Oh, wow, is it time for another system guide already?
I guess it must be. Intel has shaken up the high end of its desktop line with Haswell-E processors and the new X99 chipset, which has also had the side-effect of bringing DDR4 memory into the picture. None of that premium, state-of-the-art hardware is particularly cheap, but it sure is fast—and there’s nothing else like it in the market today.
Then there’s AMD’s Radeon R9 285 graphics card, which came out of a couple of weeks ago and is perhaps the best option around $250 right now. It may even be a better deal than the pricier Radeon R9 280X. A couple of Nvidia’s high-end offerings have come down in price, too, which has made us rethink our recommendations somewhat.
All in all, there’s plenty of meat here for a substantial guide update.
To mark the occasion, we’ve also featured not one but two Haswell-E configs in our sample builds section. The fastest one is decked out with 32GB of DDR4 RAM, dual GeForce GTX 780s, and other such indulgences. It’s kind of crazy, but that’s part of the point of Intel’s new platform. Read on for all the gory details.
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.
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-E, Haswell Refresh, and Devil’s Canyon series—not to mention the Pentium Anniversary Edition, a bargain-bin dual-core chip with a fully unlocked upper multiplier. We’re still a ways off from a next-gen refresh, but these new models are all clearly better than their predecessors.
AMD recently refreshed its FX processor series, too, but the new models are still based on circa-2012 silicon—and they’re objectively uncompetitive, with excessive power consumption and often lackluster performance. The associated Socket AM3+ platform is also pretty unappealing, since it relies on circa-2011 chipsets without built-in support for things like PCI Express 3.0, SATA Express, M.2, or USB 3.0. Unless you have a soft spot for AMD, building an FX-powered PC today doesn’t make a lot of sense.
What about those A-series APUs based on Kaveri silicon? Well, they are more power-efficient than the FX line, and they’re also tied to a newer platform. However, they still have poorer CPU performance and higher overall power draw than the competition from Intel. Kaveri’s only real strength is its integrated graphics performance, but that still isn’t up to par with a $100 discrete graphics card. Translation: Kaveri really only makes sense for extremely low-budget builds or for very tiny PCs that can’t accommodate a proper GPU. Builds like those aren’t really within the scope of the TR System Guide.
In the end, then, we’re pretty much stuck with Intel, which continues to offer the best overall CPU performance, the lowest power consumption, the best platforms, and the best upgrade path. (Motherboards based on the company’s new 9-series chipsets should support next-gen Broadwell CPUs.) We’d love to see more competition here, but AMD is unfortunately not delivering.
|Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition||$69.99||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 its 3.2GHz base 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.
|Intel Core i5-4460||$189.99||LGA1150 motherboard|
|Intel Core i5-4690K||$234.99||LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
|Intel Core i7-4790K||$339.99|
The processors in this price range all have four fast cores. They offer speed and responsiveness in both single-threaded tasks and heavily multithreaded ones. The “K” models 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 users seeking to overclock their CPUs will want to grab either the Core i5-4690K or the Core i7-4790K, which make up the Devil’s Canyon series.
Devil’s Canyon is meant 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 cost the same as their predecessors, but they’re 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 Intel has added a feature that was missing from the original Haswell K series: Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, otherwise known as VT-d. (VT-d is also absent from the Pentium and the Core i3 in our budget selections.)
The first K-series Haswell chips lacked support for transactional memory, or TSX, but that was also added with Devil’s Canyon. Unfortunately, Intel discovered an errata with the feature, which will be disabled on all Haswell processors via microcode update. Folks who stick with older motherboard firmware may be able to avoid that update, but they’ll risk data corruption and system stability if they tap the CPU’s TSX capability.
|Intel Core i7-5930K||$589.99||LGA2011-v3 motherboard, quad-channel DDR4 memory kit, discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler|
Late last month, Intel unleashed the Core i7-5960X, which is its fastest desktop processor to date. The chip is based on new Haswell-E silicon with eight cores, 16 threads, 20MB of L3 cache, a quad-channel DDR4 memory controller, and 40 PCI Express Gen3 lanes built right into the CPU die. This is the desktop cousin of Haswell-EP, Intel’s fastest server processor yet, and it performs accordingly—with an unlocked upper multiplier to boot.
Too bad it costs just over a thousand bucks.
That’s kind of an insane markup when, for almost half the price, the Core i7-5930K offers much of the same Haswell-E goodness. Yes, the cheaper chip has “only” six cores, 12 threads, and 15MB of L3 cache, but that still gives it a big leg up over the Devil’s Canyon series. The i7-5930K also has the benefit of higher stock clock speeds than the i7-5960X, which might translate into even better performance than the thousand-dollar beast in lightly threaded workloads. And because the i7-5930K is fully unlocked, you may be able to push it even higher by overclocking.
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 Haswell-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.
|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, and they have almost all of the same stuff. The only missing features are multiplier overclocking (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 a little bit more, Asus’ full-sized H97-Plus serves up additional expansion, including an M.2 slot for a next-generation SSD. That board’s integrated audio is insulated from the rest of the 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 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 the hack 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.
Oh, and by the way, most Z97 boards have robust support for higher-speed memory, if you want to go that route.
|Gigabyte GA-Z97X-SLI||$113.99||LGA1150 processor, ATX case|
|Gigabyte GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5||$134.99||LGA1150 processor,
microATX or ATX case
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 feature-packed and reasonably priced board that earned our TR Recommended award in May.
The Asus Z97-A
(Along the same lines, MSI’s Z97-G45 Gaming is worth a look. We haven’t tried it ourselves just yet, but we were impressed with the software and feature payload of MSI’s more upscale Z97 Gaming 7 mobo.)
Those looking to save a few bucks may also want to consider Gigabyte’s GA-Z97X-SLI, which costs less than the Z97-A and isn’t hugely different—though it lacks optical S/PDIF in its I/O cluster. Asus’ Z97-K is another option at around $120, but it lacks S/PDIF, and its Ethernet controller is from Realtek rather than Intel.
Finally, users 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.
|Asus X99 Deluxe||$398.99||LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case|
Haswell-E processors won’t fit in the LGA1150 sockets of H97 and Z97 mobos. Instead, they require LGA2011-v3 sockets and slots for DDR4 memory. Those features are only available in boards powered by Intel’s new X99 chipset.
We’ve only reviewed one X99 motherboard to date, Asus’ X99 Deluxe. This mobo is packed to the gills with features, including 802.11ac Wi-Fi, 10 USB 3.0 ports, dual SATA Express ports, nine fan headers, native and adapter-based M.2 support, and five PCI Express Gen3 x16 slots ripe for heavy-duty multi-GPU configs. The Deluxe isn’t cheap, though, ringing in at almost 400 bucks.
While we can’t fully vouch for other boards yet, Gigabyte’s X99-UD4 is in our labs right now, and we like it well enough so far. The UD4’s firmware and fan controls are about on par with those of Gigabyte’s newest Z97 offerings, and the board serves up four-way multi-GPU support, M.2 and SATA Express storage options, and so on. This is definitely a less extravagant solution than the X99 Deluxe overall, and its support for higher memory speeds isn’t as robust. Still, at $260, it’s much more affordable.
Asus is also cooking up an X99-A that should sell for around $279 when it hits stores. We haven’t found this model online yet, but you might want to keep an eye out for it.
Intel’s Haswell-E processors have brought DDR4 memory to the desktop, which means the System Guide’s memory section is a little different than before. We’re still splitting things up in three tiers, but this time, the memory in our high-end section is DDR4 RAM meant for Haswell-E configs. It won’t work with standard Haswell chips designed for DDR3 memory.
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600||$44.99||CPU cooler must not protrude
over memory slots
At today’s prices, 4GB DDR3 kits are about the most you can fit in a budget build.
This Ripjaws combo 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 CPU coolers. The stock Intel cooler will work, but if you’re thinking of getting an aftermarket unit, check our CPU cooler recommendations a few pages ahead for something suitable.
|G.Skill Ares 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$79.99||N/A|
|Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600||$157.99|
8GB of RAM is probably as much as most folks need these days. Where 4GB can be a little tight in newer games and during heavy multitasking, 8GB rarely causes bottlenecks. Very heavy multitaskers (and those eager to future-proof their PCs) may feel compelled to spring for a 16GB kit, though. Here, we’re going with G.Skill and Crucial kits that both have low-profile heat spreaders.
Note that we didn’t choose these kits with memory overclocking in mind, nor did we splurge on modules rated to run at higher speeds. Overclocked memory can cause data loss and stability problems, and memory that’s designed to operate above 1600 MT/s doesn’t usually pay much in the way of real-world performance dividends. The multiplier-unlocked processors we recommend can be overclocked just fine without bringing memory into the picture, anyway.
|Crucial 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2133||$208.99||Haswell-E processor,
|Crucial 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2133||$408.99|
Out of the box, Haswell-E supports DDR4 memory speeds up to 2133 MT/s. These are the most affordable DDR4-2133 kits with relatively low latencies from a big-name vendor we could find. They don’t have giant heatspreaders that would interfere with a large air cooler, and they’re covered with lifetime warranties. Sounds good to us!
If you’re really looking to show off, then there are plenty of DDR4 modules rated to run at higher speeds. G.Skill has some of the least expensive 16GB DDR4-2666 kits out there, and if you want to go all out, there are always Corsair’s DDR4-2800 DIMMs, which we’ve been using in our Haswell-E test rigs. Just keep in mind that some motherboards may not support memory speeds that high without bumping up the base clock or adjusting the CPU strap. (Asus’ X99 Deluxe doesn’t have that limitation, but Gigabyte’s X99-UD4 requires additional adjustment to run system memory at 2800 MT/s.)
Not building a gaming PC? Feel free to skip this page—unless you’re getting a Haswell-E processor. Haswell-E doesn’t have built-in graphics.
A few things have changed here since the last edition of the guide. As we said in the intro, AMD has introduced the $250 Radeon R9 285, and prices for high-end Nvidia cards have come down a little. Some sub-$200 cards have gotten a tad more expensive, as well.
Then there are the game bundles. Select Radeon R7- and R9-series cards still come with various incarnations of the generous Never Settle bundle, which lets buyers pick free games from a pool of available titles. That pool now includes Alien Isolation and Star Citizen in addition to some of the previously available classics, such as Thief and DiRT 3, and some indie packs. Nvidia, meanwhile, is offering free copies of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel with select GeForce GTX 770, 780, 780 Ti, and Titan cards.
The arrival of G-Sync monitors also complicates things somewhat. G-Sync displays offer an amazingly smooth and tear-free experience without vsync, but unfortunately, they don’t work with AMD graphics cards. The first comparable displays to support Radeons won’t be out until next year—and even then, they won’t work with current members of the R9 270 and R9 280 series (save for the new R9 285). If you’re excited about G-Sync or FreeSync (which is what AMD calls its standards-based alternative), make your GPU purchase carefully.
Finally, 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.
|Sapphire Radeon R7 260X 2GB||$119.99||N/A|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750 2GB||$122.99|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB||$145.99|
|Gigabyte Radeon R7 265 2GB||$149.99|
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.
We’ve reinstated the Radeon R7 265 as an alternative to the GTX 750 Ti, since the faster R9 270 has gone up in price since last time. The R7 265 is powered by a larger, more power-hungry chip than the Maxwell GPU inside the GTX 750 Ti, but it’s faster for the money. If you can handle the heat, this is the $150 card to get.
|Asus Radeon R9 270||$169.99||N/A|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 660||$179.99||Dual PCIe power connectors|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 760 2GB||$249.99|
|Gigabyte Radeon R9 285||$249.99|
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 $170 and $180, one must choose between the Radeon R9 270 and GeForce GTX 660. The Radeon is a little faster and slightly more affordable; it also comes with two free games as part of the Never Settle Forever Silver bundle.
At $230-240, AMD’s new Radeon R9 285 is king—at least in terms of performance, where it outpaces the GeForce GTX 760 overall. The GTX 760 consumes less power under load, though, and it supports G-Sync.
|Gigabyte Radeon R9 280X||$309.99||Dual PCIe power connectors|
|MSI GeForce GTX 770||$319.99|
|XFX Radeon R9 290 Double D||$409.99|
|Asus GeForce GTX 780||$439.99|
|MSI Radeon R9 290X||$549.99|
|Asus GeForce GTX 780 Ti||$589.99|
Want to play games at 2560×1440? The GeForce GTX 760 and Radeon R9 285 will suffice, but for better results, we’d recommend the 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. Just keep in mind that, unlike the R9 285 and the R9 290 series, the R9 280X won’t support FreeSync monitors when they come out next year.
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. 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 “Gold” voucher good for three free games, while all three of the GeForces ship with a key for the next Borderlands game.
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.
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.
|WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM||$59.99|
|Kingston HyperX 120GB||$74.99|
|Crucial MX100 256GB||$114.99|
|Intel 530 Series 240GB||$139.99|
|Crucial MX100 512GB||$214.99|
|Crucial M550 1TB||$469.99|
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.
The sweet spot is probably the Crucial MX100 256GB, which is aggressively priced and, for the most part, quite fast. OCZ’s similarly affordable ARC 100 240GB is also worth considering. We found the drive to be faster than the MX100 overall, especially with sustained and demanding workloads. The ARC’s capacity is lower, though, and OCZ has a spottier (but improving) reliability track record.
Folks with deeper pockets can spring for one of the 512GB and 1TB SSDs 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 the 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 module 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.
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.
|WD Green 3TB||$109.99|
|WD Green 4TB||$149.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$174.99|
|WD Black 4TB||$239.99|
Based in part 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.
Finally, both Seagate and WD now offer 6TB consumer drives, but those are pretty pricey—just south of $300 right now. Given the high cost per gigabyte, those drives should probably be considered only for high-capacity NAS systems or small-form-factor PC builds with limited expansion. Anyone building a full-fledged mid-tower PC will get more bang for their buck with two (or more) 4TB drives.
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.
|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 5,000 reviews on Newegg. We feel pretty safe recommending it.
On the Blu-ray front, the LG drive we used to recommend isn’t available anymore, and its replacement, the WH16NS40, has too many one-star reviews for our comfort. We’ve changed our recommendation to the Asus BW-12B1ST, which is a little slower but has better user ratings.
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 reputation 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.
|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-free 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 for 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.
|Corsair Obsidian Series 350D||$109.99||microATX motherboard|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 450D||$119.99||N/A|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$139.99||N/A|
Our old favorite, NZXT’s H2, seems to have been discontinued. We haven’t tested its replacement, but we recently reviewed Corsair’s Obsidian Series 450D, which fits our idea of a good, mid-range ATX case. The 450D costs about $20 more than the old H2, but it’s a newer, more modern enclosure with roomier internals and tool-free 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 mesh front panel lets a little too much fan noise through—unlike Corsair’s other cases, where the panel is solid with vents around the sides. Still, the 450D is a great enclosure overall. It earned 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. The 750D is an extremely spacious case that’s an absolute delight to work in. It’s pretty darn quiet, too.
|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.
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 the load. The higher a PSU’s efficiency, the less energy it turns into heat while converting AC to DC power, the easier it is to cool quietly. 80 Plus Bronze, Silver, or Gold units tend to have large, slow-spinning fans that are barely audible during normal use. They’ll save you a bit of money on your power bill over the long run, too.
|Corsair CX430M||$54.99||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 around 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.
|Seasonic G Series 550W||$79.99||N/A|
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.
Corsair’s AX860 normally gets the nod here, thanks to its 80 Plus Platinum certification, 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.
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 i7-5930K, 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 listed below are all more powerful and quieter than the stock Intel solutions. The more affordable ones are conventional, tower-style designs with large fans, while the higher-priced Corsair H-series units are closed-loop liquid coolers that can be mounted against a case’s exhaust vents.
|Thermaltake NiC F3||$29.99|
|Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||$34.99|
|Thermaltake NiC C5||$54.99|
Thermaltake’s NiC coolers are designed specifically to accommodate tall memory heat spreaders. They use relatively slim fin arrays to achieve this feat. Despite that fact, they’re capable of cooling very power-hungry processors. The NiC F3 can dissipate as much as 160W of heat, while the NiC C5 can do 230W, according to Thermaltake. That’s way beyond the needs of stock-clocked Haswell 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 a Haswell-E system packed with tall memory modules. In fact, we very much recommend water cooling for any Haswell-E build, given how crowded the area around the socket tends to be.
A more affordable alternative to the H60 is Cooler Master’s Seidon 120V, which we’ve used in a couple of our recent mini-ITX case reviews. This is a decent solution that can sometimes be found on sale for well under $50.
We’ll also 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.
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 typical onboard audio cannot, such as surround sound virtualization and real-time Dolby multi-channel encoding.
|Asus Xonar DSX||$54.99|
|Asus Xonar DX||$79.99|
The Xonar DSX and Xonar DX can both drive analog headphones or 7.1-channel speaker setups (either analog or digital). In our blind listening tests performed with analog headphones, these two cards sounded very 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.
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.
|Processor||Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition||$69.99|
|Cooler||Thermaltake NiC F3||$29.99|
|Motherboard||MSI Z97 PC Mate||$99.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600||$44.99|
|Graphics||XFX Radeon R9 270||$169.99|
|Storage||WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM||$59.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 200R||$59.99|
Rather than go with the absolute cheapest configuration, we’ve made some provisions for overclocking here. We’ve picked out an entry-level Z97 motherboard and thrown 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 a fair bit faster than cards priced at $150 and less. All of this should make for a very capable gaming machine at a very affordable price.
|Cooler||Thermaltake NiC F3||$29.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ares 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$79.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte Radeon R9 285||$249.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX100 256GB||$114.99|
|WD Green 3TB||$109.99|
|Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DSX||$54.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 450D||$119.99|
|PSU||Seasonic G Series 550W||$79.99|
Like the Pentium Anniversary Edition, the Core i5-4690K is fully unlocked. However, this chip features two more cores, so it can perform far better in multithreaded apps and heavy multitasking scenarios. The 8GB memory kit will see to that, as well.
Otherwise, our chosen motherboard is a TR Recommended award winner, and the Radeon R9 285 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—unless I were also eyeing a G-Sync display, in which case I’d swap out the Radeon for a GeForce GTX 760.
|Memory||Crucial 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2133||$208.99|
|Graphics||Asus GeForce GTX 780||$439.99|
|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||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$159.99|
With six cores, 12 threads, 16GB of RAM, and a GeForce GTX 780 primed for 4K goodness (or G-Sync), this ought to be a pretty terrific gaming machine. Heck, it almost qualifies as a workstation. The Core i7-5930K packs a mean punch, and there’s a boatload of unused expansion on tap here.
This system should be fairly quiet, too, despite its ample horsepower. That’s thanks to our liquid cooler, Corsair case, and 80 Plus Gold power supply, not to mention the nice Asus cooler on the GeForce GTX 780. Just because a system is fast doesn’t mean it should be used with earmuffs.
Scrooge McDuck’s footwarmer
|Motherboard||Asus X99 Deluxe||$389.99|
|Memory||G.Skill 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2666||$529.99|
|Graphics||Asus GeForce GTX 780||$439.99|
|Asus GeForce GTX 780||$439.99|
|Storage||Crucial M550 1TB||$469.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$174.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$174.99|
|Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DX||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master Cosmos II||$299.99|
This is the kind of PC you can build if you totally neglect your savings account and conveniently forget to buy your spouse an anniversary gift. We’ve got a full-fledged incarnation of Haswell-E, a beefier motherboard, 32GB of screaming-fast DDR4-2666 RAM, a second GeForce GTX 780 card, and a 1TB solid-state drive (because you’ll have more time for games when your spouse starts giving you the silent treatment). As icing on the cake, we’ve substituted the Obsidian 750D for Cooler Master’s humongous Cosmos II case, whose gullwing doors say, “Scree! Try dragging me to your cousin’s wedding now! Scree!”
Anyway, it’s a pretty fast computer. Probably too fast for most people. Seriously, you’ll probably be fine with our $2,500 high-end build, if not a cheaper one based on Devil’s Canyon. But over-the-top excess is kind of what defines the Haswell-E processor and its X99 sidekick, making this config a fitting tribute to the platform’s debut.
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
Before we go, let’s talk briefly about upcoming hardware releases. After all, many of you may not mind holding off on a new build if the next big thing is right around the corner.
This time, there may be a slight case of quasi-obsoletitis going around in today’s high-end graphics cards. Recent reports suggest that the Tonga GPU from the Radeon R9 285 will soon appear, in full-fledged form, inside a faster Radeon R9 285X. There’s also talk of a new high-end GeForce based on Nvidia’s Maxwell architecture coming later this month.
Happily, we’re not aware of any other imminent releases. The desktop incarnation of Intel’s next-gen Broadwell CPU isn’t due until mid-2015. Meanwhile, AMD hasn’t set any precise time frames for its next CPUs. Project SkyBridge will be out some time in 2015, while the next-gen K12 architecture will debut the following year.
In short, unless you’re looking for a graphics card with a price tag over $300, you probably don’t need to worry about premature obsolescence. You’re all good to go. Just remember to use protection—some cases have sharp edges.