TR’s February 2015 System Guide

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Wow, is it almost March already? I guess we’re overdue for a new System Guide.

We usually wait a while after the new year to update the Guide, since the post-Christmas period tends to be pretty slow in terms of hardware releases. That’s been true this year, with one notable exception: the arrival of the GeForce GTX 960.

No question about it, Nvidia’s newcomer has changed the game at $200. All of a sudden, cards both north and south of that price point are looking much less enticing. AMD has already cut prices to match, and one of our old budget favorites, the GeForce GTX 660, has effectively vanished from e-tail stocks.

We’ve seen other changes since Christmas, too, though none quite as momentous. Memory prices have come down a little, making 16GB kits a more appealing proposition than before. Some new solid-state drives have entered the ring, and then there’s been the whole GeForce GTX 970 memory debacle, which has made us think long and hard about some of our recommendations.

In all, this is shaping up to be an exciting update to the System Guide. Let’s get started!

The rules and regulations

A short disclaimer: this is a component selection guide, not a PC assembly guide or a performance comparison. If you need help with the business of putting components together, look at our handy how-to build a PC article—and the accompanying video:

For reviews and benchmarks, we suggest heading to our front page and starting from there.

On the next several pages, we’ll discuss the main categories of components needed to build a PC: processors, motherboards, memory, graphics cards, storage, cases, and power supplies. We’ll then recommend a handful of carefully selected parts split into three tiers: budget, sweet spot, and high end.

For the budget tier, we won’t seek out the absolute cheapest parts around. Instead, we’ll single out capable, high-quality parts that also happen to be affordable. The sweet-spot tier is self-explanatory; it’s where you’ll find the products that deliver the most bang for your buck. Finally, our high-end tier is a mirror image of the budget tier. There, we’ll seek out the fastest and most feature-packed components, but without venturing into excessive price premiums that aren’t worth paying.

Each recommendation will involve a mental juggling of sorts for us. We’ll consider variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the size and reputation of the manufacturer or vendor. In most cases, we’ll favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.

Finally, each recommended component will have a “notable needs” box. In that box, we’ll point out any special requirements one should consider when building a full system with that part. For instance, we’ll address socket type and form factor compatibility between different processors, motherboards, and cases.

Now that we’ve addressed the how, let’s talk about the where. See that “powered by Newegg.com” logo at the top of the page? Newegg sponsors our System Guides, and more often than not, it will serve as our source for component prices. However, Newegg has no input on our editorial content nor sway over our component selections. If we want to recommend something it doesn’t carry, we’ll do just that.

We think sourcing prices from a huge online retailer gives us more realistic figures, though—so much so that we quoted Newegg prices long before this guide got a sponsor. Dedicated price search engines can find better deals, but they often pull up unrealistically low prices from small and potentially unreliable e-tailers. If you’re going to spend several hundred (or thousand) dollars on a PC, we think you’ll be more comfortable doing so at a large e-tailer with a proven track record and a decent return policy.

CPUs

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 paths on the desktop. (Motherboards based on Intel’s 9-series chipsets should support next-gen Broadwell CPUs.)

That said, we have made exceptions for two of AMD’s processors: the A8-7600, which recent price cuts have turned into a solid deal, and the Athlon X4 860K, which is essentially the CPU component of the A10-7850K sold separately at a heavy discount. Depending on your priorities, these may be preferable to dual-core Intel CPUs selling around the same price.

AMD also refreshed its FX lineup not too long ago, 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 five-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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition $69.99 LGA1150 motherboard,

Z97 chipset for overclocking

Intel Core i3-4160 $119.99 LGA1150 motherboard
AMD Athlon X4 860K $79.99 Socket FM2+ motherboard
AMD A8-7600 $97.99 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 Pentium can keep up with much faster, higher-priced chips in all but the most heavily multithreaded apps. It’s surprisingly capable in most games, too.

Unfortunately, some newer titles like Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition have trouble starting on systems with dual-core, dual-thread CPUs like the Pentium. The limitation seems to be an artificial one, since unofficial workarounds exist for both games. Nonetheless, gamers looking for a no-hassle experience may prefer to spring for a quad-core AMD processor—or the Core i3-4160, which has a couple more threads than the Pentium.

The Core i3-4160 is a great budget buy, provided you don’t intend to overclock. Its base clock speed is higher than the Pentium’s, at 3.6GHz, and it adds Hyper-Threading to the mix, which boosts performance in multithreaded tasks. The Core i3 also features AES acceleration. Like the Pentium, the Core i3 is a good choice for non-gamers, too, since it has basic integrated graphics built in.

Over in the AMD aisle, we have two options.

The A8-7600 is probably the best bargain among AMD’s APUs at the moment. It’s almost as fast as the A10-7800 despite being priced $30-40 lower, and it has the same ability to squeeze into a 45W TDP when paired with the right motherboard. That’s below the Core i3-4160’s 54W. The A8-7600 also boasts faster integrated graphics than the Intel competition.

Then we have the Athlon X4 860K, which lacks integrated graphics altogether—but makes up for it by featuring the same CPU component as AMD’s fastest Socket FM2+ processor, the A10-7850K. Judging by how other Kaveri chips perform, the resulting level of performance doesn’t exactly give Intel a run for its money, particularly in the instructions-per-clock and power-efficiency departments. (The Athlon X4 has a 95W TDP.) Still, this thing is faster than the A8-7600, and the “K” suffix means unfettered multiplier overclocking. Below $100, the Athlon may be your best bet if you’re worried about the Pentium G3258’s game compatibility.

Sweet spot

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

Z97 chipset for overclocking

Intel Core i7-4790K $329.99

The processors in this segment of the market all have four fast cores—much faster ones than the Athlon X4 860K’s. They deliver 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 affordable quad-core desktop CPUs. This is a good, no-frills option if you plan to run at stock settings. Users hoping to overclock 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.

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.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i7-5930K $579.99 LGA2011-v3 motherboard, quad-channel DDR4 memory kit, discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler

Last summer, Intel unleashed the Core i7-5960X, its fastest desktop processor to date. That monster is based on 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.

For almost half the price, the Core i7-5930K serves up 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 many workloads. Finally, because the i7-5930K is fully unlocked, you may be able to push it even higher by overclocking.

Motherboards

Buying a motherboard these days is pretty straightforward. There are only four major manufacturers to choose from, and their offerings have very similar performance and peripherals at each price point. The main differences between competing boards lie with their Windows software, onboard firmware, and overclocking tools.

  • Asus is the biggest of the four main motherboard makers, and it has the best Windows software and the most intelligent and reliable auto-overclocking functionality. Its firmware interface doesn’t look as nice as Gigabyte’s, but it’s otherwise excellent—and it offers the best fan speed controls around. Some Asus motherboards ship with cushioned I/O shields and header adapters that make it much easier to connect finicky front-panel headers. We think Asus mobos typically offer the most polished packages 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 the company’s 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.
  • ASRock 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. 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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte F2A88XM-D3H $69.99 Socket FM2+ processor,

microATX or ATX case

MSI A88X-G43 $82.99 Socket FM2+ processor, ATX case
MSI Z97 PC Mate $92.24 LGA1150 processor, ATX case
Asus H97M-E/CSM $99.99 LGA1150 processor,

microATX or ATX case

Asus H97-Plus $100.99 LGA1150 processor, ATX case

The MSI’s A88X-G43 and Gigabyte’s F2A88XM-D3H are both primed for our AMD processors, and they’re both more affordable than the Intel equivalents.

Both of these boards are based on the AMD A88X chipset, which supports RAID arrays for SATA drives and configurable TDPs for certain processors, including the A8-7600. The MSI mobo has a full-sized ATX layout, edge-mounted SATA 6Gbps ports, and more positive user reviews than the competition. The Gigabyte board 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 mobos are ideal for stock-clocked budget builds. They’re usually 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) and support for dual-GPU configurations (which aren’t wise purchases for budget PCs, anyhow). Right now, H97 mobos from both Asus and ASRock allow multiplier overclocking in defiance of official restrictions, but the workaround isn’t endorsed by Intel, and it may not survive future firmware updates. Whether you want to take that gamble is up to you.

The H97-based Asus H97M-E/CSM covers the basics, with generous expansion (including an M.2 slot for mini SSDs) and plentiful USB 3.0 connectivity rolled into a microATX form factor. It’s got better firmware, software, and fan controls than the competition, too. For a little bit more, Asus’ full-sized H97-Plus serves up additional expansion. The H97-Plus’ integrated audio is insulated from the rest of the circuitry, 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.)

Low-end Z97 motherboards also 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, this solution is a little light on bells and whistles compared to its H97 cousins. However, its multiplier overclocking support is fully sanctioned by Intel, and like most Z97 boards, it also supports higher-speed memory—if you want to go that route.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GA-Z97X-SLI $119.99 LGA1150 processor, ATX case
Gigabyte GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5 $127.99 LGA1150 processor,

microATX or ATX case

Asus Z97-A $144.99 LGA1150 processor, 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 last May. The Z97-A is equipped with M.2 and SATA Express storage connectors, dual-GPU support with an x8/x8-lane arrangement, and digital S/PDIF output with real-time DTS Connect encoding. Check out our review for all the details.

The Asus Z97-A

Those looking to save a few bucks may 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-form-factor systems will want a microATX board like Gigabyte’s GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5. This mobo is more feature-packed than the microATX competition from Asus in just about every respect, down to the inclusion of SATA Express and an optical S/PDIF output.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Asus X99-A $254.99 LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case
Asus X99 Deluxe $382.99 LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case

Haswell-E processors won’t fit into LGA1150 motherboards like the ones listed above. Instead, Haswell-E requires an LGA2011-v3 socket and DDR4 memory slots, features only available in boards powered by Intel’s new X99 chipset.

Our new budget X99 favorite is the Asus X99-A, which covers the basics in a well-rounded package with great overclocking capabilities and plentiful expansion. (There’s SATA Express, M.2, and more PCIe x16 slots than you’ll ever need.) We used to recommend Gigabyte’s X99-UD4 as a budget X99 option, but we’re not thrilled with that board’s memory multiplier cap and lackluster firmware fan controls.

If you want to go all out, then Asus’ X99 Deluxe is worth a look. This mobo 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. Considering how compelling the X99-A is, though, that looks a little like overkill.

Memory

Ever since Intel’s Haswell-E processors brought DDR4 memory to the desktop last year, we’ve been reserving the “high end” tier of our memory section for DDR4 RAM. Keep in mind that DDR4 RAM won’t work with standard Haswell CPUs, which require DDR3 memory.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
G.Skill Ripjaws 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600 $39.99 CPU cooler must not protrude

over memory slots

Memory prices are down compared to last year, which is good news. However, 4GB of DDR3 RAM may still be the most you can fit into a low-end budget.

This Ripjaws combo from G.Skill is one of the most popular options on Newegg, and it’s also one of the most affordable. 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.

By the way, 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. Keep reading for more generous memory recommendations.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
G.Skill Ares 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $65.99 N/A
Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600 $119.99
Crucial Ballistix Sport 32GB (4x8GB) DDR3-1600 $266.99

An 8GB memory kit meets the requirements for the aforementioned games, and it’s probably as much as most users 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.

For the record, 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.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Crucial 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2133 $184.99 Haswell-E processor,

X99 motherboard

Crucial 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2133 $369.99

Out of the box, Haswell-E supports DDR4 memory speeds up to 2133 MT/s. These 16GB and 32GB Crucial kits are the most affordable DDR4-2133 options with relatively low latencies from that we could find a big-name vendor. 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.

Graphics

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.

The world of discrete graphics cards has changed a bit since we published our last guide. For starters, Nvidia has introduced the GeForce GTX 960, which has replaced the old GTX 660 and led AMD to cut prices on some of its cards, namely the Radeon R9 285. Nvidia has also suffered a backlash over recent revelations about the GeForce GTX 970’s memory configuration. We’ll talk about where we stand on this in a minute. Lastly, both AMD and Nvidia appear to have discontinued the game bundles that shipped with certain cards during the holidays. That’s a shame, but at least it means there are fewer variables involved in shopping for a graphics card.

Another factor that ought to influence your buying decision is G-Sync—and its upcoming AMD-compatible equivalent, Adaptive-Sync (which AMD certifies under the FreeSync brand). Both technologies allow displays to sync up their refresh cycles with the in-game frame rate, allowing for smooth, tear-free animation with no performance hit. The effect is totally worth it. G-Sync monitors are out now, and they work with all of the GeForce cards we recommend. Adaptive-Sync monitors, both with and without FreeSync certification, are coming within the next month or two, and they’ll only support Radeon R9 285 and R9 290-series cards. The R7 260X could join that club, but we don’t know for sure yet.

If you care about G-Sync and FreeSync—and you should—then choose your next graphics card wisely.

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 ones based on three criteria: the vendor, the type of cooler, and the core and memory clock speeds. We favored major vendors known to have decent service, and we looked for quiet coolers (especially dual- and triple-fan solutions) and higher-than-normal clock speeds (provided they didn’t carry too high a price premium). The cards you see below may not be the absolute cheapest of their kind, but they are the ones we’d buy for ourselves.

Oh, and one last thing: some of the motherboards we recommend support multi-GPU configurations, but we wouldn’t advise building a multi-GPU setup unless you absolutely must. Multi-GPU configs open up a whole can of worms, with occasionally iffy driver support for new games and potential microstuttering issues. There’s a heat, power, and noise cost involved, too. We’ve found that it’s almost always preferable to buy a faster single-GPU solution, if one is available, than to double up on GPUs.

Budget

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

If you’re even moderately serious about gaming, the Radeon R7 260X and GeForce GTX 750 Ti are about as cheap as we’d go. (The GTX 750 non-Ti is also capable, but the Ti version costs only a little more and is a better deal.) Cards like these will run current titles quite well at 1080p with detail levels dialed back a little. Anything cheaper would force you to lower the resolution and image quality.

As for whether to choose the Radeon or GeForce, we think the GeForce is the better buy. Not only is it faster than the Radeon, but being based on Nvidia’s brand-new Maxwell GPU architecture, it’s also much more power-efficient. The GeForce GTX 750 Ti doesn’t need an auxiliary power input, either, which could make it suitable as a drop-in upgrade for a pre-built desktop PC with integrated graphics.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Asus Radeon R9 270X $169.99 N/A
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960 $199.99 Dual PCIe power connectors
XFX Radeon R9 285 $209.99

All three of the cards above can run games at 1080p with high or maxed-out detail levels. The fastest two can also handle 2560×1440, though they may not deliver the smoothest possible experience at that resolution.

The GeForce GTX 960 is the most exciting option here by far. For only $200, it performs about as well as the old GTX 770, which was priced at $250 before Nvidia discontinued it. That puts the GTX 960 ahead of pretty much anything else in the same price range. On top of that, the GTX 960 is a good deal more power-efficient than the competition.

If you can’t quite afford a GTX 960, the Radeon R9 270X is a cheaper alternative worth considering. Just keep in mind that you’ll be sacrificing a lot of horsepower for not much money.

As for the Radeon R9 285, that offering matches the GTX 960 in price but not in performance or power-efficiency. It’s not massively slower, but unless you really have a soft spot for AMD, we think you ought to get the GeForce.

Finally, a word about the Radeon R9 280X, which is now available for around the same price as the R9 285. While the R9 280X is the faster of the two by a smidgen, it’s based on older hardware that lacks FreeSync support and AMD’s TrueAudio DSP. If you must have an AMD card, you’ll be better off with the R9 285.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
XFX Radeon R9 290 Double D $274.99 Dual PCIe power connectors
XFX Radeon R9 290X Double D $339.99
MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G $347.99
Gigabyte G1 Gaming GeForce GTX 980 $579.99

These cards should all produce silky smooth frame rates at 2560×1440. They’ll also open the door to 4K gaming—and 4K DSR or 4K VSR on systems with lower-res monitors.

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 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, especially considering it comes with a free game.

There is a catch, though. As we discovered recently, the GeForce GTX 970’s last 0.5GB of memory runs considerably slower than the first 3.5GB. Nvidia says the disparity is intentional and has a negligible impact on performance scaling at high resolutions. The company’s claims jibe with our prior testing, which showed the GTX 970 to be a great performer. However, until we do some more testing to ascertain performance scaling in memory-heavy corner cases, you may want to play it safe and go with one of our other picks. The other three cards listed above all run their entire 4GB of RAM at full speed.

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.

Storage

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

System drive

The system drive is where the operating system, and hopefully most of your games and applications, ought to reside. We’ve included a 1TB mechanical hard drive for budget builds where a two-drive config is usually 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 ones.

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 recommending TLC-based SSDs.

The recommendations below are the most cost-effective options today, but they may not be the best values tomorrow. SSD prices fluctuate a fair bit. Shopping around for discounts is a good idea—just make sure to stick with trusted brands that have proven track records.

Product Price
WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM $54.99
Kingston HyperX 120GB $77.99
Crucial MX100 256GB $94.99
Intel 530 Series 240GB $124.99
Crucial MX100 512GB $189.99
Samsung 850 EVO 1TB $399.99

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 its 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 occupied by Crucial’s MX100 256GB, which is aggressively priced, reasonably fast for the most part, and made by a company with a solid track record for reliability. OCZ’s similarly affordable ARC 100 240GB is also worth a look, since it’s faster than the MX100 overall, especially with sustained and demanding workloads. The ARC 100’s capacity is lower, though, and OCZ has a spotty (though improving) reliability track record. A better high-performance option here is Intel’s 530 Series 240GB, which is covered by a five-year warranty and also does well in 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 deliver solid write speeds. (See our scatter plots for a quick peek at overall performance.) Although it’s not listed above, we should also mention Crucial’s new BX100 500GB, which is both cheaper and faster overall than the MX100 512GB. The BX100 has a slightly lower capacity, however, and it lacks features like hardware encryption.

We’d generally advise getting the highest-capacity SSD you can afford, especially for a gaming build. Many games have voracious appetites for storage. Assassin’s Creed Unity, for example, 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. Samsung’s XP941 256GB is even faster, but it requires a four-lane interface to hit top speed. The M.2 slots in most 9-series Intel boards are limited to dual lanes.

Mass-storage drive

Since SSDs still aren’t capacious enough to take over all storage duties in a desktop PC, it’s a good idea to get a secondary drive for large video files, downloads, personal photos, and the like. In this role, a mechanical drive can be used either by itself or with a twin in a RAID 1 configuration, which will add a layer of fault tolerance.

Product Price
WD Green 4TB $143.00
WD Red 4TB $166.99
WD Black 4TB $224.00
WD Green 6TB $248.99

Based in part on Backblaze’s reliability studies, 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 Backblaze, 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 4TB 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, we’ve included our first 6TB drive: a WD Green model. Like other 6TB mechanical drives out today, this one costs a lot more per gigabyte than 4TB options, so we’d only recommend it for high-capacity NAS systems or small-form-factor PC builds with limited expansion. Note that WD also makes a 6TB Red, but that one has pretty scary user reviews, so you should probably avoid it.

Optical drive

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

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

Asus’ DRW-24B1ST DVD burner has been a staple of our System Guides for quite a while. It costs only 20 bucks, reads and burns both DVDs and CDs, and has a five-star average out of more than 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.

Cases

Choosing a case is kind of a subjective endeavor. We’ve listed some of our favorites below, and we recommend them wholeheartedly. That said, we acknowledge that not everybody will like their look or design as much as we do. To be honest, we don’t mind folks following their hearts on this one—so long as they wind up buying something well-built from a manufacturer with a good 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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Cooler Master N200 $39.99 microATX motherboard
Corsair Carbide Series 200R $59.99 N/A

Cooler Master’s N200 is a small and affordable case designed for microATX motherboards. The N200 is more compact than the microATX Obsidian Series 350D we recommend in our Sweet Spot section, 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.

Meanwhile, Corsair’s Carbide Series 200R has been our favorite budget ATX enclosure ever since we reviewed it last year. The thing is 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.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Corsair Air Series 240 $89.99 microATX motherboard
Corsair Obsidian Series 350D $99.99 microATX motherboard
Corsair Obsidian Series 450D $119.99 N/A
Fractal Design Define R5 $119.99 N/A
Corsair Obsidian Series 750D $149.99 N/A

The latest case to earn our TR Recommended award is Corsair’s Air Series 240, a cuboidal microATX chassis with a dedicated chamber for the power supply, hard drives, and SSDs. Despite its small size, this case is a delight to build in, and its dual-chamber design helps it run cool and quiet. Like the rest of the Corsair cases in this section, the Air 240 also has more intake fans than exhausts. That means positive pressure inside, which should prevent dust from sneaking in through cracks and unfiltered vents.

The Obsidian Series 350D has a more conventional layout, and it’s a little larger than you might expect a microATX case to be. That’s perhaps a good thing, though, because it has almost all of the same amenities as Corsair’s full-sized ATX towers. Don’t like the window? A windowless version is available for $10 less.

Our new favorite mid-range ATX mid-tower is Fractal Design’s Define R5, which we recently graced with our TR Editor’s Choice award. This case doesn’t just look slick and stealthy; it’s also a pleasure to build in, and it has great noise-reduction feature. Fractal Design offers the R5 in black (with or without a window) and titanium (also windowed or non-windowed).

Corsair’s Obsidian Series 450D also fits our idea of a good mid-range ATX case: big, roomy, cool, and with tool-free goodies to spare. It lacks the Define R5’s noise-reduction goodness, though, and its mesh front panel lets more fan noise through than Corsair’s other cases, which have solid front panels with vents around the sides. Still, the 450D is a great enclosure overall, and it earned our TR Recommended award.

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.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Cooler Master Cosmos II $319.99 A forklift

At roughly 14″ x 28″ x 26″, the Cooler Master Cosmos II is humongous. At around $300, it’s also quite expensive. This thing is unarguably impressive, though, with even roomier innards than the 750D and all kinds of premium features, including gull-wing doors, sliding metal covers, and a compartmentalized internal layout. We didn’t give it an Editor’s Choice award by accident.

Power supplies

This should go without saying in this day and age, but we’ll say it anyway: buying a good power supply is a must.

Cheap PSUs can cause all kinds of problems, from poor stability to premature component failures. Also, many cheap units have deceptively inflated wattage ratings. For example, a “500W” bargain-bin PSU might get half of its rating from the 5V rail, which is relatively unimportant, leaving only 250W for the 12V rail, which supplies most power-hungry components like the CPU and GPU. By contrast, quality PSUs derive most of their wattage ratings from the capacity of their 12V rails. That means an el-cheapo 500W unit could be less powerful in practice than a quality 350W PSU.

The power supplies we’ve singled out below are quality units from trustworthy manufacturers who offer at least three years of warranty coverage. You’ll notice that these PSUs all have modular cabling, as well. Going with a non-modular PSU can shave a few bucks off the price of a build, but modular units make 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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Corsair CX430M $54.99 Graphics card must not have

more than one PCIe power connector

Corsair’s CX430M has been our budget PSU of choice for quite some time, and we haven’t found anything much better in this price range. This unit has modular cabling, 80 Plus Bronze certification, a large intake fan that should cool the unit quietly, and three years of warranty coverage. Not only that, but it also has better user reviews than other modular PSUs priced in the same ballpark.

430W of output power should be enough to handle a system based on the other budget components we’ve recommended. If you’re splurging on higher-end parts, however, one of the higher-wattage units below is probably a better bet. Also note that the CX430M has only a single PCIe power connector.

Note that the CX430M seems to be unavailable at Newegg right now. If you can’t find it in stock, Corsair’s CX500M should be a good stand-in.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Seasonic G Series 550W $94.99 N/A
Corsair HX650 $119.99

Seasonic’s G Series 550W power supply looks like one of the nicest PSUs 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 should be a safe bet.

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

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Corsair HX850 $149.99 N/A

Corsair’s HX850 returns as our favored high-end PSU. With an 80 Plus Gold rating, a cornucopia of connectors, and great user reviews, this model leaves little to be desired.

You’ll notice that we’re not recommending 1kW or higher-wattage units here. Those aren’t really necessary to power the kinds of single-GPU builds we’re advocating. The field of 1kW power supplies is also very competitive, with many PSUs from lots of manufacturers striving for supremacy, and we haven’t reviewed many of them. We may revisit this segment in the future, but for now, we feel better-qualified to comment on lower-wattage units.

Miscellaneous

Need a fancy processor cooler or a sound card? You’ve come to the right place. This is where we talk about components that, while not always strictly necessary, can improve a build in very real ways.

Aftermarket CPU coolers

With the exception of the Core i7-5930K, 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.

Product Price
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $34.99
Thermaltake NiC C5 $49.99
Corsair H60 $59.99
Corsair H80i $89.99
Cooler Master Nepton 240M $111.79

As far as entry-level coolers go, it doesn’t get much better than Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 EVO. This is a very popular option with over 6,000 five-star reviews at Newegg. Thermaltake’s NiC C5 has a similar tower-style design, but with more metal, two bundled fans, and the ability to dissipate up to 230W. Just keep in mind that both of these coolers may interfere with tall memory modules.

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 it 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.

If you want to go all out, then there’s always Cooler Master’s Nepton 240M, a humongous 240-mm liquid cooler that earned our TR Recommended award last October. It ain’t cheap, and it won’t even fit in some enclosures, but the Nepton’s cooling capabilities are impressive. Our testing showed the Nepton can cool a 95W processor under load without spinning its fans up. Like the Corsair H60 and H80i, this is a closed-loop unit that’s totally self-contained.

We’ll also insert an honorable mention for Noctua’s NH-U12P, which has a beefy tower-style fin array and dual 120-mm fans. This behemoth costs $80 and is probably the finest air cooler we’ve tested. It performed even better than an older closed-loop liquid cooler from CoolIT in our air vs. water showdown several years back. However, its fin array may be too large to accommodate tall memory modules.

Sound cards

A lot of folks are perfectly content with their motherboard’s integrated audio these days. However, each time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete sound cards wind up sounding noticeably better than integrated audio. That’s with a pair of lowly Sennheiser HD 555 headphones, not some kind of insane audiophile setup.

In other words, if you’re using halfway decent analog headphones or speakers, a sound card is a worthwhile purchase.

It’s fine to stick with motherboard audio if you use digital speakers or USB headphones, since those handle the analog-to-digital conversion themselves. That said, even with digital speakers, the sound cards we recommend below will do things that typical onboard audio cannot, such as surround sound virtualization and real-time Dolby multi-channel encoding.

Product Price
Asus Xonar DSX $53.99
Asus Xonar DX $82.84

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 small price premium.

There are other options out there, including Creative’s 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.

Sample builds

By now, you should have the info you need to configure your own build based on your needs. However, we thought it would be helpful to outline a few sample configs, if only to offer a better sense of the kinds of component pairings one might want to make—or need to make, based on the components’ compatibility requirements. We’ve put together four sample builds: one for each of our main pricing tiers, plus a one-off build just for kicks. These are merely examples of what’s possible, but you’re free to replicate them wholesale if you wish.

Budget build: the Econobox

Component Price
Processor Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition $69.99
Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $34.99
Motherboard MSI Z97 PC Mate $99.99
Memory G.Skill Ares 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $65.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960 $199.99
Storage WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM $54.99
Enclosure Corsair Carbide 200R $59.99
PSU Corsair CX500M $59.99
Total $645.92

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 more than usual on our graphics card, since the GeForce GTX 960 is just too good to pass up. Last, but not least, we made sure to choose an 8GB memory kit, since several new and upcoming AAA games require at least 6GB.

Speaking of games, some may prefer to build this system with an Athlon X4 860K and matching Socket FM2+ motherboard, instead, since a couple of newer titles (Far Cry 4 and Dragon Age: Inquisition) have compatibility problems with dual-core chips like the Pentium. The Athlon is equipped with four cores and shouldn’t experience the same issues. However, the performance of other Kaveri chips tells us the Athlon is likely quite a bit slower than the Pentium in games.

Sweet-spot build: the Nighthawk

Component Price
Processor Core i5-4690K $239.99
Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $34.99
Motherboard Asus Z97-A $144.99
Memory Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600 $119.99
Graphics XFX Radeon R9 290 $274.99
Storage Intel 530 Series 240GB $124.99
WD Green 4TB $143.00
Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner $79.99
Sound card Asus Xonar DSX $53.99
Enclosure Fractal Design Define R5 $119.99
PSU Seasonic G Series 550W $94.99
Total $1,431.90

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 16GB 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 Radeon R9 290, which remains a terrific deal (and untarnished by memory performance controversies). We’ve also got a decent-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. Oh, and the deliciously stealthy Fractal Design Define R5 case.

If I were shopping for a new PC today, this is probably what I would buy. I might splurge for a higher-end PSU like Corsair’s HX750, though, since the Seasonic G Series has only two PCIe power connectors, and it therefore wouldn’t support a potential multi-GPU upgrade.

High-end build: The Maxwellator XXL

Component Price
Processor Core i7-5930K $579.99
Cooler Corsair H80i $89.99
Motherboard Asus X99-A $254.99
Memory Crucial 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2133 $184.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 980 G1 Gaming $579.99
Storage Crucial MX100 512GB $189.99
WD Red 4TB $166.99
WD Red 4TB $166.99
Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner $79.99
Sound card Asus Xonar DX $82.84
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian Series 750D $149.99
PSU Corsair HX850 $149.99
Total $2,676.73

With six cores, 12 threads, 16GB of RAM, and a GeForce GTX 980 primed for 4K goodness (and/or G-Sync), this is about as good as it gets. Heck, this build 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 wonderfully power-efficient GPU. Just because a system is fast doesn’t mean it should be used with earmuffs.

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: mainstream support for Windows 7 ended in January. Windows 8.1 will continue to be supported until at least 2018, if Microsoft doesn’t change its policy.

Now, there are multiple versions of Windows 8.1 available: vanilla, Pro, retail, OEM, 32-bit, and 64-bit. Which one should you get?

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

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

As for Windows 8.1 versus Windows 8.1 Pro, you can compare the two flavors here on Microsoft’s website. Notable Pro features include BitLocker and the ability to host Remote Desktop sessions. Whether those extras are worth the price premium is entirely up to you. Newegg charges $119.99 and $199.99, respectively, for retail versions of Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Pro. Take your pick!

Mobile and peripheral picks

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

What’s next?

Before we go, let’s talk briefly about upcoming hardware releases, so you can make a more informed buying decision.

Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 960, 970, and 980 graphics cards just came out, so they’re safe to buy. On the other hand, the rumor mill suggests AMD plans to refresh its Radeon lineup over the coming months, starting with Radeon R7 360 and 360X offerings (which would likely succeed the current R7 260 and 260X). Some of the rumored Radeons are said to be rebrands of current parts, while others are expected to feature new silicon.

Unofficial reports also suggest that Nvidia is cooking up a faster top-of-the-line GPU based on the Maxwell architecture. That GPU could power new uber-high-end cards priced above the GTX 980. Unless you’re literally made of atom-sized dollar bills, though, that’s probably nothing to worry about.

Still in the realm of graphics, the first Adaptive-Sync and/or FreeSync monitors are due out within the next month or two. They won’t replace anything we recommended today, but if you’re trying to choose between a Radeon and a GeForce, the knowledge that variable-refresh displays compatible with the R9 285 and R9 290 series are just around the corner should factor into your pick.

Finally, on the CPU front, Intel expects to have desktop Broadwell processors out around the middle of the year—and Skylake could follow in late August. AMD is reportedly planning a refresh of its Kaveri APU lineup for June or July, as well, but that refresh may only involve small clock speed increases—nothing to get too excited about.

Comments closed
    • Zenphic
    • 4 years ago

    “Cooler Master’s N200 is a small and affordable case designed for microATX motherboards. The N200 is more compact than the microATX Obsidian Series 350D we recommend in our Sweet Spot section, 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.”

    Actually, asides from the side-panel, nothing in the N200 is tool-less. I just looked it up and I was surprised by this as well.

    For a budget mATX case, I’d personally lean towards either the Fractal Design Core 1300 and 1500. They both have rubber grommets for HDDs, which is certainly nice to muffle vibration noise.

    • sisu
    • 5 years ago

    I cant believe you are recommending the Xonar Series soundcards. I love Asus but these cards have serious dpc latency issues with the vendor drivers.

    Its all over the web which I only found out after I had bought one on recommendation from anandtech. And to be honest the sound was kind of meh, too.

    This will sound like a plug but I am not affiliated with Creative in any way: Soundblaster Z is the first and I think only viable option for an addin soundcard that isnt a total driver disaster in a long long time.

      • MEATLOAF2
      • 5 years ago

      There are drivers available that solve the DPC latency issues, look for UNI Xonar drivers.

      • ronch
      • 5 years ago

      I’ve used only Creative when it comes to add-in sound cards and really, I’ve never come across any driver issues. I’ve gone all the way from the Sound Blaster Pro 2.0, Vibra 16, Live!, Audigy, and X-Fi. I’v only ever used them to play games and the usual MP3 and movies, and sometimes used WaveStudio back in the 90’s. No problems. I don’t use any of their ‘pro’ features if they had them but then again, I suppose one needs to look beyond Creative if that’s your thing.

      Where I live, the Asus Xonar Essence STX can be had for just $145 (Newegg: $180) but the SB Z is more expensive here compared to Newegg (can get it for also $145, Newegg: $99), making the decision a bit more interesting, especially since I’m a fan of both Asus and CT.

    • Coldsnap
    • 5 years ago

    “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”

    Could you link me to these tests? I’d like to read further, thinking about if I want a soundcard. I’m pretty happy with the sound in my Asus Maximus V Gene.

      • ronch
      • 5 years ago

      You’ll never find a consensus. Some people will tell you there’s no difference but some will insist there is an audible difference. I think the speakers or headphones one is using plays a significant part so people are having different opinions on this. Personally, on my LG 2.1 speakers that came as part of a home theater/DVD player package (already ditched the DVD player), I could tell the difference between the Realtek ALC889 and my Sound Blaster Titanium PCIe. The Sound Blaster simply sounds punchier, richer, has better separation, and clearer. Plus, the X-Fi has higher amplitude output (the Realtek needs the speakers to be turned about 3 notches higher up to sound as loud, and yes the software volume slider in Windows was set to about 95% in both cases). That’s not to say the Realtek is bad and I am actually using it instead of the Sound Blaster because I appreciate how it sounds very good for something that’s practically free. People ask me why I don’t just use the X-Fi. I guess I just appreciate the Realtek and I think it delivers 9/10 the performance of the X-Fi.

      Oh, and here’s an article over at Tom’s that says the Realtek ALC889 seems to hold up well against far more expensive solutions out there.

      [url<]http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/high-end-pc-audio,3733-6.html[/url<]

        • MadManOriginal
        • 5 years ago

        So much of sound quality, whether for onboard or a soundcard, depends upon the analog circuit quality, that just looking at parts do not tell you about the whole. I don’t bother worrying about it and just use an external DAC.

          • ronch
          • 5 years ago

          Yup. If motherboards had more room to cram in more analog circuits to clean the signals up, I bet they can rival some good sound cards out there. A better codec could help too. As it is, Realtek is the De facto choice for cheapness and acceptable quality (for most folks, anyway).

            • JustAnEngineer
            • 5 years ago

            Run digital output from your PC to a reasonably-priced home theater receiver (e.g.: a refurbished unit from Club Onkyo). That moves the whole D-to-A conversion process outside of the PC into a higher quality audio device.

            • ronch
            • 5 years ago

            I reckon that’s the route most audiophiles would take. /pun

    • ronch
    • 5 years ago

    That special time when you go home, excited, carrying a big plastic bag full of PC parts… a CPU, motherboard, graphics card, a couple of memory modules (or a dual/triple-channel kit), PSU, chassis SSD, hard drive, an optical drive… one of the best feelings in the world a geek could ever have. Last time I had the privilege was back in Dec. 2012. It’ll be a while before it makes sense for me to do it again.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 5 years ago

      Computer parts come in cardboard boxes via a brown van.

      If you bought a 3.5 GHz Core i7-3770K Ivy Bridge CPU on a motherboard with the Z77 Panther Point chipset in 2012 and you’ve upgraded your GPU recently, you should be okay to wait for Skylake processors to arrive at the end of this year.

      While the 3.4 GHz Core i7-2600K Sandy Bridge CPU that I bought on January 9, 2011 is still an acceptable processor today, the motherboard with the defective Intel P67 Cougar Point chipset had to be replaced with the B3 revision. Haswell does offer about 15% higher performance than Sandy Bridge at the same clock speeds and the Core i7-4790K Haswell CPU defaults to 4.0 GHz (18% faster), so the newer processor provides about 35% better performance. That is enough to be noticeable for CPU-bound tasks. If your application uses the newer AVX2 instructions, it might be 85% faster.

        • ronch
        • 5 years ago

        You forget that the U.S. isn’t the only country in the world. Elsewhere, they may not come in cardboard boxes brought by brown vans.

          • MadManOriginal
          • 5 years ago

          [quote<]the U.S. isn't the only country in the worldthe U.S. isn't the only country in the world[/quote<] LIAR!

    • R2P2
    • 5 years ago

    [quote<]There are other options out there, including Creative's Sound Blaster Z. We finally got one of those in our labs recently[/quote<] This winter is so bad it's even gotten to Hell.

    • WulfTheSaxon
    • 5 years ago

    Note: All the recommended AMD cards have $20 or $30 rebates at the moment.

    • WulfTheSaxon
    • 5 years ago

    I have my doubts about that RAM choice (4 GB 1600 MHz) for an A8-7600 build… I’d think the integrated graphics would be much happier with faster RAM. Something like one of these kits:

    8 GB 1866 MHz for $65: [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820104464[/url<] 8 GB 2133MHz for $75: [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820220853[/url<] I know they’re a big bump in price over the $40 recommendation, but they’re less expensive than upgrading to 8 GB later would be…

    • crabjokeman
    • 5 years ago

    As usual, the budget RAM recommendation doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure why a budget buyer would get Ripjaws RAM when they can get the same thing for $5 cheaper and not be burdened with gimmicky heatspreaders: [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820231396[/url<] Also, if you're going to use integrated graphics and don't care about tall heatspreaders, it would be better to get RAM with extra bandwidth: [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820231419[/url<]

      • WulfTheSaxon
      • 5 years ago

      I agree that the budget RAM recommendation is problematic (at least for an AMD build with integrated graphics), but I actually think it’s better than either of the kits you mention. The first one is only 1333 MHz (and CL9), which is just unacceptable even with a discrete GPU. The second kit is problematic on multiple levels, most of all the non-standard 1.65 V.

      Sadly, it doesn’t look like there are any good options for 4 GB kits higher than 1600 MHz, so see my recommendations in [url=https://techreport.com/discussion/27832/tr-february-2015-system-guide?post=887062<]my other post[/url<] for a couple fast 8 GB kits.

        • JustAnEngineer
        • 5 years ago

        It’s not much of a challenge to find [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/ProductList.aspx?Submit=ENE&N=100007611%208000%20600000285%20600000279%20600000253%20600000261%20600006050%20600006156%20600006158%20600006157%204814%20600006127%20600006142%20600006133%20600006130%20600006066&IsNodeId=1&bop=And&Order=PRICE&PageSize=30<]2x2 GiB of PC3-12800[/url<] at Newegg that doesn't have huge decorative heatspreaders attached. [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820231193<]G.Skill F3-12800CL9D-4GBNQ[/url<] or [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820148542<]Crucial BLS2KIT2G3D1609DS1S00 [/url<] or [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820231319<]G.Skill F3-12800CL9D-4GBECO[/url<] would do the job. However, it just doesn't make sense to spend $43 or $44 for 2x2 GiB when you could get [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/ProductList.aspx?Submit=ENE&N=100007611%208000%20600000285%20600000279%20600000253%20600000261%20600006050%20600006156%20600006158%20600006157%204814%20600006127%20600006142%20600006133%20600006130%20600006069&IsNodeId=1&bop=And&Order=PRICE&PageSize=30<]2x4 GiB of similar memory for $63[/url<].

          • WulfTheSaxon
          • 5 years ago

          (Is this supposed to be a response to me? If so, I said you couldn’t find 4 GB kits [i<]faster[/i<] than 1600 MHz – there are indeed plenty of 4 GB 1600 MHz kits in the $40-$50 price range. But I think the assumption is that you won’t be using a very large heatsink in a budget build, so if you’re going to go with only 4 GB you may as well save a few dollars and get the recommended kit. And you’re right that 8 GB makes more sense – see my other post for a couple 8 GB kits that’d be good in an A8-7600 build.) Thanks for the last Newegg link – it shows a [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820226398<]1.35 V kit[/url<] that's otherwise got the same specs as the 1.5 V 8 GB kit recommended in the article, and is $60 rather than $66. At that price, I can’t really see a reason to go 4 GB at all, no matter what CPU you’re using. A third more for twice the RAM, and 1.35 V thrown in for good measure? Yes please.

    • DPete27
    • 5 years ago

    Is there a list somewhere of motherboards that can overclock the Pentium G3258 Anniversary? I know [url=http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/pentium-g3258-b81-cheap-overclocking,3888.html<]Tom's did it with an el-cheapo $45 H81 mobo.[/url<] I always hesitate in making mobo suggestions for overclocking the G3258 because I'm not fully comfortable with what mobos support OCing this chip. These days the whole "need a Z-series mobo and K-series CPU to overclock" muddies my water.

      • DPete27
      • 5 years ago

      seems like [url=http://forums.anandtech.com/showthread.php?t=2389948<]almost any mobo will do[/url<]

    • SDLeary
    • 5 years ago

    What about options for a mini-ITX build at the economy and standard levels?

    SDLeary

      • K-L-Waster
      • 5 years ago

      There is definitely more interest in SFF builds than there used to be – I second the motion that including some options there would be useful for future guides.

        • Ninjitsu
        • 5 years ago

        Probably should do a cooler roundup or something, too.

    • FuturePastNow
    • 5 years ago

    If I’m thinking of going with an i7 for the Hyperthreading and stock clocks, even if I have no intention of ever overclocking it, I’m guessing the 4790k is still the way to go, correct? Looks like it’s only about $25 more than the cheapest i7.

      • Krogoth
      • 5 years ago

      If you want to get ECC support then you may want to look at Xeon Socket 1150 chips. They are practically the same cost, but they are half-lock like all non-K series Socket 1150 chips.

        • FuturePastNow
        • 5 years ago

        Hadn’t considered those. But I won’t be going the ECC route. Just generally heavy multitasking and non-professional video editing and encoding, plus light gaming (the kind the CPU makes no difference to). Mostly I just build a new PC every 5 years or so and want something that’ll last for the next 5 years.

          • MadManOriginal
          • 5 years ago

          Yes, definitely 4790K rather than another i7 if you don’t want to bother overclocking. The stock clocks on it are the same as an ‘easy’ overclock on other i7’s, and if you are going to keep it for that long and want something around that price point anyway, it’s the best choice.

      • ronch
      • 5 years ago

      The 4790K is a great choice but personally, if I were in your shoes and I can afford to wait a bit longer I’d hold out for Skylake or Zen.

    • StuG
    • 5 years ago

    A lot of your price links in the GPU section take you to a different one then you named, example EVGA 750 Ti takes you to a Zotac product.

    • anotherengineer
    • 5 years ago

    Ummm for the econobox, shouldn’t that be called a gaming econobox??

    *I don’t always buy an economy PC, BUT, when I do, the dedicated graphics card is the most expensive part.*

    😉

    • Anovoca
    • 5 years ago

    Hard to argue with any of your recommendations. Though I will say this much, you guys really need to get your hands on some phanteks cases. They stick to the same design model as most of those corsairs, same price point for their entry level cases, and come with a surprising amount of extras like a PSU cover plate, rubber washers on thumb screws, more rad mounting options, and even some multicolor led controls.

    [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16811854003&cm_re=phanteks-_-11-854-003-_-Product[/url<]

      • derFunkenstein
      • 5 years ago

      I’m looking at this case on Newegg, and I’m curious – what does the PSU cover gain me? Is it just for looks or is there some sort of practical use for it, too? I’m not worried about ventilation, because it’ll vent through the bottom and out the rear, but I’m not quite seeing what it gains me.

        • Anovoca
        • 5 years ago

        mostly looks and a pocket to wind up and store excess cable lengths.

    • Krogoth
    • 5 years ago

    Another solid guide.

    What is funny that how little has changed on the desktop front-end since Ivy Bridge/7 series chipsets (Intro USB 3.0/PCIe 3.0). GPUs got a bit more powerful and more power efficient, but nothing compelling to upgrade unless you got a dated platform.

    Hopefully that’s going to change in the next cycle with shift to discrete SSD cards via PCIe(NVM Express) and SATA Express. There’s also the push for USB 3.1 and Type-C USB3 connectors.

      • Anovoca
      • 5 years ago

      and if the modules ever come down in price ddr4. But as it is now it is a choice between single DIMM and both kidneys or single kidney and Dual-Channel DIMMS

      • DPete27
      • 5 years ago

      Sata-Express will never take off. It was outdated before the spec was released.

        • Krogoth
        • 5 years ago

        I don’t think so.

        SATA-Express was meant to a budget solution that attempts to bridge SATA and PCIe Express. It is the spiritual successor to SATA. It is meant to seamlessly work with existing SATA hardware, M.2 and upcoming SATA Express devices.

        Where NVM Express is just an updated on PCIe Express spec that is friendly for storage needs. It is going to be spritual successor to SCSI.

    • bfar
    • 5 years ago

    I put a core i3 4160 into a mitx living room build for HTPC/gaming/home server purposes. I’m frankly stunned by the performance. There’s no disernable difference between it and my tower cpu, a 2500k@4ghz.

    • ronch
    • 5 years ago

    I recall seeing a slide on the Carrizo article a few days ago saying AMD has been building a long list of power efficiency-related IP for a while now. It’s no secret they’re being beaten up pretty badly when it comes to efficieny in both CPU and GPU arenas by both Intel and Nvidia, respectively. Will they really achieve 25X better efficiency by 2020? I imagine their graphs comparing Carrizo to something as old as Tigris is a bit exaggerated, so it would do themselves a disservice if they keep on skewing their perception of efficiency (if the graphs are exaggerated) if they don’t get honest with their testing. Smaller process nodes obviously also help make chips more efficient but the nodes they’re using are also available to Nvidia and Intel has their own process tech which is currently second to none, so AMD can’t rely solely on their fab partners to make more efficient chips for them that will beat the competition. And of course, Intel and Nvidia can also boast of having moved the efficiency of their products forward by as much, if not more, since 2009 (Tigris is AMD’s laptop platform back in 2009).

    I’ve been an AMD fan since the 386/486 days but right now I’m beginning to open the doors more widely to Intel and Nvidia due to better performance/watt. Performance/dollar is still important but sometimes, I guess paying more for better performance and less power to get there does make sense.

    For the sake of AMD, I really hope they can fix their efficiency issues.

    Edit – Downthumbs? I suppose those folks think AMD generally has terrific energy efficiency.

      • paulWTAMU
      • 5 years ago

      Yep.

      I did wind up going with the 260x because a lot of bookmarks I found had it outperforming the 750ti by a semi-noticeable margin, but it was a close thing. This would have been my first totally not AMD build in ever. They’re hurting right now in terms of performance per watt AND performance per dollar

      • guardianl
      • 5 years ago

      [url=https://techreport.com/review/17618/amd-radeon-hd-5870-graphics-processor/15<]"The 5870 also draws the least power under load. Given its performance, the overall power efficiency is astounding. " Radeon 5870 review @ Techreport[/url<] ATI held the power efficiency lead in GPUs since basically the Rage Pro days, right up to their GCN architecture. GCN was developed so AMD can compete in the compute space (and theoretically) make drivers easier to write and maintain (VLIW ISA's require careful care and feeding - just ask NVIDIA how's that Denver CPU development going...?).

      • K-L-Waster
      • 5 years ago

      [quote<]Downthumbs? I suppose those folks think AMD generally has terrific energy efficiency.[/quote<] For the true believers, none are more anathema than those who leave the faith....

        • ronch
        • 5 years ago

        On the contrary, I’d like AMD to get better. What I dislike are the morons who are within AMD’s walls wrecking havoc from the inside. They need to be brought to the Executioner.

          • K-L-Waster
          • 5 years ago

          [quote<]On the contrary, I'd like AMD to get better. What I dislike are the morons who are within AMD's walls wrecking havoc from the inside. They need to be brought to the Executioner.[/quote<] I figured as much - however, you're also calling AMD out when they aren't getting certain things right. That's probably what's bringing the down thumbs.

            • ronch
            • 5 years ago

            Yeah, some people can’t accept that AMD is doing some (or a lot of) things wrong and can’t stand it when somebody talks about it.

      • Geonerd
      • 5 years ago

      IMO, energy efficiency has become somewhat entrenched into the TR groupthink (with more than a little help from Intel’s ad department). Sure, the FX9xxx series chips are a bit of a joke, but unless you are running a heavy-duty app for long hours each day, the difference between a ~125W and ~50W CPU is trivial. Setting your system’s power saving to a more aggressive level will probably save more power over the course of a day.

        • paulWTAMU
        • 5 years ago

        depends. When you’re talking about 100 watts less under load on a GPU for instance, that gets my attention. 10 or 20 watts? Eh who cares

      • anotherengineer
      • 5 years ago

      The energy efficiency of their cpu/apu is more due to the process vs. intels, than the architecture itself I would guess. Hopefully Samsungs 14nm finfet will work out better for them.

      The graphics cards are comparable to non-maxwell cards.

      Maxwell cards are better in gaming power consumption, and I would say mostly due to the variable voltage/frequency adjustments in 3d load. I would guess AMD could implement the same in their VGA BIOS, but when will they is the question.

        • MathMan
        • 5 years ago

        When you look at the details of Maxwell architextural changes, they all seem to have power efficiency in mind. I don’t know about the DVFS feature, they may well be there as well, but it’s definitely not the only thing that’s saving power compared to Kepler. You don’t gain 2x in power efficiency on the same process at peak performance by playing a bit with frequency and voltage.

          • anotherengineer
          • 5 years ago

          Maybe not, but 1V vs 1.2V is about 20% which is a lot!!

          [url<]http://www.techpowerup.com/reviews/Sapphire/R9_285_Dual-X_OC/29.html[/url<] [url<]https://www.techpowerup.com/reviews/MSI/GTX_970_Gaming/31.html[/url<]

        • nexxcat
        • 5 years ago

        You might be the one who said it, way back when AMD spun off GlobalFoundries, but someone on this site said something to the effect of spinning off the foundries is a mistake, because now the new fab company will only be motivated by keeping up with TSMC and friends, not with Intel. How prescient that was, a few years later, TSMC and friends are nowhere near keeping up with Intel on their processes, with Intel having lapped AMD in the available processes – GlobalFoundries speak of “28 nm process nodes, with roadmaps for sub-20nm”, while Intel is [i<]shipping[/i<] 14 nm process node devices.

          • JustAnEngineer
          • 5 years ago

          AMD’s CPU designs aren’t bad. They’re being fabricated on non-competitive process technology at Global Foundries.

    • LoneWolf15
    • 5 years ago

    Just one note on coolers, with a mind to micro-ATX.

    Recently wanted to upgrade the cooler on the SO’s mATX system. There’s a lot out there that isn’t compatible from a height perspective, and I didn’t want lower profile; I wanted a tower.

    The Thermaltake NiC L31 that I found uses a 120mm fan, and still has low enough clearance (140mm high) to fit in tighter quarters; most towers I found were 155-160mm. It fit in the Lian-Li PC-A04 without being to tall, and it doesn’t obscure any of the four memory sockets. Construction was decent for the price (I paid $35USD), and it brought CPU temperatures down considerably 7C from the Arctic Cooling Freezer 7 Pro I’d been using. The fan is 4-pin PWM, and quiet if you don’t force it to full speed (I have it set to start at 60%, I don’t think it ever goes higher).

    [url<]http://thermaltakeusa.com/Cooling/Air_Cooler_/NiC/C_00002246/NiC_L31/design.htm[/url<]

    • Deanjo
    • 5 years ago

    [quote<]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.[/quote<] 3 years? I don't think so. The 990FX chipset is [i<]identical[/i<] to the 890FX. It's a rebadged chip and the chip debuted in March of 2010. That's nearly [b<]5 years old[/b<] not 3.

      • ronch
      • 5 years ago

      Apart from APUs, AMD has pretty much left its desktop enthusiast product line to rot like an old tomato. And no, the 220w FX SKUs aren’t included. Who are they kidding?

        • K-L-Waster
        • 5 years ago

        To be fair, the enthusiast market alone isn’t large enough to be profitable. Designing, validating, and manufacturing a chip line involves a large amount of up front investment, and it will take x amount of unit sales to get to a break even point. Gamers and enthusiasts alone won’t get you to that point. This is why Intel keeps focusing on performance per watt — it allows a chip architecture to be designed for laptops & servers and still be interesting to enthusiasts. Maxwell from Nvidia is probably based on the same thinking – make a GPU architecture that works in laptops and mini systems so you can amortize the overall design across a much larger group of customers than add-in cards alone.

        Since AMD is resource crunched, they have to pick their battles – it makes sense that they are picking the one that has a chance of actually producing positive revenue.

          • Deanjo
          • 5 years ago

          [quote<]To be fair, the enthusiast market alone isn't large enough to be profitable. [/quote<] That is true, HOWEVER competing in the high end has a trickle down effect. Sure there are a few that will go for the high end but the reputation of being competitive at that high end also brings with it the customers for the lower end. When they talk to their enthusiast friend, they are likely to recommend the brand that they themselves are using. Brand recognition also rises because of this. Even though people may not be looking at the high end for themselves, they will probably look at reviews. If the review is an intel vs AMD high end comparison, most will conclude on their own that AMD is waaaay behind and basically sucks. AMD had great years in the Athlon to X2 era because they were constantly being put head to head with intels offerings and showing that they not only could beat the intels but they also offered greater value.

            • K-L-Waster
            • 5 years ago

            Granted, halo products have a value. You could make a case for saying that on the GPU side the 295x and Nvidia’s Titan line are exactly that, and the same thing with Intel’s Extreme Edition products.

            The thing is, though, that making one only makes sense if either the architecture itself can be leveraged in less expensive products *or* if you can sell the halo product at a high enough premium to offset the upfront costs of bringing it to market in the first place. For example (and I’m just making numbers up here for illustration – no idea if they are close to the reality of introducing a chip line) if it costs $200 Million to introduce an update to the FX line but they will only sell $75 Million to consumers and they can’t share the architecture with other product lines, the overall benefit of having a high perf FX line may not be enough to make it worthwhile.

            And yes, the Athlon X2 line was a good line – I had one myself and was quite happy with it. It wasn’t just a halo product though – it was a successful bread and butter product for AMD that also shared an architecture with the Opteron line.

            • anotherengineer
            • 5 years ago

            “AMD had great years in the Athlon to X2 era because they were constantly being put head to head with intels offerings and showing that they not only could beat the intels but they also offered greater value.”

            And best buy, futureshop and everywhere else were pushing Intel Celerons over A64’s at the time also. And I didn’t see any major design wins for AMD at Dell during that era either.

          • Geonerd
          • 5 years ago

          I don’t even ask for an ‘enthusiast’ chip, just something solidly mainstream. A 4 module Chorizo variant with ~70% of the GPU ‘cores’ yanked would at least be a slight upgrade from my old Thuban.

      • Krogoth
      • 5 years ago

      Intel side isn’t that much better either.

      It took Intel two to three years to update the feature set on their chipset platforms. (X99/Z9x). The crux of problem is that desktop market for mainstream and enthusiast isn’t as profitable or big as it used to be. Intel places more focus on the more lucrative prosumer and portable mainstream platforms.

        • Deanjo
        • 5 years ago

        [quote<]Intel side isn't that much better either. It took Intel two to three years to update the feature set on their chipset platforms. (X99/Z9x). [/quote<] Two to three years is infinitely better than "Haven't in five, was supposed to in two but then changed their minds and have no intentions to" [url<]http://www.tomshardware.com/news/AMD-1090FX-1070-SB1060-pcie-3,13918.html[/url<]

          • Krogoth
          • 5 years ago

          It is because AMD doesn’t have the capital and mindshare to throw around to chase fading markets.

          Somewhat related and Intel is also on the same wagon.

          [url<]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=62kxPyNZF3Q[/url<]

    • joyzbuzz
    • 5 years ago

    Suggest recommending an external USB powered DVD/Blu-Ray drive instead of an internal drive. Totally portable, can be used with any computer and the price difference is negligible.

    Similar argument applies to a USB 3.0 powered external 2.5″ 1TB HDD. This is also an awesome solution to allow playing your Steam account games on the computer of your choice. Install Last Pass portable on the drive and you can safely log into your e-mail account to get the Steam ‘playing on an unfamiliar computer’ verification code.

      • HisDivineOrder
      • 5 years ago

      Agree with the USB optical drive recommendation unless you’re playing blu-ray’s all the time because your PC is your blu-ray player. In that scenario, I can see perhaps wanting a blu-ray optical drive to be internal.

      If you’re just using it to install games/programs very rarely, a USB optical drive is probably the better investment because a lot of cases do far better by users by dumping those 5.25″ bays.

    • HERETIC
    • 5 years ago

    Cyril-Why do you persist in picking crap PSU for budget???
    I’m sure Seasonic G360 would be in price range and has
    better quality components and build quality-All Japanese
    capacitors instead of Chinese in the Corsair,and longer warranty.

    Be nice to your components-Use a quality power supply………….

      • Cyril
      • 5 years ago

      Find me a sub-$60 PSU from a reputable vendor with a) modular or semi-modular cabling, b) 80 Plus certification, and c) a lower percentage of one-star Newegg reviews than the Corsair CX430M, and I’ll happily change the rec.

        • Deanjo
        • 5 years ago

        With the exception of being modular (which I personally despise) I believe he did. I’d rather have a Gold rated power supply with better components than modular cables.

          • guardianl
          • 5 years ago

          [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817151074&cm_re=seasonic-_-17-151-074-_-Product<]Seasonic S12II $59.99[/url<] Better reviews, and we'll say it's partially modular because the power cord can be removed...

          • crystall
          • 5 years ago

          I wholeheartedly agree. Quality components are far more important than modular cables. When a PSU dies it can bring along your motherboard, CPU and other components too so I’d rather have a quality one that is slightly less convenient during a build than one with a higher chance of failing and wreaking havoc.

          • Anovoca
          • 5 years ago

          yep, modular cables are a luxury and one that, if you are using a budget case with bad cable management routing to begin with or that doesn’t have a window, is for the most part pointless.

            • travbrad
            • 5 years ago

            Yep or if you are like me (with 6 drives and 5 case fans in your PC) and you use most of the cables that come with a PSU regardless of whether it’s modular or not. The only 2 (out of 12 total) cables I’m not using on my current modular PSU are the ones meant for an extra GPU, so it hasn’t exactly saved me a ton of space inside my case.

            It’s a nice feature to have, but I care about the general quality of the PSU a lot more than whether it’s modular. And yeah, a decent case can hide a lot of those cables anyway. Even a lot of pretty cheap cases now have good cable routing.

        • GeForce6200
        • 5 years ago

        While do agree that the CX430M is a great PSU. Without the rebates it had months ago that brought the price down I think there are better alternatives. How about this ATNG built Rosewill GOLD 500 watt? [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817182329[/url<]

          • HERETIC
          • 5 years ago

          No proper reviews out yet on that model-But in general I find Rosewill and ATNG
          to be hit and miss-some good units some not so-and being in house budget models
          they tend to use too many chinese capacitors-which is a pet hate of mine in PSU’s…..

            • Anovoca
            • 5 years ago

            my experience with Rosewill is pretty similar. I find they have too much vibration due to how cheaply they are made. Some units are great but some just add a massive amount of noise to the build. A good case can counter this problem, but if you are using such a case then I would question why you didn’t get a better PSU.

        • MadManOriginal
        • 5 years ago

        1) Go to Newegg.com
        2) Filter PSUs by Manufacturer: Seasonic and other desired criteria
        3) ?????
        4) Profit with the peace of mind and longevity

        I know you guys want to hit price points in the builds (and Corsair gives TR free test gear) but a PSU is the last thing to save a few ten spots on.

        • HERETIC
        • 5 years ago

        a)If my choice at a given budget is modular or a higher quality PSU I know
        what I’m picking………..
        I don’t find modular as important on small PSU’s as there’s not a lot that
        don’t get used…..
        b)Most bronze PSU’s are generally very old design group regulated.
        I generally recommend DC-DC regulated PSU’s as they are superior and
        are usually Gold or Platinum rated.
        c)When i have to rely on Newegg reviews I’ll stop writing this shit…………
        Comparing a Corsair 430 to a Seasonic G360 is like comparing a datsun
        to a BMW…………………………………..

        Never compromise on your PSU…………..

        Thanks for the backup support guys…………

        • homerdog
        • 5 years ago

        EVGA 500 B
        [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817438012&ignorebbr=1[/url<] Best budget PSU on the market. It's not modular though.

          • HERETIC
          • 5 years ago

          Yakapo bought a better PSU at half the price…………..
          The Evga uses Chinese capacitors-pet hate in PSU’s….

        • anotherengineer
        • 5 years ago

        um

        “a lower percentage of one-star Newegg reviews ”

        I have seen people give 1 egg reviews on newegg for shipping taking too long, bad packaging, cost too much, it didn’t make them breakfast, etc. etc.

        Reviews might be a good reference, for a general idea of a product, but should be taken with a [url<]http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_IKVnmdIpTUw/TErJI3El2HI/AAAAAAAACI8/GwcAGeOqclI/s1600/003.JPG[/url<]

          • derFunkenstein
          • 5 years ago

          Yeah, the 1-star reviews really need to be looked over. Sucks that people can’t tell the difference between the seller and the item to be sold.

      • yakapo
      • 5 years ago

      I just bought the XFX 550w for $25 after rebate. I think it’s $50 full price?
      Not modular but japanese caps. It’s a seasonic rebrand. Probably junk by standards here but to me, it’s the best bang for the buck.

      For the past 7 years or so I was using a 430w psu that came with cheap antec case. I finally decided to replace it when usb would fail if the cpu was overclocked. I think I bought it when the core2duo was released.

        • HERETIC
        • 5 years ago

        Most definitely NOT junk-Seasonic don’t make junk.
        Better quality than the corsair and half the price……
        Only quirk I’ve come across with Seasonic is they sometimes have
        some coil whine…………………………

    • weeeeeeee
    • 5 years ago

    good article but i am waiting on the apple iMac buyers guide

    – weeeeeeeeee

      • chuckula
      • 5 years ago

      [url=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hg1dQ0sBsqk<]Reviews and Strife Reviews and Strife Reviews and Strife![/url<]

        • Airmantharp
        • 5 years ago

        I’ve missed that.

      • Deanjo
      • 5 years ago

      Apple buyers guide:

      Go to Apple.com
      Select Store
      Select Product and then click Buy now
      Select all options
      Press Checkout.

      Sellers Guide for used Apple Equipment

      Post on Kijiji with this formula
      If model is still current, discount 5% from retail
      If model is 1-3 years old, discount 10% from original selling price
      If model is 4-6 years old, discount 15% from original selling price
      If model is > 6 years old, put the work “classic” in item description and mark up 10% from original selling price.

      If the rules are followed, you should be able to sell your Apple product within a day.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 5 years ago

    Inb4 OMG GTX 970 RECOMMENDATION?!

    • sschaem
    • 5 years ago

    I wonder how many other studios are going to take the same route and simply 4 HW thread in the future….

    And something I didn’t think before

    Intel Core i7-4790K : ~$330
    I7-5820k ~$380

    50% more CPU core for $50…. seem like a good deal.
    (Even so the base clock is lower since both are unlocked)

      • guardianl
      • 5 years ago

      Yup, the X99 platform with 5820k is the best enthusiast platform since X58 and the i7 920. DDR4 prices are a little bit of a negative but if you can live with 16GB for $200, it doesn’t change the value proposition much.

      I’ll go out on a limb and say that X99 will be a very long lived platform, because unless AMD’s Zen is a miracle (ha!) single thread performance is pretty much at the end of the road, and Intel won’t be upping the mainstream core count anytime soon (can’t risk hurting Xeon’s juicy margins).

        • Krogoth
        • 5 years ago

        5820k isn’t really that hot. It is for a workstation platform on a budget. You get more CPU cores than regular Haswell offerings, but you lose out on having less PCIe 3.0 lanes which may hurt it down the road if you want to invest in PCIe SSD cards.

        If you are into gaming and running mainstream applications then just stick with 4670K. You get the same practical performance for less $$$$.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 5 years ago

          Running SLI on PCIe 3.0 8+8 configuration is not a detriment to performance. If you’re planning on spending $2000 on a PC, why limit it to what you need right now?

            • Krogoth
            • 5 years ago

            It is nothing to do with SLI/CF. The 5820’s crippled PCIe controller cripples its future potential if you want to start using SSD PCIe cards other non-graphical PCIe devices.

            If you want to game then get a 4670K and a decent Z97 board(has the same amount of PCIe lanes as 5820K) for $300 less than what would have to spend if you want to go with a 5820K. The extra two cores on 5820K get wasted for mainstream and gaming applications which only use up to four threads.

            Again, 5820K is a workstation-tier solution for people on a budget that need more CPU power than normal Haswells, but other Haswell-E chips are too much.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 5 years ago

            Just how many PCIe lanes do you expect to be devoted to storage? Currently the fastest storage solutions on the planet are made by Apple and they basically saturate x4 PCIe 2.0. That’s the 512GB and 1TB options available on the Mac Pro/MacBook Pro. There’s a fascinating thread on MacRumors where people are buying them on eBay and using a $10 adapter from China to use them as boot volumes in Bloomfield and Gulftown Mac Pros. Apparently machines 5 years old can do it. The X99 chipset has lanes enough for that along with dual gigabit LAN and audio. And you haven’t even touched the CPU’s PCIe 3.0 lanes yet. 3.0 has double the bandwidth of 2.0. 2 of those 3.0 lanes is 2GB/sec.

            • Krogoth
            • 5 years ago

            For prosumers, the demand for more I/O is constant and I didn’t even mention GPGPUs where having more PCIe bandwidth is king (Yes, there’s a difference between 8x and 16x here).

            5820K’s 28 PCIe lanes will come to bite it if you intend on keeping the system for the long haul.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 5 years ago

            Tell that to the cryptominers. They managed to saturate GPUs with just an x1 or x2 link, with multiple cards sharing the same bus.

            • Krogoth
            • 5 years ago

            Cryptomining isn’t I/O bandwidth depended unlike a large number of other real-world GPGPU applications that prosumers use.

            Cryptomining is all about FPU performance and GPGPU are just highly scaled-up, specialized FPUs, so it is no surprise that you get anyway with a 1x PCIe link.

            • guardianl
            • 5 years ago

            >> … decent Z97 board(has the same amount of PCIe lanes as 5820K)

            [b<]Factual correction:[/b<] X99 with 5820k has 28 PCI-e 3.0 lanes (plus 8x 2.0 lanes via PCH). Z97 has 16 PCI-E 3.0 lanes. AKA 50% more lanes with the 5820k. By default you can run the 5820k with x16 for graphics, and x8 for a second GPU and x4 for an Ultra PCI-E SSD slot.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 5 years ago

            Your math is awful (but actually works in your favor). It’s a difference of 12 lanes, which is a 75% increase on the number of PCIe 3.0 lanes.

            • guardianl
            • 5 years ago

            Thanks for pointing out my basic arithmetic failure. The scary part is I get paid a lot for my applied math skills… :-O

            • derFunkenstein
            • 5 years ago

            Re-reading my comment I was overly-harsh, so I apologize.

      • Kurotetsu
      • 5 years ago

      The CPU may not be much more but the motherboard and RAM are. I’d considered an X99 build myself and the cost of the latter two components just made that unrealistic.

        • Airmantharp
        • 5 years ago

        Which is why you don’t spend another $200 for PCIe lanes by going with the 5930K 😀

      • Ninjitsu
      • 5 years ago

      I’ve been saying that for the last two system guides, TR seems pretty convinced otherwise. I wish they’d actually test and see how much of a difference it makes, and under what circumstances.

      I think for an affordable gaming workstation, the 5820K is much better choice than the options on either side.

        • Krogoth
        • 5 years ago

        It doesn’t make sense for fiscal sense for gaming needs, because the extra cores go to waste and you just end-up spending a $300+ premium on DDR4 and X99 board over a standard Haswell/Z97 solution which yields the same gaming performance.

        5820K makes fiscal sense if you need something more powerful than a standard Haswell, but you don’t need tons of PCIe expandability.

        • JustAnEngineer
        • 5 years ago

        [quote=”Ninjitsu”<] I wish that [i<]Tech Report[/i<] would actually test and see how much of a difference [i<]the PCIe connectivity difference between the $390 Core i7-5820K and the $582 Core i7-5830K[/i<] makes, and under what circumstances. [/quote<] +3. Who else would we trust to tell us the actual performance differences between Core i7-5820K, Core i7-5830K and Core i7-4790K?

    • Firestarter
    • 5 years ago

    No mention of the free upgrade to Windows 10 regardless of whether you’re on 7 or 8.1?

      • Ninjitsu
      • 5 years ago

      I think that shouldn’t be mentioned until it’s confirmed beyond doubt. Still no clarity on retail copies…

    • guardianl
    • 5 years ago

    “WOW, IS IT ALMOST MARCH ALREADY?”

    My heart skipped a beat thinking you had let SSK write the guide until I saw the author tag. Whew, scary moment!

      • sweatshopking
      • 5 years ago

      SKIPPED A BEAT WITH PASSION?!?

        • paulWTAMU
        • 5 years ago

        does disgust and horror count as passion?

      • ronch
      • 5 years ago

      Platinum Membership benefits.

    • tsk
    • 5 years ago

    Good read.

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