The TR System Guide has been around for a little over eight years. Starting with the original edition in November 2005 and ending with the Christmas 2013 guide, which went up last December, we followed roughly the same formula. We specced out a handful of builds at various price points and briefly explained the rationale behind each component pick. We also offered a short discussion of peripherals and, more recently, mobile systems that might complement a desktop build.
That format has served us well. Lately, however, it’s started to feel somewhat unwieldy and a little opaque. The guide has been a good resource for people content to buy our recommended builds wholesale, but it’s failed to deliver in some other ways we think are important. For that reason, we’ve changed our format for the first TR System Guide of 2014.
Our new format is component-centric rather than build-centric. We’re going to devote a section to each main component category—processors, motherboards, memory, storage devices, and so on—and in each case, we’ll attempt to give you the information you need to make an informed selection. We’ll open up each section with a quick overview of the state of the market, and then we’ll narrow things down by listing a small number of recommendations at various prices, detailing the pros and cons of each. It’ll be up to you to make final component choices based on your personal needs and the compatibility considerations we outline.
In a nod to our old format, we’ll wrap up the guide with a selection of sample builds: PC configurations based on our recommended components and designed to accommodate different budgets. By that stage, we expect folks will understand not just which components to choose, but also how to choose them.
As part of this format change, we’ll be spinning off our peripheral and mobile recommendations into separate articles. We should be able to address those topics in greater detail that way. The downside is that we don’t have an update to those sections to share with you just yet. Folks seeking our advice on things like monitors, keyboards, tablets, and laptops should check out pages seven and eight of the last edition of the System Guide. The recommendations there are still largely relevant, and we promise to revisit them soon.
Rules and regulations
A short disclaimer: this is a component selection guide, not a PC assembly guide or a performance comparison. If you need help with the business of putting components together, look at our handy how-to build a PC article—and the accompanying video:
For reviews and benchmarks, we suggest heading to our front page and starting from there.
On the next several pages, we’ll discuss the main categories of components needed to build a PC: processors, motherboards, memory, graphics cards, storage, cases, and power supplies. We’ll then recommend a handful of carefully selected parts split into three tiers: budget, sweet spot, and high end.
For the budget tier, we won’t seek out the absolute cheapest parts around. Rather, we’ll single out capable, high-quality parts that also happen to be affordable. The sweet-spot tier is self-explanatory; it’s where you’ll find the products that deliver the most bang for your buck. Finally, our high-end tier is a mirror image of the budget tier. There, we’ll seek out the fastest and most feature-packed components, but without venturing into excessive price premiums that aren’t worth paying.
Each recommendation will involve a mental juggling of sorts for us. We’ll consider variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the size and reputation of the manufacturer or vendor. In most cases, we’ll favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.
Finally, each recommended component will have a “notable needs” box. In that box, we’ll point out any special requirements one should consider when building a full system with that part. For instance, we’ll address socket type and form factor compatibility between different processors, motherboards, and cases.
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 serve 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.
The desktop CPU market isn’t a terribly competitive place right now.
AMD’s Socket AM3+ platform is growing long in the tooth, with relatively slow processors, excessive power consumption, and chipsets that date back from 2011. AMD’s new Kaveri chips come with a newer platform and lower power use, but they haven’t all made it into e-tail listings yet. The few that have aren’t priced nearly as aggressively as they ought to be, given their CPU performance. Due in part to the state of AMD’s lineup, the pricing and performance of Intel’s desktop offerings has been largely stagnant for the past couple of years.
What we’re left with is a limited selection of chips worth recommending—and an inevitable bias toward Intel, which still offers the best overall CPU performance in the smallest power envelopes. AMD’s Kaveri processors do have better integrated graphics, but that doesn’t help us much. Gaming on integrated graphics still yields a sub-par experience in many games, especially in titles designed to take advantage of the new consoles. If you care the least bit about gaming performance, you ought to be buying a discrete graphics card. And that, sadly, means there’s not much point in us recommending an AMD processor right now.
The good news here is that Intel’s CPU offerings are really quite good, with low power consumption and strong per-thread performance. We just wish the prices weren’t so static.
|Intel Core i3-4130||$124.99||LGA1150 motherboard|
The Core i3-4130 is the most affordable Core i3 chip based on Intel’s latest Haswell architecture. It has two cores, four threads (thanks to Hyper-Threading), and a teeny 54W power envelope. This model should perform very well in both single- and dual-threaded workloads, and it should be easy to cool quietly, too. We recommending this processor over cheaper derivatives with fewer threads or lower clock speeds. Price differences are small in this range, and we don’t want to sacrifice too much performance.
Some of you might still have reservations about buying a dual-core, quad-thread processor when the latest consoles feature eight-core chips. Won’t the new breed of cross-platform games need just as many cores on the PC? Well, no. The processors inside the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are based on AMD’s lightweight Jaguar architecture, which is far slower clock-for-clock than Haswell. Our Core i3 could easily do the same work with its two cores and four threads. Also, everything we know about game programming tells us that, at least on the PC, single-threaded performance remains very important. In the words of Jurjen Katsman, one of the guys behind the PC versions of Thief and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, most games “flatten off at one core.”
In short, the Core i3-4130 is a fine choice for a budget gaming build. We’d certainly recommend it over similarly priced alternatives from AMD like the FX-6300, which is saddled with poor single-threaded performance, high power consumption, and an outdated platform. AMD’s Kaveri APU might make a decent alternative, but alas, no variants of it are currently available at this price.
Oh, and for what it’s worth, the Core i3-4130 is also a good choice for non-gamers. Like the rest of Intel’s Haswell family, it has integrated graphics. No need to buy a discrete graphics card with this puppy.
|Intel Core i5-4430||$189.99||LGA1150 motherboard|
|Intel Core i5-4670K||$239.99|
|Intel Core i7-4770K||$339.99|
The real sweet spot for desktop processors lies in this price range, where quad-core Haswell processors dwell. These offerings’ single- and dual-threaded performance is in the same ballpark as the Core i3-4130, but their extra cores make them equally fast in workloads with up to four threads, including medium-to-heavy multitasking.
There are three main options we think you should consider: the Core i5-4430, which is the most affordable quad-core Haswell variant; the Core i5-4670K, the most affordable model with an unlocked upper multiplier; and the Core i7-4770K, which is the fastest unlocked Haswell CPU.
Unlocked upper multipliers allow for easy overclocking, provided the processor has some extra clock headroom. To overclock an unlocked chip, one simply raises the clock multiplier, which in turn raises the clock speed. The amount of available headroom isn’t guaranteed, though, and it tends to vary from chip to chip. For example, we weren’t able to push our own Core i7-4770K very far when we overclocked it last June. It’s possible equivalent retail offerings are just as limited. Then again, Intel’s manufacturing process has matured since we conducted our test, so it’s quite possible the Haswell chips sitting on store shelves today have more headroom.
Folks uninterested in overclocking might want to look at the non-K versions of the aforementioned CPUs: the Core i5-4670 and Core i7-4770. These are about $20 cheaper than their unlocked, K-branded siblings, and they have support for couple of important features: Intel’s Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, also known as VT-d, and a key Haswell feature known as transactional memory, or TSX. Inexplicably, unlocked Haswell CPUs lack both TSX and VT-d support. Intel’s illogical product segmentation strikes again.
AMD recently began offering a couple of processors in this price range: the $249.99 FX-9370 and $299.99 FX-9590. As refreshing as it is to see AMD competing, these products are very difficult to recommend. They have extremely high power consumption, with TDP ratings of 220W (vs. 84W for quad-core Haswell processors). That means they will require a significant investment in cooling, probably in the form of a water cooler with a large radiator. Even so, they seem to be competitive with their Intel rivals only in select workloads. Also, they’re bound to the same old Socket AM3+ platform and outdated chipsets as other FX-series chips.
|Intel Core i7-4930K||$579.99||LGA2011 motherboard, quad-channel memory kit, discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler|
The Core i7-4930K isn’t a Haswell chip like our other picks; it’s an Ivy Bridge-E specimen. That means it’s based on a slightly older architecture, albeit one built on the same 22-nm fab process. However, the E suffix means this CPU borrows a page from Intel’s server and workstation processors. It has more cores, more cache, more memory channels, and support for higher memory speeds than any Haswell processor available today. A similarly beefed-up offering called Haswell-E is rumored to be coming later this year.
For now, the Core i7-4930K is a mighty fast chip, with six cores, 12 threads, 12MB of L3 cache, and support for quad channels of DDR3-1866 memory (yielding peak theoretical bandwidth of almost 60 GB/s, up from about 26 GB/s for Haswell). This CPU is a great pick for folks who run heavily multithreaded workloads or who do very heavy multitasking. And yes, it has VT-d, so you can virtualize to your heart’s content.
Intel sells an even faster Ivy Bridge-E, the Core i7-4960X. However, it costs over $1,000, and it doesn’t offer much beyond the Core i7-4930K—just a marginal clock speed increase and a little more cache. We think you’re better off getting the Core i7-4930K and spending the difference on something more consequential, like a faster graphics card or a better solid-state drive.
Note that the Core i7-4930K requires a different motherboard than its Haswell siblings, and because it has a quad-channel memory controller, it needs at least four memory modules (one to populate each channel). Also, Intel doesn’t put a heatsink and fan in the box; you’ll need to supply your own. Finally, unlike Haswell, Ivy Bridge-E doesn’t have integrated graphics, so it requires a discrete graphics card.
Recommendations for LGA2011-compatible motherboards, quad-channel memory kits, graphics cards, and aftermarket coolers can be found in the upcoming pages.
Buying a motherboard these days is a pretty straightforward affair. There are only four major manufacturers to choose from, and their offerings have very similar performance and peripherals at each price point. The main differences between competing boards lie with their Windows software, onboard firmware, and overclocking tools:
- Asus is the biggest of the four big motherboard makers, and it has the best Windows software and the most intelligent and reliable auto-overclocking functionality. Its firmware interface doesn’t look as nice as Gigabyte’s, but it’s still great—and it offers better fan controls. Some Asus motherboards ship with cushioned I/O shields and header adapters that make it much easier to connect finicky front-panel headers. We think Asus mobos typically offer the most polished package overall.
- Gigabyte has the best firmware UI of the bunch, though its auto-overclocking intelligence and Windows software isn’t quite up to par with Asus’. The firmware fan controls aren’t as good, either, but Gigabyte’s latest Windows software largely makes up for that deficit. Some Gigabyte motherboards ship with cushioned I/O shields, but we haven’t seen any with header adapters. You’ll have to hook up front-panel wires to the circuit board the old-fashioned way.
- MSI‘s motherboards are solid, as is their firmware, but the firm lags behind Asus and Gigabyte in terms of Windows software and firmware extras. MSI’s auto-overclocking functionality isn’t as powerful, either; instead of determining maximum clock speeds iteratively, it uses conservative profiles. MSI’s latest 8-series motherboards do have rather good firmware fan controls, though.
- Finally, there’s ASRock, which generally aims its products at more value-conscious buyers. The Windows software for ASRock’s 8-series mobos is decent, but it’s not as comprehensive as what Asus, Gigabyte, and MSI offer. We haven’t had good results with ASRock’s iterative auto-overclocking software, either. The firmware is mixed. The fan controls are great on 8-series boards, and there are plenty of overclocking options, but the interface isn’t terribly user-friendly. ASRock boards are appealing primarily for their budget price tags.
For this edition of the guide, we’ve selected motherboards from Asus and Gigabyte, which we think are the most polished. We’ve recommended motherboards for Haswell and Ivy Bridge-E exclusively, since those are the only processors we featured on the previous page.
For our budget and sweet-spot tiers, we’ve included both ATX and microATX solutions. The microATX form factor sacrifices three of the seven expansion slots available with ATX in order to save a few inches of vertical space. Since few gaming rigs need more than two or three expansion slots, going microATX is a nice way to build a smaller PC without sacrificing too much expansion capacity.
|Asus H87M-E||$95.99||LGA1150 processor,
microATX or ATX case
|Gigabyte H87-D3H||$104.99||LGA1150 processor, ATX case|
We’ve got two boards here based on Intel’s H87 Express chipset, which complements Intel’s LGA1150 Haswell processors. The H87 has all the perks of Intel’s top-of-the-line Z87 chipset minus support for multiplier overclocking and multi-GPU configs—but neither of those things matter for a budget system. Boards based on this chipset have all the features we’d want for a budget build, including a decent number of PCIe slots, relatively plentiful 6Gbps Serial ATA and USB 3.0 connectivity, and workable onboard audio.
Our first recommendation, the Asus H87M-E, is a microATX board with more USB 3.0 ports than the similarly priced solution from Gigabyte. It’ll accommodate one graphics card, at least two extra expansion cards, six Serial ATA storage drives, and four USB 3.0 devices. The H87M-E also has a choice of DVI, VGA, and HDMI outputs that can tap into a Haswell processor’s integrated graphics.
Our second pick, the Gigabyte H87-D3H, is similar except that it conforms to the full-sized ATX form factor—and therefore has a couple of extra expansion slots. This model has more USB 3.0 ports than its Asus rival, and it’s also cheaper by about $5 right now.
|Asus Z87M-Plus||$129.49||LGA1150 processor,
microATX or ATX case
|Gigabyte GA-Z87-D3HP||$129.99||LGA1150 processor, ATX case|
Intel’s Z87 Express chipset enables multiplier overclocking. It also supports multi-GPU configurations with eight lanes of connectivity per PCIe slot, as opposed to a x16/x4 arrangement that could bottleneck one of the GPUs. Motherboards based on the Z87 chipset occupy the sweet spot of the LGA1150 motherboard market.
Gigabyte’s GA-Z87-D3HP is also a good ATX board. It’s a better value than Asus’ comparably priced Z87-C and has many of the features available in the more expensive Z87-A. The Z87-A is the only one of the three that splits Haswell’s PCI Express 3.0 lanes between a pair of PCIe x16 slots. The other boards have only one PCIe 3.0 slot, limiting their usefulness for multi-GPU setups.
|Asus X79 Deluxe||$349.99||LGA2011 processor, ATX case|
The boards we picked for the other tiers are all for Haswell processors with LGA1150 packages. If you’re springing for an Ivy Bridge-E chip like the Core i7-4930K, then you need an LGA2011 mobo.
Asus’ X79-Deluxe is our LGA2011 board of choice. It’s a newer model that was released last year alongside Ivy Bridge-E, and it’s absolutely loaded with features. There are eight DIMM slots, three PCIe x16 3.0 slots, 14 Serial ATA ports, eight USB 3.0 ports, and both 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity. This thing ain’t cheap, but older X79 boards from other vendors aren’t that much more affordable—and they aren’t as nice. The X79-Deluxe has pretty much all of the firmware and software upgrades rolled into Asus’ latest Haswell boards.
Every desktop PC today needs DDR3 RAM. Unfortunately, DDR3 memory prices are rather high right now. The word from Taiwanese media seems to be that memory makers have shifted production to mobile memory, which has reduced the available supply of PC memory. Whatever the reason, outfitting a new build with any given amount of RAM costs more now than it did a year ago.
Thanks to those sky-high prices, memory modules from the U.S.-based brands we prefer often carry an unreasonable premium. That’s why you’ll see a fair amount of G.Skill RAM recommended below. G.Skill is based out of Taiwan, and the look of its website doesn’t inspire much confidence. However, appearances can be deceiving. G.Skill memory consistently garners positive user reviews on Newegg, and it comes highly recommended from some of our own forum moderators. From what we hear, G.Skill is quite diligent when it comes to replace faulty modules, as well. Under the circumstances, we think G.Skill RAM is one of the better options for this edition of the System Guide.
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600||$47.99||CPU cooler must not protrude
over memory slots
This time last year, 8GB dual-channel memory kits could be found for less than $50. Recommending a 4GB dual-channel kit would have seemed downright stingy back then. Today, though, 4GB kits are hard to avoid for budget builds.
This Ripjaws model from G.Skill is one of the most popular options on Newegg, and it’s one of the most affordable, too. Just keep in mind that the tall head spreaders may interfere with tower-style aftermarket CPU coolers. If you’re not going to use the stock Intel cooler, then check our CPU cooler recommendations a few pages ahead for a suitable alternative.
|G.Skill Ares 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$77.99||N/A|
|Kingston HyperX Blu 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600||$139.99|
G.Skill has one of the most affordable dual-channel 8GB kits around, but Kingston’s 16GB kit is priced competitively. Since we’re better acquianted with Kingston, we’ll give it the nod for 16GB option.
8GB of RAM is probably as much as most folks need these days. Where 4GB can feel a little cramped with newer games and heavy multitasking, 8GB rarely proves to be a bottleneck. Very heavy multitaskers (and those eager to future-proof) may feel compelled to spring for a 16GB kit, though.
Note that we’re not going to extra lengths to make provisions for memory overclocking here. The multiplier-unlocked processors we recommended earlier can be overclocked just fine without memory being brought into the picture. Memory overclocking doesn’t usually pay much in the way of performance dividends, anyway, and it can lead to data loss and stability problems. We don’t think it’s worth the hassle for most folks.
|G.Skill Ares 16GB (4x4GB) DDR3-2133||$156.99||Best paired with quad-channel
|G.Skill Ares 32GB (4x8GB) DDR3-1866||$299.99|
These quad-channel 16GB and 32GB kits from G.Skill are primed for Ivy Bridge-E. They’re both made up of four DIMMs, one for each of the processor’s memory channels, and they can both operate at 1866MHz, the CPU’s maximum supported memory speed.
We’re back to G.Skill memory here, since similar quad-channel kits from other, U.S.-based vendors seem to be much more expensive for some reason. Even if you’re building a high-end machine, there are limits to how much you should overpay.
Not building a gaming PC? Feel free to skip this page—unless you’re getting an Ivy Bridge-E processor. See the guide’s processor page for more detail about that chip’s needs.
Last year, AMD’s Radeon HD 7000-series (and, later, R7- and R9-series) graphics cards were supremely competitive. They performed as well as or better than Nvidia’s solutions, and they often sweetened the pot with more attractive game bundles or more enticing prices. We wound up recommending Radeons almost exclusively in our primary System Guide builds throughout most of 2013.
Then, late last year, cryptocurrency miners started buying Radeons in bulk. Supplies of these cards have since become tight, and prices have risen accordingly—often by a lot. This situation has put AMD in quite a bind. The company could order additional wafers full of GPUs from TSMC, which might relieve the shortage—but only a few months from now. Worse, if the cryptocurrency bubble bursts, or if miners switch to dedicated ASICs, then AMD could be left holding boatloads of excess inventory while second-hand mining cards flood eBay and Craigslist. If we were AMD, we’d be cautious about that approach.
Where does this all leave us? Well, some sub-$200 Radeon graphics cards are still in adequate supply, and they’re still good deals. However, higher-end models like the Radeon R9 280X and R9 290 are prohibitively expensive right now. Litecoin miners might be happy to pay huge premiums for these cards, but gamers shouldn’t be—not when Nvidia cards without crazy price mark-ups can run games just as well. That’s why we’ve featured more Nvidia cards than AMD ones below: GeForces are simply the only reasonable options at some price points.
Before we tackle our recommendations, a quick word about graphics card vendors. For any given GPU type, a number of cards from different vendors exist. For the most part, those cards aren’t all that different from one another. Some of them are identical except for the stickers on the cooling shrouds. You’re free to buy any card you wish, but we’ve tried to pick offerings based on three criteria: the vendor, the type of cooler, and the core and memory clock speeds. We favored major vendors known to have decent service, and we looked for quiet coolers (especially dual- and triple-fan solutions) and higher-than-normal clock speeds (provided they didn’t incur too high a price premium). The cards you see below may not be the absolute cheapest of their kind, but they are the ones we’d buy.
Oh, and one last thing: while some of the motherboards we recommend support multi-GPU configurations, we wouldn’t advise building a multi-GPU setup unless you absolutely must. Multi-GPU setups open up a whole can of worms, with occasionally iffy driver support for new games, potential microstuttering issues, and other difficulties. We’ve found that it’s almost always preferable to buy a faster single-GPU solution, if one is available, than to double up on GPUs.
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750||$119.99||N/A|
|XFX Radeon R7 260X||$119.99|
If you’re serious about playing games, this is about as cheap as we’d go. Cards like these will run games quite well at 1080p with the graphical detail dialed down a little. Any cheaper, and you’d have to lower the resolution and image quality a fair bit.
The GeForce GTX 750 and Radeon R7 260X cost the same and have equivalent performance in current titles. Which one should you get? That depends. For most folks, the GTX 750 is probably the better choice. The GeForce draws much less power, so it doesn’t require an auxiliary power input and can be cooled more quietly. However, the R7 260X has 2GB RAM versus the GTX 750’s 1GB, which may make it more future-proof. The GTX 750’s 1GB of RAM may have contributed to its shaky performance in our Battlefield 4 test, for instance. That game has very high quality textures and assets, and others will likely follow its lead in the future. Owners of 1GB cards may have to dial back the texture quality level a notch at times.
Honestly, though, you can’t go wrong with either card.
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750 Ti||$169.99||N/A|
|Sapphire Radeon HD 7850 2GB||$169.99|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 660||$189.99|
|Asus GeForce GTX 760||$249.99|
The sweet spot for graphics cards lies here, between about $150 and $250. All of the offerings above can run current games at 1080p with high or maxed-out detail levels, and cards at the upper end of this spectrum will deliver the smoothest performance at the highest image quality settings at that resolution. Here, we’d just recommend getting the fastest card you can afford.
At $160-170, a choice must be made between the GeForce GTX 750 Ti and the Radeon HD 7850 2GB. These are both 2GB cards, but the AMD offering should have a small performance lead overall. On the flip side, the GTX 750 Ti is for more power-efficient, so it may be a better fit for a cool-and-quiet PC.
AMD was supposed to have a Radeon R7 265 in this price range, too, but it’s not available yet. Since the R7 265 is more or less a re-badged 7850, that’s no great loss.
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 770||$339.99||Dual PCIe power connectors (6 + 8-pin)|
|Asus GeForce GTX 780||$519.99|
Want to play games at 2560×1440? The GeForce GTX 760 will pull it off, but a GeForce GTX 770 or GeForce GTX 780 will provide a much smoother experience with more room to crank up image quality options. (Both of these cards require a power supply with dual PCIe power connectors, by the way. See our case and PSU page for more details.)
It’s a shame the Radeon R9 290 isn’t available at a competitive price right now. It was our favorite high-end option—cheaper than the GeForce GTX 780 and nearly as fast. We had some reservations about its stock cooler, but new models have cropped up with custom cooling solutions, and we’ve gotten good results out of them. Perhaps the R9 290 will make a comeback once the cryptocurrency mining fever blows over. We can only hope.
You’ll notice that we aren’t recommending higher-end models like the GeForce GTX 780 Ti. As much as we sympathize with the desire for bragging rights, we can’t honestly advocate in favor of a $700 card that’s barely any faster than the $500 GTX 780. The law of diminishing returns kicks in here, big time. The only way to exceed the GTX 780’s graphical performance substantially is to pair two of them up in an SLI config, but that option lies beyond the scope of this edition of the System Guide.
For storage, we’ll be looking at three categories of devices: system drives, mass-storage drives, and optical storage. The idea is to buy the best combination of the three that you can afford, based on your individual needs.
The system drive is where the operating system, and hopefully most of your games and applications, ought to reside. We’ve included a 1TB mechanical hard drive for budget builds where a two-drive config is out of the question. The rest of our recommendations are SSDs. Budget buyers may not be able to afford an SSD, but everyone else should spring for one and get an auxiliary mechanical drive for their mass-storage needs. Solid-state drives offer huge improvement in transfer rates and load times, which are more than worth the extra expense.
There are a few things worth keeping in mind when shopping for an SSD. Most mid-range and high-end drives offer similar overall performance. Pricing differences tend to have a bigger impact on which products deliver better value. (See our scatter plots.)
Drive capacity can affect performance, especially at lower capacities. Lower-capacity drives don’t have as many flash chips as their larger counterparts, so they can’t exploit as much controller-level parallelism. That dynamic usually translates into lower write speeds in smaller drives. For most older SSDs, write performance only falls off appreciably on drives smaller than 240-256GB. Newer drives with higher-density flash chips can require 480-512GB to deliver peak performance. Small SSDs are still much faster than mechanical hard drives, so we still recommend them to folks who can’t spring for larger drives.
Also, you may be familiar with our long-term SSD Endurance Experiment. The results we’ve gathered so far show that drives with two-bit MLC flash are more resilient than models with three-bit TLC NAND. No surprise there. With that said, our TLC drive only started accumulating bad blocks after 100TB of writes, which works out to more than 50GB per day for five years. That total is well beyond the endurance ratings attached to most SSDs, and it’s far more data than most desktop users will need to write to their drives. As a result, we have no reservations about including TLC-based SSDs in our recs.
The recommendations below are the most cost-effective options today, but they may not be the best values tomorrow. SSD prices fluctuate a fair bit. Shopping around for discounts is a good idea—just make sure to stick with trusted brands that have proven track records.
|WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM||$59.99|
|Samsung 840 EVO 120GB||$91.99|
|Intel 335 Series 240GB||$159.99|
|Samsung 840 EVO 500GB||$299.99|
|Crucial M500 960GB||$469.99|
|Samsung 840 EVO 1TB||$559.99|
Can’t afford an SSD or auxiliary mechanical storage? Then the WD Blue 1TB will do just fine. Its 7,200-RPM spindle speed isn’t terribly slow, and the 1TB capacity is sufficient for both system and secondary storage.
Updated 3/5/14: On the SSD front, we’ve changed our 120GB SSD recommendation from Kingston’s SSDNow V300 based on a recent AnandTech story. That story shows newer versions of the V300 use much slower flash chips than before, putting the drive at a severe performance disadvantage even compared to Samsung’s EVO and Crucial’s M500.
The Samsung 840 EVO 120GB seems to be the fastest drive in that pricing tier. Its high-density flash chips make for poor controller-level parallelism, but its SLC cache compensates for that shortcoming somewhat. For a faster option, you might want to consider Kingston’s HyperX 3K 120GB, which has lower-density chips and has not, to our knowledge, been downgraded like the V300.
The sweet spot is probably the Intel 335 Series 240GB, which has great read and write speeds, ample capacity, and a reasonable cost per gigabyte. Folks with deeper pockets can spring for one of the higher-capacity Crucial and Samsung models listed above. Those drives are cheaper per gigabyte, and they have enough flash chips to extract good performance from their controllers. See our scatter plots for a quick peek at overall performance.
In any case, we’d advise getting the highest-capacity SSD you can afford, especially for a gaming build. Games take up a surprising amount of space, and some future titles will have even greater appetites for storage. Titanfall, for example, will require 48GB of free capacity. The last thing you want is to install some games on sluggish mechanical storage, which will stretch out level load times.
Since SSDs still aren’t capacious enough to take over all storage duties in a desktop PC, it’s a good idea to get a secondary drive for large video files, downloads, personal photos, and the like. In this role, a mechanical drive can be used either by itself or with a twin sibling in a RAID 1 configuration, which will introduce a layer of fault tolerance to the whole setup.
|WD Green 3TB||$114.99|
|WD Green 4TB||$164.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$184.99|
|WD Black 4TB||$259.99|
In part based on Backblaze’s recent reliability study, which showed higher failure rates for Seagate drives, we’ve biased our selections toward the Western Digital camp. Hitachi drives did even better according to the study, but they seem to have poorer Newegg reviews than comparable WD models, so we feel less confident about them.
There are other reasons to favor WD’s mechanical drives, of course. The ones we’ve tested lately have been faster and quieter than their Seagate counterparts.
The WD Green and Red drives have spindle speeds around 5,400-RPM, which translates to slightly sluggish performance but good power-efficiency, low noise levels, and affordable pricing. Since these drives oughtn’t be used for OS and application storage, their longer access times shouldn’t pose a problem. The Reds have some special sauce that makes them better-behaved with RAID controllers than the Greens, and they have longer warranty coverage, as well: three years instead of two.
We’ll throw in an honorable mention for Seagate’s Desktop HDD.15 4TB. It did almost as well as the WD Green 3TB in the Backblaze study—and it has slightly fewer one-star Newegg reviews than the Green 4TB. Keep in mind that the Desktop HDD.15 is louder and slower overall than the competing WD drives, however.
WD’s Black 4TB drive has a 7,200-RPM spindle speed and is tuned for high performance, at least by mechanical storage standards. It’s a better option than the Green or HDD.15 for storage-intensive work that may exceed the bounds of reasonably priced SSDs. The Black is also quicker than what Seagate offers at this capacity.
Living without optical storage is easy today, thanks to the ubiquity of high-capacity USB thumb drives and high-speed Internet connections. Some folks still like their DVDs and Blu-rays, though, and we’re happy to oblige them.
|Asus DRW-24B1ST DVD burner||$19.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$67.99|
Asus’ DRW-24B1ST DVD burner has been a staple of our System Guides for quite a while. It costs only 20 bucks, reads and burns both DVDs and CDs, and has a five-star average out of more than 4,000 reviews on Newegg. We feel pretty safe recommending it.
On the Blu-ray front, the LG WH14NS40 has spent almost as long as our Blu-ray burner of choice. Like the Asus DVD burner, this drive is one of the most affordable of its kind, and it’s also earned lots of positive reviews.
Choosing a case is kind of a subjective venture. We’ve listed some of our favorites below, and we recommend them wholeheartedly. That said, we acknowledge that not everybody will like their look or design as much as we do. To be honest, we don’t mind folks following their hearts on this one—so long as they wind up buying something well-built from a manufacturer with a good track record for quality.
Buying a cheap, bare-bones case is one way to save a bit of cash, but it’s not a very good way to do it. Quality cases make the system assembly process much more straightforward thanks to tool-less drive drays, cable-routing amenities, pre-mounted motherboard stand-offs, and internals roomy enough to accommodate adult-sized hands without causing cuts and scrapes. Quality cases tend to be quieter and to keep components cooler, as well. There’s a whole world of difference in usability between a crummy $25 enclosure and a decent $50 one. Trust us on this one; we’ve put together enough PCs to know.
|Corsair Carbide Series 200R||$59.99||N/A|
Ever since we reviewed it last year, Corsair’s Carbide Series 200R has been our favorite budget enclosure. It’s loaded with enthusiast-friendly goodies, from ubiquitous thumbscrews to tool-less bays for optical, mechanical, and solid-state storage. There’s ample room for cable routing, too, and the stock fans are rather quiet. This is an ATX case that will accommodate any of the motherboards we recommended.
|Corsair Obsidian Series 350D||$99.99||microATX motherboard|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$159.99||N/A|
We’ve got two favorites at the $100 price point: NZXT’s H2, a full-sized ATX enclosure, and Corsair’s Obsidian Series 350D, a smaller microATX design. These are both better-looking and loaded with more features than the Carbide Series 200R.
The NZXT H2 is tuned for low noise levels. Acoustic foam lines its side panels. There’s a door covering its front fan intake, and you can control fan speeds with a three-setting switch. The H2’s other perks include hot-swappable front fans, a built-in drive dock, rubber-grommeted cable-routing holes, and a dust cover on the top fan vent.
Corsair’s Obsidian Series 350D isn’t as small as you might expect a microATX case to be, but that’s perhaps a good thing. It accommodates the microATX form factor without sacrificing comfort or roominess. The 350D lacks the NZXT H2’s drive dock and foam-lined side panels, but it has an excellent internal design with very easy-to-use internal drive bays. Its stock fans are pretty quiet, as well, and they’re arranged to generate positive pressure inside the case, which should help to keep dust out. Don’t like the window? A windowless version of the 350D is available for $10 less.
Finally, there’s the Obsidian Series 750D. This is sort of like the luxury sedan of PC enclosures. It’s similar in design to the 350D, but Corsair makes it large enough to accommodate ATX motherboards—with plenty of room to spare. This is an extremely roomy case that’s an absolute delight to work in. Also, as in the 350D, the stock fans are quiet, and they’re arranged to generate positive pressure inside the case.
|Cooler Master Cosmos II||$349.99||A forklift|
At roughly 14″ x 28″ x 26″, the Cooler Master Cosmos II is humongous. And at $300, it’s also quite expensive. This thing is unarguably impressive, though, with even roomier innards than the 750D and all kinds of premium features, including gull-wing doors, sliding metal covers, and a compartmentalized internal layout. It’s no accident that we gave this thing our Editor’s Choice award.
This should go without saying in this day and age, but we’ll say it anyway: buying a good power supply is a must.
Cheap PSUs can cause all kinds of problems, from poor stability to premature component failures. Also, many cheap units have deceptively inflated wattage ratings. For example, a “500W” bargain-bin PSU might get half of its rating from the 5V rail, which is relatively unimportant, leaving only 250W for the 12V rail, which supplies most power-hungry components like the CPU and GPU. By contrast, quality PSUs derive most of their wattage ratings from the capacity of their 12V rails. That means an el-cheapo 500W unit could be less powerful in practice than a quality 350W PSU.
The power supplies we’ve singled out below are all quality units from trustworthy manufacturers who offer at least three years of warranty coverage. You’ll notice that these PSUs all have modular cabling, as well. Going with a non-modular PSU can shave a few bucks off the price of a build, but modular cabling makes cable routing and general system assembly much more convenient. Since there isn’t a particularly large price premium involved, we think modular cabling is worth it.
We also tried to find PSUs with 80 Plus Bronze or better certification. 80 Plus Bronze guarantees efficiency of 82-85%, depending on load. The higher a PSU’s efficiency, the less energy it turns into heat while converting AC to DC power, the easier it is to cool quietly. 80 Plus Bronze, Silver, or Gold units tend to have large, slow-spinning fans that are barely audible during normal use. They’ll save you a bit of money on your power bill over the long run, too.
|Corsair CX430M||$49.99||Graphics card must not have
more than one PCIe power connector
Corsair’s CX430M was the PSU of choice for the Econobox build from previous editions of the System Guide, and it’s still a fine budget solution. It has modular cabling, 80 Plus Bronze certification, a large intake fan that should cool the unit quietly, and three years of warranty coverage. Hard to beat for 50 bucks.
This model’s 430W of output power should be enough to handle a system based on the other budget components we’ve recommended. If you’re splurging on higher-end parts, however, one of the higher-wattage units below is probably a better bet. Also note that this unit only has a single PCIe power connector.
The CX600M is quite similar to the CX430M above, except that it has higher output (600W) and a longer, five-year warranty. It’s a good, no-frills option for a build that might need a little extra power and more than one PCIe power connector.
The HX650 isn’t that much more powerful than the CX600M, but it has 80 Plus Gold certification, which indicates efficiency of 87-90%. As an added bonus, the HX650W comes with seven years of warranty coverage.
The AX860 has an 860W output rating with 80 Plus Platinum certification, which implies efficiency of up to 92%. This unit, like the HX650, is covered by a seven-year warranty. We’ve been using similar Corsair AX-series units to power our own test rigs, and we have nothing but good things to say about them.
You’ll notice that we’re not recommending 1kW or higher-wattage units here. Those aren’t really necessary to power the kinds of single-GPU builds we’re advocating. The field of 1kW power supplies is also very competitive, with many PSUs from lots of manufacturers striving for supremacy, and we haven’t reviewed many of them. We may revisit this segment in the future, but for now, we feel better-qualified to comment on lower-wattage units.
Need a fancy processor cooler or a sound card? You’ve come to the right place. This is where we talk about components that, while not always strictly necessary, can improve a build in very real ways.
Aftermarket CPU coolers
With the exception of the Core i7-4930K, all of the CPUs we’ve recommended come with stock coolers from Intel. Those stock coolers do a decent enough job, and they’re generally small enough to fit happily inside cramped enclosures. However, stock Intel coolers don’t have much metal with which to dissipate thermal energy, and their fans are relatively small. That means they can get noisy under load, and they may be unable to handle the extra heat from an overclocked processor.
The coolers list below are all more powerful and quieter than the stock Intel solutions. The more affordable ones are conventional, tower-style designs with large fans, while the higher-priced Corsair H-series units are closed-loop liquid coolers that can be mounted against a case’s exhaust vents.
|Thermaltake NiC F3||$29.99|
|Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||$34.99|
|Thermaltake NiC C5||$54.99|
Thermaltake’s NiC coolers are designed specifically to accommodate tall memory heat spreaders. They use relatively slim fin arrays to achieve this feat. Despite that fact, they’re capable of cooling very power-hungry processors. The NiC F3 can dissipate as much as 160W of heat, while the NiC C5 can do 230W, according to Thermaltake. That’s way beyond the needs of stock-clocked Haswell. Those top out at 84W.
Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 EVO has a similar design to the NiC F3, but with a wider fin array. The extra metal may allow for somewhat quieter cooling, but it may interfere with tall memory modules. This cooler is a very popular option, though, with over 6,000 five-star reviews at Newegg. (Cooler Master makes another, similar cooler called the Hyper T4, but the 212 EVO is supposed to have better performance and a better mounting bracket.)
Corsair’s H60 and H80i liquid coolers are entirely self-contained and require no special setup. You simply mount them against a case’s exhaust vent with the fan blowing through the radiator fins, and the closed-loop liquid cooling system takes care of everything. The H80i has a larger fin array than the H60 and supports Corsair’s Link feature, which lets you monitor coolant temperatures and control fan speeds via Windows software. Both of these coolers take next to no space around the CPU socket, since their radiators are mounted to the case wall. For that reason, they’re ideal for something like an Ivy Bridge-E system packed with tall memory modules. In fact, we very much recommend water cooling for any Ivy-E build, given how crowded the area around the socket tends to be.
We’ll throw in an honorable mention of Noctua’s NH-U12P, which has a beefy tower-style fin array and dual 120-mm fans. This behemoth costs $80 and is probably the finest air cooler we’ve tested. It performed even better than an older closed-loop liquid cooler from CoolIT in our air vs. water showdown several years back. However, its fin array may be too large to accommodate tall memory modules.
A lot of folks are perfectly content with their motherboard’s integrated audio these days. However, each time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete sound cards wind up sounding noticeably better than integrated audio. And that’s with a pair of lowly Sennheiser HD 555 headphones, not some kind of insane audiophile setup.
In other words, if you’re using half-way decent analog headphones or speakers, a sound card is a worthwhile purchase.
It’s fine to stick with motherboard audio if you use digital speakers or USB headphones, since those handle the analog-to-digital conversion themselves. That said, even with digital speakers, the sound cards we recommend below will do things that onboard audio cannot, such as surround sound virtualization and real-time Dolby multi-channel encoding.
|Asus Xonar DSX||$59.99|
|Asus Xonar DX||$79.99|
The Xonar DSX and Xonar DX can both drive analog headphones or 7.1-channel speaker setups (either analog or digital). In our blind listening tests performed with analog headphones, these two cards sounded very close. The DSX is the more affordable of the two, but the DX gets you Dolby Headphone virtualization in exchange for a $25 premium. Folks who game with analog headphones may feel inclined to splurge, but the DSX is arguably the better bargain.
There are other options out there, of course, including Creative’s Sound Blaster Z series. You can try your luck with those. Personally, we can’t recommend them—not because we don’t like them, but because we just haven’t had a chance to review them and subject them to blind listening tests. Analog audio quality is an awfully difficult thing to infer from a spec sheet on the Internet.
By now, you should have the information you need to configure your own build based on your own needs. However, we thought it would be helpful to outline a few sample configs, if only to offer a better sense of the kinds of component pairings one might want to make—or need to make, based on the components’ compatibility requirements. We’ve put together three sample builds, one for each of our main pricing tiers. These are, of course, merely examples of what’s possible, but you’re free to replicate them wholesale if you wish.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-4130||$124.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600||$47.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750||$119.99|
|Storage||WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM||$59.99|
|Asus DRW-24B1ST DVD burner||$19.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide Series 200R||$59.99|
This sample config is similar to the Econobox from our previous System Guides. It should offer solid CPU performance, enough threads and memory capacity for light to medium multitasking, reasonably good GPU performance at 1080p, and adequate storage. The nice Corsair case and modular power supply should make the build process very easy—great for a first-time build.
|Processor||Core i5-4430 3.0GHz||$189.99|
|Cooler||Thermaltake NiC F3||$29.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ares 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$77.99|
|Graphics||Asus GeForce GTX 760||$249.99|
|Storage||Intel 335 Series 240GB||$159.99|
|WD Green 3TB||$114.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$67.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DSX||$59.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 350D||$99.99|
For this sample config, we’ve gone up a ways in performance and down a little in size, choosing a microATX motherboard and enclosure. We didn’t splurge on the mobo, though. Since our processor doesn’t have an unlocked upper multiplier, there’s no real need for a Z87 Express chipset.
This config’s quad-core processor and 8GB of memory should allow for much more flexibility in the multitasking department, while the graphics card should offer silky-smooth performance at 1080p with detail levels cranked up. We’ve also got a speedy SSD for system and applications storage, a sound card to ensure good analog audio quality, a Blu-ray drive for backups and HD movies, and a slightly beefier PSU with the right number of PCIe power connectors for our graphics card.
|Motherboard||Asus X79 Deluxe||$349.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ares 16GB (4x4GB) DDR3-2133||$156.99|
|Graphics||Asus GeForce GTX 780||$519.99|
|Storage||Samsung 840 EVO 500GB||$299.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$184.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$184.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$67.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DX||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$159.99|
This is the sort of build one might put together for very heavy multitasking and top-notch gaming performance at 2560×1440. There’s plenty of room to store games on that 500GB SSD. This isn’t the absolute nicest config money can buy, but it’s not far off the mark.
Note the two WD Red 4TB hard drives. If we were building this system ourselves, we’d configure them in a RAID-1 array. In that arrangement, data would be mirrored on both drives, so if one drive should fail, the RAID controller would simply drop it out of the array, and its contents would remain accessible on the other drive.
Just keep in mind that RAID isn’t a true backup method. If your computer catches on fire, your data will be gone regardless of the internal storage redundancy. We recommend backing up files to an external drive or an online service like CrashPlan no matter what.
The operating system
We’re not going to wax poetic about Windows. We will say this: 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. 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 Personal Use License allows for them to be used on home-built PCs and to be transferred to new machines after an upgrade. You want the 64-bit version, since 64-bit versions of Windows are required to fully utilize 4GB or more of system memory. As a reminder, our smallest memory recommendation is 4GB, and our largest one is 32GB.
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!
Mobile and peripheral picks
As we stated at the beginning, mobile and peripheral picks will be revisited in separate articles soon. To see our last recommendations, check pages seven and eight in the previous edition of the System Guide.
Update 4/7: The first edition of our TR peripheral staff picks can be found here.
Well, there you have it. The first edition of the TR System Guide to follow our revised format.
We tried very hard to be as thorough and informative as possible. Considering this is a first stab at an entirely new concept for us, though, it’s entirely conceivable that we had some blind spots here and there. If you have constructive feedback to provide—or if you think we made some sort of terrible mistake somewhere—you’re welcome to share your thoughts in the comments section of this article.
The advantages of the new format should already be apparent, however. We were able to go into a lot more depth about certain component categories, like processors, graphics cards, motherboards, and solid-state drives. The result, we hope, is a more informative guide for folks who aren’t intimately familiar with the DIY PC market.
Finally, some of you may need further help with your builds. If that’s the case, we invite you to post in our System Builders Anonymous forum. The folks there will be happy to give you pointers and tips, so long as you ask nicely.