Howdy, fair gerbils, and welcome to the September 2017 edition of The Tech Report System Guide! It’s been a while since our last Guide, and the pace of PC hardware releases hasn’t let up. In fact, we haven’t had such a brisk release cycle in recent memory. A near-constant barrage of fresh hardware has hit us this year, and we’re taking a step back now to make sense of it all.
Last time around, we extolled the virtues of AMD’s mid-range Ryzen 5 CPUs versus their Intel counterparts. The limelight is now on the red team’s Ryzen Threadripper many-core CPUs. These workstation workhorses arrived in town in a cloud of dust, kicking posteriors and claiming nomenclatures. AMD’s return to the high-end desktop impressed us enough that the Threadripper 1950X took home a coveted TR Editor’s Choice award.
There’s a gunfight brewing at the CPU corral, though. Intel’s gang of high-core-count Core i7 and Core i9 CPUs are now saying the place is too small for them and the AMD processors both. Intel has a wide range of workstation-class CPUs to consider in the wake of the Skylake-X launch already, so our recommendations include models from both camps. If you’re looking to build a high-end PC, now is a fantastic time.
Down in the budget saloon, AMD’s quad-core Ryzen 3 CPUs offer a compelling alternative to Intel’s low-end offerings. Intel’s always been a little stingy with core counts in more affordable processors, so it’s good to see the red team upsetting the status quo some. Our review suggested that buyers can’t go wrong with a Ryzen 3 or a recent Core i3.
While AMD’s CPU offerings have put Intel on its toes, the same can’t quite be said about the red team’s graphics cards. Radeon RX Vega cards were some of the most hyped-up pieces of hardware in recent memory. The RX Vega 56 and RX Vega 64 trade blows with the GeForce GTX 1070 and GTX 1080 on performance, but their power efficiency leaves something to be desired versus Nvidia’s dominant Pascal architecture. Cryptocurrency miners have also been driving up the prices of Radeon graphics cards for months, and they’ve made the RX Vega duo hard to find for anything near the company’s suggested prices. AMD knows this and has created bundles containing RX Vega cards and monitors, processors, or motherboards to give regular builders a shot at the latest high-end Radeons.
There’s pretty bad news for anyone wanting to buy a mid-range graphics card, though. In short: good luck! The uptake of cryptocurrency mining in recent months has led to a situation where GeForce GTX 1060 6GB, GeForce GTX 1070, Radeon RX 570, and Radeon RX 580 graphics cards have been hard to find for their suggested price tags, if they can be found at all. Most are either constantly out of stock or insanely overpriced. Miners used to be interested in AMD cards in particular, but now even Nvidia’s mid-range cards are feeling the pinch. Our graphics recommendations will take this bizarre pricing and availability situation into account.
We’ll be using product links for multiple e-tailers throughout this guide. Please support our work by purchasing the items we recommend using these links. E-tailers have no input whatsoever on the hardware we choose, though. The 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 generally divided into three categories: budget, sweet spot, and high-end.
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.
Since our last Guide, there’s been a lot of price movement in the budget and mid-range CPU markets as Intel and AMD duke it out. The release of AMD’s Ryzen 3 CPUs marks the arrival of the Zen architecture in the sub-$150 segment. These processors offer a full complement of four cores and offer particularly good performance for productivity tasks in their price segment, making them a potentially good choice for cash-strapped buyers. AMD’s fine stock coolers and unlocked multipliers give enthusiasts on a budget reason to pay attention, as well.
Nowadays when the internet is discussing processors, roughly five out of every three words will have something to do with AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper CPUs. The red team’s engineers knocked it out of the park with one weird trick: gluing two Zeppelin dice together under a massive heat spreader. The Ryzen Threadripper family turns in an excellent standing in both performance and power efficiency. That’s welcome news to anyone wanting to build a workstation PC, since choices for that type of machine were limited to Intel’s high-end desktop CPUs until recently.
Intel hasn’t been quiet, though. The manufacturer recently released a host of high-end CPUs based on its Skylake-X and Kaby Lake-X architectures, and more are coming. Today we’re mostly interested in the Skylake-X parts, since those are the ones most likely to end up in high-end desktop or workstation builds. Compared to Broadwell-E before it, Skylake-X offers expanded L2 caches, AVX-512 support, and a double-barreled version of Intel’s Turbo Boost Max 3.0 technology. What that all works out to is that the newer chips usually offer more performance within the same power envelopes and core counts. Skylake-X chips range from the hexa-core $600 Core i7-7820X up to the head honcho Core i9-7980XE and its 18 cores and 36 threads.
Internet arguments about “Threadripper or Core i9” will probably exist until the end of time, but our take is that AMD’s Threadripper 1950X currently edges out its price-matched competitor Core i9-7900X thanks to the wealth of PCIe lanes on hand (a total of 60) and ECC memory support. That latter characteristic is particularly appreciated in workstation builds to protect against the accidental bit-flip. Buying a high-end CPU isn’t an automatic decision, though, and Skylake-X CPUs are still fine performers in their own right. Be sure to read our recent Ryzen Threadripper review to make sure you’re getting the best chip for your particular needs.
|Intel Pentium G4600||$86.99||Intel LGA1151 motherboard|
|Ryzen 3 1300X||$129.99||AMD Socket AM4 motherboard|
In this price range, we think Intel’s Pentium G4600 is a great buy. Its healthy 3.6 GHz 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 Pentium is a good choice for non-gamers, too, since it has basic integrated graphics. For $87, it’s hard to find anything to complain about with this chip.
We could recommend the Pentium G4620 for this spot, but we found that the $13 or so it costs over the G4600 only gets you an extra 100 MHz of CPU clock. Those dollars have a higher purpose in life than that.
The next step up in the budget range is AMD’s Ryzen 3 1300X. This CPU’s four physical cores should often give it a small edge over the Core i3-7100’s two-core, four-thread arrangement in productivity tasks. The Core i3-7100’s slightly higher clock speeds and higher IPC mean the two chips are roughly even in games, though. What really tips us in the Ryzen 3 1300X’s favor is that it’s fully unlocked for overclocking with an affordable AMD B350 motherboard. We haven’t enjoyed unlocked multipliers on a quad-core CPU in this price range before, and AMD’s included cooler should let even the most penny-pinching gamers have a shot at pushing these chips to their limits.
The single drawback is that the Ryzen 3 1300X doesn’t include an integrated graphics processor, so it only makes sense in a build when paired with a discrete graphics card. Rather conveniently, we picked out parts for just such a setup in our builds section a few pages ahead. If you’re building a productivity machine or home-theater PC, Intel’s Pentiums and Core i3s remain the way to go.
This section got quite the shake-up since the last System Guide. You may be wondering why there are only two recommendations. Our benchmarking of the Core i9 and Ryzen Threadripper CPUs only reinforced the notion that when you wish for a certain CPU performance level, you need to choose a model that’s tailored to the workload you’ll be throwing at it. For that reason, we split off the more expensive CPU choices into High End and Workstation classes.
The second reason is that prices for mid-range CPUs are nowadays less spread out than they used to be. That makes it easier to pick fewer models that cover more bases instead of having to parcel out recommendations across a wide range of prices. Without further ado, here are our choices.
|Ryzen 5 1600||$214.99||AMD Socket AM4 motherboard|
|Core i7-7740X||$319.00||Intel X299 motherboard, cooler|
Recent price drops at retail put the Ryzen 5 1600 in the limelight. This processor has six physical cores and SMT, meaning you’ll get twelve compute threads to play with. The healthy 3.6 GHz turbo frequency of the Ryzen 5 1600 should prove a boon for gaming tasks, and overclockers will find unlocked multipliers common to the entire Ryzen lineup. The prices of Intel’s Core i5-7600K have come down at retail to compensate, but the Intel chip’s small 99th-percentile frame time advantage in our game testing doesn’t make up for its lagging productivity performance. As the cherry on top, the Ryzen 5 1600 comes with AMD’s very competent Wraith Spire CPU cooler. If you’re not into super-duper overclocking, having this cooler in the box will save you a few bucks. Intel still doesn’t include any kind of stock cooler with its unlocked CPUs.
If you do plan to overclock, our experience has shown that all Ryzen CPUs top out at about 4 GHz for all-core loads, and even non-X Ryzen chips handle those multiplier tweaks just as well as their more expensive brethren, if not better. We got our Ryzen 5 1600 up to 3.95 GHz on all of its cores with nothing more than AMD’s premium Wraith Max cooler on top. Since all of AMD’s SenseMI and XFR magic goes out the window when one starts overclocking Ryzen chips, it’s not worth paying extra for CPUs with a wider XFR range or higher boost speeds when you’re not going to use them anyway.
And now we reach the part where we have to ask readers to bear with us. I’m sure you’ve seen the Core i7-7740X in the table above, and you may already starting to type up a furious comment about the apparent lack of logic for that choice. Our reasoning is fairly simple, however. X299 motherboards used to go for more than $300, while the Core i7-7740X used to go for $350. As it happens, nowadays you can get pretty decent full-fat X299 mobos around the $220 mark, while the CPU itself can be found for around $320. If the rumors are right, eighth-gen Core CPUs are about to hit, and according to some reports, they’ll require new mobos to go with them. We’re far more comfortable recommending an X299 mobo with a wide range of upgrade paths instead of a Z270-based rig that could soon be a dead end.
Yes, you are paying more for the X299 platform to begin with, but we think the extra $100 or so you’ll spend over a Z270 board isn’t much to the total cost of a system that’ll clear $1500 to begin with. Sure, you might have to bear some empty DIMM slots and some quirks with PCIe lane distribution by putting a Kaby Lake-X CPU into an X299 motherboard, but we don’t think that’s a whole lot different than the mostly-unused complement of PCIe slots on the average ATX motherboard in many enthusiasts’ PCs these days. Once you overclock a Kaby Lake-X CPU, you’ll understand.
Our Kaby Lake-X choice has four cores and eight threads to play with. That’s a less-impressive figure than it used to be, but the 7740X still runs Intel’s cutting-edge cores at stupid-high clocks. The default Turbo frequency is a sky-high 4.5 GHz, and our own experience suggests that 5.1 GHz or 5.2 GHz on all cores comes easy with some time in firmware. That makes the Core i7-7740X the leanest, meanest pure gaming chip around if you care about 99th-percentile frame times and you were already planning to overclock. Its productivity performance is no slouch, either. You’ll need to obtain a third-party cooler to use this CPU, though, and we would recommend at least a large tower heatsink at a minimum. A 240-mm or 280-mm liquid cooler is not an unreasonable choice if you’re building with Intel’s top-end quad-core CPU.
Thanks to their copious core counts and aggressive prices, AMD’s Ryzen 7 CPUs make up both of our high-end CPU suggestions. Even if these chips’ prices overlap a bit with our Sweet Spot parts this time around, don’t take that as a sign of equivalence. As we’ve been saying, “high end” in this context means “multithreaded power,” not “gaming champion.” If you’re not sure whether your workload requires eight cores and 16 threads, we’d suggest taking a look at the in-depth tests in our Ryzen review and picking the chip that best fits your needs. For gaming alone, that chip is certainly the Core i7-7740X listed above, not a Ryzen 7 eight-core part.
|AMD Ryzen 7 1700X||$309.99||AMD Socket AM4 motherboard
|AMD Ryzen 7 1800X||$430.89|
All three of AMD’s Ryzen 7 CPUs have their merits, but like the Ryzen 5 lineup, their individual appeal will depend on your feelings about overclocking. The Ryzen 7 1700 has a sturdy 3.7 GHz single-core Turbo clock, but its modest 3.0 GHz all-core Turbo speed is the price one pays for packing so many cores into a 65W power envelope. Since the 1700 features an unlocked multiplier, one can push its all-core Turbo speeds as high as cooling and the silicon lottery will allow. We’ve gotten our Ryzen 7 1700 stable with all of its cores ticking away at 3.9 GHz using a modest heatsink.
Overclocking a Ryzen CPU disables the chip’s Turbo intelligence, though, meaning that the all-core multiplier one sets is as high as a Ryzen chip can boost after an overclock. Higher-end CPUs in the lineup like the Ryzen 7 1700X and 1800X might actually perform worse in lightly-threaded workloads if the all-core multiplier you can attain ends up being lower than what the chips can reach after AMD’s Extended Frequency Range (XFR) tech and stock single-core Turbo speeds are accounted for.
Folks using a CPU to make money on critical projects likely won’t want to risk overclocking, and our explorations of the Ryzen 7 1700X and 1800X suggests that AMD is tapping most of the extra frequency headroom one might get out of these chips to begin with. The Ryzen 7 1700X offers an appealing 3.8 GHz Turbo speed and a 3.4 GHz all-core clock, and AMD’s XFR tech could boost those numbers to 3.9 GHz and 3.5 GHz with a reasonably-sized tower heatsink. The Ryzen 7 1800X offers an impressive 4.0 GHz Turbo clock and a 3.6 GHz base speed, and XFR will boost those numbers to 4.1 GHz and 3.7 GHz under a beefy-enough heatsink.
Those with computing workloads that can benefit a lot from cache or memory bandwidth (digital audio workstations, for example) should probably take a look at the Core i7-7800X in this price range. This six-core, twelve-thread CPU currently goes for about $375, and we think it should perform substantially better than Ryzen CPUs in those scenarios. We’d advise everyone else to stick with AMD’s choices, though.
Today’s highest-end CPUs deserve a new tier above “high end,” so we’re going with the always-squishy term “workstation.” Nowadays, you can build a machine for serious work with more sedately-priced CPU choices and a far wider motherboard selection than ever. We’re talking, of course, about AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper and Intel’s higher-end Core i7 and Core i9 offerings.
Our comprehensive review of AMD’s latest showed that Threadrippers came out swinging left and right. The performance of those CPUs is generally equal to or superior to similarly-priced Intel offerings outside of a couple specific scenarios, and they don’t even do too badly at gaming (not that you’d ever game on your workstation, right?) We also think AMD’s X399 platform is superior to Intel’s X299, since Threadripper officially supports ECC RAM, a boon for workstation users. Threadripper CPUs also have a generous allotment of 60 PCIe 3.0 lanes that could come in handy for things like video capture cards, next-generation networking, and super-fast storage arrangements. The Threadripper platform seems to be pretty stable too, even though it’s still in its infancy. While Ryzen motherboards initially had their quirks dealing with high-clocked RAM, we encountered no such problems during our Threadripper testing.
Intel continues to carefully segment its products with the Core X family of chips, so you won’t ever find Core i7 or Core i9 CPUs with ECC memory support, and you only ever get 40 lanes of CPU-connected PCIe 3.0 connectivity on Core i9 parts. Lesser chips, like the Core i7-7800X and Core i7-7820X, still make do with just 28 CPU PCIe lanes. That limitation isn’t as annoying as it used to be given the waning popularity of multiple graphics cards, but it’s still an annoyance.
Regardless of your individual brand preference, we should stress this point: the best processor choice in the high-end and workstation arena is always workload-specific. We’ve tried to make general recommendations below, but you can and should go ahead and read our Threadripper review to see which CPU fits your workload best. Don’t shell out multiple thousands of dollars for a many-core CPU going on core count alone.
|Intel Core i7-7820X||$579.99||Intel X299 motherboard, cooler|
|AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X||$999.99||AMD X399 motherboard, cooler|
Around the $600 mark, we find it hard to beat the Core i7-7820X. This chip has eight cores and 16 threads clocked at up to 4.3 GHz, and the X299 platform pairs them with four channels of memory. The overall performance of the i7-7820X doesn’t lag too far behind the $800 Ryzen Threadripper 1920X. The Intel chip has a leg up on the 1920X in transcoding and digital audio tasks in particular. Even though they might sound similar on paper, the i7-7820X trounces the Ryzen 7 1800X core-for-core, too. The 1920X can pull ahead of the i7-7820X in some scenarios, however, so as always, be sure to check out our detailed performance results to make sure you’re buying the right chip for your needs.
If you’re wondering about AMD’s recently-released $550 Threadripper 1900X, we doubt its performance could hold up against the Core i7-7820X, given that our tests roughly match the Intel CPU with the more expensive 1920X. Unless you want a lot of PCIe lanes and quad-channel memory to go with eight Zen cores, we’d stick with Intel here.
The Threadripper 1950X, meanwhile, is one of the finest CPUs we’ve laid eyes on in quite a while. Our testing revealed that this 16-core, 32-thread monster delivers a serious performance punch at $1000. Save for its curiously weak performance in DAW tasks, we found that the 1950X excels at nearly everything we can throw at it. Paying a grand for a processor might sound obscene at first, but if you’re in its target audience, this chip will pay for itself in a jiffy by making your work go faster. While the Core i9-7900X is about as fast as the 1950X, we have to hand the victory to the AMD chip’s ECC support and prodigious PCIe bandwidth.
As a quick recap, Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 processors use motherboards with AM4 sockets. AMD’s X370 and B350 chipsets both allow for overclocking. We consider the B350 offerings the mid-range ideal, as this chipset has the most common features one might need without any special frills. Those looking to get the best of everything can pick a motherboard with the X370 chipset onboard. Those high-end mobos typically offer SLI and CrossFire support, among other fancy features. As for the lower-end A320, we reckon it’s not currently worth picking, as the currently-available Bristol Ridge APUs to go with them just aren’t sensible choices.
Meanwhile, Intel’s low-end and mid-range CPUs require boards based on Intel’s 200-series chipsets. The Z270 chipset lets users overclock their unlocked CPUs. The H270 chipset is mostly similar to Z270, except that it doesn’t allow for CPU or memory overclocking.
The Q270, Q250, and B250 chipsets, on the other hand, are all “business-class” chipsets. They share most of their bigger brothers’ characteristics, with the only noteworthy omissions being a decrease of chipset-driven USB ports and PCIe storage devices in the Q250 and B250 variants. You won’t find SLI or Crossfire on anything but a Q270 board among this trio, either. As far as we’re concerned, a mobo with any of these chipsets is a perfectly fine choice for a budget or even a mid-range box, as long as you’re not looking to overclock an unlocked CPU.
New CPUs often need new motherboards, and that’s the case with the current crop of workstation-class processors from Intel and AMD both. AMD’s Ryzen Threadripper CPUs require a big board based on AMD’s X399 chipset, while Intel’s Core X processors need a large mobo with an Intel X299 chipset on top. So far, nearly all offerings for either type of CPU are ATX and E-ATX models that tend to pack everything and the kitchen sink. They’re also generally quite expensive, though X299 boards in particular can be found in the sub-$250 mark nowadays. Having said that, if you’re thinking of building a workstation-grade computer, we figure that you’re calculating ROI as we speak and paying top dollar for a motherboard isn’t going to scare you off.
A word of warning on Ryzen Threadripper motherboards. Even though ECC is a platform feature, some motherboard models don’t offer ECC RAM support for some reason. If you’re building a Threadripper rig, make sure to double-check that your mobo of choice supports ECC RAM. Our TR4 motherboard choices below take this into account.
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 of the bunch. 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 cabling. Overall, an Asus board should offer the most polished experience of the lot.
- MSI‘s motherboards offer solid hardware paired with polished firmware and Windows software. The nicely-retooled fan controls in the firm’s 9-series firmware have been carried over to its latest motherboards, though the company’s auto-overclocking intelligence remains fairly conservative and somewhat rudimentary.
- Gigabyte‘s recent motherboards are also a good choice, even if their auto-overclocking intelligence, firmware, and Windows software aren’t quite up to par with Asus’ or MSI’s in this generation. The company’s firmware fan controls are now about on par with Asus’, but the rest of its firmware and Windows software utilities could still stand some extra polish. Some Gigabyte models ship with cushioned I/O shields and header adapters, too.
- 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.
|MSI B250M Pro-VDH||$79.99||Intel LGA1151 processor, microATX case|
MSI’s B250M Pro-VDH is an interesting choice for non-overclocked Kaby Lake builds. It’s pretty cheap for a recently-released motherboard from a top-tier manufacturer, and despite its compact dimensions, it still offers an M.2 slot, a full complement of six SATA ports, a metal-reinforced PCIe x16 slot, and USB 3.1 Type-C connectivity. If you don’t plan to overclock and you’re OK living with DDR4-2400 RAM, the B250M PRO-VD seems like all the motherboard one would need for a budget system.
|Gigabyte GA-AB350-Gaming 3||$109.99||AMD Socket AM4 processor|
If you’re looking to drop a Ryzen CPU into an affordable motherboard, we’d look no further than Gigabyte’s GA-AB350-Gaming 3. For $110, this board taps most of the B350 chipset’s goodness, including a pair of USB 3.1 ports and an M.2 slot. Builders won’t find a USB 3.1 Type-C port on this board’s back panel, but that’s a common omission on B350 motherboards, and we doubt most will care at this board’s price point.
Gigabyte GA-AB350-Gaming 3
The B350 chipset also can’t bifurcate the 16 PCIe 3.0 lanes from a Ryzen CPU, even though the AB350-Gaming 3 claims Crossfire support across its PCIe x16 slot and second PCIe 3.0 x4 slot. We doubt most builders shopping in this price range have multiple Radeons in their shopping carts, so we aren’t bothered by this arrangement. The Gaming 3 makes up for it by offering RGB LED accent lighting on its front edge and along its audio path.
|Gigabyte GA-AX370-Gaming K3||$139.99||AM4 processor, ATX case|
If you need multiple graphics card support or otherwise want to run a pair of PCIe x8 devices off your AM4 CPU, we’re tapping the Gigabyte GA-AX370-Gaming K3 for you. This board offers metal-reinforced DIMM and PCIe x16 slots, CrossFire support, a Killer Gigabit Ethernet adapter, an M.2 PCIe x4 socket, and eight SATA ports. There’s a total of five fan headers, two USB 3.1 Type-A ports, and two USB connectors with noise-filtered power. Really, the only thing possibly missing from this board is a Type-C USB port and RGB LED lighting.
|Gigabyte Aorus GA-AX370-Gaming 5||$194.99||AMD Socket AM4 processor, ATX case|
For the highest-end Socket AM4 builds, our faithful Editor-in-Chief recommends the Gigabyte Aorus GA-AX370-Gaming 5. Gigabyte has provided frequent BIOS updates for this board since the Ryzen launch, and it’s largely stomped out his largest complaints about the AM4 platform (including annoying fan-control behavior and some temperature-reporting issues). He’s also had no trouble taking full advantage of the AX370-Gaming 5’s DDR4-3200 support, and believes most builders will enjoy similar stability so long as they stick to Gigabyte’s qualified vendor list. With AMD’s AGESA 18.104.22.168 firmware, the AX370-Gaming 5 gains a full range of memory multipliers up to DDR4-4000 and flexible command rate settings for better RAM compatibility.
Gigabyte decks out this board with dual NICs—one Killer E2500, one Intel—and fully taps the X370 chipset’s USB 3.1 connectivity with a Type-A and a Type-C port. If you’re into that sort of thing, Gigabyte also studs this board with RGB LEDs nearly everywhere they’ll fit, too. If you’re building a Ryzen system with all the trimmings, we think the AX370-Gaming 5 remains the way to go.
|Gigabyte Aorus X399 Gaming 7||$389.99||AMD Ryzen Threadripper processor, ATX case|
We know what you’re thinking, and yes, $390 is dear for a motherboard. That’s the price of you pay for new technology, and it looks like the massive TR4 socket doesn’t come cheap. Threadripper-ready motherboards are all $300 and up right now, and we picked out one of the better-equipped models, the Gigabyte Aorus X399 Gaming 7. We figure if you’re buying a kitchen, might as well have it preinstalled with the sink. We also have hands-on experience with this board—we ran the entirety of our Threadripper review on it, and it performed most admirably.
The Aorus X399 Gaming 7 is a hulking beast with more hardware than a Lowe’s store. The massive TR4 socket is surrounded by eight metal-reinforced DIMM slots bedecked in RGB LEDs and supporting RAM up to 3600 MT/s. There are a total of five PCIe x16 slots, four of which draw lanes from the Ryzen Threadripper CPU. Gigabyte offers a whopping three CPU-powered M.2 slots sitting under heatsinks, too.
The “everything” approach continues in the USB, audio, and networking sections of this slab o’ circuits. Network connectivity comes by way of a Killer E2500 Gigabit Ethernet controller, while an Intel Wireless-8265 adapter handles 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 duties. Around the back, you’ll find eight USB 3.0 connectors, plus USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports in Type-A and Type-C flavors. Sound output is handled by a Realtek ALC1220 codec coupled with WIMA and Nichicon audio caps, potentially making for a particularly clean signal.
The Gaming 7 is also bedecked with more LEDs than you can shake a stadium scoreboard at. The chipset heatsink, PCIe slots, and even the DIMM slots are covered in RGB LEDs, configurable through Gigabyte’s RGB Fusion utility. Nobody will ever say you didn’t give your Ryzen Threadripper CPU a good home.
|Gigabyte Aorus X299 Gaming 3||$279.99||LGA 2066 processor, ATX case|
|Gigabyte Aorus X299 Gaming 7||$399.99|
Oh look, another Gigabyte board. Must be a conspiracy of some sort. The truth is much simpler, and it’s just that the Aorus X299 Gaming 3 has the right price and feature set for a relatively affordable X299 board. Let’s rattle off a few key specs: eight DIMM slots capable of pushing RAM up to a whopping 4400 MT/s, two M.2 sockets, and a total of five PCIe x16 slots, two of which are metal-reinforced.
An Intel Gigabit Ethernet controller handles networking duties, while the Type-C and Type-A USB 3.1 Gen2 ports are powered by an ASMedia controller. Sweet music will reach your ears courtesy of a Realtek ALC1220 codec coupled with WIMA analog components, and there’s multi-zone RGB LED lighting to top it all off—just not quite as wild as the Aorus X399 Gaming 7 above. We figure the Aorus X299 Gaming 3 is a solid foundation for Kaby Lake-X and Skylake-X processors.
The Aorus X299 Gaming 3 is a fine X299 motherboard for stock Kaby Lake-X and Skylake-X builds, but if you’re planning on aggressively overclocking a Skylake-X chip, there may be value in the beefier power-delivery systems and better VRM cooling of some higher-end X299 mobos. Gigabyte’s Aorus X299 Gaming 7 ups its power-delivery game with two VRM heatsinks joined by a large heat pipe, and its dual eight-pin EPS plugs should provide even the most power-hungry Skylake-X CPUs with ample juice. We’re not kidding about the need for this, either: our tentative efforts with Skylake-X overclocking have resulted in eyebrow-raising levels of system power draw.
We’re largely concerned with its functional virtues, but a high-end audio subsystem with an ESS DAC, onboard Killer Wi-Fi, and enough RGB LED lighting to land planes by make the X299 Gaming 7 an enviably high-end motherboard without venturing into the realm of needless excess.
Although memory has generally been a set-and-forget kind of deal for years, the arrival of Ryzen CPUs has made the topic worthy of careful consideration again. Ryzen 5 and Ryzen 7 builders need to think carefully about the DDR4 memory they’re choosing for their systems. AMD’s newest CPUs have a reputation for being picky about the DDR4 RAM they’ll play well with, and getting the most out of Ryzen’s memory subsystem requires some careful DIMM selection.
AMD places restrictions on the maximum speed at which certain types and certain arrangements of memory can run with an out-of-the-box system based on Ryzen 5 and 7 CPUs. Here’s a quick recap of the stock speeds one will get with common memory configurations:
- Dual-channel, dual-rank, four DIMMs: DDR4-1866
- Dual-channel, single-rank, four DIMMs: DDR4-2133
- Dual-channel, dual-rank, two DIMMs: DDR4-2400
- Dual-channel, single-rank, two DIMMs: DDR4-2667
Ryzen Threadripper CPUs are subject to similar limitations, just with four memory channels instead of two:
- Quad-channel, dual-rank, two DIMMs per channel: DDR4-1866
- Quad-channel, single-rank, two DIMMs per channel: DDR4-2133
- Quad-channel, dual-rank, one DIMM per channel: DDR4-2400
- Quad-channel, single-rank, one DIMM per channel: DDR4-2667
If you’re trying to get the highest speeds possible from Ryzen’s memory controller, a pair of single-rank DIMMs is a must. Before taking Ryzen RAM to its limit, refer to your motherboard’s qualified vendor list for compatible RAM (or consult memory vendor documentation) and get ready to do some manual tweaking of voltage and timings if XMP profiles aren’t doing the job.
AMD recently rolled its AGESA 22.214.171.124 base firmware for Socket AM4 motherboards out to mobo makers, and firmware updates containing that base code are now widely available. You can get a full sense of what changed in AGESA 126.96.36.199 from the horse’s mouth, but the key changes are memory multipliers as high as 40 (good for 4000 MT/s RAM) and command rate choices of 1T or 2T. Our practical experience suggests that 3200 MT/s remains near the upper limit for reasonable RAM timings and voltages on AM4, but AGESA 188.8.131.52 might help make it easier to run kits at those speeds.
Intel’s Kaby Lake CPUs and the Z270 platform, in contrast, support most capacities and configurations of DDR4-2400 out of the box without a hitch. We’ve had fine luck turning on XMP with our Kaby Lake systems and getting stable operation with fast DDR4-3200 memory across a range of kits, as well. Even exotic kits, like the aforementioned DDR4-3866 DIMMs, can be made stable with only a bit of tweaking (assuming XMP doesn’t take care of stability to begin with). The payoff for fast RAM starts to diminish around DDR4-3200 with modern systems, but those chasing every last drop of performance won’t be disappointed by faster memory.
If you’re building an X299 or X399 system, be sure to choose (or assemble) a kit with either four or eight DIMMs to reach the capacity you want. Both Ryzen Threadripper and Skylake-X CPUs need four DIMMs to take full advantage of their quad-channel memory controllers. Intel’s X299 platform boasts admirable RAM compatibility. We’ve run four-channel DDR4-3600 kits in our X299 test bed without issue, though spending huge amounts of money on super-fast RAM for X299 doesn’t seem to offer appreciable performance benefits. Just as we’d approach RAM for the Z270 platform, we wouldn’t shell out for X299 kits runnning faster than 3200 MT/s unless you have cash to burn.
Whether you’re building with an AMD or Intel CPU, there’s no reason at all to consider anything but 8GB of memory 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 or 64GB of RAM might not be outlandish for the heaviest multitaskers.
AMD memory kits
|HyperX Fury 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2400||$84.99|
|G.Skill Fortis Series 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-2400||$141.99|
|G.Skill Fortis Series 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2400||$277.99|
|G.Skill Flare X 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3200||$187.99|
We’ve pored over spec tables, motherboard manuals, and vendor data sheets to assemble a good range of RAM options for Ryzen builders and budget Intel builders alike. For the most part, though, G.Skill has made that work easy with its Fortis and Flare X kits, which are explicitly designed to work with Ryzen systems across a range of capacities and speeds. If you don’t want to pore over QVLs for hours, those G.Skill kits should take out a lot of the guesswork for Ryzen RAM.
Intel memory kits
|G.Skill Aegis 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2400||$74.99|
|G.Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3200||$153.99|
|G.Skill Aegis 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-2400||$275.99|
|G.Skill Trident Z 32GB (2x16GB) DDR4-3200||$303.99|
|G.Skill Trident Z 64GB (4x16GB) DDR4-3200||$612.99|
Intel’s official spec for Kaby Lake-compatible DDR4 RAM is DDR4-2400 running at 1.2V, but we’ve used significantly faster DIMMs like DDR4-3866 in our CPU and motherboard test rigs without issue. In our review of the Core i7-7700K, we found that speedy RAM might offer performance benefits in specific scenarios. With that in mind, and the fact that DDR4-3000 and DDR4-3200 kits can be found for prices close to their DDR-2400 counterparts, we see little reason not to go with a faster kit unless your motherboard isn’t based on a Z170 or Z270 chipset.
If you’re building an X299 or X399 system, be sure to choose (or assemble) a kit with four or eight DIMMs to reach the capacity you want. Intel Skylake-X and Ryzen Threadripper CPUs need at least four DIMMs to take full advantage of their quad-channel memory controllers. Although the stock RAM speed for either type of rig is 2666 MT/s (save for the Core i7-7800X at 2400 MT/s), we used high-speed DIMMs in our review of those CPUs without a hitch.
Would you like to buy a mid-range graphics card, like most PC enthusiasts do? Well, no soup for you. Cryptocurrency miners have, until recently, gotten their grubby little hands on every midrange chip with a sizable number of shaders on the planet. If you’re interested in budget cards around $150, or high-end monsters above $500, you’re good. It’s the $200 to $300 range where everything has gone sour. Options in that midrange arena are selling for well above their suggested prices, and sometimes comically so. As we go to press, however, the enthusiasm for cryptocurrencies seems to be in one of its periodic troughs. Prices on midrange cards seem to be falling as a result. The GTX 1060 6GB cards we’d want are going for anywhere from $5 to $30 or so more than Nvidia’s suggested price. That’s certainly a moderate annoyance, but it’s not the end of the world for midrange builders.
At the high end of the market, AMD can legitimately claim to be back in the game with its Radeon RX Vega graphics cards. The reference RX Vega 56 performs on par with overclocked versions of the evergreen GeForce GTX 1070, and the RX Vega 64’s performance potential falls just a hair short of the GTX 1080. RX Vega cards suffer from immature drivers at the moment, though, and their performance-per-watt figures lag the GeForce competition by a wide margin. That means RX Vega cards might not deliver as smooth a gameplay experience as the GeForce competition, and they’ll draw much more power and produce much more heat and noise along the way.
We could tolerate immature drivers and an appetite for power at the right price, but demand for RX Vega cards from the cryptocurrency crowd seems to be off the charts. Roughly speaking, the RX Vega 56 should be fighting the GeForce GTX 1070 with a $400 price tag. However, the AMD card currently goes for a whopping $550 as part of one of AMD’s Radeon Packs, making it difficult to recommend against far superior GeForce GTX 1080 cards that ring in near or under that mark. The situation is even worse with the RX Vega 64. This card is supposed to go head-to-head with the aforementioned GeForce GTX 1080 at $500, but it currently sits at $650 or so at e-tail. Considering that you can obtain the far superior GeForce GTX 1080 Ti for $760 or so, we can’t see ourselves picking the RX Vega 64 over the Nvidia card right now.
No matter which graphics card you choose, we’re continuing to draw a line in the sand regarding graphics memory these days. Any graphics card with less than 4GB of RAM is a bad idea for a brand-new gaming machine. Our observations indicate that with the latest crop of AAA games, it’s become a little too easy to hit certain corner cases where less-endowed cards can run out of RAM, degrading gaming performance.
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—assuming midrange Radeon prices ever come out of the stratosphere. Right now, cryptocurrency demand obviates the platform cost advantage of FreeSync to some degree.
Our graphics card budget categories and CPU categories are linked. For example, you’ll realize that the top budget combo of the moment is the Pentium G4600 with a GeForce GTX 1050 Ti. If you go for a faster CPU, you’ll often find yourself craving a more powerful graphics card, and vice-versa. Keep that in mind if you’re cross-shopping a Pentium G4600 and a GTX 1080 Ti for some reason.
In the budget arena, there’s a lot of graphics card to be had for a small amount of cash these days. For under $150, you can get a card that should be able to handle almost any game you throw at it if you don’t push the resolution or detail levels too high. An added advantage is that none of our budget picks requires a PCIe power connector, meaning these cards can go into any system where they can physically fit.
|MSI Radeon RX 560 Aero ITX||$129.99||Look, ma, no power connectors needed!|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050 Ti OC 4GB||$154.99|
The MSI Radeon RX 560 Aero ITX 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 since the GPU underneath doesn’t run all that hot, the single fan should suffice for cooling.
If you have just a few more bucks, though, the GeForce GTX 1050 Ti offers better performance and runs quieter and cooler than the RX 560 4GB. 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 next choice is a dual-fan Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050 Ti OC. This card draws power through the PCIe slot alone. Although it’s not a super-compact model, it should still fit most lunchbox systems given that it’s only 7.5″ long.
Given the tough availability situation for Radeon RX 570 and Radeon RX 580 cards at the moment, we’ve turned to Nvidia’s GTX 1060 6GB card as the sole sweet-spot option in this Guide. The GeForce GTX 1060 6GB’s calling card 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 otherwise-equivalent Radeon RX 580. 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.
|EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB SC||$279.99||One eight-pin power connector|
|Gigabyte GTX 1060 D5 6GB||$289.99|
EVGA’s GeForce GTX 1060 6GB SC is our all-around midrange pick. This single-fan card is a mighty mouse. At 6.8″ long, the EVGA card can fit into most any enclosure, and it’s both quiet and fast. We liked this card so much that we handed it a coveted Editor’s Choice award in our review.
If you’d like a larger cooler for overclocking headroom, or if our first choice is out of stock, the Gigabyte GTX 1060 D5 6GB is really all the card or cooler you need for GP106.
Since our last Guide, we’ve seen graphics card prices climb a little in the high-end arena. Where we saw GeForce GTX 1080s going for $500 and under, those cards now start roughly at the $530 mark. Meanwhile, the GeForce GTX 1080 Ti is also a little more expensive at around $730 and up. Even at that price, though, the GTX 1080 is still one of the best-value graphics cards around (yes, really). It’s the second-fastest graphics card on the market, and it remains ideal for high-refresh-rate gaming at 1920×1080 or an enviably smooth ride in most games at 2560×1440. The GTX 1070 provides GTX 980 Ti-class performance for quite a bit less money than that card sold for at its zenith.
If you want the finest 4K gaming experience on the market right now—or the finest gaming experience at any resolution, period—the GTX 1080 Ti is the way to go. Custom-cooled versions of that car have now arrived with upgraded power delivery circuit and far superior thermal handling than the Founders Edition. No matter how you get your GTX 1080 Ti, it’s a total winner, and the rare TR Editor’s Choice award we bestowed on it at launch should underscore that point. The $700 price tag is lofty, to be sure, but you can’t get that class of gaming performance any other way right now.
|Asus Dual GeForce GTX 1070||$424.99|
|Aorus GeForce GTX 1080||$529.99|
|Aorus GeForce GTX 1080 Ti||$769.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti SC2 iCX||$769.99|
The mining craze has pushed prices for GeForce GTX 1070 cards generally pretty high, but there are still a few reasonably-priced gems. The Asus GeForce GTX 1070 Dual is one of them. This double-fan card boasts a boost clock range of 1771 MHz, and its cooler should be up to the task of even higher clocks. Grab the card for $425 from either Newegg or Amazon’s storefront. Still, if you can afford $100 or so more, we think the performance boost offered by the GTX 1080 is worth the additional outlay.
For those who want prefer the punch of a GeForce GTX 1080, we’re tipping our hat to Aorus’ GeForce GTX 1080. Though this GTX 1080 isn’t Aorus’ most extreme take on the card, a similar model won our Editor’s Choice award. The card has a beefy triple-fan cooler with assertive styling, plenty of RGB LEDs, and among the highest clocks available for an out-of-the-box GTX 1080. This excellent pixel-pusher goes for a reasonable $580, only about $50 more than basic GTX 1080 models. We figure if you’re already spending that much cash, you might as well get the nicer version.
EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti SC2 iCX
Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 1080 Ti is the uncontested single-GPU performance king, and every manufacturer out there has a custom-cooled take on the GP102 GPU. Prices on these cards have climbed somewhat since the last iteration of the Guide, though we think that’s not going to scare you off if you’re already paying top dollar for a graphics card.
For about $770, you can get a hold of the EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti SC2 iCX. This card has EVGA’s super-duper-fancy iCX cooler laden with a metric ton of sensors and independently-controlled fans. Boost clocks in Pascal cards are mostly just indications, so with this much thermal dissipation power at hand, we wouldn’t be surprised to see this card go well past its specificed 1760-MHz boost clock range.
If our main pick is out of stock, or if you have more room to spare in your case, Aorus’ take on the GTX 1080 Ti is well worth $770 in its own right. This card is wicked-fast and nearly silent thanks to its beefy triple-fan cooler, and it also offers nice extras like a front-panel HDMI out for VR headsets.
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 files that take up lots of space.
We’re now recommending 500GB SSDs as a baseline for most systems. Modern games are only getting larger, and 500GB-class SSDs often offer a much better value than their 240GB-class counterparts. It’s not fun shuffling data on and off a 240GB SSD to make room for that latest triple-A release, so get the largest chunk of solid-state storage for your OS that you can afford.
|WD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM||$49.99|
|Crucial MX300 275GB||$92.99|
|Crucial MX300 525GB||$149.99|
|Crucial MX300 1TB||$289.99|
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 still 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 with 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. This time around, the pricing winds favor the Crucial MX300 in its 275GB and 525GB flavors for our smaller SSD picks. The MX300 offers solid performance along with features that used to be reserved for higher-end drives like hardware-accelerated encryption. Samsung’s 850 EVO SSDs may be better performers in some situations, but their pricing seems to be quite inflated of late. Plus their performance lead isn’t that wide.
Some of you may wonder why Intel’s affordable 600p NVMe drives aren’t in this list. We’ve decided against recommending them, at least for the time being. For all the extra performance the NVMe interface provides in some situations, their seemingly uneven performance in multiple scenarios leaves us wary of giving them a clear stamp of approval. For now, we’d stick to more tried-and-true SATA options.
|Samsung 960 EVO 500GB||$234.00||M.2 slot or U.2 port
with PCIe 3.0 x4 connectivity
for maximum performance
|Samsung 960 EVO 1TB||$478.99|
|Samsung 960 Pro 512GB||$309.99|
|Samsung 960 Pro 1TB||$600.37|
Moving into the high-end realm of solid-state storage lets us consider the recent takes on blazing-fast PCI Express drives. 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-class 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. Just make sure your workload can take advantage of the performance on tap.
As we wrote in our review of the 960 EVO, these 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.
|HGST DeskStar 7K3000 3TB||$69.99||7200 RPM|
|WD Blue 4TB||$117.99||5400 RPM|
|Toshiba X300 5TB||$144.99||7200 RPM|
|Toshiba X300 6TB||$189.99||7200 RPM|
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. Our choices tend to favor Western Digital drives, though, mostly thanks to the company’s aggressive pricing. Really, though, it’s hard to go wrong with any modern hard drives. Follow your wallet. For those reasons we’re recommending a mix of drives for this section, covering both 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM offerings.
WD Red drives are mostly the same thing as Blues, aside from a longer warranty and some RAID-friendly features. HGST Deskstar NAS drives are a good alternative to WD Red Pro drives, too. While those two points usually aren’t worth the extra cost over standard HDDs unless you’re building a file server of some kind, steep discounts on these drives make them interesting options for those that need their spinning storage to be a cut above the rest.
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 fairly affordable price. 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||$69.99||–|
|Cooler Master MasterBox 5||$69.99||–|
|Fractal Design Define Nano S||$62.41||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 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, especially for only $60.
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||–|
|Corsair Carbide Series Air 240||$89.99||microATX motherboard, fan splitter|
|Fractal Design Define C||$89.99 (window)
|Fractal Design Define R5||$109.99||–|
|Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$109.99||–|
|Corsair Carbide Series 600C||$139.99||–|
|Corsair Carbide Series Air 740||$149.99||–|
|Corsair Obsidian Series 750D||$159.99||–|
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 yours truly gave the Define C an Editor’s Choice award not too long ago. I followed Jeff’s advice when a while ago when I moved my main system into this case, and I’ve been pleased as punch since. Hard to argue with that.
The Define C has everything you need, and nothing you don’t. It boasts 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 knock against the Define C is that there’s precious little room for PSU cables in the lower chamber, 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. It’s also got plenty of room for 3.5″ storage devices and optical drives. 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
If you’d prefer something between the Define R5 and Corsair’s Obsidian 750D, we’ll glady point you to 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.
Corsair Carbide Series 600C
Another recent 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 price tag is a little dear, so we advise this chassis for those whose plans 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 MasterCase Maker 5||$149.99||–|
|Cooler Master Cosmos II||$329.99||A forklift|
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 $150 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. Make sure your cooler of choice has slim end tanks, or it might not fit.
Cooler Master Cosmos II
At roughly 14″ x 28″ x 26″, the Cooler Master Cosmos II is humongous. At around $350, 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||$46.99||Semi-modular, two 8-pin PCIe power connectors|
For entry-level systems, we’re recommending the Seasonic S12II 430B this time around. 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 (if they require external power at all), 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 you’d rather have an affordable modular PSU, you can’t really go wrong with one of Corsair’s latest, the CX450M. Corsair tells us this CX450M, along with its 550W and 650W brethren, uses DC-to-DC conversion on its +3.3V and +5V rails to attain compatibility with newer Intel CPUs’ low-power sleep states. This unit’s semi-modular cabling could make for cleaner builds than the non-modular Seasonic above.
|Seasonic SSR-550RM||$69.90||Semi-modular, two 6+2 PCIe connectors|
|Seasonic SSR-650RM||$79.90||Semi-modular, four 6+2 PCIe connectors,
8 SATA connectors
|EVGA Supernova 650 G2||$99.99||Fully modular, two 6+2 PCIe connectors|
|Corsair RM750x||$119.99||Fully modular, single 12V rail,
six 6+2-pin PCIe connectors, 10 SATA 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.
You’ll also be forgiven for think we’re overspeccing power supplies, given that modern desktop systems with a single graphics card have trouble breaking 450W of consumption or so. We’re picking higher-capacity units as a hedge against capacitor aging. There’s nothing like the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll get ten years from now when you’re still running the same PSU you bought today.
Both first entrants in our Sweet Spot segment hail from Seasonic, thanks to the company’s aggressive pricing. The Seasonic SSR-550RM offers a 550W capacity, semi-modular cabling, and two PCIe power connectors. While this power supply doesn’t offer much in the way of frills, it’s still 80 Plus Gold rated and covered by a five-year warranty from a manufacturer with a long track record for quality. Meanwhile, the Seasonic SSR-650RM is similar to its smaller brother, but pushes the capacity to 650W, the number of PCIe connectors up to four, and offers eight SATA ports. The warranty coverage is likewise five years.
For systems that need more than the units in our budget range can supply, we’ll start with the EVGA Supernova 650 G2. This high-quality PSU has an 80 Plus Gold rating, semi-modular cabling, and enough oomph (and plugs) to power graphics cards with multiple PCIe connectors. The $100 asking price might be a tad rich, but EVGA sweetens the pot with a whopping 10-year warranty.
On the upper end of the Sweet Spot, we have the Corsair RM750x, a recent entrant in our Guides. Our recent personal experiences with Corsair’s RM range has left us with nothing but good impressions, and what’s good for us is good for you folks too. The RM750x is a beast of a PSU with an enormous, quiet fan, and should be able to handle anything you care to throw at it—even dual-card setups. Corsair offers 10-year warranty coverage on the RM750x, too.
|Corsair RM850x||$129.99||Fully modular,
six 6+2-pin PCIe connectors, 10 SATA connectors,
semi-silent mode, C-Link monitoring
|EVGA Supernova 850 P2||$156.94||Fully modular,
four 6+2-pin & two 6-pin PCIe connectors,
10 SATA connectors, semi-silent mode
|Corsair RM1000i||$179.99||Fully modular,
eight 6+2 PCIe connectors, 12 SATA connectors,
semi-silent mode, Corsair Link
Corsair continues its resurgence in our Guides with the RM850x. This unit is similar to the RM750x model above, but with a little more punch. We’ve even run a Core i7-6950X and three GTX 1080s at full tilt off this unit with nary a peep or complaint. If you’re looking for a powerful unit that won’t break the bank, this is it.
The prices on 80 Plus Platinum PSUs have come out of the stratosphere recently. Given that development, we’re recommending EVGA’s SuperNova 850 P2 as another 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. This unit should last you a good long while, and the company offers 10-year warranty coverage.
At the really high end of the spectrum, there’s the Corsair RM1000i. Like the EVGA unit above, this power supply is 80 Plus Platinum rated. As the name gives away, the capacity on tap is 1000W, enough for maybe a Threadripper CPU plus a couple graphics cards or three for, er, scientific computation. The PSU has a total of eight PCIe power connectors and 12 SATA plugs. With this much capacity on tap, we’d wager the fan will remain stopped more often than not, thanks to the semi-silent functionality. Lastly, for those that love absolute control over everything in the computer, the RM1000i has Corsair Link connectivity, letting owners keep a close eye on every single electron going through it.
Many popular CPUs don’t ship with stock coolers these days. If you’re building around a Ryzen Threadripper chip or any Kaby Lake-X or Skylake-X CPU, you’ll want a selection from the list below. Same goes for the Ryzen 5 1600X, Ryzen 7 1700X and Ryzen 7 1800X. 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 should add a note here about cooling Core i9 and Threadripper processors in particular. These CPUs are a bear to cool. Presuming your case has room for it, we’d strongly suggest building around a 240-mm, 280-mm or 360-mm liquid cooler at the very least. All those cores produce a ton of heat, after all, and Intel’s choice to use thermal paste instead of solder on Skylake-X CPUs only makes matters worse. Ryzen Threadripper chips at least don’t have problems with thermal transfer to their massive heat spreaders.
Threadripper CPUs include a compatibility kit for the TR4 socket that fits existing liquid-cooling gear produced by Asetek. That includes, among others, the Corsair H105 and H115, the Fractal Design Celsius S24, and S36. We’ve noted in our recommendations which coolers are good for Threadripper, but if you’re not buying off our list, do double check with your manufacturer about TR4 socket support. AMD has a list of compatible coolers that should serve as a fine starting point.
Not every cooler manufacturer has had a chance to catch up with the stampede of Ryzen CPUs and Socket AM4 motherboards yet. Most major companies have adapter kits in the works for those mobos, and many will even send out such an adapter for the cost of filing out a service ticket. We can’t account for every major cooler company’s plans here, but check the compatibility pages for Corsair, Cooler Master, Noctua, and Cryorig, among others, before you buy. Most companies will send you a free Socket AM4 bracket if you ask, though.
We’ve turned to large tower-style air coolers for the majority of our recommendations. In the past, we shied away from these coolers because of potential compatibility and clearance issues. Companies like be quiet!, Cryorig, Phanteks, and Noctua have all made living with these enormous coolers easier, though, and these modern heatsinks can often dissipate the heat of a heavily-overclocked CPU without any more noise than a closed-loop liquid cooler. Even better, they dispense with the noise of a liquid-cooling pump at idle, potentially making for a quieter system overall.
|Product||Price||Type||Notable needs or observations|
|Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO||$34.99 +
optional free AM4 kit
|Tower-style air cooler||Case with 6.3″ (159 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Cooler Master Hyper D92||$38.49||Case with 5.6″ (142 mm) of heatsink clearance
AM4 compatibility kit available
|Phanteks PH-TC12DX||$49.99||Case with 6.2″ (157 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Noctua NH-U12S SE-AM4||$64.95||Case with 6.2″ (158 mm) of heatsink clearance
AM4 mounting kit included
|Noctua NH-U14S TR4-SP3||$79.90||Case with 6.5″ (165 mm) of heatsink clearance
Supports TR4 socket only
$7.90 (AM4 kit)
|Case with 6.5″ (165 mm) of heatsink clearance|
|Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 140||$96.99 (140mm)||Closed-loop liquid cooler||Case with a 140-mm radiator mount
clearance for push-pull radiator-fan stack
|Corsair H105||$103.99 +
$4.99 (AM4 kit)
|Case with a 240-mm radiator mount
Supports TR4 socket with AMD bracket
|Corsair H115i||$139.99 +
$4.99 (AM4 kit)
|Case with a 280-mm radiator mount
Supports TR4 socket with AMD bracket
|Cooler Master MasterLiquid 240||$139.99 +
$4.99 (AM4 kit)
|Case with a 280-mm radiator mount
Supports TR4 socket with aftermarket kit
|Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 240 & Pro 280||
$107.99 (240 mm)
$99.99 (280 mm)
|Case with a 240-mm (or 280-mm) radiator mountOr
AM4 compatibility kit available
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 popular Hyper tower coolers. Both offerings received TR Recommended awards thanks to their combination of affordable pricing and cooling performance, and we think you should consider them as more modern takes on Cooler Master’s classics.
A more effective option for those looking to overclock a Core i5 or Ryzen 7 CPU 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 Pentium G4620 or the Core i5-7500 and you care about noise, it might be worth dropping $20 or so on a basic mini-tower heatsink like Cryorig’s M9i to keep the racket down.
If you’re looking for something a bit more upmarket but whose price doesn’t go into the stratosphere, how about the Noctua NH-U12S SE-AM4? This cooler comes with one of Noctua’s insanely-quiet fans and fits almost every socket under the sun, including AM4 for Ryzen builds. The base and heatpipes are made of copper, and you have the choice of adding a second fan for a push-pull configuration. Noctua says that even with the second fan, this cooler won’t interfere with any tall DIMMs. The company is so confident in this cooler’s quality that it’s offering 6-year warranty coverage.
Let’s say you have a Threadripper build in the cards but don’t want to go with liquid cooling in order to keep idle noise down to an absolute minimum. The Noctua NH-U14S TR4-SP3 is probably your best current option. This tower cooler is ready out of the box to be sat atop the Ryzen Threadripper’s massive heatsink and comes with a quiet (and huge) 140-mm fan. Noctua throws in mounting clips for a second 140-mm fan if you need extra heat dissipation. Do note that this cooler only supports TR4 sockets. If you want something huge that fits standard sockets, just keep reading.
The high-end tower cooler market is crowded with excellent options these days. 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 added an NH-D15S to my main system not too long ago, and I think it’s probably the best money I spent last year. The attention to detail that Noctua has is insane, the installation process is easy (considering this thing’s size), and the cooler performance is excellent. Oh, did I mention that the D15S is stupid quiet, even while keeping an overclocked Core i7-6700K in check?
Big tower coolers can’t fit into every enclosure, though, and for small-form-factor builds, liquid coolers like Corsair’s H60 and H80i GT 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.
Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 240
If you’d rather not spend extra on high-quality fans, our 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 in use. The MasterLiquid Pro 120 is push-pull 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. The only issue with these coolers we can think of is that they can’t work with Ryzen Threadripper CPUs.
Cooler Master MasterLiquid 240
Should you be readying up a Threadripper build, you should take a look at the MasterLiquid 240 (non-Pro). Cooler Master sells a mounting bracket for this cooler to let it mate with Socket TR4’s mounting system, and the generously-sized radiator should be able to handle Threadripper’s heat and then some. Reviews for this cooler are generally glowing, and we see no reason why it can’t be a part of your workstation build.
For Corsair fans, the H105 remains a fine 240-mm contender. Even though it doesn’t have the latest RGB LED goodness, its extra-thick radiator makes for a fair tradeoff, and it’ll work out of the box with Ryzen Threadripper CPUs. For the absolute best-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 i7-7700K to its limits. 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.
As an added bonus, both the H105 and H115i support Ryzen Threadripper CPUs with the adapter that AMD includes in the box. If you’re building with regular Ryzen, be aware that Corsair coolers manufactured by Asetek may not come with AM4 mounting hardware. The company will ship you an AM4 bracket for free right now if that’s the case. If you’ve gotta have an AM4-compatible liquid cooler right this second, Corsair’s venerable H110i will bolt right on without a hitch.
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 Pentium G4600||$86.99|
|Cooler||Intel stock cooler||–|
|Motherboard||MSI B250 Pro-VDH||$65.99|
|Memory||G. Skill Aegis 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2400||$74.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GTX 1050 Ti 4GB||$154.99|
|Storage||WD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM||$49.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master N200||$49.99|
|PSU||Seasonic S12II 430B||$39.99|
Our Budget Box proves that even if you don’t have a lot of cash to burn, you can still get yourself a PC that’s eminently capable of playing most games at 1920×1080 with many graphics options turned up. The Intel Pentium G4600 offers plenty of general-purpose processing power for a mere $87, and the Gigabyte GTX 1050 Ti 4GB graphics card we’ve chosen offers way more graphics horsepower than you’d expect for only $155, too. The combination is rounded out by the solid Cooler Master N200 case and a Seasonic S12II 430B power supply with a 5-year warranty.
In case the 1TB hard drive in this build feels too pokey for your tastes, you can always pair it or swap it with a Crucial MX300 275GB SSD for $100 or so. If you’re wondering why we’re not recommending Optane Memory for this build, the reason is simple: it’s not cost-effective. Intel’s requirements say that you need at least a Core-series Kaby Lake CPU to go with it. That would mean that we’d have to use the Core i3-7100 for this build ($120), plus at least a 16GB Optane Memory device ($50). That’s a lot of cash to improve storage performance to SSD levels when you can just buy an SSD. Should Intel ease its policy on what systems can use Optane, we’ll gladly revisit this particular topic.
The Middle Ground
|Processor||AMD Ryzen 3 1300X||$129.99|
|Cooler||AMD Wraith Stealth (included)||–|
|Motherboard||MSI B350 Gaming Plus||$99.99|
|Memory||G. Skill Aegis 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2400||$74.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1060 6GB||$289.99|
|Storage||WD Blue SSD 500GB||$149.99|
|WD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM||$49.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master MasterBox 5||$49.99|
|PSU||Seasonic S12II 430B||$39.99|
Every System Guide edition has a single quirky build. The Middle Ground is the one for this installment. We wanted something that had a little more kick than the Budget Box, could fill out a number of roles equally well, and stayed within a budget that’s more-or-less on the affordable end of the spectrum.
The quad-core Ryzen 3 1300X handles main processing duties, and we picked out a GeForce GeForce GTX 1060 6GB graphics card to go with it. This combo should be powerful enough for 1920×1080 gaming at 60 FPS save for the more graphically demading titles. The single hard drive in the Budget Box gives way to a combo setup with a 500 GB SSD coupled with a 1 TB spinner. Since we picked out an ATX motherboard, we opted to go with an affordable case of the appropriate size, the Cooler Master MasterBox 5.
The Sweet Spot
|Processor||AMD Ryzen 5 1600||$209.99|
|Cooler||AMD Wraith Spire||—|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte GA-AB350-Gaming 3||$109.99|
|Memory||G. Skill Flare X 16GB (2×8 GB) DDR4-3200||$187.99|
|Graphics||Zotac GTX 1070 Mini||$414.99|
|Storage||Crucial MX300 525GB SSD||$159.99|
|WD Blue 3TB||$89.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define C||$89.99|
The Sweet Spot steps us up to a six-core Ryzen 5 CPU and Gigabyte’s fully-featured AB350-Gaming 3 motherboard. We’ve also tapped Zotac GTX 1070 Mini graphics card for its reasonable price and high performance. Pair that powerful graphics card with a large SSD, Design’s whisper-quiet Define C case, and an efficient 80 Plus Gold PSU, and you have a real winner around the $1300 mark.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-7740X||$319.34|
|Cooler||Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 280||$99.99|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte Aorus X299 Gaming 3||$279.99|
|Memory||G. Skill Ripjaws V 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3200||$153.99|
|Graphics||Aorus GeForce GTX 1080||$579.99|
|Storage||Samsung 960 EVO 500GB||$234.00|
|WD Blue 4TB 5400 RPM||$117.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define C||$89.99|
You want the meanest, leanest gaming machine around. Don’t deny it, we know you better than you do. The Core i7-7740X CPU and its four Kaby Lake cores all result in an intoxicating performance cocktail just about perfect for overclocked gaming and mainstream desktop work. The processor is supported by the Aorus X299 Gaming 3 motherboard, a full-featured offering with just about all the features you could reasonably want in a desktop PC with room for higher-end Core X upgrades down the line.
It takes a fast-dancing graphics card to keep up with that CPU, so we opted to go with the Aorus GeForce GTX 1080 for this purpose. We’d also like to point out that a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti would be an even better companion, but that card comes at a steep cost.
This build is also where we draw a line and opt to go with an NVMe SSD. Prices on Samsung’s 960 EVO drives are low enough for the 500GB model to fit this build’s budget. The 4TB hard drive we’ve chosen should be plenty for any mass storage needs, too.
Sample builds, continued
The Grand Experiment
|Processor||AMD Ryzen 7 1800X||$430.89|
|Cooler||Noctua NH-U12S AM4||$64.95|
|Motherboard||Aorus GA-AX370-Gaming 5||$189.99|
|Memory||G. Skill Flare X 16GB (2x8GB) DDR4-3200||$187.99|
|Graphics||Aorus GeForce GTX 1080||$579.99|
|Storage||Samsung 960 EVO 500GB||$234.00|
|WD Blue 4TB 5400 RPM||$117.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master MasterCase Pro 5||$109.99|
We’ve changed the theme of our Grand Experiment this time around. We’re looking at a machine with a fairly high CPU core count courtesy of the octa-core Ryzen 7 1800X. In many ways, this machine is the direct counterpart to the Gaming Power build on the previous page, except you get a ton more cores and threads, albeit at lower clock speeds and with slightly lower IPC.
That means the Grand Experiment should still be quite a decent gaming box, but its real strength is wrangling productivity tasks. If you need to get serious with work, then look no further. If you aren’t much of a gamer, then just swap in a lighter-duty graphics card for the Aorus GeForce GTX 1080 on our list, and you have yourself a perfectly-balanced and affordable mini-workstation.
Noctua’s beefy NH-U12S AM4 tower cooler should let builders overclock the Ryzen 7 1800X comfortably. A 500GB NVMe SSD will offer speedy performance for one’s most-used files and games, and 4TB of mechanical storage offers media buffs plenty of room to store pics and flicks without cutting into that valuable NAND. Finally, the 850W PSU and the MasterCase Pro 5 should allow for easy expansion without running into power or physical space limits.
The Work & Play
|Processor||Intel Core i7-7820X||$599.99|
|Cooler||Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 280||$99.99|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte Aorus X299 Gaming 7||$399.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Trident Z 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-3200||$336.99|
|Graphics||Aorus GeForce GTX 1080||$579.99|
|Storage||Samsung 960 EVO 1TB||$419.99|
|HGST Deskstar NAS 6TB||$228.99|
|LG WH14NS40 Blu-ray burner||$49.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define R5||$99.99|
Let’s say you want a workstation with serious computing punch but don’t want to go as far as burning a grand on a CPU alone. Enter the Work & Play. The centerpiece in this build is the Core i7-7820X. We took a long, hard look at this CPU during our Threadripper review and came away impressed with how well-rounded it is. It gnaws at the heels of the more expensive Ryzen Threadripper 1920X for $200 less, and that is, indeed, something to write home about.
Despite some inconsistency in frame times, the Core i7-7820X still offers a respectably high-end gaming experience, which is why we coupled it with the Aorus GeForce GTX 1080. During work hours, the Work & Play will excel at compiling code, rendering 3D models, and music production. This box will be more than up to those tasks without going too much overboard, by our reckoning. That all-rounder CPU is complemented nicely by Aorus’ X299 Gaming 7 motherboard and a hefty 32GB chunk of DDR4-3200 RAM.
The No Holds Barred
|Processor||AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X||$999.99|
|Cooler||Fractal Design Celsius S36||$119.99|
|Motherboard||Gigabyte Aorus X399 Gaming 7||$389.99|
|Memory||G.Skill Trident Z 32GB (4x8GB) DDR4-3200||$336.99|
|Graphics||EVGA GTX 1080 Ti SC2 iCX||$769.99|
|Storage||Samsung 960 EVO 1TB||$419.99|
|HGST Deskstar NAS 6TB||$228.99|
|HGST Deskstar NAS 6TB||$228.99|
|LG WH16NS40 Blu-ray burner||$49.99|
|Enclosure||Fractal Design Define R5||$119.99|
Ooooh, mama! This is one hot take. The mighty Ryzen Threadripper 1950X got an Editor’s Choice award when we reviewed it. Suffice it to say, those awards are highly coveted and only pinned on the best hardware around. The humongous 1950X offers 16 cores and 32 threads clocked at a maximum of 4 GHz. That’s probably enough computing horsepower to run a small city, and yet here it sits under a massive heatspreader. While the CPU costs a rounded grand, our review found that the price is actually fairly reasonable for what it has to offer.
Fair warning, if you’re wondering why you’d need so many cores, this machine is not for you. Only serious workstation users need apply, and that means people who will be doing 3D rendering, CAD, heavy compilation, scientific calculation tasks, and so on. Those people that will, in fact, work on those tasks are probably frothing at the mouth already, calculating their ROI after buying this machine… or both.
We’ve slapped 32 GB of fast RAM into this system, and the Samsung 960 EVO 1 TB is now complemented by a pair of big honkin’ HGST Deskstar NAS 6 TB drives. Those HGST drives are fast, but some will prefer quieter options, even if performance takes a bit of a hit. For those folks, we suggest the Western Digital Red 6TB spinners as alternatives at roughly the same price. They’re quiet and still more than fast enough for most needs.
Fractal Design’s massive Celsius S36 closed-loop cooler, the amazing Fractal Design Define R5 case, a Corsair RM1000i power supply, and the world-beating GeForce GTX 1080 Ti top off this beastly build. If you’re going to go way over the top, we think this is an excellent way to do it.
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.
Win10’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 graphics API. Both Intel and AMD only fully support their latest CPUs under Windows 10, too. If you have a new build in the works, you really ought to pair it with a Win10 key.
You may have heard a murmur or two that Windows 7 offers the best performance with AMD’s Ryzen CPUs. Don’t believe it. AMD itself has debunked this claim, and Microsoft has taken steps to deny updates to Ryzen and Kaby Lake owners trying to run older operating systems on their shiny new systems. It doesn’t help that installing Windows 7 on a Ryzen system is a pain in the behind. Stick with Microsoft’s latest and greatest if you’re building with Ryzen.
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.
If you’ve been reading TR’s front page regularly, you’ll know that eighth-generation desktop Intel Core CPUs could arrive sometime soon. In an unsual step, “eighth-generation” doesn’t necessarily refer to CPUs built on an new architecture or process. Rather, the nomenclature could refer both to processors of the “Kaby Lake Refresh” family as well as a purported new “Coffee Lake” architecture, so long as there’s a performance gain over older parts at the end of the day. If the rumor mill is correct, desktop Coffee Lake CPUs will require new 300-series motherboards to function. Laptops with eighth-gen Core CPUs are already on their way, so we’re reasonably certain that the next iteration of the System Guide will include recommendations for the desktop parts. Motherboard manufacturers haven’t been shy about teasing something big arriving on October 5, so we think it’s prudent to wait on building a mainstream system until then.
We don’t expect much to happen in the case, graphics card, storage, or cooling arenas before the end of the year. Both Nvidia and AMD have kept mum about any further GPU developments, and the same applies to the usual suspects on the storage front. The advent of Threadripper and its massive heatsink means that cooling makers should be readying up designs with enormous baseplates, but we have no reason to believe that they’ll be otherwise significantly different from existing offerings.
With that, we wrap up this edition of the System Guide. If one of our parts picks helped you solve a head-scratcher, or you’re cribbing one of our sample builds for your own use, please become a TR subscriber if you haven’t already. Be sure to purchase any of our picks using the links to Newegg throughout this guide, too. Your support helps us to continue the in-depth research and reviews that make guides like this one possible. Have fun building your new system—we’re sure it’ll turn out great.