II||$349.99|
As we said earlier, AMD’s fastest single-GPU card is the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition, which is both slower and cheaper than the GTX 780. If rooting for the underdog makes you happy, or you’re okay with spending less and getting lower performance, then it’s a fine choice. The Radeon comes with a pretty unbeatable game bundle, too—BioShock Infinite, Crysis 3, Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon, and Tomb Raider.
Nvidia has a direct competitor to the 7970 GHz Edition at the same price point: the GeForce GTX 770. That card doesn’t come with free games, but it’s about as fast as the Radeon, and it draws a little less power under load. You can’t really go wrong with either one of these.
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 about 300 bucks each, which means a dual-drive RAID array would ring in at almost $600. That’s pretty pricey for mechanical storage nowadays.
Crucial’s M500 960GB solid-state drive is out of stock at Newegg as we’re about to post this revision of the guide. We’re including the drive 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 not that much more. 960GB at $0.63/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.
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 $500 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: $128) that boosts battery life to a whopping 16.6 hours in our web browsing and video playback tests.
Now, what about those new Windows slates?
We’re going to skip right ahead to Windows 8 tablets and convertibles this time. Windows RT-based offerings are still available, but they’re looking less and less appealing compared to devices powered by Intel’s “Clover Trail” Atom processors. Clover Trail is fully capable of executing x86 software, unlike the ARM chips inside WinRT systems, and it delivers both adequate performance and competitive battery life. The only downside is somewhat higher pricing, but there are Clover Trail tablets available for well under $500 today. We don’t think you should put up with the limitations of the WinRT and ARM tag-team given the small savings involved.
If all you need is a tablet, then Asus’ Clover Trail-based VivoTab Smart is definitely worth a look. It costs only $499 and had a 10.1″ 1366×768 screen, 64GB of storage capacity, and Windows 8. Asus offers an ersatz Smart Cover and Bluetooth keyboard combo for about $100, although the keyboard doesn’t actually dock with the tablet—it just latches on to the floppy, foldable cover.
Proper Clover Trail-based convertibles include Samsung’s Ativ SmartPC XE500, which is listed for $700 at Newegg, and HP’s Envy x2, which is a little pricier at $805. Both of these convertible tablets have 11.6″ screens and genuine keyboard docks. 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.
Users seeking higher performance will have to pony up for something with an Ivy Bridge CPU. “Ah,” I hear you say, “but what about Haswell ultrabooks?” Well, a number of sexy-lookin’ models were announced at Computex, but unfortunately, they don’t seem to be available yet. For now, Ivy Bridge is still where it’s at in the ultrabook world.
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 we had the dock connected. See here for our full review.
Windows 8 has also given rise to some… unusual systems, like the $850 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 last September, save for the bundled operating system. For $800, that’s not a bad deal at all.
Folks who want a touch screen and a lower price tag may like Asus’ VivoBook X202E, which sells for only $465 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. This system is held back by single-channel memory, though, and we weren’t very impressed with its performance, battery life, or display quality. But hey—you get what you pay for.
An even more affordable solution is HP’s TouchSmart 11z, which features one of AMD’s new Kabini processors, an 11.6″ touch screen, and a $355 price tag. Just don’t expect stellar performance. The A4-1250 chip inside has only two cores clocked at 1GHz. We tested a quicker variant of Kabini with four 1.5GHz cores not long ago, and even it fell short of the hamstrung Core i3 processor inside the VivoBook X202E.
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||—||$179.99||—|
|Price – upgrade from Windows 8 (non-Pro)||—||$99.99||—|
|Price – OEM (64-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||—|
|Price – OEM (32-bit) license||$99.99||$129.99||—|
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 4GB 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.
Peripherals, accessories, and extras
Matters of religion and taste
There’s no way we can walk you through every monitor, keyboard, mouse, and PC speaker system out there. We probably could if we worked on it for a month, but the resulting article would be extremely long and, in all likelihood, very boring to read.
What we can do is present you with a list of our favorites—and perhaps some other, notable options—in each category. Most of our waking hours are spent basking in the glow of big IPS displays and rattling away on expensive keyboards, so we have a good grasp of the subject. You might disagree with our preferences, of course, but we think our experience can help users who haven’t already decided what they want.
Folks shopping for a monitor these days pretty much have three 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 G236HLBbd, which costs $120 and crams a 1920×1080 resolution into a 23″ screen. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that approach, and you might wind up completely satisfied. Users who spend most of their time gaming and browsing the web will probably be happy enough with a TN monitor. Another option is to get a low-cost 6-bit IPS display, like Asus’ 21.5″ VS229H-P or the 23″ VS239H-P; those should have better viewing angles than their TN peers, but color reproduction may not be much better.
Our preferred alternative is to set aside a little extra dough for a high-quality, 8-bit IPS display. Those usually have excellent color reproduction and wide viewing angles. We’re discerning types here at TR, so unsurprisingly, we all favor them.
On the high-end IPS front, those Korean monitors we wrote about last summer are still 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 around $380 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 comparable display from, say, Dell will cost you $650 at Newegg right now. The Dell will have a better warranty and more bells and whistles, but it’s easy to see the appeal of the cheaper screens.
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 $400 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 control our desktop PCs with an outstretched arm. 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 them 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.) Availability seems to be spotty across the entire RK-9000 lineup right now, though.
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. Those switches are found in Corsair’s lineup of excellent Vengeance keyboards. We reviewed the K60 and the K90 earlier, and we became instant fans of their sexy-looking aluminum frames and terrific build quality. Our only complaint was that some of the non-alpha keys weren’t mechanical. Happily, Corsair has addressed that problem with the K70 and K95, which are similar designs with 100% mechanical switches.
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 quick Netflix or Google searches.
On the mousing front, we’re quite fond of Corsair’s Vengeance M60—and its successor, the Vengeance M65, which has a higher-resolution sensor. For a little more scratch, 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 $140.
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 $35 or so, Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 EVO 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 EVO.
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 costs exactly $60 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 spinners 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 three 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—57% of the more than 700 Newegg reviews award it five stars. Either way, for $10, it’s not much of a gamble.
Phew. That’s it for this edition of the guide.
It’s a little disappointing to see that Haswell and Richland haven’t really shaken things up in the world of desktop CPUs. Neither one delivers a large performance upgrade over the previous generation, and since these two lines of chips don’t compete directly with each other on the desktop, a price war hasn’t broken out between them. In fact, both Richland and Haswell are priced at a slight premium over their predecessors, so performance per dollar has actually remained stagnant for the most part.
Oh well; at least there’s some excitement on the graphics front. There, Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 700-series cards have given us not just compelling alternatives to AMD’s Radeons, but also entirely new value propositions, like the $650 GeForce GTX 780 from our Double-Stuff build.
So, what’s next? Well, AMD’s next-gen Kaveri APUs aren’t due out until late this year, and Intel isn’t expected to offer a major refresh until next year. That means building a PC today should guarantee at least a few months of bliss unhindered by the threat of obsolescence, which hasn’t been the case in quite a while. We’re going to see a little more activity on the mobile side of things, though. Haswell-powered ultrabooks are on the way, as are Windows 8 tablets based on AMD’s Temash processors. Later in 2013, we’ll also see Win8 tablets packing Intel’s Silvermont Atom processors, which should deliver a nice performance increase over Clover Trail.
We’ll have new editions of the system guide ready for your perusal by then, so stay tuned.