The Tech Report System Guide: July 2015 edition

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Welcome to the latest edition of The Tech Report System Guide. Since we last surveyed the PC hardware landscape, AMD and Nvidia have both launched their latest salvos in the battle for high-end graphics card supremacy, and the results have been explosive. AMD has also refreshed its mainstream lineup with its Radeon 300-series graphics cards. With all that action happening, it’s time for an updated System Guide.

The advent of Radeon 300-series graphics cards may soon mean that the attractive prices on many Radeon R9 290 and 290X cards will become a thing of the past. Going by the official lineup, the Radeon R9 390 now competes directly with the GeForce GTX 970 in the $330 to $350 range, and those cards are pretty closely matched on performance, too. We’ll examine why you might choose one or the other in our recommendations.

If you’re looking to live on the bleeding edge of graphics performance, Nvidia and AMD have both recently introduced new high-end graphics cards in the form of the GeForce GTX 980 Ti and the Radeon R9 Fury X. AMD also has an intriguing GeForce GTX 980 competitor in the form of the Radeon R9 Fury. We’ve reviewed them all, and we’ve picked our favorites among these contenders, as well.

We’re also bringing back the Breadbox Mini-ITX system in this edition of the Guide. In a couple months or less, armies of students will be heading off to college, and we think many of the gamers among them will appreciate a light, compact, yet powerful PC.

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.

The Tech Report System Guide is sponsored by Newegg. We’ll be using links to their product pages throughout this guide. You can (and should!) support our work by purchasing the items we recommend using these links. A big thanks to Newegg for their continued support.

In the rare case that Newegg doesn’t stock an item we want to recommend, we’ll link to other retailers as needed. We also want to be clear that despite its sponsorship, Newegg has no editorial input on the items included in the System Guide: our picks are entirely our own.

If you like this article, don’t miss the rest of our guide series: our how-to-build-a-PC guide, where we walk readers (and viewers) through the PC assembly process; our mobile staff picks, where we highlight our favorite devices for on-the-go computing; and our peripheral guide, where we pick the best monitors, mice, keyboards, and accessories to make your PC experience even better. 

 

CPUs

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. Intel’s current processors also consume less power and throw off less heat than comparable AMD silicon.

Intel recently released two new desktop chips for the LGA 1150 socket based on its Broadwell silicon. The Core i5-5675C and Core i7-5775C both feature potent Iris Pro 6200 integrated graphics with 128MB of eDRAM cache onboard, which could offer a significant graphics performance boost over Haswell chips’ IGPs. Their 65W TDPs might also make them suitable for thermally constrained systems like Mini-ITX boxes and HTPCs.

Problem is, you can’t buy either one of these CPUs today. Major retailers don’t even have listings for them yet, much less pricing info. With Intel’s LGA 1151 Skylake chips potentially right around the corner and new 100-series motherboards and chipsets poised to arrive with them, the desktop version of Broadwell may not be consequential to system builders for some time yet, if ever.

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 $74.99 Socket FM2+ motherboard
AMD A8-7600 $91.99 Socket FM2+ motherboard

The Pentium G3258, also known as the Anniversary Edition, is the first overclocking-friendly sub-$100 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 games, 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. This chip’s four integer cores should make it compatible with any recent game. 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.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i5-4590 $199.99 LGA1150 motherboard
Intel Core i5-4690K $239.99 LGA1150 motherboard,

Z97 chipset for overclocking

Intel Core i7-4790K $339.99

The processors in this 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 unlocked upper multipliers that open the door to easy overclocking.

The Core i5-4590 is a solid baseline for any enthusiast system; it has plenty of oomph for editing videos, playing the latest games, and almost any sort of general productivity work. The Core i5-4590 is based on Intel’s potent Haswell architecture, and its 3.3GHz base and 3.7GHz Turbo clocks should be 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. 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.

These so-called “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.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Intel Core i7-5820K $389.99 LGA2011-v3 motherboard,

quad-channel DDR4 memory kit,

discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler

Intel Core i7-5930K $579.99

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.

If you can’t swallow the Core i7-5930K’s cost but still want six Haswell cores in your system, we’re conditionally recommending the Core i7-5820K for the first time. This chip has 12 of its PCIe lanes lopped off, for a total of 28. We think Intel’s decision to cripple this processor in this fashion is unfortunate, because it removes one of the key advantages of “extreme” processors based on the X99 platform. Many folks who build systems based on these CPUs will want 16 lanes going to two different PCIe x16 slots for multi-GPU configs. With a 5820K installed, though, an X99 system can’t deliver. It effectively has no more PCIe bandwidth for SLI and CrossFire than a quad-core Haswell based on the much more affordable Z97 platform.

If you’re not using a lot of PCIe expansion cards, this limitation may not matter, but it’s something to be aware of. The i7-5820K is still unlocked for easy overclocking, and its $390 price tag is pretty affordable for what it offers.

 

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. 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.

Budget

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

microATX or ATX case

Asus H97M-E/CSM $89.24 Intel LGA1150 processor,

microATX or ATX case

Asus H97-Plus $101.25 Intel LGA1150 processor, ATX case
MSI Z97M-G43 $106.99 Intel LGA1150 processor,

microATX or ATX case

Gigabyte’s F2A88XM-D3H is our pick if you’re building with an AMD CPU. This compact, straightforward 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 think MSI’s Z97M-G43 fits the bill. This microATX board offers niceties like optical S/PDIF audio output, an M.2 slot for SSDs, and two four-pin system fan headers—perfect for a microATX case.

For non-overclocked builds, you can 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.)

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5 $123.99 Intel LGA1150 processor,

microATX or ATX case

Asus Z97-E/USB 3.1 $128.99 LGA1150 processor, ATX case
Asus Z97-A/USB 3.1 $148.99 LGA1150 processor, ATX case

Adding a few bucks to the budget gets us into fancier Z97 territory. Our favorite Z97 board right now is Asus’ Z97-A/USB 3.1, a feature-packed and reasonably priced mobo 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, consider Asus’ Z97-E/USB 3.1. This board still offers USB 3.1 connectivity like its bigger brother, and the ATX layout lets you gang up multiple graphics cards while still leaving room for expansion cards, something the microATX motherboard below can’t do. The Z97-E does lose out on a PCIe physical x16 slot compared to its slightly more expensive brother, and it only offers six-phase power to the CPU as opposed to the Z97-A’s eight-phase setup.

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.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Asus X99-A/USB 3.1 $259.99 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. This board’s 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.

 

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.

DDR3 memory prices have dropped a little further since our last guide, while DDR4 prices have fallen off a cliff. That’s good news for those building Haswell-E-based systems.

Budget

Product Price
G.Skill 4GB (2x2GB) DDR3-1600 $33.99

This G.Skill 4GB kit is fine for budget builds. It has tight timings, standard-height heat spreaders, and loads of positive user reviews.

While 4GB might be all some builders can afford, we strongly recommend stepping up to 8GB for $16 or so 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. Really: buy 8GB of RAM.

Sweet spot

Product Price
Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $49.49
Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600 $94.99
G.Skill Trident X 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-2400 $129.99
G.Skill Sniper 32GB (4x8GB) DDR3-1600 $189.99
G.Skill Trident X 32GB (4x8GB) DDR3-2400 $269.99

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 should rarely causes bottlenecks for most. For basic DDR3-1600, we’re going with Crucial Ballistix and G.Skill kits with fairly standard heat spreaders. If you want a little more oomph out of your RAM, consider a 16GB or 32GB G.Skill Trident X DDR3-2400 kit.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
G.Skill Value 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2400 $119.99 Haswell-E processor,

X99 motherboard

G.Skill Ripjaws 4 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2666 $139.99
Crucial 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2133 $188.99
G.Skill Value 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2400 $229.99
G.Skill Ripjaws 4 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2666 $269.99

Out of the box, Haswell-E supports DDR4 memory speeds up to 2133 MT/s. Prices on faster RAM have fallen to the point that there’s really no reason to stick with those kits, though. The G.Skill Value 16GB and 32GB kits we’ve picked offer DDR4-2400 speed and handsome blacked-out PCBs. They don’t have giant heatspreaders to interfere with a large air cooler, and they’re covered by lifetime warranties. If you want faster (or fancier-looking) DDR4, check out G.Skill’s Ripjaws 4 DDR4-2666 kits in 16GB or 32GB flavors.

 

Graphics

The graphics card market has changed a lot in the past couple months. Both AMD and Nvidia have introduced new high-end products. AMD has freshened up its entire lineup, top to bottom, in the form of the Radeon 300 series. The new Radeons deploy many of the same chips as last year’s models, but they have somewhat tweaked configurations and prices. You will still see 200-series Radeons our picks below because many of them are available at more attractive prices than their 300-series counterparts. We’d advise grabbing those cards while you can, since they offer better value for the same basic hardware.

The cards we recommend come from major vendors known for decent service. Our picks generally feature quiet custom coolers and higher clock speeds than the GPU makers’ reference designs. The cards you see below may not be the absolute cheapest of their kind, but they are the ones we’d buy for ourselves.

A quick note about displays: monitors with Nvidia’s G-Sync and AMD’s FreeSync variable-refresh-rate tech are becoming more widely available, and we think they are one of the most gratifying innovations in PC gaming in years. We featured a few monitors based on G-Sync and FreeSync 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. The only downside is vendor lock-in: G-Sync monitors require Nvidia cards, while Radeons are required to use FreeSync. Be aware of this complication when considering which brand of GPU to buy.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
MSI Radeon R7 260X 2GB $114.99 N/A
EVGA GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB Superclocked $139.99

If you’re even moderately serious about gaming, the Radeon R7 260X and the 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 the detail levels dialed back a little. Anything cheaper would force you to lower 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.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960 $196.99 Dual PCIe power connectors
MSI Radeon R9 380 Gaming 2G $209.99

Our sweet-spot picks can run games at 1080p with high or maxed-out detail levels. They 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 $200 or so, 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.

Since our last guide, the Radeon R9 285 has morphed into the Radeon R9 380. This metamorphosis has brought its price more in line with that of the GTX 960, but it’s still going to run hotter and provide a slightly less fluid gaming experience. If a FreeSync monitor is on your parts list, though, then this is your oyster. The MSI card we’ve chosen features the same Twin Frozr cooler we know and love from the company’s other cards, and its 1000MHz core clock offers a substantial increase over AMD’s 918MHz stock figure.

If you’re considering the Radeon R9 380 or GTX 960, you might still find a Radeon R9 280X here and there for around the same price. While the 280X is the fastest of the three by a smidgen in raw FPS terms, it’s based on older hardware that lacks support for FreeSync and AMD’s TrueAudio DSP. If you want an AMD card, we think you’ll be better off with the R9 380 over the long term.

High end

These cards should all produce silky-smooth frame rates at 2560×1440. The higher-end cards will also pave the way for gaming at 4K—and 4K DSR or 4K VSR on systems with lower-res monitors.

Product Price Notable needs
MSI Radeon R9 290 $299.99 Dual PCIe power connectors
Sapphire Radeon R9 290X $324.99
MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G $348.99
Gigabyte G1 Gaming GeForce GTX 980 $519.99
Asus Strix Radeon R9 Fury $569.99
Sapphire Radeon R9 Fury X $649.99
EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti $669.99

Radeon 300-series cards are on store shelves now, though older 200-series cards like the Radeon R9 290 and 290X are still available for significantly less than their Radeon R9 390 and R9 390X cousins. The 390 and 390X offer twice the video memory of their predecessors, a whopping 8GB, but current games at common display resolutions don’t seem to benefit much from the extra RAM. As a result, the 290 and 290X look to be the better deal aboard cards like the MSI Radeon R9 290 and Sapphire Radeon R9 290X. They use the same Hawaii GPU and perform similarly to their newer counterparts.

These Radeons face formidable competition in the form of the generally quieter and more power-efficient Nvidia GeForce GTX 970. The MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G performs somewhere between a Radeon R9 290 and a 290X in our benchmarks while consuming much less power. 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 this thing to the point that it outperformed a reference GeForce GTX 980. Pretty amazing for a $350 card. In fact, you don’t really need anything more unless you’re driving a 4K monitor or a multi-display setup for gaming.

The biggest news in graphics in recent weeks is AMD’s introduction of its brand-new Fiji GPU with high-bandwidth memory. This GPU and its memory subsystem represent substantial innovation, in contrast to the rebadged parts that make up most of the Radeon 300-series lineup.

The Radeon R9 Fury X is AMD’s top-of-the-line offering, complete with water cooling, while the vanilla R9 Fury is mildly cut down for about 100 bucks less. These cards perform somewhat worse in our advanced frame-time metrics than their GeForce competition, the GTX 980 Ti and GTX 980, respectively. They’re also slightly more power-hungry, and in the case of the R9 Fury, more expensive than the competing GeForces. They’re still interesting products, but unfortunately, Fury cards are quite scarce at the moment.

Our pick for the GeForce GTX 980, Gigabyte’s G1 Gaming edition, is pretty straightforward. This card captured a TR Recommended award and remains a solid choice.

As for GeForce GTX 980 Ti cards, we think our EVGA pick is a solid bet. It’s quiet in operation and features moderately higher-than-stock clocks. GTX 980 Tis are popular right now, so cards may go in and out of stock often. If our card of choice is out of stock, Gigabyte’s G1 Gaming spin on the 980 Ti is a worthy alternative. It features some of the highest clock speeds available for this GPU at the cost of more noise under load and a higher price than our primary pick.

If you’re dead-set on a Radeon R9 Fury or Radeon R9 Fury X, your choices are pretty simple. In the case of the Fury X, all of AMD’s board partners are required to use the same reference cooler design and clocks, so the choice comes down to the board partner you’d like to, well, partner with. Sapphire is a major AMD board partner, and its Fury X retails for the same $649.99 as AMD’s suggested price, so we see no reason to look further.  Just be aware of the pump noise issue. Right now, there’s no way to be sure you’re not getting a Fury X card whose cooler whines.

In the Fury non-X department, Asus’ Strix R9 Fury comes with an awesomely large and quiet triple-fan cooler that makes short work of Fiji’s volcanism. 

 

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. This time around, we’re also looking at a pair of PCIe drives, for those who need face-melting storage performance.

System drive

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 of any component in a modern PC.

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 240GB to 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.

Product Price
WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM $52.99
Mushkin Enhanced Eco2 120GB $52.99
Crucial BX100 250GB $84.99
Intel 530 Series 240GB $119.99
Crucial BX100 500GB $177.99
Crucial MX200 500GB $197.99
Crucial MX200 1TB $379.99
Samsung 850 EVO 1TB $379.99

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 mid-range 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 $20.

At the 1TB tier, Samsung’s 850 EVO 1TB can be had for the same price as the equivalently-sized Crucial BX100, so we’re recommending the full-featured Samsung drive instead. Along with AES encryption support, this drive offers excellent performance, a five-year warranty, and a high endurance rating. If you’re not a Samsung fan, Crucial’s MX200 1TB drive can be had for a similar price.

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.

Product Price
Intel 750 Series SSD 400GB $389.99
Intel 750 Series SSD 1.2TB $1039.99

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.

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. (Remember that RAID is not backup, though.)

Product Price
WD Green 4TB $135.99
WD Red 4TB $154.00
WD Black 4TB $202.99
WD Green 6TB $246.99

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. 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.

Optical drives

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

Product Price
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.

 

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 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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Cooler Master N200 $44.99 microATX motherboard
Corsair Carbide Series 200R $69.99 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.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Fractal Design Define S $74.99 N/A
Corsair Carbide Series Air 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 $89.99 N/A
Corsair Obsidian Series 750D $149.99 N/A

Bridging our budget and sweet spot picks is Fractal Design’s Define S, a TR Editor’s Choice award winner. This ATX mid-tower features a completely open main chamber that’s a pleasure to work in, and it’s nearly as quiet in operation as the more expensive Define R5. Builders should take note of its limited room for storage, however: there’s only room for three 3.5″ and two 2.5″ drives and no provisions at all for optical storage. If this case meets your needs, it’s hard to beat in this price range.

microATX builders should check out the TR Recommended Corsair Carbide Series Air 240, a cuboidal 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. The non-windowed version of the Obsidian 350D has curiously vanished from Newegg. The windowed version remains available for $10 less than its old price, so that’s what we’re recommending this time around.

For builders who want a more premium ATX mid-tower, we recommend Fractal Design’s Define R5, which we 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.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Cooler Master Cosmos II $309.99 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 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.

Budget

Product Price Notes
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 $59.99 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 some people. We’ve made a sincere effort to figure out why, and we’ve come up empty-handed. 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.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notes
Seasonic G Series 550W $79.99 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 $129.99 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.

High end

Product Price Notes
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 980 Ti or Radeon R9 290X cards, this is your PSU.

 

Miscellaneous

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 and 5820K, 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.

Product Price
Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $34.99
Thermaltake NiC C5 $49.99
Cooler Master Hyper D92 $44.99
Corsair H60 $64.05
Corsair H80i $94.99
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 the user 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.

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, 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.

Product Price
Asus Xonar DSX $53.99
Asus Xonar DX $74.99

The Xonar DSX and Xonar DX can both drive analog headphones or 7.1-channel speaker setups (either analog or digital). In our blind listening tests performed with analog headphones, these two cards sounded very similar. The DSX is the more affordable of the two, but the DX gets you Dolby Headphone virtualization in exchange for a small price premium.

There are other options out there, including Creative’s Sound Blaster Z. We think this card 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.

 

Sample builds

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

  Component Price
Processor Pentium G3258 Anniversary Edition $69.99
Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO $34.99
Motherboard MSI Z97M-G43 $106.99
Memory Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $49.49
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960 $196.99
Storage Crucial BX100 250GB $89.99
Enclosure Fractal Design Define S $74.99
PSU Seasonic S12II 430W $59.99
Total   $683.42

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. We’ve wrapped this baby up in Fractal Design’s excellent Define S case.

We understand that every dollar matters at this price point. If an SSD isn’t in the budget, it’s perfectly OK to drop down to the WD Blue 1TB hard drive for storage.

Maximum performance in minimal space: the Breadbox

  Component Price
Processor Intel Core i5-4590 $199.99
Cooler Intel stock heatsink
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H97N-WiFi $111.99
Memory Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $49.49
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 960 $196.99
Storage Crucial BX100 250GB $89.99
WD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM $52.99
Enclosure Thermaltake Core V1 $49.99
PSU Seasonic M12 II 520W $69.99
Total   $821.42

This Breadbox build should make for a perfect dorm PC. Thermaltake’s tiny Core V1 chassis features a big 200-mm fan that should provide plenty of cooling power without making a lot of noise, and the cooler on Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 960 card barely moved the needle on our sound meter under load. Intel’s Core i5-4690 CPU provides plenty of power for gaming and homework alike. A 250GB SSD and 1TB of bulk storage round out this powerful-yet-compact package.

The sweet spot: the All-Rounder

  Component Price
Processor Intel Core i5-4590 $199.99
Cooler Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo $34.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5 $123.99
Memory Crucial Ballistix Sport 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600 $49.49
Graphics MSI Radeon R9 290 $299.99
Storage Crucial BX100 250GB $89.99
WD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM $54.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian 350D $89.99
PSU Seasonic G Series 550W $79.99
Total   $1,021.41

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

  Component Price
Processor Intel Core i5-4690K $239.99
Cooler Cooler Master Nepton 120XL $89.99
Motherboard Asus Z97-A/USB 3.1 $148.99
Memory Crucial Ballistix Sport 16GB (2x8GB) DDR3-1600 $94.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G $348.99
Storage Crucial MX200 500GB $197.99
WD Green 2TB $73.99
Sound card Asus Xonar DSX $53.99
Enclosure Fractal Design Define R5 $89.99
PSU Cooler Master V750 $109.99
Total   $1,448.90

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

  Component Price
Processor Core i7-5930K $579.99
Cooler Cooler Master Nepton 240M $119.99
Motherboard Asus X99-A/USB 3.1 $259.99
Memory G.Skill Value 16GB (4x4GB) DDR4-2400 $119.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti Gaming 6G $679.99
Storage Crucial MX200 512GB $197.99
WD Red 4TB $154.00
WD Red 4TB $154.00
Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner $74.99
Sound card Asus Xonar DX $74.99
Enclosure Corsair Obsidian Series 750D $149.99
PSU EVGA Supernova G2 850W $144.99
Total   $2,710.90

With six cores, 12 threads, 16GB of RAM, and a super-quiet MSI GeForce GTX 980 Ti 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—and perhaps upgrade it to Windows 10 when the new OS begins its rollout on July 29.

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. Windows 10 will soon bring back the Start menu, as well.

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. Windows 7 users should also consider a Windows 10 upgrade, since the new OS is free to Windows owners for the first year of its release.

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.

Looking ahead

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. 

Given the increasing tide of leaks and teasers from motherboard manufacturers regarding the new 100-series chipset, Intel may announce its latest “tock” CPUs, code-named Skylake, sooner rather than later. Details are scant about these chips right now, but it might be a good idea to give Intel a few weeks if you can wait, based on rumors like this one.

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 some time in 2016.

AMD and Nvidia just recently launched their latest high-end graphics cards, so it seems unlikely that we’ll see any more earth-shaking releases this year from either company on the PC graphics front. Keep an eye on our news feed, and you’ll be the first to know whether that outlook is likely to change.

Conclusions

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.

Comments closed
    • WulfTheSaxon
    • 4 years ago

    A cheaper 2×4 GB RAM option at the moment is [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820178909<]PNY Anarchy[/url<] – $38.69 after promo code good until August 3rd (but beware the large heatsink). Another option would be [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820231461<]G.Skill Sniper 1.25 V[/url<] for $56 (again, beware the large heatsink). I figure for a six-year expected life, between the interest you aren’t earning and the electricity you’ll save, it comes out as a wash cost-wise – except it should be cooler and a little bit better for the environment. If your motherboard supports 1.35 V memory but not 1.25 V (or if you can’t use memory with high-profile heatsinks), Mushkin has [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820226691<]a kit for you[/url<] for $48. For an APU build, I’d strongly consider higher-clocked memory. Roughly speaking, going from 1600 MHz to 1866 MHz is a 10% fps bump, and 1866 to 2133 MHz is another 5%. Some kits to consider are [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820178905<]this 1866 MHz PNY Anarchy kit[/url<] for $42.29 after promo code until August 3rd (yet again, beware the large heatsinks), [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820231550<]a slightly lower-latency and lower-profile kit from G.Skill[/url<] for $46 after a promo code that expires Wednesday, or [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820220803<]this Patriot Viper 3 2133MHz kit[/url<] for $56 (aaand, large heatsinks again – the least-expensive kit without them is [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820011022<]this Avexir kit[/url<] for $60). As for the DDR4, I’ll just point out that (if you have room for some moderately-sized heatsinks) you can get the recommended Ripjaws 4x4 GB kit for the same price as the Value kit at the moment, after a promo code which expires Thursday.

    • Khali
    • 4 years ago

    I came back to this since I am in the monitor market hoping to find some suggestions. Alas, monitors are not on the list. Why not?

      • Jeff Kampman
      • 4 years ago

      We have a separate peripheral guide where we recommend some monitors (and several other parts): [url<]https://techreport.com/review/28111/tr-april-2015-peripheral-staff-picks[/url<]

    • raddude9
    • 4 years ago

    It’s good to see the A8 7600 finally getting recognized as the best value APU in AMDs lineup. It’s a great all-round chip at that price.

    • nanoflower
    • 4 years ago

    I have to ask why the Thermaltake Nic C5 is being included in this list. The non-interference feature is nice but I’ve been looking at reviews around the net as I was thinking of getting a new CPU cooler and every review shows the C5 to be at best average. There seem to be a number of better options that are also non interfering with similar costs. Perhaps it’s time to do a review of air coolers from a variety of vendors ( I’m assuming it wouldn’t be hard to get them to participate.)

    • ronch
    • 4 years ago

    Even a long-time AMD supporter such as me finds it hard to recommend AMD CPUs and GPUs these days. APUs? No way. I really hope that when Zen comes out, all that will change, and TR will be able to easily recommend them as viable alternatives to Intel.

    Really wish AMD didn’t wait this long to realize that they NEED to play in the high end x86 market in order to survive. How could they expect to survive when their competitor keeps moving forward? That’s like saying a car maker in the 50’s will just be contented selling 50’s- technology cars because they’re ‘good enough transportation’ when everyone else is moving forward with modern-day Camrys and Accords. Keep up or keep out.

    • Duct Tape Dude
    • 4 years ago

    Bah. I just spent hours researching cases and I didn’t end up with any of these recommendations. Why couldn’t I have been more patient?

    • Anovoca
    • 4 years ago

    Anovoca’s system builders guide – July:

    CPU: Just Wait for skylake
    Mobo: See CPU
    GPU: If you haven’t already then don’t.
    Case and Cooling: defer to a site that specializes in db, temp, and airflow testing.

    Outside of some new Radeons, there just isn’t a lot going on right now that screams “time to upgrade.” I can’t fault you guys for being understaffed and overworked recently, I am just surprised Jeff is bothering to put out a new guide right now at all. Especially when you consider a whole new socket will be out for intel shortly and the new Radeon family still isn’t fully released yet.

      • chuckula
      • 4 years ago

      [quote<]CPU: Just Wait for skylake[/quote<] If Skylake is Krogothed but not actually slower than Haswell and about the same price: Wait for Skylake just because it has a nice platform update. If Skylake is Krogothed and more expensive than Haswell: Wait for Skylake since it will likely make getting a Haswell system somewhat cheaper. If Skylake isn't Krogothed: Wait for Skylake since it's almost out. If Skylake is slower than Haswell: Wait for Skylake and buy Haswell knowing that you didn't jump the gun. Basically: No matter if Skylake is good, bad, or ugly, waiting for it makes sense.

        • Anovoca
        • 4 years ago

        Pretty much. Not to mention the power envelope of the new chips. Biting my nails to see how those 35w i5s hold up. It is safe to say that GPUs are the 4k bottleneck atm. That being the case, I am less concerned about squeezing another 10% performance gain out of the next tock as I am about reducing system noise and heat. In fact, I would be willing to sacrifice 10% performance for that kind of reduction if it means less noise and ambient heat.

        • cegras
        • 4 years ago

        Do older chips ever drop in price? I’ve never been able to get last gen parts at lower prices. Demand for replacements and limited supply sometimes increases the price instead.

      • Ninjitsu
      • 4 years ago

      [quote<] GPU: If you haven't already then don't. [/quote<] Why? New GPUs aren't going to be available till March at the very least. Of course, it doesn't make too much sense if one has a GTX 670 or higher, but for someone like me with a GTX 560... And I may not be able to actually use it too long if I wait till March or later.

        • Anovoca
        • 4 years ago

        If you have a 1080p monitor then your old card is fine and you should be spending that $500 on a new monitor not a card. On the flip, if you have a 4k monitor, $500 to make your game play at 30-fps rather than 20fps is a bit of a waist of money. Next generation performance gains are going to be a much better investment.

          • Ninjitsu
          • 4 years ago

          Wait what? I have a 1080p monitor and a 560 can’t drive it very well – you’re suggesting I get an even higher resolution monitor, and be unable to play anything, because next year new cards may land by March? :/

          Or did you just mean in general and not my case particularly?

          I can sort of see that argument except…I don’t really see the point of getting a new monitor (unless you need it) for gaming till the new cards arrive.

          I’d say get a 970 or 290X or 390 today for 1080p if one has anything older or weaker than a GTX 670 and one isn’t happy with the performance.

          p.s. next to no one has a 4K monitor, so that’s sort of irrelevant.

            • Ifalna
            • 4 years ago

            Well I still have the old 7870OC from Gigabyte. paired with an El-Cheapo 1080p TN panel, I kinda get the recommendation of buying a new monitor first since I can play Witcher III and Arkham Knight with decent FPS.

            Dumb thing is: As a gamer I would have to upgrade both in order to keep playing, which is a pretty hefty investment. So I am going to wait till they iron out the kinks of the free/G sync stuff and see what then ext generation of cards will do.

            • Anovoca
            • 4 years ago

            I don’t think you necessarily have to wait for a good gpu to upgrade a monitor. You dont need horse power to run Windows at high res, and you can always set a game to 1080 in the settings and not miss a beat. Nothing wrong with visually improving the image quality of your desktop, videos, photo gallery our even the web.

            • Ifalna
            • 4 years ago

            Last time I checked LCD picture quality degrades HEAVILY when you run panels at a lower than native resolution.

            So if you buy a 4K screen, you better have the horsepower to drive it if you want crisp and clear graphics.

            • Anovoca
            • 4 years ago

            I haven’t heard that but I would caution against grouping all LCD Panels into one class. Your 1080p TN monitor is a very distant relative to an LED IPS Panel.

            • Ifalna
            • 4 years ago

            Just try it on your own pc.
            It’s not really a panel problem it’s basically an interpolation problem.

            Your eye can see it if your monitor uses 2-4 pixels to display something that is meant for one pixel.

            Sure some have better interpolation methods than others, but ultimately, you want a clear/sharp image? Display stuff in the native resolution.

      • ronch
      • 4 years ago

      [quote<]Just Wait for skylake[/quote<] Or Zen, right?

        • Anovoca
        • 4 years ago

        until I see it, it is just a unicorn. Actually wait this is AMD, probably a horse then with a toilet paper roll glued to its head.

      • yuhong
      • 4 years ago

      You probably want to wait on RAM as well as the prices are falling. Interestingly, DRAMeXchange says that DDR3 is falling faster than DDR4 BTW, though I wonder if Micron’s DDR4 prices are really cheaper than the Samsung/SK Hynix prices.

    • Krogoth
    • 4 years ago

    Pretty much the same thing from last round. The new AMD chips did little to change the status of the tiers and price levels.

    Things will change around once Skylake and Broadwell get here.

    • trandoanhung1991
    • 4 years ago

    I’m surprised the Phanteks Enthoo Pro isn’t listed amongst the cases.

    Or the Thermalright True Spirit line of CPU coolers.

    • paternal_techie
    • 4 years ago

    As usual another good system guide. Damage I would like to know how your new damage box is holding up?

    Is onboard audio good enough or do people still need a sound card? Is SLI ready for the masses or is it still a niche product?

    Since 2005, every pc I have built has had the ability to run crossfire or SLI but I have spent my money on a single high end gpu or good enough one in the $300 range. Would love to hear people thoughts

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 4 years ago

      I believe that a single GeForce GTX980Ti at $670 would give you fewer headaches than a pair of GeForce GTX970 cards at $696 would, especially with newer games. It can take a few months for NVidia to rewrite their driver SLI profiles to work with a buggy new game. The other advantage is the 6 GiB of memory on the GTX980Ti vs. the 3½+½ GiB on the GTX970.

      In my mind, SLI is for the tiny percentage of people who simply cannot get enough performance to satisfy their needs by using a single example of the fastest card available.

      Windows 10 is bringing a major change to the graphics arena at the end of the month with the rollout of DirectX 12. I don’t know if this change is likely to make SLI a better or worse proposition, but I do expect that it will shake things up.

        • Westbrook348
        • 4 years ago

        And most performance comparisons between 980Ti and SLI 970s show the dual GPU setup with slightly more avg FPS but the faster single card tends to have lower frame times. We all know which is more important..

        The only reason to even think about going for SLI is if there isn’t a higher tier card, or the upgrade is too small a jump for too high a price increase, but even then it would probably be better just to wait a few months for better tech. I justified my SLI970 purchase in April because of the price and performance difference of the 980, the same way Damage did. But then the 980Ti came out and, because of driver headaches especially with 3D vision and the ROG Swift, I exchanged out my SLI setup.

        Would consider doing SLI again but only for boring 2D gaming (with variable refresh) and only as a last resort.

    • HERETIC
    • 4 years ago

    Great job…….
    Couple little nitpicks-
    Could add CM TX3/103 as a budget cooler-It’ll fit in smaller cases and is really cheap.
    About 10 Degrees C better than stock coolers………………..
    And if you must recommend cheap PSU’s- EVGA 100-W1-0430-KR 430W is about half
    the price of the Corsairs……………….

      • Mr Bill
      • 4 years ago

      I’m glad they included a SeaSonic. More expensive, but so far I have not had to try that excellent warranty.

        • MarkG509
        • 4 years ago

        My last 4 builds have either been Seasonics or PicoPSUs. Never a problem with either after several years.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 4 years ago

      [quote=”In a forum thread, I”<] I agree that a 92 mm tower cooler like the [url=http://www.amazon.com/Cooler-Master-Hyper-TX3-RR-910-HTX3-G1/dp/B0028Y4S9K/<]$19[/url<] Cooler Master Hyper TX3 or the [url=http://www.amazon.com/ARCTIC-Freezer-i11-Heatpipes-Vibration-Dampened/dp/B00HO9P05A/<]$23[/url<] Arctic Freezer i11 is a great inexpensive way to quiet down a PC. For a bit more silence, a 120 mm top-down cooler like the [url=http://www.amazon.com/Cooler-Master-GeminII-Silencio-RR-G5V2-20PK-R1/dp/B00UOIK3FU/<]$43[/url<] Cooler Master GeminII S524 v2 may be worthwhile. The [url=http://www.amazon.com/Cooler-Master-Hyper-212-RR-212E-20PK-R2/dp/B005O65JXI/<]$31[/url<] Cooler Master Hyper 212 Evo is a very nicely priced 120 mm tower cooler, but it is tall enough that it will not fit into some cases. [/quote<]

        • Khali
        • 4 years ago

        Another vote for the Gemin II. I tried to get TR to review it in the past and got dead air.

    • oldog
    • 4 years ago

    Any thoughts about AES hardware encryption on the recommended SSD drives and motherboards?

    • JustAnEngineer
    • 4 years ago

    I’m confused by the recommendation for the [url=http://www.newegg.com/Product/ProductList.aspx?Submit=ENE&N=100007671%20600436886%20600005730%20600005728%20600158477%208000%20600079699%20600005584%20600005727&IsNodeId=1&bop=And&Order=PRICE&PageSize=30<]$120 [/url<] 3.6 GHz Core i3-4160 when the 3.7 GHz Core i3-4170 is $122 -12 code "AFEX15720".

      • chuckula
      • 4 years ago

      Good catch as long as that is the normal price and not just a temporary sale.

        • JustAnEngineer
        • 4 years ago

        Normal price is $120 +2 shipping = $122. The 10% off code is a temporary sale.

          • Westbrook348
          • 4 years ago

          1.7% more $ for 2.8% higher clock, not including the sale

            • Ninjitsu
            • 4 years ago

            Which is good enough, and it’s only $2, which in absolute terms is nothing much either.

    • Mr Bill
    • 4 years ago

    Nice to see you included some under $500 solutions by including some APU choices. They can always drop in that $200 graphics card later if they want.

    • SnowboardingTobi
    • 4 years ago

    What I really want would be to see reviews of Xeon compatible motherboards. *hint hint* *nudge nudge* I’m annoyed that ECC isn’t available in consumer Intel CPUs (except for some i3s). I can figure out the build specs after that on my own. 😉

      • TwoEars
      • 4 years ago

      This is the motherboard you’re looking for. 🙂

      [url<]https://techreport.com/news/27041/asus-dual-xeon-workstation-board-exudes-glorious-excess[/url<]

      • Mr Bill
      • 4 years ago

      Its a product segmentation choice; ECC is reserved for slower but more reliable server boards.

        • stdRaichu
        • 4 years ago

        That may have been true some time ago (back from before when I cared about ECC RAM and servers anyway) – I don’t know what magic sauce was added to DRAM tech since but the old latency pentalty with ECC is basically nonexistent these days. I’d be exceptionally surprised if ECC registered or otherwise was even 1% slower than regular RAM.

        Of course, regular RAM is frequently available in higher-clocked versions (frequently out of established JEDEC specs which I don’t think you ever see with ECC) which can net you superior performance but in my world at least insane memory speeds stopped making a significant cost/benefit difference over five years ago.

        Edit: after doing some reading, it appears the secret sauce was actually in the memory controllers and especially memory interleaving that was able to eliminate the ECC latency penalty. Intrigued now, think I will give cachebench a whirl and see wots changed.

          • Mr Bill
          • 4 years ago

          I did not mean to imply servers were slower because of ECC. They are slower because designers favor reliability and total memory capacity. ECC is just part of that package. It may be different now but seems like server boards are always a generation behind on memory type (e.g. DDR2 when consumer boards were running DDR3).

      • stdRaichu
      • 4 years ago

      I’ve sung its praises on this site before, but I’m exceedingly happy with my [url=http://www.asrock.com/mb/Intel/X99%20WS/<]ASRock X99 WS[/url<]; supports the K series and non-ECC RAM if you want that, supports a Xeon and ECC if you want that. About £120 cheaper than the Asus X99E WS. I run mine with a Xeon E5-1650v3 (six cores) and was incredibly surprised to find out it's actually overclockable (haven't really tried other than a few times bumping the multiplier up to 40 just to see if I could), and at the time I bought it the chip was only £15 more than it's non-Xeon equivalent, the i7 5930K. The only real expense over a non-ECC K system is buying ECC RAM itself, and for DDR4 at the time of purchase ECC and non-ECC cost the same for 4x8GB sticks.

      • Bauxite
      • 4 years ago

      Then buy asrock, they are the only ones that consistently list xeons w/ ecc in cpu specs on their 2011 boards.

      Keep in mind they still can’t get past chipset/PCH limitations baked in by intel, generally the desktop 115x sockets are screwed, you need C2xx boards for those full stop.

    • Ninjitsu
    • 4 years ago

    [quote<] we're conditionally recommending the Core i7-5820K for the first time. [/quote<] FINALLY! Rejoice! Thank you! 😀 BTW possible typo: [quote<] It effectively has no more PCIe bandwidth for SLI and CrossFire than a quad-core Haswell based on the much more affordable [b<]X79[/b<] platform. [/quote<] Think you meant Z97? Haswell platforms are all 8-series or 9-series afaik.

      • Damage
      • 4 years ago

      Doh, yes, Z97. Fixed.

      • w76
      • 4 years ago

      I have a soft spot for that chip too; I’m past my peak gaming days, but sure have lots I could do with an extra pair of cores!

      • Meadows
      • 4 years ago

      Next to nobody has SLI or CF anyway, so it’s all good.

        • Westbrook348
        • 4 years ago

        and any problem with SLI/CF is almost always driver related; PCIe bandwidth is hardly a limiting factor unless you try to go 3+ cards for some crazy reason

      • Krogoth
      • 4 years ago

      5820K is a workstation-tier chip on a budget or you don’t need the expansion options of other Socket 2011 chips.

      Otherwise, just stick with the Socket 1150 options

        • Ninjitsu
        • 4 years ago

        It’s funny but the 5930K recommendation in the guide reads more like “if you want to do multi-gpu gaming you need all these lanes!”.

          • chuckula
          • 4 years ago

          Honestly if you have a 2-way Crossfire/SLI setup then the split 8x/8x lane solution in either a 5820K or a socket 1150 part will do just fine. If we blow up the rather small segment of the market (I think 5% might be an overestimate) that actually uses multiple GPUs, the 2-way setup is by far the dominant configuration.

          However, if you really want to go 100% off the cliff and run 3 or 4 GPUs, at that point having the full 40 lanes of PCIe support does become a bigger deal. Additionally, at that point the price difference between the 5820K and 5930K drops below the noise threshold compared to the signal for how much money you are dropping on the GPUs anyway.

            • Ninjitsu
            • 4 years ago

            Yeah, I agree, and I think the number of people running 3 or more GPUs is absolutely tiny…which makes me laugh at the wording used in the guide, but I think it’ll suffice (and I’ll probably get into trouble for pushing any harder on this! :D)…my only fear is that someone merely using two GPUs will look at that and think the 5820K is a bad idea (assuming they have use for the 2 extra cores).

          • Krogoth
          • 4 years ago

          The other Socket 2011 chips only make sense if you want loads of PCIe lanes for real-world stuff (GPGPUs, PCIe SSD cards, 10Gigabit NICs etc.)

        • jihadjoe
        • 4 years ago

        IMO the great thing about the 5820k is being able to do 8x+8x MGPU and still have lanes left over for a PCIe or M.2 SSD, or 10GbE LAN if that’s your thing.

        Given the results of previous MGPU PCIe [url=http://www.tomshardware.com/reviews/pcie-geforce-gtx-480-x16-x8-x4,2696-16.html<]scaling[/url<] [url=http://www.guru3d.com/articles-pages/pci-express-scaling-game-performance-analysis-review,11.html<]experiments[/url<] I'm hard pressed to believe 40 lanes is necessary, but 16 lanes does seem too few.

    • Chrispy_
    • 4 years ago

    I know you guys don’t test case fans but since most people will want more fans than come with a new case and since TR’s system guide is sponsored by the ‘Egg – could you cherry pick say the five fans with the highest user ratings, get Newegg to ship them to you and give a rudimentary recommendation/inspection/sound-decibel@RPM list? That would be useful to most people buying a new PC with room for 6+ fans in the case but only a measly two provided 😉

    A long time ago you could find detailed fan reviews of Pabst, Panaflo, Sunon, Delta models and it was useful. In the race to the bottom there’s a whole host of rubbish on the market and sometimes the good fans are cheap and the awful fans are expensive.

      • Froz
      • 4 years ago

      Several months ago there was this huge test of fans on another page (linked in one of the shortbreads), I think it was few hundred fans tested. Unfortunatelly I can’t find it anymore.

      And I’m looking for case fans, I had to throw out every single case fan I had (some corsair fans that came with the case + some other cheap fans). They all were fine at the beginning, quiet enough, pushing enough air. However, each single one started to made more noise after several months. I suspect that’s a fault of cheap bearing. I would buy something more expensive this time, but I need some more information on what is actually good.

        • Starfalcon
        • 4 years ago

        I always buy fluid bearing fans, they last a long time unlike sleeve bearing fans. Ive had some of my older panaflo fans running in my older rigs now for over 10+ years. The current case i have, I went with Akasa for my fluid bearing fans…so far they are nicely quiet.

          • Mr Bill
          • 4 years ago

          Recently, I have tried the 120 and 140 mm Rosewill Teflon Nano Bearing fans for my case and CPU heatsink. I’m mostly looking for longevity. They are pretty quiet and low frequency.

    • DrDominodog51
    • 4 years ago

    Can you include an M.2 SSD section in the system guide? I understand there are very few options for M.2 SSDs and very few people who use them, but most modern mid to high end motherboards include a slot for them. Other than that, great write-up Jeff.

      • Anovoca
      • 4 years ago

      small and convoluted. Have you tried shopping for an m.2 drive on newegg? half of the items listed under that section aren’t even m.2 drives. Go ahead – look, I’ll wait here.

        • DrDominodog51
        • 4 years ago

        It looks like there is only 2 that are incorrectly labeled to me, but I only look at items Newegg sells.

    • Airmantharp
    • 4 years ago

    Thanks for mentioning the i7-5820k- it’s been a long time coming!

    • geekl33tgamer
    • 4 years ago

    The i7 4790K is considered mid-range? What a time we live in when a chip that fast is “average”.

    It dominates the benchmark charts over at Techspot in almost every test except for video encoding over the i7 57xx and i7 58xx.

      • Airmantharp
      • 4 years ago

      It’s mid-range in an era where mid-range is faster than needed for 99% of end-user tasks; technically, S2011-socketed processors would be considered ‘high-end’, even if they’re not technically faster for most uses.

      • TwoEars
      • 4 years ago

      Yupp – I think the 4790k is the smarter choice for 99% of users. Single thread performance is what matters most for the typical user and if you can get 8 threads running at say 4.6 GHz that’s plenty of performance to around.

      The money you save on not going for the 2011 platform can be spent on more ssd’s in raid or a killer SLi setup. For most people it’s the better choice. Dual-channel vs quad-channel memory has no real world impact. More than 16 PCI lanes has no real world impact even for SLi.

      The only real use I see for the 2011 platform is hardcore video encoding day in and day out. But if you have that much money to burn maybe you should consider a dell workstation and a 12 core Xeon instead.

        • Ninjitsu
        • 4 years ago

        Actually 90% people will be good with an i5-4590, next 6% may need a 4690K and finally 3% who can use the extra threads of the 4790/K.

        EDIT: All stats pulled out of my arse of course 😀 but I think they’re not too far of the mark.

          • Westbrook348
          • 4 years ago

          I went with the 4690K over the i7, and my CPU overclocked like a beast: currently at 4.4Ghz at 1.2v, stays in the 50 degree range with cheapo CM Evo 212.

          Increasing the i5’s clock like that really makes the i7 pointless for gaming. Glad I didn’t pay more just for hyperthreading

            • Ninjitsu
            • 4 years ago

            I’ll probably end up doing something similar soon, but with Skylake. I was originally considering getting the i7 but it seems SMT makes it slower for gaming in some cases (by a tiny margin, but still), possibly due to additional cache pressure. And I don’t think I have any other pressing need for those threads – I’m not sure how much Arma 3 would benefit, if at all. An overclocked i5 should be good enough.

        • Anovoca
        • 4 years ago

        [quote<] The money you save (....) can be spent on more ssd's in raid or a killer SLi setup [/quote<] those both sound like terrible ways to piss away your money actually.

          • geekl33tgamer
          • 4 years ago

          SLI isn’t the driver mess it once was.

            • Anovoca
            • 4 years ago

            isn’t “currently”

            • TwoEars
            • 4 years ago

            I agree. SLi works fine for me. The performance benefit is awesome and it’s only 1/10 games that I have problems with. I can live with that.

            • geekl33tgamer
            • 4 years ago

            Users on this site are “single GPU or bust” because they remember what it was like in 2005. I agree with you – It’s great today – But you’ll see so many complaints about it still.

            On Steam’s hardware survey for example, less than 2% of the systems have dual GPU that made up their latest results. So, we either have a very vocal minority of complainers or (as I suspect) they have never used it themselves.

            If users want to go and complain about dual GPU’s, go after AMD. If you perceive Nvidia’s software stack to be a mess for SLI, then AMD’s must barely be an Alpha release (coming from dual and tri Crossfire 290X’s I was glad to see the back of).

      • Mr Bill
      • 4 years ago

      I’m shedding tiny tears of empathy because someone should; poor AMD does not seem to have anything in the “mid-range” for gamers.

        • Airmantharp
        • 4 years ago

        Given the wall that Intel has hit in the last four or five years, they’ve had plenty of time to ‘catch up’. I’ll still hold out hope, because Intel will eventually get tired of competing with themselves!

      • Krogoth
      • 4 years ago

      It is a high-end chip on a mid-range platform.

    • greenmystik
    • 4 years ago

    Nice guide as always.

    I have a question about the CPU coolers. Have you guys used or tested Sycthe coolers (specifically the Kotetsu). I’ve heard they are quieter and perform better than the Hyper 212 and for about the same price. I’ve been researching brands for a bit and wanted your opinion.

    Are you still confident with Samsung drives with all of the problems they have been going through?

    Edit: Model name

      • Mr Bill
      • 4 years ago

      FrostyTech probably has a review…
      Yep… [url<]http://www.frostytech.com/permalink.cfm?NewsID=113470[/url<]

        • greenmystik
        • 4 years ago

        I’ve read that review, just wanted some more opinions, and to see if they had any hands on with the product. I try not to go off of just one review.

          • Mr Bill
          • 4 years ago

          OK, I can tell you that I really like the Coolermaster Hyper 212+ and evo. Easy to mount, and good cooling solution for three PC’s and one over the top Stove top fan.
          Success! Hyper 212+ plus Peltier Junction = wood stove fan
          [url<]https://techreport.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=4&t=107693[/url<] But never used a Sycthe.

            • Westbrook348
            • 4 years ago

            Big fan of the 212 also. Very inexpensive yet cools my 4690K at 4.4Ghz no problem at all

          • llisandro
          • 4 years ago

          I think I’d go for the Kotesu based solely on the SPCR article, those guy(s) are great, and at least you have a heads-up comparison with the 212. right now it’s selling at $45 at Amazon, which I think is still worth over the 212, as Scythe fans are much quieter- the fan on my 212 crapped out pretty quickly and was never that quiet.

          Today I installed a Noctua NH­U12S on an i5, and that sucker is tiny and silent! Obviously it’s also $65. But Noctua will send you new parts for new chipsets for free, you’ll have it forever. I think they’re worth it, but that was before Scythes were available stateside 😉

    • tsk
    • 4 years ago

    Good job Jeff Kampman.

      • jihadjoe
      • 4 years ago

      OMG I just realized he’s Jeff K!

        • Ninjitsu
        • 4 years ago

        J eff K?

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