Welcome to a new edition of The Tech Report’s System Guide. Since our last update, the basic shape of the hardware that goes inside today’s PCs hasn’t changed much, but there’s plenty going on outside the case. HTC’s Vive and Oculus’ Rift VR headsets are here now, and we expect many people will be dusting off their PC-building chops to put together new systems to power those headsets. A number of people might even be stepping up to the PC-building plate for the first time. Whatever your skill level, we’re here to help.
If you’re wondering whether your PC is VR-capable, we have some good news. If you built a Sweet Spot system from our System Guides dating all the way back to December 2014, you already have the CPU, graphics card, and RAM you’ll need to power a Rift or Vive. Those systems already included a GeForce GTX 970 or Radeon R9 290 graphics card, a Core i5-4590 or better CPU, and 8GB of RAM or more. Those specs are all the same or better than the baseline Oculus and HTC recommend. If your system falls short of those specs, it may finally be time to pull out the credit card.
We’re still building with the same Radeons and GeForces that we have in past Guides right now. AMD has said that it’ll be releasing new graphics-processing units built on next-gen fabrication processes later this year, and Nvidia has strongly hinted that it’ll be following suit. We don’t know precisely when chips from either company will hit the market, and we also don’t know what sort of performance classes those companies will be targeting with their new graphics cards at first. Even so, the looming proposition of newer, shinier graphics cards makes life as a PC builder a little tricky right now, especially after GPU fabrication’s long stay at the 28-nm process node.
Solid-state storage continues its downward march in price. We’re not quite at the point where we can put a 480GB or 512GB SATA SSD in a system where a 240GB drive would have gone before, but we’re getting close. More companies appear poised to enter the PCIe SSD market soon, too, but the value proposition for these lightning-fast drives is still unclear for all but the most demanding desktop users. Unless you’ve got to have face-melting synthetic benchmark numbers to screenshot, you’ll probably be fine with a good old SATA SSD for now.
The Tech Report System Guide is sponsored by Newegg. We’ll be using links to the site’s 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 cases 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. 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. We’ll also make a note of good choices for those readers who are looking to get in to a VR ready system.
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.
We’re still singing the same tune about CPUs in this Guide that we have been for some time. Dollar for dollar, and by almost every measure, we think Intel’s CPUs are the ones to get if you want the best performance out of your PC. It’s worth noting that AMD’s motherboard partners have recently closed the feature-parity gap with modern Intel boards a bit by adding M.2 slots and USB 3.1 controllers to some of their latest AMD 970 and 990-series boards. Those changes don’t help AMD FX CPUs’ relatively weak single-threaded performance, power-hungriness, and reliance on older standards like PCIe 2.0 buses and DDR3 RAM, though.
You may have deduced this fact already, but Intel’s latest CPU architecture is called Skylake. Chips built 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 any longer. 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’re primarily looking at Skylake parts in this guide, Intel’s Broadwell Core i7-5775C still deserves a mention, too. 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 CPU is a bit of an odd bird, though. It relies on the older Z97 platform and DDR3 RAM, and its high cost—about $20 more than Intel’s own Core i7-6700K—makes it a hard sell unless you’re serious about getting the lowest frame times around or want the chip’s powerful integrated graphics.
Despite our preference for Intel CPUs, AMD’s Athlon X4 880K is getting a home in our budget recommendations. This $95 quad-core CPU is basically a high-end Godavari APU with its onboard graphics disabled. While the 880K won’t be able to match our favorite Intel Core i3-6100 in single-threaded workloads, it ships with a high-quality stock cooler and an unlocked multiplier. That means builders on a budget might be able to close the gap with the Core i3-6100 a bit. We’ve tested AMD’s Wraith cooler, a fancier version of the one that ships with the X4 880K, and we’ve found that it offers performance similar to some smaller aftermarket heatsinks. Not bad for something that comes in the box.
In our last guide, we discussed the budding possibility of overclocking non-K series Intel processors using an unofficial BCLK workaround on some ASRock motherboards. Intel has since put the kibosh on this method, leaving those who want to take advantage of this workaround to rely on out-of-date motherboard firmware or specific boards that offer external base-clock generators. We’ve played with this unsupported overclocking method a bit, and we’ve found that it comes with some tradeoffs like garbled system-monitoring data and neutered AVX performance in workloads that care about it. Unless you’re willing to live with what is essentially a hack, we don’t think BCLK overclocking is worth it.
|AMD Athlon X4 880K||$95.00||AMD Socket FM2+ motherboard|
|Intel Core i3-6100||$124.99||Intel LGA1151 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 $125, it’s hard to find anything to complain about with this chip.
For those who want to tinker with clock speeds on a budget—or for folks whose budgets just don’t stretch to the Core i3-6100—AMD’s Athlon X4 880K gets a conditional nod from us. Since the X4 880K is a quad-core CPU, it should also work with most modern games without a hitch. The 880K won’t be as fast as the Core i3-6100 in single-threaded workloads, though, and overclocking it probably won’t close the gap that much. Still, AMD’s beefy stock cooler should allow budget builders to turn up the clocks without spending extra for an aftermarket cooler, and that could be an attractive value proposition for an entry-level system.
|Intel Core i5-6500||$204.99||Intel LGA1151 motherboard|
|Intel Core i5-6600K||$244.99||Intel LGA1151 motherboard, Z170 chipset for overclocking,
aftermarket CPU cooler
|Intel Core i7-6700K||$359.99|
Moving up to our sweet-spot picks gets builders into Intel’s quad-core CPUs. If you don’t want to get into 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. The Core i5-6500 is also a great CPU for a VR-ready machine. As a warning, we aren’t as enamored of the Core i5-6400. Though it sells for $15 less than the i5-6500, the i5-6400 pays for it with a big drop in clock speeds. We don’t think the step down to 2.7GHz base and 3.3GHz Turbo speeds is worth the savings.
The logical step up from the Core i5-6500 is Intel’s Core i5-6600K. This part gives us four cores running 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.
Since Intel doesn’t include a stock cooler with its K-series CPUs any longer, be sure to grab an aftermarket cooler from our selections later in this guide if you’re building with a Core i5-6600K or a Core i7-6700K—and make sure it’s a beefy one if you’re choosing the i7-6700K. Our experience with that chip has shown that it’s quite the challenge to cool, even for large tower heatsinks.
|Intel Core i7-5820K||$389.99||LGA2011-v3 motherboard,
quad-channel DDR4 memory kit,
discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler
|Intel Core i7-5930K||$579.99|
If the Z170 platform doesn’t offer enough PCIe lanes or memory bandwidth for your needs, Intel’s “Extreme” CPUs and X99 motherboards are the next step up for desktop PCs. It’s a bit of an awkward time to be building an X99 system, though. Intel just released its Broadwell-EP Xeon CPUs, and we more or less know that a lineup of Broadwell-E desktop parts will be following those chips at some point. Even so, given that Intel’s motherboard partners are already boasting that their products will be compatible with these future CPUs after a firmware update, there isn’t a whole lot of risk buying an X99 mobo right now.
Even if they will be compatible with future CPUs, today’s X99 motherboards seem to be getting a little long in the tooth. It’s hard to find X99 motherboards with the increasingly popular USB 3.1 Type-C port, for example. We only know of one motherboard with a USB 3.1 Type-C port that doubles as a Thunderbolt 3 connector, and Thunderbolt 3 support seems like it would be nice to have in a high-end system. It’s possible we’ll get some updated X99 boards once Broadwell-E CPUs arrive, but those parts could be a ways off.
For now, Intel’s Core i7-5960X is still one of the most powerful CPUs you can put in a desktop motherboard. 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 still 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 its performance even further 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 on the X99 platform. Many folks who build systems with 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 better Windows software than the competition, plus 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 company’s 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 GA-F2A88XM-D3HP||$64.99||AMD Socket FM2+ processor,
microATX or ATX case
|Gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3||$94.99||Intel LGA1151 processor,
Gigabyte’s F2A88XM-D3HP is our pick if you’re building with an AMD CPU like the Athlon X4 880K. This board is an updated version of the F2A88XM-D3H we used to recommend. It’s a compact, straightforward board built around AMD’s A88X chipset, which supports RAID arrays for SATA drives and configurable TDPs for certain processors. This board’s feature set includes a USB 3.1 Type-A port and a USB 3.1 Type-C port, all for the same price as its predecessor.
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 metal-reinforced PCIe slots. If you don’t plan to overclock, and you’re OK living with DDR4-2133 RAM only, the H170-Gaming 3 seems like all the motherboard one would need for a budget system.
|MSI Z170-A Pro||$114.99||Intel LGA1151 processor, ATX case|
|MSI Z170A SLI Plus||$139.99|
|Asus Z170 Pro Gaming||$154.99|
For folks who want a basic Z170 board to pair with an unlocked Skylake CPU, we like MSI’s Z170-A Pro. This $115 mobo has everything the enthusiast needs without a lot of frills. Despite its wallet-friendly price, the Z170-A Pro offers 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.
If you’ve gotta have SLI support, MSI’s Z170A SLI Plus lets builders install multiple Nvidia graphics cards. It also adds a few other niceties compared to our budget pick. This board comes with three four-pin fan headers, an Intel Gigabit Ethernet controller, a fancier Realtek ALC1150 audio codec, and reinforced PCIe slots. MSI also includes a USB 3.1 Type-C port on the Z170A SLI, another little touch that’s missing from the Z170-A Pro.
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.
|Gigabyte GA-X99P-SLI||$249.99||Intel LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case|
|Asus X99-A/USB 3.1||$249.99|
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 Editor’s Choice-winning 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 has plenty of room for expansion, 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.
The X99-A does lack a USB 3.1 Type-C port and Thunderbolt 3 support, though. The only board on the market with those modern features (at least that we’re aware of) is Gigabyte’s GA-X99P-SLI. This board uses Intel’s Alpine Ridge controller to provide both high-speed USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 connections through its single USB 3.1 Type-C port. This Gigabyte board is down a couple ports in its rear cluster compared to the X99-A, but the tradeoff could be worth it if you need the X99P-SLI’s unique feature set.
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$33.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-3000||$43.99|
|Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133||$57.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$69.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2133||$119.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-3000||$174.99|
Skylake CPUs need DDR4 RAM. We’re happy to report that DDR4 prices have come way down since Haswell-E systems first created a need for this next-generation memory, 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.
RAM is so affordable now that there’s no reason at all to consider anything but 8GB in an entry-level build. It also doesn’t cost a whole lot extra to step up to 16GB of RAM these days, either. If you use Photoshop or other creative applications in tandem with a lot of open browser tabs, 16GB of RAM is starting to become a baseline, not an upgrade. Even 32GB of RAM might not be outlandish for the heaviest multitaskers.
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.
If you’re building an X99 system, be sure to double up on any of the RAM kits above to reach the capacity you want. Haswell-E CPUs need four DIMMs to take full advantage of their quad-channel memory controllers.
Finally, AMD builders will still need DDR3 RAM. We suggest an 8GB kit of DDR3-1600 like these Crucial Ballistix Sport DIMMs.
The graphics card market has remained largely stagnant since our last guide. AMD and Nvidia both have mature product lines on the market right now, so we won’t be making any major changes to our selections this time around. Manufacturers have begun to introduce low-power GeForce GTX 950s that don’t need a six-pin power connector to run, but we haven’t seen any of those cards hit the market yet. Even our most basic power-supply recommendations include a six-pin PCIe power connector, so we don’t see any reason to seek out one of those cards unless you don’t have the power plug to spare.
Even if graphics hardware hasn’t changed much since our last guide, the performance demands on those pixel-pushers have been growing of late. If you hadn’t already heard, VR headsets are some of the most demanding things you can plug into a graphics card right now. To deliver a good VR experience, graphics cards need to consistently drive a 2160×1200 display (split over two eyes) at 90 frames per second. For perspective, Oculus says this graphics workload is about three times as demanding as driving a 1080p display.
Oculus and HTC both recommend a GeForce GTX 970 or Radeon R9 290 as the baseline for a good VR experience, and our early testing bears out that suggestion. Like everything else in the PC hardware world, though, more is better. The developers of popular VR title Hover Junkers already warn that a GTX 970 is only good for running that game on low graphics settings, for example. If you want to run Hover Junkers on higher quality settings, you’ll need a GeForce GTX 980 or equivalent card. All told, we’d suggest plugging your VR headset into the most powerful graphics card you can afford.
Another 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. Right now, Nvidia cards can only do VRR with G-Sync displays, and AMD cards can only do VRR 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.
|Zotac GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB||$104.99||N/A|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 950||$159.99||One six-pin power connector|
The GeForce GTX 750 Ti remains our most budget-friendly graphics pick. The Zotac 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. At $104.99, this should be a sizable upgrade from integrated graphics without breaking the budget.
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.
|EVGA GeForce GTX 960 2GB||$179.99||One six-pin power connector|
|Sapphire Nitro Radeon R9 380X 4GB||$219.99||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 or a GeForce GTX 960 for about $180. 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 thanks to its lower power consumption and smoother frame delivery compared to the Radeon.
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 about 20 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.
|MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G||$324.99||Dual PCIe power connectors|
|XFX Radeon R9 390||$329.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 980 SC||$499.99|
|Asus Strix Radeon R9 Fury||$559.99|
|Sapphire Radeon R9 Fury X||$619.99|
|Asus Strix GTX 980 Ti||$679.99|
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 or at higher virtual resolutions (via the VSR and DSR features from the GPU makers) on systems with lower-res monitors. Each of these cards is also up to the challenge of running the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive.
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 still the only way to get an R9 390. The R9 390 is quite competitive with the GeForce GTX 970, at the expense of higher power consumption and more heat.
Prices for GeForce GTX 970s range from $300 or so to over $350. Cheaper GTX 970s often come with simpler coolers and lower factory clock speeds than their more expensive brethren, though more aggressively-tuned GTX 970s often find their way toward the bottom end of that price range. We’re confident our GTX 970 pick is the best around, but it might be worth shopping around and seeing what deals are on offer when you’re ready to buy.
Our favorite GTX 970 is still MSI’s GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G. This card gets a decent 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 $350 or so. In fact, you don’t really need anything more unless you’re driving a 4K monitor or a multi-display setup for gaming.
If you do want to step up from a GeForce GTX 970, the picture is a little murky right now. We generally favor Nvidia’s $500-ish GeForce GTX 980 for its killer combo of smooth frame delivery, high frame rates, and relatively power-efficient operation in today’s games. EVGA’s GeForce GTX 980 SC offers faster-than-stock clocks paired with a solid twin-fan cooler.
In early DirectX 12 benchmarks, though, like Computerbase’s look at the latest Hitman, the $100-or-so cheaper Radeon R9 390X can leapfrog the 980 and go straight for the throat of the much more expensive GeForce GTX 980 Ti (at least going by the crude yardstick of raw FPS). The R9 390X comes with its own set of problems, though. Those include potentially less smooth frame delivery than the Nvidia competition, high power consumption, and lots of waste heat production. R9 390X cards generally need massive coolers to stay quiet, too. For those reasons, the 390X is a less compelling value proposition than its performance numbers might suggest.
If the $120-or-so price gulf between the R9 390X and AMD’s Radeon R9 Fury doesn’t faze you, the Fury offers somewhat better performance than the R9 390X without that card’s prodigious appetite for power. It appears to benefit from some games’ move to DirectX 12 in much the same way as the 390X does, too. Asus’ Strix R9 Fury comes with a great triple-fan cooler that’s quite pleasant to have nearby under load.
The Radeon R9 Fury X is AMD’s top-of-the-line offering, complete with an all-in-one liquid cooler. This $650 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 still 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’re dead-set on a Radeon R9 Fury X, your choices are pretty simple. 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 at $620, $30 below AMD’s suggested $650 price tag. We see no reason to look any further.
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.
The system drive is where the operating system and most of your games and applications ought to reside. Upgrading your system drive from a hard drive to a solid-state drive probably offers the single most noticeable performance improvement of any component upgrade in a modern PC, but we understand that not everybody needs speed as much as they do capacity, so we’re continuing to include a 1TB mechanical hard drive in our recommendations.
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||$53.99|
|OCZ Trion 150 240GB||$61.99|
|Crucial MX200 250GB||$81.72|
|Crucial MX200 500GB||$139.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 500GB||$149.99|
|Mushkin Reactor 1TB||$209.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 1TB||$289.99|
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 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. OCZ’s Trion 150 240GB drive may not be as speedy as Samsung’s 850 EVO 250GB, but the Samsung drive is about $40 more expensive right now. Crucial’s MX200 240GB drive splits the difference at about $80. If you need fancy features like hardware-accelerated encryption, the MX200 is the drive to get.
At the 500GB SSD tier, Crucial’s MX200 is just $10 more than the 480GB Trion 150, so it’s easy to recommend over OCZ’s value-oriented option. If the MX200 goes out of stock, the Samsung 850 EVO 500GB drive goes for about $150.
The situation is a little more interesting at the 1TB SSD tier. Here, value MLC performers like Mushkin’s Reactor 1TB can be had for as little as $210 right now, or just $0.21 per gigabyte. Samsung’s 850 EVO is a good higher-end option at $290 or so, but it’s been much cheaper in the past.
PCI Express SSDs
The Skylake platform is ready for blazing-fast PCIe storage. Samsung and Intel continue to dominate this market for the moment, but competition from other storage manufacturers is brewing. Even if we’re limited to picking drives from the big two right now, we’re OK with that. SSDs 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. 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 PCIe 950 Pro sells for over twice the price of a similarly large SATA 850 EVO. You’ll have to decide whether having the latest and greatest tech is worth that considerable premium.
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||$180.99|
|Samsung 950 Pro 512GB||$317.06|
|Intel 750 Series SSD 800GB||$599.99|
|Intel 750 Series SSD 1.2TB||$1067.99|
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||$76.99|
|WD Black 2TB||$122.99|
|WD Blue 4TB||$127.99|
|WD Black 4TB||$196.99|
|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 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|
|LG WH16NS40 Blu-ray burner||$58.99|
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. Since our last Guide, the Asus Blu-ray burner we used to recommend appears to have gone out of production. That’s OK, since the LGWH16NS40 Blu-ray burner offers higher speeds and costs less than our former pick. Can’t argue with that.
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 bays, 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||$46.99||microATX motherboard|
|Corsair Carbide Series 200R||$59.99||N/A|
|Fractal Design Define Nano S||$64.99||mini-ITX motherboard|
Cooler Master’s N200 is a small and affordable case designed for microATX motherboards. The N200 is quite comfortable to work in, and its $47 price tag won’t break the bank even on a tight budget. Its twin stock fans are a welcome feature in this price range, although they don’t offer an easy positive-pressure configuration like pricier models.
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.
If you’re thinking about going Mini-ITX for the first time, Fractal Design’s Define Nano S makes life with a Mini-ITX motherboard easy. This Editor’s Choice-winning tower-style case offers a smaller footprint than microATX or ATX mid-towers without sacrificing usability or cooling performance.
|Fractal Design Define S||$79.99||N/A|
|Corsair Carbide Series Air 240||$84.99||microATX motherboard, fan splitter|
|Fractal Design Define R5||$109.99||N/A|
|Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$136.99||N/A|
|Corsair Carbide Series 600C||$139.99||N/A|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$159.99||N/A|
Bridging our budget and sweet spot picks is Fractal Design’s Define S, another 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—most 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, another winner of 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.
Another new entrant to our sweet-spot recommendations is the Corsair Carbide Series 600C. This case features an unusual “inverse ATX” design that puts the motherboard on the left side of the case and the power supply on top. With the right fan control options, the 600C kept our test system cool and whisper-quiet. It’s quite the looker, too.
If you need an ATX full-tower and all the space that label implies, Corsair’s Obsidian Series 750D remains 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||$339.99||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, and 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||$39.99||Non-modular, one 6+2-pin PCIe power connector|
|Corsair CX430M||$45.99||Semi-modular, one 6+2-pin PCIe power connector|
|SeaSonic S12 II Bronze 430W||$49.99||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.
We’re continuing to recommend EVGA’s superb G2 550W PSU for systems that need more oomph than the SeaSonic or Corsair PSUs in our budget range. The 80 Plus Gold-certified G2 550W is so good that the PSU reviewers over at JonnyGuru gave it a rare 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||$129.99||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.
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 a large tower cooler, as those huge heatsinks need a lot of space.
Cooler Master’s Nepton 120XL and Nepton 240M were taken off the market by a patent lawsuit a few months back. We’ve picked out 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||$29.94||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||$39.99||Case with 5.6″ (142 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Noctua NH-D15S||$84.99||Case with 6.5″ (165 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Corsair H60||$59.99||Closed-loop liquid cooler||Case with a 120-mm radiator mount|
|Corsair H80i GT||$99.99||Case with a 120-mm radiator mount;
clearance for push-pull radiator-fan stack
|Corsair H105||$103.99||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 can’t, like surround sound virtualization and real-time Dolby multi-channel encoding.
|Asus Xonar DSX||$53.99|
|Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
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’d rather just grab a complete shopping list and buy stuff, though, we’re more than happy to help. Here are a few parts lists that span a range of budget options. As always, these builds are just suggestions. Feel free to swap parts around as needed to fit your budget and performance needs.
The Budget Box
|Processor||AMD Athlon X4 880K||$95.00|
|Cooler||AMD stock cooler||—|
|Memory||HyperX Fury 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$34.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 950||$139.99|
|Storage||WD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM||$53.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master N200||$46.99|
The Budget Box is our take on a PC that offers more gaming power than a console for not a whole lot of scratch. This system’s GeForce GTX 950 graphics card opens the door to 1080p gaming with a fair bit of eye candy turned on. Our quad-core Athlon X4 880K CPU is unlocked for easy overclocking, and AMD’s included cooler should have some thermal headroom for builders who want to try their hand at tweaking multipliers.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-6100||$124.99|
|Cooler||Intel stock cooler||—|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3||$94.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$33.49|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon R9 380X||$219.99|
|Storage||OCZ Trion 150 240GB||$61.99|
|WD Blue 1TB||$53.99|
|Enclosure||Phanteks Eclipse P400||$69.99|
|PSU||SeaSonic S12 II Bronze 430W||$49.99|
If you’re looking for more power than our Budget Box offers, the Step-Up is just the ticket. Our Intel Core i3-6100 processor gives this build plenty of CPU power, and the Sapphire Radeon R9 380X graphics card can produce good frame rates with plenty of eye candy turned on, even with more demanding 2560×1440 monitors. Phanteks’ Eclipse P400 case and SeaSonic’s S12 II Bronze 430W PSU give this system a solid foundation.
The Sweet Spot: getting VR-ready
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6500||$204.99|
|Cooler||Intel stock cooler||—|
|Motherboard||MSI Z170A SLI Plus||$139.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133||$57.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G||$324.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX200 500GB||$139.99|
|WD Blue 1TB||$53.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define S||$79.99|
|PSU||Seasonic SSR-550RM 500W||$71.99|
Here’s our take on the $1000-ish VR-ready gaming PC. Intel’s Core i5-6500 ticks the quad-core CPU box, while MSI’s GeForce GTX 970 Gaming 4G gives us all the graphics power we’ll need to drive an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. 16GB of DDR4-2133 RAM and a 500GB SSD give this system plenty of grunt outside of games and VR experiences, too. We’ve wrapped all this goodness up inside Fractal Design’s excellent Define S case.
The Sweeter Spot
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6600K||$244.99|
|Motherboard||Asus Z170 Pro Gaming||$154.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133||$57.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Nitro Radeon R9 Fury Tri-X OC+||$499.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX200 500GB||$139.99|
|WD Blue 2TB 5400 RPM||$76.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide Series 400C||$99.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 750W||$109.99|
For folks who want to overclock their CPU or want more graphics power than a GTX 970 offers, we bring you a slightly-tweaked version of our Sweet Spot build. We’ve swapped out the Core i5-6500 for the unlocked Core i5-6600K, added in Phanteks’ PH-TC12DX CPU cooler, and bumped up our motherboard pick to Asus’ Z170 Pro Gaming. Sapphire’s Nitro Radeon R9 Fury gives us a big boost in graphics power, and Corsair’s Carbide Series 400C case should keep all those parts cool while looking good in the process.
The Grand Experiment
|Processor||Intel Core i7-6700K||$359.99|
|Motherboard||Asus Z170 Pro Gaming||$154.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2133||$119.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti SC||$609.99|
|Storage||Samsung 850 EVO 1TB||$289.99|
|WD Blue 2TB 5400 RPM||$76.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define R5||$109.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 750W||$109.99|
This system is our take on the biggest, baddest Skylake-powered PC around. Intel’s Core i7-6700K CPU gives us four cores and eight threads of processing power. Noctua’s beefy NH-D15S should let builders overclock the Core i7-6700K comfortably, while EVGA’s GeForce GTX 980 Ti SC graphics card stands ready to power through 4K gaming or VR titles. A 1TB SSD should swallow most gamers’ entire Steam libraries and regular programs, and 2TB of mechanical storage offers media buffs plenty of room to store pics and flicks without cutting into that valuable NAND.
High-end build: the Maxwellator XXL
|Motherboard||Asus X99-A/USB 3.1||$249.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$69.99|
|Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$69.99|
|Graphics||Asus Strix GeForce GTX 980 Ti||$679.99|
|Storage||Samsung 850 EVO 1TB||$289.99|
|WD Red 4TB 5400 RPM||$149.99|
|WD Red 4TB 5400 RPM||$149.99|
|LG WH16NS40 Blu-ray burner||$58.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$136.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 850W||$129.99|
If you need even more cores and threads than our Grand Experiment offers, our highest-end build offers enough CPU and graphics power to take on just about any task, gaming or otherwise. 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 Asus Strix GeForce GTX 980 Ti. 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 10 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’re still waiting on the shake-up in the graphics card market that’s been brewing for a while. The next big trade show for the PC industry is Computex 2016, and it’ll take place from May 31 to June 4. We still haven’t gotten any official word about when to expect next-generation graphics cards from AMD or Nvidia, but Computex seems like one of the more likely venues where we would hear about them. Given that the show is a little less than a month and a half away, we’d probably advise the cautious system builder to wait until then to see whether the red or green teams have anything to share. If you’ve gotta have a new PC now, though, we think our graphics card picks are still perfectly valid.
We don’t expect any big shifts on the CPU front from AMD or Intel until quite a bit later in the year. We know next to nothing about Intel’s next-gen Kaby Lake CPUs right now, and the picture regarding AMD’s upcoming Zen CPUs is equally vague. We do know that desktop Broadwell-E CPUs from Intel are on their way, and we’ve got a pretty good picture of what the Broadwell-E lineup will look like, but we don’t know quite when they’ll arrive. Going by the information that motherboard manufacturers have released so far, though, we know that those Broadwell-E parts will drop right into X99 motherboards, so building an X99 PC isn’t a terribly huge risk aside from the potential obsolescence of Haswell-E CPUs.
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. Be sure to purchase any of our picks using the links to Newegg throughout this guide, too. Your support helps us to continue the in-depth research and reviews that make guides like this one possible. Have fun putting together your new PC—we’re sure it’ll turn out great.