Spring is in the air. Birds are singing, the sun is shining, flowers are blooming, and it’s time for a brand-new edition of our System Guide.
For the most part, the hardware landscape has remained stable since our last look in February. But prices have fallen on a lot of our picks, which has allowed us to spec systems with incredible bang for the buck. We’re quite alright with that.
This time around, we’re including a solid-state drive in our budget build. Prices on SSDs have dropped enough that we think it’s no longer necessary to leave one out of our cheapest system. Everybody should be able to share in the performance gains an SSD brings to the table.
We’ve also added a new system, the All-Rounder, to our sample builds. This box fills the gap between the sub-$700 price point of our budget build and the $1,500-or-so Sweet Spot system, now called the Sweeter Spot. In turn, the Sweeter Spot is a more overclocking-focused build for those who want to wring the most out of their systems.
Rules of the road
The System Guide is our list of recommended parts for building a new PC. If you’ve never built a PC before and want to, that’s great. Just be sure to read through our guide to building a PC, or kick back and watch the handy video below, before proceeding.
In the following pages, we’ll discuss our picks for the critical components that make up a PC, including processors, motherboards, memory, graphics cards, storage, cases, and power supplies. We’ve picked parts to fit budgets of all sizes, without compromising on quality or performance. Those picks are divided into three categories: budget, sweet spot, and high end.
Our budget picks will get you up and running with solid components that won’t break the bank. Stepping up to our Sweet Spot parts gets you even more bang for your buck. At the high end, we’ve chosen parts that represent the pinnacle of performance, without falling into the trap of spending money for its own sake.
Each part will have a link to a TR review where possible. We also include a “notable needs” section for each item with any critical information that you need to know before putting together a parts list. Finally, we’ve put together some sample builds if you have no idea where to start.
Our guides are sponsored by Newegg, so we’ll be using links to their product pages throughout this article. You can (and should!) support TR by using these links to purchase the products we recommend. If Newegg doesn’t stock an item we like, we’ll link to other resellers as needed. Our thanks to Newegg for their continued support.
Looking for recommendations for a monitor, keyboard, or mouse? We’ve split our picks for those parts into a separate peripheral guide, which we revised just recently. Head over and check it out.
We’ll be blunt here: the name of the game in CPUs right now is Intel. Dollar for dollar, and by almost any measure, the blue team’s processors are simply better than the AMD competition. Whatever your budget, we strongly recommend that you build your PC around an Intel chip. That said, we have made exceptions for two of AMD’s processors: the A8-7600 and Athlon X4 860K. These sub-$100 CPUs might make sense for some systems.
You may be tempted by AMD’s FX-series CPUs, like the FX-8350. These chips pack a lot of cores at high clock speeds, often at cheaper prices than Intel’s. We don’t recommend them, though. In lightly threaded workloads, which are the most common for desktop systems, the stronger per-thread performance of Intel CPUs gives them an undeniable performance advantage. They also consume less power and throw off less heat than comparable AMD silicon.
|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||$77.99||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 overclocked ours from 3.2GHz to 4.8GHz. At that frequency, the Pentium can keep up with more expensive quad-core chips in all but the most heavily multithreaded apps. It’s quite capable in games, too. At only $70, this chip is an outstanding value if you’re willing to turn up the clocks yourself.
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 Intel’s Core i3-4160.
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. It’ll also appear as a quad-core CPU to games that require one. 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.
Among AMD’s current APUs, the A8-7600 is probably the best bargain. It’s almost as fast as the more expensive A10-7800, and it has the same ability to lower its TDP to 45W when paired with the right motherboard. That thermal envelope is even lower than the Core i3-4160’s 54W rating. The A8-7600 also boasts faster integrated graphics than the Intel competition. If you’re building a system that needs a lot of graphics power, and you don’t have room for a discrete graphics card, the A8-7600 might make sense.
The Athlon X4 860K is essentially a range-topping A10-7850K “Kaveri” APU with its integrated graphics disabled. Those looking for a budget overclocking build can take advantage of the 860K’s unlocked multiplier, and its four native cores will play well with games that care. The downside is that Kaveri chips are still handily outperformed by Intel CPUs, and I can personally attest that overclocking the A10-7850K doesn’t close the gap much. If overclocking on a budget is something you want to try, we strongly recommend the Pentium Anniversary Edition instead.
|Intel Core i5-4590||$199.99||LGA1150 motherboard|
|Intel Core i5-4690K||$214.99||LGA1150 motherboard,
Z97 chipset for overclocking
|Intel Core i7-4790K||$309.99|
The processors in this segment of the market all have four fast cores. 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 i5-4590 belongs to the Haswell Refresh CPU lineup. If you’re not planning to overclock, its 3.3GHz base and 3.7GHz Turbo clocks are plenty fast for most people. The only things it lacks are Hyper-Threading and an unlocked multiplier for overclocking.
If you want the freedom to tweak, you’ll need to step up to the Core i5-4690K or the Core i7-4790K, which are Devil’s Canyon parts. The Core i5-4690K has a 3.5GHz base clock with a 3.9GHz Turbo peak, while the top-of-the-line i7-4790K adds Hyper-Threading and turns up the clocks to 4.0GHz base and 4.4GHz Turbo.
Devil’s Canyon chips are 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 we overclocked our sample, but Intel thinks the new TIM allows truly exceptional examples of these CPUs to hit even higher speeds.
Compared to the first K-series Haswell processors, Devil’s Canyon chips have higher stock clocks, 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.
|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 Intel’s lesser quad-core parts. 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.
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. We think Asus boards have 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. Overall, an Asus board should offer the most polished experience of the lot.
- Gigabyte has the best firmware UI of the bunch, though its auto-overclocking intelligence and Windows software aren’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.
We’re featuring 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 full-size ATX boards in order to save a few inches of vertical space. Since few gaming rigs need more than two or three expansion slots, going microATX is a nice way to build a smaller PC without losing too much expansion capacity.
|Gigabyte F2A88XM-D3H||$69.99||AMD Socket FM2+ processor,
microATX or ATX case
|MSI Z97 PC Mate||$99.99||Intel LGA1150 processor, ATX case|
|MSI Z97M-G43||$111.00||Intel LGA1150 processor,
microATX or ATX case
|Asus H97M-E/CSM||$92.24||Intel LGA1150 processor,
microATX or ATX case
|Asus H97-Plus||$101.25||Intel LGA1150 processor, ATX case|
Gigabyte’s F2A88XM-D3H is our pick if you’re building with an AMD CPU. This board is based on the A88X chipset, which supports RAID arrays for SATA drives and configurable TDPs for certain processors, including the A8-7600. Gigabyte packs a decent set of features into this board’s compact microATX form factor, and the user reviews are largely positive.
If you’re considering a budget overclocking build based on Intel’s Pentium G3258, you’ll need a board with Intel’s Z97 chipset. We have a couple affordable options here. MSI’s Z97M-G43 is a microATX option with niceties like optical S/PDIF audio output, an M.2 slot, and two four-pin system fan headers—perfect for a microATX case. If you want to save a few bucks or gain additional expansion capacity, MSI’s Z97 PC Mate offers a full ATX layout with more slots but fewer features.
For non-overclocked builds, pick up an H97 board. They cost a little less than the Z97 alternatives, and they have almost all of the same stuff (aside from overclocking and multi-GPU support). Although H97 mobos from both Asus and ASRock allow multiplier overclocking in defiance of official restrictions, the workaround isn’t endorsed by Intel, and it may not survive future firmware updates. We don’t think the risk is worth it, especially when Z97 boards are only a hair more expensive.
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 slots. The H97-Plus’ integrated audio is also insulated from the rest of the board’s 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.)
|Gigabyte GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5||$109.99||Intel LGA1150 processor,
microATX or ATX case
|ASRock Z97 Extreme3||$115.99||LGA1150 processor, ATX case|
|Asus Z97-A/USB 3.1||$169.99||LGA1150 processor, ATX case|
Adding a few bucks to the budget gets us into fancier Z97 territory. Our favorite right now is Asus’ Z97-A/USB 3.1, a feature-packed and reasonably priced board with next-generation USB 3.1 ports. The Z97-A/USB 3.1 is also 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 of the original, USB 3.0 version for all the details. If USB 3.1 isn’t important to you, the standard Z97-A is $30 less. We think the next-gen connectivity is worth the extra cost.
The Asus Z97-A
If the Z97-A/USB 3.1 or its USB 3.0 predecessor are too expensive, check out the ASRock Z97 Extreme3. It’s not quite as fancy as either Z97-A—most notably, it lacks M.2 support—but it still delivers everything else one might need in a board of this caliber, including SLI support and an Intel NIC. The ATX layout also lets you gang up multiple graphics cards while still leaving room for expansion cards, something the microATX motherboard below can’t do.
Those 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. It features a premium Realtek ALC1150 audio codec, too. This board is actually so cheap right now that it might make more sense than our budget Z97 picks. There’s no guarantee that the discounted price will last, though. Be sure to check before dropping this mobo into your cart.
|Asus X99-A/USB 3.1||$269.99||Intel 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 X99 favorite is the Asus X99-A/USB 3.1, an updated version of the TR Recommended X99-A. As its name implies, the USB 3.1 variant adds a couple of the next-generation USB ports to the rear I/O cluster. Expansion options are plentiful otherwise, and our X99-A sample proved to be a capable overclocking platform for our Haswell-E CPU. We think this board is so good that there’s no need to spend hundreds more on fancier X99 options unless they have specific features you require.
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.
Memory prices are down since February, mostly for kits with 8GB or more. Given the modest premium attached to 8GB kits, it’s difficult to recommend only 4GB of RAM.
|G.Skill 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600||$36.99|
This G.Skill 4GB kit is fine for budget builds. It has tight latencies, standard-height heat spreaders, and loads of positive user reviews.
While 4GB might be all some builders can afford, we recommend stepping up to 8GB for $20 more. The minimum system requirements for Assassin’s Creed Unity, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Watch Dogs, and Batman: Arkham Knight all call for at least 6GB of RAM. The number of titles with similar memory requirements is only likely to grow in the future.
|Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$56.99|
|Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600||$104.99|
|G.Skill Trident X 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-2400||$139.99|
|Crucial Ballistix Sport 32GB (4x8GB) DDR3-1600||$219.99|
|G.Skill Trident X 32GB (4x8GB) DDR3-2400||$284.99|
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, photographers, and videographers might feel compelled to spring for a 16GB or 32GB kit, but 8GB rarely causes bottlenecks for most. For basic DDR3-1600, we’re going with Crucial Ballistix kits with standard heat spreaders.
|Crucial 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2133||$149.99||Haswell-E processor,
|G.Skill Value 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2400||$159.99|
|Crucial 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2133||$299.99|
|HyperX Fury 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2666||$354.99|
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 that we could find from a big-name vendor. They don’t have giant heatspreaders to interfere with a large air cooler, and they’re covered by lifetime warranties.
Some might not like the idea of plain green DIMMs in a truly high-end system built around Haswell-E. If that bothers you, check out the G.Skill and HyperX kits we’ve listed. These boast blacked-out circuit boards, higher speeds, and in the case of the HyperX kit, tasteful heat spreaders.
Not building a gaming PC? Feel free to skip this page—unless you’re getting a Haswell-E processor or the Athlon X4 860K. Those lack integrated graphics.
The graphics card picture hasn’t changed much since our last guide. Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 960 is still the strongest player at $200, while prices for AMD’s Radeon R9 290 and 290X cards continue to bracket those for the GeForce GTX 970. There was a major outcry earlier in the year about the way the GTX 970 manages its last half-gigabyte of RAM, but that scandal doesn’t seem to have tarnished the card in the long term. We think the GTX 970 is still a great performer, and we’re continuing to recommend it.
Displays with Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync variable-refresh-rate tech are becoming more widely available, and we featured a few in our latest peripheral guide. Both of these technologies allow displays to sync up their refresh cycles with the in-game frame rate, making for smooth, tear-free animation with no performance hit. The effect is totally worth it.
All of the GeForce cards we recommend work with G-Sync, and all of our Radeon picks support FreeSync. If you choose to buy an AMD graphics card that we don’t recommend, be aware that FreeSync only works with Radeon R7 260, R9 285, and R9 290-series cards.
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 our recommendations are based on three criteria: the vendor, the type of cooler, and the core and memory clock speeds.
We favor major vendors known for decent service, and we emphasized quiet coolers (especially dual- and triple-fan solutions) and higher-than-normal clock speeds (provided they didn’t carry too high a price premium). The cards you see below may not be the absolute cheapest of their kind, but they are the ones we’d buy for ourselves.
Oh, and one last thing: some of the motherboards we recommend support multi-GPU configurations, but we wouldn’t advise building a multi-GPU setup unless you absolutely must. Multi-GPU configs open up a whole can of worms, with occasionally iffy driver support for new games and potential microstuttering issues. There’s a heat, power, and noise cost involved, too. We’ve found that it’s almost always preferable to buy a faster single-GPU solution, if one is available, than to double up on GPUs.
|Sapphire Radeon R7 260X 2GB||$119.99||N/A|
|Zotac 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 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.
|MSI Radeon R9 270X||$164.99||N/A|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960||$199.99||Dual PCIe power connectors|
|MSI Radeon R9 285||$229.99|
All three of the cards above can run games at 1080p with high or maxed-out detail levels. The fastest two can also handle resolutions up to 2560×1440, though they may not deliver the smoothest possible experience there.
The GeForce GTX 960 remains the most compelling GPU in this price range. For only $200, it performs about as well as the old GTX 770, which was priced at $250 before Nvidia discontinued it. On top of that, it’s a good deal more power-efficient than the competition. Our Gigabyte pick features an excellent twin-fan cooler that’s both effective and quiet.
The Radeon R9 285 matches the GTX 960’s price, but not its 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.
If you’re considering the Radeon R9 285, you might also be thinking about the R9 280X. While the 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.
|MSI Radeon R9 290||$289.99||Dual PCIe power connectors|
|Sapphire Radeon R9 290X||$319.99|
|MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G||$329.99|
|Gigabyte G1 Gaming GeForce GTX 980||$549.99|
Competitively speaking, the MSI Radeon R9 290 and Sapphire Radeon R9 290X bookend the MSI GeForce GTX 970. The 290 is slightly slower than the GTX 970, while the 290X is a little faster. That doesn’t tell the whole story, though. The GeForce GTX 970 is way, way more power-efficient than its Radeon adversaries. 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 4G to the point that it outperformed a reference GeForce GTX 980. Pretty amazing for a $330 card.
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.)
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. This time around, we’re also looking at a pair of PCIe drives, for those who need face-melting storage performance.
The system drive is where the operating system and 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, but the rest of our recommendations are solid-state drives. Budget buyers may not be able to afford an SSD, but everyone else should spring for one and grab an auxiliary mechanical drive for their mass-storage needs. Solid-state drives probably offer the single most noticeable performance improvement you can buy in modern PCs.
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.
If you’re concerned about the write endurance of SSDs, the final results of our SSD Endurance Experiment should put those worries to rest. Our test subjects handled hundreds of terabytes of writes at a minimum, while our champion, the Samsung 840 Pro, held up to an incredible 2.4 petabytes of writes before giving up the ghost. Most consumers will never come anywhere close to writing that much data.
The recommendations below are the most cost-effective options today, but they may not be the best values tomorrow. SSD prices fluctuate a fair bit. Shopping around for discounts is a good idea—just make sure to stick with trusted brands that have proven track records.
|WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM||$54.99|
|Mushkin Enhanced Eco2 120GB||$54.99|
|Crucial BX100 250GB||$99.99|
|Intel 530 Series 240GB||$124.99|
|Crucial BX100 500GB||$199.99|
|Crucial MX200 500GB||$209.99|
|Crucial M500 960GB||$309.99|
|Crucial BX100 1TB||$379.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 1TB||$399.99|
Can’t afford an SSD or auxiliary mechanical storage? Then the WD Blue 1TB will do just fine. It has a fast 7,200-RPM spindle speed, and its 1TB capacity is more than enough to handle both system and mass-storage needs.
We’re leaving a 120GB solid-state drive in our picks for now, but we really think you ought to consider a 240-256GB drive at minimum, especially if you plan to keep games on it. Modern titles can easily gobble 50GB to 60GB each, and it’s no fun to shuffle games on and off an SSD. If stepping up isn’t an option, or your storage needs are modest, the Mushkin Enhanced Eco2 120GB is a good choice.
The 250GB version of the BX100 is our pick for that midrange sweet spot. It’s aggressively priced, reasonably fast, and made by a company with a solid track record for reliability. A higher-performance option here is Intel’s 530 Series 240GB, which performs well in sustained workloads and comes with a longer five-year warranty. The 530 Series drive can also accelerate disk encryption in hardware, a feature the BX100 lacks.
At the 480-512GB tier, we’re tapping another pair of Crucial drives: the BX100 500GB and MX200 500GB. The BX100 should be your pick if budget is a concern, while the MX200 adds premium features like hardware-accelerated encryption and RAID-like protection against physical flash failures. Overall performance is similar, so the differences comes down to those features—and $10.
For those who need a lot of flash-based storage space, life is pretty interesting right now. Crucial’s M500 960GB is getting up in years, but the price is hard to argue. For about $300, you get lots of space, encryption acceleration, and solid performance. There’s no telling how long that deal will last, though.
If the M500 sells out, the Crucial’s BX100 1TB is a decent substitute, though lacks premium features and costs $80 more. Another option is Samsung’s 850 EVO 1TB. Along with AES encryption mojo, this drive offers excellent performance, a five-year warranty, and a high endurance rating.
PCI Express SSDs
Intel’s 750 Series solid-state drives are monster performers descended from datacenter-class hardware. They leave the pokey SATA 6Gbps interface behind for four lanes of blazing-fast PCIe 3.0 connectivity, and they ditch the old AHCI protocol for NVM Express. The real challenge is finding destop workloads that can take advantage of the performance on tap.
|Intel 750 Series SSD 400GB||$409.99|
|Intel 750 Series SSD 1.2TB||$1094.99|
Compared to other consumer-grade PCIe drives, the 750 Series offers wicked-fast sequential speeds and substantially higher random I/O rates. You get robust power-loss protection, too, plus a five-year warranty and a high endurance rating. Just keep in mind that the add-in cards we’re recommending require full-sized expansion slots with Gen3 connectivity. Intel also makes a 2.5″ version with a cabled PCIe connection, but motherboards don’t support it natively yet.
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. (Remember that RAID is not backup, though.)
|WD Green 4TB||$139.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$165.99|
|WD Black 4TB||$211.99|
|WD Green 6TB||$248.99|
Based in part on Backblaze’s reliability studies, which showed higher failure rates for Seagate drives, we’re continuing to recommend Western Digital hard drives for this edition of the System Guide. Hitachi drives did even better than WD’s, according to Backblaze, but they seem to have poorer Newegg reviews, so we feel less confident about them.
There are other reasons to favor WD’s mechanical drives, though. 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 one 6TB drive: a WD Green model. Like other 6TB mechanical drives out today, this one costs a lot more per gigabyte than comparable 4TB options, so we’d only recommend it for high-capacity systems or small-form-factor builds with limited expansion. Note that WD also makes a 6TB Red, but that one has some pretty scary user reviews, so you should probably avoid it unless you’re shopping for a NAS-specific 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.
|Asus DRW-24B1ST DVD burner||$19.99|
|Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner||$74.99|
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, we recommend the Asus BW-12B1ST, which provides adequate performance backed up by solid user reviews.
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 here, so long as they wind up buying something well-built from a manufacturer with a good reputation.
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 well-finished edges that won’t draw blood. Quality cases tend to be quieter and to keep components cooler, as well. There’s a whole world of difference in usability between a crummy $25 enclosure and a decent $50 one.
Trust us on this one; we’ve put together enough PCs to know.
|Cooler Master N200||$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. It’s 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 its twin stock fans are a welcome feature in this price range.
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.
|Corsair Air Series 240||$89.99||microATX motherboard, fan splitter|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 350D||$89.99||microATX motherboard|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 450D||$119.99||N/A|
|Fractal Design Define R5||$99.99||N/A|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$149.99||N/A|
The latest case to earn our TR Recommended award is Corsair’s Carbide Series Air 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. Just consider adding a fan splitter cable to your shopping cart—some smaller motherboards don’t have enough fan headers to manage the Air 240’s trio of stock spinners.
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 could be seen as a good thing, though, because it has almost all of the same amenities as Corsair’s full-sized ATX towers. A windowed version of the 350D is available for $10 more, if you want to show off your system.
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 features. 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 big enough to accommodate E-ATX motherboards. The 750D is an extremely spacious case that’s an absolute delight to work in. It’s pretty darn quiet, too.
|Cooler Master Cosmos II||$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.
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 deceive with 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. Past editions of the System Guide have featured modular PSUs exclusively, but we’ve changed our thinking on that topic, at least at the budget level. Although modular cabling certainly helps to keep the inside of a PC less cluttered, the benefits are largely cosmetic. Folks without windowed cases may not need modular cables, and others may not be able to afford the perk.
At the same wattage, higher-quality PSUs with non-modular cables can often be had for only a little more money than lower-quality alternatives. While modular cabling is still a consideration, we’ve included some non-modular recommendations that trade convenience for better internal components and longer warranties.
We also tried to find PSUs with 80 Plus Bronze or better certification. 80 Plus Bronze guarantees efficiency of 82-85%, depending on the load. The higher a PSU’s efficiency, the less energy it turns into heat while converting AC to DC power, the easier it is to cool quietly. 80 Plus Bronze, Silver, or Gold units tend to have large, slow-spinning fans that are barely audible during normal use. They’ll save you a bit of money on your power bill over the long run, too.
|Corsair CX430||$44.99||Non-modular, one 6+2-pin PCIe power connector|
|Corsair CX430M||$49.99||Semi-modular, one 6+2-pin PCIe power connector|
|SeaSonic S12 II Bronze 430W||$56.99||Non-modular, dual PCIe power connectors (1 6+2 pin, 1 six-pin)|
Corsair’s CX430 and CX430M kick off our budget recommendations. They tick all of the right boxes for entry-level systems: 80 Plus Bronze certification, 120-mm fans, and three-year warranties. They only have one eight-pin PCIe power connector each, but that’s OK—even mid-range graphics cards like GeForce GTX 960 can often be powered with a single eight-pin connector.
For some reason, the inclusion of these PSUs in the System Guide bothers people. We’ve made a sincere effort to figure out why this is, and we’ve come up empty. The reviewers at JonnyGuru and Hardware Secrets both praise the CX430, and Legit Reviews likes the quality and performance of the CX430M. Ultimately, even if something was to go wrong with either of these PSUs, we’d rather buyers have the backing of Corsair’s service and support than be left in the cold with a cheap, no-name PSU of dubious quality.
If the CX430 family bothers you for some reason, SeaSonic’s S12 II 430W may be worth the step up. This PSU features Japanese capacitors throughout, and it has a pair of PCIe connectors—one six-pin, the other eight-pin. It also has a longer five-year warranty.
|Seasonic G Series 550W||$84.99||Semi-modular, dual 6+2-pin PCIe connectors|
|Cooler Master V750||$109.99||Semi-modular, quad 6+2-pin PCIe connectors|
|EVGA Supernova G2 750W||$114.99||Fully modular, quad 6+2-pin PCIe connectors, semi-silent mode|
PSUs aspiring to the Sweet Spot need to do more than the basics. We demand semi-modular cabling here at the bare minimum. 80 Plus Gold efficiency ratings should ideally be on the table, as well, along with semi-silent fans that spin down completely under lighter loads.
Seasonic’s G Series 550W is an excellent choice in this range. It features semi-modular cabling, 80 Plus Gold certification, competitive pricing, good Newegg user reviews, and five years of warranty coverage. Seasonic has an excellent track record, too, not just as a purveyor of its own PSUs, but also 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.
In the middle of our sweet spot lies Cooler Master’s V750. This semi-modular PSU provides a lot of power at 80 Plus Gold efficiency levels for a modest price. The V750 doesn’t stop its fan during low-load operation like some fancier PSUs, but we’ll accept that minor omission for the price. Scott has a V750 in the PSU bay of his new personal PC, and it’s quietly powering twin GTX 970s without complaint.
For those who want something a little fancier, EVGA’s Supernova G2 750W fits the bill. This 80 Plus Gold-certified unit features a fully modular design and a semi-silent fan mode. According to the reviewers at JonnyGuru, the Supernova G2’s power delivery is practically perfect. EVGA is so confident in the Supernova G2 that it backs the PSU with a 10-year warranty if users register with the company, but beware: without registration, the warranty coverage is only three years.
|EVGA Supernova G2 850W||$144.99||Fully modular, quad 6+2-pin PCIe connectors, semi-silent mode|
For systems where 750W isn’t enough power, EVGA’s Supernova G2 850W unit is just as good as the 750W version above, but with extra wattage for multi-GPU configurations. If you’re thinking about multiple GeForce GTX 980s or Radeon R9 290X cards, this is your PSU.
You’ll notice that we’re not recommending 1kW or higher-wattage units here. Those aren’t really necessary to power the kinds of single-GPU builds we’re advocating. The field of 1kW power supplies is also very competitive, with many PSUs from lots of manufacturers striving for supremacy, and we haven’t reviewed many of them. We may revisit this segment in the future, but for now, we feel better-qualified to comment on lower-wattage units.
Need a fancy CPU 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, so they can get pretty noisy under load.
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 and Cooler Master Nepton units are closed-loop liquid coolers that can be mounted against a case’s exhaust vents.
|Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||$34.99|
|Thermaltake NiC C5||$49.99|
|Cooler Master Hyper D92||$42.49|
|Cooler Master Nepton 120XL||$89.99|
|Cooler Master Nepton 240M||$119.99|
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 on some motherboards.
For cases that can’t swallow the Hyper 212 Evo or NiC C5, consider the Cooler Master Hyper D92. It’s much quieter under load than the boxed heatsink that ships with Intel CPUs, and its 5.5″ (140 mm) height works well with many microATX and some Mini-ITX cases.
For builds where more extreme overclocking is in the cards, we think liquid coolers are the best bet. Corsair’s H60 and H80i are two good candidates. These 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 and one more fan than the H60, and it supports Corsair’s Link feature, which lets you monitor coolant temperatures and control fan speeds via Windows software.
We’re also fans of Cooler Master’s Nepton 120XL and Nepton 240M all-in-one liquid coolers. The Nepton 120XL has a thicker 120-mm radiator like the H80i, while the 240M sports a humongous 240-mm heat exchanger. Both of these coolers feature Cooler Master’s quiet Silencio FP 120-mm fans, and they both use the same pump head and mounting system. Pick whichever one fits your case of choice.
All of these liquid coolers take next to no space around the CPU socket, since their radiators mount 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 liquid cooling for any Haswell-E build, given how crowded the area around the socket tends to be.
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, too, not some kind of insane audiophile setup. If you’re using halfway decent analog headphones or speakers, a sound card is a worthwhile purchase.
It’s fine to stick with motherboard audio if you use digital speakers or USB headphones, since those handle the analog-to-digital conversion themselves. That said, even with digital speakers, the sound cards we recommend below will do things that typical onboard audio cannot, such as surround sound virtualization and real-time Dolby multi-channel encoding.
|Asus Xonar DSX||$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. It’s possible Creative does a little post-processing to make highs pop, which results in overly crisp-sounding music to our ears.
By now, you should have the info you need to configure your own build based on your needs. If you would rather just grab a complete shopping list and buy stuff, though, we’re more than happy to help. Here are four complete parts lists that represent various takes on the gaming PC formula, from least to most expensive.
Budget build: the G3258 Special
|Processor||Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition||$69.99|
|Cooler||Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||$34.99|
|Memory||Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$56.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960||$199.99|
|Storage||Crucial BX100 250GB||$99.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master N200||$49.99|
|PSU||Seasonic S12II 430W||$56.99|
This build is the budget gaming and overclocking machine we’ve been alluding to throughout the System Guide. Honestly, this might be as much gaming PC as most people will ever need. Just look at the specs: we get fast solid-state storage, a GeForce GTX 960, 8GB of RAM, and a CPU that can punch far above its weight class with some judicious overclocking. That’s truly incredible value in a machine that costs less than $700. Its compact footprint is nice, too.
We understand that every dollar matters at this end of the market. If you need to save a few bucks, it’s OK to drop the SSD and use a mechanical hard drive like the 1TB WD Blue.
The sweet spot: the All-Rounder
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4590||$199.99|
|Cooler||Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo||$34.99|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5||$109.99|
|Memory||Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$56.99|
|Graphics||MSI Radeon R9 290||$289.99|
|Storage||Crucial BX100 250GB||$99.99|
|WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM||$54.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian 350D||$89.99|
|PSU||Seasonic G Series 550W||$84.99|
Past System Guides have left a substantial gap between the price of our budget build and the next rung up the ladder. The All-Rounder steps into that void. As its name implies, this compact, microATX-based box is our take on a build that will do most things well for most people. The Core i5-4590 brings quad-core processing to the table for more demanding work, and the MSI Radeon R9 290 provides a major step up in graphics performance. We’ve also combined mechanical and solid-state storage for the best of both worlds. Corsair’s Obsidian 350D case ties everything together.
Even sweeter: the Stealth Fighter
|Processor||Intel Core i5-4690K||$214.99|
|Cooler||Cooler Master Nepton 120XL||$89.99|
|Motherboard||Asus Z97-A/USB 3.1||$169.99|
|Memory||Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600||$119.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G||$329.99|
|Storage||Crucial BX100 500GB||$199.99|
|WD Green 2TB||$79.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DSX||$53.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define R5||$99.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 750W||$114.99|
The Stealth Fighter is packed with even more goodness, including some overclocking-friendly parts. A build of this caliber should be both fast and quiet, so we’ve chosen to wrap it all up in Fractal Design’s excellent Define R5 enclosure. We’re also throwing in one of Cooler Master’s Nepton 120XL liquid coolers.
This build is rife with overclocking potential. Between the hefty liquid cooler for the unlocked Core i5-4690K and the tweaking-friendly MSI GTX 970 Gaming 4G, the Stealth Fighter could offer quite a bit of extra performance with some tweaking. There are no guarantees in overclocking, of course, but this box should let you wring the most you can from the underlying chips.
We’re falling back to 2TB of bulk storage to upgrade to a 500GB SSD. With the growing size of games these days, 250GB SSDs are looking a little small, and we think most people will appreciate the ability to keep more games and other files on fast solid-state storage.
With the rise of cloud-based services like CrashPlan, Steam, and Netflix, we also think gaming-focused builds can do without expensive Blu-ray drives (not to mention the added cost of playback software). It’s quite simple to install Windows from a USB thumb drive these days, so it doesn’t necessarily make sense to blow $20 on a traditional DVD burner, either. That money can be put to better use elsewhere.
High-end build: The Maxwellator XXL
|Cooler||Cooler Master Nepton 240M||$119.99|
|Motherboard||Asus X99-A/USB 3.1||$269.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Value 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2400||$159.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 980 G1 Gaming||$549.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX200 512GB||$209.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$165.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$165.99|
|Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner||$74.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DX||$74.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$139.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 850W||$139.99|
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 slots 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.
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.
What about Windows 10? The newest version of Windows is in open beta right now, and it should come out sometime this summer. Microsoft has promised that Win10 will be a free upgrade for those with Windows 7 and Windows 8.1 licenses, so there’s no risk in buying Windows 8.1 right now.
Before we close, let’s take a brief look at the near future of PC hardware, since the perpetual puzzle of PC building is whether to buy a new system now or to wait. The biggest shake-ups this year are still to come, and they’ll probably be from Intel. Desktop CPUs based on Broadwell silicon will probably arrive within the next couple months, but we don’t think that’s reason to hold off building a new PC now. If they offer a compelling reason to upgrade, those CPUs should drop right into our recommended Intel motherboards with nothing more than a firmware update.
If the rumor mill is correct, Intel may announce its latest “tock” CPUs, code-named Skylake, late in the year. Details are scant about these chips, but they’ll require motherboards with a new CPU socket and chipset. Because we know so little about this platform, we won’t speculate too much about it here. That said, if you want (or need) a new PC now, it’s probably not worth worrying about Skylake, either.
On the graphics front, Nvidia has mostly finished fleshing out its graphics card lineup with the Titan X uber-card. A more affordable version of the Titan X, called the GeForce GTX 980 Ti, may arrive soon, too. In general, though, the green team’s cards are a safe buy right now for most.
AMD’s upcoming 300-series cards will mostly be warmed-over versions of current 200-series parts. The highest-end 300-series cards are much more interesting. AMD says that these will be based on new chips with high-bandwidth memory (HBM) tech—and they’re set to launch this quarter. Sparks might fly in the high end of the graphics market as a result.
As for AMD’s CPUs, the big news is the company’s upcoming Zen x86 CPU core. This chip promises the kinds of per-clock performance improvements that AMD has sorely needed for a while now. Unfortunately, Zen parts won’t hit the market until sometime in 2016. In the meantime, the company is expected to released updated versions of its APUs. We don’t expect these chips, code-named Godavari, to significantly affect our recommendations.
With that, we wrap up this edition of the System Guide. If one of our parts picks helped you solve a head-scratcher, or you’re cribbing one of our sample builds for your own use, please become a TR subscriber if you haven’t already. Your support helps us to continue the in-depth research and reviews that make guides like this one possible.
Have fun building your new PC—we’re confident it’ll turn out great.