Wow, is it really that time again? I suppose it must be.
Since we published our last system guide, AMD and Nvidia have introduced a cornucopia of new graphics cards—and cut prices on existing offerings for good measure. Most of the newcomers are based on the same silicon as their predecessors, but they’re faster and, in some cases, more aggressively priced. We’re facing a completely changed graphics landscape.
On top of that, Intel has released its Ivy Bridge-E processors, and motherboard makers have cranked out updates to accommodate them. Corsair has introduced a successor to one of our favorite cases. Memory prices have gone up again—although, this time, it’s because of an unfortunate factory fire. Also, Microsoft has rolled out Windows 8.1, and a whole boatload of new convertibles and notebooks based on it have come out.
So, yes, I suppose it really is time for a new edition of the TR System Guide.
This time, we’ve tried to update our staple builds while trimming some of the fat from our writing. The result, we hope, is a set of more concise recommendations that should be a little less daunting to parse, especially for first-time builders.
All right, that’s enough teasing. Come along, and check out the new 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.
Because speed doesn’t have to cost a fortune
Our budget build’s target price has fluctuated over the years, but our aim has always been the same: to spec out a solid budget gaming PC without ugly compromises. Decent graphics performance is a must here, as is a strong upgrade path.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-4130 3.4GHz||$129.99|
|Motherboard||ASRock H87M Pro4||$82.99|
|Memory||Crucial Ballistix 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$63.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon HD 7850 2GB||$149.99|
|Storage||Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 1TB||$69.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 200R||$59.99|
|Power supply||Corsair CX430M||$49.99|
Dual-core Haswell desktop chips are finally out, which means we can freshen the Econobox’s CPU recommendation. Hooray!
Things are a bit more complicated this time, though. Next-gen games are coming out soon, and they seem poised to take advantage of more CPU threads than current titles. The system requirements for Watch Dogs, for instance, call for an old quad-core processor as a minimum, and they recommend top-of-the-line chips with eight threads. That kinda makes sense, superficially speaking. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both have eight x86 cores. Someone building a PC with next-gen games in mind therefore ought to get as many cores as he can. Right?
Well, not necessarily. The cores in the PS4 and Xbone are based on AMD’s lightweight Jaguar architecture, so they’re far slower than those inside modern desktop CPUs. Also, what we know about how games are coded tells us that single-threaded performance will continue to matter for the foreseeable future. Even in next-gen titles, we’re unlikely to see workloads spread evenly across eight cores. Rather, we’ll probably see one heavy workload and several light ones, which will make single-threaded performance the bottleneck.
For those reasons, we’re comfortable recommending two fast Haswell cores with Hyper-Threading (giving us four threads total) for the Econobox. There are like-priced alternatives with more threads among AMD’s FX-series processors, but those have lower per-thread performance. An FX-series chip with six threads, for example, could do better in the heavily multithreaded workloads that might appear in next-gen games—but it will also do worse when a single thread is the bottleneck, which is a common situation today and will remain so in the future.
So, yeah. The Core i3-4130 it is.
However unlikely, it’s possible that multithreaded performance could matter more than we expect in next-gen games. That’s why we’ve singled out an FX-6300 for our alternatives section below. Just keep in mind that the FX-6300 has other disadvantages beside its poor single-threaded performance: much higher power consumption, an older platform with fewer features, and no upgrade path that we know of. If you’re worried about multithreaded performance, then your best bet is probably to spend the extra $60 or so on a quad-core Haswell processor. We’ve selected one of those, too, in the alts below.
Phew. Now that our overly long CPU recommendation is over with, let’s speed through the less contentious stuff, like our motherboard recommendation.
ASRock’s H87M Pro4 is based on Intel’s H87 chipset, which has all the bells and whistles of the Z87 minus multiplier overclocking support (which we don’t need, since we’re not recommending an unlocked chip) and proper multi-GPU support (also not needed, since we’re not recommending multiple graphics cards). The H87M Pro4 sports quad USB 3.0 ports, six 6Gbps SATA ports, Intel Ethernet, an affordable price tag, and pretty good reviews at Newegg. Since this is a microATX mobo, there are only four expansion slots—but that’s more than we need for one discrete GPU and no other expansion cards.
Memory prices are up again, but strangely enough, the gap in pricing between 4GB and 8GB DDR3-1600 dual-channel kits has shrunk. Since going for the smaller memory size would only save us about $10-20, we figure we might as well go with a nice 8GB kit.
Recent price cuts have brought both AMD’s Radeon HD 7850 2GB and Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB down to around $150. These cards have roughly equivalent performance, and they’re both much faster than alternatives like the R7 260X and the standard GTX 650 Ti. The question, then, is which one do we pick?
The 7850 2GB is a little more power-efficient than the 650 Ti Boost 2GB, and it has a better game bundle right now. You can take your pick out of two free games as part of AMD’s Never Settle Forever Silver bundle. The competing GeForce comes with $75 of free-to-play credit, which is nice, but nowhere near as generous. We’re picking MSI’s variant of the 7850 2GB here, since it has a beefy dual-fan cooler that should be nice and quiet.
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 rec 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.
Despite selling for just $60, Corsair’s Carbide Series 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 Antec Three Hundred Two, an improved version of the classic 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.
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 also has modular cabling, which will help keep our internals as tidy as possible.
Want more processor cores, an Nvidia graphics card, or a different storage setup? Read on.
|Core i5-4430 3.0GHz||$189.99|
|Motherboard||Asus M5A97 LE R2.0||$74.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB||$149.99|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 120GB||$89.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB||$99.99|
AMD’s FX-6300 has six hardware cores. If next-gen games can tap into all those cores without suffering significant drawbacks from the chip’s relatively sluggish single-threaded performance, the FX-6300 may run next-gen games better than the Core i3 in our primary build. We don’t think that’s a likely scenario, though. The FX-6300 is also hamstrung by a large power envelope (95W, versus 54W for the Core i3) and its need to be paired with a Socket AM3+ motherboard like Asus’ M5A97 LE R2.0. The AM3+ platform gives us fewer USB 3.0 ports, slower USB and Serial ATA performance, and a limited upgrade path. It also lacks the SSD caching capabilities built into modern Intel chipsets.
If you want extra cores, the best option, we think, is to spend a little more and buy the Core i5-4430, which is the most affordable quad-core member of the Haswell desktop family. The i5-4430 has more cores and great single-threaded performance, so it should handle next-gen games well no matter their requirements. Shoppers future-proofing for next-gen games may want to splurge on a little extra memory, too.
On the graphics front, the GeForce GTX 650 Ti Boost 2GB probably won’t be any faster than the Radeon HD 7850 2GB in next-gen games, but it shouldn’t be any slower, either. Don’t care about the Radeon’s game bundle or its slightly lower power draw? Then the GeForce will serve you just as well. Its ability to configure game settings automatically via GeForce Experience and to record games via ShadowPlay is nice, too.
Finally, we have a couple of storage alternatives to recommend.
For those who can afford one, a solid-state drive is an indispensable addition to any PC. The drastically decreased application load times alone are enough to make you a lifelong convert. We didn’t have room in the Econobox’s $600 budget for an SSD, but we do in the alts. Kingston’s HyperX 120GB is fast, capacious, and cheap. Other options exist in this price range, but the most familiar alternative, Samsung’s 840 EVO 120GB, uses three-bit TLC memory with more limited write endurance than the HyperX’s two-bit MLC flash.
Just because we’re recommending an SSD doesn’t mean mechanical storage is good for the scrapyard. Going with the 2TB version of Seagate’s Barracuda instead of the 1TB model is a good idea even for folks who put their operating system on a solid-state drive. It’s always nice to have room for more high-definition videos and
pirate loot Linux ISOs. The ‘cuda is fast enough to fill in as a boot drive, too, for those who can’t afford the SSD on top of it.
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.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4430 3.0GHz||$189.99|
|Memory||Crucial Ballistix 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$63.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon R9 270X||$199.99|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 120GB||$89.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 2TB||$99.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$55.99|
|Power supply||Corsair CX600M||$79.99|
As the most affordable member of Intel’s Haswell lineup, the Core i5-4430 isn’t the most exciting processor in the world. However, with four cores, a 3GHz clock speed (3.2GHz with Turbo), and an 84W power envelope, it has everything we need for the Sweet Spot: great performance in both single-threaded and multithreaded workloads, and great power efficiency.
We could go with the Core i5-4670K, which has an unlocked upper multiplier for easy overclocking, but that would set us back another $50, and we’re stretching our thousand-dollar budget as it is. Haswell doesn’t have huge amounts of overclocking headroom, anyway. We think it’s wiser to spend less on the processor and more on the graphics card and solid-state drive.
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.
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 is priced $15 higher 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.
This Crucial kit is one of the most affordable 8GB DDR3-1600 offerings selling at Newegg. The DIMMs runs at the maximum speed officially supported by our processor, and they’re covered by a lifetime warranty.
The Radeon R9 270X is based on the same silicon as the old Radeon HD 7870, but it’s faster and priced at a cool $200. Our benchmarks show that this card outperforms the slightly cheaper GeForce GTX 660 by a fair margin and is almost as fast as the pricier GeForce GTX 760. The R9 270X draws a fair bit less power under load than the GTX 660, too.
This particular Gigabyte variant of the R9 270X is clocked slightly higher than AMD’s reference speed, and it has a beefy triple-fan cooler that should keep the card quiet and cool. We’ll take it.
Here, our thousand-dollar budget gives us room for both of the alternatives from the Econobox: Kingston’s HyperX 120GB and Seagate’s Barracuda 7,200-RPM 2TB. The former can store the operating system, games, and apps, ensuring lightning quick boot and load times. The latter can take care of mass-storage duties—and because of its high spindle speed, it can double as a reasonably fast location for games and apps that won’t fit on the SSD.
As for our optical drive, the Econobox’s Asus DVD burner is just as good a fit for the Sweet Spot. We considered upgrading to a Blu-ray burner, but that’s not a luxury suitable for this budget.
Yeah, yeah, we know some of you think sound cards are relics from the 1990s. However, every time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete cards wind up sounding noticeably better than motherboard audio. We’re not using audiophile-grade speakers, either. Our tests are done with a pair of lowly Sennheiser HD 555 headphones.
If you’re using analog headphones or speakers that weren’t scavenged from a circa-1995 Compaq, a discrete sound card like Asus’ Xonar DSX is a worthwhile purchase. This card doesn’t just beat onboard audio; it also has a more balanced sound profile than cheaper offerings like Asus’ Xonar DG and DGX. 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.
NZXT’s H2 has something of a stranglehold on the Sweet Spot. We’ve considered replacing this case with various other contenders around the same price point, 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 ATX enclosure, let us know. Seriously.
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 asking price is competitive, too.
Sweet Spot alternatives
Don’t like our primary picks? As with the Econobox, we’ve singled out some alternatives.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4670K 3.4GHz||$239.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 760||$249.99|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 3K 240GB||$174.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB||$119.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 400R||$99.99|
Overclockers will want the Core i5-4670K instead of the i5-4430. This is the cheapest Haswell variant with an unlocked upper multiplier, which is pretty much required for even light overclocking. (Non-K-series Ivy Bridge chips could go a few “bins” above the base clock, but corresponding Haswell models cannot.) Overclockers should probably spring for an aftermarket CPU cooler, too; you’ll find our recommendations for those on the second-to-last-page of the guide. 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.
If you plan to use onboard audio, then the Gigabyte GA-Z87-D3HP is arguably a better option than the Asus mobo above. 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.
The GeForce GTX 760 is a little outside our budget for the Sweet Spot’s primary picks, and we’re also not crazy about its higher power draw. Still, it is slightly faster—and unlike the Radeon, it comes bundled with free games: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and Splinter Cell Blacklist. Those factors make the GTX 760 worth considering as an alternative. So do its support for GeForce Experience and ShadowPlay and the fact that buying a GTX 760 entitles you to a $50 discount on a Shield handheld, if you go through Newegg’s combo menu. We’re going with EVGA’s take on the GTX 760, which is one of the most affordable variants with a nice, dual-fan cooler instead of the noisy stock unit.
On the storage front, it can’t hurt to go with higher-capacity versions of our Kingston SSD and Seagate hard drive, provided you can afford them. Based on the data we have for similar SandForce configs, the 240GB HyperX should deliver better all-around performance than rivals with similar price tags. Adding a Blu-ray drive won’t hurt, either. LG’s WH14NS40 can read and write Blu-ray discs, which makes it handy for both movie playback and backup duties.
Look at that, we even have an alternative case recommendation! The NZXT H2’s emphasis on silence means that it’s not the coolest-running case around, so 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.
What TR’s editors would get—if they had time to upgrade
The name of this build says it all. If we were buying a PC for ourselves right now, we’d splurge on nicer components than those found in the Sweet Spot and Econobox. However, we still wouldn’t want to waste hard-earned cash on needlessly expensive parts.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4670K 3.4GHz||$239.99|
|Memory||Crucial Ballistix 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$63.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon R9 280X||$299.99|
|Storage||Kingston HyperX 3K 240GB||$174.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200 RPM 3TB||$119.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DSX||$55.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$159.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX650W||$119.99|
|CPU cooler||Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||$34.99|
The Core i5-4670K lets us overclock and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. If you want overclocking support with a side order of Hyper-Threading, check the Core i7-4770K alternative below.
Because of our bigger budget, 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.
The 8GB Crucial memory kit from the Sweet Spot works just as well in the Editor’s Choice.
Even now that those Nvidia price cuts are in effect, the Radeon R9 280X is the best deal in this price range, since it costs less than the GeForce GTX 770 and performs almost identically. Here, we’re choosing a Gigabyte variant of the R9 280X with one of those humongous triple-fan coolers. We’ve had good experiences with these coolers in the past; they tend to be effective and very quiet.
Note that, despite its higher price, the GeForce GTX 770 does have an ace up its sleeve: a three-game bundle. If you care more about freebies than raw performance per dollar, the GeForce may be the card for you. We’ve included it in our alternatives below.
This build’s budget is big enough to allow for a decent-sized SSD, a big hard drive, and a Blu-ray burner. We’ve pulled all three from the Sweet Spot alternatives on the previous page. Those with extra cash kicking around may want to check our alternatives below, where we recommend an even faster SSD and an even higher-capacity hard drive.
We’re certainly not falling back to integrated audio here, but we’re not going to splurge on a higher-end discrete card, either. The Xonar DSX offers better value than Asus’ more expensive Xonar DX, which costs more and adds little besides Dolby Headphone support. In our blind listening tests, those two cards sounded very close. You might as well save your money.
Corsair’s Obsidian Series 650D was our favorite for a long time, and we’re still fond of its side-panel latches and its integrated drive dock. Corsair’s newer Obsidian Series 750D doesn’t have either of those features, but it does have a lower price, a roomier interior, and much quieter cooling. The stock fans are set up to generate positive air pressure inside the case, as well, which should help to keep dust out.
Ah, if only Corsair made a case that combined the 650D’s premium perks with the 750D’s design improvements…
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.
The cooler bundled with retail-boxed Intel processors works fine at stock speeds, but you want something beefier for overclocking. Our K-series processor is primed for higher frequencies, so we’ve selected an aftermarket cooler to go with it.
The Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO is the successor to our previous recommendation, the Hyper 212 Plus, which has literally thousands of five-star reviews on Newegg. These two coolers are very similar, but the EVO has its heat pipes squished together at the base. Cooler Master claims this gap-less design improves cooling efficiency. The EVO costs only $5 more, so we’re not going to argue.
Editor’s Choice alternatives
The Editor’s Choice is packed with our favorites, but we still have some alternative propositions in mind.
|Processor||Core i7-4770K 3.5GHz||$339.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 770||$339.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 Pro 256GB||$214.99|
|Seagate Desktop HDD.15 4TB||$179.99|
Have an extra $100 burning a hole in your pocket? Then consider the Core i7-4770K, which is the flagship of the Haswell processor fleet. 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. The 4770K has an unlocked upper multiplier, too, of course.
As for our graphics alternative, Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 770 gets you the same level of performance as the R9 280X at a slight premium. That premium would be hard to justify if it weren’t for the GeForce’s game bundle, which comprises Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Batman: Arkham Origins, and Splinter Cell Blacklist. That’s pretty good, since the R9 280X comes without any freebies whatsoever. You get a $100 discount on Nvidia’s shield handheld if you buy it as a combo with the GTX 770, too.
Finally, once again, we have two alternative storage propositions.
There’s the Samsung 840 Pro 256GB, which is straight up better than the 240GB Kingston. It has a higher capacity, higher performance, and a longer, five-year warranty. The 840 Pro has also racked up hundreds of five-star Newegg reviews. Then, on the mechanical side, we have Seagate’s Desktop HDD.15 4TB. This drive’s lower spindle speed makes it a poor choice for performance-sensitive tasks, so it’s not as versatile as the 3TB ‘cuda. For plain mass-storage duties, however, it’s hard to beat 4TB in a single 3.5″ drive.
Because more is very often better
Our Double-Stuff workstation is jam-packed with some of the fastest hardware on the market. We’ve attempted to balance performance and cost to some degree, even here.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-4930K||$579.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR3-1866||$204.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon R9 290||$399.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 EVO 1TB||$599.00|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200-RPM 3TB||$109.99|
|Seagate Barracuda 7,200-RPM 3TB||$109.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$79.99|
|Power supply||Corsair AX860W||$189.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$159.99|
Our chosen processor for the Double-Stuff isn’t based on Haswell; rather, it’s an Ivy Brige-E chip. That means it’s based on an older architecture, yet it also packs more cores, more cache, more memory channels, and support for higher memory speeds than any Haswell CPU on the market today. Considering Haswell’s modest increase in instructions per clock over Ivy Bridge, Ivy Bridge-E is a worthwhile choice for a high-end rig like this one.
This particular Ivy-E model, the Core i7-4930K, features six 3.4GHz cores, 12MB of L3 cache, and quad memory channels each capable of accommodating DDR3-1866 RAM. It has an unlocked upper multiplier, too. Besides the price, the only serious downside is the 130W thermal envelope, which calls for relatively beefy cooling (hence the liquid CPU cooler in our primary recs).
We need an X79 chipset to accommodate the Core i7-4930K. Among the X79 mobos available out there, the Asus X79-Deluxe is our new favorite. It was released alongside Ivy Bridge-E, and it’s packed to the gills with features: eight DIMM slots, three PCI Express 3.0 x16 slots (sharing 32 lanes of traffic), 14 Serial ATA ports (of which 10 are 6Gbps), eight USB 3.0 ports, 802.11ac, and Bluetooth. The Deluxe is pricey, yes, but there’s hardly a better board out there for the Double-Stuff.
Just a heads up, though: the X79-Deluxe, like many of its X79-toting peers, lacks FireWire connectivity. If you need FireWire for whatever reason, check out our alternatives below, where we recommend a discrete adapter.
At least four DIMMs are needed to populate our processor’s four memory channels. We could go with an 8GB kit, but… well, this is the Double-Stuff. That’s why we’ve splurged on 16GB of Vengeance DDR3-1866 memory from Corsair.
If you’ve read our review of the R9 290, you’ll know why we’re recommending it: this card offers hands down the best performance per dollar in this price range. It’s about as fast as the GeForce GTX 780, which costs $100 more, and the GTX Titan, which retails for a thousand bucks. The R9 290 is pretty darned close to the $550 R9 290X, too, at least when the latter runs with its default, “quiet,” fan profile.
The R290’s main downsides are its high power consumption, high noise levels under load, and lack of a game bundle. There’s no guaranteed base clock, either, which means some cards may perform slower than others out of the box. The GeForce GTX 780 is better on all of these fronts, which is why we’ve put it in our alternatives below.
There’s nothing terribly remarkable about the Sapphire version of the R9 290 we’ve chosen—it’s about as close to AMD’s reference as they come. This is just one of the few R9 290 cards in stock at the moment.
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 packs a full terabyte of solid-state storage for just under $600.
The Crucial M500 960GB provides a comparable capacity at a slightly lower price, but the EVO is faster overall (look for a head-to-head comparison soon). You can probably thank the EVO’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. Finally, the LG Blu-ray burner from our Editor’s Choice config serves as our optical drive.
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.
The Obsidian Series 750D is a fantastic case, and it’s more than roomy enough for Double-Stuff build. For a bigger, flashier enclosure, scroll down to our alternatives section below.
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. The cabling is modular, too. We’ve been using similar AX units to power our own test rigs, and we’re very happy with them.
Unlike the other processors we’ve recommended throughout the guide, the Core i7-4930K 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 i7-4930K 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.
As with the rest of builds, there are other ways to configure the Double-Stuff.
|Graphics||Zotac GeForce GTX 780||$499.99|
|Storage||Western Digital Red 4TB||$199.99|
|Western Digital Red 4TB||$199.99|
|Western Digital Black 4TB||$299.99|
|Western Digital Black 4TB||$299.99|
|Samsung 840 Pro 512GB||$429.99|
|FireWire card||Rosewill RC-506E||$34.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master Cosmos II||$299.99|
The GeForce GTX 780 is about as fast as the R9 290 and costs $100 more. Terrible deal, right? Well, not when you consider that the GTX 780 draws less power, runs much quieter under load, has a guaranteed base clock speed, and comes bundled with three games (Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, Batman: Arkham Origins, and Splinter Cell Blacklist). Newegg gets you a $100 discount on the Shield if you buy it as a combo with the GTX 780, too. Here, we recommend Zotac’s reference GTX 780, which features that nice Titan-style cooler we like.
Now, onto our expansive storage alternatives!
As much as we like the Samsung 840 EVO 1TB, its three-bit TLC flash isn’t ideal for write-heavy workloads. The M500 960GB’s two-bit MLC NAND should have superior endurance, but the drive’s obfuscated SMART attributes and lack of utility software make monitoring flash wear difficult. Instead of the larger M500, we’re going with Samsung’s 840 Pro 512GB. The Pro has robust MLC flash, and it’s very fast overall. Oh, and it has a longer, five-year warranty, too.
For our mechanical alternatives, we’ve narrowed it down to two options. Western Digital’s 4TB Reds are low-power models similar to Seagate’s HDD.15 from the previous page—except they have error recovery tuned for RAID setups and an extra year of warranty coverage. 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 from our primary recommendations, and they have five-year warranties.
Oh, before we forget, 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.
Finally, 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 more than twice as much as the Obsidian Series 750D. However, the Cosmos II is unarguably impressive, with much roomier innards, gull-wing doors, and sliding metal covers. We even gave it our Editor’s Choice award.
The mobile sidekicks
The market is replete with tablets, convertibles, and notebooks of all shapes and sizes, and most of us use at least one of them as a sidekick to our main desktop PC. We don’t have a full slate of recommendations here, but we can point you to the devices we think are most worthy of your consideration. We’ll introduce them by category, in order of price.
These are slates that aren’t designed to mate with keyboard docks or the 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 $229 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.
On the iOS front, our advice would be to wait until Apple’s iPad mini with Retina display comes out later this month. This tablet has the same basic specifications as the new iPad Air, but it’s smaller, lighter, and $100 cheaper. Where the iPad Air tips the scales at an impressive one pound, the iPad mini Retina weighs only 0.88 lbs—and it’s 5.3″ across instead of 6.6″, which should make portrait-mode typing easier. The new mini also boasts a higher pixel density than the Air, since it crams the same 2048×1536 resolution into a smaller, 7.9″ panel.
When it comes out in late November, the iPad mini with Retina display will start at $399 for the 16GB, Wi-Fi-only model. We’d probably spring for the $499 32GB version to leave leave plenty of room for all those fancy iOS games.
A relatively new device category, convertibles are basically tablets that can be docked with a keyboard to double as a quasi-notebook. We’re not too excited about straight-up Windows 8.1 tablets, but we do see the appeal of convertible designs, since they can be used comfortably for both productivity and content consumption.
Asus’ Transformer Book T100 is a bargain at $349 with a full-fledged copy of Windows 8.1, one of Intel’s new Bay Trail processors, and a keyboard dock that’s included in the default package. We were pretty impressed when we reviewed this system not long ago. Performance was snappy, and battery life was excellent, at 10 hours for web browsing and 12 hours for video playback. This thing is really light, too; the tablet and dock components each weigh 1.2 lbs.
The downsides? Well, the Transformer Book T100’s 10.1″ IPS display has only a 1366×768 resolution, and the machine’s build quality isn’t anything to write home about. Hello, glossy plastic! Also, the $350 model isn’t listed at Newegg; we only see the $399 variant, which has 64GB of solid-state storage instead of 32GB. Come to think of it, that’s probably the one you should get anyway.
We haven’t reviewed HP’s Split 13 x2, but it looks like an interesting alternative for someone who wants their convertible to be more laptop than tablet. The Split has a larger, 13.3″ display than the Transformer Book T100 (still with a 1366×768 resolution, though, sadly), and it weighs more, at 2.36 lbs for the tablet component and around 2.53 lbs for the dock. However, instead of a Bay Trail Atom chip, The Split packs a Haswell-based Core i3—and its larger footprint leaves room for a full-sized keyboard and touchpad. For $700, that’s not a bad deal.
HP is also cooking up a similar system with AMD guts: the Pavilion 13 x2, which will launch some time this month at $600. The system will include an AMD A6 processor and will be HP’s “most affordable detachable PC,” according to the company. It may be worth looking into.
By the way, speaking of AMD, almost all of the AMD systems we recommended last time are either mysteriously discontinued or obsolete. The non-convertible, Kabini-based Acer V5 is still around, and it does look like a passable budget ultraportable. However, we’re not crazy about its 3.5-hour battery life or its 5,400-RPM mechanical storage. You’ll probably be better off with the Pavilion 13 x2 or one of the other systems we recommend.
Ultrabooks and premium laptops
We’re going to skip low-end and mid-range ultrabook recommendations this round, because, well, most of those systems kinda suck. Getting something with a decent display and a Haswell processor means spending at least a grand—and even then we’re not all that thrilled with what’s available. If you want a real, high-quality laptop for serious productivity work, then we recommend splurging for one of the premium systems with high-PPI panels.
Surprisingly, Apple has the most attractively priced offering in that category: the new 13″ MacBook Pro with Retina display, which starts at $1299. This puppy has a razor-sharp 2560×1600 display resolution, and it also features a Haswell Core i5 processor, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of solid-state storage, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, a nine-hour battery, and an uber-slim chassis that’s just 0.71″ thick. The MacBook Pro has one of those great Apple touchpads, too, which is still head and shoulders above what other PC vendors offer.
Now, of course, this is a Mac—but it also runs Windows natively if you supply your own copy. We recommend at least giving OS X Mavericks a try, however. Who knows? You might like it.
For a similar, Windows-only system, check out the QHD+ version of Samsung’s Ativ Book 9 Plus. The $1,400 price tag is steeper, but the 13.3″ display has an even higher 3200×1800 resolution—and touch-screen capabilities. Other components include a Haswell Core i5 chip, 4GB of RAM, 128GB of solid-state storage, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and a 7.5-hour battery. Windows 8 comes pre-installed, of course.
The Ativ Book 9 Plus is also remarkably light at 2.56 lbs, which is nearly a pound lighter than the 3.46-lb MacBook Pro Retina. To be fair, though, the MacBook does have a higher battery life rating.
Honorable mention: Chromebooks
Dude, don’t buy a Chromebook.
Well, unless you’re really sure you want one.
Chromebooks look and feel like well-built ultraportable laptops, and their low prices often make them seem too good to pass up. The thing is, they all run Chrome OS, which isn’t an operating system in the same sense as Windows, OS X, or Ubuntu. Chrome OS is essentially the Chrome web browser with a smattering of extremely limited local applications to handle basic file management, photo viewing, video playback, and the like. That’s it. Anything of consequence—even accessing system settings—happens inside the browser, and any third-party “apps” for Chrome OS are either web apps or just plain websites.
With a Chromebook, there’s no way to run Word or LibreOffice; you’re stuck with online productivity tools like Google Docs. There’s no way to download Skype; you must use the web-based version built into Outlook.com or switch to Google Hangouts. There’s no Steam, iTunes, uTorrent, Notepad++, Photoshop, or any other local applications dear to you. It’s web apps or bust.
Offerings like the HP Chromebook 11 (asking price: $279) can make good, affordable mobile sidekicks if you just need to browse the web and write term papers. But we strongly advise prospective buyers to keep Chrome OS’s limitations in mind before they click the “add to cart” button.
The operating system
We’re not going to wax poetic about Windows. What we will say is that, if you’re building a new PC and don’t already have a spare copy of Windows at hand, we recommend that you buy Windows 8.1 instead of Windows 7.
We’re not huge fans of the Modern UI stuff Microsoft introduced with Windows 8, since it’s pretty pointless for gaming desktops like those we recommend. However, we do like the various improvements Microsoft made to the desktop interface, like the new-and-improved File Explorer, the more powerful Task Manager, and the multi-monitor improvements. The faster startup speed doesn’t hurt, either. The demise of the Start menu is deplorable, but the Start screen isn’t such a bad substitute—and you can always bring back the menu with third-party add-ons, if you can’t bear to live without it.
Another good reason to grab Windows 8.1: Windows 7 has been out for more than four years, and Microsoft plans to end mainstream support for it in January 2015, just over a year from now. Windows 8.1 will continue to be supported until at least 2018, if Microsoft doesn’t change its support policy.
Now, there are multiple versions of Windows 8.1 available: vanilla, Pro, retail, OEM, 32-bit, and 64-bit. Which one should you get?
The OEM versions are the best deals. They cost less than retail copies, and Microsoft’s new Personal Use License allows for them to be used on home-built PCs and to be transferred to new machines after an upgrade. You also want a 64-bit copy, since 64-bit versions of Windows are required to fully utilize 4GB or more of system memory. As a reminder, 4GB is the smallest memory capacity we recommend for our main builds; the Sweet Spot and Editor’s Choice both have 8GB, and the Double-Stuff has 16GB.
That leaves Windows 8.1 versus Windows 8.1 Pro. You can compare the two editions here on Microsoft’s website. Notable Pro features include BitLocker and the ability to host Remote Desktop sessions. Whether those extras are worth the price premium is entirely up to you. Newegg charges $99.99 and $139.99, respectively, for 64-bit OEM versions of Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Pro. Take your pick!
Peripherals, accessories, and extras
There’s no way we can walk you through every monitor, keyboard, mouse, and PC speaker system out there. What we can do is present you with a list of our favorites—and perhaps some other, notable options—in each category. Most of our waking hours are spent basking in the glow of big IPS displays and rattling away on expensive keyboards, so we have a good grasp of the subject. You might disagree with our preferences, of course, but we think our experience can help users who haven’t already decided what they want.
Folks shopping for a monitor these days pretty much have three choices.
If they don’t mind poor viewing angles and sub-par color reproduction, they can grab themselves a cheap and cheerful display with a TN panel—maybe something like Acer’s G236HLBbd, which crams a 1920×1080 resolution into a 23″ panel size. 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 we all favor them.
On the high-end IPS front, those Korean monitors we wrote about last year 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 $600 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 $3,499 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. That usually means springing for keyboards with mechanical key switches—that is, switches with actual springs inside them.
Our new favorite is Topre’s Type Heaven, which is quieter and comfier than mechanical offerings from other manufacturers—but is also a little pricey at $150. More affordable alternatives tend to be based on Cherry’s MX key switches, which are available in 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.)
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.
If you like the cool, brushed aluminum design of the K70 but don’t care for the Cherry MX red switches, Corsair now makes versions of the K70 with Cherry MX brown and blue switches. See here for more details about how the the MX browns and blues compare with the reds.
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 keyboards, though.
Scott also has a couple of recommendations to throw in. If mechanical keyboards aren’t your thing, then Enermax’s Briskie combo is 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 $160.
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. Logitech’s M510 costs much less and offers an ambidextrous shape that should be comfortable for both right- and left-handed users. The M505 is a smaller mouse meant for mobile use, but its excellent shape makes it a good candidate for all-day use with a desktop, especially for those with smaller hands.
Except for the Core i7-4930K, all of the processors we recommend come with stock coolers in the box. Those coolers offer passable performance and may not be overly loud. That said, there’s no beating some of the aftermarket solutions out there. Those coolers couple much larger heatsinks with bigger fans that move more air and produce less noise.
For $35 or so, Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 EVO is a nice entry into the world of big, tower-style coolers. It has four copper heat pipes and a 120-mm PWM fan that’s reasonably quiet.
Thermaltake’s Frio is also a popular choice. It ships with two 120-mm fans (which can be mounted on either side of the fin array) and has a total of five nickel-plated heat pipes. The Frio should provide better cooling performance and lower noise levels than the Hyper 212 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 around $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, 750D, 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. 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.
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, two of the enclosures we recommend (the 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
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 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.
And that’s it for another edition of the guide.
Our new builds should be primed for the upcoming deluge of next-gen games, many of which will reach the PC as soon as the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One hit stores.
We haven’t changed much, all things considered, beside our graphics cards. There, we’ve benefited from the price war between AMD and Nvidia, which has brought faster-than-ever offerings to lower-than-ever price points. It’s good to see healthy competition between two major vendors like this, especially when their products offer near-parity in performance. All we have to do is pick up the most attractively priced card—or the one with the best game bundle.
We don’t foresee much of a change over the next little while. Some new high-end cards should arrive—there have been whispers about an R9 290, and Nvidia has teased a GeForce GTX 780 Ti—but the arrival of those cards should only concern those with deep pockets. Folks going for, say, the Econobox, the Sweet Spot, or the Editor’s Choice probably don’t need to worry.
On the CPU front, AMD’s Kaveri processors—the successors to current A-series chips—will turn up early next year. And it looks like we can expect a Haswell refresh from Intel around mid-year, with unlocked versions of next-gen Broadwell chips possibly hitting the desktop in late 2014. Oh, and Haswell-E may supplant Ivy Bridge-E in the latter half of 2014.
All in all, this looks like a good time to buy for most of us. As always, we invite novice builders to check out our PC build guide for asembly instructions. The people in our System Builders Anonymous forum will be happy to help if you run into any problems, as well.