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TR’s April 2008 system guide

Cyril Kowaliski
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The time has come again for new system guide. In the two months since we last outlined system specifications, AMD has rolled out B3-stepping Phenoms that banish the TLB erratum that plagued the processor’s initial release. Intel’s 45nm quad-core chips have become available en masse, bringing with them a wave of price cuts that makes a Penryn-based CPU more affordable than ever. And Asus has busted the sound card market wide open with the introduction of its Xonar DX. There has been action on the storage front, too, with Western Digital’s latest Caviar SE16 offering what we think is the best all-around value in a Serial ATA hard drive.

Naturally, these new products feature heavily in our latest system guide, which packs more goodness than ever before. We’ve revamped everything from our Econobox, which now offers loads of gaming power for just over 500 bucks, to our Double-Stuff workstation, which packs more parallelism than should be allowed by law. Between them, our Grand Experiment and Sweet Spot configs offer tremendous power for their respective price points. We’ve even included a fifth system this time around: the Couch Potato Mk. 2. This latest take on the ultimate home theater PC combines HD tuning capabilities with Blu-ray playback support all wrapped up in a quiet, power-efficient package. Keep reading to see which components made the cut for our recommended system configurations, and more importantly, why we selected them.

Rules and regulations
The first thing you should know about this guide is that it’s geared toward helping you select the parts for a home-built PC. If you’re new to building your own systems and want a little extra help, our tutorial on how to build your own PC is a great place to start and a helpful complement to this guide.

Before tackling our recommended systems, we should explain some of the rules and guidelines we used to select components. The guiding philosophy behind our choices was to seek the best bang for the buck. That means we avoided recommending super-cheap parts that are barely capable of performing their jobs, just as we avoided breathtakingly expensive products that carry a hefty price premium for features or performance you probably don’t need. Instead, we looked to that mythical “sweet spot” where price and performance meet up in a pleasant, harmonic convergence. We also sought balance within each system configuration, choosing components that make sense together, so that a fast processor won’t be bottlenecked by a skimpy graphics card or too little system memory, for instance. The end result, we hope, is a series of balanced systems that offer decent performance as configured and provide ample room for future expandability.

We confined our selections to components that are currently available online. Paper launches and preorders don’t count, for obvious reasons. We also tried to stick to $500, $1000, and $1500 budgets for our desktop systems. Those budgets are loose guidelines rather than hard limits, to allow us some wiggle room for deals that may stretch the budget a little but are too good to resist.

We’ve continued our tradition of basing the guide’s component prices on listings at Newegg. We’ve found that sourcing prices from one large reseller allows us to maintain a more realistic sense of street prices than price search engine listings, which are sometimes artificially low. In the few cases where Newegg doesn’t have an item in stock, we’ll fall back to our trusty price search engine rather than limit our options.

Finally, price wasn’t the top factor in our component choices. Our own experiences with individual components weighed heavily on our decisions, and we’ve provided links to our own reviews of many of the products we’re recommending. We’ve also tried to confine our selections to name-brand rather than generic products, and to manufacturers with solid reputations for reliability. Warranty coverage was an important consideration, as well.

The Econobox
Because speed doesn’t have to cost a fortune

Our low-end Econobox isn’t designed to be the cheapest possible combination of parts. Instead, it’s a solid and affordable foundation for enthusiasts on a budget. We’ve avoided cutting corners in ways that would have limited future upgrade options, and at the same time, we’ve tried to ensure that the system doesn’t actually need any upgrades to deliver relatively peppy performance as it is.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Pentium E2180 $69.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L $89.99
Memory 2GB Kingston DDR2-800 $38.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce 9600 GT $149.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 320GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S203B $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480 w/380W PSU $69.99
Total
$520.93

Processor
AMD actually makes slightly faster processors in the same price range as the Pentium E2180 in our Econobox. However, we’re sticking with the Pentium for two reasons: Intel’s recently announced price cuts ought to trickle down to retail before long, and we think the LGA775 platform is a better investment overall. Our recommended motherboard is compatible with the latest 45nm Core 2 processors, laying an effortless upgrade path to faster dual-core chips and more exotic quad-core models.

AMD’s low-end CPUs are certainly worthy of consideration, which is why we’ve selected one for our Econobox alternatives on the next page.

Motherboard
Gigabyte’s GA-P35-DS3L gets our vote for this build because of its price tag, feature set, and great user reviews. Despite costing less than $100, this motherboard delivers fine overclocking potential, compatibility with 45nm Penryn processors, passive cooling, and plenty of connectivity options. You also get four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet, S/PDIF audio input and output ports, and a full array of PCI and PCI Express slots. We’d be happier if Gigabyte had included RAID support with an ICH9R south bridge rather than the vanilla ICH9, but that’s an omission we’re inclined to forgive considering the board’s price tag.

Memory
We’ve selected Kingston as our provider of cheap DDR2-800 RAM, and we’ve gone with a 2GB kit. Two gigs of RAM is the minimum we’d recommend given the demands of Windows Vista, and in light of today’s prices, 2GB of DDR2-800 easily fits within the Econobox’s $500 budget. Kingston has a strong reputation for both product quality and customer service, which isn’t always the case with no-name memory makers.

Graphics
With its price recently tumbling to $150, Nvidia’s GeForce 9600 GT is a better choice than ever for the Econobox. Sure, it’s the most expensive component in this system, but alternatives that cost $20 or $30 less are significantly slower. Besides, we like the idea of a $500 system that’s capable of running demanding games like Crysis and Assassin’s Creed without having to sacrifice too much eye candy.

EVGA’s creatively named 512-P3-N861-AR costs $149.99 at Newegg and is pretty much a bog-standard 9600 GT with stock clock speeds and the reference cooler. EVGA does cover this card with a lifetime warranty and 24/7 technical support, however, which elevates it above competing offerings.

Storage
Western Digital’s 320GB Caviar SE16 is our hard drive of choice for the Econobox. We’re passing on Seagate’s 320GB Barracuda since the Caviar has a lower price tag, higher performance, and lower noise levels. The only trade-off is in the warranty department, where Seagate delivers five years of coverage—two more than Western Digital. If you favor longer warranties above all else, the 7200.10 is still listed in our alternatives section on the next page.

For our optical drive, we’ve chosen Samsung’s SH-S203B. You can find slightly cheaper drives with similar features and the same Serial ATA interface, but this model is faster and only costs a couple of dollars more.

Enclosure and power
Antec’s NSK 4480 case and power supply bundle houses our Econobox. This enclosure includes three external 5.25″ bays, two external 3.5″ bays, three internal hard drive bays (housed in a removable cage with rubber mounting grommets), and a speed-adjustable 120mm exhaust fan. Bundled with the case is Antec’s high-efficiency EarthWatts 380W power supply, which is rated for 17A of power delivery on each of its two +12V rails. The power supply costs around $60 on its own, and the case is well-built and a pleasure to work in, so this bundle delivers pretty good value for the price.

Our recommended case and PSU bundle may seem pricey for a budget system, but a good power supply is an invaluable asset to system stability. You could get a $30 case/PSU bundle from a no-name manufacturer, and you might even end up with a halfway decent case out of the deal. PSUs bundled with inexpensive cases tend to be built from cheap, low-quality components, though, and that often translates into low power delivery, voltage fluctuations, poor stress tolerance, and short life spans. Cheap PSUs can jeopardize system stability, damage sensitive components over time, and potentially even flame out in spectacular fashion, taking several system components with them in the process. For an extra $40-50, we’d recommend sticking with a name-brand bundle that includes a quality PSU like this one.

Econobox alternatives

The preceding selections round out our low-end system, but we’ve come up with a couple of suggested alternatives, should you wish to tweak the formula a little bit. These alternatives will allow you to step up to better performance for a little bit more money or save a little without too much pain.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon X2 4800+ $76.00
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H $99.99
Graphics Asus Radeon HD 3850 $144.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 320GB $74.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99

Processor
The Athlon X2 4800+ is our processor alternative for the Econobox. This chip ought to be a little faster than the Pentium E2180 in our recommended system, but the socket’s upgrade path is considerably less appealing, demoting the otherwise-attractive 4800+ to our secondary choice.

Motherboard
The Athlon X2 4800+ won’t plug into our primary system’s LGA775 socket, so we’ve selected a matching motherboard based on AMD’s new 780G integrated graphics chipset. The 780G is blessed with a surprisingly competent Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics processor, which can run fairly recent games as long as you can live with lower resolutions and detail levels. Cinephiles will be glad to know that the Radeon HD 3200 can accelerate high-definition video decoding to facilitate buttery-smooth Blu-ray playback.

We have plenty of experience with Gigabyte’s GA-MA78GM-S2H motherboard, which we featured in our initial review of the 780G, so we’re confident that it’s a good match for our Econobox alternatives. The S2H also has more positive Newegg user reviews than any other 780G board.

Graphics
The GeForce 9600 GT is the undisputed the king of the hill around the $150 mark, but some folks may prefer a Radeon HD 3850. The 3850 is a little slower than the 9600 GT, but it also consumes less power and comes with an AMD driver control panel that some users prefer. With an asking price $6 lower than our recommended 9600 GT, Asus’ EAH3850/G/HTDI/512M fits the bill as a cheaper alternative to the GeForce.

Storage
If you’re willing to live with lower performance and higher noise levels to get five years of warranty coverage, Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.10 320GB is the drive for you.

Sound card
We’ve supplanted Creative’s X-Fi XtremeGamer with Asus’ new Xonar DX throughout this guide. If you’ve read our Xonar DX review, the reasons should be obvious. Compared to the X-Fi, the Xonar offers superior sound quality, useful features like real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding, and a PCI Express x1 interface. It also does a nice job of emulating Creative’s EAX 5.0 positional audio effects, ensuring compatibility with a broad range of games.

The Grand Experiment
The sweet spot for the budget-conscious

Our Econobox is suitable for budding enthusiasts, but its budget only allows for so many goodies. That budget gets doubled for our mid-range build, allowing us to assemble a pretty powerful box while keeping the total cost close to a grand.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 $199.99
Motherboard Gigabyte EP35C-DS3R $139.99
Memory Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $75.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce 8800 GT 512MB $229.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $109.99
Samsung SH-S203B $26.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $129.95
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $1002.88

Processor
The Core 2 Duo E8400 remains our weapon of choice for the Grand Experiment thanks to its strong performance and power-efficient Penryn core. Compared to 65nm Core 2 offerings, Penryn brings 45nm process technology, architectural enhancements that deliver improved clock-for-clock performance, and incredible overclocking headroom. We’ve seen numerous reports of users overclocking the E8400 from its default speed of 3GHz to in the neighborhood of 4GHz with modest air cooling.

Some might say the Core 2 Quad Q6600 would be a more sensible choice, since it packs two extra cores for roughly the same price. However, the E8400 has a 600MHz clock speed edge and a clock-for-clock performance advantage over the Q6600, making it considerably faster in all but a handful of tasks optimized to take full advantage of more than two processor cores. Such applicationos are few and far between at the moment, but if you value parallelism over single-threaded performance, check out our alternatives section.

Motherboard
Gigabyte’s EP35C-DS3R takes the place of the aging SLI motherboard we last recommended for this build. Save for its lack of SLI support, the P35 chipset is a much better option, and we doubt folks shopping for a $1,000 PC are going to be all that interested in running dual graphics cards. The EP35-DS3R seems to have a good reputation among overclockers, too, which makes it a nice match for the Core 2 Duo E8400. With DDR2 and DDR3 memory slots, eight 300MB/s Serial ATA ports with RAID capability, a flurry of USB ports, and a five-star rating in 76% of its Newegg user reviews, there’s little not to like.

Memory
As it was in February, Mushkin’s 4GB DDR2-800 kit remains our staple memory recommendation throughout much of this guide. A quick look at the kit’s price tag should be reason enough: $75.99 is a steal for four gigs of DDR2-800 RAM, especially since it comes from a reputable manufacturer and packs a lifetime warranty. With Windows Vista and most newer games guzzling memory like there’s no tomorrow, 4GB of RAM is by no means over-indulgent, either.

Naturally, you’ll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of this amount of memory. 32-bit OSes do have enough address space for 4GB of memory, but that figure is an upper limit for all memory in a system, including video RAM. In practice, 32-bit versions of Windows will only be able to use 3 to 3.5GB of actual system RAM, and they’ll normally restrict each application’s RAM budget to 2GB. That’s not quite the end of the world, and there are potential workarounds. However, Microsoft says those workarounds hurt compatibility and recommends that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. Vista x64 is quite mature, and we recommend it for this system. You’ll find more details in the operating system section on the second-to-last page of this guide.

Graphics
Much like the Core 2 Duo E8400, the GeForce 8800 GT is a pretty straightforward choice for this system. With plenty of room in the budget, we’ve picked one of the Editor’s Choice award winners from our 16-card mid-range roundup: Zotac’s GeForce 8800 GT Amp! Edition. The Amp is “factory overclocked” to core and memory speeds of 700MHz and 1000MHz, respectively—well beyond the 8800 GT’s default 600MHz core and 900MHz memory clocks. Zotac outfits this card with an excellent single-slot cooler that we found makes less noise than many of its competitors.

Astute observers will no doubt point out that the GeForce 9600 GT is much cheaper than the 8800 GT and almost as fast in today’s games, and they’d be (mostly) right. However, the 9600 GT has only 64 shader processors to the 8800 GT’s 112, a disadvantage that could turn out to be a major hindrance with future titles. We don’t feel like cutting corners for this system, but if you think the 9600 GT is good enough for your needs, see our alternatives list on the next page.

Storage
Western Digital’s new 640GB Caviar SE16 hard drive is an ideal companion for a system in this price range. The drive offers excellent performance, very low noise levels, and an ample 640GB capacity at a tantalizing 20 cents per gigabyte. Samsung offers a 750GB SpinPoint F1 hard drive for only about $10 more, but there have been numerous reports of compatibility problems associated with the F1. The Caviar also offers more consistent performance across a wider range of applications, making it the better choice.

On the optical front, we’re sticking with the Samsung SH-S203B; it’s a decent DVD burner that should be a good match for this system.

Audio
Creative’s X-Fi XtremeGamer has been relieved of duty in the Grand Experiment, replaced by Asus’ Xonar DX. The Xonar is a much better all-around sound card, and its EAX 5.0 emulation capabilities largely blunt the one advantage X-Fi cards had for gamers.

Enclosure and power
Our recommended Antec Sonata III delivers everything we need for this system: a beefy 500W power supply with an 80% efficiency rating, a clean layout with sideways-mounted hard drive bays, and a host of noise reduction features, including a speed-adjustable, rubber-damped 120mm exhaust fan. This case even has an eSATA port on its front bezel, should you wish to plug in a speedy external hard drive.

The Sonata III may seem a little expensive for a $1,000 system, but it’s actually a pretty sweet deal. The bundled power supply is worth around $70 on its own, and you’d be hard pressed to find a stand-alone case with the same noise reduction features and finish for much less than $60.

Grand Experiment alternatives

As with our Econobox, we have a few alternative component suggestions for our mid-range build, should you wish to move the system up- or down-market a little.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 $279.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce 9600 GT $149.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500GB $99.99

Processor
The Core 2 Duo E8400’s exceptional single- and dual-threaded performance is fine for most users, but we recognize that some may prefer the greater parallelism provided by today’s quad-core processors. That’s why we’ve picked Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q9300 as our alternative processor recommendation. The Q9300 is a more expensive proposition than the Core 2 Quad Q6600, which also has four cores. However, the Q9300 has a higher clock speed and a 45nm Penryn core that offers improved clock-for-clock performance with lower power consumption. Those perks allow the Q9300 to largely keep up with the E8400 even in single-threaded tasks—a feat the Q6600 can’t match.

Graphics
As we mentioned earlier, Nvidia’s GeForce 9600 GT brings performance comparable to that of the GeForce 8800 GT for a lot less. A greater number of stream processors could allow the 8800 GT to scale more gracefully with future games, but if you don’t mind possibly having to pull the upgrade trigger a little earlier, the 9600 GT is an excellent alternative.

Storage
Seagate doesn’t yet make a 640GB hard drive that directly competes with the our primary Caviar SE16 recommendation, but you can save a few dollars by opting for a 500GB Barracuda 7200.11. The Barracuda will be slower and louder overall, but it does come with two more years of warranty coverage than the Caviar.

The Sweet Spot
Excess—with a healthy dose of prudence

The Grand Experiment is a solid system that should be able to handle a little bit of everything, but its specs aren’t exactly drool-inducing. For that, we have our high-end build, a machine that avoids hefty price premiums while packing enough hardware to make you the envy of the next LAN party.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q9300 $279.99
Motherboard Asus P5N-D $149.99
Memory Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $75.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce 8800 GT 512MB $229.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce 8800 GT 512MB $229.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $109.99
Samsung SH-S203B $26.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 $148.99
Enclosure Antec P182 $119.99
Total
$1461.90

Processor
The Sweet Spot gets a $1,500 budget, allowing us to splurge on a Core 2 Quad Q9300. Four 45nm Penryn cores clocked at 2.5GHz not only deliver exceptional performance with multithreaded workloads, but they’re also fast enough on their own to remain competitive in single-threaded tasks.

Motherboard
We mentioned a couple of pages back that we got rid of the Grand Experiment’s old SLI motherboard in favor of a more recent offering based on Intel’s P35 chipset. However, we actually have use for SLI in the Sweet Spot build, so we’ve opted for a newer SLI mobo based on Nvidia’s nForce 750i SLI chipset here. The Asus P5N-D has two second-generation PCI Express graphics slots capable of handling GeForce graphics cards running in tandem, with full support for 45nm quad-core processors in tow.

One area where this mobo is somewhat bare is in the storage department, where it delivers only four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports. Should you favor additional SATA ports over SLI support, you can either check out our AMD alternative on the next page or swap in the Grand Experiment’s Gigabyte EP35C-DS3R motherboard.

Memory
We’re going with the same 4GB Mushkin DDR2-800 kit we used in the Grand Experiment, largely because tricked-out modules rated for operation at higher speeds and tighter timings don’t deliver enough of a performance advantage to justify their higher prices. If you have extra cash to burn, you’ll see greater returns from upgrading other system components.

Again, you’ll want to run a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of 4GB of RAM. More detailed operating system analysis is available on the second-to-last page of the guide.

Graphics
This is where things get a little crazy. Yes, we’ve outfitted our $1,500 Sweet Spot system with a pair of GeForce 8800 GTs. Before you roll your eyes, consider the following: even with two GPUs, a quad-core processor, and an otherwise complete assortment of quality components (including a top-of-the-line 750W power supply), we’re still slightly under our grand-and-a-half budget.

What’s more, doubling up on 8800 GTs improves performance rather dramatically at higher resolutions in newer games. In Half-Life 2: Episode Two at 1920×1200 with 4X antialiasing and 16X anisotropic filtering, for instance, a single 8800 GT hits 48.1 frames per second, while two of ’em manage a much more comfortable 89.8 FPS. If you intend to play games on a relatively large monitor (and, if you have this much dough to spend on a PC, we hope you will), an 8800 GT SLI config will pay significant dividends.

Of course, there are downsides to SLI. The way Nvidia’s multi-GPU scheme handles multiple monitors leaves a lot to be desired, and two graphics cards take a good amount of room inside a PC. That said, our recent hardware survey tells us most TR readers only have one display, and our recommended graphics cards have single-slot coolers that should leave enough expansion slots free to not be an encumbrance.

If you’re not a serious gamer or can’t live with the trade-offs associated with SLI, feel free to grab only one of our recommended graphics cards for this system.

Storage
Western Digital’s Caviar SE16 640GB hard drive is as good a pick here as it was for the Grand Experiment. For additional storage options, check out our alternatives section on the next page.

We’re sticking with the Samsung SH-S203B here, since more expensive SATA DVD burners don’t have anything particularly worthwhile to offer.

Audio
Again, Asus’ Xonar DX replaces the X-Fi XtremeGamer that we used to recommend for this system. With fantastic sound quality, support for real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding, a PCI Express interface, and the ability to emulate the latest EAX effects, the Xonar is easily the best mid-range sound card on the market.

Power Supply
An all-in-one case and power supply bundle is great if you’re on a relatively tight budget, but The Sweet Spot has both a bigger budget and more power-hungry components, so discrete solutions make more sense here.

PC Power & Cooling’s Silencer 750 won an Editor’s Choice Award in our enthusiast power supply round-up, and its output capacity makes it a good companion for any quad-core, dual-GPU system. With a five-year warranty, remarkably low noise levels, very clean power delivery, efficiency that puts comparable offerings to shame, and dual 8-pin PCI Express power connectors, we believe the Silencer is a straightforward choice for the Sweet Spot.

Enclosure
Antec’s P182 case is a newer version of the P180, which we’ve recommended for previous incarnations of this build. The P182 has the same upside-down design, composite panels, adjustable-speed 120mm fans, and partitioned cooling zones as the P180. However, it improves greatly upon its predecessor’s biggest flaw: cable management. Unlike the P180, the P182 is designed to run cables behind the motherboard tray, helping to avoid tangled messes. And, of course, the case’s design and composite panels should enable prodigiously low noise levels given the Sweet Spot’s relatively quiet components.

Sweet Spot alternatives

As with the other configs, we have some additional suggestions for modifying our Sweet Spot spec.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition $235.00
Motherboard MSI K9A2 Platinum $154.99
Graphics
HIS Radeon HD 3850 $154.99
HIS Radeon HD 3850 $154.99
Storage
Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $109.99
Western Digital Caviar SE16 640GB $109.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $169.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $179.99
Sound Asus Xonar D2 $169.99

Processor
AMD’s Phenom processor manages to sneak into our Sweet Spot alternatives, although we’d probably still get the Core 2 Quad Q9300 (or the cheaper Core 2 Quad Q6600) for ourselves. Nevertheless, the Phenom X4 9850 Black Edition’s low price makes it a decent alternative to Intel’s quad-core CPUs, and its unlocked multiplier makes overclocking a snap. AMD’s OverDrive utility, which is compatible with our recommended 790FX-based motherboard, even lets you run Phenom’s four cores at different speeds via independent multipliers for each core.

Motherboard
MSI’s K9A2 Platinum is one of the cheapest motherboards based on AMD’s 790FX enthusiast chipset, and we’ve had a good experience with it in our labs. The 790FX chipset offers full support for PCI Express 2.0, HyperTransport 3.0, and all of the Phenom’s fancy power management features. This mobo’s two PCI Express x16 slots also makes it a good match for our alternative graphics recommendation. The K9A2 Platinum’s BIOS overclocking options aren’t as extensive as we’d prefer, but that doesn’t matter much so long as you’re using a CPU with an unlocked upper multiplier.

Graphics card
Much like the Phenom, these dual Radeon HD 3850s aren’t quite the best you can do in this price range. Still, they offer competitive performance and some features the competition lacks. One of the biggest difference between SLI and CrossFire is that the former forces users to disable auxiliary displays to run games, while AMD offers seamless multi-GPU support across two monitors. Dual Radeon HD 3850s will also outperform single-GPU offerings in the same price range.

We’ve picked this HIS Radeon HD 3850 model because it’s “factory overclocked” comfortably beyond stock specs and it has a relatively quiet dual-slot cooler that exhausts hot air from the case.

Storage
We have three storage suggestions in our alternatives list. The first isn’t so much a different product as a different configuration. Instead of spending all that money on dual graphics cards, we reckon some folks would rather invest in a pair hard drives for a RAID 1 array. RAID 1 can improve read performance, but more importantly, it offers a measure of redundancy, allowing a system to survive a single drive failure with no data loss. Having a real-time mirror of the contents of your system’s hard drive is a potentially huge time saver in the event of a drive failure, and at least two of TR’s editors run RAID 1 in their primary desktops.

Our second storage alternative is Western Digital’s 150GB Raptor. We don’t expect you to trade our recommended 640GB drive(s) for a speedier one that only has 150GB of capacity, but we do think the Raptor is a good complementary option. Thanks to its 10,000-RPM spindle speed, the Raptor provides the best performance with random I/O seek loads of any Serial ATA drive out today (at least until WD’s newly released VelociRaptor VR150 starts hitting stores), making it an ideal operating system and application drive. With 640GB and 150GB drives in one machine, you’ll enjoy the best of both worlds: high speed where needed with high capacity riding shotgun.

LG’s GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive wraps up our storage alternatives, combining Blu-ray reading and DVD burning capabilities at a fairly reasonable price (for a high-definition drive, anyway). The GGC-H20L has excellent reviews on Newegg, and now that Blu-ray has won the format war, we feel safe in recommending a high-definition drive.

Sound
Asus’ Xonar D2 is a nice step up from the Xonar DX for audiophiles with a little more cash to spend. Both cards use essentially the same audio chip, so they have similar capabilities. However, the D2 features higher quality DACs and ADCs, LED-backlit ports, and it comes with a truckload of extra cables. The D2 also has a standard PCI interface, but if you prefer PCI Express, you can opt for the D2X for $20 more.

The Double-Stuff Workstation
Perfect parallelism

As always, our Double-Stuff system includes some of the fastest components available, often paired up in an ode to parallelism, without squandering cash on unnecessary extras.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Xeon X3350 $343.99
Motherboard XFX nForce 780i SLI $259.99
Memory Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $75.99
Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $75.99
Graphics EVGA GeForce 9800 GTX $299.99
EVGA GeForce 9800 GTX $299.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar GP 1TB $199.99
Western Digital Caviar GP 1TB $199.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $169.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $169.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $179.99
Audio Asus Xonar D2 $169.99
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 $148.99
Enclosure CoolerMaster Cosmos 1000 $209.99
Total $2804.86

Processor
Because the Double-Stuff is ostensibly a workstation, we just had to opt for one of Intel’s server- and workstation-oriented Xeon processors.

Well, not exactly. For all intents and purposes, the Xeon X3350 is identical to the desktop-bound, 45nm Core 2 Quad Q9450. The only major difference is that the Xeon seems to be more widely available than the Core 2 Quad. Incidentally, server-class processors purportedly go through more strenuous quality testing than their desktop counterparts, so the Xeon may turn out to be a better overclocker. The price difference between these two CPUs is tiny, so for now, the Xeon gets our nod of approval for our workstation build.

Motherboard
We’re going with dual GeForce 9800 GTX graphics cards teamed up via SLI for this system, and that calls for an Nvidia-based motherboard. The nForce 780i SLI isn’t Nvidia’s flagship Core 2 chipset, but it is the latest one to support DDR2 memory. (The new nForce 790i SLI Ultra is actually a little faster than the 780i, but it only works with DDR3 memory, and we’re not willing to pay the associated price premium.) XFX’s 780i SLI mobo is a retail version of Nvidia’s reference motherboard design, complete with SLI compatibility, a very tweakable BIOS, and full support for both Nvidia’s nTune tweaking and monitoring software and the Enthusiast System Architecture (ESA) specification. There are plenty of other very nice high-end motherboards, including those based on Intel’s X48 and P35 chipsets, but this board’s mix of SLI support and tweakability makes it our choice for the Double-Stuff.

Memory
Memory is stupid cheap right now, so we’ve outfitted this machine with 8GB of DDR2-800 RAM (via two 4GB Mushkin kits). Our budget has more than enough room for it, and this selection ensures ample headroom for almost any task. We’re going with higher capacity here instead of faster DIMMs for the same reasons as in the Sweet Spot: low latencies don’t matter nearly as much as some would have you think, and DDR3 RAM is just not worth the ridiculous premium over DDR2 right now.

Naturally, you’ll want to install a 64-bit operating system in order to make full use of 8GB of RAM. See our operating system section a couple of pages ahead for details.

Graphics
A GeForce 9800 GTX SLI configuration is faster and quieter than Nvidia’s “single-card” dual-GPU GeForce 9800 GX2. You can even choose to slip in a third GeForce 9800 GTX and run an SLI threesome, although we’ve found that the performance returns for such a configuration aren’t quite worth the expense. We’ve selected 9800 GTX cards from EVGA because they’re among the cheapest on the market and they’re covered by a lifetime warranty.

Storage
Our storage recommendations cover a whopping 2.3TB of capacity split between two Western Digital Caviar GPs and two 10,000-RPM Raptors. These drives can be run in either RAID 0 or RAID 1 arrays (or a combination of the two) for improved performance or redundancy. RAID 0 may increase the chance of data loss without doing much for overall system performance, but it should still help in particularly storage-intensive tasks. If you’d like to improve both performance and redundancy, you can also assign four of either drive to a RAID 0+1 array.

The 1TB Caviar GPs we picked are slower than the latest 7200RPM drives, but they’re still solid performers, and they’re cheaper than competing 1TB offerings. Besides, speed isn’t too big an issue when you have two Raptors to house your operating system and applications. Do note that a pricier 1TB Caviar GP RE2 is available with a five-year warranty. See our review of that drive here.

On the optical drive front, we’ve upgraded this machine to the same LG Blu-ray drive we recommended in our Sweet Spot alternatives. This drive combines a Blu-ray reader and a DVD burner without breaking the bank.

Audio
As we’ve noted, the Xonar D2 gives you all sorts of extra goodies that don’t come with the less expensive DX model we recommended for our other systems. Gamers looking for native rather than emulated EAX effects may want to take a gander at our X-Fi-based alternative on the next page, though.

Power supply
PC Power & Cooling’s TR Editor’s Choice award-winning Silencer 750 power supply delivers some of the highest efficiencies we’ve seen to date along with five years of warranty coverage, a single 12V rail capable of delivering 720W of power, dual 8-pin PCI Express power connectors, and low noise levels. This PSU has everything it takes to handle our Double-Stuff Workstation’s many power-hungry components, and it should provide plenty of headroom for expansion, as well.

Enclosure
Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000 is another TR Editor’s Choice award winner. This case shares some design elements with the Antec P182 we featured in our Sweet Spot system, such as a flipped internal layout that houses the power supply at the bottom, but the Cosmos is bigger, badder, and more enthusiast-friendly. With four 120mm fans, there’s plenty of airflow, and the case is roomy enough to accommodate six hard drives, five 5.25″ drives, multi-GPU configurations, and internal liquid cooling systems. It’s also primed for quiet operation thanks to insulated side panels and low-speed fans. Hit our full review of the Cosmos for additional details on this case’s unique features and swanky design. If you’re looking to build a system with ESA-compliant components, you can get an ESA-certified Cosmos 1010 for an additional $40.

Workstation alternatives

We also have additional suggestions for our Double-Stuff build.

Component Item Price
Processor Core 2 Extreme QX9650 $1029.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-X48-DQ6 $279.99
Graphics Diamond Radeon HD 3870 X2 $399.99
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F1 1TB $219.99
Samsung SpinPoint F1 1TB $219.99
Sound Auzentech X-Fi Prelude $174.99

Processor
This is an expensive trade up, but there are tangible advantages to selecting the Core 2 Extreme QX9650. For one, this processor takes all four of its 45nm Penryn cores up to 3GHz, making it as fast as the Core 2 Duo E8400 in applications not designed to use more than two cores—and much, much faster in those that do. We were able to push our QX9650 up to a whopping 3.67GHz, suggesting this processor has healthy overclocking headroom. Your own mileage may vary, of course, but the QX9650 is definitely a substantial upgrade for those with deeper pockets.

Motherboard
Gigabyte’s GA-X48-DQ6 motherboard is based on Intel’s top-of-the-line X48 chipset, which supports second-generation PCI Express connectivity and 1600MHz front-side bus speeds. All the trimmings one would expect from a high-end motherboard are included, such as eight 300MB/s SATA ports with RAID support, dual GigE controllers, passive chipset and voltage circuitry cooling, digital audio outputs, Firewire, and eSATA connectivity. The DQ6’s BIOS is loaded with overclocking and tweaking options, too. We haven’t tried overclocking this particular model ourselves, but we managed to push its DDR3 twin, the X48T-DQ6, to a 500MHz front-side bus. The X48-DQ6’s near-identical, X38-based predecessor also had no problems running a 500MHz FSB in our labs. How’s that for consistency?

Graphics cards
Dual graphics cards are nice, but some folks don’t want to deal with compatibility hassles or the additional space required. Some may also want to use the aforementioned X48 board, which lacks support for Nvidia’s SLI multi-GPU scheme. For such users, AMD’s Radeon HD 3870 X2 is a decent alternative to our two GeForce 9800 GTXs. The X2 won’t be quite as fast, but its two RV670 graphics processors more than hold their own in the latest games at the highest resolutions. You can check out detailed performance numbers here. Even more importantly for a system of this caliber, AMD’s drivers allow the X2 to operate seamlessly with dual displays, with no need to enable or disable multi-GPU mode via the control panel. That’s a huge improvement over SLI, which clumsily requires manual switching from dual-GPU mode to multi-display mode.

Storage
The SpinPoint F1 1TB‘s apparent issues with nForce storage controllers shouldn’t faze our alternative configuration’s X48-based motherboard, so the Samsung drive gets the nod here. If you’re looking to maximize storage capacity without sacrificing noise levels or spindle speed, the F1 is your best bet. Thanks to its high-capacity 334GB platters, this drive delivers the fastest sequential transfer rates we’ve ever seen from a 7,200RPM hard drive.

Sound
The Xonar D2 is great for audiophiles, but the Auzentech X-Fi Prelude has a few extras for gamers and multimedia enthusiasts with equally deep pockets. Auzentech has combined a Creative X-Fi chip, which offers hardware acceleration for positional audio and native EAX Advanced HD 5.0 support, with the audio quality and features one might expect from high-end sound card. What’s more, the Prelude’s ability to encode Dolby Digital Live streams in real time is unique among X-Fi cards. The Prelude earned a TR Recommended award when we reviewed it, too.

The Couch Potato Mk. 2
Living-room computing strikes back

Many moons have passed since we first featured a home theater PC in our system guide. Because of continued requests from readers, we’ve decided to put together another one, combining the latest entry-level hardware and some mean high-definition video input, processing, and output capabilities.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon X2 4450e $79.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H $99.99
Memory 2GB Kingston DDR2-800 $38.99
Graphics Integrated (Radeon HD 3200) $0
TV Tuner AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe $109.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar GP 750GB $129.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $179.99
Audio Integrated (Realtek ALC889A) $0
Networking Encore ENLWI-N 802.11n $29.99
Power supply Seasonic S12 II 380W $72.99
Enclosure SilverStone LC17-B $119.99
CPU cooler Zalman CNPS9500 AM2 $43.99
OS Windows Vista Home Premium OEM (32-bit) $109.99
Peripherals
Logitech Cordless RumblePad 2 $29.99
Microsoft Remote Keyboard $69.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $1085.87

Processor
Integrated graphics chipsets are perfect for home theater systems, and AMD’s 780G is the best in the business. This knocks Intel’s Core 2 CPUs out of the running, so we’ve selected an Athlon X2 4450e processor for the Couch Potato. This CPU’s modest 45W power envelope should help keep our system quiet, and we think its two 2.3GHz cores will be more than enough for typical home theater PC duties, such as media encoding and light gaming.

Motherboard
As we just pointed out, the AMD 780G is an excellent proposition for a living room system. This chipset couples a very capable integrated graphics processor, which includes high-definition video decoding functionality, with HDMI output and a very reasonable price tag. Our recommended Gigabyte GA-MA78GM-S2H motherboard is the very same one we featured in our Econobox alternatives a few pages back; we have first-hand experience with this board, and it’s a fantastic value.

Memory
We’ve transplanted our RAM choice from the Econobox into this system, as well. 2GB of RAM is just right for an entry-level PC these days, and Kingston is a reputed manufacturer that offers lifetime warranty coverage.

TV tuner
We don’t typically review TV tuners, so our experience with them is limited. However, AVerMedia’s AVerTV Combo PCIe looks to us like a very well-rounded choice for the reborn Couch Potato. If the largely positive user reviews on Newegg aren’t enough to convince you, a glance through the specifications may do so. The AVerTV Combo has a PCI Express x1 interface, inputs for both analog and digital TV, support for ATSC and Clear QAM high-definition digital TV standards, and a hardware MPEG encoder with 3D comb and ghost reduction filters. On top of that, the tuner is certified for Windows Vista x86 and x64. In fact, it comes with a Vista Media Center-ready remote control whose black casing should nicely match the rest of this system.

Storage
Thanks to its low power draw and even lower noise levels, the 750GB version of Western Digital’s Caviar GP hard drive is ideal for a living-room machine. An affordable price tag is a definite plus, too.

On the optical drive front, we’ve splurged a little and opted for the same LG Blu-ray combo drive we included in our Sweet Spot alternatives and Double-Stuff Workstation. We figure you’ll want to watch movies on this thing, and with Blu-ray the sole survivor of the high-definition format wars, having a compatible drive strikes us as a good idea.

Networking
Nobody wants to run ugly CAT5 cables through their living room, so the Couch Potato Mk. 2 needs Wi-Fi. For that purpose, Encore’s ENLWI-N 802.11n network card looks like a good pick. 802.11n should deliver zippy file transfers if you have a compatible network, and this card’s overwhelmingly positive user reviews—far more positive than those for pricier offerings—suggest it’s a solid product.

Power Supply
Considering all the low-power components we’ve chosen, this system doesn’t exactly require a kilowatt PSU. 380W should be more than adequate, especially if delivered by a Seasonic S12 II power supply rated for up to 85% efficiency. The S12’s single, whisper-quiet 120mm fan is perfect for the living room, too.

Enclosure
SilverStone’s LC17-B is actually the same case we picked for our original HTPC build. Well, almost the same, since this version is black rather than silver. Still, the black model has the same perks as its silver cousin, including dual 80mm exhaust fans, two 5.25″ optical drive bays, and a cooling vent next to the processor area. Scott Wasson, our Editor in Chief, uses this case for his own living-room PC, and he can attest to its quality.

Processor cooling
Stock coolers are a little too loud for a living room system, and it’s tough to come up with a better low-noise alternative than Zalman’s CNPS9500 AM2. Thanks to its large surface area and 92mm fan, this cooler combines extremely low noise levels with good cooling performance.

Operating system
Windows Vista Home Premium is a logical choice for an HTPC because it’s affordable and comes with Microsoft’s Windows Media Center software. The OEM version of this operating system gets the nod here, even though licensing forbids you to move the OS over to a different PC (as far as we can tell, anyway). Going OEM saves around $100, and we don’t think you’ll be running around changing HTPCs every two years.

Peripherals
Our selection here includes Microsoft’s wireless Remote Keyboard, which doubles as a remote and includes a nipple mouse TrackPoint-style pointing device, as well as Logitech’s Cordless RumblePad 2 for your gaming needs.

The Couch Potato Mk. 2 Alternatives

Our main Couch Potato Mk. 2 configuration is fairly complete, but we have a few alternative recommendations for users who may have slightly different desires.

Component Item Price
Graphics Palit GeForce 9600 GT Sonic $179.99
Storage
Western Digital Caviar GP 750GB $129.99
Western Digital Caviar GP 750GB $129.99
Sound Asus Xonar D2 $169.99

Graphics card
The 780G’s integrated Radeon HD 3200 is good enough for light gaming and high-definition video decoding. However, if you intend to do more serious gaming on this PC, Palit’s GeForce 9600 GT Sonic will serve you better. This card is admittedly quite expensive as far as GeForce 9600 GTs go, but it has a quiet dual-slot cooler, an HDMI port, and an external optical S/PDIF input for digital audio pass-through. Palit has “factory overclocked” this particular model quite extensively, so it should perform better than a regular 9600 GT.

Storage
Like with the Sweet Spot alternatives, we’re recommending two hard drives instead of one here. Digital video content takes up a lot of space, but the 1.5TB of storage capacity provided by a pair of 750GB Western Digital Caviar GPs should help ensure you don’t run out.

Sound
The Asus Xonar D2 makes a comeback in our alternatives list here, mainly because we don’t have enough spare PCI Express slots for the less expensive DX model. Our recommended motherboard’s integrated audio should be adequate if you’re hooking into a receiver over a digital S/PDIF connection, but if you’re running analog, the Xonar will deliver much better sound quality than the motherboard.

The operating system
Which Vista is right for you?

With the advent of Windows Vista, we’ve decided to put our operating system section on a separate page. Microsoft’s new operating system comes in an even greater number of flavors than Windows XP, and we couldn’t really explain all those choices in a handful of paragraphs.

Before we begin, some of you may be wondering whether Vista is really worth it in the first place. After all, Windows XP still works, and from a distance, Vista looks like little more than a prettied-up version of the same old operating system. Appearances can be deceiving, however, and Windows Vista really is more than Windows XP with a new user interface. Microsoft has overhauled the OS’s kernel with an emphasis on security, stability, power management, and performance. Because of those changes, Vista makes it much more difficult for malicious software or poorly-crafted drivers to wreak havoc on the operating system. Vista’s built-in Windows Defender application and User Account Control mechanism both work to prevent malware and spyware infections. (Although we’ve found UAC to be a little annoying in practice, the extra hassle may be worth the peace of mind given the severity of the spyware/malware phenomenon.) Also, most device drivers no longer run at the kernel level, so if they crash, the effects should be no worse than if any random application were to take a dive.

Along with superior stability and security, Vista boasts system-wide instant search, a new networking stack, a new audio architecture with per-application volume control, and DirectX 10. If you want to take full advantage of a shiny new GeForce 8800 graphics card in DX10 games like Crytek’s Crysis, then you’ll want Vista. Really, the folks at Microsoft haven’t been sitting around twiddling their thumbs in the five years since Windows XP’s release, and if you’re building a new PC now, Vista looks like the way to go.

Which edition?
So if Vista is the right OS, which version should you get? To make things simple, here’s a chart that lists the four retail Vista editions and the major features they include for desktop systems:

As you can see, Windows Vista Home Basic is stripped to the bone and doesn’t come with any of the goodies the more expensive editions offer. Since it costs just $30 less than Vista Home Premium, we think it’s a pretty poor deal. Besides, this edition lacks the Aero graphical user interface, and Vista just isn’t Vista without shiny transparent windows and live thumbnails.

With the pricier Home Premium version of Vista, Microsoft has essentially produced a successor to Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 that’s intended to be more of a jack-of-all-trades for home desktops than an OS aimed squarely at home theater PCs. Home Premium includes Microsoft’s Windows Media Center software, which rolls PVR and media playback functionality into an attractive GUI optimized for display on a television. That media-centric functionality is bolstered by Windows Media Extender, which allows you to access movies and music stored on your PC via compatible Media Center Extenders like set-top boxes and even the Xbox 360. You also get backup scheduling tools, as well as software to burn your own DVDs and make high-definition movies. This version of Vista would get our vote if it weren’t for the lack of Remote Desktop Connection (RDC) software.

RDC allows you to connect to your home PC remotely, and it’s not included in Vista Home Premium. Several of TR’s editors use RDC extensively in order to control their main PCs from their laptop computers. Thanks to RDC, there’s no need to install every last program on a mobile computer or to sync all data between one’s desktop and laptop systems. This is a great option, whether on the road or from the couch, so it’s not a capability we’d write off lightly.

Your least expensive option with RDC support is Vista Business. As its name implies, this version of Vista is designed mainly for professional users. Vista Business lacks media center functionality, but makes up for it with industrial-strength backup and networking tools. If you couldn’t care less about turning your PC into an entertainment center, coughing up the extra $40 for Windows Vista Business is probably your best bet.

Last, but certainly not least, there’s Vista Ultimate. Fragmented features sets may save you some cash, but there are some who just want it all. This edition contains all the features from the Home Premium and Business versions plus BitLocker, a real-time hard drive encryption tool that helps keep your data safe from prying eyes. Unless you really need everything in one package or regularly blow your nose with $100 bills, though, the cheaper Home Premium and Business editions are probably more sensible choices.

32-bit or 64-bit?
The x64 version of Windows XP was somewhat of a dead end because of limited third-party support, but all retail editions of Windows Vista offer a license for one installation of the OS in either 32-bit or 64-bit form. (You’ll probably need to hit Microsoft’s website and cough up a $10 fee to get the actual 64-bit installation disc, though.) You therefore have the option of installing whichever version you please, and most companies releasing Vista drivers have done so in both 32-bit and 64-bit formats. Since all of the processors we recommend in this guide are 64-bit capable, and most of the systems have 4GB of memory or more, the 64-bit version of Windows Vista is the most sensible choice. (For some background on what makes 64-bit computing different at a hardware level, have a look at our take on the subject.)

Vista x64 also offers some security features the 32-bit version lacks. According to this article by Paul Thurrott, Vista x64 should “virtually eliminate” remote system attacks, prevent malicious software from patching the operating system kernel, and support the security features inside AMD’s and Intel’s latest processors at the hardware level.

There are some caveats, though.

For one, Vista x64 presents some device driver challenges. Older 32-bit drivers won’t work on this OS, so your hardware will either need to be supported by Vista’s built-in set of drivers or the device manufacturer will have to offer 64-bit Vista drivers. Most of the core system components we’ve recommended already have 64-bit Vista drivers, but if you’re carrying over peripherals like printers and scanners, you’ll want to look into drivers for them. Also, Vista x64 requires all drivers to be signed. Since bad drivers are frequently the culprit in an unstable system, this requirement makes sense in environments where stability is crucial. It’s not so great, though, if you’re the type to run user-customized graphics drivers or the like. Another compatibility snag comes from Vista x64’s lack of support for 16-bit software, which will matter to those folks who are attached to a really old application for some reason.

Despite these little downsides, we think most enthusiasts will want to go with the x64 version. As we’ve already explained, 32-bit flavors of Windows only support up to 4GB of RAM, and that upper limit covers things like video memory. In practice, that means that your 32-bit OS will only be able to use 3-3.5GB of system RAM on average and even less than 3GB if you have more than one discrete GPU. With both Vista and newer games pushing the envelope in terms of memory use, the 4GB limit can get a little uncomfortable for an enthusiast PC.

On top of that, Vista x64 has matured substantially since its release over a year ago, as has third-party software and driver support. Unless you have a good reason to stick with a 32-bit OS, we think Vista’s x64 higher memory support ceiling and security/stability improvements will serve you better. Besides, with a retail-boxed copy of Windows Vista, you can always scrap your installation and load up the 32-bit version if you run into any major problems.

OEM or retail?
Just like Windows XP, Vista is offered in both OEM and retail versions. The retail versions are intended for consumers, while the OEM versions are officially intended for use by PC system builders. You can get a nice discount by going with an OEM version of Windows, but you’ll be making some compromises in the process.

For one, the retail versions of Vista ship with both 32-bit (x86) and 64-bit (x64) edition DVDs in the box, but the OEM versions require one to choose up front, because they come with only one of the two.

Additionally, Microsoft has stated that its licensing terms won’t stop enthusiasts who run retail versions of Windows Vista from changing major hardware components regularly or from transferring the OS installation to another PC. However, OEM versions are technically tied to the first systems on which they’re installed, and Microsoft may choose to enforce that limitation via its software activation scheme at any time. If all of this sounds confusing to you, that’s because it is. For more on Vista OEM and upgrade licensing issues, see our article on the subject. The bottom line here is that you’re taking a risk when buying an OEM version of Vista, and it may come back to bite you if Microsoft invalidates your software license after a hardware upgrade. If you’re likely to upgrade your PC before Microsoft releases the next version of Windows, you should probably get a retail copy of Vista. Then again, we don’t yet know how strictly Microsoft will enforce the OEM transfer limits. The gamble could pay off.

If you do choose to gamble on the OEM version of Vista, you will be saving some money up front. Here’s how the OEM and retail pricing compare.

Vista Home Basic

Vista Home Premium

Vista Business

Vista Ultimate

OEM price (32-bit) $89.99 $109.99 $139.99 $169.99
OEM price (64-bit) $89.99 $109.99 $139.99 $189.99
Retail price $189.99 $222.99 $278.99 $289.99

We aren’t keen on paying Microsoft’s retail prices when OEM versions are this much more affordable, but we dislike the limitations that the OEM versions of Vista impose, so our nod goes provisionally to retail. If you’ve already decided the 32-bit versus 64-bit question and you’re willing to risk it, though, the OEM discount might be worth taking.

Peripherals, accessories, and extras
Matters of religion and taste

Now that we’ve examined operating system choices in detail, let’s have a look at some accessories, such as displays and peripherals. We don’t have a full set of recommendations at multiple price levels in each of these categories, but we can make some general observations and point out a few specific products that are worthy of your consideration. What you ultimately choose in these areas will probably depend heavily your own personal preferences.

Displays
The world of monitors has enough scope and variety that we can’t keep track of it all, especially because we don’t often review monitors. However, we do appreciate a good display—or two or three of them, since several of us are multi-monitor fanatics—so we can offer a few pieces of advice.

Let’s get one thing clear before we begin: LCDs have long since supplanted CRTs as the display type of choice for gamers and enthusiasts. LCDs might have been small and of insufficient quality for gaming and photo editing six or seven years ago, but the latest models have huge panels, lightning quick response times, and impressive color definition. Unless you’re already content with a massive, power-guzzling CRT, there’s hardly any reason to go with anything else these days.

However, despite their universal sharpness and pretty colors, not all LCDs are created equal. Besides obvious differences in sizes and aspect ratios, LCDs have different panel types. Wikipedia has a good run-down of different kinds of LCD panels in this article, but most folks will only be bothered by one differentiating attribute: color bitness. Most cheaper monitors with crazy low response times have 6-bit panels, which only have 18-bit color definition instead of 24-bit. Those panels use dithering to simulate colors that are out of their scope, yielding sub-optimal color accuracy. Panels with 8-bit colors look better, but their response times are often a little higher. Unfortunately, few monitor vendors advertise their monitor’s color bitness, so you’ll want to hunt for specifications in manuals and third-party sites to see what you can learn about a display’s bit depth before buying. If the manufacturer advertises the display as capable of showing 16.7 million colors, it should be an 8-bit panel.

With that in mind, let’s have a look at some popular monitors. Many users have taken a liking to wide-screen LCDs, which offer a more cinematic experience with movies or games and in practice tend to feel roomier than their squarer siblings. Many are also fond of Dell’s UltraSharp LCD monitors, which are generally offered at attractive prices with rebates thrown in every now and then.

One of the most popular wide-screen Dell LCDs out there is the 8-bit, 20.1″ UltraSharp 2007WFP, although Dell may be slowly replacing it with a 6-bit model known as the UltraSharp 2009W. Both models have 20.1″ panels with 1680 x 1050 resolutions, but the 2009W has a higher contrast ratio and a lower response time, while the 2007WFP should have better color reproduction. We’re personally fans of the UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC, which costs considerably more ($1,199) but delivers a stunning 30″, 2560 x 1600 panel with 12ms response and 1000:1 contrast. The Dell isn’t the only 30″, four-megapixel monster out there (HP’s LP3065 is another one, and it has more DVI inputs than the Dell), but the Dell is one of the best priced.

Keyboards and mice
In order to beef up our mouse and keyboard recs, we recently started trying out some different mice and keyboards around here. As part of that effort, we outfitted the latest iteration of the Kitchen PC with the Logitech Cordless Desktop LX710 Laser keyboard and mouse combo. The keyboard won praise for its sturdy feel, medium key travel distance, and soft but accurate positive feedback. However, we found that the goofy auxiliary buttons on the edges of the keyboard were way too easy to bump inadvertently—not the best placement. We had a split over the included wireless laser mouse. Its tilt scroll wheel and laser sensor were excellent, all agreed. But Scott found the mouse’s shape to be too narrow to grip comfortably, while it fit his wife’s smaller hands much better than her previous Logitech MX500.

Scott also tried out the corded version of the same mouse, the LX3 Optical. Predictably, he found it to be too narrow for his average-sized-guy hands, though he did appreciate the fact that the shape is ambidextrous.

A new entrant from Microsoft, the Natural Mouse 6000, also caught Scott’s eye. The shape is unconventionally “tall,” and places one’s hand at a very different angle than other mice, which makes it very comfortable and a nice ergonomic variation from the norm. This mouse is cordless and has lasers, too, so it’s a veritable killing machine. The only downside is that it’s decidedly right-handed, so lefties need not apply.

As TR’s resident Neanderthal, Geoff tends to have a different opinion on input peripherals than some of our other staffers. His hands are like giant paddles—large palms with short, stubby fingers—so getting peripherals that feel right can be a challenge. He’s one of probably only a, er, handful of people who actually prefers the original Xbox’s bear-sized controller to the smaller “S” unit that eventually replaced it.

For years, Geoff has found Microsoft’s mice to be the most comfortable under massive palms. Their shape just works for him, and the Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is no exception. There’s more to the mouse than just its shape, though. The 6000 has all-important horizontal scrolling for those with massive Excel spreadsheets, and the wheel’s vertical scrolling is silky smooth. That almost lubricated smoothness is great for web pages and zooming, but the lack of tactile “clicks” does make it less suitable for gamers looking to scroll precisely through available weapons. Wireless mice tend not to be the most responsive options for gamers, either, although the 6000 is plenty precise for age-impaired reflexes.

The Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is often bundled with Microsoft’s Comfort Curve keyboards, and the combo’s usually pretty cheap. We like the idea behind the Comfort Curve, too: just enough shape to allow your hands to sit at a more comfortable angle while typing without completely separating the keyboard into a “natural” design that feels anything but. Unfortunately, the Comfort Curve isn’t the sturdiest keyboard we’ve used; the keys have a little too much play for those who prefer a more solid feel, and you certainly don’t get much in the way of clickety clack. But there are plenty of extra buttons, including a few programmable ones, and Geoff’s been using one for a while now with few complaints.

Of course, both Microsoft and Logitech have a host of laser optical mice available at relatively low prices, so you can pick one to suit your tastes. Logitech’s MX Revolution and G5 are popular choices for gamers. The Logitech MX Revolution is a wireless model with a high-precision laser optical engine, two scroll wheels, and charging cradle. The Revolution is plenty responsive, but hard-core gamers may nonetheless prefer its wired cousin, the Logitech G5. The G5 sports a similar design but uses a good old-fashioned mouse cord, and it features adjustable weighted cartridges.

Incidentally, if you’re buying a mouse to play games, you might want to have a look at the following article on ESReality. Old-school Quake star Sujoy Roy has fashioned a benchmarking system for mice, and his resulting analysis should give you a good idea of which mouse is likely to get you the most kills in fast-paced action shooters.

There are at least two major schools of thought on keyboards. Some users will prefer the latest and fanciest offerings from Logitech and Microsoft, with their smorgasbord of media keys, sliders, knobs, scroll wheels, and even built-in LCD displays. Other users like their keyboards loud, clicky, and heavy enough to beat a man to death with. If you’re one of the old-school types, you may want to try a Unicomp Customizer 101/104 or an original vintage-dated IBM Model M. Fifty bucks is a lot to put down for a keyboard, but these beasts can easily last a couple of decades.

Floppy drive/card reader combo
Since the advent of cheap USB drive keys and broadband Internet access, floppy drives have essentially been rendered obsolete. They can still come in handy in a few instances, though, like when you’re installing Windows to a system with an unsupported Serial ATA controller. You could just spend $10 on a run-of-the-mill internal floppy drive, but we prefer to opt for a floppy/multi-flash-card reader combo like this Koutech model instead. You’re still getting a floppy drive, but the added flash card reading functionality will probably prove more useful over the long run, and it only ups the price another $10.

Cooling
We’re recommending retail processors in all of our configs because they come with longer warranties. Those CPUs also come bundled with stock cooling units that, these days, are usually reasonably good in terms of cooling capability and noise levels. However, if you want to have an even quieter system or to buy yourself a bit of overclocking headroom (or both), you may want to look into an aftermarket CPU cooler. Our slam-dunk favorite is Zalman’s CNPS9500 AT (and the CNPS9500 AM2 for AMD Socket AM2 processors.) As we noted in our review, the CNPS9500 offers excellent cooling performance and is whisper-quiet at its lowest fan setting. This cooler is a particularly good match for our Sweet Spot system, whose Antec P182 case can provide a stunningly quiet computing experience when paired with the right processor and graphics card cooling.

Conclusions
Here we are again, left to reflect on the many thousands of dollars in hardware painstakingly spread across five system configurations. Perhaps the most striking change this time around has been the Sweet Spot system’s foray into the world of dual-GPU configurations. SLI is all too often written off as a gimmick, but given current prices and the performance of high-end single-card solutions, it’s tough to beat a pair of GeForce 8800 GTs. This latest guide has also seen quad-core processors trickle down to our Sweet Spot build, and Asus’ Xonar DX has all but taken over our sound card recommendations.

But is this really a good time to buy a new PC? Will some shiny new product just over the horizon make you regret pulling the trigger now? Based on our knowledge of public hardware roadmaps (and unofficial ones that have leaked onto rumor sites), we don’t believe so. Some new high-end graphics cards may come in the summer, but it’s too early to get a good read on when they’ll arrive and how potent they may be. Intel’s next-gen Nehalem processors and AMD’s 45nm Phenoms aren’t expected until the fourth quarter of the year, so all appears quiet on the processor front. After months of seemingly non-stop product launches, we could use a bit of a lull.

As always, feel free to take a stroll down to the System Builders Anonymous section of our forums if you’re in need of further assistance. That forum is teeming with users asking for help with either building new machines or upgrading old ones, so you’ll find plenty of company—and assistance—if you’re not feeling particularly confident about a new build.

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