Welcome to another edition of The Tech Report System Guide. We have to admit that our last guide was a bit of a weird one. Intel’s Skylake CPUs were just beginning to hit the market, and we had to rely on some older Haswell CPUs to fill out our tiers of recommended parts. The Broadwell Core i7-5775C needed last-gen motherboards and DDR3 memory, too. That cross-generational blending wasn’t ideal, since we had to talk about two incompatible sets of memory, motherboards, and CPUs all at once.
This time around, the situation is different. More of the Skylake desktop CPU lineup is on the shelves now, and those chips are available in more price brackets than before. Since we’ve so thoroughly covered Haswell CPUs and 9-series motherboards in past guides, we’re not going to tread that ground again in this one. Instead, we’re going to look exclusively at Skylake chips, DDR4 memory, and 100-series motherboards to avoid confusion. Most people will want to build around a Skylake CPU for their next system these days, and we’re happy to help.
Since we last looked at the system-building landscape, AMD released its Radeon R9 380X graphics card. This Tonga-powered card provides a little more oomph than Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 960. Even better, its price has quickly fallen right in line with GTX 960 4GB cards, so we think it’s an easy pick in its price range. We’ll discuss the best R9 380X to buy in our graphics section.
One less happy change for builders comes from the storage arena. Crucial’s BX100 SSDs, long a favorite of ours for budget builds, are being phased out to make room for the BX200 series of drives. We’ve come to expect performance improvements from each new generation of SSDs, but the BX200 is an exception to that rule. Our review shows these drives often trail their BX100 predcessors, not to mention ancient SSDs like Intel’s X25-M. Because of this shift, we’ve rejiggered our storage recommendations a bit, too.
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. Despite its sponsorship, Newegg has no input on the components included in the System Guide, either. Our picks are entirely our own.
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.
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.
If the Intel-centric introduction to this System Guide wasn’t enough of a hint, we think builders will be happiest planning their PCs around an Intel CPU. Dollar for dollar, and by almost any measure, we’ve found the blue team’s chips are simply better than the AMD competition. Whatever your budget, we strongly recommend you build around an Intel chip.
That said, we continue to make room in the System Guide for a couple AMD CPUs, too. AMD entry-level chips can provide unique value propositions that Intel’s offerings can’t match.
Some builders 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 lower 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 advantage. Intel’s current processors also consume less power and throw off less heat than comparable AMD silicon. On top of that, FX-series chips are tied to aging chipsets and motherboards that often don’t include modern niceties like USB 3.1, USB Type-C ports, M.2 storage connectors, DDR4 RAM support, and PCI Express 3.0 slots.
You may have deduced this fact already, but Intel’s latest CPU architecture is called Skylake. Chips based on this 14-nm silicon offer small-but-welcome increases in performance pretty much across the board, and from what we’ve seen, there aren’t substantial premiums for choosing Skylake-compatible motherboards or memory, even now. Skylake’s platform improvements are also welcome: the highest-end Z170 chipset offers more PCI Express lanes for next-generation storage and high-speed I/O ports than Intel’s 9-series boards. Given these advantages, we’d generally recommend building around a Skylake processor if possible.
While we said we’d be looking exclusively at Skylake parts in this guide, we do still need to mention Intel’s Broadwell Core i7-5775C. This CPU is unique because of its 128MB of eDRAM, a resource that the i7-5775C can use as a large last-level cache. In our testing, we found that the 5775C appears to have a natural advantage in producing low frame times in games. This exotic chip could be the ticket to the smoothest gaming experience around, if you can find one. We’ve extensively discussed building with Broadwell on the desktop already, so if you’re interested in knowing more, refer to our last guide for more info.
Pour one out for Intel’s Pentium Anniversary Edition CPU here, too. While that chip was appealing in budget builds for a long time thanks to its unlocked multiplier and the considerable overclocking potential of twin Haswell cores, the game industry appears to be favoring CPUs with more than two threads for future titles. We’ve decided to play it safe by sticking to chips with dual cores and Hyper-Threading in our recs at a minimum.
Not all is lost for overclockers on a budget who favor Intel chips, though. Recently, motherboard makers discovered ways of using Skylake’s isolated base clock domain to push even CPUs with locked multipliers to the moon on Z170 boards. That capability can apparently be added to motherboards with nothing more than a BIOS update. ASRock is the only mobo maker who has officially added this feature to its boards, but we’d expect it to come to boards from other companies, too, if Intel doesn’t intervene somehow.
|Intel Core i3-6100||$129.99||LGA1151 motherboard|
|AMD Athlon X4 860K||$74.99||Socket FM2+ motherboard|
|AMD A8-7600||$84.99||Socket FM2+ motherboard|
In this price range, we think Intel’s Core i3-6100 is a great buy. Its healthy 3.7GHz clock speed should be brisk enough for most, and its Hyper-Threading support can boost performance in multithreaded tasks. It’ll also appear as a quad-core CPU to games that require one. This Core i3 is a good choice for non-gamers, too, since it has basic integrated graphics. For $130, it’s hard to find anything to complain about with this chip.
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 i3-6100’s 47W rating. The A8-7600 also boasts integrated graphics power on par with the Intel competition, too. For around $80, this APU might make sense for the more budget-constrained.
The Athlon X4 860K, on the other hand, 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 clock-for-clock, and I can personally attest that overclocking the A10-7850K doesn’t close the gap much.
|Intel Core i5-6500||$204.99||LGA1151 motherboard|
|Intel Core i5-6600K||$279.99||LGA1151 motherboard, Z170 chipset for overclocking,
aftermarket CPU cooler
|Intel Core i7-6700K||$419.99|
Moving up to the sweet-spot gets builders into Intel’s quad-core CPUs. If you don’t want to play with overclocking, the Core i5-6500 looks like the Goldilocks chip in this price range. For about $205, the i5-6500 gives us 3.2GHz base and 3.6GHz Turbo clocks in a miserly 65W thermal envelope. As a warning, we aren’t as enamored of the Core i5-6400. Though it sells for only $15 less than the i5-6500, the i5-6400 pays for it with a big drop in clocks. That chip only rings in with 2.7GHz base and 3.3GHz Turbo speeds.
The logical step up from the Core i5-6500 is Intel’s Core i5-6600K. This part gives us four cores at 3.5GHz base and 3.9GHz Turbo speeds, along with an unlocked multiplier that gives overclockers free rein. From there, the beastly Core i7-6700K adds Hyper-Threading and turns the clocks all the way up to 4GHz base and 4.2GHz Turbo speeds. Overclockers are free to explore the i7-6700K’s upper limits, too.
Just be sure to grab an aftermarket cooler from our selections later in this guide if you’re building with an i5-6600K or an i7-6700K. Intel doesn’t include a boxed cooler with its Skylake K-series chips.
|Intel Core i7-5820K||$389.99||LGA2011-v3 motherboard,
quad-channel DDR4 memory kit,
discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler
|Intel Core i7-5930K||$499.99|
Last summer, Intel unleashed the Core i7-5960X, its fastest desktop processor to date. This 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 dual-socket Xeon server processor, 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 conditionally recommend the Core i7-5820K. 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 Skylake chip based on the much more affordable Z170 platform.
If you’re not using a lot of PCIe expansion cards, this limitation may not matter, but it’s something to note. The i7-5820K is still unlocked for easy overclocking, and its $390 price tag is reasonable for what it offers.
Buying a motherboard these days is pretty straightforward. There are only four major manufacturers from which to choose, and their offerings have very similar performance and peripheral connectivity at each price point. The main differences between competing boards lie with their Windows software, 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. The company’s 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‘s 100-series motherboards are also a good choice, even if their auto-overclocking intelligence and Windows software aren’t quite up to par with Asus’. The company’s firmware fan controls are quite dated, but Gigabyte’s latest Windows software largely makes up for that deficit. Some Gigabyte motherboards ship with cushioned I/O shields and header adapters, too.
- MSI‘s motherboards are solid, as are the company’s firmware and software. The retooled fan controls in the firm’s 9-series firmware have been carried over to its 100-series boards, though the auto-overclocking intelligence remains fairly conservative and somewhat rudimentary.
- ASRock generally aims its products at more value-conscious buyers. ASRock boards typically offer a great hardware spec for the money. In our experience, however, ASRock’s firmware interface isn’t terribly refined. Neither is the accompanying utility software. ASRock boards are appealing primarily for their budget price tags.
|Gigabyte F2A88XM-D3H||$74.99||AMD Socket FM2+ processor,
microATX or ATX case
|Gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3||$114.99||Intel LGA1151 processor,
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.
Meanwhile, Gigabyte’s GA-H170-Gaming 3 is an appealing platform for non-overclocked Skylake builds. It offers dual M.2 slots and a premium Realtek ALC1150 audio codec along with some features borrowed from Gigabyte’s fancier Z170 boards like reinforced PCIe slots.
|MSI Z170-A Pro||$119.99||Intel LGA1151 processor, ATX case|
|Asus Z170 Pro Gaming||$159.99|
For folks who want a basic Z170 board to pair with an unlocked Skylake CPU, we like MSI’s Z170-A Pro. This $120 mobo has everything the enthusiast needs without a lot of frills. Despite its wallet-friendly price, the Z170-A Pro offers niceties like a full complement of PCIe expansion slots, an M.2 slot positioned out of the way of hot graphics cards, and three system fan headers (although those are for three-pin fans only). For a little more than a Benjamin, this board isn’t missing much. SLI support is the only feature we didn’t see that some builders might want.
Moving up from MSI’s Z170-A Pro, we think Gigabyte’s GA-Z170X-UD3 is quite the compelling board. Gigabyte has ticked all the right boxes here: Intel Gigabit Ethernet and USB 3.1 controllers, Realtek ALC1150 audio, and dual M.2 slots all make an appearance. A next-gen USB 3.1 Type-C port is ready to connect to compatible peripherals, as well. For $145, this could be all the motherboard most people need for a Skylake system.
Asus has a compelling Z170 lineup of its own, and we think the Z170 Pro Gaming is a good step up for those who want to avail themselves of Asus’ superior firmware fan controls and automatic overclocking logic. The Pro Gaming’s M.2 slot is well out of the way of its primary PCIe x16 slot, so PCIe drives like Samsung’s 950 Pro might run cooler on this board. The Z170 Pro Gaming is pretty similar to the Z170-A that we reviewed and enjoyed, but it adds Realtek ALC1150 audio and a couple more ports to the rear I/O block while shedding legacy PCI slots.
|Asus X99-A/USB 3.1||$249.99||Intel LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case|
Haswell-E processors won’t fit into LGA1150 or LGA1151 motherboards like the ones listed above. Instead, Haswell-E requires an LGA2011-v3 socket and quad-channel DDR4 memory slots, features only available in boards powered by Intel’s X99 chipset.
Our favorite X99 board 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.
With Skylake comes a need for DDR4 memory. We’re happy to report that DDR4 prices have come way down since Haswell-E systems first created a need for this next-generation RAM, and they’ve stayed there since. You won’t be paying through the nose for memory if you build with Skylake and 100-series motherboards.
Now that the difference between 4GB and 8GB RAM kits is about $10, we can no longer recommend 4GB in good conscience. Most RAM makers aren’t even offering 4GB dual-channel DDR4 kits, anyway, so builders would be further hampering performance by choosing to save money in this area. Buy whatever 8GB kit of DDR4 DIMMs you can afford and thank us later.
Intel’s official spec for Skylake-compatible DDR4 RAM is DDR4-2133 running at 1.2V, but we’ve used significantly faster DIMMs like DDR4-3000 in our CPU and motherboard test rigs without issue. Given the small price premium and potential increases in bandwidth that faster DDR4 offers, we think it’s a worthy upgrade to get the speedier RAM if you have room in the budget.
AMD builders will still need DDR3 RAM. We suggest an 8GB kit of DDR3-1600 like these Crucial Ballistix Sport DIMMs.
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$44.99|
|Corsair Vengeance LPX 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-3000||$64.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133||$79.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$104.99|
|HyperX Fury 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-2133||$189.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-3000||$219.99|
For H170, Z170, and X99-based systems, any of the above DDR4 kits should be a good bet, depending on the capacity and speed you can afford. We should note that it’s cheaper for X99 builders to double up on any of the above kits rather than buying a single quad-channel kit—it seems like some RAM makers are price-gouging for the privilege of getting four DIMMs in a package rather than two. There’s no need to pay extra for that.
The graphics card market has remained largely stagnant since our last guide. AMD and Nvidia both have mature, complete product lines on the market right now. The one exception is AMD’s Radeon R9 380X, a $230-or-so card that arrived late last month. That card offers a similar value proposition to the 4GB version of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 960, a card we’ve long recommended near that price point, so it was a no-brainer to include the 380X in our recommendations below.
One major factor worth considering as you shop for a graphics card these days is whether you intend to upgrade to a FreeSync or G-Sync variable-refresh-rate (VRR) monitor in the near future. Right now, Nvidia cards can only do VRR with G-Sync displays, and AMD cards can only support variable refresh rates with FreeSync monitors.
If we had to pick a horse in this race today, we’d say that FreeSync is the VRR technology that seems most likely to gain wide adoption. AMD plans to bring the technology to HDMI ports in 2016, and Intel will eventually support the underlying VESA Adaptive-Sync spec in future generations of its products, as well. FreeSync monitors tend to be more affordable than their G-Sync counterparts, too (although the price gap for comparable models has narrowed somewhat of late).
To be fair, if you don’t mind the premium that comes with G-Sync monitors, you can’t go wrong pairing one with an Nvidia card. Both technologies offer buttery-smooth gaming experiences that have to be seen to be believed. Paying more for a monitor locked into a proprietary technology that’s unlikely to become supported outside of Nvidia products just doesn’t sit well with us, though, since monitors tend to live through several generations of graphics card upgrades.
|EVGA GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB||$129.99||N/A|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 950||$154.99||One six-pin power connector|
The GeForce GTX 750 Ti remains our most budget-friendly graphics pick. The EVGA card we’ve chosen is typical of the breed: it’s built on a stubby PCB with a single fan, and it doesn’t require any external power connectors to do its thing.
The GeForce GTX 950 represents a substantial step up from the GTX 750 Ti. It’s based on a slightly cut-down version of the GM206 GPU in the more expensive GTX 960, so it has considerably more theoretical performance than its predecessor by almost every measure. This card should let owners turn up graphics quality settings at 1080p without a hitch. The Gigabyte card we’ve chosen has a nice twin-fan cooler that should be more than a match for the GTX 950’s GPU, and its single six-pin power connector will play well with modest PSUs.
|Asus Radeon R9 380 2GB||$189.99||Two six-pin power connectors|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 960 2GB||$189.99||One six-pin power connector|
|MSI GeForce GTX 960 4GB||$199.99||One eight-pin power connector|
|Sapphire Nitro Radeon R9 380X||$229.99||Two six-pin power connectors|
Our sweet-spot picks can run most games at 1080p with high or maxed-out detail levels. They can also generally deliver smooth gaming at resolutions up to 2560×1440, though they may not deliver the best possible experience there.
Vigorous competition in this price range for cards with 2GB of memory onboard means you can get a Radeon R9 380 for as little as $180 or a GTX 960 for about $10 more. Depending on the way the price and rebate winds blow, those numbers could easily flip from day to day.
We think that if you’re not going to step up to a card with 4GB of RAM onboard, the GTX 960 is the better pick here thanks to its lower power consumption and smoother frame delivery compared to the Radeon. It’s a tough call, though. Our EVGA pick keeps GM206 cool with a single fan, and powers it with a single six-pin connector. Since some 4GB GTX 960s cost only a bit more than a 2GB card right now, though, we think it’s a good idea to get the card with the extra RAM if you can.
AMD’s Radeon R9 380X and its 4GB of RAM offer a smidge more performance than the GeForce GTX 960 4GB, and 380X cards generally cost just a few bucks more than a GTX 960 4GB. We don’t think you can go wrong with either card if you’re shopping in this price range, since they offer similar value propositions. The R9 380X may consume a few more watts under load, but that extra juice didn’t translate into unpleasantness like more noise in our review.
These cards should all produce silky-smooth frame rates at 2560×1440. The more expensive cards here will also pave the way for gaming at 4K—and higher virtual resolutions (via the VSR and DSR features from the GPU makers) on systems with lower-res monitors.
|Gigabyte Radeon R9 390||$319.99||Dual PCIe power connectors|
|MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G||$339.99|
|Asus Strix GeForce GTX 980||$489.99|
|Asus Strix Radeon R9 Fury||$559.99|
|Sapphire Radeon R9 Fury X||$639.99|
|Asus Strix GTX 980 Ti||$649.99|
Dipping into the high-end graphics card market, AMD’s Radeon R9 390 is a compelling pick, especially if you’re shopping for a higher-resolution FreeSync monitor. Current games at common display resolutions don’t seem to benefit much from this card’s 8GB of RAM, but it’s the only way to get an R9 390 for now. The R9 390 is quite competitive with the GeForce GTX 970, at the expense of higher power consumption and more heat.
We had wondered in our last guide whether the miracle of a GeForce GTX 970 for $290 or so would persist. After a couple months of observation, it seems like $310 is the new standard price floor for these cards. That money buys you a card like MSI’s Armor 2X GTX 970, which gets warmed up a bit at the factory compared to reference GTX 970s.
Our favorite GTX 970 is still MSI’s GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G. This card gets even more of a factory tuning job, and like other GTX 970s, it performs about on par with a Radeon R9 390 in our benchmarks while consuming much less power. Under load, it consumes 120W less than the Radeon. 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.
An interesting choice presents itself these days if you want to step up from a GTX 970. In prior guides, we recommended AMD’s R9 Fury and the GeForce GTX 980 side-by-side, but recent price cuts for the GTX 980 have muddied that picture somewhat. It’s possible to get a nice GTX 980 like Asus’ Strix card for about $490 right now, and aggressive rebate offers could bring the Strix’s price down even further, assuming you actually receive the rebate check.
Given that the average R9 Fury performs somewhat worse than a GTX 980 in our advanced frame-time metrics yet costs about $80 more, it’s hard to recommend a Fury for now unless that card has a feature you really want, like FreeSync support.
The Radeon R9 Fury X is AMD’s top-of-the-line offering, complete with an all-in-one liquid cooler. This card performs somewhat worse in our advanced frame-time metrics than its GeForce competition, the GTX 980 Ti. This card is also slightly more power-hungry than the competing GeForce. The Fury X is still an interesting product, but it’s not the card we’d pick in this price bracket unless 4K FreeSync gaming is in your future.
As for GeForce GTX 980 Ti cards, we think our Asus pick is a solid bet. Its huge triple-fan cooler and dizzying factory overclocks set it apart from other GTX 980 Ti offerings. 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 remain 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 $639.99 as of this writing, so we see no reason to look further.
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.
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. We’ve also included some recommendations for PCIe SSDs for those who need face-melting storage performance to go with their Skylake systems.
A new class of entry-level SSDs has trickled onto the market since our last guide. OCZ’s Trion 100 and Crucial’s BX200 are representative of the breed. These drives are usually built around planar TLC flash, and their increased density over older MLC drives means that they can carry lower price tags than most SSDs on the market.
Problem is, these value-oriented drives don’t perform all that well in our testing, and higher-end drives with much better performance are often just a few bucks more. Unless you’re just moving off mechanical storage for the first time, we think your money would be best spent on a higher-end SSD from our recommendations below.
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. Upgrading from a hard drive to solid-state storage probably offers the single most noticeable performance improvement of any component upgrade 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.
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. Recent 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 quite a bit. Shopping around for discounts is an excellent idea—just make sure to stick with trusted brands that have proven track records.
|WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM||$54.99|
|Crucial MX200 250GB||$79.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 250GB||$87.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 500GB||$157.95|
|Mushkin Reactor 1TB||$249.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 1TB||$369.99|
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.
Like the days where 4GB of memory was enough for basic PCs, we think the salad days of the 120GB SSD are over for all but the most budget-constrained systems. Even 240GB is starting to feel a bit small for TR editors who still use those SSDs as their main drives. With that in mind, we’re starting off our picks at the 240GB to 256GB capacity tier.
Because of the death of our previous budget-drive favorite, the Crucial BX100, the company’s MX200 250GB drive is now our pick for the mid-range sweet spot. This drive is exploring new lows in price right now, and it’s a pretty sweet deal for $80 or so. If the MX200 is unavailable, or its price goes back up, Samsung’s 850 EVO 250GB is another solid pick. The EVO and the MX200 trade blows in most of our tests, so the question of which drive to get mostly comes down to price and availability.
The SSD price wars favor Samsung’s 850 EVO 500GB at the 480GB-500GB tier right now. Like the 850 EVO 250GB, the 500GB version offers great performance for its price.
The situation is a little more interesting at the 1TB SSD tier. Here, value performers like Mushkin’s Reactor 1TB can be had for as little as $250 right now, or just $0.25 per gigabyte. Samsung’s 850 EVO is a good higher-end option at $370 or so. Watch for deals on the MX200, as well.
PCI Express SSDs
The Skylake platform is ready for blazing-fast PCIe storage. We’re still waiting on a real variety of PCIe SSDs to hit the market. Samsung and Intel remain the only great sources for those drives right now. That’s OK, though, since drives from either company are still fast enough to melt your face.
Samsung’s 950 Pro drives are the company’s first to combine its 3D V-NAND flash and a controller that supports the next-generation NVM Express storage protocol. That combo makes for one of the fastest SSDs you can buy right now, without question.
The only problem with this drive may be that its real-world performance doesn’t often separate it from drives that use the SATA interface and the AHCI protocol, even if the 950 Pro bests them in our synthetic tests. We’re not ones to argue with glorious excess, but the 950 Pro’s cost per gigabyte is nearly double that of SATA drives with similar capacities. You’ll have to decide whether having the latest and greatest tech is worth it to you.
Intel’s 750 Series solid-state drives are also monster performers thanks to the fact that they’re 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 also ditch the old AHCI protocol for NVM Express. As with the 950 Pro, the real challenge for a 750 Series drive is finding desktop workloads that can take advantage of the performance on tap.
|Samsung 950 Pro 256GB||$189.99|
|Samsung 950 Pro 512GB||$329.99|
|Intel 750 Series SSD 800GB||$599.99|
|Intel 750 Series SSD 1.2TB||$1039.99|
Compared to 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 most motherboards don’t support that drive’s U.2 connector natively yet.
Since SSDs still aren’t capacious enough to take over all storage duties in a desktop PC, it’s a good idea to get a secondary drive for large video files, downloads, personal photos, and the like. In this role, a mechanical drive can be used either by itself or with a twin in a RAID 1 configuration, which will add a layer of fault tolerance. (Remember that RAID is not backup, though.)
|WD Blue 2TB||$84.99|
|WD Black 2TB||$119.99|
|WD Blue 4TB||$129.99|
|WD Black 4TB||$199.99|
|WD Blue 6TB||$214.99|
Going by Backblaze’s reliability studies, HGST drives appear to be the most reliable out there by a decent margin. Western Digital’s drives come in second, while Seagate 1.5TB and 3TB drives are the least reliable. HGST’s drives tend to be a fair bit more expensive than WD’s, though, so we’re continuing to recommend WD’s products for most builders. Grab the drive that fits your capacity, performance, and budgetary requirements.
WD recently threw a curveball by condensing its Green drives into its Blue lineup. The only way to tell which Blue drives are rebranded Greens is to look for a “Z” at the end of the drive’s model number. Since “true Blues”—drives with a 7200 RPM rotational speed—only ever sold in capacities up to a terabyte, expect that most Blue drives you’ll see from here on out are rebranded Greens with a 5400-RPM-ish spindle speed.
WD Red and Red Pro drives are mostly the same thing as Blues, aside from a longer warranty and some RAID-friendly features. We don’t think those two points are worth the extra cost for most.
WD Black drives have a fast 7200-RPM spindle speed, and they’re tuned for high performance, at least by mechanical storage standards. Black drives are better choices than Blues or Reds for storage-intensive work that may exceed the capacities of reasonably priced SSDs.
Living without optical storage is easy today, thanks to the ubiquity of high-capacity USB thumb drives and high-speed Internet connections. Some people still like their DVD and Blu-ray discs, though, and we’re happy to oblige.
|Asus DRW-24B1ST DVD burner||$19.99|
|Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner||$89.99|
Asus’ DRW-24B1ST DVD burner has been a staple of our System Guides for quite a while. It costs only 20 bucks, reads and burns both DVDs and CDs, and has a five-star average out of more than 5,000 reviews on Newegg. We feel pretty safe recommending it. On the Blu-ray front, we recommend the Asus BW-12B1ST, which provides adequate performance backed up by solid user reviews.
Choosing a case is 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.
|Cooler Master N200||$49.99||microATX motherboard|
|Corsair Carbide Series 200R||$59.99||N/A|
Cooler Master’s N200 is a small and affordable case designed for microATX motherboards. It’s more compact than the microATX Obsidian Series 350D we recommend in our Sweet Spot section, which means it’s also a little more cramped inside. Nevertheless, the N200 is quite comfortable to work in, and its twin stock fans are a welcome feature in this price range.
Meanwhile, Corsair’s Carbide Series 200R has been our favorite budget ATX enclosure ever since we reviewed it a while back. 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.
|Fractal Design Define S||$59.99||N/A|
|Corsair Carbide Series Air 240||$89.99||microATX motherboard, fan splitter|
|Fractal Design Define R5||$89.99||N/A|
|Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$136.99||N/A|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$159.99||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 company’s 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.
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), titanium (also windowed or non-windowed), and white (fenestrated and non-fenestrated, of course).
A new contender between the Define R5 and Corsair’s Obsidian 750D is Cooler Master’s MasterCase Pro 5. This TR Recommended case is built with a highly modular interior that can be endlessly reconfigured to suit the needs of almost any conceivable system, and its heavy-duty steel construction and stealthy looks don’t hurt, either.
Between the arrival of the Define R5 and the MasterCase Pro 5, we’re no longer recommending Corsair’s Obsidian 450D at $129.99 or so. It’s a nice case that’s been overshadowed by these newer designs. For a few bucks more, one can have the much more solid and versatile MasterCase Pro 5, and those on tighter budgets can get the Define R5.
Those competitors don’t dethrone Corsair’s Obsidian Series 750D, the luxury sedan of PC enclosures. This case is similar in design to the company’s Obsidian 350D and 450D, but Corsair makes it big enough to accommodate E-ATX motherboards. The 750D is an extremely spacious case that’s an absolute delight to work in. It’s pretty darn quiet, too.
|Cooler Master Cosmos II||$329.99||A forklift|
At roughly 14″ x 28″ x 26″, the Cooler Master Cosmos II is humongous. At around $330, it’s also quite expensive. This thing is unarguably impressive, though, with even roomier innards than the 750D and all kinds of premium features, including gull-wing doors, sliding metal covers, and a compartmentalized internal layout. We didn’t give it an Editor’s Choice award by accident.
This should go without saying in this day and age, but we’ll say it anyway: buying a good power supply is a must.
Cheap PSUs can cause all kinds of problems, from poor stability to premature component failures. Also, many cheap units deceive with inflated wattage ratings. For example, a “500W” bargain-bin PSU might get half of its rating from the 5V rail, which is relatively unimportant, leaving only 250W for the 12V rail, which supplies most power-hungry components like the CPU and GPU. By contrast, quality PSUs derive most of their wattage ratings from the capacity of their 12V rails. That means an el-cheapo 500W unit could be less powerful in practice than a quality 350W PSU.
The power supplies we’ve singled out below are quality units from trustworthy manufacturers who offer at least three years of warranty coverage. Past editions of the System Guide have featured modular PSUs exclusively, but we’ve changed our thinking on that topic, at least at the budget level. Although modular cabling certainly helps to keep the inside of a PC less cluttered, the benefits are largely cosmetic. Folks without windowed cases may not need modular cables, and others may not be able to afford the perk.
At the same wattage, higher-quality PSUs with non-modular cables can often be had for only a little more money than lower-quality alternatives. While modular cabling is still a consideration, we’ve included some non-modular recommendations that trade convenience for better internal components and longer warranties.
We also tried to find PSUs with 80 Plus Bronze or better certification. 80 Plus Bronze guarantees efficiency of 82-85%, depending on the load. The higher a PSU’s efficiency, the less energy it turns into heat while converting AC to DC power, the easier it is to cool quietly. 80 Plus Bronze, Silver, or Gold units tend to have large, slow-spinning fans that are barely audible during normal use. They’ll save you a bit of money on your power bill over the long run, too.
|Corsair CX430||$42.99||Non-modular, one 6+2-pin PCIe power connector|
|Corsair CX430M||$47.99||Semi-modular, one 6+2-pin PCIe power connector|
|SeaSonic S12 II Bronze 430W||$64.99||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.
If you can only spend $40 to $50 on a PSU, we think the CX430s are the ones to buy. 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.
|EVGA Supernova G2 550W||$89.99||Fully modular, dual 6+2-pin PCIe connectors,
|EVGA Supernova G2 750W||$109.99||Fully modular,
quad 6+2-pin PCIe connectors,
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.
EVGA has expanded its superb Supernova G2 range to include a 550W model, so we’re recommending that PSU for the first time. This is a fully-modular, 80 Plus Gold-certified unit. It’s so good, in fact, that the PSU reviewers over at JonnyGuru gave it a perfect score. Consider us sold. EVGA backs this unit with a seven-year warranty, too.
If you need more power for lots of hard drives or multi-GPU configurations, EVGA’s Supernova G2 750W fits the bill. According to the reviewers at JonnyGuru, the Supernova G2’s power delivery is practically perfect. EVGA is so confident in the Supernova G2 that it backs the PSU with a 10-year warranty if users register with the company, but beware: without registration, the warranty coverage is only three years.
|EVGA Supernova G2 850W||$155.41||Fully modular,
quad 6+2-pin PCIe connectors,
For systems where 750W still 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 Fury X cards, this is your PSU.
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
Since Intel’s Core i5-6600K and Core i7-6700K don’t ship with stock coolers, you’ll want to pick one from our selections below. Haswell-E builders will need to pick out a cooler, as well. Be careful to note your case’s maximum CPU cooler height before buying one of these, as tall tower heatsinks need a lot of space.
For the first time in a long time, we’ve done a top-to-bottom review of our CPU cooler recommendations. Our favorite liquid coolers, Cooler Master’s Nepton 120XL and Nepton 240M, have been taken off the market thanks to a patent lawsuit. We’ve suggested some of Corsair’s liquid coolers as replacements, but Corsair’s products include relatively noisy fans that some TR contributors haven’t liked.
Because of those challenges, we’ve turned to large, tower-style air coolers for the majority of our recommendations. In the past, we shied away from these coolers because of potential compatibility and clearance issues. Companies like be quiet!, Cryorig, Phanteks, and Noctua have all made living with these enormous coolers easier, though, and these modern heatsinks can often dissipate the heat of a heavily-overclocked CPU without any more noise than a closed-loop liquid cooler. Even better, they dispense with the noise of a liquid-cooling pump at idle, potentially making for a quieter system overall.
|Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||$34.99||Tower-style air cooler||Case with 6.3″ (159 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Phanteks PH-TC12DX||$49.99||Case with 6.2″ (157 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Cooler Master Hyper D92||$44.99||Case with 5.6″ (142 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Noctua NH-D15S||$89.99||Case with 6.5″ (165 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Corsair H60||$67.99||Closed-loop liquid cooler||Case with a 120-mm radiator mount|
|Corsair H80i GT||$89.99||Case with a 120-mm radiator mount;
clearance for push-pull radiator-fan stack
|Corsair H105||$104.99||Case with a 240-mm radiator mount|
As far as entry-level coolers go, it doesn’t get much better than Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Evo. This classic cooler is a very popular choice among builders. It boasts over 6,000 five-star reviews at Newegg.
A more effective option for those looking to overclock might be Phanteks’ PH-TC12DX, which comes with twin fans. The reviewers at TechPowerUp found that the TC12DX has substantial cooling power for its size—it held an overclocked Sandy Bridge-E chip to just 65° C under a Prime95 load. It also tops out at just 47 dBA with its fans spinning at maximum speed. Those are quite respectable numbers for this cooler’s $50 price tag.
For cases that can’t swallow the Hyper 212 Evo or the PH-TC12DX, 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.
The high-end tower cooler market is crowded with excellent options. If you’re going to drop more than twice the price of a Hyper 212 EVO on a cooler, we think Noctua’s NH-D15S is an excellent choice. This cooler is packed with clever design choices that make it easier to live with than the average hulking tower heatsink. Its offset heat pipes and cut-outs at the base of its cooling towers mean it shouldn’t run into large memory heatsinks or expansion cards in the first slot of most motherboards. Its single 140-mm fan is nestled between its towers for more clearance, too.
TweakTown found that the NH-D15S can hold an overclocked Core i7-4770K to about 70 C under load at 4.5GHz and 1.14V, and its single fan only produces 33 dBA at full speed. Going by that site’s considerable roster of CPU cooler test results, the NH-D15S is among the best coolers around of any type.
Big tower coolers can’t fit into mini-ITX enclosures, though, and for extreme small-form-factor builds, liquid coolers like Corsair’s H60, H80i GT, or H105 may be in order. Just be prepared to replace the relatively rough-sounding fans Corsair includes with a premium high-static-pressure spinner or two. Noctua’s NF-F12 appears to be a favorite for that purpose.
A lot of folks are perfectly content with their motherboard’s integrated audio these days. However, each time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete sound cards wind up sounding noticeably better than integrated audio. That’s with a pair of lowly Sennheiser HD 555 headphones, too, not some kind of insane audiophile setup. If you’re using halfway decent analog headphones or speakers, a sound card is a worthwhile purchase.
It’s fine to stick with motherboard audio if you use digital speakers or USB headphones, since those handle the analog-to-digital conversion themselves. That said, even with digital speakers, the sound cards we recommend below will do things that typical onboard audio cannot, such as surround sound virtualization and real-time Dolby multi-channel encoding.
|Asus Xonar DSX||$53.99|
|Asus Xonar DX||$99.99|
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.
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 box: the Cheap ‘n Cheerful
|Processor||Intel Core i3-6100||$129.99|
|Cooler||Intel stock cooler||—|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3||$114.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws 4 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$44.49|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 950||$154.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX200 250GB||$79.99|
|WD Blue 1TB||$54.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define S||$59.99|
Take a moment to grieve for the Pentium G3258 builds from System Guides past here. Even if overclocking is off the table, our budget box is still formidable. Intel’s own Core i3-6100 serves as our new CPU pick, with two Skylake cores, four threads, and a 3.7GHz clock frequency. Gigabyte’s feature-packed GA-H170-Gaming 3 mobo gives this system a solid foundation, and a GeForce GTX 950 graphics card means this box is ready to do justice to most games at 1080p. 1TB of mechanical storage, a premium 250GB SSD, 8GB of RAM, and Fractal Design’s excellent Define S case round out this box.
The Sweet Spot
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6500||$204.99|
|Cooler||Intel stock cooler||—|
|Memory||HyperX Fury 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$53.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G||$339.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX200 250GB SSD||$79.99|
|WD Blue 2TB||$84.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define R5||$89.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 550W||$89.99|
The Sweet Spot gets builders into a quad-core Skylake CPU, Gigabyte’s GA-Z170X-UD3 mobo, and most importantly, MSI’s GeForce 970 Gaming 4G graphics card. This system should be able to handle games at higher resolutions with some eye candy turned up, and four fast Skylake cores make it well-suited for non-gaming tasks, too.
The Sweeter Spot
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6600K||$279.99|
|Motherboard||Asus Z170 Pro Gaming||$159.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws 4 16GB (2x4GB) DDR4-3000||$94.99|
|Graphics||Asus Strix GeForce GTX 980||$489.99|
|Storage||Samsung 850 EVO 500GB||$157.95|
|WD Blue 2TB||$84.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$136.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 650W||$99.99|
Our Sweeter Spot build is packed with even more goodness, including beefier overclocking-friendly parts. An unlocked Core i5-6600K CPU could have some extra performance waiting to be unleashed. The DDR4-3000 memory kit we’ve picked should provide ample memory bandwidth, too. Cooler Master’s MasterCase Pro 5 ties this build together.
We’re including 2TB of bulk storage and a 500GB SSD in the Sweeter Spot this time around. 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 optical drives. Windows comes on USB sticks these days, so it doesn’t make sense to blow $20 on a traditional DVD burner. That money can be put to better use elsewhere.
High-end build: The Maxwellator XXL
|Motherboard||Asus X99-A/USB 3.1||$249.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws 4 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$104.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws 4 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$104.99|
|Graphics||Asus Strix GeForce GTX 980 Ti||$649.99|
|Storage||Samsung 850 EVO 500GB||$157.95|
|WD Red 4TB||$154.99|
|WD Red 4TB||$154.99|
|Asus BW-12B1ST Blu-ray burner||$74.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DX||$99.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$136.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 850W||$119.99|
With six cores, 12 threads, 32GB of RAM, and a super-quiet Asus GeForce GTX 980 Ti primed for 4K goodness, this iteration of the Maxwellator XXL tops out our recommendations. 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 big Noctua tower cooler, Cooler Master’s MasterCase Pro 5, and 80 Plus Gold power supply, not to mention the powerful yet power-efficient GPU. Just because a system is fast doesn’t mean it should be used with earmuffs.
The operating system
Windows 10 is here, and most of the TR staff has upgraded to Microsoft’s latest OS. We’ve all been pleased with the experience so far. If you skipped Windows 8.1 because of its mish-mash of touch and desktop design principles, we think you’ll appreciate Windows 10. The reworked UI combines the best of Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. The Start menu returns, along with new features like Microsoft’s Cortana digital assistant, virtual desktops, and an overhauled browser called Edge. None of these changes are earth-shattering, but the overall package is polished and stable. There’s no reason to choose the long-in-the-tooth Windows 7 or the muddled Windows 8.1 any longer.
Windows comes in a wide range of versions, but most builders reading this should choose the retail version of Windows 10 Home, which comes on a USB drive with both 32-bit and 64-bit versions for $120. Due to a change in licensing terms, it’s no longer kosher to purchase an OEM copy of Windows for your own PC to save a few bucks, and the retail version of Windows comes with a couple of perks like license transfer rights that the OEM version doesn’t. If you suspect that you might need some of the features in Windows 10 Pro, you should check out Microsoft’s comparison page for confirmation and purchase accordingly.
We won’t really know what’s happening next in the world of PC hardware until companies take the wraps off what they have in store for next year at CES next month. Perhaps the biggest shoe that’s yet to drop remains Oculus’ Rift VR headset, which is supposed to arrive some time during the first quarter of 2016. The minimum system requirements for the Rift shouldn’t be that hard to meet if you have one of our recent builds based on GTX 970 or Radeon R9 390-class cards. We’ll be keeping an eye on the needs of the Rift as it draws closer to release.
Graphics cards are the San Andreas Fault of PC hardware right now. We have a gut feeling that a big shake-up is due for that part of the market, but we don’t know exactly when it’s coming. AMD has revealed that it intends to release next-generation graphics chips some time in 2016 with HDMI 2.0 and DisplayPort 1.3 on board, but that’s about all we know of the company’s next-gen products as of now. We also know Nvidia is working on a next-generation graphics architecture called Pascal, but we don’t yet know when to expect cards built around that silicon to begin shipping.
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.