TR’s July 2014 System Guide

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Here we are, not quite two weeks from the end of this year’s Steam Summer Sale. We were all ambushed by a veritable cornucopia of bargains, many of which were simply too good to pass up. At this point, I expect a lot of us are quietly dreading our next credit card statement.

Who in their right mind would consider a hardware upgrade after all this?

Well, believe or not, the hardware market seems to be giving us—the over-indebted Steam addicts—a break this summer. Graphics card prices have fallen sharply over the past little while, and they’re now lower than ever. The price tags on some cards have dropped by the equivalent of a full performance tier, or close to it. The getting is unquestionably good.

Then there are Intel’s Devil’s Canyon and Pentium Anniversary Edition processors, the latter of which is perhaps the best CPU value we’ve seen in years. Picture this: a $75 dual-core processor that’s fully unlocked and can overclock by up to 50% on air, at which point it can nip at the heels of $200 quad-core chips. Talk about a return on investment.

On top of that, some new, value-friendly solid-state drives have joined the party. Crucial’s MX100 offers an almost unbeatable combination of value and performance at 256GB and 512GB, ideal capacities for a gaming PC.

If you haven’t maxed out your credit on Steam games already, you really ought to get in on this. The deals are there, and so are the performance rewards. There’s hardly ever been a better time to upgrade—and you don’t need to break the bank to do it.

The 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. Instead, 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.

 

CPUs

Somewhat amazingly, all of the CPUs we’re recommending in this edition of the guide are recent arrivals. That’s thanks to Intel, which has updated its desktop processor lineup with the Haswell Refresh and Devil’s Canyon series—not to mention the Pentium Anniversary Edition, a bargain-basement dual-core chip with a fully unlocked upper multiplier. We’re still a ways off from a true generational refresh, but these new models are all better deals than their predecessors, and their arrival is definitely welcome.

Sadly, AMD remains in a somewhat uncompetitive position. Its Socket AM3+ platform is growing long in the tooth, with relatively slow processors, excessive power consumption, and chipsets that date back to 2011. AMD’s new Kaveri chips come with a newer platform and lower power use, but the retail-boxed versions of Kaveri are either unavailable or marked up excessively for how they perform. Last we heard, AMD was seeing high demand for Kaveri processors in China, and it had delayed the $119 A8-7600 until the second half of the year. That processor still isn’t listed at Newegg today.

In the end, we’re pretty much stuck with Intel, which continues to offer the best overall CPU performance, the smallest power envelopes, and the best upgrade path. (Motherboards based on the company’s new 9-series chipsets should support next-gen Broadwell CPUs.) 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 cases, 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. Sadly, that means there’s not much point in us recommending an AMD processor right now.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition $74.99 LGA1150 motherboard,

Z97 chipset for overclocking

Intel Core i3-4150 $129.99 LGA1150 motherboard

The Pentium G3258, also known as the Anniversary Edition, is the first sub-$100, overclocking-friendly processor we’ve seen from Intel in years. It has only two cores, and it lacks both Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost, but we managed to overclock ours from the base 3.2GHz speed to a blistering 4.8GHz. At that frequency, the Pentium G3258 can keep up with much faster, higher-priced chips in all but the most heavily multithreaded apps. The Pentium is surprisingly capable in games, too.

If you’re not interested in overclocking, the Core i3-4150 may be a better budget buy. Its base clock speed is a little higher, at 3.5GHz, and it adds Hyper-Threading to the mix, which helps performance in multithreaded tasks. (The Core i3 also has AES acceleration, which the Pentium lacks.) Both of these chips are good choices for non-gamers, since they have basic integrated graphics built in.

Some people might be surprised to see us leave out AMD’s low-end quad-core processors here. The thing is, those CPUs have rather poor single-threaded performance, and our numbers continue to show the importance of single-threaded speed in consumer apps and games. Multithreaded performance does matter, but in day-to-day use, two fast cores will feel noticeably quicker than four slow ones. The same holds true in games, where low single-threaded performance can act as a bottleneck and cause noticeable frame time spikes. (In the words of Jurjen Katsman, one of the guys behind the PC versions of Thief and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, most PC games “flatten off at one core.”)

AMD’s low-end quad-core chips have other disadvantages, as well, including high power consumption and, in the case of the FX series, an outdated platform. AMD’s new A8-7600 would make a potentially suitable alternative here, thanks to its 65W TDP and its relatively modern Socket AM2+ platform, but it’s still missing from e-tail listings.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i5-4460 $189.99 LGA1150 motherboard
Intel Core i5-4690K $239.99 LGA1150 motherboard,

Z97 chipset for overclocking

Intel Core i7-4790K $339.99

In our view, the processors in this price range make up the sweet spot of the desktop CPU market. They all have four fast cores, which ensure speed and responsiveness in both single-threaded tasks and heavily multithreaded ones. The ones with the letter “K” in their model numbers also have fully unlocked upper multipliers, which open the door to easy overclocking.

The Core i5-4460 belongs to the Haswell Refresh lineup, and it also happens to be Intel’s most inexpensive quad-core desktop processor. This is a good, no-frills option if you plan to run at stock settings. Those folks wanting to overclock their CPUs will want to grab either the Core i5-4690K or the Core i7-4790K, which make up the new Devil’s Canyon series.

Devil’s Canyon is supposed to have more overclocking headroom than the original Haswell series, thanks to a new thermal interface material (TIM) that sits between the die and heat spreader. We didn’t see much of a difference when overclocking our sample, but Intel seems to have high hopes those rare chips that, through miracles of fabrication, are imbued with unusually high headroom. Those chips might have been held back by the original TIM in the first-gen Haswell series.

Even assuming identical headroom, Devil’s Canyon is worth it. These chips are the same price as their predecessors, but they’re both faster out of the box. In the case of the Core i7-4790K, you’re getting a 500MHz higher base speed essentially for free. Not only that, but these processors support two features that were disabled on the original Haswell K series: Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, also known as VT-d, and transactional memory, or TSX. (VT-d and TSX are also absent from the Pentium and the Core i3 in our budget selections.)

AMD has a couple of processors in this price range: the $230 FX-9370 and $300 FX-9590, the latter of which is available with a bundled liquid cooler for $370. As refreshing as it is to see AMD competing above $200, these CPUs are difficult to recommend. They have extremely high power consumption, with thermal envelopes of 220W that dwarf Devil’s Canyon’s 88W TDP. That means they require a significant investment in cooling, preferably in the form of a water cooler with a large radiator. In spite of that fact, the FX-9000 series seems to keep up with competing Intel chips only in select workloads, and it’s bound to the same old Socket AM3+ platform and outdated chipsets as the rest of the FX lineup.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
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 based on the Ivy Bridge-E architecture, which is older but fabbed on the same 22-nm process. The “E” suffix in the code name denotes the silicon’s server and workstation pedigree: Ivy Bridge-E 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 expected later this year, but Ivy Bridge-E is worth considering if you’d rather not wait.

The Core i7-4930K has 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). It performs best in heavily multithreaded workloads or heavy multitasking scenarios. 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 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 include 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 all those components can be found on the next several pages.

 

Motherboards

Buying a motherboard these days is pretty straightforward. 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 main 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 otherwise excellent—and it offers the best fan speed controls around. 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 are getting dated, too, 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 are its firmware and software. The retooled fan controls in the firm’s 9-series firmware are particularly good, though the auto-overclocking intelligence remains fairly conservative and somewhat rudimentary. Instead of determining maximum clock speeds iteratively and assigning different multipliers based on the system load, MSI uses pre-baked profiles with a blanket multiplier for all loads.
  • Finally, there’s ASRock, which generally aims its products at more value-conscious buyers. We haven’t sampled ASRock’s 9-series Intel motherboards yet, but it looks like they have a good hardware spec for the money. ASRock’s software for last-gen boards was a little rough around the edges, and we haven’t had good experiences with the company’s auto-overclocker. The firmware is usually solid, though not always the most user-friendly. ASRock boards are appealing primarily for their budget price tags.

For this edition of the guide, we’ve recommended motherboards for Haswell and Ivy Bridge-E exclusively, since those are the only processors featured on the previous page.

We’ve included both ATX and microATX solutions for our budget and sweet-spot tiers. 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 losing too much expansion capacity.

For our LGA1150 selections, we’ve opted solely for boards based on Intel’s new 9-series chipsets. Mobos featuring the older 8-series chipsets are still around, and some are quite good. They may be a little cheaper in some cases, too. But 9-series boards offer a potential upgrade path to Intel’s next-generation Broadwell processors, not to mention more refined firmware and, in most cases, support for SATA Express and M.2 solid-state drives.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GA-H97M-D3H $94.99 LGA1150 processor,

microATX or ATX case

MSI Z97 PC Mate $99.99 LGA1150 processor, ATX case
Asus H97-Plus $109.99 LGA1150 processor, ATX case

In a budget build where overclocking isn’t a priority, a motherboard based on Intel’s H97 Express chipset is probably your best bet. H97-based boards are priced a little lower than those powered by the flagship Z97 Express chipset, and they have almost all of the same stuff. The only missing features are multiplier overclocking support (at least officially—more on that below) and support for two-way SLI and CrossFire multi-GPU configurations (which aren’t wise purchases in this price range, anyhow). Not all H97 boards are cheaper than Z97 ones, but aside from the missing features, they tend to get you more bang for your buck.

On the microATX front, Gigabyte’s GA-H97M-D3H covers the basics, with a sensible assortment of slots and plentiful USB 3.0 and Serial ATA 6Gbps connectivity. For $20 more, Asus’ full-sized H97-Plus serves up additional expansion, including an M.2 slot for a next-generation SSD. Its integrated audio is insulated from the rest of the motherboard circuitry, too, which should ensure at least passable sound quality. (Speaking of audio, neither of these boards have optical S/PDIF outputs. Some of ASRock’s motherboards, like the Fatal1ty H97, don’t skimp on that front, so they may be worth a look. We haven’t tested them, though.)

Right now, H97 motherboards from both Asus and ASRock allow multiplier overclocking in flagrant defiance of Intel’s official restriction. The workaround used to enable this feat is very much unofficial, and if history tells us anything, there’s a fair likelihood that the workaround won’t survive future firmware updates. We wouldn’t make that gamble ourselves, but folks with very tight budgets may feel differently.

Otherwise, low-end Z97 motherboards do exist in this price range. MSI’s Z97 PC Mate is one of them. With only two USB 3.0 ports and neither M.2 nor SATA Express connectors, it’s a little light on bells and whistles compared to its H97 peers. However, its multiplier overclocking support is fully sanctioned by Intel—and not liable to change.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GA-Z97X-SLI $129.99 LGA1150 processor, ATX case
Gigabyte GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5 $134.99 LGA1150 processor,

microATX or ATX case

Asus Z97-A $149.99

The sweet spot of the LGA1150 motherboard market is where slightly upmarket Z97 boards can be found. Our favorite right now is Asus’ Z97-A, a fairly feature-packed and reasonably priced board that earned our TR Recommended award in May.

Also worth a look is MSI’s Z97-G45 Gaming. We haven’t tried it ourselves just yet, but we’re impressed with the software and feature payload of MSI’s more upscale Z97 Gaming 7 mobo.

The Asus Z97-A

Folks looking to save a few bucks may also want to consider Gigabyte’s GA-Z97X-SLI, which costs $20 less and isn’t hugely different—though it lacks optical S/PDIF in its I/O cluster. Asus’ Z97-K is another option at $130, but it lacks S/PDIF, and its Ethernet controller is from Realtek rather than Intel.

Finally, those building smaller systems will want a microATX board like Gigabyte’s GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5. This mobo is more feature-packed than the Asus alternative in just about every respect, down to the inclusion of SATA Express and an optical S/PDIF output. It’s also much more affordable than MSI’s cheapest microATX Z97 board.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Asus X79 Deluxe $328.99 LGA2011 processor, ATX case

The motherboards we picked for the other tiers all have LGA1150 sockets designed to accept Haswell processors (and, hopefully, future Broadwell ones). If you’re splurging on an Ivy Bridge-E chip like the Core i7-4930K, then you’ll 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’ 8-series Haswell boards.

 

Memory

Every desktop PC today needs DDR3 RAM. Unfortunately, DDR3 memory prices are rather high right now. The word from Taiwanese media is that memory makers have shifted production to mobile memory, which has reduced the 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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
G.Skill Ripjaws 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600 $45.99 CPU cooler must not protrude

over memory slots

At today’s prices, 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 unit, then check our CPU cooler recommendations a few pages ahead for a suitable alternative.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Corsair XMS 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $79.99 N/A
Crucial Ballistix 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600 $159.99

Corsair and Crucial are unexpectedly competitive here, so we can tap the former for our 8GB kit and the latter for our 16GB bundle.

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 bringing memory into the picture. Memory overclocking doesn’t usually pay much in the way of real-world 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.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
G.Skill Ares 16GB (4x4GB) DDR3-2133 $156.99 Best paired with quad-channel

memory controller

G.Skill Ares 32GB (4x8GB) DDR3-1866 $314.99

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 pay.

 

Graphics

Not building a gaming PC? Feel free to skip this page—unless you’re getting an Ivy Bridge-E processor. Ivy-E doesn’t have built-in graphics.

We’ve come a long way since last winter, when GPU prices were inflated because of the cryptocurrency mining boom. Prices slowly fell back to normal in the spring, and they’re even lower today, particularly at the middle and high end of the range. As icing on the cake, AMD’s and Nvidia’s game bundling promotions are still in effect. Some Radeon R7 and R9 graphics cards are offered with various incarnations of the generous Never Settle Forever bundle, which includes games like Thief and DiRT 3, plus some indie packs. Meanwhile, GeForce GTX 760, 770, 780, and 780 Ti cards ship with Watch Dogs.

No doubt about it, this is a good time to shop for a graphics card.

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 carry 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 for ourselves.

Oh, and one last thing: some of the motherboards we recommend support multi-GPU configurations, but we wouldn’t advise building a multi-GPU setup unless you absolutely must. Multi-GPU configs open up a whole can of worms, with occasionally iffy driver support for new games and potential microstuttering issues. There’s a heat, power, and noise cost involved, too. 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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Sapphire Radeon R7 260X 2GB $119.99 N/A
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750 2GB $129.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB $146.99

If you’re even moderately serious about playing games, the Radeon R7 260X and GeForce GTX 750 are about as cheap as we’d go. Cards like these will run current titles quite well at 1080p with the graphical detail dialed down a little. With anything cheaper, you’d have to lower the resolution and image quality.

As for whether to go with the Radeon or GeForce, they’re both good choices—for different reasons. The GTX 750 is based on Nvidia’s brand-new Maxwell GPU architecture, and as a result, it’s much more power-efficient than the Radeon. It won’t tax your PSU or case cooling as much. Also, the GTX 750 doesn’t require an auxiliary power input and could work well as a drop-in upgrade for a pre-built desktop PC with integrated graphics. The R7 260X 2GB is a little more affordable than the 2GB version of the GeForce GTX 750, though, and it performs just as well.

Some folks may want to consider the GeForce GTX 750 Ti, which is about 15-25% faster than the GTX 750 and still shares most of the same perks, including a short circuit board, impressively low power consumption (60W at peak), and no need for a discrete PCI Express power connector. This would be a fine card for a quiet, small-form-factor build, or even as a replacement GPU for a pre-built system without PCIe power leads.

If power consumption and connectors aren’t major concerns, we’d strongly recommend springing for the Radeon R9 270, which is featured in our sweet-spot recommendations below. That card is now available for a little over $150, and it’s considerably faster than the GTX 750 Ti—not to mention AMD’s own Radeon R7 265, which still sells for $150 despite its lower performance.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Sapphire Radeon R9 270 $149.99 N/A
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 660 $169.99
EVGA GeForce GTX 760 2GB $239.99
MSI Radeon R9 280 3GB $229.99 Dual PCIe power connectors

All of the offerings in the table 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 again, you should simply get the fastest card you can afford.

Between $150 and $170, one must choose between the Radeon R9 270 and GeForce GTX 660. The Radeon is a little faster and a fair bit more affordable; it also comes with two free games as part of the Never Settle Forever Silver bundle. The GeForce does have a trump card, though: a bundled copy of Watch Dogs.

Just below the $250 mark, the Radeon R9 280 and GeForce GTX 760 are vying for supremacy. The vanilla R9 280 is essentially the same thing as the old Radeon HD 7950 Boost, which means it’s pretty much neck-and-neck with the vanilla GTX 760. We’re dealing with higher-than-reference clock speeds for both cards, keeping them on fairly equal footing. The only notable differences are in memory capacity (the R9 280 has an extra 1GB of RAM, which may help at very high resolutions and with lots of antialiasing) and game bundles (the R9 280 comes with a choice of three free games, while the GTX 760 ships with Watch Dogs).

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte Radeon R9 280X $299.99 Dual PCIe power connectors
MSI GeForce GTX 770 $309.99
XFX Radeon R9 290 Double D $409.99
MSI GeForce GTX 780 $479.99
Asus Radeon R9 290X $549.99
MSI GeForce GTX 780 Ti $649.99

Want to play games at 2560×1440? The GeForce GTX 760 and Radeon R9 280 will pull it off, but for better results, we’d recommend a Radeon R9 280X or GeForce GTX 770. The R9 280X is the faster of the two, and it’s a little more affordable, as well.

The next step up comes in the form of the Radeon R9 290 and GeForce GTX 780, which should open the door to 4K gaming. These are nearly as fast as the speediest single-GPU solutions on the market—the Radeon R9 290X and GeForce GTX 780 Ti. Unless you’re prepared to pay a premium for a few extra percentage points of performance, we’d recommending opting for the cheaper, nearly-as-good variants. There is, however, some merit to going all out, especially since the next fastest option involves multiple GPUs.

Competitively speaking, the R9 290 is about neck and neck with the GTX 780. Given that the 290 costs $70 less, it’s easily the better deal. In fact, we really like the R9 290’s value proposition. Meanwhile, the GTX 780 Ti has a sizable performance lead over the 290X and consumes less power to boot.

We’re recommending 290-series cards with custom coolers here, since they run cooler, quieter, and faster than variants with AMD’s stock cooling apparatus. See Scott’s article on custom-cooled Radeons for more details.

Oh, and all three of these Radeons come with a Never Settle Forever Gold voucher good for three free games, while all three of the GeForces ship with a key for Watch Dogs.

 

Storage

For storage, we’ll be looking at three categories of devices: system drives, mass-storage drives, and optical drives. The idea is to buy the best combination of the three that you can afford, based on your individual needs.

System drive

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 improvements in transfer rates and load times, which are more than worth the extra expense.

There are a few things to keep mind when shopping for an SSD. Currently, 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 for smaller SSDs. Lower-capacity drives don’t have as many flash chips, so they can’t saturate all of their controllers’ memory channels. That dynamic usually translates into slower write speeds for smaller drives. For most older SSDs, write performance falls off appreciably in 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 of writes 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.

Product Price
WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM $59.99
Kingston HyperX 120GB $85.99
Crucial MX100 256GB $114.99
Intel 530 Series 240GB $159.99
Crucial MX100 512GB $214.99
Crucial M550 1TB $499.99

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.

For our entry-level SSD, we picked Kingston’s HyperX 120GB. More affordable options exist, but they tend to be outfitted with smaller numbers of higher-density flash chips. As we’ve noted, such configs can translate into slower write speeds. Some of them, like Samsung’s 840 EVO, make up for that deficit to some degree by using an SLC cache. Still, in this tier, we prefer drives like the HyperX that have more, lower-density chips. We’d only consider the 840 EVO if it were substantially cheaper, which isn’t the case right now.

The sweet spot here is probably the 256GB Crucial MX100, which is aggressively priced and, for the most part, quite fast. Folks with deeper pockets can spring for one of the 512GB and 1TB models listed above. Those drives are cheaper per gigabyte, and they have enough flash chips to sustain solid write speeds. (See our scatter plots for a quick peek at overall performance.) We’d definitely advise getting the highest-capacity SSD you can afford, especially for a gaming build. Many games have voracious appetites for storage—like Titanfall, which requires 48GB of free capacity.

Note that we’ve included one drive with a five-year warranty: the Intel 530 Series 240GB. It’s not quite as affordable on a per-gigabyte basis as our other recommendations, but some people may prefer to pay a little extra for a couple more years of peace of mind.

Those of you who like to walk on bleeding edge might want to look at Samsung’s new 850 Pro. Though priced somewhat outlandishly, this drive is the fastest SATA SSD we’ve ever tested, and it’s backed by a 10-year warranty.

Plextor’s M6e 256GB, one of the first SSDs based on the new M.2 interface, may also be worth a look. This drive is rated for peak read speeds of up to 770MB/s, well above the theoretical maximum allowed by the SATA 6Gbps interface. The M.2 modules comes mounted on a PCIe x2 adapter, but you should be able to remove the module and stick it into one of the corresponding slots on a compatible 9-series motherboard.

Mass-storage drive

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 in a RAID 1 configuration, which will add a layer of fault tolerance.

Product Price
WD Green 3TB $109.99
WD Green 4TB $149.99
WD Red 4TB $174.99
WD Black 4TB $239.99

In part based on Backblaze’s recent reliability study, which showed higher failure rates for Seagate drives, we’ve moved 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 products, so we feel less confident about them.

There are other reasons to favor WD’s mechanical drives. The ones we’ve tested 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 prices. Since we’re not recommending these drives 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.

For even higher capacities, Seagate now has a 5TB drive available, and it’s not all that expensive, either, at around $350. Well, relatively speaking. It’s certainly a better deal than Hitachi’s 6TB Ultrastar He6, which retails for over $500. For that price, you could build a RAID out of four 3TB drives and still have cash to spare.

Optical drive

Living without optical storage is easy today, thanks to the ubiquity of high-capacity USB thumb drives and high-speed Internet connections. Some people still like their DVDs and Blu-rays, though, and we’re happy to oblige.

Product Price
Asus DRW-24B1ST DVD burner $19.99
Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner $79.99

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 drive we usually recommend isn’t available anymore, and its replacement, the WH16NS40, seems to have an awful lot of one-star reviews. We’ve changed our recommendation to the Asus BW-12B1ST, which is a little slower but has higher user ratings.

 

Cases

Choosing a case is kind of a subjective endeavor. 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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Cooler Master N200 $49.99 microATX motherboard
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 ATX 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.

Cooler Master’s N200 is a smaller, slightly more affordable alternative that’s designed to accommodate microATX motherboards. The N200 is more compact than the microATX Obsidian Series 350D we recommend below, which means it’s also a little more cramped inside. Nevertheless, the N200 is quite comfortable to work in, and it has plenty of tool-free gizmos to speed up the installation process.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Corsair Obsidian Series 350D $99.99 microATX motherboard
Corsair Obsidian Series 450D $119.99 N/A
Corsair Obsidian Series 750D $159.99 N/A

Our old favorite, NZXT’s H2, seems to have been discontinued. We haven’t tested its replacement, but we did recently take a look at Corsair’s Obsidian Series 450D, which fits our idea of a good, mid-range ATX case. The 450D costs only about $20 more than the old H2, and it’s a newer, more modern enclosure with roomier internals and toolless goodies to spare. The fans in the 450D are arranged to generate positive pressure inside the case, which should help to keep out dust. Our only complaint is that the 450D’s vented front panel lets a little too much fan noise through—unlike Corsair’s other cases, where the panel is solid with side vents. Still, the 450D is a great enclosure overall, and we graced it with our TR Recommended award.

On the microATX front, there’s the Obsidian Series 350D. This enclosure isn’t as small as you might expect a microATX case to be, but that’s perhaps a good thing. The 350D accommodates the microATX form factor without sacrificing comfort or roominess. It has an excellent internal design with very easy-to-use internal drive bays. Corsair’s stock fans are pretty quiet, as well, and they’re arranged in a positive-pressure config like in the 450D. Don’t like the window? A windowless version is available for $10 less.

Finally, we have the Obsidian Series 750D, the luxury sedan of PC enclosures. This case is similar in design to the 350D and 450D, but Corsair makes it large enough to accommodate E-ATX motherboards. This is an extremely spacious case that’s an absolute delight to work in. It’s pretty darn quiet, too.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Cooler Master Cosmos II $299.99 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. We didn’t give it an Editor’s Choice award by accident.

Power supplies

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 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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
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 last year’s System Guides, 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 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.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Seasonic G Series 550W $89.99 N/A
Corsair HX650 $109.99

Seasonic’s G Series 550W power supply looks like one of the nicest options in this price range. It features modular cabling, 80 Plus Gold certification, five-year warranty coverage, competitive pricing, and good Newegg user reviews. Seasonic has an excellent track record, too, not just as a purveyor of its own PSUs, but as a manufacturer of units for other vendors. For a mid-range build that might need more than one PCIe power connector, this thing looks like a safe bet.

Corsair’s HX650 is another good option. It’s a little more powerful and features seven years of warranty coverage instead of five. We’ve had good experiences with Corsair’s HX-series PSUs in the past.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Corsair HX850 $159.99 N/A

Corsair’s AX860 normally gets our vote here, thanks to its 80 Plus Platinum certification and seven-year warranty—and the fact that we’ve been happily using AX-series units to power our own test rigs. Lately, however, the AX860 seems to have accumulated a bunch of one-star reviews at Newegg, mostly from users complaining about “DOA,” or dead-on-arrival, units. Corsair has told us it’s “not had reports of any unusual problems” and is investigating the situation. For now, just to err on the side of caution, we’ve changed our recommendation to Corsair’s HX850. The HX850 has most of the same perks as the AX860, but it’s a little larger and only has 80 Plus Gold certification.

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.

 

Miscellaneous

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 coolers do a decent enough job, and they’re generally small enough to fit happily inside cramped enclosures. However, Intel’s stock coolers don’t have much metal with which to dissipate thermal energy, and their fans are relatively small. 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.

Product Price
Thermaltake NiC F3 $29.99
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $34.99
Thermaltake NiC C5 $54.99
Corsair H60 $69.99
Corsair H80i $94.99

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 CPUs, which 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 also 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 for 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.

Sound cards

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. 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 halfway 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.

Product Price
Asus Xonar DSX $54.99
Asus Xonar DX $84.99

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 similar. The DSX is the more affordable of the two, but the DX gets you Dolby Headphone virtualization in exchange for a $30 premium.

There are other options out there, 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.

 

Sample builds

By now, you should have the info you need to configure your own build based on your 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 four sample builds: one for each of our main pricing tiers, plus a one-off build just for kicks. These are merely examples of what’s possible, but you’re free to replicate them wholesale if you wish.

Budget

  Component Price
Processor Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition $74.99
Cooler Thermaltake NiC F3 $29.99
Motherboard MSI Z97 PC Mate $99.99
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600 $45.99
Graphics Sapphire Radeon R9 270 $149.99
Storage WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM $59.99
Enclosure Corsair Carbide 200R $59.99
PSU Corsair CX430M $49.99
Total   $570.92

This time, we’ve spiced up our budget sample build a little. Rather than go with the absolute cheapest configuration, we’ve made some provisions for overclocking, choosing an entry-level Z97 motherboard and throwing in an aftermarket cooler. With a chip like the Pentium Anniversary Edition, it’d be a sin not to. We’ve also splurged a little on our graphics card, since the Radeon R9 270 is now by far the best deal around the $150 mark. All of this should make for a very capable gaming machine.

Sweet spot

  Component Price
Processor Core i5-4690K $239.99
Cooler Thermaltake NiC F3 $29.99
Motherboard Asus Z97-A $149.99
Memory Corsair XMS 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $79.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 760 $239.99
Storage Crucial MX100 256GB $114.99
WD Green 3TB $119.99
Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner $79.99
Sound card Asus Xonar DSX $59.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian Series 450D $109.99
PSU Seasonic G Series 550W $89.99
Total   $1,309.89

Like the Pentium Anniversary Edition, the Core i5-4690K is fully unlocked, but it features two more cores, which means it can perform far better in multithreaded apps and heavy multitasking scenarios. This build’s 8GB of RAM will see to that, as well.

Otherwise, our chosen motherboard is a TR Recommended award winner, and the GeForce GTX 760 should let you max out in-game detail levels at 1080p while still delivering silky-smooth animation. We’ve also got a good-sized SSD, a larger mechanical hard drive, a discrete sound card to ensure good analog audio quality, a Blu-ray drive for backups and HD movies, and a beefier, more efficient PSU with enough PCIe power connectors for our graphics card.

If I were shopping for a new PC today, this is probably what I would buy.

High end

  Component Price
Processor Core i7-4790K $339.99
Cooler Corsair H80i $94.99
Motherboard Asus Z97-A $143.99
Memory Crucial Balistix 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600 $159.99
Graphics XFX Radeon R9 290 Double D $409.99
Storage Crucial MX100 512GB $214.99
WD Red 4TB $174.99
WD Red 4TB $174.99
Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner $79.99
Sound card Asus Xonar DX $84.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian Series 750D $159.99
PSU Corsair HX850 $159.99
Total   $2,198.88

The high-end sample build in our previous System Guide was powered by Ivy Bridge-E. With Haswell-E on the horizon and the Core i7-4790K offering such nice performance out of the box, we decided to go with Devil’s Canyon this time around. The build is a fair bit more affordable as a result, but it’s still incredibly potent—especially thanks to the Radeon R9 290, which is speedy enough to slather eye candy across 2560×1440 and 4K monitors.

Notice 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. 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 Grand Experiment

  Component Price
Processor Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition $74.99
Cooler Thermaltake NiC C5 $54.99
Motherboard Asus Z97-A $143.99
Memory Corsair XMS 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $79.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 760 $239.99
Storage Crucial MX100 256GB $114.99
WD Green 3TB $109.99
Enclosure Corsair Carbide 200R $59.99
PSU Seasonic G Series 550W $89.99
Total   $968.91

Here’s our one-off build: the Grand Experiment, named after the $1,000 builds from System Guides of old.

This build is a blend of components from the budget and sweet-spot configs with a focus on gaming potential. We’ve stuck with the Pentium processor, only we’ve paired it with an even beefier cooling solution that should allow it to reach its full overclocking potential. The GeForce GTX 760 should make sure that potential doesn’t go untapped in games, as well. We’ve selected an enthusiast-class Nvidia card in part because of the firm’s recent work on DirectX CPU overhead in its drivers. The lower the overhead, the better the performance on low-end processors. (AMD’s Mantle API has a similar effect on systems with Radeon graphics cards, but only when you run Mantle-enabled games—and those are still few and far between.)

 

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?

With Windows 8, OEM editions were the best deals, since Microsoft’s licensing terms allowed them to be used on home-built PCs and to be transferred to a new machine after an upgrade. With Windows 8.1, however, Microsoft’s System Builder License says OEM editions are “intended only for preinstallation on customer systems that will be sold to end users.” If you’re building a PC for your own use, you’re technically supposed to buy a full retail edition of Windows 8.1.

That makes the issue of 32-bit vs. 64-bit somewhat moot, since retail editions of Windows 8.1 include both versions of the software. (OEM editions are still separate, and in that case, you want the 64-bit version. 64-bit versions of Windows are required to fully utilize 4GB or more of system memory.)

As for Windows 8.1 versus Windows 8.1 Pro, you can compare the two flavors 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 $119.99 and $199.99, respectively, for retail versions of Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Pro. Take your pick!

Mobile and peripheral picks

The first edition of our TR peripheral staff picks can be found here. Our latest mobile staff picks can be perused in this article.

Conclusions

We’ll wrap things up, as we usually do, by sharing our limited knowledge about what’s on the horizon. Considering future products is always a good idea when making a buying decision, particularly in this industry.

As we said earlier, Haswell-E is expected to succeed Ivy Bridge-E at the high end of Intel’s processor lineup soon. The latest rumors peg Haswell-E’s arrival some time in the third quarter, meaning September at the latest. That’s part of the reason we kept Ivy Bridge-E out of our sample high-end build this time around.

There’s also been some talk about next-generation Nvidia GPUs. Leaked pictures of what’s supposedly a “GeForce GTX 880” were posted on a Chinese site earlier this month. Considering the relative dearth of rumors and the conflicting speculation about Nvidia’s launch schedule, though, we may not see this thing right away. There have been whispers about some new AMD GPUs, too, but it’s even harder to tell fact from fiction there.

Finally, there are Intel’s next-gen Broadwell desktop processors, which may be an even longer way off. VR-Zone says we won’t see them until the second quarter of 2015. If that’s true, then it means Devil’s Canyon and Haswell-E will be about as good as it gets for at least another nine months or so.

So, yeah. All things considered, now’s a pretty safe time to buy and build a new PC. Just make sure you don’t put together an Ivy Bridge-E machine now unless you absolutely must.

Comments closed
    • nanoflower
    • 5 years ago

    The Corsair 200R looks interesting but then I see Newegg has the Fractal Design R4 available for $20 more (on sale which it seems to be every month or two.) That seems to be a much nicer case for not much more money. Even the 300R sells for the same price at my local Microcenter.

    In any case it seems that cases have come a long way in the past decade even at low prices.

    • TwoEars
    • 5 years ago

    I think it is a really good time to buy a really stable and well-proven platform that’s been polished to perfection. First it was Z77, then z87 and now z97… the last gen Z97 motherboards from Asus, Gigabyta and MSI are about as good as motherboards get.

    And Haswell-E is not going to have higher IPC than Devil’s Canyon. DDR4 is not going to be significantly faster than DDR4 at launch (or at all?). And Broadwell is the shrink of Haswell, so probably same IPC again…

    Buy a Devil’s Canyon now… going to last you a long time I’d wager.

      • Krogoth
      • 5 years ago

      DDR4 is meant for memory capacity and lower power consumption. It will not that much faster than DDR3. It is meant for servers/workstation where the demand for memory continues to increases (64GiB+).

        • TwoEars
        • 5 years ago

        Makes sense.

      • LoneWolf15
      • 5 years ago

      And if you get the itch later, a Broadwell CPU will fit a Z97 mainboard.

    • gerryg
    • 5 years ago

    Just IMO the game bundles with the add-on GPUs don’t ever affect my choice. If I really want a game I get it when it comes out or wait for a sale or price drop. Yes, you can say it adds some value, maybe more for a budget system or a serial upgrader, but given the typical life of a system it’s not a strong consideration. And not everybody who needs add-on GPU would even necessarily be interested in the games bundled. It’s worth noting in the notes, but saying stuff like “trump card” seems a bit much. IMO. 🙂

    Separately, nice breakdown, and I like the new format for the guides.

    Also, not saying I’m an AMD fanboy, but darn I wish they were more competitive on mid-range/high-end CPUs. I still think there’s a case for their lower-end parts, but they really do need to do something about the single-core performance across the line.

      • Voldenuit
      • 5 years ago

      [quote<] I still think there's a case for their lower-end parts, but they really do need to do something about the single-core performance across the line.[/quote<] Their Kaveri APUs (which are impossible to find at retail, anyway) aren't price-competitive with i3s and Pentiums unless you [i<]really[/i<] need IGP performance and can't fit a dGPU. As you say, it's a sad state of affairs and not good for the consumer in the long run. I've been using AMD parts since the AthlonXP, but can't find any compelling reason to buy an AMD CPU right now (at least for my needs).

    • NeelyCam
    • 5 years ago

    Look – a small case!!

      • Voldenuit
      • 5 years ago

      I’d love to see a mITX build (or case review) centered around one of these puppies one day:

      [url<]http://www.silverstonetek.com/product.php?pid=503[/url<]

    • Shambles
    • 5 years ago

    Darn. Was hoping the peripheral would be updated too. I was just looking at the guide yesterday as my parents are in need of a competent backup solution that is simple enough for them to use. I’ve started to look at NAS devices but it seems like quite the cluster of bargain basement consumer devices or high end enterprise devices. While I’m not looking to waste money I’m looking more for a high end consumer device with 2 hot swappable drive bays. Something that will do automatically sync with their machines while also doing some sort of versioning as well as be able to encrypt their data and back it up to a cloud service since I trust none of them to actually protect the privacy of their users. It also seems like several devices that showed at CES still aren’t on the market and may be worth waiting for.

    Anyone in a similar situation have a recommendation for a home NAS for 60+ year olds who care more about convenience and ease of use than price?

      • cobalt
      • 5 years ago

      What’s the NAS for?

      All the needs you listed seem like they could be solved by skipping the NAS entirely and going straight to CrashPlan or another online backup service with continuous backups and versioning.

      If you also want a NAS for a local backup copy, then you can get a much simpler NAS; no need to go computer-to-NAS-to-cloud, simply do computer-to-cloud and, separately, computer-to-NAS (maybe nightly instead of continuously).

      And if you want your NAS as a separate data repository, not (just) a backup, then just use one of the computers to back it up (mount network drive) to the cloud service; the NAS itself doesn’t have to do that.

        • Shambles
        • 5 years ago

        I’ve been leaning towards a NAS + Cloud because of the idea that “2 backups are 1”. As great and reliable as these services usually are nothing is perfect and they can still become corrupted/go down. Although if you have the files on your local machine + NAS + Cloud I guess you really have 3 backup sites but I don’t know for sure that my parents will keep things on their local machines. Media such as pictures are easier to deal with when they are centrally located on a network device rather than trying to keep all of them on every individuals local device.

        I’m still very much in the research stage and I appreciate your input. I’m not 100% decided on anything yet.

        Edit: Also I should mention that one of my parents is shedding their desktop altogether and is using a dockable laptop with an SSD in it so they’ll either have to have an external HDD or NAS.

      • LoneWolf15
      • 5 years ago

      Why a NAS? Why not a USB 3.0 external hard drive with one-touch backup software?

      This is for your parents, not you.

    • Bauxite
    • 5 years ago

    For those trying to squeeze a budget build as much as possible and live near a microcenter, be sure to consider this:

    [url<]http://www.microcenter.com/site/brands/G3258Bundle.aspx[/url<]

    • flip-mode
    • 5 years ago

    I’m glad to see TechReport giving single thread performance the recognition it deserves.

    • tanker27
    • 5 years ago

    I wish you guys would add the Dormbox or other SFF into the rotation.

      • Dai
      • 5 years ago

      The above box doesn’t look like it would fill a dorm? It looks like it has to come with solar (wind) panels just to make using the thing affordable. I hope the indoor AC unit is hidden due to angle of the picture? Or is that it on top?

      Seriously, that is one intimidating looking machine up top.

      You sure there isn’t a decal with “Skynet Inside” somewhere?

    • jokinin
    • 5 years ago

    2 years has passed since i purchased my Ivy Bridge build, and I still see no reason upgrade any part of it. In fact, my build has about the same performance as the sweet spot build.
    Well, I guess I’ll have to wait some more years to feel the need for an upgrade.

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 5 years ago

    In the table for the Sweet Spot motherboards on page 3, the Asus Z97-A is listed as micro-ATX. This is an ATX motherboard.

    [quote=”Cyril”<]Finally, those building smaller systems will want a microATX board like Gigabyte's GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5. This mobo is more feature-packed than the Asus alternative in just about every respect, down to the inclusion of SATA Express and an optical S/PDIF output. It's also much more affordable than MSI's cheapest microATX Z97 board.[/quote<] Did you mean Asus instead of MSI, or did you not see the [url=http://www.kqzyfj.com/click-1800524-10487648?url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.newegg.com%2FProduct%2FProduct.aspx%3FItem%3DN82E16813130780<]MSI Z97M-G43[/url<]?

    • ronch
    • 5 years ago

    I wish TR would just grab a Sound Blaster Z or something that isn’t an Asus sound card and finally test it. Saying you can’t recommend a product because you simply haven’t tested them is a weak argument especially since it’s not like Creative is a difficult brand to come by or the fact that Creative is perhaps the default go-to choice for most seasoned PC enthusiasts (and some semi-audiophiles too). Or is TR just avoiding Creative? Why such bias for Asus and a lack of proclivity towards Creative? As for drivers, it’s not like Asus has rock-solid drivers either. Heck, I’ve read people complaining about HT Omega’s drivers too. And as a casual user who doesn’t need ASIO drivers and such, I can honestly say that I haven’t had much trouble with Creative drivers, relatively speaking.

    For a tech site that looks like it’s one of the good guys who abhor shady tactics so common with any business dealing, always defaulting to Asus cards and a lack of inclination towards the more popular brand seems somewhat fishy to me. Sorry guys, just being honest.

      • roadkill1
      • 5 years ago

      [quote<]Saying you can't recommend a product because you simply haven't tested them is a weak argument especially since it's not like Creative is a difficult brand to come by or the fact that Creative is perhaps the default go-to choice for most seasoned PC enthusiasts (and some semi-audiophiles too)[/quote<]. Yes, that's a valid reason. Not having tested something is a solid reason for not being recommended. Now the reason for not testing Creative is a different discussion, maybe TR staff can shed some light on that.

        • ronch
        • 5 years ago

        Not having tested a product is by all means a valid argument for not recommending it, but Creative is probably the most popular sound card manufacturer, so after all these years, just go out and test one. Nonetheless, I’m not the only guy who thinks TR”s deliberately putting off testing Creative cards and hence being unable to recommend it.

          • kamikaziechameleon
          • 5 years ago

          What you said vs what you meant. How can tech report recommend a product w/o any reasonable exposure to a market. Alas they recommend sound cards because… it sounds good on headphones compared to no other competition in that space. But there is an assumption there. Not to mention that nearly all speakers and many midrange to premium headphones have their own audio processing tech. In the modern landscape the value a sound card offers is limited and of that they haven’t sampled other options in that market.

          Their argument for a sound card is that its a value driven way to get decent sound on budget products. However I think there are more value driven options for quality PC sound than a sound card. For most people who care in any real way about audio they will go right over the stuff that tech report has recommended and straight to a superior one. In a binary fashion, sound either matters to you or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t matter you won’t care about a sound card. If it does matter to you the odds that you’ll spend any amount of time on a sound card or atleast one of the ones they recommend is rather slim.

          I for example have a Home Theater Receiver to a 7.1 surround speaker setup w/o a headphone jack. Is it the best option in town, probably not, but it was under $300 as a refurb from onkyo and sounds Amazing for what I paid for it. Many people on here splurge on a 2.0 system with a sound card that can’t hold a candle to this.

          Then there are the “accuracy” guys who want to get monitors instead of speakers.

          I mean when you start down the road of audio you have lots of options beyond sound card and $30 headphones

            • ronch
            • 5 years ago

            I’m not sure I correctly understood everything you’ve said. All I’m saying is, they seem to have a bias towards Asus when it comes to sound cards. Asus isn’t the only game in town, and in fact Creative is more ubiquitous. Whether sound cards are worth it to someone or not is an entirely different matter.

          • LoneWolf15
          • 5 years ago

          Deliberately is an awfully strong assertion.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 5 years ago

        They’ve recommend plenty of stuff they haven’t tested over the course of their system guides, solely based on Newegg user reviews.

          • ronch
          • 5 years ago

          Hmm….

            • derFunkenstein
            • 5 years ago

            For example check out the Other Odds and Ends section [url=https://techreport.com/review/25584/tr-fall-2013-system-guide/7<]here[/url<] recommending a Rosewill media reader (which I bought and hate passionately) as well as a nubby USB wifi adapter. Sure, they're cheap, but the track record indicates they'll recommend at least a few things they haven't used.

            • JustAnEngineer
            • 5 years ago

            I had one of those Rosewill media card readers. Other than showing up as usable drive letters all of the time, it worked okay. I’ve had a better-behaved [url=http://www.silverstonetek.com/product.php?pid=315&area=en<]Silverstone unit[/url<] for the past year.

      • Jeff Kampman
      • 5 years ago

      “the fact that Creative is perhaps the default go-to choice for most seasoned PC enthusiasts (and some semi-audiophiles too).”

      [url<]http://imgur.com/ACrdVAU[/url<] <---- the reason why Creative gets not the least bit of respect in a single image.

      • tanker27
      • 5 years ago

      Tell me who these Audiophiles are that prefer a Creative solution over anything else especially a Xonar running UNi drivers so I can laugh at them.

        • ronch
        • 5 years ago

        No, not audiophiles, I said semi-audiophiles.

      • Krogoth
      • 5 years ago

      Creative’s hardware is very solid. The problem is that their software is either a hit or miss like most other audio solutions on the current market.

      The vast majority of irate towards Creative is from their considerable history of strong-arming the PC audio through rather dubious means. I’m not going to list examples, but there is a fair amount of them. Creative used to take bloody ages to address issues on their hardware platforms, however they have gotten much better on this account.

      The last Creative hardware that I used was an Audigy 2ZS. It work well for what it was. I gave it away since my Q6600’s rig intergrated audio solution yielded the same quality as the 2ZS minus the annoying PCI headaches that plagued PCI audio cards.

      The real shame is that it is quite evident that Creative has a ton of in-house talent, but their upper management is still trapped in thinking it is still the late 90s-early 2000s. The era of hardware accelerated audio is dead. It was murdered by powerful, multi-core CPUs and the corpse got ravaged by GPGPUs. Discrete audio devices are nothing more than an over-glorified DAC. The industry has shifted towards pure software solutions. Their upper management still hasn’t pick up the memo. They have a ton of in-house IP that is collecting dust and is only being used as fuel for patent trolling.

        • ronch
        • 5 years ago

        Agree. If I were running Creative, I’d go after Realtek and provide HD audio codecs with the Sound Blaster branding, then augment it with the tons of IP sitting pretty inside Creative’s vaults. It may not earn much, but at least they wouldn’t be as irrelevant as they are now to most PC users. Augment it with ads during driver installation (a-la AMD’s Catalyst driver installation ads) showing their more powerful audio cards and watch them hold on to their once-ubiquitous foothold on the PC audio market. Alas, it’s too late for that now. Nothing lasts forever. I wonder who will supplant Realtek next…

          • tanker27
          • 5 years ago

          I think you have that backwards. Realtek is the larger company and the more profitable. If I were Realtek I would go after Creative Tech buy them and use those patents that they are sitting on. Kill the Creative moniker, because of the passed bad press and move forward.

            • ronch
            • 5 years ago

            You’re talking about what Realtek’s CEO would do. I was talking about what Creative’s boss should do, or should’ve done.

            • tanker27
            • 5 years ago

            And the difference is…….? Creative doesnt have the capital to go after Realtek.

            • ronch
            • 5 years ago

            Back when Realtek wasn’t big with codecs yet, Creative could’ve done it. Heck, these codec IPs get passed around like ketchup. Sigmatel sold its codec lineup to IDT, which already sold it off to a new outfit called Tempo Semiconductor. Conexant now owns Analog Devices’ SoundMax product line. Realtek just acquired Avance Logic (not sure if it’s just the codec IP or the whole company though). Even VIA got in the game by snapping up ICEnsemble. And these codec product lineups aren’t going for billions, I reckon. Why would that be so hard for Creative? As I’ve said, it’s too late for Creative to do that now, but they could’ve done so 10-15 years ago.

        • jihadjoe
        • 5 years ago

        Is there any soundcard manufacturer with solid drivers? I’m starting to think getting an external usb dac and doing everything over usb audio will be a much better experience than anything that goes inside the pc.

      • Bauxite
      • 5 years ago

      TR should stop budgeting at all for a discrete card in the lower price brackets, and suggest something like an external DAC etc for those that actually need it.

        • ronch
        • 5 years ago

        Heck, I don’t think sound quality is even a priority when it comes to budget-minded builds.

      • Wildchild
      • 5 years ago

      I can vouch for the Sound Blaster Z. I’ve had mine for about four months and combined with my Sennheiser 558’s, I’d say it was worth it. I originally had an Asus DG, but I had some problems with a lot of background hiss at higher volumes and just wasn’t really impressed by it. The software wasn’t that great either. You can’t expect too much though at less than $20, but the whole reason I got it was solely for the headphone amp.

      The SBZ is a lot cleaner, can get very loud without any distortion (not that you’d really want to), and the “scout mode” is actually useful by improving sound stage. I haven’t had any problems with the software as well. The only complaint I have is the red LED’s are SO FRIGGIN’ BRIGHT. I keep my tower on my desktop so they shine directly my way, but a little electrical tape will fix that.

      • TwoEars
      • 5 years ago

      I’ve got the SoundBlaster ZxR.

      For gaming it’s the best card on the market. End of Story.

        • JustAnEngineer
        • 5 years ago

        I’ve been using the SoundBlaster ZX for over a year. I find the ability to swap between headphones and speakers in the SB control panel application to be incredibly handy. I can leave my headphones plugged in all of the time now.

        The OEM version of this card is $80 at the ‘egg.

          • Ninjitsu
          • 5 years ago

          [quote<]I find the ability to swap between headphones and speakers in the SB control panel application to be incredibly handy. I can leave my headphones plugged in all of the time now.[/quote<] My integrated Realtek audio codec can do that too. :/

      • Prestige Worldwide
      • 5 years ago

      I’ve been using the X-Fi Titanium Fatal1ty Pro for………. 7 years? Damn. Still works to this day and sounds great running through an analogue reciever that I use as a headphone amp (with HD 555’s) and to run my speakers.

      It has lasted me through 3 builds and 3 GPUs. e8400 / HD 4870, i5 750 / GTX 295, i7 3820 / GTX 670.

      The only problems I’ve had are:
      1) Windows 7 Beta – Most of the features didn’t work in the Creative control panel.
      2) Windows 8.1 – At some point it stopped loading the most recent settings when I boot in to Windows, this was working fine in 8.0. However I notice they have a new driver that was released last month with 8.1 compatibility. I’m betting this issue is fixed but will have to verify tonight.

      All in all, great sound. Their driver team is not perfect, but it’s not 2006 any more. Vista is dead. Creative deserves some love around here and TR should review and include Sound Blaster sound cards in the system guide as they are still the best you can buy for gaming audio.

        • Prestige Worldwide
        • 5 years ago

        Update: Bug fixed on June 2014 drivers! My settings are loading properly.

        Before I would have to disable EQ and turn on Bass Boost despite having enabled them the previous Windows session.

        Now it’s loading my settings as they should.

      • Freon
      • 5 years ago

      I wish they’d just straight up stop recommending sound cards, full stop. Every time I try to recommend someone read their guide I have to throw the caveat in there, “but seriously don’t buy a sound card.”

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 5 years ago

      Sound Blaster Z is [url=http://www.amazon.com/Creative-Blaster-Beamforming-Microphone-SB1500/dp/B009ISU33E/<]$65[/url<] today at Amazon.

    • ronch
    • 5 years ago

    Sad to see no AMD recommendation for a while now. I got my FX-8350 in December 2012, and while I’m still very happy with it along with countless other souls who have opted for an FX, I simply have to agree with TR here. It would’ve been recommendable back in 2013 but this is 2014, and Intel has simply moved forward and left AMD further behind. I see little point in APUs either and if I was out for a new machine these days I cannot resist getting Intel despite my affinity for AMD. Still, FWIW I guess the allure of having 8 cores is still going strong, as shown by people who post reviews on Newegg (although considering the last Friday Night Topic I hope those reviews aren’t bogus).

    AMD had better make that new x86 core shine… fast!!!

      • Airmantharp
      • 5 years ago

      ‘8 Cores’- I’d love an 8-Core CPU from AMD too, if they made one for the consumer market.

        • ronch
        • 5 years ago

        Well, the FX works well enough in desktop applications, though. And there’s this [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tvLRZxRL8N8<]video[/url<] from a guy on YouTube who claims to have used BOTH the FX-8350 and a 3770K (which isn't really a lot slower than a 4770K or 4790K). If anything, power (in)efficiency is what kills the FX. Performance is actually not bad, IMHO.

    • excession
    • 5 years ago

    Great guide as usual. I particularly support your recommendations which show that there is far more to a good PC than a fast CPU 🙂

    • Voldenuit
    • 5 years ago

    Wait, what, a $1,000 build with a $70 CPU, a $55 HSF and a $149 mobo (Grand Experiment)?

    You guys were going so well right up until then.

    Ditch the aftermarket HSF, move down to a ~$80 motherboard, and there’d be enough budget for a quad core i5 (maybe even a K, if you wait for sales).

    I get that the Pentium AE is kicking ass at its price point right now, but its value only makes sense if you’re not spending 80% of the CPU price and 200% of the CPU price on cooling and a motherboard, respectively.

      • windwalker
      • 5 years ago

      Different choices make sense for different people.
      That configuration is the first interesting one I have seen in many months in the system guide.
      Most of the time it is filled with exactly the same kind of boring, predictable and conservative choices you are suggesting.

      The focus on price as opposed to value and utility is stupid.
      Why should I care about the relative cost of the components?
      I just want a reliable way to run the applications I care about at a good price.

        • sschaem
        • 5 years ago

        I think this is for this reason that the OP is questioning using a low end CPU in a $1000 PC.
        Even at 4.8ghz (if you are that lucky) a dual core haswell got little compute power to show.

          • windwalker
          • 5 years ago

          It depends on the application.
          If the work load is GPU compute heavy or storage heavy (file server) a low end CPU can be perfect.

          The point is to have a balanced configuration.
          If we want to prove the configuration is not balanced we must suggest an alternative one at the same price that offers at least 10% more performance in all relevant applications while using the same quality level for parts.

      • chuckula
      • 5 years ago

      I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen the “you should save money on the CPU so you can buy a bigger GPU!” argument…. well, now you see what happens when you follow that advice. You apparently don’t like the tradeoff, but maybe some people will (I’m not 100% sure which side I’m on).

        • Voldenuit
        • 5 years ago

        [quote<] I can't count the number of times I've seen the "you should save money on the CPU so you can buy a bigger GPU!" argument.... well, now you see what happens when you follow that advice. [/quote<] I have no issue with pairing a Pentium AE with a GTX 760; I do, however, think that the motherboard and HSF are too expensive for a $70 CPU...

          • windwalker
          • 5 years ago

          That’s the whole point, genius.
          The motherboard and cooling are exactly why the CPU can perform better than $70 worth.

            • Voldenuit
            • 5 years ago

            There are $60-70 Z87 and Z97 mobos out there.

            And there are plenty of decent $20 HSFs.

            By the time you’re spending $200+ on mobo and HSF, you’d have been better off with a better CPU to begin with.

            If I’m spending $1k on a system, I’d rather have a more balanced build. My i5 4670K + 760 GTX system was around $680 a few months ago (recycled an old SSD, so add an extra $100-150, still way south of $1k).

            If the Pentium AE build had been around $600, I’d have been all for it. But for $1k? Not as desirable.

            EDIT: Lowered price range on what I’d consider desirable for a Pentium AE build.

            • windwalker
            • 5 years ago

            That makes sense.

            Review sites recommend the premium stuff because that’s what they receive review samples for.
            They can’t afford to buy and test attractively priced motherboards and cooling solutions so we get what we pay for. 😉

      • Dagwood
      • 5 years ago

      I agree with Vold,

      TR often recomends more motherboard than you need. All of the builds use only one video card and overclocking does is just not what it used to be. Go with a 60 to 80 dollar MB, 150 to 250 dollar processor and the basic no frils memory. Then buy as much video card as you need to play the games you will actually play. The rest should be recycled from your last build. The only way the $70 CPU makes sense is with aftermarket parts you already own mashed together with stuff you won at the TR BBQ or computer fairy dropped in your lap.

      The Motherboard, heatsink and processor should be viewed as one item. TR’s grand experment calls for spending 270 bucks on all three. A cheep MB with Intel Core i5-4460 and the heatsink it comes with would be the same price. If you step up to a motherboard that lets you overclock then you can aford the overclockable I5 processor.

      • WulfTheSaxon
      • 5 years ago

      Think of the Pentium as a placeholder for a Broadwell-DT processor, and the build makes a lot more sense… Overclocked, it should run most current games about as well as a more expensive processor, and by the time games start effectively utilizing more than two cores you’ll be able to upgrade.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 5 years ago

      I get the direction they’re trying to go. If it’s all about getting the best gaming performance for $1000, the cheap CPU and a higher-end GPU make a ton of sense. The motherboard is overly-expensive compared to a basic Ultra Durable from Gigabyte (Z97-HD3), and you could probably get by with a Hyper 212EVO for a cooler, but otherwise I can’t make many complaints with the selection.

    • The Dark One
    • 5 years ago

    IMO, as long as your motherboard still has a PCI slot (and most of the ones listed in this guide do), the venerable Xonar DG is still a fine choice.

      • ronch
      • 5 years ago

      PCI is a dying slot though. Considering how sound cards live through several upgrade cycles, it may be good advice to opt for a PCIe sound card. I think the DGX is a PCIe version of the DG, and should sound equally good for just about $13 more.

        • hbarnwheeler
        • 5 years ago

        Yep. The DGX is a DG with a PCIe to PCI bridge chip.

    • HisDivineOrder
    • 5 years ago

    The thing that gets me about even considering buying a GPU right now is the lack of memory in most of the halfway reasonable cards.

    Watch Dogs may be a pig of a game, but there going to be a lot of games that come out requiring more than 4GB of memory to run with the highest textures at or above 1080p. 6 is going to be a minimum and once you start piling on any kind of mods or enhancements, you’re going above that.

    Given that, buying any card with 2-4GB right now is going to look mighty stupid this time next year when cards are coming out with more memory than the mostly 2-4GB right now at the same prices of today. Yes, I know you can always wait a little longer for an improvement, but in this case we all know DirectX 12 is coming next year. There’ll probably be a beta and then the full release.

    Given that, why buy into the tail end of DX11 cards with memory constraints that are going to quickly be exceeded because the “current gen” consoles are making ports that are gluttons with textures. I’m not complaining that they’re branching out with textures, but I am saying it impacts the (supposed) “value” of any card that is less than 4GB and probably less than 6GB if I’m realistic.

    That’s why I laugh at the comment that “Now’s a good time to buy” a GPU because I don’t think it is. This is like you buying a DX10 card ahead of the DX11 launch COMBINED with buying a 512mb card just before 2 GB cards hit in earnest. When MAJOR changes like the current gen consoles just having launched (and upgrading all the requirements of ports to mostly higher memory needs) AND the upcoming arrival of DX12, now’s the time to WAIT on GPU’s.

    CPU’s are a different story. CPU progress has stalled. Intel focused every ounce of their engineering team on improving the per watt performance of their chips rather than performance and it shows. Games rarely require more CPU than they’re getting and the fact that current gen consoles have anemic CPU’s just reinforces the lack of need for more CPU than we currently have. Even the octacore nature of the new consoles is just not a lot when it’s a netbook-class CPU’s single thread performance that’s the basis of it.

    I figure if you bought yourself a Haswell-E octacore, you’ll be set in the performance spectrum for 10 years at the rate Intel’s (not) improving their architecture. You’ll be especially set since you’ll have DDR4 and can upgrade to the faster specs as time goes on and overclock to get to their potential.

    As for GPU’s? If you have anything even remotely modern and have been lasting this long, last a little while longer because that 2-4GB may look nice now, but by the end of the year you’ll be feeling the pain and back to “medium textures.” It’s not fun to buy a card for $300-650 and realize you can’t run your games at “ultra” across the board.

    But that’ll be you if you buy a mid-high end to high end card this year.

      • Krogoth
      • 5 years ago

      You are over-thinking the whole GPU memory issue. The only reason that GPU memory is needed is because of texture data. The vast majority of the games out there are only consume 1GiB-2GiB for texture data (even with “Ultra” in-game settings). That’s before factoring the overhead from anti-aliasing and anisotropic filtering. It will remain this way for a while since gaming consoles (PS4/Xbox One) are the LCD in regards to determining the baseline for system requirements. They haven’t come anywhere consuming 3GiB of video memory.

      By the time 3GiB/4GiB of video memory becomes woefully inadequate. The current generation of GPUs will be woefully obsolete in terms of GPU performance. Besides, you always get GPU for the now not for the future. It is rare for GPU to have a usable lifespan beyond three years.

      CPU performance on the desktop has plateau for two major reasons. The laws of physics are making it very difficult for semiconductor companies to keep shrinking the silicon while ramping up the clockspeeds. The cost of going to the next process node is also increasing while returns are shrinking. The alternative to this is keep adding additional CPU “cores”. The problem with this not all software can effectively take advantage or harness the all of the CPUs of a core. It is because it is much more difficult to properly code software that is multi-threaded that scales well. The consequence of this is that most customer-tier software only takes advantage of two at most and only a few applications go beyond that and it is only up to four-threads.

      The result is that Intel/AMD only market dual-core and quad-core units as the primary desktop units. The designs that go beyond this are geared towards the prosumer and enterprise market.

        • guardianl
        • 5 years ago

        “The only reason that GPU memory is needed is because of texture data.” More insightful than most tech journalism (not picking on TR here) that thinks resolution is the primary memory user.

        “By the time 3GiB/4GiB of video memory becomes woefully inadequate… “. In the past, games have to hit their lowest common denominator hardware (PS3 for memory) which means about 150 MB of textures at the absolute maximum (for any given frame).

        Authoring high resolution textures really adds to the artist workload since most textures are still carefully constructed (if not pixel-by-pixel), so most games just ship with one set of textures for most objects. Some games get a higher res pack for PC games (Skyrim’s was a surprise, although not a surprise that it came late. I’m sure it had a real cost in terms of schedule).

        The key here is that the next gen consoles both have 8 GB of unified memory which means suddenly the lowest common denominator is more like 2-4GB just for textures. That means a PC graphics card needs 6 GB just to keep up with the consoles this generation. Considering the only “consumer” card with that much RAM costs > $1000… well, what we have is a ridiculous state of affairs.

        GDDR5 is about $10 / GB (varies). That’s why you can see AMD ship a video card (the 260X) with 2GB and still price it for $120. It’s shameful (and I mean that literally) that NVIDIA ships their cards with 2GB at the $300+ price point. Memory is important to Digital-Content-Creation (Quadro) and the data center markets (Tesla), so NVIDIA doesn’t want to lose any sales due to Geforce. Also, NVIDIA’s value-add is compute*, and they are ruthless about focusing on it, even though tacking on more memory to each card would do more for improving games than more compute (on a value/$ scale).

        TLDR: The jump in memory for this gen’s consoles, at 16X (PS3 -> PS4) will do more for PC gaming than all the features of DirectX 10/11/12 combined, because it will force NVIDIA to ship a more balanced amount of RAM with each of it’s GPUs, or risk having a $400 console produce better looking games than a $700 video card with a 2x compute advantage.

          • windwalker
          • 5 years ago

          I only read the TLDR.
          Do you mean to support the idea that it makes sense to wait?

            • guardianl
            • 5 years ago

            As you mentioned elsewhere, sometimes we get big jumps in tech. With a little luck we should get that with NVIDIA/AMD next mid to high end cards in terms of RAM amounts just because of the next gen console competitive dynamic.

            • Ninjitsu
            • 5 years ago

            Especially if they decide to use DDR4 based GDDR7 (?), though I suppose the initial price/capacity ratio will prevent that.

      • Wildchild
      • 5 years ago

      So you’re saying that as my card gets older, it’s going to start to show it’s age? Wow.

      I bet those same people who buy 4-6gb cards are going to feel silly when 8-10gb cards come out.

        • windwalker
        • 5 years ago

        Don’t be silly.
        If the product you want to buy gets small frequent improvements then it absolutely makes sense to simply buy whenever you need or want to.
        But if the product gets small frequent improvements with occasional large jumps, it makes perfect sense to wait for those jumps.

          • travbrad
          • 5 years ago

          I agree this isn’t the greatest time to buy a graphics card since prices haven’t really gone down lately. I’m just not sure when it WILL be a good time to buy one in the foreseeable future. Nvidia has made some nice improvements with 28nm Maxwell, but it’s unknown how those improvements will translate to a larger/faster GPU. Both Nvidia and AMD have said there won’t be 20nm GPUs this year, so if someone really wants to wait for a large “jump” it’s going to be a minimum of 6 months and probably closer to a year.

            • Krogoth
            • 5 years ago

            Wait until Nvidia puts their existing Kepler stock on discount to make room for the upcoming Maxwells. I’m sure that AMD will do something similar to their Volcano Island stock as well. 28nm Maxwells are only worth the wait if you have something older than Fermi/Cypress. If you are already on current platforms, I would wait until 20nm parts come out.

            • TwoEars
            • 5 years ago

            Yupp.

            My 670’s in SLI are still hanging in there. Has been great value for money. Plays everything on the market at 60 fps. Waiting to swap for a single Maxwell when it comes out…

    • DragonDaddyBear
    • 5 years ago

    I would like to see an ITX build/parts added to this. I recently built one for gaming and was disappointed I could not rely on my favorite site for suggestions. I was fortunate enough to have selected a motherboard that was a to receive a TR Award.

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