Welcome to the most exciting Tech Report System Guide update we’ve had in a long while. GPU production is finally starting to transition to next-generation process nodes, and Intel has updated its high-end desktop CPUs with its Broadwell-E family of chips.
Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1070 and GeForce GTX 1080 are taking the high-end graphics card market by storm right now, and with good reason. These cards are fabricated on TSMC’s 16-nm FinFET process, a move we’ve been waiting on for quite some time. Combine that move with an apparent Nvidia engineering effort to push clock speeds to the sky with its Pascal architecture, and you get a pair of monster performers.
Going by the reviews we’ve surveyed, the GeForce GTX 1080 is at least 20% faster than the outgoing GeForce GTX 980 Ti—and often quicker yet—for about the same retail price, while the GeForce GTX 1070 delivers GTX 980 Ti-class performance for about $150 less than that card used to sell for. We’re still working on our review of the GTX 1080 as of this writing, but we can easily recommend these cards to folks building a high-end system today. They’re the best cards you can get in their price classes.
AMD is targeting a different set of price points with its first Polaris graphics cards. The Radeon RX series looks like it’ll top out in the $200 range to start with. We don’t have reviews of these cards yet, but the red team has promised “VR-ready performance” from its Radeon RX 480, the $200-ish card in the lineup. Our back-of-the-napkin guess is that the RX 480 might slot in between a GeForce GTX 970 and a GeForce GTX 980 in its potential performance, but that guess should be taken with a considerable amount of salt right now. Polaris cards should begin hitting the market on June 29, so we’ll learn more about where their performance puts them in the graphics-card landscape later this month and throughout the summer.
The world of high-end CPUs has gotten a shake-up since our last Guide, too. Intel’s recently-released Broadwell-E CPUs offer up to ten cores and 20 threads in a single socket, courtesy of the Core i7-6950X, but you will pay dearly for that privilege. The highest-end Broadwell-E chip now sells for $1,750, an upset of the “more cores for the same price” order that we used to enjoy in this market segment. Intel basically operates unopposed in this space for now, so that kind of pricing model is probably going to be par for the course from here on out unless AMD has something big up its sleeve.
Motherboard makers have refreshed their X99 board lineups for Broadwell-E, too. High-end system builders won’t have to scrape by with two-year-old boards that lack the features we think most will want in a system that costs north of $2,000 these days. The new breed of boards offers USB 3.1 Type-C connectors, U.2 ports, fancy lighting, built-in wireless cards, and more. We’ll consider this new breed of boards in our motherboard section.
Solid-state storage prices have creeped up again since our last Guide. Value favorites like Mushkin’s Reactor 1TB SSD are now selling for closer to $0.25 per gigabyte than the $0.20 or so we saw in our last Guide. Crucial’s MX300 is an interesting new option, though. Its 750GB of TLC capacity performs pretty darn well for its $200 price, and its performance nicely splits the difference between slower TLC 1TB drives and speedier MLC options like the Reactor. If you’re willing to trade a bit of capacity for higher performance, the MX300 could be a worthy pick in a new system build.
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.
Let’s keep this short and sweet. If you’re building a new PC, you want an Intel CPU. Intel’s 14-nm Skylake chips are the best performers on the market by almost any measure, and it’s been that way for quite some time now. We won’t rehash the reasons for why this is here—go read our Core i7-6700K review for all the details. Skylake chips offer small-but-welcome increases in performance over Haswell parts pretty much across the board, and the high-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 most consumers will be interested in Skylake chips, Intel’s launch of its Broadwell-E CPUs is the largest change in the CPU market since we last published a System Guide. That range of chips tops out with the seriously impressive 10-core, 20-thread Core i7-6950X.
The Broadwell architecture alone is only an evolutionary improvement over Haswell before it, but Intel has compensated for the single-threaded performance gap between Broadwell and Skylake CPUs with a new technology called Turbo Boost Max 3.0, or TBM3 for short. To make this technology work, Intel finds the core with the highest performance potential on each Broadwell-E CPU die during production, and a companion Windows driver prioritizes work to run on that core. On the Core i7-6950X in our labs, that means the best-performing core on the chip can boost up to 4GHz. At those speeds, a single-threaded Broadwell-E workload (namely, Cinebench) trails a Haswell Core i7-4790K by only 6%. The Core i7-6700K is only about 3% faster than the Core i7-4790K, so if you need all of Broadwell-E’s cores, you can mostly have your cake and eat it, too.
Broadwell-E’s problem—if it can be called that—is that Intel has decided to establish a new pricing tier for the top-end chip in the lineup instead of pushing up the core counts for the same price, as it has in its past generations of high-end desktop CPUs. The Core i7-6950X sells for $1750 right now, not a small gap over the eight-core, 16-thread Core i7-6900K and its $1099 price tag. Consider the fact that you can build a complete (and very nice) Core i7-6700K PC for just a little more than this CPU alone costs, for perspective. We’ve never recommended the top-end Intel Extreme CPUs to begin with, and the Core i7-6900K and Core i7-6950X don’t do anything to change that. Unless you’re certain your workload can take advantage of all the resources the Core i7-6950X has to offer, we think most can safely forget about it.
Intel’s Broadwell Core i7-5775C still deserves a mention here for folks after a taste of the exotic. This CPU is unique among Intel’s desktop offerings 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 $50 more than Intel’s own Core i7-6700K—makes it a hard sell unless you’re quite serious about getting the lowest frame times around, or you want the chip’s powerful integrated graphics. We’ve discussed how to build around this CPU in several past Guides, so we won’t repeat those recommendations here.
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.
|AMD Athlon X4 880K||$94.12||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.
If the Z170 platform doesn’t offer enough PCIe lanes, memory bandwidth, or memory capacity for your needs, Intel’s “Extreme” CPUs and X99 motherboards are the next step up for desktop PCs.
|Intel Core i7-6800K||$439.99||LGA2011-v3 motherboard,
quad-channel DDR4 memory kit,
discrete graphics, aftermarket cooler
|Intel Core i7-6850K||$649.99|
With the advent of Broadwell-E, we think the best CPU choice in the lineup is probably the Core i7-6850K. At a moderate premium over the Core i7-5930K, this chip offers Turbo Boost Max 3.0 support alongside six cores and 12 threads of processing power. Its 15MB of L3 cache and support for up to 128GB of DDR4-2400 RAM are nice steps up over Intel’s high-end quad-core chips. As a minor bonus, this chip also runs at slightly higher clock speeds than the $1099, eight-core Core i7-6900K. Like all Broadwell-E chips, the Core i7-6850K is unlocked for easy overclocking.
If you want extra cores and threads, and you don’t need all 40 of the PCIe 3.0 lanes from fancier Broadwell-E chips, the Core i7-6800K and its 28 lanes of PCIe 3.0 connectivity fill the same role the hobbled Core i7-5820K did with Haswell-E. Even considering Nvidia’s move to officially support two-way SLI only with its Pascal graphics cards, the Core i7-6800K comes up a little short for folks planning multi-GPU setups. Considering that limitation, we’ll continue to conditionally recommend this chip for folks who are absolutely sure they won’t miss the extra lanes.
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||$69.99||AMD Socket FM2+ processor,
microATX or ATX case
|Gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3||$104.99||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 II||$244.99|
Asus’ X99-A was our favorite motherboard for Haswell-E CPUs when they were the hot new thing, so we’re happy to see that the company has updated the board for Broadwell-E in the form of the X99-A II. Like its predecessor, this board offers everything we’d really want in a high-end desktop and nothing we don’t.
This refreshed board has USB 3.1 Type-A and Type-C ports, a U.2 connector for 2.5″ NVMe SSDs, an M.2 slot, Realtek ALC1150 audio, and the all-important RGB LED lighting. Like its predecessor, we think the X99-A II is all the X99 motherboard one might ever need unless it doesn’t satisfy some strange corner case.
Thunderbolt 3 support is just such a corner case. The only X99 board we can find on the market with Thunderbolt 3 support 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 II, but the tradeoff could be worth it if you need the X99P-SLI’s unique feature set. It doesn’t cost any more than the X99-A II, so pick the board most suited to your needs.
Keep in mind that the X99P-SLI may need a BIOS update to function properly with Broadwell-E chips. This board doesn’t include Gigabyte’s handy Q-Flash Plus feature, which lets builders update the motherboard’s firmware with nothing more than a USB thumb drive and a power supply. If you don’t already have one of those babies lying around, you might have to borrow one somehow to get the X99P-SLI up to date for Intel’s latest.
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$32.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-3000||$41.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133||$57.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$64.98|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2133||$114.99|
|Corsair Vengeance LPX 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-3000||$159.99|
Skylake and Broadwell-E 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 either of those CPU families or platforms.
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.
Man, what a time to buy a graphics card. Like we talked about in the introduction to this Guide, Nvidia’s Pascal-powered GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 are taking the high-end graphics market by storm, and AMD’s first Polaris cards could offer a long-needed leap in performance in the $200-and-below price bracket. Pascal cards are an easy choice, but Polaris casts a shadow of doubt on the value of any $200 to $350-ish graphics card out there right now. We’ll still suggest some entry-level favorites from past Guides, but be warned: if you’re planning to buy a card, you really, really ought to wait until after June 29 to see how Polaris shakes out.
This flux in the graphics market means it’s probably not the best time to build a basic VR-ready PC, either. That said, Oculus and HTC both recommend a GeForce GTX 970 or Radeon R9 290-class card 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 better. 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 pair it with 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.
We used to think that FreeSync was the VRR technology most likely to gain widespread adoption. AMD cards can now do FreeSync over HDMI ports, 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).
Nvidia’s Pascal cards muddy this picture somewhat. The company didn’t add FreeSync support to its latest cards, so you need a G-Sync display in order to enjoy the VRR experience with one. Paying more for a monitor locked into a proprietary technology that’s unlikely to become supported outside of Nvidia products still doesn’t sit well with us, since monitors tend to live through several generations of graphics card upgrades. If you want Pascal, though, them’s the breaks.
|Zotac GeForce GTX 750 Ti 2GB||$104.99||N/A|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 950||$129.99||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 EVGA card we’ve chosen has a large twin-fan cooler and a nice clock boost over reference specifications.
Sweet spot: Wait
We’re not recommending any graphics cards in the $200-$350 range for this Guide. That might seem crazy, especially when $240 GTX 970s and the like beckon. We think those cards are too great a risk to purchase right now, given what’s in the pipe from AMD and its Polaris architecture. The red team’s highest-end Polaris card announced so far, the Radeon RX 480, could deliver performance similar to a Radeon R9 390 or GeForce GTX 970—or maybe even more—for around $200. We don’t know any of that for sure yet, but our guts think builders would be ill-served putting together a system with a GeForce GTX 960, Radeon R9 380X, GTX 970, or R9 390 right now. Hang on for a couple of weeks, and if we’re wrong, well, no harm done.
Nvidia’s Pascal cards make picking a high-end graphics card really easy right now. If you have about $420 to spend, you want a GeForce GTX 1070 with a custom cooler. If you have about $650, you want a GeForce GTX 1080 with a custom cooler. Any questions?
|EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 ACX 3.0||$419.99||Dual PCIe power connectors|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1070 G1 Gaming||$429.99|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 G1 Gaming||$649.99|
|Asus Strix GeForce GTX 1080||$679.99|
OK, you want further convincing. How about the fact that the GTX 1080 is about 20% faster than a GeForce GTX 980 Ti or a Radeon R9 Fury X in many games, sometimes even faster? The GTX 1070 is no less impressive. It delivers GTX 980 Ti-class performance for far less than that card sold for at its height of popularity. If you’re trying to push 2560×1440 gaming to its limits, or want a smooth 4K ride, the GTX 1080 is the way to go. The GTX 1070 is similarly suitable for 1080p or 2560×1440 gaming. Both cards have 8GB of RAM, but the GTX 1080 uses the higher-speed GDDR5X and the GTX 1070 makes do with good old GDDR5.
Nvidia is introducing a concept called the “Founders Edition” with its consumer Pascal cards. We used to call these “reference designs,” but these cards now carry a significant price premium over their custom-cooled counterparts for some reason. Unless you’re a fan of Nvidia’s new blower shroud, or blower coolers in general, we think most builders will be happy saving some money and grabbing a custom-cooled card from EVGA, Gigabyte, or Asus, like our choices above.
Technically, GeForce GTX 1070s should sell for close to Nvidia’s $379 suggested price for custom cards, and custom GTX 1080s should start at $600. Retail prices on those cards are significantly higher right now, though. That may be because of supply constraints and high demand. We expect a lot of folks are upgrading their graphics cards now that the 28-nm era is coming to a close, so we’d expect prices to remain high and stock to remain low for a while.
One Pascal development that might be irksome is Nvidia’s discontinuation of support for three- and four-way SLI profiles in its drivers. We’ve never recommended SLI setups outside of situations where one of Nvidia’s top-end cards wasn’t enough graphics performance, so we figure two-way SLI is enough for the vast majority of folks that were going to go multi-GPU to begin with.
Builders may find that Maxwell cards like the GeForce GTX 980 Ti are now selling at considerable discounts. Even if you can find that card for a price similar to the GTX 1070’s, it’s worth sticking with the Pascal option. That’s because Pascal has a number of VR-focused architecture features that could provide a major boost in performance with Oculus’ Rift and HTC’s Vive VR headsets. It also offers some improvements in asynchronous compute capability that could address a shortcoming (whether perceived or actual) in Maxwell chips. Async compute chops seem like a big deal for DirectX 12 titles, so the GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 looks better-suited to address the needs of tomorrow’s games.
You’ll notice a distinct lack of Radeons in this section. As of this writing, AMD simply doesn’t have a card that competes with the GTX 1070 on price, or with the GTX 1080 on performance. The Radeon R9 Fury X could generally hang with the GTX 980 Ti on an average-frame-rate basis, but the GTX 1070 offers GTX 980 Ti-class performance for about $200 less than AMD’s biggest and baddest. The GTX 1080 is simply in a league of its own right now.
The value proposition gets no better going down the price scale. Radeon R9 Fury cards are selling for about as much as custom-cooled GTX 1070s, and that’s just not a winning prospect for the red team. The Radeon R9 Nano’s unique form factor isn’t enough to recommend it over a GTX 1070, either. We might see higher-end Polaris (or Vega) cards that can mix it up with Pascal later this year, but for now, Nvidia rules the roost.
We’ve reorganized the storage section of our System Guide this time around. To make our recommendations a bit more comprehensible, we’ve broken out our SSD picks into budget, sweet-spot, and high-end options, just like the rest of the components in the Guide.
Outside of a single budget hard drive option, we’ll first be recommending SSDs for system drives—the place where you want your operating system, games, frequently-used files, and anything else you want to be able to get to quickly. We’ll then talk about larger bulk storage options for less-frequently-used data or large media files.
|WD Blue 1TB 7,200 RPM||$53.99|
|Toshiba OCZ Trion 150 240GB||$61.99|
|Toshiba OCZ Trion 150 480GB||$109.99|
|Toshiba OCZ Trion 150 960GB||$199.99|
|Mushkin Reactor 1TB||$249.99|
Almost any SATA SSD, save for the worst bargain-bin specials, are going to provide snappier system performance than a spinning disk for most tasks. If you need capacity more than speed, we continue to recommend WD’s Blue 1TB drive as the all-rounder for budget boxes. This drive’s fast spindle speed and relatively high capacity for its price make it hard to go wrong if you can only afford one storage device.
Our budget SSD picks store bits and move them around quickly, and that’s all we really want out of drives in this price range. If you’re building a new gaming PC, we think you should skip a 240GB drive and step up to a 480GB or 512GB one instead. Modern games are only getting larger, and SSD prices are falling to the point where the 500GB upgrade premium isn’t that large. It’s not fun shuffling data on and off a 240GB SSD to make room for that latest triple-A release.
OCZ’s Trion 150 is a great budget performer. The 240GB, 480GB, and 960GB versions of this drive are all selling for compelling prices right now, so purchase the capacity that best meets your needs and budget. Mushkin’s Reactor 1TB drive punches way above its weight class, but that drive’s price has risen out of “eye-popping value” territory recently and into the “just average” range of $0.27 per gigabyte or so. It’s still much faster than a Trion 150, so it’s worth picking one up if you can find it for closer to its historical low of $200-ish.
|Crucial MX200 250GB||$81.72|
|Samsung 850 EVO 250GB||$94.99|
|Crucial MX200 500GB||$139.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 500GB||$159.99|
|Crucial MX300 750GB||$199.99|
|Crucial MX200 1TB||$279.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 1TB||$306.76|
Step up to a sweet-spot SSD, and you get higher performance and niceties like hardware-accelerated encryption. Samsung’s 850 EVO and Crucial’s MX200 are our favorite drives in this class. The price winds favor the MX200 right now, but you can’t go wrong with an 850 EVO if discounts or market movements bring its price on par with the Crucial competition. As with the Trion 150s above, grab the capacity that meets your budget and capacity requirements.
Crucial’s MX300 is a new and interesting option in this performance class. This 750GB drive is the first consumer drive to use Micron’s 3D TLC NAND. It offers a significant step up in capacity for about the same price as high-end 500GB SATA SSDs , and its performance is more or less on par with the MX200. If you want more capacity than our 500GB picks here and still value performance, the MX300 does a good job of bridging the gap between value 1TB options and higher-performance 500GB drives.
|Toshiba OCZ RD400 256GB||$174.99|
|Samsung 950 Pro 256GB||$180.99|
|Toshiba OCZ RD400 512GB||$309.99|
|Samsung 950 Pro 512GB||$317.06|
|Intel 750 Series SSD 800GB||$599.99|
|Toshiba OCZ RD400 1TB||$769.99|
|Intel 750 Series SSD 1.2TB||$1067.99|
Moving into the high-end realm of solid-state storage lets us consider blazing-fast PCIe drives from Samsung, Intel, and OCZ. These drives ditch the aging AHCI protocol for NVM Express, or NVMe, a next-generation protocol that was designed explicitly for solid-state storage. PCIe drives from OCZ and Samsung plug into the M.2 slots common on many Z170 and X99 motherboards, while Intel’s 750 Series SSDs need a free PCIe slot or a motherboard with a U.2 connector.
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.
OCZ’s RD400 series offers a slightly more accessible path to that glorious excess. In our overall performance index, the RD400 actually edges out the 950 Pro. For those who need a lot of face-melting speed, the RD400 maxes out at a terabyte, compared to the 950 Pro’s 512GB range-topper. That’s not to say these drives are cheap—they’re not—but their costs per gigabyte are a bit lower than the Samsung competition. We don’t think you can go wrong with either if you really and truly thrash your storage devices.
Intel’s 750 Series solid-state drives are also monster performers, thanks to the fact that they’re descended from datacenter-class hardware. Like the other drives here, the 750 Series harnesses four lanes of PCIe 3.0 connectivity, and they also ditch the old AHCI protocol for NVM Express. As with the 950 Pro and RD400, the real challenge for a 750 Series drive is finding desktop workloads that can take full advantage of the performance on tap.
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 you won’t find that U.2 connector on many motherboards outside of the latest X99 offerings.
SSDs are great for storing your operating system and most-used programs, but they can’t compete with good old spinning rust for density per dollar just yet. If you often work with large media files, operating system images, or anything else that takes up a lot of room, it’s handy to have a mechanical hard drive in your system so you can preserve precious SSD space.
|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 usually 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 them with a couple
|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 across more than 5,000 reviews on Newegg. We feel pretty safe recommending it. If you need to play or burn Blu-ray discs, LG’s LGWH16NS40 Blu-ray burner offers higher speeds and costs less than the now-discontinued Asus drive that we used to recommend. 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||$49.99||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 $50 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||$89.99||N/A|
|Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$129.99||N/A|
|Corsair Carbide Series 600C||$139.99||N/A|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$139.99||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. Its heavy-duty steel construction and stealthy looks help put it a cut above other cases, too.
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.
Buying a good power supply for your new PC 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 CX450M||$49.99||Semi-modular, one 6+2-pin PCIe power connector|
For entry-level systems, we’re continuing to recommend Corsair’s CX430 PSU. This 80 Plus Bronze unit has a 120-mm fan and a three-year warranty. It only has one PCIe eight-pin auxiliary connector, but that’s OK. Entry-level and midrange graphics cards often need just one auxiliary connection from the PSU these days anyway.
Corsair seems to be phasing out its CX430M in favor of a new model, the CX450M. This semi-modular unit offers a minor wattage bump over the CX430, but its specs are otherwise similar. We’re checking with Corsair to see what’s changed inside this PSU, but we’re still comfortable recommending it for now. We’ve never gotten a single complaint in our inboxes about the performance of these entry-level units from Guide readers who’ve built with them.
Reader feedback is one thing, but reviewers like the CX PSU line, too. The reviewers at JonnyGuru and Hardware Secrets both praise the CX430, and Legit Reviews liked the quality and performance of the CX430M when it examined one. 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.
The SeaSonic S12II 430W unit we used to recommend at the top of this range now sells for $70 instead of the $50 it used to command. We tried to find a replacement unit of similar quality, but we came up short. It appears the Corsair CX450M is the best thing going for $50 right now.
|EVGA Supernova G2 550W||$74.99||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 Supernova 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 basic 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 P2 850W||$129.99||Fully modular,
quad 6+2-pin PCIe connectors,
The prices on 80 Plus Platinum PSUs appear to be coming out of the stratosphere a bit. Given that development, we’re recommending EVGA’s Supernova 850 P2 for the highest-end systems we think builders might want to put together from the System Guide. This unit sells for the same price as the 80 Plus Gold Supernova 850 G2 that we used to recommend, and it gets the same rave reviews and 10-year warranty as the rest of EVGA’s high-end PSUs. It has all the PCIe power connectors one might need for a two-way SLI build, too. If the price on the 850 P2 should shoot back up, the Supernova G2 850W is still an excellent buy.
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||$29.99||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||$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||$89.99||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||$94.12|
|Cooler||AMD stock cooler||—|
|Memory||HyperX Fury 8GB (2x4GB) DDR3-1600||$34.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 950||$129.99|
|Storage||WD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM||$49.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master N200||$49.99|
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.
Mid-range builds: Wait
If you’re thinking about building a PC in the $600-$1000 range, hold up. As we’ve cautioned throughout this guide, AMD’s Polaris graphics cards are hitting the market soon, and they may offer more performance than the Radeons and GeForces we’ve recommended for such a machine in the past. We’ll be updating the System Guide again in a couple weeks to account for this launch, so sit tight.
The Sweeter Spot
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6600K||$219.99|
|Motherboard||Asus Z170 Pro Gaming||$154.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133||$57.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1070 G1 Gaming||$429.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX300 750GB||$199.99|
|WD Blue 2TB 5400 RPM||$76.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide Series 400C||$96.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 650W||$89.99|
Here’s a sweet little machine that shows just how much gaming bang-for-the-buck one can get now. The Core i5-6600K has fallen significantly in price since our last Guide, and the GeForce GTX 1070 shaves another $70 or so off our last build in this spot while delivering as much graphics performance as a GeForce GTX 980 Ti. That’s insane value. Some of the money we save this way can be funneled into Crucial’s roomy MX300 SSD, and a 2TB hard drive provides plenty of bulk storage space, as well. This is the kind of build that makes me excited to be a PC enthusiast.
The Grand Experiment
|Processor||Intel Core i7-6700K||$314.99|
|Motherboard||Asus Z170 Pro Gaming||$154.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2133||$114.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 G1 Gaming||$649.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX200 1TB||$279.99|
|WD Blue 2TB 5400 RPM||$76.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define R5||$89.99|
|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 Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 1080 G1 Gaming 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 Broadwell-E Brawler
|Motherboard||Asus X99-A II||$249.99|
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$74.99|
|Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$74.99|
|Graphics||Asus Strix GeForce GTX 1080||$679.99|
|Storage||Samsung 850 EVO 1TB||$306.76|
|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 Maker 5||$189.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova P2 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. Our Core i7-6850K CPU and Asus X99-A II motherboard unlock the full potential of the X99 platform. This system should be fairly quiet, too, despite its ample horsepower. That’s thanks to a big Noctua tower cooler, Cooler Master’s MasterCase Maker 5, an EVGA 80 Plus Platinum power supply, and a custom-cooled GeForce GTX 1080.
The operating system
If you’re building a gaming PC, we think you’ll be happiest with Microsoft Windows. 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.
On June 29, AMD’s first Polaris graphics cards should hit the scene. We’ll be publishing a rapid update to the System Guide once we know how the performance of those cards shakes out. If you’re building a more midrange system, you’ll want to wait for that update.
Now that Pascal has launched at the high end of the graphics market, we’re curious to see what Nvidia’s entry-level and mid-range product strategy will be with its new chips. The rumor mill is rather quiet about hypothetical GeForce GTX 1050s or GTX 1060s, so we have no guidance to offer there.
The rumor mill does have some things to say about CPUs, though. Late this year, Intel’s Kaby Lake CPUs may hit the market. Shadowy sources suggest these refined 14-nm parts will have native USB 3.1 support and improved onboard graphics. Kaby Lake chips might drop into the same LGA 1151 socket as Skylake parts, but Intel may also release a new 200-series platform to go with these chips, so it’s unclear whether they’ll work with existing motherboards. Given the pace of improvement in Intel CPUs over the past handful of generations, we don’t expect Kaby Lake to be earth-shattering, but we’re always happy to be surprised.
The rumor mill further suggests that AMD’s Zen consumer parts, code-named Summit Ridge, might also arrive late this year. They’ll need motherboards with a new AM4 socket and (presumably) new chipsets, so the AMD faithful should probably prepare to build new systems from the ground up if Zen parts prove competitive. AMD has shown Zen silicon in operation, and it’s indicated that Summit Ridge CPUs will offer up to eight cores and sixteen threads. If Zen delivers, we’re cautiously optimistic for some renewed competition in the CPU space from the red team.
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. Be sure to purchase any of our picks using the links to Newegg throughout this guide, too.
Have fun putting together your new PC—we’re sure it’ll turn out great.