TR’s back-to-school 2013 system guide

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Millions of students are gearing up to return to class, and many of them need new computers for the coming term. Meanwhile, gamers are readying themselves for the incoming barrage of holiday titles, too. With a fresh console cycle promising to raise the bar for PC ports, now is a pretty good time for gamers to consider new rigs.

Any way you slice it, this is an ideal time for an update to our system guide. Though only a handful of new components have been released since the last edition of the guide, prices have fallen, and we’ve adjusted some of our recommendations accordingly. We’ve also added some microATX flavor, including a one-off config designed to be the envy of the dorm.

On top of that, we’ve revamped our mobile recommendations to reflect the latest tablets, high-PPI notebooks, and budget ultraportables. You might be surprised at the state of the landscape ahead of such a busy season.

Without further ado, let’s get on to the guide.

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.

The Econobox
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.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i3-3220 3.3GHz $129.99
Motherboard MSI ZH77-GD43 $84.99
Memory Crucial Ballistix 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $35.99
Graphics HIS Radeon HD 7790 OC $119.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 1TB $69.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Enclosure Corsair Carbide 200R $59.99
Power supply Corsair CX430M $49.99
Total $570.92

Processor

We’re still waiting for Haswell to trickle down to budget territory, so the Ivy Bridge-based Core i3-3220 remains our primary CPU recommendation for the Econobox. AMD’s latest Richland APUs do offer better integrated graphics and competitive CPU performance with widely multithreaded applications. However, this machine is configured with a discrete graphics card that’s far more powerful than AMD’s fastest integrated Radeon, making the onboard GPU moot. Also, most users—gamers included—would be better served by the Core i3’s superior single-threaded performance. The Ivy Bridge chip has lower power consumption than comparable Richland APUs, and it’s cheaper, too.

Motherboard

The Gigabyte GA-H77-DS3H from the previous guide has been discontinued. Gigabyte offers a similar microATX model, but we’re building a full-sized ATX system here, so we might as well not sacrifice expansion slots needlessly.

MSI’s ZH77A-G43, which sells for only $85, is an appealing ATX option for the Econobox. Don’t let the sneaky “Z” in the model number fool you; the board is based on the H77 platform. Short of full CPU overclocking support, the H77 has everything we need for a budget build, including support for multi-drive RAID arrays and SSD caching.

The ZH77A-G43 also has two 6Gbps SATA connectors and four USB 3.0 ports—and unlike some other value-oriented Ivy mobos, it has overwhelmingly positive user reviews. MSI’s 7-series boards don’t have the best Windows-based tweaking software, and their firmware-based fan speed controls are a little limited, but the GD43 is still a good option given its price tag.

Memory

PC memory prices are down from earlier this summer, so we can nab 4GB of RAM for only $36. This dual-channel Crucial Ballistix kit is one of the most affordable DDR3-1600 options from the big-name memory vendors. Its DIMMs run at tight 8-8-8-24 timings on just 1.5V, and they have low-profile heat spreaders that steer clear of aftermarket coolers. If you run memory-intensive applications and would prefer an 8GB kit, check the alternatives section on the next page.

Graphics

The GTX 650 Ti Boost is still hanging around $150, which is a little out of our price range. The vanilla GeForce GTX 650 Ti is a more reasonable choice; it’s available for around $130 for a hot-clocked model. Juiced-up Radeon HD 7790 cards occupy similar territory, and you can get this HIS model for only $120.

When we tested a similar Radeon HD 7790 card earlier this year, it came out slightly ahead of a faster-than-stock GeForce 650 Ti with double the memory. The Radeon had lower power consumption under load, too. Since it’s also the cheaper of the two, it’s our pick for the Econobox.

Storage

We don’t have the budget to include an SSD by default, so Seagate’s 1TB Barracuda returns as the Econobox’s system drive. This 7,200-RPM mechanical drive has a single platter, 64MB of cache, and a 6Gbps Serial ATA interface. It also boasts higher performance ratings than WD’s comparable Blue 1TB drive, which uses two platters and is likely to be noisier as a result. Too bad neither drive offers more than two years of warranty coverage.

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 could come in handy.

Enclosure

We used to recommend Antec’s Three Hundred case for this build, but Corsair’s Carbide Series 200R is our current favorite budget case. Despite selling for just $60, the 200R is loaded with enthusiast-friendly features. 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 for SSDs and mini mechanical drives.

We’ve tested the 200R 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 its Antec rival. The difference was relatively small, however, and we were stress-testing with high-end components that consume a lot more power than our Econobox config. Thermals shouldn’t be an issue for this build.

Power supply

Since this system doesn’t draw a lot of power, we don’t need a beefy PSU. We do, however, want a modicum of quality. We’ll spend a little more on a branded, high-efficiency unit with good reviews.

One such unit is Corsair’s CX430M, which ticks all the right boxes for the Econobox: 80 Plus Bronze certification, a jumbo intake fan that should be reasonably quiet, a three-year warranty, and a low price. Not only that, but the CX430M has modular cabling, which will help keep our internals as tidy as possible.

Econobox alternatives

Want an AMD processor or upgrades to the Econobox’s graphics card, memory, and storage? Read on.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD A10-6700 3.7GHz $148.99
Motherboard ASRock FM2A75 Pro4-M Extreme6 $74.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $66.99
Storage Samsung 840 Series 120GB $99.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB $99.99
Graphics PowerColor Radeon HD 7850 2GB $154.99
Gigabyte GeForce 650 Ti Boost OC 1GB $149.99

Processor

If you favor integrated graphics and multithreaded CPU performance, then the A10-6700 may be a better option than the Core i3. It’s not the fastest member of the Richland lineup, but it’s right behind the top-of-the-line A10-6800K—especially on the integrated graphics front. The A10-6700 also has a modest 65W thermal envelope, which makes it easier to cool quietly than the 100W A10-6800K. We’re willing to trade a little performance for lower heat and noise levels.

The A10-6800K does have an unlocked multiplier that allows easy overclocking. However, the one we tried to overclock didn’t have much headroom; it was barely any faster than the stock config. Raising the clock speed on a 100W chip will further increase power consumption and associated heat output, too. We don’t think that’s a worthwhile compromise for this kind of system.

Motherboard

We usually stick with ATX motherboards for our standard builds, but microATX mobos are more affordable, and we think they’re a better match for our AMD alternative. The A10-6700’s primary appeal is its integrated Radeon, which precludes the need for a $130 discrete graphics card. Since we don’t recommend any other expansion cards, it makes little sense to pay a premium for an ATX mobo with extra slots.

At only $75, ASRock’s FM2A75 Pro4-M is a bargain. Nevertheless, this board has dual physical PCIe x16 slots, five 6Gbps SATA (and one eSATA) ports, and four USB 3.0 connectors. The integrated audio can be piped over a digital S/PDIF output, and the video outs include DVI and HDMI. That’s a pretty good package overall.

We should note that AMD’s next-gen Kaveri APU is scheduled to start shipping before the end of the year. We haven’t seen motherboard makers pledge Kaveri support for any existing models, and the updated ones designed specifically for Kaveri aren’t available for sale just yet. If you’d like a guaranteed upgrade path, it’s probably worth waiting for motherboards based on Kaveri’s tweaked FM2+ socket.

Memory

Can’t get by on 4GB of RAM? Then feel free to spring for an 8GB kit. We’ve been using Vengeance memory in test systems for years, and it’s been excellent.

Storage

There are three ways to boost the Econobox’s storage config.

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 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 it’s a fair bit cheaper than substantially faster SSDs. Samsung has technically replaced this drive with the 840 EVO 120GB. However, that model is more expensive right now, and it taps into less controller-level parallelism than its predecessor, which means the 840 Series may still be faster in some cases.

Another 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, 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 nearly as much 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.

By the way, unless you’re running a solid-state system drive, we recommend staying away from “Green” hard drives. Those offerings may be great for secondary storage, but because their spindle speeds are typically around 5,400 RPM, they’re too slow for your OS and applications.

Graphics

Our Econobox graphics alternative is also a multiple-choice deal.

If you want a faster Radeon, try this PowerColor Radeon HD 7850 2GB. It’s a big upgrade over the 7790, and it comes with your choice of two free games from AMD’s Never Settle Forever Silver bundle. You may see 1GB versions of the 7850 listed for about five bucks less, but we think the two-gig card is a better option for the long run.

Nvidia has two options in this price range: the GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB, which costs $170, and the 1GB version of the same card, which can be found for as little as $150. In our testing, we found that the 2GB version of the GTX 650 Ti Boost was about on par with the Radeon HD 7850 2GB; it was a little faster in some games and a little slower in others. The 650 Ti Boost 1GB has a smaller frame buffer and a lower memory speed, so it likely trails the 7850 overall, and it might struggle with next-gen titles that need extra memory.

The Sweet Spot
Stunning value short on compromise

The Econobox makes a pretty solid gaming machine, but it’s still somewhat limited. The Sweet Spot’s more generous budget gives us the wiggle room to include a faster processor and graphics card, solid-state storage, and other luxuries.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-4430 3.0GHz $189.99
Motherboard Asus Z87-K $129.99
Memory Crucial Dominator 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $66.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 7870 $184.99
Storage Samsung 840 Series 120GB $99.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB $99.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST $19.99
Audio Asus Xonar DSX $56.99
Enclosure NZXT H2 $99.99
Power supply Corsair CX600M $79.99
Total $1,028.90

Processor

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.

Paying a more for the Core i5-4670K would get us an unlocked upper multiplier for easy overclocking, but it would also set us back another $50, and we’ve already pushed past the $1000 mark. Haswell doesn’t have extensive overclocking headroom, anyway. We think it’s wiser to spend less on the processor and more on graphics and solid-state storage.

The Core i5-4430 has another advantage over the i5-4670K: support for Intel’s Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, also known as VT-d. That feature is inexplicably absent from unlocked Haswell CPUs. Not everybody uses virtualization, of course, but those who do may want the 4430 even if they can afford the 4670K.

Motherboard

We’ve reviewed Z87 boards from all the biggest mobo makers, and we think Asus’ offerings are the best overall. The firmware and software are highly polished and very powerful, providing a wealth of tuning options via slick interfaces. Our favorite model so far is the Asus Z87-Pro, which is a little outside the Sweet Spot’s budget. Instead, we’ve selected the pared-down Z87-K.

The Z87-K has the same firmware and software as the Pro. It may not have as many extras, but all the essentials are covered: 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, Intel Gigabit Ethernet, and better integrated audio for our alternative recs. That board costs $5 more than the Z87-K, and its firmware and software aren’t as mature as what comes with the Asus board. Since the Sweet Spot’s discrete sound card removes the need for integrated audio, we’re sticking with the Z87-K as our primary choice.

Memory
This Corsair Vengeance 2x4GB duo is one of the most affordable DDR3-1600 kits selling at Newegg. The DIMMs runs at the maximum speed officially supported by our processor, and they’re covered by a lifetime warranty. We’ll take ’em.

Graphics

When we published our last system guide, the Radeon HD 7870 2GB sold for $215. Two months later, the very same Sapphire card is down to $185. The card’s game bundle has changed, as well. You can now redeem two out out of the eight titles from the Never Settle Forever Silver collection. Crysis 3 is no longer included, but we still like the choose-your-own approach. You also have the option of holding your redemption codes for future additions to the Never Settle Forever program.

We were a little torn between the Radeon HD 7870 and GeForce GTX 660 last time, when the GeForce was $15 cheaper than the Radeon. Now that the GeForce costs five bucks more than its rival, the Radeon is the obvious pick.

Storage

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 startups and short 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. 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.

Audio

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. The DSX costs less than Creative’s latest Sound Blaster cards, too. We liked it so much that we gave the DSX our Editor’s Choice award.

Folks with S/PDIF speakers or USB 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.

Enclosure
NZXT’s H2 has something of a stranglehold on the Sweet Spot. We’ve considered replacing this case with various other contenders in the sub-$100 arena, but we haven’t found one that matches the H2’s combination of low noise levels, solid build quality, subdued good looks, and plentiful features. This enclosure is loaded with goodies, 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. If you can find a better $100 case, let us know. Seriously.

Power supply
Corsair’s CX600M has all of the same perks as the CX430W we picked for the Econobox: modular cables, 80 Plus Bronze certification, and a big, quiet fan. It also features a higher output capacity and a longer (five-year) warranty. The $80 price tag is competitive, 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.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-4670K 3.4GHz $239.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-Z87-D3HP $129.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 660 OC $199.99
MSI GeForce GTX 760 OC $259.99
Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost $249.99
Storage Kingston HyperX 3K 240GB $184.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB $134.99
LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner $79.99
Enclosure Corsair Carbide 400R $89.99

Processor

If you’ve been bitten by the overclocking bug, 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 required to overclock the latest generation of Intel CPUs. Non-K-series Ivy Bridge chips could go a few “bins” above the base clock, but corresponding Haswell models cannot.

Incidentally, overclockers should make sure to get a better cooler than the basic heatsink included with the CPU. 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.

Motherboard

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 arguably a 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 for Windows isn’t on quite the same level as Asus’, either.

Graphics

The GeForce GTX 660 has notable benefits over the Radeon HD 7870: lower power consumption, nice little touches like Nvidia’s GeForce Experience auto-config software, and a free copy of Splinter Cell Blacklist, which is newer than anything in AMD’s current bundles. This EVGA take on the GTX 660 has higher-than-stock speeds and features a blower-style cooler that dumps hot air outside the case. It’s also one of the most affordable GTX 660s on Newegg right now.

If your tastes are a little richer, there are a couple of nice upgrades north of $200. In the Radeon camp, Sapphire’s Radeon HD 7950 Boost is down to just $250. The most appealing GeForce GTX 760 is this hot-clocked MSI card at $260. Since the 7950 Boost and GTX 760 offer near performance parity, we’re inclined to lean toward the Radeon for its lower price tag. The 7950 Boost consumes less power than the GTX 760, too. On the software side, the GeForce comes with Splinter Cell Blacklist plus Nvidia’s other flourishes, while the Radeon is tied to the three-game gold tier of the Never Settle Forever promo. There’s a case to be made for either card, depending on your preferences.

Storage

Our standard Sweet Spot build has a decent storage config, but there’s always room for more capacity. On the solid-state front, the sweetest deal right now is Kingston’s HyperX 3K 240GB. This SandForce-based model uses synchronous MLC NAND and costs just $185. Its three-year warranty is pretty standard, but the 192TB write endurance rating is much higher than what’s typically attached to consumer-grade SSDs.

Based on the data we have for similar SandForce configs, the HyperX should deliver better all-around performance than rivals with similar price tags, such as the Samsung 840 Series 250GB. We still like the 840 Series, but we have some reservations about its successor, the 840 EVO, whose higher-density NAND chips reduce the amount of controller-level parallelism accessible to the 250GB model. We don’t have any such qualms about recommending the HyperX 3K 240GB.

On the mechanical side of things, Seagate offers a 3TB version of the 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 speeds of up to 14X.

Enclosure

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 than the H2, and its interior layout and build quality are top-notch. We especially like the fact that the internal storage bays are rotated 90 degrees, so they face out toward the user for easy drive 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.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-4670K 3.4GHz $239.99
Motherboard Asus Z87-A $139.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $66.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost $249.99
Storage Kingston HyperX 3K 240GB $184.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB $134.99
LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner $79.99
Audio Asus Xonar DSX $56.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian Series 650D $179.99
Power supply Corsair HX650W $129.99
CPU cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 Plus $29.99
Total $1,493.80

Processor

The Core i5-4670K gives us the ability to overclock without costing us an arm and a leg. If you want overclocking support with a side order of Hyper-Threading, check the Core i7-4770K alternative on the next page.

Motherboard

Haswell overclocking also requires a Z87-based motherboard. We’ve selected Asus’ Z87-A, which is a little nicer than the Z87-K from the Sweet Spot. The Z87-A has more USB 3.0 ports, a superior Realtek ALC892 audio codec with digital output, and two gen-three PCI Express x16 slots that can be run in an x8/x8 configuration for multi-GPU CrossFire or SLI setups. This build may have only one graphics card, but we like having the option of adding a second card down the road.

Memory

The 8GB Corsair Vengeance memory kit from the Sweet Spot works just as well in the Editor’s Choice. The DDR3-1600 kit has plenty of capacity for most needs, and it won’t break the bank. The tall heat spreaders may interfere with beefy aftermarket coolers, though. If you’re concerned about clearance, it’s worth paying a few bucks more for this low-profile Vengeance kit, instead.

Graphics

As we said on the previous page, the Radeon HD 7950 Boost and GeForce GTX 760 are closely matched on performance. Our preferred 7950 Boost is $10 cheaper than the best option from the GTX 760 camp, though. That’s enough to tip the scales in the Radeon’s favor—specifically, toward this Sapphire model. The GeForce GTX 760 is still a nice option, so we’ve included it in our Editor’s Choice alternatives.

Storage

This build’s budget is big enough to allow for a decent-sized SSD and a big hard drive. On the solid-state front, we’re sticking with the Kingston HyperX 3K 240GB from the Sweet Spot alternatives. Our previous pick, the Samsung 840 Pro 256GB, is faster overall and has a longer five-year warranty. However, the HyperX is definitely fast enough, and it costs $55 less. If you don’t mind the premium, you’ll find the 840 Pro in our Editor’s Choice alternatives.

Our mechanical drive recommendation has also been pulled from the Sweet Spot alternatives. The combination of a 7,200-RPM spindle speed and a low asking price makes Seagate’s Barracuda 3TB tough to beat. We might as well make the migration complete and throw in that Blu-ray burner, too.

Audio

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.

Enclosure

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, the 650D makes hardware installation 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.

Power supply
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.

CPU cooler

The cooler bundled with retail-boxed Intel processors works fine at stock speeds, but you want something beefier for overclocking. Since our K-series processor is primed for higher frequencies, we’ve selected an aftermarket cooler to go with it. Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus is incredibly popular, with a five-star average over 4,200 Newegg reviews. This tower-style heatsink has quad heatpipes, loads of radiator fins, and a relatively quiet 120-mm PWM fan. Its successor, the Hyper 212 EVO, costs $10 more and has a very similar design. We suggest pocketing the extra cash and picking up the older Plus model.

Editor’s Choice alternatives

The Editor’s Choice is packed with our favorites, but we still have some alternative propositions in mind.

Component Item Price
Processor Core i7-4770K 3.5GHz $339.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 760 OC $259.99
Storage Samsung 840 Pro 256GB $239.99
Seagate Desktop HDD.15 4TB $179.99
Case Corsair Graphite Series 600T $149.99

Processor

The Core i7-4770K is the flagship of the Haswell processor family. It’s clocked higher than the i5-4670K, has another 2MB of cache, and features Hyper-Threading, so it can execute eight threads in parallel. That K suffix in the model number means the multiplier is fully unlocked, too.

Graphics

The GeForce GTX 760 costs a bit more than the Radeon HD 7950 Boost from our primary recs, but it has a few associated perks, including lower power draw. Nvidia’s GeForce Experience auto-config software is a nice addition, as well. The GeForce also comes with Splinter Cell Blacklist, which was released much more recently than anything in AMD’s current Never Settle bundles. We like this tuned-up MSI model in particular. Its GPU and memory are both clocked higher than stock, and MSI adds a beefy dual-slot cooler that should keep temperatures and noise levels in check.

Storage

If you’re in the market for a high-end SSD in the 240-256GB range, it doesn’t get much better than the Samsung 840 Pro 256GB. This premium drive has exceptional all-around performance, a five-year warranty, and hundreds of five-star Newegg reviews. The HyperX drive from our primary recs is a better deal overall, but the 840 Pro is definitely a better SSD.

If 3TB of mechanical storage isn’t enough to meet your needs, consider upgrading to Seagate’s Desktop HDD.15 4TB. This drive has a lower spindle speed than the 3TB ‘cuda, but it offers an additional terabyte of capacity for only $35 more. The Desktop HDD.15 is a worthwhile upgrade if you require lots of storage—just make sure you avoid running any applications off the drive. Side-effects of its low spindle speed may include long load times, frustration, and regret.

Case

We prefer the all-metal construction of the Obsidian Series 650D, but Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T is certainly worth considering as an alternative. It’s cheaper, offers finer-grained fan speed controls than the 650D, and features an almost identical internal layout. However, the 600T lacks its sibling’s top-mounted drive dock, and it has a more rounded, pudgy-looking external design that utilizes molded plastic elements.

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, even here.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-3930K $569.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-X79-UP4 $239.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $129.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce GTX 780 AMP $649.99
Storage Samsung 840 EVO 1TB $649.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200-RPM 3TB $134.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200-RPM 3TB $134.99
LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner $79.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $84.99
Power supply Corsair AX860W $184.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian Series 650D $179.99
CPU cooler
Corsair H80i $79.99
Total $3,029.89

Processor

The Core i7-3930K is based on a Sandy Bridge-E processor, which is expected to be replaced by Ivy Bridge-E very shortly. Ivy-E should be a nice upgrade, so we recommend waiting for it if you can. The Double-Stuff’s motherboard will be able to accept the new chip once it’s released.

If you can’t afford to wait for Intel’s upcoming LGA2011 CPUs, the best of the current-gen model is the Core i7-3930K. This six-core CPU can execute 12 threads via Hyper-Threading. The cores are fed by 12MB of L3 cache, and they’re clocked at 3.2GHz with a peak Turbo speed of 3.8GHz. Intel’s top-of-the-line Core i7-3970X has slightly more cache and moderately higher clock speeds, but it’s nearly double the price. The only real downside of the Core i7-3930K is its 130W thermal envelope, which isn’t all that high considering the number of CPU cores, memory channels, and PCI Express lanes in the silicon.

Motherboard
Gigabyte’s GA-X79-UP4 is reasonably affordable and offers features comparable to other boards based on the X79 chipset, including USB 3.0, 6Gbps SATA, eight DIMM slots, and four PCIe x16 slots. The only thing missing is a FireWire port. If you need one of those, see the add-in card in our alternatives section.

The GA-X79-UP4 will work with Ivy Bridge-E, but it’s not exactly a new model. We know of at least two brand-new motherboard designs that will be released around Ivy Bridge-E’s debut. If you’re waiting for the CPU, it’s worth holding off on the motherboard to see what’s coming on that front, as well.

Memory

That Corsair Vengeance kit from our other builds 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, giving us 16GB total.

Graphics

The GeForce GTX 780 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, but it’s priced at a far more reasonable $650. The GTX 780’s primary competition at this price point is the Radeon HD 7990, whose CrossFire-on-a-single-card design is prone to some of the same pitfalls as other multi-GPU solutions: higher noise levels, higher power consumption, and occasionally, game compatibility problems and uneven frame delivery. Not even the 7990’s epic eight-game bundle can tip the balance away from our preference for single-GPU cards.

The Zotac AMP! version of the GeForce GTX 780 we’ve selected combines a custom cooler with substantially higher clock speeds. The GPU runs at 1006MHz with a 1059MHz boost clock, big steps up from the 863/900MHz default frequencies. As much as we like the Titan-style coolers available on reference-clocked GTX 780 cards, we can’t resist the AMP! edition. This card has the same $650 price tag as its slower counterparts and still includes a free copy of Splinter Cell Blacklist.

Storage

Today’s mid-range SSDs are more than fast enough for most uses. Additional capacity matters much more than slight performance gains. With that in mind, we’ve selected Samsung’s 840 EVO 1TB, which boasts a full terabyte of solid-state storage for only $650.

The Crucial M500 960GB provides a comparable capacity at a slightly lower price, but the EVO should be much faster. We’ve tested smaller versions of each drive, and the EVO clearly offers better performance overall. You can probably thank the drive’s fancy SLC write cache for that. We should also note that the EVO comes with excellent utility software and clearly defined SMART attributes—perks the M500 lacks. This is an easy choice.

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 fault-tolerance.

The LG Blu-ray burner from our Editor’s Choice config will serve as our optical drive.

Audio

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.

Enclosure

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.

Power supply

The Double-Stuff ought to suck up a decent amount of power, so we want a PSU with plenty of headroom. Corsair’s AX860W looks like an excellent match. This unit has 80 Plus Platinum certification, which implies efficiency of up to 92%, and it has a whopping seven-year warranty. Its cabling is modular, too. We’ve been using similar AX units to power our own test rigs, and we’re very happy with them.

CPU cooler

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. Since the Core i7-3930K has a 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 also supports Corsair’s Link feature, which lets you keep an eye on coolant temperatures and control fan speeds from Windows.

Double-Stuff alternatives

As with the rest of builds, there are other ways to configure the Double-Stuff.

Component Item Price
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 770 $399.99
MSI Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition OC $319.99
Storage Seagate Desktop HDD.15 4TB $179.99
Seagate Desktop HDD.15 4TB $179.99
Western Digital Black 4TB $309.99
Western Digital Black 4TB $309.99
Samsung 840 Pro 512GB $469.99
FireWire card Rosewill RC-506E $34.99
Enclosures Cooler Master Cosmos II $349.99

Graphics

AMD’s fastest single-GPU card is the Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition, which is both slower and cheaper than the GTX 780. If you’re willing to trade faster performance for a few hundred bucks, then it’s a fine choice. The Radeon comes with a three-game Never Settle Forever bundle, too.

Nvidia has a direct competitor to the 7970 GHz Edition selling for $80 more: the GeForce GTX 770. That card is about as fast as the Radeon, but it draws a little less power under load. Also, only one free game is included: Splinter Cell Blacklist. The Radeon is probably the better value overall, but some folks may prefer the GeForce. Either way, you’re getting a great card.

Storage

As much as we like the Samsung 840 EVO 1TB, it’s not the fastest SSD on the block. If you value high performance more than high capacity, then the 840 Pro 512GB may be your best bet. It’s a step ahead of the EVO under strenuous loads, especially when writes are involved. Its MLC NAND should also last longer than the TLC chips inside the 840 EVO. Oh, and the 840 Pro has a longer five-year warranty, too.

The 3TB mechanical drives in our primary recs have plenty of capacity, but you can add even more by swapping them for a couple of Seagate’s 4TB Desktop HDD.15s. The HDD.15 costs about the same per gig, but it’s saddled with a slower 5,900-RPM spindle speed.

If you prefer 7,200-RPM mechanical storage, consider a pair of WD Black 4TB drives. The Blacks should be even quicker than the 3TB ‘cudas, and they have five years of warranty coverage. Right now, each one comes bundled with a 2.5″ VelociRaptor 150GB, too. The freebie really isn’t free, though; the Black 4TB is priced at a hefty $310.

FireWire card

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.

Enclosure

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 Dorm Envy Project
The one we’d really want

All of our standard builds are based on full-sized ATX motherboards. Something a little smaller seems appropriate for the cramped dorm rooms to which so many students are returning this fall. Mini-ITX is tiny, but we’ve been down that road in the guide many times before, and the form factor’s limited expansion capacity has always been a hindrance. MicroATX offers a better compromise: it’s small enough to squeeze into relatively compact cases, but it still has plenty of expansion slots.

Part of our microATX motivation is Corsair’s new Obsidian Series 350D enclosure. This isn’t the smallest mATX chassis around, but its roomy internals are a pleasure to work in, and there’s plenty of space for enthusiast-grade hardware. The 350D is loaded with builder-friendly features, including tool-free drive bays, plentiful cable routing holes, and filtered intake fans. The stock fans are nice and quiet, too.

With classy looks and an affordable $90 price tag on the non-windowed version, the 350D is an ideal candidate for enthusiasts looking to downsize. The windowed model pictured above rings in at $100, and it’s worth the extra scratch if you want to show off your PC’s guts. I hear co-eds swoon over cold-cathode mood lighting.

The Obsidian Series 350D can handle all kinds of configurations, and we have a few dorm-worthy builds in mind. The most practical ones are based on the Econobox, which is already equipped with our favorite value-oriented hardware. For a strictly utilitarian system, go with the ASRock motherboard and AMD APU listed in the alternatives section. Then add the memory, hard drive, DVD burner, and PSU from our primary recommendations. And don’t forget the 350D, of course.

Gamers will want to choose the GeForce GTX 650 Ti graphics card and Core i3-3220 CPU from our primary Econobox recommendations. You’ll need a microATX board for the CPU, though. We like this ASRock model, which is loaded with ports, slots, and even a digital S/PDIF audio output.

While practical, those microATX Econobox configs aren’t very aspirational. If you want to be the envy of your dorm mates, we recommend the following:

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-4670K 3.4GHz $239.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-Z87MX-D3H $124.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600 $66.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon HD 7950 Boost $249.99
Storage Kingston HyperX 3K 240GB $184.99
Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB $134.99
Asus DRW-24B1ST DVD burner $19.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian Series 350D (Windowed) $99.99
Power supply Corsair CX600M 600W $79.99
CPU cooler Corsair H80i water cooler $89.99
Total $1,370.89

Now, that’s more like it. With parts pulled from our Sweet Spot, Editor’s Choice, and Double-Stuff builds, the Dorm Envy Project is more promiscuous than a frat boy. It’s a pretty sweet rig, though. The Core i5-4670K CPU is primed for overclocking, and we’ve paired it with a Corsair H80i water cooler to keep temperatures low. Haswell runs even hotter than Ivy Bridge when overclocked, so water cooling is a must if you want to push much past 4GHz.

Among the microATX Z87 boards on the market right now, we think Gigabyte’s GA-Z87MX-D3H is our best bet. It’s much cheaper than the equivalent Asus board while still offering perks like Intel Gigabit Ethernet and three PCIe x16 slots.

The graphics and storage recommendations are mostly straight out of the Editor’s Choice. The SSD’s a good value, and so is the mechanical drive. There’s no need for a Blu-ray drive, though. Colleges are hotbeds for video piracy—er, I mean legitimate video streaming services.

In addition to using borrowing the Sweet Spot’s DVD burner, we’ve also selected its PSU. The Corsair CX600M should be plenty potent to last through an upgrade or two inside of this case. We need a modular PSU to keep the 350D’s internals free of messy cabling, and the CX600M qualifies on that front, too.

Although our recommended RAM can be traced all the way down to the Econobox alts, we’ve selected a sound card from our high-end workstation build. The Xonar DX adds Dolby Headphone virtualization support, which is absent from the cheaper DSX model we suggest for the Sweet Spot and Editor’s Choice. Headphones are a must if you have roomates, and even pseudo-surround sound can add a lot to the immersion when playing games.

We haven’t listed any peripheral recommendations for this particular build, but do check out the 27″ Korean IPS monitors making the rounds on Ebay and selling at Micro Center. It’s worth having a larger display if you’re going to be watching a lot of video content, as students are prone to do while procrastinating, and the 2560×1440 display resolution provides plenty of pixels for productivity. Consider a mechanical keyboard, too. The more typing you do, the more you’ll appreciate the precise stroke of mechanical key switches. We have numerous peripheral suggestions on the second-last page of the guide.

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. They’re particularly appropriate for students shuffling between classes, as well. But which ones should you buy? We’ve put together a short list of some of our favorites to 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.

In the world of similarly sized Android tablets and convertibles, we seem to be stuck in a lull between last- and next-gen devices. Most of the action in the Android world seems to be focused on 7″ slates, and there are two new models we like.

Google’s Nexus 7 FHD, which is manufactured by Asus, might just be the best Android tablet around. Its 7″ IPS display has an impressive 1920×1200 resolution and looks great. The quad-core Snapdragon processor delivers snappy performance, and the 16GB base storage capacity is decent given the $230 starting price. It’s also worth noting that Nexus devices deliver a pure Android experience unfettered by vendor-specific customizations. As a result, they typically receive OS updates long before other tablets.

We don’t usually like the compromises attached to cheaper tablets that undercut the Nexus 7, but Asus’ new MeMO Pad HD7 looks like a promising alternative for cash-strapped consumers. Despite its $149 price tag, the tablet sports a 7″ IPS display with a 1280×800 resolution.

Under the hood, the HD7 has a quad-core MediaTek processor, 16GB of flash storage, and the usual mix of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity. The tablet runs Android 4.2, which is pretty recent, and features both front- and rear-facing cameras. As an added bonus, there’s a microSD slot that supports flash cards up to 32GB. You don’t get one of those with the Nexus 7 FHD.

Despite its lack of expandable storage, we still think the Nexus 7 is worth the premium; it’s the fastest Android tablet around right now. The MeMO Pad HD7 delivers solid specs for substantially less, though.

We’d hoped to have more tablets and convertibles to discuss, but we’re caught between generations. Windows 8 devices based on last year’s Atom chips are about to be replaced by new models featuring updated Bay Trail SoCs derived from the next-generation Intel Silvermont architecture. Silvermont promises both better performance and lower power consumption, so recommend anything with last-gen Atom hardware is difficult. We weren’t exactly blown away by the first wave of Atom-powered Windows 8 tablets and convertibles, anyway.

What about Windows RT devices? Well, what RT devices? There weren’t many to start, and manufacturers seem to be distancing themselves from the platform. Even the deep discounts on older WinRT systems aren’t enough to justify recommending an OS with such dim prospects.

We’re also between generations in the realm of more powerful notebooks. Haswell hasn’t trickled down to ultrabook territory yet, but it’s close. Samsung’s Ativ Book 9 Plus is scheduled to be released in early September, and it has a 15W Core i5-4200U inside. Although the $1,400 price tag is steep, the 13.3″ display has a Retina-busting 3200×1800 display resolution. Sweet!

Samsung is building really nice hardware these days, and we like the look of the Ativ. That said, other notebook makers are also coming out with similar Haswell-based systems, and some of them are similar displays. It may be best to hold tight to see what all the big names have to offer.

If you can’t wait until September, Asus’ Zenbook Prime UX31A-R5102F is a decent Ivy-based ultrabook that’s available right now. For only $750, you get a 13.3″ 1920×1080 IPS display, a Core i5 CPU, 128GB of solid-state storage, and 4GB of RAM. This notebook lacks a touchscreen and comes with Windows 7 Home Premium, making it the ultimate ultrabook for all the Modern UI haters out there.

The Zenbook Prime is similar to the initial UX31A model we reviewed last year. Be advised, though, that Asus has a history of sourcing touchpads and SSDs from different vendors. Some of those components have been better than others, and the lack of consistency is troubling.

Touchpad quality is a sore point for PC notebooks. To be fair, there are a lot of sore points, mostly because Apple has made a habit of highlighting everything that’s wrong with typical PC notebooks. MacBooks were the first to adopt high-PPI displays, and they’ve consistently offered excellent keyboards, touchpads, and build quality. If you’re in the market for a notebook, you really need to check out the latest 13.3″ MacBook Pro with Retina display.

Yeah, it’s expensive—the starting price is $1499. But the 2560×1600 display is stunning, the touchpad is huge, and the keyboard feels great. You can easily run Windows on the thing, too.

Of course, the MacBook Pro is due for a Haswell upgrade of its own. The rumor mill suggests that’s going to happen in September, so you may want to hold off until then.

Apple has already upgraded its ultra-slim MacBook Air to Haswell. Thanks to the new chips, the Air promises substantially longer battery life than the Pro—up to 12 hours of Wi-Fi web surfing, according to Apple. Unfortunately, the associated displays aren’t as good. The 11.6″ variant has a 1366×768 resolution, its 13.3″ counterpart is limited to 1440×900, and neither one uses an IPS panel. Prices start at $999 and $1099, respectively.

For students faced with long days of lugging their bag between classes, the MacBook Air is worth considering. The keyboard is amazingly good for such a slim system, and Apple doesn’t skimp on touchpad area. Really, the only thing missing is a Retina-class display, which is something an awful lot of PC notebooks also lack.

If you’re in the market for a more affordable ultraportable, consider the following $400 options: Asus’ 11.6″ VivoBook X202E-DB21T and Acer’s similarly sized Aspire V5-122P-0600.

We reviewed a slightly faster version of the VivoBook earlier this year, and it’s a nice-looking system. The inputs are decent, the chassis feels solid, and the mechanical hard drive can be swapped out for an SSD. The 1366×768 touchscreen isn’t great, though, and the single-channel memory config isn’t ideal. Those are compromises we can live with given the price of the DB21T model, which has a Sandy Bridge duallie clocked at 1.8GHz. The chip is only a Pentium, but it’s a heck of a lot faster than the low-power processors typically found in budget territory.

Speaking of lower-power processors, say hello to the Aspire. You can’t see it, but there’s a Temash-based AMD A6-1450 APU tucked under the keyboard.

In addition to integrated Radeon graphics, the A6-1450 has four Jaguar cores clocked at 1GHz. Don’t get too excited, though. We tested a quicker Jaguar quad clocked at 1.5GHz not long ago, and it was slower than an Ivy-based mobile Core i3 CPU hamstrung by a single memory channel.

Still, the Aspire is a respectable all-around package. It has a 1366×768 display with touch input, 4GB of RAM, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and a 500GB mechanical hard drive. Just don’t get your hopes up about battery life, which is barely long enough to get through a single Lord of the Rings extended cut. No wonder we have one eye on the horizon in anticipation of incoming devices.

The operating system
Three shades of eight

Windows 8 is the latest 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
Storage Spaces X X
Windows Media Player X X
HomeGroup creation X X
BitLocker and BitLocker To Go X
Boot from VHD X
Client Hyper-V X
Domain Join X
Encrypting File System X
Group Policy X
Remote Desktop host X
Microsoft Office Home & Student RT built in X
Device encryption 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.

Displays

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’ 23″ VS239H-P. 6-bit IPS screens typically have wider 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 $400. By contrast, a comparable display from, say, Dell will cost you $700 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 have been discontinued in favor of the newer (and less expensive) PA248Q. We’ve also 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.

Going all out used to mean forking over $1,100 for one of Dell’s 30-inch behemoths. Scott has a couple of those, and he loves ’em. But the Dells simply don’t compare to Asus’ PQ321Q, which spreads a 3840×2160 pixels over a 31.5″ panel. The 4K monitor is priced at an astounding $3,500 right now, so it costs more than our entire Double-Stuff config. Good luck finding a cheaper high-PPI desktop display, though.

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.

Those seeking a gamer-friendly design with macro keys and all-mechanical switches may also take a liking to Razer’s BlackWidow Ultimate. See our review for more details.

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.

Cooling

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 or so, 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 costs $70 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.

Backups

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.

Conclusions

In many ways, this was a great time to update the guide. Students are heading back to school, a crop of new fall games is about to be ready to harvest, and Intel’s Haswell processors are out. There’s a lot of parity between competing GeForce and Radeon cards, too, making it easy to single out multiple options at different price points.

That said, some of our recommendations are on hold pending new arrivals. Ivy Bridge-E is set to shake up the ultra-high-end desktop space, and our next Double-Stuff system will surely feature the chip. AMD is also rumored to be prepping a new high-end GPU dubbed Hawaii. The Radeon cards based on Hawaii silicon will reportedly start shipping in October, and you just know there’s going to be an upgraded game bundle attached.

Even more substantial changes are pending on the mobile front. Ultrabook-worthy Haswell variants are set to start rolling out in PC notebooks next month. High-PPI displays should be more commonplace in that next wave of systems. We should see more convertible tablets among the ultrabook ranks, too.

We hope to see plenty of convertibles running updated Atom processors, as well. This next generation promises to usher in a whole new class of affordable Windows 8 tablets, convertibles, and ultraportables. If we’re lucky, those x86-compatible devices will kill Windows RT dead. Fingers crossed.

However, if you’re shopping for a mid-range desktop—or even something in Editor’s Choice territory—there’s really no reason to hold off putting together a new system. We don’t anticipate major changes that will affect those builds before the next guide.

Comments closed
    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    Want isolated cases that also involve run-away conditions in specific pieces of software? Just how deep is that bucket of FUD of yours?

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    Which is a patently untrue statement. There are plenty of very good TN panels out there- even Eizo made monitors with TN panels for professional use.

    The reality, though, is that IPS panels are relatively cheap now- and that manufacturers are responding to demand, increasing production and the savings involved through expanding economy of scale, helping to keep the pricing down and push TN technology out of the market altogether, for most applications. Hell, most VA panels have been all but abandoned, with Samsung moving on to their PLS tech, and Sharp’s new tech picking up steam, which would be awesome if they could get the input lag under control.

    And that’s all hoping that OLEDs don’t displace LCDs altogether, like they should, as OLED is largely a superior technology.

    • superjawes
    • 9 years ago

    If you’re going to build a desktop, even for “Back-To-School,” it should be gaming capable. Otherwise you’d be better off checking out brands Dell and HP, who can get you a functional desktop with keyboard, mouse, Windows, MS Office, and maybe even a monitor for less than it would cost for you to piece it together yourself. For that matter, they could set you up with a laptop, which makes more sense for a student in most cases.

    • ronch
    • 9 years ago

    Maybe it should be called “Excuse for a Back-To-School PC To Be Used for Gaming” Guide.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    You’re mostly right- but there’s still some magic to be had :).

    • Krogoth
    • 9 years ago

    The problem is that gaming audio has been dead since gaming consoles have taken center stage in the eyes of gaming developers. They use some generic 3D DSP API that is cross-platform friendly (because gaming consoles) and call it done. They do not even bother spending the time and $$$$ to fine tune environmental effects, aural precision and speaker/fade balancing. The result is that most modern games with 3D sound effects tend to sound like that you are inside a small closet.

    It is a far cry from the days where Creative was relevant and had enough marketshare to persuade developers to utilize their API. This is when 3D gaming audio was “good”. Aureal’s A3D was superior in its heyday, but we know the whole lawsuit BS that Creative pulled off.

    Discrete sound cards have become nothing more than an overglorifed DAC on a more isolated circuit.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    Fan noise in laptops is certainly well out of hand- that’ll be near the top of the list when I replace mine, though that will likely be with Broadwell, as enticing as a Retina Macbook Pro with Haswell is. My Clevo gaming workstation with an Ivy quad, and Toshiba beater with an SB quad are both too loud for my tastes, and the Clevo is noted for having great CPU and GPU cooling!

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    Gaming mice have great ergonomics for the types of ‘mousing’ styles gamers use, which can differ from what one would use for browsing or productivity work significantly.

    Further, they tend to go overboard on the Teflon, in a good way- instead of having the Teflon ‘feet’ we remember, most gaming mice have veritable Teflon ‘slabs’.

    Now, more DPI isn’t always better- but I’ve seen and felt the difference in shooters personally, and even upgraded from a top-of-the-line Logitech to something with even higher DPI to solve an input granularity problem. And it worked.

    I’ve also owned all of the mice you mention- well, I had the MX500, MX518, and G5, all of which survived my abuse and were passed down to the next generation. I currently have a G500 that sees use on my mobile gaming workstation, still in like-new condition as it’s rarely used off of a Teflon-coated mousing surface, but my gaming rig has Steelseries’ Sensei attached, which while ergonomically inferior to the Logitech, does boast and deliver better effective resolution, which does make a tangible difference when gaming at 1600p.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    Krogoth, I respect your opinion- I really do.

    So I implore you (and TR!) to look closer at Creative’s gaming solutions for the past couple of years (barring the Recon 3D, whatever that was). Their hardware has always been good, and excellent in the Titanium/Titanium HD/Z series to name a few, but their software took a massive jump along the way too- from the bloated, unergonomic mess that Creative is usually associated with to a stable, lightweight, and streamlined interface that couldn’t be easier to work with. ASUS’s software is horrific in comparison.

    And for gaming- actual gaming- Creative IS where it’s at. With the DAC’s and headphone amps on the Z series, gamers really need look no further. Sure, ASUS’ products can be a great, inexpensive upgrade from poorly implemented onboard audio solutions, but that’s all they are; if you’re gaming, you’re on Creative, if you’re not, you’re using something much more expensive. Keep in mind that few ‘expensive’ headphones are actually great for gaming, given the unique requirements involved.

    • MarkD
    • 9 years ago

    No, they do not graduate to adult status at 18. For example, they cannot legally drink alcohol. School is not free, and parental income is a consideration for financial aid, including loans to the students. Parents are expected to pay, but to have no say in what a student studies, nor do they even get access to the student’s grades. A more perverse system would be hard to imagine.

    There is no freaking way I would build my kid a glorified game machine to take to school.

    My technical quibbles: Integrated graphics work fine and the money saved would be better spent elsewhere. I’d get a processor that supports virualization for a kid in a computer related field. He doesn’t need to overclock, but he will probably need to run multiple OSes. A good keyboard is worth the money, as is a good monitor. Next, a good backup system is essential. My daughter has copies of her thesis on multiple media in multiple locations, because she has too much time invested in her research for there to be any chance of losing her data. A simultaneous fire at school, a stolen car, and her dorm being destroyed wouldn’t get them all.

    • Krogoth
    • 9 years ago

    I tried gaming mice back in the day (MX510, MX518 and G5). I didn’t see too much of a difference, besides extra buttons and adjustable, on the fly mouse sensitivity button. I normally set my sensitivity to high levels with shooters. I found that surface where the mouse glides on and quality of telfon feet made more of an impact than anything else.

    When my last gaming mice died from its cable got frayed internally. I quickly pick-up one of the run of mill Logitech units and noticed that it is almost as good for all intent and purposes.

    The marketing drones for gaming mice harp on the DPI more is better non-sense and completely overlook far more important stuff like ergonomics, surface and Teflon feet size and quality.

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 years ago

    Yeah, I underclock the HTPC graphics card and also the dGPU in my laptop. Fan noise FTL 🙁

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    I’m sorry, but my experience totally contradicts yours- the resolution, somehow, correlates to the resolution of the screen you’re using it on for FPS games, at least.

    And I use a high-resolution ‘gaming’ mouse on a mousepad that consists of a teflon-coated piece of steel- that good enough for you? 🙂

    • Krogoth
    • 9 years ago

    I don’t understand the whole DPI thing with optical gaming mice. Just get any decent optical mice and be done with it. The 2000PSI+ sensors on gaming mice is just marketing BS. The human arm and wrist isn’t dexterous and precise enough to take full advantage a sensor of that accuracy.

    As for input lag, your nervous system is by far the largest bottleneck. It only gets worse with age. There’s a reason why meth and stimulant abuse is commonplace in the Esports arena.

    If you need to go the extra mile with optical mice, get an unit with more buttons and/or is more ergonomic for your hands. They will thank you later. You should pay more attention to the actual Teflon feet on the mice and surface that it is going to glide on. A smooth, even surface makes a far larger impact on precise and smooth mouse movement than any sup-up optical sensor.

    • Krogoth
    • 9 years ago

    Creative drivers being good? You must be joking or trolling. Creative drivers have never been good. They always have been plagued by stupid, stupid issues even to this day on their current hardware platform. I have read and seen too many horror stories from ex-Creative users. ASUS isn’t exactly stellar either, but Creative still beats them in terms of being plagued by stupid issues. Creative has earn its legacy and ire gaming community and has done little to changed it.

    Realtek and C-Media stuff are far better in terms of driver support and features. They just lack legacy 3D gaming support, since it is tied up by Creative’s API. It was the most commonly used software platform back in the day by developers, but not anymore. They moved into solutions that are more cross-hardware platform friendly (gaming consoles).

    Any discrete sound solution works for Hi-Fi output. You only need something special if you are doing audio editing or need low latency for recording (instruments). You should allocate your budget more towards getting a good speaker set or headphones before stepping up on your discrete audio solution.

    It is telling that most enthusiast system build since 2007 don’t bother in getting a Creative card. Let alone getting any discrete audio solution. If the person is getting a discrete audio solution. They opt for something else and have speakers/headphones to match it. I’m kinda surprised that Creative’s audio division hasn’t closed shop yet. There must be still enough people who don’t know any better that keep it afloat.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    Does quiet operation not equate to value?

    Nvidia cards are all about value too- but value comes from more than a FRAPS average :).

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 years ago

    I don’t think AMD need to; The HIS blowers seem quieter than the 680’s and that’s no mean feat given that AMD cards (at least the Sapphire and HIS ones I buy in bulk) are usually tuned for 75C whilst Nvidia’s reference coolers normally aim to keep temperatures around 80C. The 680 also uses less power than a 7970 which is yet more reason that Nvidia’s blowers seem impressive.

    Nothing beats the Titan’s cooler, but then nothing beats the Titan’s pricetag, either – and AMD are all about value for money.

    • dashbarron
    • 9 years ago

    It sounds like it would have been in everyone’s best interest if you would have built her a gaming rig.

    • dashbarron
    • 9 years ago

    What is this? Have you forsaken your once beloved Transformer Geoff? You have every other conceivable mobile option listed. Why the change of heart? Even with an aging Tegra 3 the Infinity is still an unique system.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    That’s actually the point- I’m talking about the GTX680 and Titan blowers. I have no doubt that Nvidia puts lesser blowers on their lesser cards.

    I’d just like to see AMD try to match the Titan blower. I’m daring them to make a quiet top-end fully-exhausting card. I’ll want three.*

    *assuming they un-cluster their multi-GPU drivers first

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 years ago

    Agreed, apart from point 2.

    The 680/670/Titan blowers are great.
    The 660/660Ti blowers are rough as hell.

    Whilst no AMD reference card has a blower worth using, Nvidia has just as many partner boards with lousy open coolers as AMD, especially once you delve into the factory overclocked options – and for every reference model a manufacturer sells, they usually have at least three factory overclocked versions!

    • Fighterpilot
    • 9 years ago

    LOL….sure they are…just before they overheat your card and it catches fire.

    Want proof?

    Try “The Internet”

    • insulin_junkie72
    • 9 years ago

    Capstones are very, very nice SuperFlower units.

    Given the frequent sales on Rosewill at NewEgg, the lower-wattage units are often excellent deals for the quality of the units.

    • Beelzebubba9
    • 9 years ago

    I dropped my G500 (RIP) onto it’s mousewheel and broke it, so I replaced it with the G700.

    That was a mistake; I vastly preferred the G500. OH WELL LESSON LEARNED

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    I feel they should after their Haswell revision proves to be stable.

    • Kurotetsu
    • 9 years ago

    An Intel NUC/Gigabyte Brix would make for an interesting Econobox alternative. I’d like to see an article where someone spends a week or even a month on a NUC/Brix and reports on well it does/doesn’t perform in everyday use.

    • awakeningcry
    • 9 years ago

    STILL recommending the H77 for the Econobox over the B75? jeez.

    • dpaus
    • 9 years ago

    Yeah, the real threat to study time with her is partying, not gaming 🙂

    • indeego
    • 9 years ago

    Yeah, I ended up just getting another one. Not sure why I was bitching.

    • TwoEars
    • 9 years ago

    That’s probably the best video guide of how to assemble a PC that I’ve ever seen! Well Done guys!

    • indeego
    • 9 years ago

    I’m sure there are companies just waiting for Creative’s patents to run out one by one.

    • ronch
    • 9 years ago

    Imagine the amazement your kid’s classmates will feel when your kid tells them the PC his/her dad/mom bought him/her has [b<][u<]EIGHT[/b<][/u<] cores (and your kid's classmates' PCs only have 2 cores... weak, dude... weak!). But they just can't believe it, so your kid tells them to head on right [url=http://www.amd.com/us/products/desktop/processors/amdfx/Pages/amdfx.aspx<]here[/url<] and then [url=http://www.tigerdirect.com/applications/SearchTools/item-details.asp?EdpNo=4904561<]here[/url<].

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    Same here- it’s my constant mobile workstation companion. I love the G500- as has been said, it’s ergonomically perfect.

    My only complaint was that it was somehow unsuitable for gaming at 2560×1600- it resulted in ‘choppy’ tracking in BF3, which an upgrade (if you can call it that) to Steelseries’ Sensei fixed. I’d much have preferred to stay with the G500 form-factor, though; the Sensei particularly misses on being much wider at the base, not having smooth scrolling or side-scrolling, and it’s right-side buttons are completely useless from an ergonomic standpoint.

    But it does track much more precisely than the G500 did/does, matching it’s 1080p performance at 1600p.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    I’d use the Antec too if I’d gotten it for free- not being as lucky as you, I purchased a used 650w modular Seasonic for $100 a few years back from a reputable seller, and have been very happy with it running multiple upper mid-range GPUs.

    But you couldn’t convince me to put a Rosewill in anything, unless you could first convince me that it’s a very solid copy of another well-regarded PSU (a re-brand). I have a Rosewill mechanical keyboard and USB3 memory card reader and a Gigabit switch, and they all perform admirably, but PSU’s are a stickler for me.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    No, I absolutely mean their current hardware and software/drivers- legacy support is cool and all if you play those games, of course.

    Creative’s current drivers for current operating systems and games blow ASUS’- and anyone elses’- out of the water. Only Realtek is close from a usability standpoint, and their drivers are regularly augmented by Creative software.

    If gaming is your purview, Creative is your audio solution. Pair the Sound Blaster Z (base model only needed) and the recommended Sennheiser HD555’s (which I have) or their HD558 upgrade, along with the microphone included with the Creative card, and you have an extremely solid solution that would take many hundreds of dollars more to truly exceed.

    Again, that’s for headphone gaming. You want better sound for music? You want an external USB DAC/Amp and far more expensive phones. You want room-filling surround-sound? You want a high-quality receiver powering discrete speakers that have been matched to your personal taste in audio signature, the receiver you’re using, and the room you’re using it all in.

    But gaming sound couldn’t be simpler.

    • MustangSally
    • 9 years ago

    “Parents don’t get to control their children with money because school is free”

    Bingo. So, your comment makes a lot of sense for parents in the same situation. In North America, that would be, um, uh, no-one.

    • MustangSally
    • 9 years ago

    Then maybe it should be called the [i<]Gaming[/i<] System Guide??

    • Krogoth
    • 9 years ago

    You mean legacy gaming audio support. Hardware accelerated audio is already dead and it will never come back. Software based DSPs are here to stay. Creative’s audio division is a dead man walking. There are no longer any developers interested in supporting their software and hardware.

    • cheddarlump
    • 9 years ago

    I went from the rosewill to the antec. I know it’s overkill, but it’s 80 plus gold certified and modular. I won it at a lan party last year. The modular part helps a lot too in the itx case. I originally bought the rose will for this build, but it works just fine on the i5-760 and gtx570 my son inherited.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    I’ll clarify my point, as I was trying to be succinct above-

    Essentially, AMD has a lot of good stuff going for their GPUs- particularly, they perform very well across the board, they have a considerable compute advantage in everything except the ultra-high-end, they’re positioned to be excellent values, they have excellent driver support in single-GPU configurations and rapidly improving multi-GPU support, they enjoy wide support from the game developer community (and I’m not talking about their console wins), and they’ve been really making waves with their impressive game bundling.

    Their weaknesses are threefold:

    1. They need to get the multi-GPU situation behind them, fast. Their position as the value performance leader will explode them to the forefront of the enthusiast world when high-density desktop panels start shipping; we can actually expect 1440p/1600p 120Hz and 4k 60Hz to become the new ‘high end’ in the very near future as panel and monitor vendors continue to respond to market demand.

    2. They need to get their coolers sorted. Nvidia has been leading the way here for quite some time, and they’ve now essentially perfected the two-slot blower design. AMD has to catch up here; these open-air ‘recycling’ coolers that their partners are shipping en mass are just not terribly well suited for powerful but compact and quiet builds with more than one GPU.

    3. They need to push OpenCL much, much harder. Nvidia maintains the overall compute lead because their top-end product is a world beater and that CUDA is a highly-approachable API that best extracts maximum performance from those top-end Nvidia GPU’s. AMD needs to get a real handle on top-end compute performance, and they need OpenCL to be there for it.

    Aside from AMD’s GPU price/performance advantage when it comes to driving higher-resolution panels, AMD is also in the more nimble position of being able to serve the market with cards that have the additional VRAM that will be needed to fully utilize all of the graphics assets that games developed for the next generation consoles will have access to. Memory is cheap, and the cost of 8GB and 12GB versions of the cards AMD is shipping today is relatively low, while the demand will certainly be very high once these consoles and associated cross-platform games ship, and the need for the extra VRAM is very acutely realized.

    I’m expecting to replace my GTX670’s with a pair of 8GB+ next-generation AMD cards unless Nvidia really gets on the ball here; Nvidia’s advantage of having a far more usable multi-GPU platform will hopefully be erased, but I don’t expect them to work as hard for my dollars as AMD likely will.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve re-read your post a few times- but it sounds like you went from an 850w Antec to a 550w Rosewill?

    If I had to make a suggestion (and I am blindly pre-judging the Rosewill here), it would have been to go with a ~450w Corsair or Seasonic (or a number of others, including a Rosewill, depending on the conclusion of reliable reviews), since you’re in the ~300w maximum load range, with an average closer to 200w-225w with that hardware. That’s based on the assumption that you want your average working/gaming power usage to be about half of a quality PSU’s rated capacity.

    But again, other than the possibly questionable Rosewill PSU (who actually made it? to what specification? etc.), I do really like your build’s balance of size, price and performance- kuddos!

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    You make a good point, and I could see JAE coming from that direction too; now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that’s how he explained his perspective on it.

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 years ago

    This.

    For every PC gamer there are ten console gamers perfectly happy with lower-than-low detail settings and middling framerates at resolutions closer to 540p

    When an A10 runs at higher framerates, higher resolution and with higher graphical detail than this extremely low bar, it’s hard to argue that games aren’t enjoyable on an A10.

    • superjawes
    • 9 years ago

    Well I never said that cranking settings was required, only that lackluster settings and frame rates can make the experience unenjoyable, much like you’re describing when you say “fast enough to not feel like a slideshow.”

    But even then, different people want different things out of their games. I think Far Cry 3 and Skyrim are examples of games that many people want the eye candy to enjoy the scenery. Playing on weaker hardware will get you the gameplay and experience of exploration, but dropping in a mid-rage GPU will allow you to experience the world in far greater detail, making the experience better.

    • XTF
    • 9 years ago

    I’ve done it (mATX board in ATX case) multiple times. If a mATX board is sufficient and less expensive, why would you buy an ATX board?
    I got an ATX case because mATX cases are either insufficient / worse or more expensive, unfortunately.

    • raddude9
    • 9 years ago

    Couldn’t agree more, I’ve yet to find a game that, while un-enjoyable at 720p and medium settings would suddenly become enjoyable at 1080p and high settings.

    Thinking about it a bit more, high-ended embedded GPUs now have enough power to give users a choice, and they are no longer limited to playing games at low-resolution/low-detail/low-frame-rates. Some game will now play at high resolutions at reasonable frame rates, or high-detail at low-resolution, or super-smooth frame rates if you crank down the detail and resolution. So if one certain aspect of the gaming experience (resolution, frame rate, or detail) is particularly important to you you can now indulge yourself.

    • cheddarlump
    • 9 years ago

    It’s funny you say that, but I changed my mind on that, I swapped out my Antec High Current 850w modular in the hand me down for the Rosewill. My son will never notice, and I feel safer. 🙂

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    That looks like a very well-rounded system- except for the Rosewill PSU. Seriously, great balls of fire. I’ll keep Corsair/Seasonic in my gaming rigs.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    While I agree with you stating the obvious- I can’t imagine a situation where someone would buy an ATX case for an mATX-based system. If you have the room, the ATX boards are effectively the same price; it just doesn’t make sense to me for a new build, unless there’s some feature or set of features available on the mATX board that is or are not available on the ATX board.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    Not really; especially not if you intend to use two. AMD is getting there, but they’re not ‘there’ yet.

    • Airmantharp
    • 9 years ago

    I wouldn’t touch an ASUS sound-card with their drivers- Creative’s cards are worth the cost if you’re going to invest in discrete audio for gaming. Otherwise, a USB DAC/Amp or even a fully USB headset would be preferable, as would a surround receiver.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 9 years ago

    2x4GB discontinued, but Kingston makes similarly-sized 4GB DIMMs.

    • dragontamer5788
    • 9 years ago

    Fx-6300 needs some love man. Assuming that you keep the Radeon 7790 it is a strictly superior CPU to the A10-6700 and arguably a better CPU than the i3 Haswell. Amazon is selling Fx-6300 for $120 right now.

    • Firestarter
    • 9 years ago

    cranking the settings isn’t required to enjoy a game, it just needs to work and be fast enough to not feel like a slideshow

    • TO11MTM
    • 9 years ago

    I personally would have to have Creative GIVE me a sound card to even think about giving them any credibility. Their shenanigans over the years have been at best stupid and at worst malicious towards customers.

    Admittedly, the last ‘nice’ cards I had were a Revolution 7.1 and a Audiophile 2496. The Envy HT was a nice chip till Via bought them and fookered the branding. I’ve not tried any of the CMedia stuff, I think that’s just because I remember when they were known for cheap (but for the time decent) integrated audio.

    I do want something good to drive my Senn’s though…

    Also, Razer is definitely junk and shouldn’t even be on this list. It’s ‘back to school’ not ‘back to RMA.’

    • superjawes
    • 9 years ago

    “Back to school” is the excuse for writing a new guide and sounds better than “August 2013 System Guide.”

    Also, it makes sense when there is one title “Dorm Envy Project.”

    • ronch
    • 9 years ago

    [quote<]Windows 8: Because it's the current version of the only operating system that makes sense for gamers. Let's count on the next version of the guide suggesting Windows 8.1, because it will be available by then. Intel CPUs: Because they're currently the ones that make sense for gamers.[/quote<] Er, I thought this article is about back-to-school systems? Why so much emphasis on gaming?

    • superjawes
    • 9 years ago

    Well two points:

    1. mITX boards can accept proper GPUs, meaning that they [i<]can[/i<] be made into pretty beefy gaming machines without much extra effort. dpaus's point was that he was trimming something for schoolwork, not dedicated gaming. 2. While it may be [i<]possible[/i<] to game on an integrated GPU, there is a difference between "functional" and "enjoyable". While you might have found the A10 enjoyable, others might find a lot of stuttering that could be stamped out by dedicated GPU. With a 7950, you would probably be able to crank up the settings and get all the details, which would be preferable in a game like Far Cry 3.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 9 years ago

    If she wants to play games she can buy the video card on her own. That’s what I did. My parents did buy for me a Pentium MMX system with 32MB of memory and an S3 ViRGE video card, because the card was about $20. I replaced it with a Voodoo Banshee right after they came out. :p

    • l33t-g4m3r
    • 9 years ago

    Haven’t had any issues with mine, and I got it when it first came out. Maybe they used higher quality parts for the first batch, or I don’t abuse it as much. I did notice my mouse wheel feels stronger than later models, if that means anything. Regardless, the G500S is supposed to have more heavy duty components, and is rated several times higher in click life.

    The only complaint I really have is cosmetic. The rubber coating comes off if you clean it too much, and so does the paint. The 518 was probably the best looking mouse they ever made, and I dunno why logitech discontinued that style. Save costs?

    Everything else is perfect. Scroll wheel, DPI buttons, side buttons, response. It’s better than anything else out there, and logitech doesn’t have internet activation drivers, which make absolutely no sense when driver software is tied to the hardware.

    • cheddarlump
    • 9 years ago

    I just built my first new system for gaming in 5 years. I’ve done the big fancy cases, water cooling, overclocking, and even scratch built my own sealed oil-immersed rig.

    This time, I just want to game and not worry about it. I went with a Mini ITX box rig.
    [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811119261<]$49.99 COOLER MASTER Elite 120 ITX[/url<] [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820148663<]$115 Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB (2 x 8GB) 240-Pin DDR3 SDRAM DDR3 1600 (PC3 12800) Low Profile Desktop Memory[/url<] [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16819116896<]$200 Intel Haswell i5-4570[/url<] [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16813157386<]$104 ASRock H87M-ITX LGA 1150 Intel H87 HDMI SATA 6Gb/s USB 3.0 Mini ITX Intel Motherboard[/url<] [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814130934<]$259 EVGA SuperClocked 02G-P4-2762-KR GeForce GTX 760 2GB[/url<] [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817182262<]$85 Rosewill CAPSTONE-550-M 550W Continuous @ 50°C, Intel Haswell Ready, 80 PLUS GOLD, Modular[/url<] I had a 2 year old WD 1TB black drive and a 120GB Intel 320 series carryover from the last build, which with the smart response is almost as fast as a native SSD. Total spent: about $830 with shipping, and I can't slow it down. It's cool, quiet, fast, no OC needed, and fits EASILY into a shoe-box sized ITX case that's easy to bring with me to LAN's. I have no regrets, and since I game at 1920x1200, I run everything on ULTRA settings at over 50FPS. I'd now rather spend the money on parts instead of bling, guess that means I'm getting old.. My 12 year old inherited my old full size gamer case and couldn't be happier. 🙂

    • raddude9
    • 9 years ago

    They’ll be some gaming snobs who think that you need an intel k processor and a Titan to play games. They really don’t like to admit that a cheapie integrated cpu can play any game out there these days

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 years ago

    No idea why you were downranked. The desktop A10 is pretty decent, it’ll even put some so-called “gaming” laptops to shame.

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 years ago

    Yeah, that’s what I figured, I guess – as mentioned in my first sentence:

    It’s a gaming box and only a gaming box. Anything less than a gaming box isn’t worth the effort, so perhaps it should be labelled as such.

    • sschaem
    • 9 years ago

    Actually, you can play A LOT of games on a A10-5800k. Not at 1920×1080, but at 1280×720 its amazing how many title are actually perfectly enjoyable.

    So your plan might not fully work 🙂

    • sschaem
    • 9 years ago

    quick note: the 6800k is unlocked and default at 4.1ghz , the 6700 stock is 3.8ghz
    You can get the 6800k to 3.8ghz and drop voltage and get the same TDP or so close to the 6700.

    The advantage is that the 6800k is rated upto 4.4ghz (turbo), so if you even need faster performance you can go from 3.8ghz al the way to 4.4ghz on this fully unlocked chip.
    With the 6700 this is not possible… and both chip cost same same price.

    Maybe this is fine for OEM builders, but for people that build their own PC, I’ not sure the A10-6700 makes any sense…

    • raddude9
    • 9 years ago

    [quote<]I'm sending her to school to study, not play games[/quote<] I've got bad news for you... That A10-5800 will play games just fine. I built a very similar system a few months back and it played a very good Far Cry 3 at 1080p and Medium settings.

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 9 years ago

    I thought that the authors had done an [b<]excellent[/b<] job of not straying too far from the budget in this system guide. I believe that if you're going to give up the Radeon HD7790, you might as well use the integrated graphics in the A10-6700 or A8-6600K in the [url=https://techreport.com/review/25250/tr-back-to-school-2013-system-guide/3<]Econobox alternatives[/url<]. Without a gaming graphics card, a quad-core Richland seems more appealing than a 2-thread Sandy Bridge that's been seriously crippled for market segmentation. The real problem is that if you get down to a bottom-of-the-barrel cheap desktop build with the cheapest-available components, it's hard to argue in favor of building it yourself versus just picking up a refurbished or scratched-and-dented Inspiron 660 from the Dell Outlet.

    • Chrispy_
    • 9 years ago

    I can’t help but feel the econobox is too expensive in today’s market, unless you are specifically building it as a gaming rig.

    A 7790 is capable, but it’s also $120 of the budget which a non gamer would want on an SSD, not a dGPU.

    Likewise, even for gamers, the i3 is a luxury that has very few tangible benefits; I changed my (Sandy) Pentium dual-core to an identically-clocked Ivy i3 for reasons of battery life and thermals, expecting to also see an improvement in games and applications. Nine months later I still can’t say I have found an app that benefits from the upgrade.

    I know some reviews show that the entry-level CPUs with only two threads suffer in some games like Civ5 and BF3, but that’s because settings are cranked up to maximum for the test and they’re being partnered with a GTX680 or 7970GE rig for consistency across all the processors tested. Dial down from Ultra to High or Medium and all the [i<]eye-candy-at-any-processing-cost[/i<] becomes [i<]look-how-good-we-can-make-this-look-using-only-one-or-two-threads[/i<] Anecdotally, my GF's [i<]Celeron[/i<] G1610 seems to run BF3 and Crysis 3 faster than my laptop, possibly because the GT640 runs almost 25% higher clocks than my laptop's similar GTX650M. However, at medium details her lowly celeron processor is definitely not the bottleneck that other reviews would imply based on their use of Ultra/Max details.... [i<]edit[/i<] - oops, forgot to clarify the point; When aiming for the lowest-price sweet-spot, it really does seem that you can get 90% of the performance of an i3 for half the budget. Surely, that's what the econobox is all about?

    • indeego
    • 9 years ago

    G500 mouse was great until it died just after ~3 years of use. I like my mice to have a little bit more life…

    • indeego
    • 9 years ago

    I absolutely understand and sympathize with this perspective.

    However, in the States, [i<]our money is our culture[/i<]. For better or for worse, the mentality is that kids are taught to work for their money, and wasting it on x or y without results is for many parents about the worst thing a child can do. China is probably the extreme example of this mentality. As a parent of two Montessori kids, this idea of controlling my kids is about as foreign to me as it is to you. Having said that, I don't just buy my kids media-access devices without some modicum of control, because they also don't quite have self-regulation under their belt. If kids want to play games, have cells, have expensive items, they can fully get those things: with their own money. This teaches them that they can have free choice, but it's up to their own hard work and personal sense of responsibility.

    • Lazier_Said
    • 9 years ago

    Pretty much.

    But a P2 from 15 years ago is already beyond adequate for Word, Excel, and wikipedia.

    So how do you assess modern parts as anything other than toys? “They’re all perfect, buy whatever you want” is an awfully brief article.

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 9 years ago

    That’s why my living room PC doesn’t have a sound card. HDMI carries digital video and audio from the PC to my home theater system, which has much better digital to analog conversion than even the best sound cards.

    In my gaming PC, I use an analog speaker system and headphones, so I need the improved quality of analog output that a discrete sound card provides compared to motherboard integrated audio.

    I still chose micro-ATX over mini-ITX for the living room PC because I have both a PCIe X16 graphics card (Radeon HD7770) and a PCIe x1 TV tuner (Ceton InfiniTV 4).

    • HisDivineOrder
    • 9 years ago

    Or a receiver running HDMI from (one of) your video card(s).

    • Stickmansam
    • 9 years ago

    I do wish the FX6300 would have been considered over the i3 3220 for pairing with dGPU since it offers on par/better gaming performance at stock and can be overclocked as well. Its also the same price or cheaper to boot.

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 9 years ago

    Windows 8: Because it’s the current version of the only operating system that makes sense for gamers. Let’s count on the next version of the guide suggesting Windows 8.1, because it will be available by then.

    Intel CPUs: Because they’re currently the ones that make sense for gamers.

    Asus Sound Card: Uh…
    I’m going to guess that the editors haven’t tried a Creative Labs [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16829102054<]Sound Blaster Z[/url<].

    • ronch
    • 9 years ago

    Neely, the point is, sure, those kids are mostly independent but no good parent is gonna deck out a PC that encourages gaming for his/her college kid which may interfere with the kid’s studies. If the kid wants a GTX780 with it then maybe he/she can get a part-time job to earn money for the upgrade. Now wouldn’t that teach the kid to earn for himself/herself?

    • ronch
    • 9 years ago

    Yup. Windows 8, mostly Intel chips, only Asus sound cards, etc.

    I sense something.

    • ronch
    • 9 years ago

    Business is business, I guess.

    • l33t-g4m3r
    • 9 years ago

    Speaking of Logitech, I don’t recall seeing the G500, which is the absolutely best mouse ever made, hands down. I’d also recommend the Asus VG23AH for a monitor, being a top notch IPS screen capable of higher refresh rates, and 3d without $100 battery operated glasses. I’d also recommend the 760 over any AMD cards, simply because of drivers, and it supports 3d out of the box, no additional cost.

    I’ll also second your Creative recommendation, but with an exception. I’ve tried Creative’s new cards, and the X-FI has way better software and sound, despite any issues normally associated with said chip. It’s much better to just get a newer pci-e version of the x-fi, than bother with sound core.

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 9 years ago

    [quote=”mike november oscar”<] For RAM, I'd at least put alternatives without heatspreaders (that are all cosmetic anyway)[/quote<] Crucial's VLP ("Very Low Profile") DIMMs are even more compact: 2x4 GiB: [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820148662[/url<] 2x8 GiB: [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820148663[/url<]

    • Khali
    • 9 years ago

    Because the person, Cyril Kowaliski, who wrote the article pushing mATX isn’t the editor. From the look of this Editor’s Choice list I’m guessing Scott Wasson, who is the Editor, does not agree with Cyril on the conclusions he came to in the mATX article.

    I would like to hear them debate the issue in the next pod cast.

    • mno
    • 9 years ago

    Here are my quibbles about this article (and an error I caught).

    I’d expect at least a mention of the fact that there’s consistently been 7950 deals for $220 or less (often before rebate) for the past two weeks. With Cyril’s recent blog post, I’d expect there to at least be several mATX options posted (the Dorm Envy at least should have some alternatives listed). The 350D’s size is completely wasted without a larger CLC, and the Silverstone TJ08-E has better airflow, supports more drives, and has 25% less volume. In any case, if you’re going to go with large mATX cases, why no mention of alternatives like Fractal Design’s Define Mini or Arc Mini?

    For RAM, I’d at least put alternatives without heatspreaders (that are all cosmetic anyway) that could potentially interfere with the CPU heatsink such as [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820148543[/url<] which is the same price as the Corsair Vengeance but without requiring a rebate. Also, on page 4, the RAM is incorrectly referred to as Corsair Dominator instead of Corsair Vengeance. Motherboard-wise, ASUS's offerings really aren't particularly good values this generation. The Z87-K is cut down far too much to justify its pricepoint (especially with its inferior VRMs and power delivery), and I'd have liked to see Gigabyte's Z87X-D3H recommended somewhere, with its superior power delivery to ASUS' Z87-A and its use of an Intel NIC instead of a cheap Realtek one. ASRock's Z87 Extreme4 also merits a mention, with its superior ALC1150 audio solution, Intel NIC, and better power delivery than the Z87-A, all at the same price. While ASUS's fan control software is nice, their BIOS fan control is actually rather lacking, and there's actually no support for PWM case fans (see [url<]http://www.silentpcreview.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=28&t=66283[/url<] ) despite having physical 4-pin headers. The PSU recommendations are also rather questionable. A good quality 550W PSU is already sufficient for all the single GPU systems, and there are better PSUs for less than the ones recommended. Seasonic's X-650 is just $10 more ($20 more counting rebate) on Newegg than the HX650 while being based on a higher end platform with better voltage regulation and efficiency (see [url<]http://www.hardwaresecrets.com/article/Corsair-HX650-Gold-Power-Supply-Review/1705/13[/url<] ) that's also fully modular. Alternatively, Seasonic's SSR-650RM is based on the exact same platform as the HX650 (which is also manufactured by Seasonic) at just $100 on Newegg ($30 less than the HX650, $20 including rebate). Rosewill's Capstone series is also a good line of 80+ Gold PSUs with comparable performance and quality that's available for just $90 (for nonmodular) or $105 (for modular) for the 650W model. The HyperX 3K is an odd recommendation when Kingston's own V300 has almost identical performance for $10 less. The 120GB 840 Series is also a rather poor recommendation when it has substantially less performance than Sandforce based drives at the same price point, as the 120GB model performs much worse than its larger siblings. Anyway, I've spent entirely too much time writing this.

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 9 years ago

    Mini-ITX: 1 PCIe slot
    Mini-DTX: 2 slots
    Micro-ATX: 4 slots
    ATX: Up to 7 slots

    Dual-slot graphics card + sound card + one more card (e.g.: TV tuner) = up to 4 PCIe slots needed.

    • mtruchado
    • 9 years ago

    I think you made a really intelligent and good move.

    • NeelyCam
    • 9 years ago

    [quote<]I'm sending her to school to study, not play games.[/quote<] Isn't it up to her what she wants to do in school, and with her life? You know, I've been wondering about this attitude that's prevalent in North America about parents [b<]sending[/b<] their kids to school.. I understand that when parents are paying for school, they feel like they have a right to control what happens there. But how are kids supposed to learn independence when parents are controlling their lives through economic means? I mean, aren't these "kids" that go to college 18 years old already? Why are they called "kids"? Don't they graduate to the "adult" status when they turn 18? In Finland, these young adults go to school for themselves, and parents have nothing to do with it. Parents don't get to control their children with money because school is free. As a result, college students become independent and responsible for their own lives.

    • XTF
    • 9 years ago

    So if I want 5 or 6 slots I should go mATX? 🙂

    • derFunkenstein
    • 9 years ago

    I did, that’s why I said there was one. :p

    • ronch
    • 9 years ago

    My thoughts, exactly. If I had a kid in college I’m not gonna put a 3570K + HD7990 in there. Just the bare minimum to do homework with.

    • RDFSteve
    • 9 years ago

    It’s just the time of year. But you are right, according to this guide, computers are only used for gaming. Period.

    • ronch
    • 9 years ago

    No FX-8350…. <gloom> (–_–)

    • HisDivineOrder
    • 9 years ago

    Isn’t it odd how the Editor’s Choice system and the alternative options both include ATX cases instead of mATX cases? Wasn’t there someone here writing an article about how mATX is all anyone needs and why should anyone ever use anything else? If that’s true, then why isn’t the “Editor’s Choice” reflecting that mindset in at least just the alternative?

    • dpaus
    • 9 years ago

    As it happens, I had to build a back-to-school system for my daughter. I put an [url=http://www.newegg.ca/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16819113280<] AMD A10-5800K[/url<] CPU on a [url=http://ncix.ca/products/?sku=77267&vpn=FM2A75M-ITX&manufacture=Others<] ASRock FM2A75M-ITX [/url<] motherboard in an [url=http://www.newegg.ca/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811129081&Tpk=ANTEC%20ISK310-150%20MINI-ITX<] Antec Mini-ITX case [/url<] with 8 GBytes of RAM, a 500G SATA drive, a DVD drive and Windows 7. Total price: $468. Yes, I could have gotten her a decent laptop instead, but she wanted this. I'm sending her to school to [i<]study[/i<], not play games. "Back to School"?? More like "Back to Mom's Basement"...

    • dpaus
    • 9 years ago

    Log-ick? Log-ick? What is this log-ick you speak of…?

    • grantmeaname
    • 9 years ago

    Is the only difference between the $750 UX31A-R5102 and the DH51 and other $900+ models that the R5102 comes with Windows 7 instead of Windows 8? All the other specs look the same but I can’t help but wonder if I’m missing something, and $150 is a big discount for something that most enthusiasts would [i<]pay[/i<] for...

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 9 years ago

    People seem to forget that micro-ATX motherboards can fit into ATX cases, too, as long as you’re careful to double check if you need to relocate a standoff.

    I put two generations of micro-ATX motherboards into my P182 case before buying the [url=https://techreport.com/review/22814/silverstone-temjin-tj08-e-evolution-enclosure<]TJ08-E[/url<] for my latest gaming PC.

    • travbrad
    • 9 years ago

    Wouldn’t a console alternative run at 720p and 30FPS?

    • dragosmp
    • 9 years ago

    Good guide, I can use it as a basis for some builds. Still, after Cyril’s article on smaller cases and under-ATX motherboard formats I was expecting a revamped guide in that direction. Scott, I do think for anything except the Editor’s choice (which as the name says it is your personal choice) and the Double Stuff, mATX should work well.
    If I would change my rig in the close future I wouldn’t buy ATX; I have an ATX because in 2009 mATX was a mess with few good options for boards, even fewer cases; as such I bought a P182 and then ATX boards by inertia. Today I think there are more decent mATX, maybe still not enough, but things like the Prodigy S or the 350D are quite good. If the comunity goes towards smaller cases, maybe this post will be taken into account for the next guide.

    • Pettytheft
    • 9 years ago

    I’d like a Console alternative. A HTPC for the TV capable of 1080p gaming.

    • BIF
    • 9 years ago

    Who says I’m not calm? I just don’t get the logic.

    • destroy.all.monsters
    • 9 years ago

    No.

    • destroy.all.monsters
    • 9 years ago

    Add Bitcoin bastahd and that’d complete the job.

    • theadder
    • 9 years ago

    The guide seems to hawk Windows 8 a bit in the OS section.

    • Coran Fixx
    • 9 years ago

    Thought a nice double stuff alternative would be GTX760 SLI. I also like PC Power and Cooling’s 950watt PSU @ $120.

    Very nice guide tho’

    • JohnC
    • 9 years ago

    Calm down, dude – the “downvotes” are purely cosmetic and don’t mean anything…

    • StuG
    • 9 years ago

    I feel different models of the NUC should be included in the econobox section as possibilities.

    • JohnC
    • 9 years ago

    No mention of Creative’s new cards as an alternative? No mentioning of Logitech’s mechanical keyboard as an alternative (instead you list the “mandatory” Razer’s junk)? No recommendations for good 2.1 speaker setup? No recommendations for ANY headsets or stand-alone microphones (which are mandatory for many multiplayer games if you want to play in groups and necessary for activities like streaming games on Twitch.tv or making your game-related videos for YouTube or making your podcasts, etc.)? No mentioning about TN monitors with high refresh rate (and LightBoost trick compatibility)? Come on now, just because the manufacturers didn’t send you free samples doesn’t mean you have to avoid mentioning their products…

    • BIF
    • 9 years ago

    How does any of the additional coverage I’m asking for warrant any downvotes?

    All I did was identify some potential gaps in the system guide usefulness. Some of us still building systems might be looking for different specializations to fill atypical use cases.

    I didn’t just whine about some minor pricing discrepancy or suggest that the motherboards have too many/not enough of this or that, or complain that the case selections are too big.

    • Yan
    • 9 years ago

    That’s the second time in a row the sweet spot alternative doesn’t have an AMD processor. 🙁

    • humannn
    • 9 years ago

    Any idea on when those new SATA Express (3.2) SSDs could arrive? A previous article said they’re “around the corner”, but does that mean in another month or two, or more like 2014?

    • CampinCarl
    • 9 years ago

    Was there a reason you picked the Kingston HyperX 240GiB drive over the Samsung Evo 250GiB drive? On Newegg, the Evo is $2 cheaper, but has 10GiB more storage. The review for the Evo seemed pretty glowing, too. You guys haven’t even reviewed the HyperX yet, so we can’t even compare it performance wise to see if it is up to snuff.

    • USAFTW
    • 9 years ago

    Wow! I’ve been pondering the double stuff/workstation’s alternative section. You have a GTX 770 for 390 and 7970 (which you claim to be equivalent) at 310. Ain’t the choice kinda obvious?

    • cygnus1
    • 9 years ago

    I didn’t see any mention of the S variant Haswell chips. For cool and quiet goals they’re pretty nice. Same max turbo as their non S counterparts but 20W lets TDP. I personally went with the i5-4570S in my current rig. This thing runs shockingly cool with just the stock Intel heatsink. In a room that generally hangs around 80F, most of the time the CPU runs under 100F and my chassis fans don’t even spin up. Which also is a major selling point on the Asus motherboards, the fact that they’ll shut fans off if the system is cool enough.

    I literally can’t hear my tower less than 3 feet from my head. I built it in a Fractal Design Arc Midi R2 with the 3 stock fans.

    • NeelyCam
    • 9 years ago

    [quote<]What exactly do you think econobox-type users are going to need seven expansion slots for?[/quote<] +1

    • NeelyCam
    • 9 years ago

    [quote<]You guys did see the Dorm Envy config[/quote<] Yes. It's too big.

    • NeelyCam
    • 9 years ago

    This. AMD drivers suck, NVidia’s are top-notch.

    • BIF
    • 9 years ago

    Doesn’t just about anybody have the system they pretty much want? I think it’s time to increase specialization and add three or four system options to this guide.

    I propose:

    1. Protein folding monster (system or “alternative”)
    2. Graphic arts/animation monster (system or “alternative”)
    3. Server Economy (like a home or small business server; a system)
    4. Server Performance (like a faster file or database system, maybe including redundancy or high availability options)

    For 1, I’m looking for CPU and GPU options.
    For 2, I’m looking for CPU options and discussion about GPU rendering
    For 3 and 4…I’m just a geek and want to know. 😀

    These guides are also completely ignoring multi-CPU slotted systems and the people who might need them for one or more of the above suggestions.

    • GasBandit
    • 9 years ago

    I can only speak for myself, but I prefer to pay a little more to get the nVidia cards because unlike AMD, they don’t have a history of their drivers perforating my colon with flaming cactus needles before throwing me out of an airplane over an olympic sized swimming pool filled with broken glass and rusty scrapmetal.

    • Dissonance
    • 9 years ago

    When we came up with our original configs a few days ago (it takes a while to take these guides from raw specs to finished product), the 650 Ti Boost was down to $130, and the cheapest 7790 was $130. We had to swap some parts around due to subsequent price changes, and we missed that the 7790 is now the best option in that price range. We’ve changed the Econobox recommendation to a hot-clocked 7790 for $120.

    • jessterman21
    • 9 years ago

    2 free games with the GeForces.

    For some reason, it’s not detailed in anything but [url=http://www.geforce.com/whats-new/articles/splinter-cell-blacklist-geforce-gtx-bundle<]Nvidia's original announcement of the promo[/url<], but that makes 2 free Splinter Cell games with the GTX 660 and up.

    • Prestige Worldwide
    • 9 years ago

    Better control panel maybe? Perhaps things have changed since 2010, but when I went from an HD 4870 to a GTX 295, I found that the nVidia control panel was much better than the Catalyst Control Center in terms of options for tweaking settings on a game-by-game basis.

    Then again I have no better idea what is going through the writer’s head than you do.

    • jensend
    • 9 years ago

    There are more AMD mATX boards available than ATX, and for Intel there’s about 3/4 as many mATX as ATX. mATX boards are frequently cheaper than ATX equivalents. mATX cases are plentiful too.

    Very few who build an Econobox-level system are going to go for SLI, and if you’re not doing SLI then a good mATX board will give you at least two free expansion slots after graphics (at least three if your graphics card is single-wide, four if you’re using the integrated graphics).

    What exactly do you think econobox-type users are going to need seven expansion slots for?

    • jensend
    • 9 years ago

    [quote<]The Radeon HD 7790 can also be had for around $130, but we prefer the GeForce.[/quote<] What exactly is this preference based on? It's apparently not based on performance: [quote<]Well, well. Despite being thrown into the ring with a more expensive GeForce GTX 650 Ti card with twice as much memory, the Radeon HD 7790 more than holds its own overall. In fact, it's quicker on average according to our 99th-percentile plot, which we think offers the best summation of real-world performance. The 7790 is negligibly slower in the average FPS plot—but it's still a better deal considering the lower price. Based on these numbers, I'd expect the 7790 to perform even better compared to a lower-clocked, like-priced version of the GeForce GTX 650 Ti.[/quote<]It's also not power, thermals, or noise. It's not price, since the 7790 is available at the same price with a free game of your choosing. Is it the color of the PCB?

    • Damage
    • 9 years ago

    Eh, it’s roomy enough to make building a PC inside easy. If what you want is something small and cramped, order a different case. But we’re not likely to make a case like that a primary rec for a DIY guide.

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 9 years ago

    [quote=”Damage”<] You guys did see the Dorm Envy config, though, right? [/quote<] How could you miss it? It's housed inside one of those ridiculously-huge Corsair Obsidian enclosures. [url<]https://techreport.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=33&t=88627&p=1171116&hilit=#p1171116[/url<]

    • Damage
    • 9 years ago

    Eh, I’d have overruled him. If Cyril had written this version, instead of Geoff.

    Even the Econobox is intended to be expandable, and mATX isn’t going to become a requirement unless the case and mobo selection just becomes overwhelmingly better and cheaper for that class of system. Right now, ATX wins there.

    You guys did see the Dorm Envy config, though, right?

    • derFunkenstein
    • 9 years ago

    yeah I guess I missed that. I had one on my previous case, CM 690 II Advance, and I never used it. If you’re swapping drives in and out for backups I guess that’d be useful, and I thought I’d use it, but it turns out that….meh.

    • Dissonance
    • 9 years ago

    The R4 is tempting, but it doesn’t quite match the H2 on features. No drive dock.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 9 years ago

    No kidding, why not spec out full mATX systems if you’re going to advocate for it. There’s one, but I think you should go all out – put your money where your mouth is with your build guides.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 9 years ago

    From the enclosure section of page 4:

    [quote<]If you can find a better $100 case, let us know. Seriously.[/quote<] The Fractal Design R4 has all of that AND it doesn't have the ugly bulges on top to cover fan exhaust holes. Instead, it's got sound-dampening panels crewed in on the inside. Plus it has 2 front USB 3.0 ports instead of just one, and the top is set up for 240mm radiators for those fancy enclosed water cooling rigs. The way that top appears to be laid out, you can't do that in the NZXT.

    • Kurotetsu
    • 9 years ago

    >> Looks at Cyril’s recent blog post
    >> Not a single mATX build outside of alternatives

    [b<]First[/b<], I r disappoint. Second, I look forward to the oncoming shitstorm due to the soundcard in that article image.

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