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The Tech Report System Guide: winter 2017 edition

Bruno Ferreira
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Welcome to TR’s Winter 2017 System Guide. This release marks a major change in the format of our long-running system-building advice. See, our old guides were getting too long and unwieldy to be useful to the average builder who just wants to know what to purchase when they start shopping for a new build. As a result, we’re trying something new and going back to our roots in this edition. We’re hoping to keep it simple and stick to advice about complete builds only, rather than producing an exhaustive survey of the state of the enthusiast PC. We’ll add commentary where it’s justified, but we think this pared-down format should be a lot easier to follow for folks looking for advice.

The rules of the road for the System Guide aren’t changing, though. We’ve tried to create builds across a wide range of price points with parts that provide the best performance possible for the money. We don’t just ferret out the cheapest components possible or compromise configurations to hit arbitrary price points. Indeed, these are the systems we’d build for ourselves, given the money. From our cheapest build to our most expensive (or the second-most expensive, at least), you can rest easy knowing that we’ve done the hard work of balancing the need for performance against the curve of diminishing returns.

The lay of the land
Since our last System Guide, prices for most hardware parts have remained stubbornly steady, and in some cases have risen significantly. RAM is now at least 25% more expensive than it used to be of late, and certain kits have become far more expensive than that. SSD prices have remained high, too. That’s because demand for RAM and NAND chips is high right now in markets that aren’t related to the good old PC. Some component manufacturers have promised increased production of those chips to cope with the demand, but for now, system builders are paying the price in memory and flash storage.

The rest of the components for a common build are priced roughly the same, counteracting the usual “PC parts get cheaper all the time” narrative. Overall, this situation hurt our more affordable builds more than most, since that’s where a price increase in a single component has a disproportionate effect on the power we can pack into a given build.

It’s not all bad news, though. Some mid-range and high-end builds can reap the benefits of Intel’s recently-introduced eighth-generation Coffee Lake Core CPUs and their increased core counts, all in the same price ranges as their predecessors. For that reason, the big battles right now are in the $900-to-$2000 builds where options for processors are aplenty.

While AMD currently has a competitive selection of processors more or less across the board, pricing for the red team’s graphics cards isn’t quite so appetizing. Radeon RX 500-series cards in general are still more expensive than we’d like, and Radeon RX Vega cards are out of stock or way overpriced at retail when they’re available at all. In contrast, Nvidia’s Pascal family of cards has generally been in stock at sane prices up and down the stack. Our graphics card picks reflect this situation.

Rules of engagement
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 and builds to fit budgets of all sizes, without compromising on quality or performance.

Our budget builds will get you up and running with solid components that won’t break the bank. Stepping up to our sweet spot builds 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.

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.

 

Sample builds—budget to mid-range
Here’s where the rubber meets the road. We have parts lists that span a range of budget options. We did our best effort to present balanced rigs at various price points, but the whole point of building a PC is that you can customize it as you see fit. Feel free to swap parts around as needed to fit your budget and performance needs.

Econobox

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Pentium G4620 $91.99
Cooler

Intel stock cooler

 
Motherboard MSI B250 Pro-VDH $64.99
Memory G. Skill Aegis 8GB (2x4GB) DDR4-2400 $94.99
Graphics MSI GeForce GT 1030 2GH LP OC $71.99
Storage WD Blue 1TB 7200 RPM $49.00
Enclosure Thermaltake Versa H15 $34.19
PSU Seasonic S12II 430B $39.99
Total   $448.94

The Econobox offers a stepping stone into the world of a balanced desktop PC. The Intel Pentium G4620 offers plenty of general-purpose processing power for a mere $92, thanks to its swiftly-clocked two cores and four threads. That processor plays along with a Nvidia GeForce GT 1030 graphics card. Despite its sub-$100 price, this card should still be capable of playing games like Minecraft, Rocket League, and Dota 2 at reasonable frame rates with plenty of eye candy. While this card won’t dazzle you with fantastic visuals or furious frame rates in the latest AAA titles, it can offer at least a playable experience on a number of them, provided you keep graphics options and resolutions modest. Our MSI pick is fanless for quiet operation, too.

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 275 GB SSD for $90 or so (an extra outlay of $40). 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 for Optane mean that we’d have to use the Core i3-7100 or Core i3-8100 (around $120), plus at least a 16 GB Optane Memory device ($50). That’s a lot of cash 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.

Econobox Plus

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Ryzen 3 1300X $129.99
Cooler

AMD Wraith Stealth cooler

 
Motherboard ASRock AB350M Pro4 $74.99
Memory G. Skill Ripjaws V (2x4GB) DDR4-2666 $103.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1050 Ti $162.99
Storage WD Blue 250 GB SSD $84.99
Enclosure Fractal Design Core 1100 $46.99
PSU Seasonic S12II 430B $39.99
Total   $638.93

Here’s a budget-conscious machine that’s not quite as trimmed-down as the regular Econobox. The choice of CPU for this build is AMD’s Ryzen 3 1300X. While we could pick the Intel Core i3-8100 for this spot, prices for an accompanying Z370 motherboard start at around $120, compared to $60 for basic Ryzen mobos. The Ryzen 3 1300X is somewhat beefier than the Pentium G4620 in the build above, particularly in multi-threaded tasks and games that can make good use of four CPU cores. The unlocked multiplier and nice stock CPU cooler of the Ryzen 3 1300X mean enthusiasts can have a go at boosting its performance through tweaking, too.

The graphics card choice for the Econobox Plus steps up to the evergreen GeForce GTX 1050 Ti, a card that’s quite good for its $160-odd price bracket. It should let you play most AAA titles at 1920×1080 with relatively high detal settings. Finally, the WD Blue 250 GB SSD will give you snappy system responsiveness. If that capacity is a little too tight, you can upgrade to a Crucial MX300 525 GB for another $60 or so, or add in the WD Blue 1TB hard drive from the Econobox for bulk storage.

Middle Ground

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Core i3-8100 $129.99
Cooler

Intel stock cooler

 
Motherboard Gigabyte Z370 HD3 $124.99
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws V (2x4GB) DDR4-3200 $108.99
Graphics EVGA GTX 1060 6 GB ACX 2.0 SC $274.99
Storage Crucial MX300 525 GB $149.54
Toshiba P300 3 TB $74.17
Enclosure NZXT S340 $69.99
PSU Seasonic S12II 430B $39.99
Total   $969.96

The Middle Ground is where we get our first jolt of Coffee Lake. We picked out the Intel Core i3-8100 CPU, a fantastic all-rounder that’s more than suited to the task of feeding our GeForce GTX 1060 6 GB graphics card. (If you’re wondering about the Radeon RX 580 8 GB as an alternative, those cards start at around $300 thanks to mining-mad pricing). The combo is powerful enough for 60-FPS-or-better gaming at 1920×1080. Some AAA titles should also play easily at 2560×1440 on this box, too.

A Crucial MX300 525 GB solid-state drive has more than enough room for a handful of top-tier games, and those that don’t fit can easily go in the Toshiba P300 3 TB hard drive that we’ve paired with it. The NZXT S340 case we picked is a cut above the more affordable choices in the cheaper builds, too.

Sweet Spot

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Ryzen 5 1600 $199.99
Cooler

AMD Wraith Spire cooler

 
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-AB350 Gaming 3 $109.99
Memory G. Skill Ripjaws V (2x4GB) DDR4-3200 $201.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1070 Ti WF $449.99
Storage Crucial MX300 525 GB $149.54
Toshiba P300 3 TB $74.17
Enclosure Fractal Design Define C $89.99
PSU Seasonic Focus Plus 650 $79.90
Total   $1,362.84

This is probably the system with the best overall value in this System Guide. For this build, we’re going with AMD’s six-core, twelve-thread Ryzen 5 1600 processor. Its 3.6 GHz turbo clock is a healthy figure for the Zen architecture, and budding overclockers can get more juice out of it using the excellent Wraith Spire cooler that’s included in the box. Intel’s Core i5-8400 offers performance on par with, if not better than, the Ryzen 5 1600, but that processor is hard to find in stock right now, and we don’t think pairing a locked CPU with a relatively expensive Z370 motherboard makes a lot of sense at this price.

The Ryzen 5 1600 powers the excellent GeForce GTX 1070 Ti. This card wasn’t the best value when it originally arrived, but it’s a pretty good choice now. GTX 1070s are no cheaper, GTX 1080s are substantially more expensive, and Radeon RX Vega 56 cards are basically unavailable, making the GTX 1070 Ti the best value in high-end gaming at the moment. This combination of CPU and graphics card ought to be good for smooth and fluid running in the vast majority of games at 2560×1440 with high detail levels. We also step up to 16 GB of RAM to give productivity work some more breathing room. The Fractal Design Define C case is one of our favorites, and it’s pretty compact considering it can take in ATX motherboards. A Gold-rated Seasonic Focus Plus 650 W power supply caps off the build.

 

Sample builds—high-end and beyond
Whereas the builds on the previous page are particularly considerate of budget restrictions, in this section we’ll be taking a look at builds that climb higher up the performance ladder. Despite that objective, we’re not going to recommend any particular parts with big price tags just for the sake of having the best hardware around—well, save for the very last build, that is.

Sweeter Spot

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Intel Core i5-8600K $299.99
Cooler Noctua NH-D15S $79.90
Motherboard Gigabyte Z370 Aorus Gaming 5 $199.99
Memory G. Skill Ripjaws V (2×8 GB) DDR4-3200 $201.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1070 Ti WF $449.99
Storage Crucial MX300 525 GB $149.54
Toshiba P300 3 TB $74.17
Enclosure Fractal Design Define C $89.99
PSU Seasonic Focus Plus 650 $79.90
Total   $1,623.73

The GeForce GTX 1070 Ti is a potent card, but keeping it well fed can be a tough job. That’s why we’re stepping up to an Intel Core i5-8600K, a processor that should help keep frame times low and ensure an easy, smooth ride through nearly every title out there when high framerates matter. The i5-8600K has six Coffee Lake cores, six threads, and a very healthy Turbo clock speed of 4.3 GHz. Its unlocked multiplier lets enthusiasts push clocks even higher, too. At $300, you’ll have a hard time finding an enthusiast CPU that’s better balanced.

This build is otherwise similar to the Sweet Spot, save for a couple touches. The accompanying motherboard has a beefy VRM to support Coffee Lake overclocking efforts, while the super-quiet Noctua NH-D15S heatsink should keep both noise and CPU temperatures under control.

Grand Experiment

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Intel Core i7-8700K $404.99
Cooler Corsair Hydro H115i $139.99
Motherboard Gigabyte Z370 Aorus Gaming 7 $219.99
Memory G. Skill Ripjaws V (2×8 GB) DDR4-3200 $201.99
Graphics Aorus GeForce GTX 1080 $549.99
Storage Samsung 960 EVO 500 GB $245.00
Western Digital Blue 4 TB $107.99
Enclosure Fractal Design Define C $89.99
PSU Corsair RM850x $119.99
Total   $2,062.92

The centerpiece here is the Intel Core i7-8700K—my favorite CPU at the moment. Six Coffee Lake cores, twelve threads, and clocks high enough to challenge the one atop the Abraj Al-Bait make this chip the enthusiast CPU to beat at the moment. In our review, we found this processor flawless when it comes to performance in both games and productivity applications. Granted, the $400 asking price is most of our Econobox alone, but every dollar is worth it.

The GeForce GTX 1080 is a perfect pairing for this CPU, and we’d advise the better-off to spend the extra dosh on a GeForce GTX 1080 Ti if they can. The performance boost is worth the outlay if you can do it, and it’s also the only card capable of playing most games smoothly at 4K right now. We also went with a Samsung 960 EVO NVMe SSD for a storage performance boost, too. Since this CPU runs a little toasty at stock speeds and can prove a bear to cool effectively when overclocked, we decided to go with the Corsair Hydro H115i closed-loop liquid cooler for this build. Fractal Design’s Define C can handle these hot parts without a hitch.

Work & Play

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Intel Core i7-7820X $499.99
Cooler Fractal Design Celsius S36 $119.99
Motherboard  Gigabyte X299 Aorus Gaming 7 $399.99
Memory Corsair Vengeance LPX
32 GB (4×8 GB) DDR4-3200
$384.99
Graphics Aorus GeForce GTX 1080 $569.99
Storage Samsung 960 EVO 1 TB $472.55
HGST NAS 6 TB hard drive $174.99
Enclosure Fractal Design Define R5 $99.99
PSU Corsair RM850x $119.99
Total   $2,832.47

Let’s say you want a workstation-class build with serious computing punch, but you don’t want to go as far as burning a grand on a CPU alone. The centerpiece in this build is Intel’s Core i7-7820X. We took a long, hard look at this CPU during our reviews of Ryzen Threadripper and Skylake-X chips, and we came away impressed with just 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 mild weirdness with 99th-percentile frame times, the Core i7-7820X still offers a high-end gaming experience in CPU-bound titles, and it’ll let the Aorus GeForce GTX 1080 we’ve chosen stretch its wings.

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. If you do want more Intel CPU power than the i7-7820X provides, the 10-core Core i9-7900X will drop right into this build. The i9-7900X can game, stream, and crunch numbers with the best of them, but the X299 platform’s lack of ECC RAM support makes it tough to recommend as an entry-level workstation. For that, we turn to the Serious Business.

Serious Business
The build above is strong enough for most tasks, but if you’re doing really heavy-duty work that requires lots of cores and threads or ECC RAM, you’ll want to step up to the Serious Business. Fair warning: if you’re wondering why you’d need so many cores, this machine is not for you. Only the most power-hungry need apply, and that means people who will be doing 3D rendering, CAD, lots of compiling, 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.

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor AMD Ryzen Threadripper 1950X $899.99
Cooler Fractal Design Celsius S36 $119.99
Motherboard Gigabyte X399 Aorus Gaming 7 $389.99
Memory G.Skill TridentZ 32 GB (4×8 GB) DDR4-3200 $438.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce GTX 1080 Ti SC2 iCX $784.00
Storage Samsung 960 EVO 1 TB $472.55
HGST NAS 6 TB hard drive $174.99
HGST NAS 6 TB hard drive $174.99
Enclosure Fractal Design Define R5 $99.99
PSU Seasonic Prime Ultra Platinum 1000W $209.99
Total   $3,764.48

The mighty Ryzen Threadripper 1950X got an Editor’s Choice award when we reviewed it for its combination of sheer performance and unbridled platform capabilities 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. X399 motherboards can tap 64 lanes of PCIe 3.0 expansion direct from this CPU, too. While the Threadripper 1950X currently goes for $900, that’s $100 less than its suggested price, and we were already impressed with this chip’s value at its full price.

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 Seasonic Prime Ultra 1000W power supply, and the nearly-world-beating GeForce GTX 1080 Ti top off this beastly build.

No Holds Barred
Where our last few builds focus on the best bang for the buck, the No Holds Barred is not about that. Instead, this system is for the most demanding compute tasks around, whether those reside on the CPU or the graphics card. This system also gives demanding users a way to connect to every high-speed storage device or peripheral under the sun, whether over Thunderbolt 3 or 802.11ad. From CPU to storage, this box is the most capable and cutting-edge desktop PC that we could make using enthusiast-friendly parts. If you want to knock yourself out with dual-socket server motherboards and other exotica, feel free, but this is meant to be our vision of the highest-performance enthusiast PC around, not something that needs its own rack to run.

  Component Price Buy (prices may vary)
Processor Intel Core i9-7960X $1,689.99
Cooler Fractal Design Celsius S36 $119.99
Motherboard Asus Prime X299-Deluxe $479.99
Memory G.Skill TridentZ 64 GB (4×16 GB) DDR4-3200 $824.99
Graphics

Nvidia Titan V

$2,999.00  Nvidia shop
Storage Intel Optane SSD 900P 480 GB $599.99
Samsung 960 EVO 1 TB $472.55
HGST NAS 6 TB hard drive $174.99
HGST NAS 6 TB hard drive $174.99
Enclosure Fractal Design Define R5 $99.99
PSU Seasonic Prime Platinum 1200W $249.99
Total   $7,896.46

 

The face-melting computing power in this build starts with Intel’s Core i9-7960X. This 16-core, 32-thread CPU might have the same core and thread count as AMD’s much less expensive Ryzen Threadripper 1950X, but its Skylake Server cores can clock higher—and do more per clock cycle—than the Threadripper’s can. That’s especially evident in the Core i9-7960X’s dual AVX-512 units per core, a capability that may be of interest to HPC and scientific-computing developers. Intel’s own Xeon W CPUs turn on ECC RAM support for better workstation cred, but those processors and the motherboards to support them simply aren’t available to consumers yet. Folks with even more money can consider Intel’s own Core i9-7980XE, but we didn’t find many situations that could take advantage of that chip’s extra cores to justify its $300 higher price tag in our testing.

For GPU-computing workloads like deep-learning training, there simply isn’t a more powerful platform than Nvidia’s Titan V and its Volta V100 GPU. This beast of a compute accelerator offers the same bounty of compute resources that Nvidia’s Tesla V100 server cards do, including half-rate double-precision support and an array of dedicated “tensor cores” for matrix-multiplication-heavy AI work. 12 GB of HBM2 RAM on a 3072-bit bus offers 652.8 GB/s of theoretical bandwidth to those operations. Yes, this card is $3000, but it’s worth considering that the Tesla V100 is at least $8000 on its own if you can find one outside of a GPU compute server. The Titan V is an exceedingly poor value for a gaming card, and the No Holds Barred is not a gaming PC, but folks with more money than sense will find that this is the highest-performing gaming card on the planet, too.

For primary storage, the No Holds Barred turns to Intel’s cutting-edge Optane SSD 900P 480 GB SSD. This PCIe add-in board and its healthy serving of 3D Xpoint NVRAM offer the lowest (and most consistent) access latencies around, and Optane’s insane QD1 performance means that even lightly-threaded storage tasks will smoke like nothing else on this SSD. Not everything can fit into the Optane SSD 900P’s capacity, though, and if you have large data sets or need to keep monster video files handy for editing, the Samsung 960 EVO 1TB is a fine intermediate storage layer before one needs to drop back to our twin HGST 6TB drives.

We pair these ultra-rarefied components with Asus’ excellent Prime X299-Deluxe motherboard. This mobo comes bursting with pack-ins like a Thunderbolt 3 card, dual Wi-Fi antennas for 802.11ac and 802.11ad connectivity, and much, much more. A 360-mm liquid cooler, 64 GB of fast RAM, and a high-quality case and PSU round out this monster desktop.

 

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 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. 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’re wondering about previous versions of Windows, they’re really long in the tooth now. The ill-informed might ascribe some sort of technical superiority to Windows 7 at this stage, but it’s hard to even install that aging OS on modern hardware. Aside from that, many manufacturers are dropping or have dropped support for older operating systems altogether, making anything other than the current version of Windows a dead end for updates and support. If you want to take advantage of the latest DirectX 12 titles that we’ve been hearing so much about, Windows 10 is a must.

What’s next
The recent launch of the Volta-powered Nvidia Titan V graphics card has led to more than a bit of speculation that the company could have a range of graphics cards based on the new architecture ready to go. By our reckoning, though, that’s not likely to happen any time soon. Silicon is neither designed or manufactured with the same speed that a Rimac Concept One wins a drag race, and the Pascal architecture remains widely available and as competitive as anything else out there. CES is just around the corner, though, and if we see news of next-generation Nvidia graphics cards anywhere, that venue is as good as any.

In the CPU aisle, Intel released its eighth-gen Core desktop CPUs not too long ago, so we figure that the next generation of the company’s desktop CPUs remains a long way off. Heck, the Coffee Lake lineup’s not even complete yet (there are only half a dozen models available), and the company’s having trouble keeping them in stock to begin with. If you’re building around an Intel CPU, Coffee Lake chips and their accompanying motherboards are safe bets.

Things are a little more interesting in AMD’s corner, but don’t hold off on building a new Ryzen PC just yet. There have been some mutterings that Ryzen 2 CPUs could be coming in the next few months, but we don’t have any definite info on those chips’ ETAs just yet. AMD might also talk up its latest products at CES, but we haven’t heard anything so definite that we’d advise against building a new AMD-powered PC today.

And on that note, it’s a wrap, folks. 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 peppered 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.

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