The holidays are fast approaching. PC hardware makers have spent the past little while getting their ducks in a row for the season, and today, the ducks look to be pretty well lined up and ready to pluck.
Seriously, though. We’ve got Nvidia’s new GeForce GTX 970 and 980 graphics cards, which have redefined performance, power efficiency, and value at the high end. We’ve got AMD’s recent price cuts, thanks to which the Radeon R9 290 is now listed below $300 and A10-series APUs are (or should be) available under $150. And then there are the goodies that came out in the late summer, including Haswell-E processors, X99 motherboards, DDR4 memory, and the Radeon R9 285.
With the exception of the GeForce GTX 970, which is still in short supply, all of that hardware is available and ready to go now. In other words, you could build your Christmas gaming PC today and probably not miss out on much—you know, unless Intel somehow launches a quantum processor within the next eight weeks.
This latest edition of the TR System Guide should give you just about all the tools to build a holiday PC early. We’ve even added an AMD-based sample build, since those new A-series price cuts make AMD’s desktop APUs compelling for the first time in a long while. Pretty crazy stuff, I know.
Let’s begin, shall we?
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.
We’re still leaning pretty heavily on Intel in the recommendations below. That’s because the company continues to offer the best overall CPU performance, the lowest power consumption, the best platforms, and the best upgrade path on the desktop. (Motherboards based on Intel’s 9-series chipsets should support next-gen Broadwell CPUs.)
That said, we have made an exception for AMD’s A10-7800 processor, which recent price cuts have turned into a reasonably good deal. While it may not quite match the power efficiency of comparably-priced Intel alternatives, this chip is in the same ballpark, and it offers better integrated graphics performance. That’s worth something.
AMD also refreshed its FX lineup recently, but the new additions are still based on circa-2012 silicon that’s both power-hungry and uncompetitive overall. Worse, FX-series CPUs are tied to a three-year-old platform that lacks built-in support for PCI Express 3.0, SATA Express, and USB 3.0. Unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool AMD fan, you’re best off steering clear.
|Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition||$69.99||LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
|Intel Core i3-4160||$129.99||LGA1150 motherboard|
|AMD A10-7800||$133.00||Socket FM2+ 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 3.2GHz to 4.8GHz. At that frequency, the new Pentium can keep up with much faster, higher-priced chips in all but the most heavily multithreaded apps. It’s surprisingly capable in games, too.
If you’re not interested in overclocking, the Core i3-4160 may be a better budget buy. Its base clock speed is a little higher, at 3.6GHz, 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, too, since they have basic integrated graphics built in.
Over in the AMD aisle, we have the A10-7800, which came out in July and is probably the most competitive member of the A series at the moment—or will be as soon as AMD’s price cut takes effect. (The chip is supposed to sell for $133, but Newegg is still listing it for $165 at the time of writing.) While it doesn’t have an unlocked upper multiplier like the A10-7850K, the A10-7800 does feature a much lower TDP: 65W instead of 95W. When paired with the right motherboard, the A10-7800 can even squeeze into a 45W envelope, below the 54W of the Core i3-4160.
As we said above, the A10 should be in the same ballpark as the Core i3 in CPU-bound tasks, but its integrated Radeon should deliver better graphics performance. That may make it a good choice for a casual gamer who only plays indie titles and the like. Compatible motherboards are a bit cheaper, as well, which works in the A10’s favor.
|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|
The processors in this price range all have four fast cores—much faster ones than those of the A10-7800 in the budget section. These babies offer speed and responsiveness in both single-threaded tasks and heavily multithreaded ones. The “K” models also have fully unlocked upper multipliers that open the door to easy overclocking.
The Core i5-4460 belongs to the Haswell Refresh lineup, and it happens to be one of Intel’s most inexpensive quad-core desktop processors. This is a good, no-frills option if you plan to run at stock settings. Users hoping 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 standard Haswell CPUs, 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 in 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.
On top of that, Devil’s Canyon processors are clocked higher out of the box than their predecessors, and they support Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, otherwise known as VT-d. Intel mysteriously left that feature out of the original Haswell K-series lineup. VT-d is also absent from the Pentium and the Core i3 in our budget selections.
|Intel Core i7-5930K||$589.99||LGA2011-v3 motherboard, quad-channel DDR4 memory kit, discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler|
A couple of months ago, Intel unleashed the Core i7-5960X, 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 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. ASRock boards typically offer a great hardware spec for the money, and some of the Z97 models even sport four-lane “Ultra M.2” slots that aren’t available on competing boards. The firmware in the latest 9-series products has some nice little touches, too, but the interface isn’t terribly refined, and neither is the accompanying utility software. ASRock boards are appealing primarily for their budget price tags.
You’ll notice we featured both ATX and microATX motherboards in 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.
|Gigabyte F2A88XM-D3H||$74.99||Socket FM2+ processor, microATX case|
|MSI A88X-G43||$77.99||Socket FM2+ processor, ATX case|
|Gigabyte GA-H97M-D3H||$89.99||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|
These boards are based on the AMD A88X chipset, which supports RAID arrays for SATA drives and configurable TDPs for chips like the A10-7800. The MSI board has a full-sized ATX layout, edge-mounted SATA 6Gbps ports, and more positive user reviews than the competition. The Gigabyte board, meanwhile, rolls a roughly similar feature set (minus a few expansion slots) into a microATX form factor. It, too, has plenty of good user reviews.
On the Intel front, H97 boards are ideal for stock-clocked budget builds. They’re priced a little lower than those powered by the flagship Z97, 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 functionality, they tend to get you more bang for your buck.
Gigabyte’s microATX 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.)
Right now, H97 mobos 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. Like most Z97 boards, the PC Mate also supports higher-speed memory, if you want to go that route.
|Gigabyte GA-Z97X-SLI||$118.99||LGA1150 processor, ATX case|
|Gigabyte GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5||$134.99||LGA1150 processor,
microATX or ATX case
This is the sweet spot of the LGA1150 motherboard market, where slightly upscale 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. Check out our review for all the details.
The Asus Z97-A
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.
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.
|Gigabyte X99-UD4||$258.99||LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case|
|Asus X99 Deluxe||$391.99||LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case|
Haswell-E processors won’t fit in LGA1150 motherboards like the ones listed above. Instead, Haswell-E requires an LGA2011-v3 socket and DDR4 memory slots. Those features are only available in boards powered by Intel’s new X99 chipset.
One of the most affordable X99 boards out right now is Gigabyte’s X99-UD4, which has four-way multi-GPU support, M.2 and SATA Express storage options, great overclocking capabilities, and decent fan controls in its included Windows software. The only sore spots are the firmware fan controls, which are a little lackluster, and the memory multiplier cap, which complicates the use of DDR4-2800 or faster memory. (Keep in mind, though, that Haswell-E officially supports only DDR4-2133 RAM.)
If you want to go all out, then Asus’ X99 Deluxe is worth a look. This board justifies its eye-popping price tag with a cornucopia of extras, including 802.11ac, a whopping 10 USB 3.0 ports, dual SATA Express ports, nine fan headers, and both native and adapter-based M.2 support.
A third option is Asus’ new X99-A, a somewhat stripped down version of the X99 Deluxe that retails for around $275. We haven’t reviewed the X99-A yet, but one is now in our labs for testing. By the time the next guide rolls around, we should have a good sense of whether it’s a worthy alternative to the X99-UD4.
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 it used to be. 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 CPUs 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.
Note, however, that 4GB of RAM won’t be enough for some of the latest cross-platform games. Assassin’s Creed Unity, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, and Watch Dogs all require at least 6GB of RAM. Keep reading for a larger memory recommendation.
|G.Skill Ares 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$78.99||N/A|
|G.Skill Ares 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600||$153.99|
|Crucial Ballistix Sport 32GB (4x8GB) DDR3-1600||$319.99|
An 8GB memory kit meets the requirements for the aforementioned games, and it’s probably as much as most folks need these days. Very heavy multitaskers (and those eager to future-proof their PCs) may feel compelled to spring for a 16GB or 32GB kit, but 8GB rarely causes bottlenecks. Here, we’re going with G.Skill and Crucial kits that all have low-profile heat spreaders.
By the way, 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||$209.99||Haswell-E processor,
|Crucial 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2133||$409.99|
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 that we could find. They don’t have giant heatspreaders that would interfere with a large air cooler, and they’re covered by 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.
Since our last guide, Nvidia has introduced its GeForce GTX 970 and 980 graphics cards, and AMD has responded by applying deep cuts to Radeon R9 290-series prices. As a result, the cost of entry into the high-end graphics realm has fallen quite a bit. You can now get a card that’s darn pretty close to top-of-the-line for about $350, and the Radeon R9 290 is almost shockingly affordable at around $290 or so.
To sweeten the pot, 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 options, such as Thief and DiRT 3, and some indie packs. Nvidia used to offer free copies of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel with its high-end cards, but that promotion seems to have expired.
One reason to skip AMD and those game bundles is Nvidia’s G-Sync tech. Monitors with G-Sync 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.
Now, a note 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.
|Asus Radeon R7 260X 2GB||$109.99||N/A|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 750 2GB||$129.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB||$139.99|
|MSI Radeon R7 265 2GB||$149.99|
For someone even moderately serious about playing games, the Radeon R7 260X and GeForce GTX 750 are about as cheap as we’d recommend . 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 choose the Radeon or GeForce, they’re both good options—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.
At its current price, the GeForce GTX 750 Ti is a better value than the GTX 750. The Ti is about 15-25% faster and shares most of the same perks as the cheaper model, 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 particularly good card for a quiet, small-form-factor build, or even as a replacement GPU for a pre-built system without PCIe power leads.
The fastest GPU south of $150 is the Radeon R7 265. It’s powered by a larger, more power-hungry chip than the GTX 750 Ti, and it requires a six-pin PCIe power connector. But if you can handle the heat, this may be the card to get in this price range.
|Asus Radeon R9 270||$169.99||N/A|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 660||$179.99||Dual PCIe power connectors|
|Asus GeForce GTX 760 2GB||$214.99|
|XFX Radeon R9 285||$249.99|
|MSI GeForce GTX 770||$249.99|
All of the cards above can run games at 1080p with high or maxed-out detail levels. The ones at the upper end of this price range can also handle 2560×1440, though they may not deliver the smoothest possible experience at that resolution.
Between $170 and $180, the Radeon R9 270 looks like the best value, since it’s a little faster and slightly more affordable than the GeForce GTX 660. The R9 270 also comes with two free games as part of the Never Settle Forever Silver bundle. At $250, the GeForce GTX 770 is probably the better card. The R9 285 does come with some free games, but it’s slower and less power-efficient overall—and again, Radeons don’t have G-Sync support.
What about the GeForce GTX 760? This card used to be Nvidia’s answer to the R9 285, but it now occupies a middle ground between the $170-180 and $250 price points. Its performance is consistent with that position. If $250 stretches your budget a little too much, this is a good fallback.
|MSI Radeon R9 290 Gaming 4G||$289.99||Dual PCIe power connectors|
|XFX Radeon R9 290X Double D||$329.99|
|MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G||$349.99|
|Gigabyte G1 Gaming GeForce GTX 980||$629.99|
Which brings us to the newly discounted high end. Just to put things in perspective, custom-cooled versions of the Radeon R9 290 and 290X like those above sold for $410 and $550, respectively, last month. The GeForce GTX 780, which has been replaced by the faster and more power-efficient GeForce GTX 970, was around $440.
So, yeah, the getting is good right now.
Competitively speaking, the Radeon R9 290 and Radeon R9 290X straddle the GeForce GTX 970. (The 290 is slightly slower; the 290X is a little faster.) The lower price tags on the AMD cards may make them look like the best bargains as a result, but the GeForce GTX 970 is way, way more power-efficient. Like, way. Under load, it consumes 100W less than even the R9 290. That means lower temperatures, lower noise levels, and potentially higher overclocking headroom. We were able to overclock MSI’s GTX 970 Gaming so that it outperformed the stock-clocked GeForce GTX 980. Pretty amazing for a $350 card.
Unfortunately, and perhaps understandably, the GTX 970 is in very short supply right now. You may have to wait a little while for yours. You may also have to look for another model that’s in stock. We gave the MSI Gaming variant our TR Editor’s Choice award, but we’d still happily recommend cards from Asus, Gigabyte, or MSI, so long as they’re available and not laden with negative user reviews.
The GeForce GTX 980 is faster out of the box and more readily available than the GTX 970. However, it’s obviously much less appealing from a value standpoint.
No matter what you wind up getting, these cards should all deliver silky smooth frame rates at 2560×1440, and they’ll also open the door to 4K gaming—or, in the case of the Nvidia offerings, 4K DSR on systems with lower-res monitors.
Note that 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.) We’re also skipping the Radeon R9 280X, since it’s much slower than the R9 290 and only about $10-20 cheaper.
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||$79.99|
|Crucial MX100 256GB||$112.99|
|Intel 530 Series 240GB||$129.99|
|Crucial MX100 512GB||$209.99|
|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, reasonably fast for the most part, and made by a company with a solid reliability track record. Another option worth considering in the same price range is Intel’s Intel 530 Series 240GB. While it costs a little more, that drive is covered by a longer five-year warranty. And, unlike the MX100, it shouldn’t suffer from sluggish service times with more demanding sustained workloads.
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 Assassin’s Creed Unity, which requires 50GB of free capacity.
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||$104.99|
|WD Green 4TB||$149.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$169.99|
|WD Black 4TB||$234.99|
Based in part on Backblaze’s 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 choice 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 DVD and Blu-ray discs, 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||$109.99||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 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||$279.99||A forklift|
At roughly 14″ x 28″ x 26″, the Cooler Master Cosmos II is humongous. And at nearly $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 the CX430M 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. 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||$49.99|
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.
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 $100 Sound Blaster Z. We finally got one of those in our labs recently, and it sounds decent—though not as neutral as the Xonar DX, even with the Crystalizer setting disabled. My hunch is that Creative does a little post-processing to make highs pop, which can result in overly crisp-sounding music.
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 Ares 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$78.99|
|Graphics||Asus 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. Last, but not least, we made sure to choose an 8GB memory kit, since several new and upcoming AAA games require at least 6GB.
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||$78.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G||$349.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX100 256GB||$112.99|
|WD Green 3TB||$104.99|
|Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DSX||$54.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 450D||$109.99|
|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 we’ve stretched our budget a little to include the GeForce GTX 970, which is just too good to pass up. 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. Too far above this, and the law of diminishing returns really starts to kick in.
|Memory||Crucial 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2133||$209.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G||$349.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX100 512GB||$209.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$169.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$169.99|
|Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner||$79.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DX||$79.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$159.99|
Then again, some folks do want the best of the best—or just about.
With six cores, 12 threads, 16GB of RAM, and a GeForce GTX 970 primed for 4K goodness (and/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. 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 delightfully power-efficient GPU. Just because a system is fast doesn’t mean it should be used with earmuffs.
We could have gone with the GTX 980 here, but we were able to overclock the MSI GTX 970 Gaming 4G so it outperformed that card. You might as well pocket the $280 difference.
The Business Casual
|Memory||G.Skill Ares 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$78.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX100 256GB||$112.99|
|WD Green 3TB||$104.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master N200||$49.99|
The Business Casual is geared toward casual gamers who also need a budget productivity machine. The A10-7800 offers decent CPU performance and relatively strong integrated graphics, thus removing the need for a separate graphics card. That compromise in turn leaves room in our budget for a solid-state drive, which will greatly improve system responsiveness, and a high-capacity mechanical drive. The microATX form factor makes this system pretty compact, yet it can still accommodate a discrete GPU, should you decide to get more serious about gaming.
(By the way, we wouldn’t recommend purchasing this build until AMD’s price cut takes effect. The A10-7800 is supposed to sell for around $133, but Newegg still lists it for $165 at the time of writing.)
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. Many of you may not mind holding off on a new build, assuming the next big thing is right around the corner. All of the year’s big launches seem to be out of the way, though. There is some new hardware coming down the pike, but not, it looks like, until 2015.
AMD, meanwhile, is said to be cooking up next-gen Carrizo APUs for March 2015. Those chips will likely succeed Kaveri in the A series. We haven’t heard anything about next-gen replacements for AMD’s Socket AM3+ chips, so don’t hold your breath there.
We’d love to share gossip about next-gen GPU roadmaps, but the rumor mill hasn’t really delivered on that front. It’s probably fair to expect replacements for older GeForce 700- and Radeon R-series parts at some point, but we don’t yet know enough to make specific predictions.