Welcome to the October 2016 edition of The Tech Report System Guide. Since the last installment of the Guide, all the dust kicked up in the next-gen graphics card war has started to settle down—and so have the prices for those cards. The eternal struggle between AMD and Nvidia means that builders can get ahold of a mighty powerful machine for less cash than they could around this time a year ago. May those wars never end.
Since our last update, Nvidia has released its GeForce GTX 1060 in both 6GB and 3GB flavors. We’re still working on reviewing them, but preliminary results indicate that the 6GB version is more than a match for the already-impressive Radeon RX 480 8GB card. Despite its slightly cut-down pool of resources compared to the 6GB card, the GTX 1060 3GB seems to be a potent match for the Radeon RX 470 4GB, as well. The RX 480 8GB and the GTX 1060 6GB cards currently fight around or above the $250 mark, making them perfect fits for our Sweet Spot build. In turn, the RX 470 and the GTX 1060 3GB offer potent performance around the $200 mark.
AMD has also shaken up the sub-$150 graphics card market with its Radeon RX 460. This card offers a nice boost in performance over our past budget-gaming pick, the GeForce GTX 750 Ti, and it’s available in 2GB and 4GB versions. Like the GTX 750 Ti, certain RX 460s can drop right into a PCIe slot without the need for an external power connector, too. Between the RX 460 4GB card’s relatively generous memory allocation and its promising performance with DirectX 12 titles, we’re happy to recommend it for budget builds.
Other parts of the PC-component market have been relatively quiet since our last update. Intel announced its lineup of mobile Kaby Lake CPUs a few weeks back, but we won’t hear more about Kaby on the desktop until early next year. AMD also delivered a promising preview of its next-generation Zen CPUs, code-named Summit Ridge, back at IDF. As with desktop Kaby, however, we won’t know more about Zen chips until early 2017.
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 somewhat 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 set 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 $1650 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 top-end Broadwell-E parts have to offer, we think most can safely forget about it.
|Intel Core i3-6100||$119.99||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 $120, it’s hard to find anything to complain about with this chip.
We used to recommend some of AMD’s budget CPU options here, but honestly, the performance gap between the Core i3-6100 and AMD’s entry-level chips is too great for us to stomach. Socket FM2+ and its associated platforms are also looking quite long in the tooth. Once AMD’s Zen CPU lineup arrives, we may have reason to reconsider this stance, but for now, the Core i3-6100 is the unquestioned budget CPU champion.
|Intel Core i5-6500||$204.99||Intel LGA1151 motherboard|
|Intel Core i5-6600K||$239.99||Intel LGA1151 motherboard, Z170 chipset for overclocking,
aftermarket CPU cooler
|Intel Core i7-6700K||$339.99|
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 little over $200, 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.
If the Core i5-6500 isn’t enough power, Intel’s unlocked Skylake parts seem like logical steps up to us. The Core i5-6600K offers four unlocked Skylake cores running at 3.5GHz base and 3.9GHz Turbo speeds. At the top end of the lineup, 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 these chips’ upper limits with a Z170 motherboard, 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. A 240-mm or 280-mm liquid cooler is not an unreasonable choice if you’re building with Intel’s top-end Skylake CPU.
If the Z170 platform doesn’t offer enough cores, 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 CPU cooler
|Intel Core i7-6850K||$609.99|
With the advent of Broadwell-E, we think the best CPU choice in the lineup is the $609, six-core, 12-thread Core i7-6850K. Like all Broadwell-E chips, the Core i7-6850K is unlocked for easy overclocking—just grab a beefy cooler to go with it.
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 in the Haswell-E lineup. 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 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 offers the best fan speed controls around, too. 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 can be quite dated, but Gigabyte’s latest Windows software largely makes up for that deficit, and the company’s latest round of firmware has been better on this point. Some Gigabyte motherboards ship with cushioned I/O shields and header adapters, too. The inclusion of Intel Alpine Ridge USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt controllers on many models is also a big plus.
- 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 and Windows software leave much to be desired. ASRock boards are appealing primarily for their budget price tags.
|Gigabyte GA-H170-Gaming 3||$84.99||Intel LGA1151 processor,
Gigabyte’s GA-H170-Gaming 3 is an appealing platform for non-overclocked Skylake builds. It offers dual M.2 slots, a Killer Ethernet adapter, 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|
|Gigabyte Z170X-Ultra Gaming||$169.99|
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, Gigabyte’s GA-Z170X-UD3 lets builders install multiple Nvidia graphics cards. It also adds a few other niceties compared to our budget pick. This board packs two M.2 slots, an Intel Gigabit Ethernet controller, a fancier Realtek ALC1150 audio codec, and an Intel Alpine Ridge USB 3.1 controller with both USB 3.1 Type-C and Type-A ports. Oh, and LEDs along the audio paths. For the price, we think it’s a steal.
If you’re 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 that do-it-all port. Gigabyte also throws in a U.2 connector for 2.5″ NVMe SSDs and extensive LED accents.
|Gigabyte GA-X99P-SLI||$249.99||Intel LGA2011-v3 processor, ATX case|
|Asus X99-A II||$229.99|
We think it’s time to start looking seriously at Thunderbolt connectivity. Following that train of thought, our primary option for the higher end 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 below, but the tradeoff could be worth it if you need the X99P-SLI’s unique feature set. They’re both the same price, 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.
If you can live without built-in Thunderbolt and would rather not chance Broadwell-E compatibility, we think Asus’ X99-A II is a great pick. The 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. 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.
|G.Skill Aegis 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$37.99|
|G.Skill Aegis 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2400||$66.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$76.99|
|G.Skill Aegis 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2400||$134.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-3200||$149.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (4x8GB) 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 been steadily dropping. 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 choose (or assemble) a kit with four DIMMs to reach the capacity you want. Broadwell-E CPUs need four DIMMs to take full advantage of their quad-channel memory controllers. Broadwell-E also boosts compatible memory speeds to DDR4-2400 out of the box, so there’s no reason to stick with DDR4-2133 for anything but budgetary reasons.
As we alluded to in our introduction, AMD and Nvidia are both furiously fleshing out their lineups of next-generation graphics chips fabricated on FinFET processes. The fruits of that labor since our last Guide have been the more budget-friendly GeForce GTX 1060 family and a more affordable pair of Radeons: the RX 470 and the RX 460. At the high end of the market, the GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 continue to rule. Ever since the last System Guide, the rather absurd markups on these cards have started to abate, and it’s possible to find both for only a few bucks more than their suggested prices. If you want your gaming experience to have a substantial amount of oomph, there’s no need to look further than either of those cards.
The Radeon RX 480 reference card
Outside of the high-end graphics card market, AMD and Nvidia are locked in tight competition with one another. AMD’s Polaris graphics cards offer better frame-time consistency than the red team’s previous-gen products at reasonable prices, while Nvidia’s Pascal products generally hold a slight edge in raw performance while extending the green team’s lead in power efficiency. You really can’t go wrong either way.
As has been the case for a long time, though, we think that graphics-card buyers should consider whether a variable-refresh-rate (VRR) monitor is in their future. Nvidia still hasn’t chosen to support the VESA Adaptive-Sync standard (better known as FreeSync) in its latest graphics cards, so folks that are keen on VRR tech from a sub-$300 graphics card will need to take stock of their budgets and see whether a $380-or-more monitor is within the realm of affordability. If it is, a GeForce card and a G-Sync monitor will be a good pairing, while those looking to save every dollar will want to look into a Radeon and one of the many FreeSync displays on the market.
If you’re shopping for a high-end graphics card, on the other hand, be prepared to shell out for a G-Sync display if you want a helping of VRR tech with your Pascal graphics card. Until Nvidia decides that FreeSync support is worth including in its graphics cards, them’s the breaks.
Since our last Guide update, AMD threw a curveball at Nvidia in the budget-friendly graphics card market with the Radeon RX 460. In our review, that card handily outperformed the GeForce GTX 750 Ti, the green team’s previous value champion. The RX 460 often nips at the heels of the GeForce GTX 950 and offers 4GB of RAM for around $130. As a result, our main graphics card picks no longer include any 28-nm cards.
|Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 Windforce OC 4GB||$129.99||Look, ma, no power connectors needed!|
|MSI Radeon RX 470 Gaming X 4G||$199.99||One eight-pin power connector|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1060 Windforce OC 3GB||$209.99||One six-pin power connector|
Besides its intrinsic performance, the RX 460 4GB has the added bonus of offering FreeSync support, giving gamers easy access to variable-refresh monitors. That capability is especially handy on low-end graphics cards like this one that can use FreeSync’s help. The Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 Windforce OC 4GB card we’ve chosen boasts all the best features of the breed. It doesn’t need a six-pin PCIe power connector to run, and its dual-fan cooler should be polite under load. For only a few bucks more than 2GB RX 460s, we think this card is the RX 460 to get.
The Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 Windforce OC 4GB
Nvidia isn’t going down without a fight in this segment, though. Manufacturers are offering deep discounts on the GeForce GTX 950, so if you’re okay with dealing with rebates, you can get your hands on a nice 2GB GTX 950 card for as little as $90. For example, this bite-size Asus GTX 950 can drop right into most systems thanks to its slot-powered design. If you’ll be playing anything more than e-sports titles or a Steam library filled with older games, though, we’d stick with the RX 460 and its 4GB of RAM. 2GB of graphics memory is starting to seem claustrophobic to us, even at modest resolutions like 1920×1080. For the same reason, we’d skip the 2GB Radeon RX 460.
If you’re willing to shell out a few bucks more, though, your options really open up. On the red team’s side, the MSI Radeon RX 470 4GB is a good option at $200. The cut-down Polaris 10 GPU on this card packs a bigger punch than the RX 460’s Polaris 11 chip, and it won’t break anyone’s bank either. As for the green team, we’re still working on our review of the the GeForce GTX 1060 3GB, but initial testing and third-party reports indicate that this card easily matches and often bests the peformance of the Radeon RX 470 4GB. We’re a bit wary of this card’s 3GB of memory, but we’ll withhold judgment until we’ve seen what it can do in our testing. If you fancy an Nvidia card for $200, however, the GTX 1060 3GB is probably the best option for now.
As we’ve already noted, an advantage of the Radeons in this price range is that they can be hooked up to affordable FreeSync VRR displays. While G-Sync monitors tend to include high refresh rates, Nvidia’s Ultra-Low Motion Blur tech, and wide VRR ranges, they also tend to be quite expensive. If builders choose a Radeon, however, it’s possible to get a lower-end but decent enough display with FreeSync support for under $200. That’s a value proposition well worth considering.
|MSI GeForce GTX 1060 Armor 6G||$269.99||One eight-pin power connector|
|Gigabyte Radeon RX 480 G1 Gaming 8GB||$269.99||One eight-pin power connector|
Despite AMD’s promise to bring VR power to the people with its $200 Radeon RX 480 4GB card, the situation on the ground leads us to question where the revolution went. Reference-cooled RX 480s are vaporware, and custom 4GB cards command $230 and up. The fact that most non-reference RX 480 8GB cards are now going for at least $260 doesn’t help the RX 480’s case, either. AMD is bundling Battlefield 1 codes with RX 480 cards, at least, but the code isn’t for the game itself—it only offers an upgrade from the regular to the deluxe edition of the title. Finally, even though there are still reference RX 480 8GB cards on sale, their prices don’t make much sense when custom-cooled cards are only $10 or so more. While some of these factors might be out of AMD’s hands, they still make the RX 480 a tougher sell than its initial marketing may have led some to believe.
At the same time, Nvidia’s GTX 1060 6GB card presents a stiff challenge to the Radeon RX 480 8GB. For about as much cash, the GTX 1060 delivers slightly better performance in many titles save for AMD showcases like Hitman. The efficiency of the GP106 GPU means that even tiny custom-cooled cards can deliver that performance without making more than the barest peep of fan noise. If you’re piecing together a VR-ready system, the GTX 1060 6GB offers the requisite performance and some Pascal-exclusive VR rendering features for the money, too.
MSI’s GeForce GTX 1060 Armor 6G
Prices for 6GB GTX 1060 cards with hefty cooling setups have dropped a bit since the last System Guide. Thanks to those changes, we’re happy recommending the MSI GeForce GTX 1060 Armor 6G as our graphics card choice for this segement. On the other hand, if you’d rather stick with a more affordable FreeSync display, the RX 480 8GB should be right your alley. Our Gigabyte RX 480 pick comes with a nice twin-fan cooler and a modest overclock.
Nvidia’s Pascal cards make picking a high-end graphics card really easy right now. If you have a little over $400 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?
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1070 Windforce OC||$399.99||Dual PCIe power connectors|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 FTW||$459.99|
|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 money than that card demanded at the height of its 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 carries on the GTX 980 Ti’s commanding performance for gaming at 1920×1080 or 2560×1440. 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.
Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming
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 or Gigabyte, like our choices shown in the table above.
EVGA’s GeForce GTX 1070 FTW
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 didn’t offer enough graphics peerformance, so we figure two-way SLI is enough for the vast majority of folks that were going to go multi-GPU to begin with.
What about Nvidia’s Pascal-powered Titan X? This beastly card uses Nvidia’s baddest consumer Pascal GPU so far, GP102, to serve up 3584 stream processors, 224 texturing units, and 96 ROPs, all running in a 1531MHz boost clock range. PC Perspective got its hands on one of these beasts and found that it wipes the floor with any other single-GPU graphics card available today. Nvidia charges $1200 for the privilege of owning a Pascal Titan X. If you need the best 4K gaming performance from a single-GPU card on the market, get ready to pay up. Everybody else is probably safe with a GTX 1080 of some flavor.
Though it seems that stocks of Maxwell-powered cards are dwindling, builders may still find cards like the GeForce GTX 980 Ti selling for considerable discounts. Even if prices for Maxwell cards are on par with Pascal-powered options, we think it’s worth sticking with the freshest GeForces. That’s because the the Pascal architecture has a number of VR-focused features that could provide a 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 look better-suited to 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 an answer to the GTX 1070 or GTX 1080. The Radeon R9 Fury X can go into the ring with the GTX 1070, but its 4GB of RAM may limit its future appeal—and it needs far more power than the GeForce to do its thing. As for the GTX 1080, it’s simply in a league of its own right now.
The value proposition gets no better as we move down AMD’s model lineup. Radeon R9 Fury cards can be had for not much more than a GTX 1060 6GB, but we’d take the Nvidia card for its diminuitive size and power-sipping nature. The Radeon R9 Nano’s unique form factor isn’t enough to recommend it over a GTX 1070, either. We might see higher-end Radeons that can mix it up with Pascal later this year, but for now, Nvidia rules the roost.
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.
|WD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM||$49.99|
|Crucial MX300 275GB||$69.98|
|Crucial MX300 525GB||$123.79|
|Crucial MX300 1TB||$259.99|
|Mushkin Reactor 1TB||$239.99|
Almost any SATA SSD, save for the worst bargain-bin specials, is 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.
Prices for Crucial’s MX300 SSD used to be on par with Samsung’s 850 EVO, but the 275GB, 525GB, and 1TB versions of this drive are all selling for budget-SSD prices these days. The MX300 offers some higher-end features like hardware-accelerated encryption that our former budget pick, OCZ’s Trion 150 series, doesn’t. Pick the MX300 that fits your capacity and budget needs. Mushkin’s Reactor 1TB drive also 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 $0.24 per gigabyte or so. Still, if you prefer MLC flash to Micron’s cutting-edge TLC NAND, the Reactor is worth a look, too.
|Samsung 850 EVO 500GB||$162.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 1TB||$306.07|
|Samsung 850 EVO 2TB||$699.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 4TB||$1,499.99|
If you’re considering a SATA SSD, Samsung’s 850 EVO is one of the most popular of the breed, and for good reason. Though many SSD makers have tried to match this drive’s performance, few have succeeded. Of the various TLC NAND varieties on the market, Samsung’s 3D V-NAND has proven to be one of the best—if not the best— available. Samsung also offers this drive in enormous 2TB and 4TB flavors for folks who want to ditch mechanical drives for huge file sets, so long as they’re willing to pay for the privilege.
|Toshiba OCZ RD400 256GB||$144.99||M.2 slot or U.2 port
with PCIe 3.0 x4 connectivity
for maximum performance
|Samsung 950 Pro 256GB||$186.99|
|Toshiba OCZ RD400 512GB||$309.99|
|Samsung 950 Pro 512GB||$315.62|
|Toshiba OCZ RD400 1TB||$769.99|
|Intel 750 Series SSD 1.2TB PCIe AIC||$769.99|
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 the characteristics of 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 come in two flavors: a PCIe add-in card that needs an open PCIe slot, or a 2.5″ drive that needs a U.2 port.
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 close to twice the price of a similarly-sized 850 EVO. You’ll have to decide whether having the latest and greatest tech is worth that considerable premium.
Samsung just recently announced the successors to the 950 Pro series: the 960 Pro and the 960 EVO. These drives may offer even higher performance than the 950 Pro series at more accessible prices. Those drives are set to arrive sometime this month, so it’s probably worth waiting to see what they have to offer unless you need a PCIe storage device right this second.
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 SSD 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 harness four lanes of PCIe 3.0 connectivity to move bits around, 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 very latest X99 and Z170 offerings from Gigabyte and Asus.
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 3TB||$89.99|
|WD Blue 4TB||$129.99|
|WD Blue 5TB||$179.99|
|WD Black 4TB (7200 RPM)||$221.00|
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. This time around, though, our choices are mostly Western Digital drives, mostly thanks to the company’s aggressive prices.
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 spindle 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 unless you’re building a file server of some kind. HGST Deskstar NAS drives are a good alternative to WD Red Pro drives, too. 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 DVDs and Blu-ray discs, though, and we’re happy to oblige them with a couple options.
|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 DVDs and CDs alike, 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 at a lower price than the Asus BD drive 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 appearance or layout 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|
|Cooler Master MasterBox 5||$69.99||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.
If you’re sticking with an ATX motherboard, we have a couple of options. 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.
If you prefer a more modern case with a windowed side panel, Cooler Master’s MasterBox 5 ditches the 5.25″ bays for a more open interior layout that’s a delight to build with. In our recent review, we were so taken with the MasterBox 5 that we awarded it our coveted Editor’s Choice award. This case is available in a stealthy black finish with a mesh front panel or a flashy white finish with a smoked-Plexiglas front panel. You can’t go wrong either way.
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||$89.99||microATX motherboard, fan splitter|
|Fractal Design Define R5||$109.99||N/A|
|Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$129.99||N/A|
|Corsair Carbide Series 600C||$149.55||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 (in both fenestrated and non-fenestrated versions, of course).
A new contender between the Define R5 and Corsair’s Obsidian 750D is the Cooler Master 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. For those that want a little more from their case, Cooler Master offers the MasterCase Maker 5. This model offers solid front and top panels, a built-in fan controller, a front-panel USB-C port, and a built-in lighting controller that comes with a magnetic red LED strip plugged in. We think it’s well worth its $175 price tag.
Another new entrant to our sweet-spot recommendations is the TR Recommended 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 want the 600C’s sharp-looking side-panel window without the upside-down-ness, the Carbide Series 400C offers many of the same styling cues in a smaller, more traditional package. Corsair also offers quiet versions of these cases in the Carbide Series 600Q and Carbide Series 400Q. Those cases feature solid side panels with noise-dampening material throughout.
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||$329.99||A forklift|
At roughly 14″ x 28″ x 26″, the Cooler Master Cosmos II is humongous. At around $330, it’s also quite expensive. This thing is unarguably impressive, though, with even roomier innards than the 750D and all kinds of premium features, including gull-wing doors, sliding metal covers, and a compartmentalized internal layout. We didn’t give it an Editor’s Choice award by accident. Despite its age, the Cosmos II still offers a feature set that’s hard to find anywhere else.
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 power-hungry components like the CPU and GPU. In 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.
|SeaSonic S12II 430B||$39.99||Non-modular, one 6+2-pin PCIe power connector,
one six-pin PCIe power connector
|Corsair CX450M||$49.99||Semi-modular, one 6+2-pin PCIe power connector|
For entry-level systems, we’re recommending SeaSonic S12II 430B. This 80 Plus Bronze unit has a 120-mm fan and a five-year warranty. It offers one six-pin and one eight-pin PCIe power connections. Entry-level and midrange graphics cards often need just one auxiliary connection from the PSU these days, so the S12II 430B should be more than enough PSU for budget boxes. If the S12II 430B’s price hops back up, Corsair’s CX430 remains a good alternative.
If you’d rather have an affordable modular PSU, 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 CPUs’ low-power sleep states.
|EVGA Supernova G2 550W||$84.99||Fully modular, two 6+2-pin PCIe connectors,
|EVGA Supernova G2 750W||$99.99||Fully modular,
four 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 even 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||$148.98||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 P2 850W PSU as the foundation for the most power-hungry systems builders might want to put together. This highly-efficient PSU offers semi-silent operation and more than enough power cables to run multiple graphics cards. Should the Supernova P2 go up in price, the similarly-excellent EVGA Supernova G2 850W is still a solid buy, too.
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. Broadwell-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 or a beefy radiator, as these 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.
|Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||$27.95||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||$51.99||Case with 5.6″ (142 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Noctua NH-D15S||$84.90||Case with 6.5″ (165 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Corsair H60||$59.99||Closed-loop liquid cooler||Case with a 120-mm radiator mount|
|Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 120||$98.74||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|
|Corsair H115i||$110.04||Case with a 280-mm radiator mount|
|Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 240||$112.99||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, boasting 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.
We’ve discovered that the stock cooler Intel ships with many of its CPUs these days has a rather narrow PWM range, making it unreasonably loud at idle. If you’re building with a modest CPU like the Core i3-6100 or the Core i5-6500 and you care about noise, it might be worth dropping $20 or so on a basic mini-tower heatsink like Cryorig’s M9i or be quiet!’s Pure Rock Slim. These coolers should be a nice upgrade over the Intel stock unit.
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 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.
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. Like a good monitor, a good sound card can follow you from build to build, too. Our Editor-in-Chief is still jamming out with a PCI Asus Xonar DG from the better part of a decade ago.
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||$98.99|
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||Intel Core i3-6100||$119.99|
|Cooler||Intel stock cooler||—|
|Motherboard||MSI Z170-A Pro||$94.99|
|Memory||G. Skill Aegis 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$37.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte RX 460 OC 4GB||$129.99|
|Storage||WD Blue 1TB||$49.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 200R||$59.99|
|PSU||Seasonic S12II 430B||$39.99|
Our Budget Box proves that even if you don’t have an enormous amount of cash to burn, you can still get yourself a competent PC capable of playing many games at 1920×1080 with some graphics options turned up. The Intel Core i3-6100 CPU offers plenty of general-purpose processing power, and the Gigabyte RX 460 OC 4GB graphics card we’ve chosen offers way more graphics horsepower than you’d expect for only $130, too. The combination is rounded out by the affordable-but-respectable Corsair Carbide 200R case and Seasonic S12II 430B power supply, which has a 5-year warranty.
In case the 1TB hard drive in this build feels a little too pokey for your tastes, you can always add in a Crucial MX300 275GB SSD, which can be yours for about $70.
The Sweet Spot
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6500||$204.99|
|Cooler||be quiet! Pure Rock Slim||$24.90|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2133||$66.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 1060 Armor 6G||$269.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX300 525GB||$119.99|
|WD Blue 1TB||$49.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define S||$59.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 550W||$84.99|
The Sweet Spot steps us up to a quad-core Skylake CPU and Gigabyte’s fully-featured GA-Z170X-UD3 motherboard. MSI’s GeForce GTX 1060 Armor 6G blends Pascal performance with quiet operation and a spankin’ 1579 MHz boost clock. If you have an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive on the brain, the Pascal architecture’s VR-specific features should be an advantage as soon as game engines are updated to employ them, too.
Pair that cool-running graphics card with a large SSD, a 1TB hard drive, Fractal Design’s whisper-quiet Define S case and an efficient 80 Plus Gold PSU, and you have a winner for just north of a grand.
The Sweeter Spot
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6600K||$239.99|
|Motherboard||Asus Z170 Pro Gaming/Aura||$153.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$76.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 FTW||$459.99|
|Storage||Samsung 850 EVO 500GB||$157.30|
|WD Blue 3TB 5400 RPM||$89.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define R5||$109.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 750W||$99.99|
Here’s a sweet little machine that shows just how much gaming bang-for-the-buck one can get now. Intel’s speedy Core i5-6600K CPU should be a good companion for the GeForce GTX 1070, a graphics card that delivers as much performance as a GeForce GTX 980 Ti did for far less money. That’s insane value. Some of the money we save this way can be funneled into Samsung’s speedy 850 EVO 500GB SSD, and a 3TB hard drive provides plenty of bulk storage space, as well. This is the kind of build that makes us excited to be PC enthusiasts.
The Grand Experiment
|Processor||Intel Core i7-6700K||$339.99|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte Z170X-Ultra Gaming||$169.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-3200||$149.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 SC||$649.00|
|Storage||Samsung 850 EVO 1TB||$306.07|
|WD Blue 4TB 5400 RPM||$129.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$129.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 750W||$99.99|
This system is our take on the biggest, baddest Skylake-powered PC around. Intel’s Core i7-6700K CPU gives us four cores and eight threads of processing power. Noctua’s beefy NH-D15S should let builders overclock the Core i7-6700K comfortably, while EVGA’s GeForce GTX 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 4TB 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
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-3200||$169.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming||$699.99|
|Storage||Samsung 950 Pro 512GB||$315.62|
|WD Red 4TB 5400 RPM||$149.99|
|WD Red 4TB 5400 RPM||$149.99|
|LG WH16NS40 Blu-ray burner||$49.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DX||$98.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master MasterCase Maker 5||$174.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova P2 850W||$149.99|
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 Gigabyte GA-X99P SLI motherboard unlock the full potential of the X99 platform, and our mobo also offers an Intel-powered USB 3.1 Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 port.
This system should be fairly quiet, too, despite its ample horsepower. That’s thanks to a big Noctua tower cooler, Cooler Master’s excellent MasterCase Maker 5, an EVGA 80 Plus Platinum power supply, and the eerily silent Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming graphics card. As an added bonus, this particular GTX 1080 comes with a front-panel output section that’s handy for VR setups. Whatever you want to throw at this system, it’s ready for the job.
The operating system
If you’re building a gaming PC and need an operating system for it, we think you’ll be happiest with Windows. Windows 10 is here, and 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. Microsoft’s 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, especially if you want to take advantage of the DirectX 12 API.
Windows 10 comes in a wide range of versions, but most builders reading this should choose Microsoft’s comparison page for confirmation and purchase accordingly.
There are rumors going around that Nvidia is already preparing a GeForce GTX 1050 card to go head-to-head with the Radeon RX 460. Given the pricing of its bigger brothers, we’d bet that card will land with a $150 price tag. That development may change our recommendations for affordable system builds, but more importantly, this competition means only one thing: better options and possibly lower prices for frugal gamers.
At the highest end of the graphics card market, the rumor mill says that Nvidia is working on a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti. That card could slot in between the GTX 1080 at $600 and the GTX Titan X at $1,200. It’s a reasonable assumption that the Pascal Titan X will still rule the roost, but its price tag is nothing short of eye-watering. A GTX 1080 Ti that offers most of its bigger brother’s performance at a merely stratospheric price point would be a compelling option for our high-end builds. That card may not land until next year’s CES, however, so it’ll be a while off even if it is in the works.
Even though enthusiasts everywhere would like to move to PCIe-based SSDs, the price of those drives has made that transition a little difficult. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that a PCIe SSD cost more than twice as much as a similarly-sized SATA drive. Samsung’s upcoming 960 EVO and 960 Pro SSD lineups might do something about that. Drives from both families claim to offer blindingly-fast performance, and the 960 EVO may offer that speed at a lower price than the outgoing 950 Pro. It’s entirely possible the new drives will rock our storage recommendations a bit.
Early next year, Intel’s Kaby Lake CPUs will hit the market. These 14-nm parts should offer improved video decoding capabilities and mild performance improvements over today’s Skylake parts. We know these CPUs will work with existing Z170 motherboards, so there’s no risk in building a Skylake system today and upgrading later. However, Intel may also release a new 200-series chipset to go with these CPUs, and it’s not yet clear what features builders might miss out on by re-using a Z170 board with Kaby Lake chips.
AMD’s Zen consumer parts, code-named Summit Ridge, are likewise set to hit the market in early 2017. They’ll need motherboards with the new AM4 socket and its associated chipsets, so the AMD faithful will need 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. Be sure to purchase any of our picks using the links to Newegg throughout this guide. Your support helps us to continue the in-depth research and reviews that make guides like this one possible. Have fun building your new system—we’re sure it’ll turn out great.