Welcome to the December 2016 edition of The Tech Report System Guide. Since our last installment, AMD made a big splash by taking the wraps off its Ryzen CPUs. Intel’s Kaby Lake CPUs are now inside many laptops and convertibles, and the rumor mill says that the desktop variants of Kaby will be arriving soon. AMD’s Ryzen chips also shouldn’t be too far behind. The company has said its next-gen parts will launch in the first quarter of 2017. CES is just around the corner, in any case, so you’ll probably want to hold off buying a motherboard or CPU until after the dust from that show has settled. Should you need a machine right now, though, we did our best to select the cream of the crop from the current-generation lineups.
In the graphics card arena, there’s been some major shifts in the $250-and-under segment of the market now that both AMD and Nvidia have revealed basically their entire next-generation graphics-card lineups. While we previously lamented the fact that AMD’s originally-promised pricing for its Radeon RX 470 and RX 480 cards didn’t materialize in stores, we’re now happy to report that supply seems to have increased and prices have fallen. For example, you can grab a Radeon RX 470 4GB card for around $170, and its bigger brother the RX 480GB 8GB goes for about $240. This all means that the fight in the entry-level and budget graphics card segments is fierce indeed.
Nvidia isn’t sitting still, though, and it’s launched the wallet-friendly GeForce GTX 1050 and GTX 1050 Ti to take the fight to the entry-level graphics-card market. The GTX 1050 is a solid enough performer for its price, but our preliminary testing has shown that the 2GB of RAM on board limits its appeal. The GTX 1050 Ti and its 4GB of RAM, on the other hand, are more interesting. Although the slightly-more-expensive RX 470 4GB boasts superior performance, the GTX 1050 Ti sips barely any power, runs dead-quiet, and often doesn’t even need a 6-pin power connector to do its thing. That makes it a near-perfect choice for a living-room PC or upgrading a prebuilt system.
As for the remaining components that make up a PC, there hasn’t been much in the way of new releases. Along with its next-generation CPUs, there are indications that Intel will be releasing new chipsets to go with them, which are reportedly going inside motherboards from all manufacturers as we speak. However, those motherboards have yet to hit the market. Given the rather large amount of uncertainty about these products, we’d be wary of buying a motherboard or CPU right now.
When it comes to memory, we’ll put it plain and simple: buy it right now, and buy as much as you can. From what we can see, RAM prices have been climbing like crazy, sometimes in the range of 30% or more per kit. Even though our recommendations for specific kits won’t be changing all that much, the price tags are rising by the minute. According to some reports and our own observations, SSD prices are on the rise, too. Although we’ve actually yet to see this phenomenon in most retail listings, the recent dearth of promotional deals and the apparent steadiness of the current prices (instead of the expected continued drop) may be a sign that your flashy new SSD will soon become more expensive.
The Tech Report System Guide is sponsored by Newegg. We’ll be using links to the site’s product pages throughout this guide. You can (and should!) support our work by purchasing the items we recommend using these links. A big thanks to Newegg for their continued support. In the rare cases that Newegg doesn’t stock an item we want to recommend, we’ll link to other retailers as needed. Despite its sponsorship, Newegg has no input on the components included in the System Guide. Our picks are entirely our own.
Rules of the road
The System Guide is our list of recommended parts for building a new PC. If you’ve never built a PC before and want to, that’s great. Just be sure to read through our guide to building a PC, or kick back and watch the handy video below, before proceeding.
In the following pages, we’ll discuss our picks for the critical components that make up a PC, including processors, motherboards, memory, graphics cards, storage, cases, and power supplies. We’ve picked parts to fit budgets of all sizes, without compromising on quality or performance. Those picks are divided into three categories: budget, sweet spot, and high-end. We’ll also make a note of good choices for those readers who are looking to get in to a VR ready system.
Our budget picks will get you up and running with solid components that won’t break the bank. Stepping up to our sweet spot parts gets you even more bang for your buck. At the high end, we’ve chosen parts that represent the pinnacle of performance, without falling into the trap of spending money for its own sake.
Each part will have a link to a TR review where possible. We also include a notable needs section for each item with any critical information that you need to know before putting together a parts list. Finally, we’ve put together some sample builds if you have no idea where to start.
If you like this article, don’t miss the rest of our guide series: our how-to-build-a-PC guide, where we walk readers (and viewers) through the PC assembly process; our mobile staff picks, where we highlight our favorite devices for on-the-go computing; and our peripheral guide, where we pick the best monitors, mice, keyboards, and accessories to make your PC experience even better.
We’re fairly certain you’ve been reading the news about impending releases from both the Intel and AMD camp. Let’s talk a little about those first.
If you’re shopping for an Intel CPU, we strongly recommend you wait until after CES. Preliminary leaks of information regarding Intel’s desktop Kaby Lake CPUs suggest they’ll offer decent clock-speed bumps over their predecessors, and every Hertz helps for Intel’s locked-down parts. The rumor mill also suggests new chipsets are on the way to go with Kaby, as well. Given the potential platform advantages and speed boosts that Kaby Lake might offer on the desktop, we think there’s little harm in waiting to see what’s in store.
There’s also AMD’s upcoming Ryzen CPUs to consider. AMD has pointed to a “first quarter of 2017” release for its next-gen CPUs, but that could mean late March as much as it might mean January. Recently, the company has demoed an eight-core, 16-thread Ryzen CPU roughly matching a Core i7-6900K monster. Even assuming Ryzen will deliver that kind of real-world performance, there’s still scarce information on what AMD’s actual CPU lineup will be. If you’re a member of the AMD faithful and can wait for a while, Ryzen parts might be worth sitting tight for, as well.
With all that said, if you want to build a system immediately, here are our recommendations. 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 enough PCI Express lanes for next-generation storage and high-speed I/O ports.
While all that talk above mostly pertains to standard desktop and gaming systems, workstation and high-end enthusiasts, may be interested in Intel’s Broadwell-E CPUs. This range of chips piles cores and PCIe lanes, and 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 its pricing. 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 the Core i7-6950X 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 them.
|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 any longer. Socket FM2+ and its associated platforms are also looking quite long in the tooth, and Ryzen CPUs and their associated AM4 motherboards are landing in the first quarter of 2017 anyway. Once Ryzen arrives and we’ve had a look at the lower-end versions of that chip, we may have reason to reconsider this stance. 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.
The cats are out of the bag, and everyone and the dog knows that new Intel and AMD CPUs and chipsets are coming along in relatively short order. As we’ve already discussed, we don’t think you should buy a motherboard right now. Should you have an immediate need for an upgrade or a new build, here are our picks.
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 and firmware 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, firmware, 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 Gigabyte boards is also a big plus for this generation.
- MSI‘s motherboards are solid, as are the company’s firmware and software. The nicely-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-H170M-D3H||$89.99||Intel LGA1151 processor|
Gigabyte’s GA-H170-D3H is an interesting choice for non-overclocked Skylake builds. Despite its smaller size, it still offers an M.2 slot, an honest-to-goodness Intel Ethernet adapter, and a full complement of six SATA ports. There are also two PCIe x16 slots with CrossFire support, too. If you don’t plan to overclock, and you’re OK living with DDR4-2133 RAM only, the H170M-D3H seems like all the motherboard one would need for a budget system.
|Gigabyte GA-Z170-HD3||$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 Gigabyte’s GA-Z170-HD3. This $115 mobo has everything the enthusiast needs without a lot of frills. Despite its wallet-friendly price, the GA-Z170-HD3 offers a full complement of PCIe expansion slots, an M.2 slot, three SATA Express connectors, and a smattering of USB 3.0 ports. For a little more than a Benjamin, this board isn’t missing much. SLI support and USB Type-C ports are the only features 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.
Gigabyte Z170X-Ultra Gaming
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 that builders with high-end systems in mind should start weighing Thunderbolt 3 compatibility when picking out new parts. 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 a Haswell-E CPU 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|
We have some bad news for you when it comes to memory. Prices have been rising sharply, sometimes to the tune of 30% or so. There isn’t much to be said about that fact other than “buy now, and buy plenty.” Nevertheless, we still consider that a good amount of RAM is still fairly affordable and a good investment for your PC. We’ve picked out some sets at different price and capacity points, as you can see in the table above.
We think there’s no reason at all to consider anything but 8GB in an entry-level build these days. It also doesn’t cost a whole lot extra to step up to 16GB of RAM any longer. 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 talked about in our intro, AMD and Nvidia are duking it out in the budget and mid-range graphics card markets—and gamers are reaping the benefits. Prices for low and mid-range cards have dropped, and that means that our recommendations are shifting. AMD cards were previously were being sold at a markup over the originally-quoted MSRP, but that’s all changed now. The current situation can be defined in few words: you can get a ton of graphics card in the $150-to-$250 range, thanks to an apparently supply increase and heady competition.
This time around, we’re officially drawing a line in the sand and saying that any graphics card with less than 4GB of RAM is a bad idea for the purposes of a gaming machine. Our observations indicate that with the latest crop of games, it’s become a little too easy to hit certain corner cases where lesser-endowed cards hit a RAM limit, degrading performance. For brand-new machines, a graphics card with 4GB of video RAM or more should be a requirement, not a nicety.
EVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti SSC
Nvidia recently threw a bone to budget-minded builders with its GeForce GTX 1050 and GTX 1050 Ti cards. We think the GTX 1050 is the less-appealing of the two, thanks to its 2GB of RAM. We’re still testing these cards, but our preliminary results suggest that many modern games can run into the limits of 2GB of RAM far too quickly for comfort, even at modest resolutions and settings. With that in mind, we think builders will be safest steering clear of the GTX 1050 (and the Radeon RX 460 2GB).
The GTX 1050 Ti with 4GB of RAM, on the other hand, is a much more capable card. Nvidia blesses this card with a fully-enabled GP107 GPU, and it’s quiet and efficient. There are many compact single-fan GTX 1050 Tis without a PCIe power connector, too, making this card a great drop-in upgrade for prebuilt desktops. It’s an excellent choice for around $140, though if you have just a few more bucks in your pocket and a solid power supply, the Radeon RX 470 4GB offers much more performance for roughly $170. Still, a living-room gaming PC with a GTX 1050 Ti inside could be quite appealing.
At the high end of the market, the GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 continue to rule. Ever since the last System Guide, the 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 the best gaming experience around, there’s no need to look further than either of these cards.
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. Those looking to save every dollar will want to look into a Radeon and one of the many FreeSync displays on the market.
In the budget arena, there’s a lot of graphics card to be had for a small amount of cash these days. The price drops on AMD cards have been particularly juicy, netting the company an almost unanimous win across the affordable spectrum of the market. Nvidia’s GTX 1050 Ti is the green team’s sole competitive choice in this segment, since we’ve excluded cards with less than 4GB of VRAM from the running. Having said that, the non-Ti GTX 1050 is still a good choice for a modern HTPC or light gaming, since it’s cool, quiet, and often doesn’t even need a power connector.
As we’ve already noted, another 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. Without further ado, let’s see what we have here.
|Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 Windforce OC 4GB||$119.99||Look, ma, no power connectors needed!|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050 Ti 4GB||$144.99||–|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti SC||$149.99||–|
|MSI Radeon RX 470 Armor OC 4GB||$169.99||One eight-pin power connector|
|MSI Radeon RX 480 Armor OC 4GB||$199.99||One eight-pin power connector|
The Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 Windforce OC 4GB we’ve chosen for our entry-level bracket 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.
Gigabyte Radeon RX 460 Windforce OC 4GB
For more gaming power in this segment, the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti offers substantially superior performance and runs quieter and cooler than the RX 460 4GB for just a little more cash. The only thing going against it is its lack of FreeSync support, really. Its power and noise profile make it a near-perfect choice for a gaming-oriented HTPC, too. Our choice for this type of card is another Gigabyte model, the GTX 1050 Ti OC. It offers slightly boosted clocks and a dual-fan setup. You’d be forgiven for mistaking it with the RX 460 picture above, too.
You might find it odd that we made a lot of noise (pun intended) about how cool and quiet the GTX 1050 Ti is, but we listed a mid-sized, dual-fan card above. Fret no more. Our next choice is a compact card that can go into just about any system on the planet with a PCIe x16 slot. We’re talking about the EVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti SuperClocked. This tiny terror is actually in the TR labs, and measures at only 5.7″ long. The single fan on it is more than enough to quietly cool it, and it draws power through the PCIe slot alone. Finally, despite its dimensions, it’ll still offer a 1468 MHz boost clock.
EVGA GeForce GTX 1050 Ti SC
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 Armor OC 4GB is a good option at only $170. This card packs a much bigger punch than the GTX 1050 Ti, but it still won’t break anyone’s bank.
MSI RX 470 4GB Armor OC
Finally, the budget section is complete with a “new” entry: the Radeon RX 480 with 4GB of VRAM. These cards were going for around $230 around their launch, which made them hard to recommend against the alternatives. That’s changed now, and you can easily find multiple specimens around the $200 mark. We elected the MSI Radeon RX 480 Armor OC 4GB as our choice for this spot. The fully-enabled Polaris 10 GPU on the RX 480 offers potent performance for both 1920×1080 and 2560×1440 gaming alike, and the extra gigabyte of RAM this card offers over the somewhat-hobbled GTX 1060 3GB only sweetens its appeal.
|MSI Radeon RX 480 Armor 8GB||$239.99||One eight-pin power connector|
|Gigabyte GTX 1060 6GB Windforce OC||$264.99||One eight-pin power connector|
We’re happy to report that the high prices that the Radeon RX 480 8GB previously commanded are a thing of the past, as well, leaving buyers with pretty clear choices when it comes to getting that graphics card that’s Just Right: not too cheap, and not too expensive. One can say the sweet spot has never been sweeter.
The first selection we have is the MSI Radeon RX 480 Armor 8GB. There’s not a lot we can say about this specimen that’s not a good thing. It offers two large fans, healthy clock speeds, and a particularly tasty price: $240. This class of card should be enough for pretty much any game with maxed-out settings at 1920×1080, and it should still offer pretty good performance at 2560×1440 with a few settings dialed back. FreeSync support means builders can pair an affordable variable-refresh-rate monitor with the RX 480 for buttery smoothness, and both the RX 480 4GB and RX 480 8GB can serve as the foundation for entry-level VR-ready systems, too.
For a few bucks more, the GTX 1060 6GB delivers pretty much the same performance as the RX 480 GB. This card’s real advantage is the highly power-efficient GP106 Pascal GPU. Thanks to that efficiency, custom-cooled cards can deliver high performance without making more than the barest peep of fan noise, and they consume significantly less power than the Radeon RX 480. If you’re considering a VR-ready system, the GTX 1060 6GB offers the requisite performance and some Pascal-exclusive VR rendering features for the money, too.
If you have your eye on a G-Sync monitor or want a fairly powerful card that’s also cool and quiet, we recommend the Gigabyte GTX 1060 6GB Windforce OC as our choice for the green team in this segment.
Nvidia’s Pascal cards make picking a high-end graphics card really easy right now. If you have $350 to $450 to spend, you want a GeForce GTX 1070 with a custom cooler. If you have about $600 to $700, you want a GeForce GTX 1080 with a custom cooler. Any questions?
|EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 FTW||$449.99|
|MSI GeForce GTX 1080 Armor||$599.99|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming||$664.99|
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 maxed-out or high-refresh-rate 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.
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, though. If you demand the absolute 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.
Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming
The Pascal architecture also has a number of VR-focused features that could provide a boost in performance with Oculus’ Rift and HTC’s Vive VR headsets. It equally offers improvements in asynchronous compute capability. 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 long-term 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 sometime next 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||$89.99|
|Crucial MX300 525GB||$128.05|
|Crucial MX300 1TB||$256.57|
|Mushkin Reactor 1TB||$249.99|
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 512GB SSDs are actually better value than their 240GB-odd counterparts. It’s not fun shuffling data on and off a 240GB SSD to make room for that latest triple-A release, either.
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||$329.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 2TB||$679.99|
|Samsung 850 EVO 4TB||$1,374.99|
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. If you want the best all-purpose SATA SSD around, the 850 EVO is it.
|Samsung 960 EVO 250GB||$146.97||M.2 slot or U.2 port
with PCIe 3.0 x4 connectivity
for maximum performance
|Samsung 960 EVO 500GB||$269.99|
|Samsung 960 EVO 1TB||$498.40|
|Samsung 960 Pro 512GB||$499.50|
|Samsung 960 Pro 1TB||$629.99|
|Samsung 960 Pro 2TB||$1,299.99|
Moving into the high-end realm of solid-state storage lets us consider blazing-fast PCI Express drives. 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 plug into the M.2 slots common on many Z170 and X99 motherboards.
Samsung’s introduction of the 960 EVO and 960 Pro drives has upended the high-end storage market, to say the least. Where before we were recommending a mix of OCZ RD400s and Samsung’s own 950 Pro drives, we’ve now gone squarely for Samsung’s latest-and-greatest. The 960 EVO models deliver world-class performance with a reasonably affordable price tag, while the 960 Pro is—to put it simply—in a league of its own, overthrowing even the datacenter-derived Intel 750 Series SSD. If you’re going to spend this much money on an SSD, there’s no reason to choose anything but a Samsung 960-series drive.
As we wrote in our review of the 960 EVO, those drives share much of the 960 Pro’s technology. The EVO’s affordable pricing stems from the fact that it couples TLC V-NAND with a proprietary pseudo-SLC caching scheme. This setup, coupled with Samsung’s firmware and controller smarts, lets the 1TB EVO blaze past the Intel 750 1.2TB in our overall SSD performance index.
Meanwhile, the 960 Pro uses Samsung’s 48-layer, 256Gb V-NAND chips and a new, five-core “Polaris” controller to do its thing. These drives also have TCG Opal-compliant 256-bit AES hardware encryption and a 5-year warranty. Their longevity should be outstanding, too—the 2TB version is rated for 1.2 total petabytes written. But the proof is in the pudding, as they say, and the 960 Pro drives are insanely, freakishly fast. If you need further proof, just go read our review.
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||$88.99|
|WD Blue 4TB||$127.99|
|WD Blue 6TB||$214.99|
|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 an admittedly 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||$58.99||N/A|
|Cooler Master MasterBox 5||$68.10||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||$77.99||N/A|
|Corsair Carbide Series Air 240||$74.99||microATX motherboard, fan splitter|
|Fractal Design Define C||$89.99 (window)
|Fractal Design Define R5||$109.99||N/A|
|Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$129.99||N/A|
|Corsair Carbide Series 600C||$129.55||N/A|
|Corsair Carbide Series Air 740||$149.99||N/A|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$149.99||N/A|
Fractal Design Define S
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.
Corsair Carbide Series Air 240
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.
Fractal Design Define C
One of the more recent entries into the case arena is the Fractal Design Define C (for Compact). The folks at Fractal seem to have an uncanny attention to detail and a feel for what makes a chassis practical, quiet, and easy to work in, and TR Editor-in-Chief Jeff Kampman gave the Define C an Editor’s Choice award not too long ago. Your humble writer built a system with this case only a few days ago, too.
The Define C has everything you need, and nothing you don’t: a dual-chamber design, front and bottom dust filters, two really quiet 120-mm stock fans, and about a quintillion openings to allow for any sort of cabling arrangement. Despite its mini-tower dimension, this case can still take in a full-sized ATX mobo and 360-mm radiators. We think the Define C is perfect for the vast majority of systems out there. The only remark that we’ll make is that there’s precious little room for PSU cables, so be sure to get a modular unit that’s not overly long.
Fractal Design Define R5
For builders who want a more roomy 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).
Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5
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.
Cooler Master MasterCase Maker 5
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, though throughout some informal testing, we discovered that the top and front panel mounts may have compatibility issues with certain types of all-in-one liquid coolers. If you’re going the liquid-cooling route with this case, be sure to double-check your measurements accordingly.
Corsair Carbide Series 600C
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.
Corsair Carbide Series Air 740
This case is a bit of an odd duck. Thankfully, it’s also the tasty variant of duck. The Corsair Carbide Series Air 740 takes up a sizable chunk of floor or desk space and could even serve as an impromptu stool. This beastly case has a two-chamber design with a vertical spacer, instead of the standard horizontal division. That means that there’s a cavernous chamber behind the motherboard where a power supply goes in mounted on its “side,” along with both SSD and HDD drive cages, and enough room to unravel a spool’s worth of wiring. We have the case a TR Recommended award when we reviewed it.
Those characteristics make it amazingly easy to place a system in the Air 740, and its generous space in every section lets cooling enthusiasts place just about any number of reservoirs, fans, and radiators in it. The $150 price tag is a little dear, so we advise this chassis for those whose build needs go beyond the basics. If if you have a meaty system with above-average cooling needs, though, this is the case for you.
Corsair Obsidian Series 750D
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||$49.99||Non-modular, one 6+2-pin PCIe power connector,
one six-pin PCIe power connector
|Corsair CX450M||$53.99||Semi-modular, two 8-pin PCIe power connectors|
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 connector. 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. Seasonic covers the S12II 430B with a five-year warranty, too. If the S12II 430B’s price hops up, Corsair’s CX430 remains a good alternative.
If you’d rather have an affordable modular PSU, you can’t really go wrong with in favor of a new model, the CX450M. 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||$109.99||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||$149.99||Fully modular,
quad 6+2-pin PCIe connectors,
The prices on 80 Plus Platinum PSUs appear to be coming out of the stratosphere a bit. Given that development, we’re recommending EVGA’s Supernova 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||$34.99||Tower-style air cooler||Case with 6.3″ (159 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Phanteks PH-TC12DX||$49.99||Case with 6.2″ (157 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Cooler Master Hyper D92||$39.49||Case with 5.6″ (142 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Noctua NH-D15S||$79.99||Case with 6.5″ (165 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Corsair H60||$59.99||Closed-loop liquid cooler||Case with a 120-mm radiator mount|
|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 & Pro 280||$111.99 (240 mm)
$139.99 (290 mm)
|Case with a 240-mm (or 280-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. We’ve also reviewed Cooler Master’s MasterAir Pro 3 and Pro 4 heatsinks, which the company is pitching as evolutions of its Hyper D92 and 212 EVO designs. Both offerings received TR Recommended awards thanks to their combination of affordable pricing and cooling performance, and we think you should consider them as modern options to Cooler Master’s classics.
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.
I’ve recently added one of these Noctuas to my main system, and let me tell you, it’s probably the best money I’ve spent all year. This thing is huge and expensive, sure, but it’s also absurdly effective to the point that it sounds and cools like it was crafted using the arcane arts of black magic. There’s insane attention to detail all around. The fan’s corners are made out of rubber to avoid vibration, and the clips that hold them have little tabs that make mounting and removing the fan easy.
The mounting system is nothing short of brilliant, and makes this enormous monster easier to put in your PC than many a smaller cooler I could name. The last screws you tighten have springs and detents, meaning the stop cold once the pressure on the CPU is Just Right. More to the point, it’s quiet. Stupidly, insanely quiet. I like my systems powerful but as quiet as they can be, and when the CPU is being hit hard, I can barely hear the Noctua fan working. Oh, and that’s on an overclocked Core i7-6700K. Really, do you need more reasons to get this?
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. If you want to go really big and your case has a 280-mm mounting spot, then the MasterLiquid Pro 280 should offer particularly good heat dissipation with a minimum of noise.
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||—|
|Memory||G. Skill Aegis 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2133||$49.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050 Ti||$144.99|
|Storage||WD Blue 1TB||$49.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Carbide 200R||$59.99|
|PSU||Seasonic S12II 430B||$49.99|
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 GTX 1050 Ti graphics card we’ve chosen offers way more graphics horsepower than you’d expect for only $145, 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 $90.
The Sweet Spot
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6500||$204.99|
|Cooler||Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||$34.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$89.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GTX 1060 6GB Windforce OC||$264.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX300 525GB||$128.05|
|WD Blue 1TB||$49.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define S||$77.99|
|PSU||EVGA Supernova G2 750W||$99.99|
The Sweet Spot steps us up to a quad-core Skylake CPU and Gigabyte’s fully-featured Gigabyte GA-Z170-HD3 motherboard. Gigabyte’s GeForce GTX 1060 6GB Windforce OC blends Pascal performance with quiet operation and a spankin’ 1771 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 real winner for just north of a grand.
The Sweeter Spot
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6600K||$239.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3000||$89.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 FTW||$449.99|
|Storage||Samsung 850 EVO 500GB||$179.99|
|WD Blue 3TB 5400 RPM||$88.99|
|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 these days. 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||$195.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 SC||$649.00|
|Storage||Samsung 850 EVO 1TB||$329.99|
|WD Red 4TB 5400 RPM||$146.96|
|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||$214.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 Xtreme Gaming||$664.99|
|Storage||Samsung 960 EVO 1TB||$479.99|
|WD Red 4TB 5400 RPM||$146.96|
|WD Red 4TB 5400 RPM||$146.96|
|LG WH16NS40 Blu-ray burner||$49.99|
|Sound card||Asus Xonar DX||$94.99|
|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 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 block 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 all of the TR staff has upgraded to Microsoft’s latest OS. 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 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.
At the highest end of the graphics card market, the rumor mill says that Nvidia could be 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. We have no idea when this card might arrive, though, so between its likely price tag and nebulous constitution, we wouldn’t sweat its existence too much just yet.
A possible GeForce GTX 1080 Ti isn’t all that may happen in the high-end graphics card market. AMD has hinted that high-end cards based on its Vega architecture will be arriving sometime in the first half of next year, but that’s far enough off that we wouldn’t factor them into purchasing decisions now. There’s no exact word on what kind of performance AMD is looking for with Vega, but our best guess is that AMD will be trying to match or best the GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 with its next high-end parts.
Early next year, Intel’s Kaby Lake CPUs are expected to 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 Ryzen CPUs are also slated for a launch in the first quarter of 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 these new chips prove competitive. AMD’s performance teasers suggest Ryzen CPUs will perform about on par with Intel’s Broadwell-E silicon, clock-for-clock, so we’re cautiously optimistic about these chips’ prospects. Still, until we have prices and specifications to go with that performance info, Ryzen parts remain something of a mystery.
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.