The Tech Report System Guide: August 2016 edition

Welcome to another edition of The Tech Report’s System Guide. We’re edging into the hottest part of the summer at the TR labs, and fittingly, the graphics card wars touched off by the industry’s move to next-generation fabrication technology are only getting hotter. Both AMD and Nvidia are bringing their lineups of next-generation graphics cards to lower price points where competition can flourish, and PC gamers are reaping the benefits—at least in theory.

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After our last Guide update, AMD unleashed its Radeon RX 480 on the world. Shortly after, Nvidia released a Pascal-powered competitor of its own: the GeForce GTX 1060. In our review, we found that the RX 480 offers GTX 970-class performance for about $240 in its 8GB form. AMD is also offering a 4GB version of the RX 480 for $200, a great value if the smaller pool of RAM isn’t an issue. We haven’t gotten our hands on a GTX 1060 yet, but a survey of reviews suggests the Nvidia card is slightly faster than the RX 480 in today’s DirectX 11 titles while consuming less power than the Radeon.

The GTX 1060 only comes with 6GB of RAM on board, though, and its prices start at $250 and up. Whether its minor performance lead and cooler-running chip are worth the extra money over a Radeon RX 480 will probably be a matter of taste. What’s not in question is that both cards should offer a similarly smooth gaming experience. Our advanced frame-time metrics show that AMD has greatly improved the consistency of its cards’ frame delivery with Polaris GPUs, erasing a long-standing pain point for Radeons.

While AMD and Nvidia are doubtless pleased to have no problem selling every Polaris and Pascal card they can make, buying one of those cards at the moment is a real challenge for the PC do-it-yourself-er. Enormous demand for these next-generation parts means that GTX 1060s, GTX 1070s, GTX 1080s, and RX 480s are often selling for large markups when they come in stock, muddying their value propositions. If you’re trying to build a system right now, don’t be surprised if you can’t get a next-generation graphics card for anything resembling the suggested prices from AMD or Nvidia. We expect that stock of these products will improve with time, but it’s not clear how soon that might happen.

We’ve got a lot to talk about in the “What’s Next” section of this Guide, but we’ll leave that for the last page. For now, let’s get to building.

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.

 

CPUs

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, a considerable jump over the eight-core, 16-thread Core i7-6900K and its $1099 price tag. For perspective, consider the fact that you can build a quite-impressive Core i7-6700K PC for just a little more than this CPU alone costs. 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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
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.

We used to recommend AMD’s Athlon X4 880K here, but that chip is deactivated at Newegg. Amazon suggests it has more on the way, but stock is low and prices are relatively high. The X4 880K was a good enough value when it sold for around $90, but for just $20 less than the Core i3-6100 now, it’s not an appealing option. We’ll be exploring a replacement for this part in our next Guide.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
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 trim 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.

High end

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.

Product Price Notable needs
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.

 

Motherboards

Buying a motherboard these days is pretty straightforward. There are only four major manufacturers to choose from, and their offerings have very similar performance and 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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3 $84.99 Intel LGA1151 processor,

ATX case

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.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
MSI Z170-A Pro $114.99 Intel LGA1151 processor, ATX case
MSI Z170A SLI Plus $139.99
Asus Z170 Pro Gaming $154.99
Gigabyte Z170X-Ultra Gaming $170.00

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.

If you anticipate building with an eye toward the future, Gigabyte’s Z170X-Ultra Gaming looks like a great value. This board has a USB Type-C port that carries both Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.1 Gen2 signals, and it’s also certified for the USB Power Delivery 2.0 spec. That means compatible devices can get as much as 100W of charging power through the same port. Gigabyte also throws in a U.2 connector for 2.5″ NVMe SSDs and extensive LED accents.

High end

 

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GA-X99P-SLI $249.99 Intel LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case
Asus X99-A II $229.99

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 right now 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.

Memory

Product Price
HyperX Fury 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133 $39.99
G.Skill Ripjaws V 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-3200 $43.99
G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133 $66.99
G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3200 $77.99
G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2133 $112.99
Corsair Vengeance LPX 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-3200 $169.99

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.

 

Graphics cards

A few weeks ago, AMD unleashed its Radeon RX 480 on the world, and Nvidia quickly followed with its GeForce GTX 1060. These cards herald a new class of performance in the $200-$300 price range where we imagine most builders shop, and that’s exciting news. AMD ran into some teething troubles with the RX 480’s power draw from the PCIe slot, but those issues have been ironed out now and we feel safe recommending that card to the PC-building public.

At the high end of the market, the GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 continue to rule. These cards are in extremely high demand right now, however, and finding a custom-cooled GTX 1070 for Nvidia’s $379 suggested price is nearly impossible. The same goes for custom-cooled GTX 1080s, for which Nvidia’s $599 suggested price may as well be a dream. We’ve tried to pick our favorites from the bunch, but if you’re desperate for either of these cards, your choice may have to hinge on what’s in stock on any given day.

A 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.

FreeSync is likely the VRR technology that will eventually gain the most 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).

FreeSync’s relatively wallet-friendly nature might swing your buying decision if you’re trying to choose between a Radeon RX 480 and a GeForce GTX 1060, for example. Being able to get into the VRR rodeo for not much more than the cost of a plain-Jane 60-Hz monitor is a value proposition that Nvidia can’t yet beat.

If you’re shopping for a higher-end graphics card, however, G-Sync monitors are still the only way to get VRR with Nvidia products. The company didn’t add FreeSync support to its latest cards. 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.

Budget: Wait

This time around, it’s the budget builders who should wait a couple weeks to consider building a new PC. AMD’s Radeon RX 460 and Radeon RX 470 will bring Polaris GPUs to the sub-$200 price point, and they could outpace our previous budget favorites, the GeForce GTX 750 Ti and the GeForce GTX 950. Reviews of those products should hit the ‘net soon, and we’ll update the Guide accordingly once we know more.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Sapphire Radeon RX 480 4GB $199.99 One six-pin power connector
Sapphire Nitro+ Radeon RX 480 8GB $279.99 One eight-pin power connector
MSI GeForce GTX 1060 Gaming 6G $279.99

For the all-important $200-$300 price range, system builders have a couple of exciting options in this Guide. For $200 or so, the card you want is unquestionably the Radeon RX 480 4GB. This card offers GeForce GTX 970-class performance for hundreds of dollars less than that card sold for when it was the hottest thing around. The only challenge is finding one of these cards in stock. An RX 480 offers plenty of bang for the buck in today’s 3D games, and it’s also VR-ready. Pretty incredible for a $200 card.

Closer to the $300 price point, we think builders will be happiest with custom-cooled Radeon RX 480s with 8GB of RAM or GeForce GTX 1060s. As we advised in our introduction, the GeForce will be a bit faster than the Radeon RX 480 in today’s games, though the Radeon may have a slight edge in titles that use the DirectX 12 or Vulkan low-overhead APIs.

Both of these graphics cards will be perfectly happy pushing 1920×1080 displays with a good deal of eye candy on, so the question mostly comes down to noise and heat output. The Radeon will need more power than the GTX 1060 to do its thing, and it’ll throw off more heat. To be fair, however, that’s only true in relative terms. The RX 480 is about as efficient as a GTX 970, and we had no complaints with that card’s noise and thermal performance for many, many System Guides.

That said, if you’re shooting for the coolest, most efficient graphics card in this price range, the GTX 1060 appears to consume anywhere from 30-40W less power than the RX 480 to do its thing. That gap might narrow with factory-overclocked GTX 1060s, to be sure, but it’s still a point worth considering. The Sapphire Nitro+ Radeon RX 480 8GB card we’ve chosen should be an excellent performer, and so should the MSI GeForce GTX 1060 Gaming 6G.

High end

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 to $700, you want a GeForce GTX 1080 with a custom cooler. Any questions?

Product Price Notable needs
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1070 G1 Gaming $429.99 Dual PCIe power connectors
MSI GeForce GTX 1070 Gaming X $449.99
EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 SC $649.99
Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming $699.99

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 introduced 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.

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.

 

Storage

To make our storage 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.

System drives

Budget

Product Price
WD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM $49.99
Toshiba OCZ Trion 150 240GB $62.99
Toshiba OCZ Trion 150 480GB $109.99
Toshiba OCZ Trion 150 960GB $224.99
Mushkin Reactor 1TB $239.99

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.

Sweet spot

Product Price
Crucial MX300 275GB $69.99
Samsung 850 EVO 250GB $89.99
Crucial MX300 525GB $129.99
Samsung 850 EVO 500GB $160.99
Crucial MX300 750GB $188.99
Crucial MX300 1TB $259.99
Samsung 850 EVO 1TB $313.99

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 MX300 are our favorite drives in this class. The price winds favor the MX300 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.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Toshiba OCZ RD400 256GB $174.99 M.2 slot with PCIe 3.0 x4 connectivity

for maximum performance

Samsung 950 Pro 256GB $189.99
Toshiba OCZ RD400 512GB $309.99
Samsung 950 Pro 512GB $317.06
Toshiba OCZ RD400 1TB $769.99
Intel 750 Series SSD 1.2TB $1067.99 PCIe 3.0 x4 slot for maximum performance

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 and Z170 offerings.

Bulk storage

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.

Product Price
WD Blue 2TB $69.99
Seagate Barracuda 2TB $76.99
Seagate FireCuda 2TB SSHD $104.99
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 drives typically come in second, but the most recent edition of Backblaze’s numbers suggests that Seagate has greatly improved the reliability of its products of late, besting even WD’s record.

Seagate also refreshed its hard drive branding to make figuring out its product lineup a bit easier. The regular Barracuda drives appear to be similar in performance to WD’s higher-capacity Blue drives, which have 5400-RPM-ish spindle speeds. FireCuda drives are 7200-RPM spinners with small amounts of NAND flash on board that could speed up performance in some situations. If you’re concerned about reliability, we’ve included a couple of Seagate choices in our options above. We still think WD’s drives are fine choices, though.

Some time back, WD condensed 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.

Optical drives

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

Product Price
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.

 

Cases

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.

Budget

Product Price Notable needs
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.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notable needs
Fractal Design Define S $84.99 N/A
Corsair Carbide Series Air 240 $89.99 microATX motherboard, fan splitter
Fractal Design Define R5 $109.99 N/A
Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5 $124.99 N/A
Corsair Carbide Series 600C $151.55 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. 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.

High end

Product Price Notable needs
Cooler Master Cosmos II $329.98 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.

Power supplies

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.

Budget

Product Price Notes
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. Corsair tells us this refreshed CX450M, along with its 550W and 650W brethren, uses DC-to-DC conversion on its +3.3V and +5V rails to attain compatibility with Haswell’s low-power sleep states. Regardless of which unit you choose, 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.

Sweet spot

Product Price Notes
EVGA Supernova G2 550W $89.99 Fully modular, dual 6+2-pin PCIe connectors,

semi-silent mode

EVGA Supernova G2 750W $119.99 Fully modular,

quad 6+2-pin PCIe connectors,

semi-silent mode

PSUs aspiring to the Sweet Spot need to do more than the basics. We demand semi-modular cabling here at the bare minimum. 80 Plus Gold efficiency ratings should ideally be on the table, as well, along with semi-silent fans that spin down completely under lighter loads.

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.

High end

Product Price Notes
EVGA Supernova P2 850W $139.99 Fully modular,

quad 6+2-pin PCIe connectors,

semi-silent mode

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.

 

Miscellaneous

Need a fancy CPU cooler or a sound card? You’ve come to the right place. This is where we talk about components that, while not always strictly necessary, can improve a build in very real ways.

CPU coolers

Since Intel’s Core i5-6600K and Core i7-6700K don’t ship with stock coolers, you’ll want to pick one from our selections below. Haswell-E builders will need to pick out a cooler, as well. Be careful to note your case’s maximum CPU cooler height before buying a large tower cooler, as those huge heatsinks need a lot of space.

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.

Product Price Type Notable needs
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

Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 120 $99.99
Corsair H105 $103.99 Case with a 240-mm radiator mount
Corsair H115i $110.04 Case with a 280-mm radiator mount
Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 240 $119.99 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.

Noctua’s NH-D15S

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.

If you’d rather not spend extra on high-quality fans, our preliminary experiences with Cooler Master’s new MasterLiquid Pro 120 and MasterLiquid Pro 240 coolers have been quite positive. The pumps on these coolers are very nearly silent at idle, and their fans are quite pleasant. The MasterLiquid Pro 120 is a push-pull 120-mm cooler, while the Pro 240 uses a slimmer 240-mm radiator.

For the absolute highest-performing CPU-cooling solution out there, Corsair’s 280-mm coolers are about the best one can get before going with a custom loop. The H115i is typical of the breed, and we’ve found it plenty capable for taking even the demanding Core i7-6700K to its limits without getting overly noisy. Corsair’s included fans emphasize performance over politeness, though, so the noise-sensitive may need to factor in a pair of aftermarket 140-mm fans for the best results.

Sound cards

A lot of folks are perfectly content with their motherboard’s integrated audio these days. However, each time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete sound cards wind up sounding noticeably better than integrated audio. That’s with a pair of lowly Sennheiser HD 555 headphones, too, not some kind of insane audiophile setup. If you’re using halfway decent analog headphones or speakers, a sound card is a worthwhile purchase.

It’s fine to stick with motherboard audio if you use digital speakers or USB headphones, since those handle the analog-to-digital conversion themselves. That said, even with digital speakers, the sound cards we recommend below will do things that typical onboard audio can’t, like surround sound virtualization and real-time Dolby multi-channel encoding.

Product Price
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.

 

Sample builds

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: Wait

AMD will be releasing its next two Polaris graphics cards in the next couple of weeks, and we suspect they’ll be appealing products for budget builders. With that in mind, we’re advising folks looking to spend $600 or less on a new PC to wait for more details of these products before dropping the cash. We’ll be publishing another Guide update to account for the effect of these new cards on the PC builder soon.

The Step-Up

  Component Price
Processor Intel Core i3-6100 $124.99
Cooler Intel stock cooler
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3 $84.99
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws V 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133 $33.49
Graphics AMD Radeon RX 480 4GB $199.99
Storage Crucial MX300 275GB $69.99
WD Blue 1TB $53.99
Enclosure Phanteks Eclipse P400 $74.99
PSU SeaSonic S12 II 520W $59.99
Total   $702.42

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 Radeon RX 480 4GB graphics card offers plenty of gaming performance for not a lot of scratch. Phanteks’ Eclipse P400 case and SeaSonic’s S12 II Bronze 430W PSU give this system a solid foundation. If you’re thinking about building a cheaper VR-ready PC than our Sweet Spot, the Step-Up can easily serve in that role if you’re willing to add about $80 for the Core i5-6500 CPU from that build.

The Sweet Spot: getting VR-ready

  Component Price
Processor Intel Core i5-6500 $204.99
Cooler Intel stock cooler
Motherboard MSI Z170A SLI Plus $109.99
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133 $66.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GTX 1060 Gaming 6G $279.99
Storage Crucial MX300 525GB $129.99
WD Blue 1TB $49.99
Enclosure Fractal Design Define S $84.99
PSU Seasonic SSR-550RM 500W $79.99
Total   $1,006.92

The Sweet Spot steps us up to a quad-core Skylake CPU with MSI’s solid Z170A SLI Plus mobo. MSI’s GeForce GTX 1060 Gaming 6G should blend Pascal performance with quiet operation, and the Pascal architecture’s VR-specific features should be an advantage as soon as game engines are updated to employ them. Pair that cool-running graphics card with Fractal Design’s whisper-quiet Define S case and an efficient 80 Plus Gold PSU, and you have a winner for just a hair over $1000.

The Sweeter Spot

  Component Price
Processor Intel Core i5-6600K $249.99
Cooler Phanteks PH-TC12DX $49.99
Motherboard Asus Z170 Pro Gaming $154.99
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133 $66.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1070 G1 Gaming $429.99
Storage Crucial MX300 750GB $188.99
WD Blue 2TB 5400 RPM $69.99
Enclosure Corsair Carbide Series 400C $99.99
PSU EVGA Supernova G2 650W $99.99
Total   $1,410.91

Here’s a sweet little machine that shows just how much gaming bang-for-the-buck one can get now. Intel’s Core i5-6600K CPU has risen in price again, but the GeForce GTX 1070 still delivers as much performance as a GeForce GTX 980 Ti for far less money. That’s insane value. Some of the money we save this way can be funneled into Crucial’s roomy MX300 750GB 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

  Component Price
Processor Intel Core i7-6700K $349.99
Cooler Noctua NH-D15S $84.94
Motherboard Asus Z170 Pro Gaming $154.99
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2133 $112.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 SC $649.99
Storage Crucial MX300 1TB $259.99
WD Blue 2TB 5400 RPM $76.99
Enclosure Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5 $124.99
PSU EVGA Supernova G2 750W $119.99
Total   $1,934.86

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 1080 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 Broadwell-E Brawler

  Component Price
Processor Core i7-6850K $609.99
Cooler Noctua NH-D15S $84.94
Motherboard Asus X99-A II $249.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000 $84.99
Corsair Vengeance LPX 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000 $84.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming $699.99
Storage Samsung 850 EVO 1TB $313.99
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 $98.99
Enclosure Cooler Master MasterCase Maker 5 $177.19
PSU EVGA Supernova P2 850W $139.99
Total   $2,904.02

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 the eerily silent Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming graphics card.

 

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.

What’s next
AMD’s Radeon RX 470 and RX 460 graphics cards will be arriving on store shelves in the next couple of weeks. We expect the Radeon RX 460 to deliver appealing performance in the sub-$150 market, and the RX 470 should offer a nice boost for the sub-$200 segment. We’ll adjust our budget graphics card recommendations accordingly once reviews hit the wires.

At the very high end of the graphics card market, we expect that Nvidia’s Pascal-powered GeForce GTX Titan X will undoubtedly establish a new high-water mark for single-GPU graphics card performance. That card arrives August 2. Thing is, the renewed Titan X will sell for $1200, and it’s unclear just how widely it’ll be available outside of Nvidia’s online store. While gamers will likely be able to buy this card, it seems targeted more at deep-learning researchers who need its considerable computational horsepower to speed up their work. We’re banking on the idea that Nvidia will release a somewhat cut-down version of this card’s GP102 chip as a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti, but we have no indication of when that might happen.

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. We hope to learn more at the Intel Developer Forum in a couple of weeks.

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.

Comments closed
    • busmaster@gmail.com
    • 3 years ago

    Don’t care what AMD is doing anymore. the 200$ RX 480 is vaporware. I’ll pay more for a superior, more power-efficient product.

    • FlyingQ
    • 3 years ago

    For those of you looking for a mini ITX build, try this:

    [url<]http://uk.pcpartpicker.com/list/sDvp2R[/url<] All the numbers work power wise and everything fits. As usual with mITX, it is a bit cramped. The SSD is velcro'd to the side of the case. It could have used the mSATA version of the SSD but it was a bit too pricey at the time of build. I have done several builds with the Hydro case and it is a lovely thing to see on the desk rather than hide away.

    • mnemonick
    • 3 years ago

    Great guide as usual. 😀

    I can’t echo your recommendation for the Air 240 though – I have one and it’s very cheaply made and has serious clearance issues for video card PCIe power plugs and CPU coolers.
    The chassis paint chips if you look at it funny.
    The 3.5 drive cage is in a dead spot for cooling, so your platter drive will hit a toasty 125 degrees (F) if you don’t add an intake fan to the “power and drives” chamber.
    I had to hack up my PCIe plugs to get my GTX 970 SC into the case without noticeably bowing out the window (it’s not a tall card either), and forget about tower coolers: you have less than 140 mm to work with. 🙁

    For a case with “Air” in its name, this one’s clearly not built for air-cooling.
    I had a Thermaltake V21 before this case, and it’s a vastly superior case to work in: super versatile and lots of clever design features. I’m actually going back to the V21 even though it’s too big for where I want to place my PC.

    • e1jones
    • 3 years ago

    I would strongly recommend against trying to install Win 7 from a USB stick on any current 100-series ASUS board… some silly shit they pulled in the UEFI has made it impossible.. I spent about 10 hours pouring over the google and finally had to do it via burned DVD. Same source .iso and everything… USB implementation is b0rken.

    Given my previous outstanding luck with Gigabyte… maybe I should not have strayed.

    • One Sick Puppy
    • 3 years ago

    I’d sure like to see some ultra-budget systems that are not gaming oriented. It seems to me that you could probably get most of the performance of the budget box for almost half the price. Sure, the quality of the components might be more questionable, but assuming you get good working hardware you’re probably well ahead of some of the small celeron and Atom based pieces of dung that are floating around.

    Maybe ya’ll could call it the “family members” build.

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 3 years ago

      Take the Budget Box and remove the graphics card if you want to roll your own non-gaming PC.

      If you’re really cheap and you don’t want the hassle of providing all of the tech support yourself, pick up a scratched-and-dented Inspiron from the Dell Outlet.
      [url<]http://outlet.us.dell.com/ARBOnlineSales/Online/InventorySearch.aspx?c=us&cs=22&l=en&s=dfh&brandId=2202[/url<]

    • chuckula
    • 3 years ago

    Great guide as always and nice to see updates as new GPUs come out.

    The EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 SC is an excellent card that I’ve been using since late June. Very strong performance and it gets coupled with strong (and quiet) cooling and a lower pricetag than the FE cards.

      • PenGun
      • 3 years ago

      I’m very pleased with my EVGA FTW GTX 1070 as well. Cool, quiet and rocks my 301 Sparta just fine.

    • ikjadoon
    • 3 years ago

    Is there a reason the high-end case is still a now-ancient 2012 case?

    It has poor radiator availability (the worst I’ve seen in a $300+ case these days), it has “meh” airflow routing in a world of Corsair Air 540s (i.e., it has better stock cooling for 3.5″ hard drives than GPUs), no attempt to clean the PSU area, no USB type-C on the front panel, and presumes users are still copying CDs with the addition of not 1, not 2, but three permanent 5.25″ external bays, just destroying crucial airflow design.

    Take a look at EVGA’s surprisingly strong “fridge-sized” DG cases, Phanteks Enthoo Primo, heck even the relatively tame Corsair Air 540.

    But that Cosmos II is better relegated to yesteryear and nostalgic trips down memory lane, not an August 2016 build guide. 🙁

      • rudimentary_lathe
      • 3 years ago

      Agreed, I think it’s time for a new high end case. Personally I think the Cosmos is ugly, and there are newer cases out there with better form and function.

      That said, I think very few people need a behemoth like this. Even the sweet spot cases are overkill for most people.

        • ikjadoon
        • 3 years ago

        Yeah, it’s not a looker….but, if you can’t be handsome, be handy.

        I say this as a CM Stacker 830 owner: these cases were considered “big” for your 10 3.5″ hard drives, but for today’s cooling, they’re, without mincing words, plainly inadequate.

        • JustAnEngineer
        • 3 years ago

        I’d really like to see a budget or mid-range system in a micro-ATX tower like the Cooler Master Silencio 352 or Silverstone Temjin TJ08-E. Micro-ATXs four PCIe slots are plenty for non-SLI systems, even for enthusiasts.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 3 years ago

      Yeah, I’d save a couple hundred bucks and just get a Define R5, myself. Despite its lower cost, I’d put it up against lots of case that cost 2x what it does.

    • deruberhanyok
    • 3 years ago

    I can recommend the Cryorig H7 as budget-priced heatsink option similar to the 212 evo. I just recently put together a system in a micro ATX case (Corsair Carbide 88R, also recommended as a low-price case that’s easy to work in and has a nice tinted window) and learned that the 212 evo was a bit too tall to fit in it.

    The H7 was on sale for $29.99 on newegg (regular price $34.99, ships directly from Newegg through Cryorig’s storefront) and from what I’ve read it matches and occasionally exceeds the 212 evo’s performance. I certainly don’t have any complaints – it’s keeping an i5-6600k nice and cool and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it over ambient room noise.

    [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=9SIA4UF2DZ6565[/url<] The C7 is also apparently really nice for low profile builds, but I haven't had a chance to try one out yet. I did just pick up an i5-5675c for a substantial discount, though...

    • Black Jacque
    • 3 years ago

    I’d like to recommend the ratio to Flash SSD and Bulk (“Spinning Rust”) storage be trimmed-up. Some of the Recommended Builds have SSDs almost as large in capacity as their Bulk Storage. 🙂

    First, I wouldn’t recommend less than 256GB of SSD for any Build’s C:\ drive.

    I think the ratio of a Build’s SSD C:\ to Bulk storage should be at least 1:3 with larger being even better. I think 1:4 may be ideal. Although, the more the better. The larger the Bulk storage is the more economical in $/GB it gets. The 4 TB spinning disks are getting very inexpensive right now.

    For example, for a 512GB SSD C:\ I think a 2 TB spinning disk for bulk storage would be a useful capacity point.

    • Black Jacque
    • 3 years ago

    The ‘Sweeter Spot’ recommended build lists the “EVGA Supernova G2 650W” as the recommended PSU.

    This unit is not found in the the recommended ‘Power Supplies’ section.

    I think you intended for the listed as recommended “EVGA Supernova G2 550W” to be the Sweeter Spot’s PSU.

    Actually, the 550W part is a better fit power-wise. CPUs, GPUs and SSD storage are now very power stingy. And those EVGAs are really solid performers. Frankly, if you could find a quality 450W PSU with the right number PCIe 6+2-pin auxiliary connectors for the GPU you could likely run the Sweeter Spot on it.

    • HERETIC
    • 3 years ago

    Jeff,when you get around to the budget box This-XFX-XT Series.
    Best I can tell made by Seasonic-Based on their new ECO Series
    [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16817207037[/url<] Should have a superior build quality than the corsair. Anyone found any reviews on the smaller 275GB and 525GB MX300'S yet? Been a big fan of Crucial/Micron-Still using a C400 in one box. But haven't been very impressed with their latest products- BX200-sits down there on the border between the lemons and the budget drives. MX300 was cleverly released at a size where no direct comparison could be made, and was a bit of a disappointment,expect smaller sizes to be worse.................... As for OCZ Trion sorry PASS...........

    • Entroper
    • 3 years ago

    This comes just in time, I’m trying to figure out a workstation build for work. I think I’ve settled on 6 cores of Broadwell-E.

      • Krogoth
      • 3 years ago

      If you don’t need future expansion for SSD media or GPGPUs then the 28-lane PCIe controller versions will suffice.

        • cygnus1
        • 3 years ago

        Booo, I read that as, “If you don’t need it to be awesome then this hobbled junk version will suffice”

        😉 j/k

        • biffzinker
        • 3 years ago

        The clock speed boost of the Core i7 6850K has over the 6800K could be enough for some people to consider picking the 6850K besides the reduction of 12 PCIe lanes.

        • Entroper
        • 3 years ago

        Yeah, I agree. It’ll just have one SSD and some video adapter with two DisplayPorts.

        • raddude9
        • 3 years ago

        28 lanes of PCIe has plenty of room for expansion… if you use a single GPU

          • Krogoth
          • 3 years ago

          Not if you want to use higher-end SSD PCIe cards and other PCIe peripherals.

            • raddude9
            • 3 years ago

            Some people just want the extra CPU cores.

            • JustAnEngineer
            • 3 years ago

            For gaming, four fast Skylake cores are better than six older and slower cores. More isn’t always better.
            [url<]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyrrell_P34[/url<]

            • Krogoth
            • 3 years ago

            For a workstation build that doesn’t need or have any plans for future expansion this would work.

            None of the Haswell-E and Broadwell-E chips are sensible choices for a mainstream and gaming system.

    • derFunkenstein
    • 3 years ago

    Great guide, and sound advice all around. Buying a GTX 960 or 950 makes no sense with new Radeons around the corner, and the total lack of AMD CPUs is totally warranted. No reason to look at that crusty old lineup, either.

    • ThatStupidCat
    • 3 years ago

    Thanks Jeff,
    Always look forward to these even when I’m not building anything.

    • sirsoffrito
    • 3 years ago

    I’m not sure what happened, but the link that is supposed to lead to an RX 480 on the graphics page leads to a GTX 950 instead.

      • Voldenuit
      • 3 years ago

      Oh dear, the conspiracy trolls are going to LOVE this.

        • sirsoffrito
        • 3 years ago

        I almost said something, tongue in cheek of course, but decided better of it.

      • Jeff Kampman
      • 3 years ago

      Whoops, my goof. Fixed.

        • derFunkenstein
        • 3 years ago

        Still links there for me.

          • biffzinker
          • 3 years ago

          “The Step-Up” sample build still links to the Geforce GTX 950 instead of the AMD Radeon RX 480 4GB.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 3 years ago

            Oh, sorry, that’s what I meant. By “there” I meant to the GTX 950.

            • Jeff Kampman
            • 3 years ago

            We discovered two errors independently. Fixed the build list, as well.

            • derFunkenstein
            • 3 years ago

            Ah, gotcha. Didn’t see it wherever the other one was last night.

    • chem
    • 3 years ago

    Always enjoy the system guide. I just put together the following microATX build that minimizes ‘things that spin’; would love to see more small system size, quiet, gamer sample builds @ TR:

    PCPartPicker part list: [url<]http://pcpartpicker.com/list/N8sFGf[/url<] CPU: Intel Core i7-6700 3.4GHz Quad-Core Processor ($304.99 @ Newegg) CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-U12S 55.0 CFM CPU Cooler ($61.83 @ Newegg) Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z170MX-Gaming 5 Micro ATX LGA1151 Motherboard ($162.98 @ Newegg) Memory: G.Skill Ripjaws V Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR4-2666 Memory ($66.99 @ Newegg) Storage: Samsung 850 EVO-Series 1TB 2.5" Solid State Drive ($313.99 @ Newegg) Video Card: EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 8GB SC Gaming ACX 3.0 Video Card ($454.98 @ Newegg) Case: Silverstone TJ08B-E MicroATX Mini Tower Case ($112.98 @ Newegg) Power Supply: SeaSonic 520W 80+ Platinum Certified Fully-Modular Fanless ATX Power Supply ($135.98 @ Newegg) Total: $1614.72 Prices include shipping, taxes, and discounts when available Generated by PCPartPicker 2016-08-01 18:51 EDT-0400 Fanless PSU, microATX case with 1 big (will be slow RPM) front fan, quiet 1070 with only 2 fans, CPU that does not need to be O/C'd, one big SSD for no spinning drives.

      • Voldenuit
      • 3 years ago

      Nice build, but with a bit of judicious trimming, could be even better value. Moving to an i6 6600K ($235), cheaper motherboard (ASRock mATX Z170 $99), PSU (good ones can be had for $50-60), SSD (Crucial MX300 1 TB is almost $100 cheaper than the 850 EVO, 500 GB ones are even cheaper), Case, 1070 (Gigabyte has a $399 1070, both the ASUS Strix and Gigi windforce can be had for $429), you could save almost $300 on the build, which would put you a long way towards that sweet Dell S2716G G-Sync display ($469 on recent sale).

        • chem
        • 3 years ago

        yeah, I considered that exact mobo, but reviews and driver support pushed me toward the gigabyte. PSU pays the fanless premium, but for a specific purpose. I don’t see that price on a gigabyte 1070 ( [url<]http://www.nowinstock.net/computers/videocards/nvidia/gtx1070/[/url<] ) and if you did, it was probably for a reference cooler model? i5-6600k is a completely fair call -- I'm getting the i7-6700 for unrelated-to-gaming work reasons.

          • Voldenuit
          • 3 years ago

          Ah, I didn’t realize you had already built your system. The Gigi I was talking about was this one,
          [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814125875[/url<] , but the card you have is always better than one you're waiting on that's out of stock :p For work related reasons, the i7 certainly makes sense. Nickel and diming on a system build can pay dividends, but sometimes it's nice to have a nicer system that you pay extra for, in the long run (that's what I tell myself, anyway, with my $130 phanteks case and $479 G-sync monitor :p).

      • JustAnEngineer
      • 3 years ago

      I went with the Core i7-6700K over the non-K variant because of the substantially higher [b<]stock[/b<] clock speeds, even without overclocking. [url<]http://ark.intel.com/compare/88196,88195[/url<] Core i7-6700: 3.4/4.0 GHz Core i7-6700K: 4.0/4.2 GHz Other than that, the only thing that I would change on your build would be to pick up some faster DIMMs. Prices are pretty reasonable up to DDR4-3200 or so. In particular, your choices of motherboard and case are among my favorites.

        • chem
        • 3 years ago

        yeah, I had to weigh the 5% gain in turbo boost stock clock (which is what you will see under load) vs. base power consumption, thermal profile, and price. I almost got the 6700K, but did not expect to miss the 200 MHz.

        • chem
        • 3 years ago

        re: DIMMs. It’s the combination of freq and CAS latency for total throughput. The 2666 I got is CAS 15; you’d have to fork over ~$30-50 more to get CAS 15 or below 3200, and even then the small gains would be in memory-bound applications (rare). It was a compromise, but minimal.

          • JustAnEngineer
          • 3 years ago

          [url<]http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16820231937[/url<] That doesn't look bad.

            • chem
            • 3 years ago

            yeah that’s reasonable. not 3200, but close. 15-16-16 instead of 15-15-15, but should be similar to the 2666.

      • chem
      • 3 years ago

      this build is even quieter than I expected

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