Welcome to the second edition of our peripheral staff picks.
This is still a new concept for us. We premiered it in April as a companion to our revised System Guide format, which dropped peripherals and mobile gear to focus chiefly on PC components. Past System Guides attempted to juggle all of those things in a single article, which meant we couldn’t always do each section justice. The new format (and its companion spin-offs) aims to rectify that.
Today, we’re bringing you a new, hopefully even better edition of the staff picks. We’ve focused most of our efforts this time on improving the display section, which we’ve reworked with the latest 4K and G-Sync monitors in mind. You won’t see every price point covered, but you will get stronger recommendations for displays we’ve tested and would be comfortable using ourselves. That’s what this guide is all about.
We’ve also updated the other sections to account for price fluctuations, changes in product availability, and findings from our latest round of reviews. The result should be, we hope, a more informative and up-to-date resource for your back-to-school shopping needs.
If you like this article, don’t miss the rest of our guide series: our main System Guide, in which we recommend internal components and custom PC builds; our how-to-build-a-PC guide, where we walk readers (and viewers) through the PC assembly process; and our mobile staff picks, where we talk about our favorite notebooks and tablets.
|Achieva QH2700-IPSMS||27″ 2560×1440 IPS||$389.95|
|Asus PB287Q||28″ 3840×2160 TN||$649.99|
|Asus ROG Swift PG278Q||27″ 2560×1440 TN w/ G-Sync||$799.99|
|Dell UltraSharp UP2414Q||24″ 3840×2160 IPS||$799.99|
|Dell UltraSharp U3014||30″ 2560×1600 IPS||$1,099.99|
|Asus PQ321Q||31″ 3840×2160 IGZO||$2,230.99|
Looking for a bargain? Then it doesn’t get much better than Korean monitors like Achieva’s QH2700-IPSMS, which serve up 27″ of 8-bit IPS goodness for much less than full-featured offerings from the Dell, HP, and the like. Scott reviewed a similar model a while back, and what he said then still holds true now: despite the odd quirks and the minimalistic (or absent) OSD, this is a heck of a deal.
Almost as enticing is Asus’ new PB287Q, which delivers a 4K resolution across a 28″ panel for only $650. Yes, it’s got a TN panel rather than an IPS one, but this monitor can natively display 8 bits of color depth per channel (or 10 bits per channel with frame-rate control), and its overall image quality and viewing angles are pretty terrific. We’ve got the charts, graphs, and photos to prove it. This is a single-tile solution, too, which means unlike early 4K offerings, it doesn’t present itself to the host system as a dual-display setup. I can hardly think of a better entry into the 4K realm.
That said, driving games at 4K resolutions requires pretty powerful hardware. For a pure gaming monitor, we’d lean more toward Asus’ ROG Swift PG278Q, which is one of the first displays to implement Nvidia’s G-Sync technology (or will be, when it hits stores this week). You can read our review to learn the specifics, but in a nutshell, G-Sync means silky smooth, tear-free animation without vsync and its associated performance penalty. It’s hard to convey the effect to someone who hasn’t seen it in person, but trust us. G-Sync on a 144Hz panel makes for a pretty dramatic leap in visual smoothness. The only real downside is that G-Sync requires an Nvidia graphics card to work. AMD fans will have to wait for FreeSync monitors, which aren’t due until next year.
Those are our three favorite monitors right now. If you’re not seeing what you like, we do have a few additional suggestions.
Dell’s UltraSharp UP2414Q crams a 4K resolution into a 24″ IPS panel, yielding an unusually high pixel density at an unusually attractive price. We can’t vouch for this monitor ourselves, but user reviews of it are fairly encouraging. Just keep in mind that this is a dual-tile model, which has its downsides, and that many Windows apps still don’t play well with high-PPI screens.
Also worth considering is the UltraSharp U3014, the latest revision of Dell’s classic 30″ monitor. The U3014 features a humongous panel with a 2560×1600 resolution (and thus a taller, 16:10 aspect ratio than typical 27″ screens), and it has a plethora of inputs. Dell even built a card reader in this thing. Neither 4K nor G-Sync are part of the program here, but you can look forward to stellar image quality without PPI scaling issues to spoil the fun.
Finally, there’s the Asus PQ321Q, a 31.5″ specimen with an IGZO panel. This was one of the first 4K panels to hit the market last year, and it wasn’t without rough edges—but it has field-upgradable firmware (via a hidden USB port), which has allowed Asus to roll out bug fixes that users can apply themselves. That perk is one of the reasons this monitor has such good user reviews. We’ve used the PQ321Q in our own 4K testing, and aside from the fact that it’s a dual-tile solution, we’ve been impressed with it. Single-tile IGZO solutions will likely make it obsolete in the near future, but they haven’t turned up yet.
Before we move on, we should bring up the latest version of Oculus VR’s development kit, which is available for pre-order for $350. If you like to live on the bleeding edge, it doesn’t get much bloodier than this: state-of-the-art stereoscopic VR goggles that track both orientation and position, so one can look around a 3D scene as if one were standing inside it. Oculus VR has been acquired by Facebook, so I expect we’ll see more affordable goggles from the company eventually. In the nearer term, though, the development kit is the only way to play the growing list of games that support (or will soon support) Oculus’ VR technology.
We like keyboards here at TR, probably because we spend quite a few hours each day typing up the stories you see on the site. We particularly like mechanical keyboards, which have a discrete switching mechanism with a metal spring under each key. Mechanical keyboards tend to provide better response than the more commonplace rubber-dome offerings.
Lately, the mechanical keyboard market has seen something of a renaissance. Many vendors have come out with mechanical offerings of various shapes and sizes, with a wide variety of different key switch types. We’ve singled out a few of our favorites for the staff picks:
|Rosewill RK-9000 series||$69.99-$139.99|
|Unicomp buckling-spring series||$79.00-$109.00|
|Cooler Master QuickFire XT series||$89.99-$119.99|
|Vintage Model M||$90.00-$105.00|
|Corsair Vengeance K70||$99.99-$129.99|
|Topre Type Heaven||$150.00|
The Rosewill RK-9000, Corsair Vengeance K70, and Cooler Master QuickFire XT series are all based on Cherry’s MX series of key switches, and they’re each available with different versions of that switch type. Before we talk about the keyboards themselves, let’s introduce the switches briefly.
The most common Cherry MX switch types are the blues, browns, reds, and blacks. In short, the blue and brown switches provide tactile feedback when the key reaches its actuation point, and the blues also generate an audible click. The reds and blacks, by contrast, have no tactile or audible feedback whatsoever. They’re smooth and silent all the way down to the bottom-out point. The only difference between them is that the blacks are stiffer.
We prefer the brown switches for typing. The blues are a little loud for our taste, and the lack of tactile feedback on the reds and blacks can lead to inadvertent double keystrokes. Some gamers like the reds and blacks for that very reason, however, since it’s possible to repeat keystrokes quickly without a tactile bump or a dead zone getting in the way.
This article provides more detail about the main Cherry switch types. You might also encounter Cherry MX green and clear switches. Those are pretty much just stiffer versions of the blues and browns, respectively. We haven’t used any keyboards with MX clear switches, but you can read about the greens right here.
Rosewill’s RK-9000 series and Cooler Master’s QuickFire XT are both relatively plain, no-frills designs. They have no extra macro or media buttons, and some variants of the QuickFire XT even lop off the numeric keypad altogether. Gamers may appreciate the extra mousing area that compromise affords.
Corsair’s Vengeance keyboards, meanwhile, are more stylish and full-featured, with aluminum surfaces, volume control rollers, and special media keys. The Vengeance K70 is our favorite. Geoff gave it our Editor’s Choice award, and he went and bought one for himself—a true endorsement. We’re partial to the full-sized version of the K70 with Cherry MX brown switches, but other variants with different switches exist. Corsair is even cooking up the K70 RGB, which will have customizable LED backlighting with 16.8 million hues, for an early September release.
What about those Unicomp and vintage Model M keyboards? They’re based on old-school buckling-spring switches. Those of us who were around computers in the 1980s and 1990s likely remember them. Quite a few mechanical keyboard purists prefer buckling springs, even though the keyboards based on them lack many of the bells and whistles of newer designs—and aren’t particularly pretty to look at. We’ll concede that buckling springs do feel extremely satisfying to type on.
Finally, there’s the Topre Type Heaven, which is outfitted with electrostatic capacitive switches. You can read all about this keyboard and its rather unique switch type in our review. In short, it’s not a mechanical keyboard in the strictest sense of the term, but it provides smoother, quieter action than conventional mechanical designs—without the mushiness of classic rubber-dome offerings. The downside is the price: $150, which is a lot for a keyboard without media or macro keys.
Mechanical keyboards aren’t really appropriate for use on the living-room couch. There, light and wireless options are ideal. Here are a few we like:
|Enermax Briskie combo||$11.99|
|Hausbell Mini H7||$43.99|
Enermax’s Briskie combo is a very affordable, laptop-style solution with a nice and snappy key feel. It even comes with an optical mouse in the box. Thanks to its full-sized layout and light weight, the Briskie should be equally at home on a coffee table and in front of a desktop PC.
Logitech’s K400 is more couch-centric. It fits comfortably on one’s lap, and instead of a numpad, it features a laptop-style touchpad. We’re not all that thrilled with the key feel on this thing, but it should be fine for the kind of typing required to control a home-theater PC—mostly quick Netflix and YouTube searches.
Last, but not least, there’s the Hausbell Mini H7, a funky gizmo with BlackBerry-style keys and a built-in touchpad. We used to recommend the Rii N7, which is similar, but the Rii in Scott’s home-theater setup died unexpectedly. Scott picked up the Hausbell as a replacement, and it turned out to have a better touchpad and nicer keys. The user reviews for the Hausbell are more encouraging, too.
Mice and controllers
Most of us are less particular about our mice than about our keyboards, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have our preferences. For the most part, we’re quite keen on comfy gaming mice with high-precision sensors and other perks, such as on-the-fly DPI adjustments, macro buttons, and software that supports custom bindings and profiles.
|Corsair Vengeance M65||$59.99|
|SteelSeries Sensei Raw||$59.99|
|Cyborg Rat 7||$69.99|
|Cyborg Rat 9||$139.99|
Among wired gaming mice, we’re partial to Corsair’s Vengeance M65. I reviewed the M60, a slightly older version of the same rodent with a lower-precision sensor, and I liked it a lot. Its wide shape is particularly nice for folks with large hands. Jr. Damage took the M65 for a video spin recently and was just as impressed.
Logitech’s G500s is another tethered option, and it’s also priced around the $60 mark. Logitech gaming mice tend to have narrower shapes that suit some mousing styles better. The G500s—and its wireless sibling, the G700s—also have some handy macro buttons just above the thumb rest, which can always come in handy. I use the G700, the predecessor of the G700s, for day-to-day mousing, and I’m quite pleased with it. Plenty of other folks swear by Logitech’s gaming mice.
A nice wired alternative for lefties is SteelSeries’ Sensei Raw, which Geoff uses in addition to a right-handed mouse in order to avert RSI during long work days. The Sensei Raw has a symmetrical design with thumb buttons on both sides and the requisite on-the-fly DPI adjustments. Geoff digs the soft-touch coating and the fact the LED lighting can be toned down, as well.
Moving a little upmarket, we have Cyborg’s Rat 7 and Rat 9. Geoff gave the former our Editor’s Choice award a few years back. The Rat 9 is the same thing, but wireless. These mice are completely adjustable, from their width and length to the height of their palm supports, so they can be tailored to match the shape of the user’s hand. That perk comes at a price, though. These things aren’t cheap.
Don’t need a fancy gaming mouse? We also like a couple of Logitech’s no-frills rodents:
The Logitech M510 has a full-sized, ambidextrous design, while the M505 is smaller and meant to cater to laptop users. Both of these mice are wireless, too. For everyday desktop tasks that don’t require extreme precision or speed, they’ll do just fine.
Finally, we’ll throw in a recommendation for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 controllers:
|Xbox 360 USB controller||$39.99|
|Xbox 360 wireless controller for Windows||$49.99|
You can get ’em in both wired and wireless flavors. (The wireless one linked above is marketed toward Windows users, and it comes with a wireless receiver in the box.) We won’t debate the superiority of keyboard and mouse control in games. However, we will say that some games, especially racing titles, can be a lot more fun to play with a controller. Some cross-platform games just have crummy mouse and keyboard controls, too.
Whatever the reason, having an Xbox 360 controller around is always handy. Windows has drivers for it out of the box, and most cross-platform games will support it with no setup required. The same isn’t necessarily true for other PC gamepads.
None of us could be described as audiophiles, and we typically don’t review audio gear other than sound cards. That said, we do appreciate high-quality sound, and we have a few speaker and headphone recommendations in mind.
|Cyber Acoustics CA-3602||2.1 speakers||$49.99|
|Creative Inspire T12||2.0 speakers||$65.99|
|Sennheiser HD 558||Headphones||$134.96|
|M-Audio Studiophile AV-40||2.0 studio monitors||$149.99|
|Audioengine A2||2.0 studio monitors||$199.00|
At the budget end of the spectrum, Scott recommends Cyber Acoustics’ CA-3602 and Creative’s Inspire T12. These are both stereo speaker setups that provide passable, albeit not exceptional, sound quality. Audiophiles need not apply, but those of us watching Netflix shows, listening to podcasts, and enjoying the latest music videos on YouTube should be happy enough.
The most cost-effective way to get high-quality audio is probably to purchase a pair of good headphones. Geoff and I use Sennheiser’s HD 555 and HD 595 cans, respectively. The HD 555 used to be the better deal of the two, but it’s now been discontinued and replaced by the HD 558. The HD 558 is based on a similar design, and judging by the user reviews at Newegg and other places, it delivers an excellent experience for the money. Just be sure to use a decent sound card. (See our System Guide for recommendations on that front.)
Last, but not least, Bruno Ferreira, our resident coder and musician, has some suggestions for stereo studio monitor setups. M-Audio’s Studiophile AV-40 is the most affordable, at $150, while the Audioengine A2 sells for around $200. No matter which one you go with, these studio monitors should provide terrific audio fidelity for the money.
External storage and backups
We cover internal storage pretty extensively in our System Guide, but backups and external options are the realm of our staff picks. We’ve singled out a few options here, from a cloud backup service to a drive dock and 5.25″ card reader.
|CrashPlan||Cloud backup service||$4.00-$5.99/month|
|Thermaltake BlacX 5G||2.5″/3.5″ USB 3.0 drive dock||$44.99|
|Kingston DataTraveler 128GB||USB 3.0 thumb drive||$58.17|
|Rosewill RDCR-11004||5.25″ card reader, USB hub||$29.99|
The easiest way to back up your data is probably to use a cloud service. Several of us have signed up with CrashPlan, which lets its customers back up an unlimited amount of data to the cloud for a monthly fee of $4 to $5.99. (The exact price depends on the contract length.)
CrashPlan locks up data using 448-bit encryption, and it offers the option to set a private password that won’t be kept on the company’s servers. The downside of this, of course, is that losing the password means saying goodbye to your data. But the upside is that nobody else, save perhaps for the NSA, should be able to steal your files.
The only real caveat with CrashPlan is that its restore speeds may not always be stellar. On multiple occasions, we’ve seen backups transfer at much less than 1MB/s. That may be sufficient for a one-off affair involving small files, but it’s no good for heavy-duty backups.
For local storage, we like Thermaltake’s BlacX 5G USB 3.0 drive dock. Any internal 3.5″ or 2.5″ drive can be inserted in the BlacX and connected to a PC via USB 3.0, which is awesomely convenient. And the BlacX isn’t just handy for backups; it can also help salvage data on hard drives recovered from failing or inoperable PCs.
Need something more portable? USB 3.0 thumb drives have come down in price quite a bit lately. Offerings like Kingston’s DataTraveler 128GB can be purchased for less than $70, and they’re capacious enough to store important files: tax forms, photos, family videos, and so forth. Thanks to their USB 3.0 interfaces, these drives also tend to be much speedier than the sluggish thumb drives of old.
Finally, if you’re building a full-sized desktop PC, chances are you’re going to have some unoccupied 5.25″ bays in your enclosure. It may be a good idea to populate one of them with something like Rosewill’s RDCR-11004, which offers card reading capabilities and a six-port USB hub (including two SuperSpeed ports). I suppose this doesn’t count as external storage in the strictest sense of the term, but hey, it can’t hurt. Along the same lines, Enermax’s new ECR501 may be worth a look once it hits stores.
Other odds and ends
|Edimax EW-7811Un||USB Wi-Fi adapter||$8.99|
|NZXT Sentry 2||Fan controller (touch screen)||$22.99|
|NZXT Sentry Mix 2||Fan controller (mechanical)||$32.99|
Plenty of folks stick PCI Express Wi-Fi adapters in their PCs. However, few are aware that bit-sized USB dongle adapters also exist—and that they’re tantalizingly inexpensive. Edimax’s EW-7811Un offers 802.11n connectivity for only $10. The small size and lack of external antennae might lead one to think the wireless reception isn’t so great, but that doesn’t seem to be so. Out of over 900 Newegg reviewers, 72% awarded the dongle four or five stars, and only 13% gave it one star. Either way, at $10, it’s not much of a gamble.
Most of the motherboards we recommend in our System Guides have pretty serviceable fan-control features built in, either in their firmware or in the Windows software that accompanies them. The thing is, motherboards only have a handful of fan headers. For systems with more fans than the motherboard can handle, a discrete fan controller is a wise purchase.
We’ve singled out a couple of recommendations here, both from NZXT. The Sentry 2 is the lower priced of the two; it supports up to five fans at 10W per channel, can monitor internal temperatures, and has a fancy touch screen. The Sentry Mix 2 doesn’t have a touch screen (fan speeds are controlled with mechanical sliders), nor does it sense temperatures, but it supports up to six fans at 30W per channel. Given that most case fans don’t draw anywhere near 10W, we’d probably lean toward the Sentry 2 ourselves.