Say what you will about the recession and the global economy, but we’ve seen some absolute bargains in the PC hardware market these past few monthsand that trend only seems to be accelerating.
A large part of that has to do with competition. AMD’s new Phenom II processors are on equal footing with Intel’s mid-range offerings, which has led to bargains in that part of the market. On the GPU front, Nvidia and AMD are engaged in an aggressive tug of war with practically equivalent products and successive waves of price cuts. On top of that, shrunken global demand and oversupply have caused memory prices to plummet.
The result of this perfect storm is visible in our Utility Player system, which we’ve managed to bring under $700, despite including a fast triple-core Phenom II, a GeForce GTX 260 reloaded, four gigs of RAM, and an accompaniment of quality parts. That’s as good a gaming system as most folks need right now. For those who want a little extra, our base Core i7 config is now cheaper than ever at just over $1,300, partly thanks to sub-$100 6GB DDR3-1600 memory kits.
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 generally 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, $800 and $1200 budgets for our three cheapest 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.
Because speed doesn’t have to cost a fortune
Instead of being the cheapest possible combination of parts, the Econobox fills in as our affordable gaming and general-use system. You won’t find too many fancy extras here, but we’ve tried to select a balanced mix of peppy, reliable components with headroom for future upgrades.
|Processor||Intel Pentium E5200||$69.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800||$43.99|
|Graphics||PowerColor Radeon HD 4850 512MB||$114.99|
|Storage||Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB||$74.99|
|Enclosure||Antec NSK 4480B w/380W PSU||$69.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$502.93|
Intel’s 45nm Pentium E5200 is enjoying its fourth term in our Econobox configuration. Yes, AMD has become competitive again thanks to the Phenom II line, but it doesn’t offer any new or exciting processors for less than $100. For the most part, AMD’s just selling the same old 65nm Athlon X2s from its glory days. There’s the Phenom-derived Athlon X2 7750, too, but that chip’s 95W power envelope is needlessly high for a dual-core offeringand it probably doesn’t help with overclocking.
All things considered, we don’t think AMD delivers a budget processor with as good a mix of price, power efficiency, performance, and overclocking potential as the Pentium E5200. If really want to give AMD your money (or you’re just after something a little faster), then we suggest looking into our triple-core Phenom II alternative on the next page.
Finally, you might wonder why we’re not going with a faster 45nm Pentium like the E5300 or E5400. That’s certainly a possibility, but those CPUs cost more and have little to offer over the E5200 aside from relatively small clock speed increases. The E5200 still has a pair of speedy 45nm Wolfdale cores, and any minor differences ought to vanish once you start overclocking.
P45 motherboards are pretty cheap nowadays, so there’s no sense in not outfitting the Econobox with something like Gigabyte’s GA-EP45-UD3LR. This board has much in common with the Asus P5Q SE Plus we recommended last time, but it has a few little extra perks: more USB ports at the back, more (and better-positioned) PCI Express x1 slots, a coaxial S/PDIF port, and full chipset RAID capabilities. Considering the Gigabyte is only $6 more, we think it’s a better all-around choice.
RAM prices have gotten to a point where we really have no qualms about outfitting even a budget setup with 4GB of memory. Stepping down to 2GB would save about 20 bucks, and unless you were to throw this system out after a few months, chances are you’d need to upgrade eventually anyway. We’re going with this Kingston kit again because it’s one of the cheapest big-name-brand offerings available from Newegg with a lifetime warranty and decent latency ratings.
By the way, you’ll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of all this memory. 32-bit OS’s do have enough address space for 4GB of RAM, but that figure is an upper limit for all memory in a system, including video RAM. In practice, that means 32-bit versions of Windows will only let you use 3 to 3.5GB of actual system memoryand they’ll normally restrict each application’s RAM budget to 2GB.
Workarounds do exist for 32-bit Windows, but Microsoft says they can hurt compatibility; it advises that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. Since Vista x64 is more than mature enough these days, you might as well run that. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.
If you’re wondering why the Econobox costs a tad more than last time, this is the reason. A Radeon HD 4850 used to set you back around $150 until a few weeks ago, but at $115, it’s now a perfect fit for the Econobox. Our latest round of mainstream GPU benchmarks shows that the 4850 has enough brawn to run games like Far Cry 2 at 1680×1050 with antialiasing enabled. Some titles, like Left 4 Dead, are even playable at 2560×1600 with 4X AA.
The PowerColor Radeon HD 4850 we chose doesn’t have any noteworthy attributes (aside, perhaps, from the presence of DisplayPort, HDMI, and DVI ports on its I/O plate), but it’s the cheapest at Neweggby far. Customer reviews look positive overall, as well.
Western Digital’s 640GB hard drives are all priced in the $70-80 range. While the Caviar Black sits in the upper part of that spectrum, we think it’s the best choice for a system drive. Not only does it have a 32MB cache, a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, and the same noise level ratings as the slower SE16 model, but WD also covers it with a five-year warranty. As far as we know, no competing 640GB hard drive has specifications quite as good or warranty coverage quite as long. (Seagate no longer covers bare drives for five years.)
For our optical storage option, Samsung’s SH-S223Q still fits in just fine here. The Serial ATA interface should make it reasonably future-proof, and we like the combination of positive user reviews and low pricing.
Enclosure and power
Antec’s NSK 4480B case and power supply bundle remains our enclosure of choice for the Econobox. This bundle has everything the Econobox needs: a quality, high-efficiency power supply that provides a little upgrade headroom; a roomy case with good cooling; and a reasonable price tag.
You might find cheaper cases out there, but we don’t think you’ll be able to save a whole lot by going with lower-quality components. Besides, bargain-bin power supplies generally have inflated specifications. A cheap PSU can also jeopardize system stability, damage sensitive components over time, and potentially even flame out in spectacular fashiontaking system components with it in the process.
We’re happy with our primary selections, but not everybody will want an Intel processor or discrete graphics. Since users’ needs will invariably, er, vary, we’ve gathered a list of alternatives and extras below.
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition||$134.99|
|Graphics||XFX GeForce GTS 250 1GB||$144.99|
Athlon X2s may not be particularly interesting alternatives to Intel’s cheap duallies, but the Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition isn’t that expensive a step up, eitherand it’s an altogether different class of product capable of much stronger performance. Heck, we’d even pick the 720 over Intel’s $165 Core 2 Duo E8400 for general desktop use. The Phenom offers a similar level of performance in many single-threaded apps, but it can zoom past the E8400 in multi-threaded tasks thanks to its extra core. Also, the Phenom’s unlocked multiplier makes it easier to overclock.
We have a budget to think about, so we’re recommending a motherboard with integrated graphics to complement the triple-core Phenom. We view this combo as an alternative to the Pentium, P45, and discrete graphics trifecta. That trifecta better suits shoppers who care about gaming and GPU performance. If you don’t need particularly powerful graphics, we think you’ll be better off spending the same amount of cash on a system with a CPU that has more and faster cores.
The main job of our chosen Gigabyte GA-MA780G-UD3H is to accommodate the Phenom II X3 720. However, this board also happens to feature AMD’s very capable Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics processor, which can still handle casual games and high-definition video playback. That’s about all the graphics horsepower many folks will need from a $500 PC.
Naturally, some readers may want more GPU power than what our default configuration offersnot less. XFX’s GeForce GTS 250 1GB should serve those users well, because its 1GB of memory and high clock speeds enable it to produce smooth frame rates at higher resolutions (and with more eye candy) than the Radeon HD 4850. Variants of the 4850 with a gig of RAM do exist, mind you, but they’re not quite as fast or as cheap. This XFX card has a double lifetime warranty and a free copy of Call of Duty: World at War thrown in, so there’s little not to like.
The Utility Player
Value without major compromises
Our Utility Player build packs a fast triple-core processor, one of the speediest single-GPU graphics cards out there, and some nice extrasall for just under $700. As affordable as this system is, it should be an excellent choice for playing the latest wave of PC games.
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition||$134.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800||$43.99|
|Graphics||BFG GeForce GTX 260 reloaded||$178.99|
|Storage||Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB||$74.99|
|Enclosure||Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU||$119.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$688.93|
As we pointed out on the previous pageand in our reviewthe Phenom II X3 720 exhibits a unique combination of good single-threaded performance (thanks to its high core clock speed), good multi-threaded performance (thanks to its third core), and easy-as-pie overclocking (thanks to its unlocked upper multiplier). That means it’s competitive with the pricier Core 2 Duo E8400 in single-threaded apps, but it’s generally quite a bit faster in both multi-threaded apps and multi-tasking scenarios. This Phenom looks to be a nice little overclocker, too: we managed to get ours to 3.5GHz with a modest voltage boost.
Going with an AMD platform at this stage also presents other advantages. Intel’s future mainstream dual- and quad-core processors based on the Core i7 architecture will use a new, yet-unreleased socket, leaving LGA775 with little to no upgrade path. By contrast, all AMD Socket AM3 processors that come out through 2010 should be compatible with AM2+ mobos like the one we’ve chosen here.
If you’d rather step up to a Phenom II X4 (or an Intel quad-core), see our alternatives section on the next page.
Gigabyte’s GA-MA790X-UD4P has almost everything you’d want for a build like the Utility Player: two physical PCI Express x16 slots with CrossFire support, eight Serial ATA ports with RAID support, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire, and integrated audio with Dolby Home Theater certification. It’s surprisingly cheap, too, so we really have no incentive to find something more stripped-down.
Since Kingston has some of the cheapest memory kits available on Newegg right now, we keep going back to it. The firm’s 4GB DDR2-800 kit costs less than $50, which we think is a steal for four gigs of speedy DDR2 RAM from a reputable company that offers lifetime warranty coverage. With Windows Vista and most newer games guzzling as much memory as they can get, 4GB of RAM is by no means over-indulgent, either.
Here again, you’ll want to run a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of four gigs of RAM. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page for more.
In our last guide, the $1300 Sweeter Spot was our cheapest build to feature a GeForce GTX 260 “reloaded” by default. Today, price cuts have made the same type of card fair game for our $700 Utility Player. This BFG GeForce GTX 260 even has a higher-than-normal core clock speed (590MHz) and a lifetime warranty, despite its rock-bottom price tag.
We’d rather not make sweeping statements about what’s “good enough” for gaming today, but… well, the GeForce GTX 260 reloaded ought to be pretty close to that ceiling for most folks. This is a card that can run Crysis Warhead at 1920×1200 using the second-highest graphics preset, and it should have no trouble handling other titles at that resolution with 4X antialiasing. To top that off, more expensive single-GPU offerings typically aren’t that much fasterin many cases, you’ll simply need two GPUs to reach a higher resolution or in-game detail setting.
In other words, this $700 config might be fast enough to satisfy most gamers. Think about that for a second.
Ah, but what about AMD? Equivalent Radeon HD 4870 1GB cards are available in the same price range, but we picked the GTX 260 for three reasons: it’s cheaper, Nvidia’s close relationships with game developers mean newer games often run better on GeForces, and we couldn’t find a 4870 1GB with lifetime warranty coverage for less than $200. We did single out a Radeon for our alternatives on the next page, though.
Again, this Caviar Black is the fastest member of Western Digital’s 640GB line, and it’s also the only 640GB hard drive we know of with five-year warranty coverage. The Black should be pretty quiet, too. That makes it a great value proposition for both the Econobox and the Utility Player.
We’re sticking with the Samsung SH-S223Q as our optical drive. DVD burners have become commodity items these days, so we’re not terribly inclined to get something fancier just because of our more generous budget.
Ask any of us, and we’ll happily pay a premium for better analog sound quality and extra little perks like EAX effects in games. We realize many of you simply don’t care, though, which is why we’ve relegated our sound card recommendation to the alternatives page. If you have nice analog speakers or headphones, we strongly recommend the upgrade. Otherwise, you’ll probably be just as happy with integrated audioand an extra $90 in your pocket.
Enclosure and power
The Antec Sonata III costs more than the NSK 4480 we selected for the Econobox, but it has several advantages: 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. Antec even slaps an eSATA port on the Sonata’s front bezel, should you wish to plug in a fast external hard drive without crawling behind the system.
Utility Player alternatives
As with the Econobox, we have some alternative propositions for how to fill out the Utility Player.
||AMD Phenom II X4 940 Black Edition||$214.99|
|Intel Core 2 Quad Q9400||$219.99|
|Intel Core 2 Quad Q9550||$269.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB||$189.99|
||LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive||$109.99|
||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
Three CPU alternatives might seem a little excessive, but hear us out. The Phenom II X4 940 Black Edition is an obvious step up from the X3 720, since its 200MHz clock speed advantage and extra core make it faster all around. Some shoppers might also want to grab an Intel processor instead of the Phenom II X4, and the Core 2 Quad Q9400 is a straightforward alternative there, with a similar price tag and equivalent performance.
Finally, the Core 2 Quad Q9550 has no direct competition from the Phenom camp, but it’s a nice upgrade over the Q9400. Sure, it costs more, but it also has a higher clock speed (2.83GHz instead of 2.66GHz) and twice as much L2 cache (12MB instead of 6MB). If you want better quad-core performance without having to pay a premium for Core i7 hardware, this is the CPU for you.
We did just say that LGA775 is on its way out, but that doesn’t mean it’s time to abandon the socket. Intel still enjoys some platform advantages, including generally lower power consumption and rock solid chipsets. Nvidia chipsets built for AMD processors generally have higher power consumption, and the ones that come from AMD are saddled with an SB750 south bridge chip that has some issues: we noted in our latest Phenom II review that enabling AHCI (required for Native Command Queuing and hot swapping for SATA hard drives) leads to increased CPU utilization, which can hurt performance somewhat.
Gigabyte’s Intel P45-based GA-EP45-UD3P looks quite similar to our recommended AMD motherboard. That’s no coincidence, because both models are part of Gigabyte’s Ultra Durable series, and they both feature dual physical PCI Express x16 slots and fancy cooling for the power-regulation circuitry. The Intel mobo costs a little more, though, and it has one extra Gigabit Ethernet controller. Judging from the gushingly positive user reviews on Newegg, this should nicely complement our alternative Core 2 Quads.
We explained our reasons for choosing a GeForce GTX 260 on the previous page. If you have an aversion to Nvidia’s products or a particular fondness for AMD’s, though, this Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 1GB is a fine alternative. Just keep in mind that it’s more expensive and has shorter warranty coverage.
You might be wondering what LG’s GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive is doing in our alternatives section. We realize this is a (relatively) big step up in price from our Samsung DVD burner, but we think some users will happily cough up a little extra for Blu-ray playback support. This drive can play HD DVDs, too, in case you find any of those lying around.
Integrated motherboard audio has certainly come a long way, but the best solutions still don’t provide very good analog output. If you have quality analog speakers or headphones and don’t mind paying extra for better sound quality, then something like Asus’ Xonar DX is in order. This card sounds great, supports features like real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding, and does a decent job of emulating Creative’s EAX 5.0 positional audio effects in games.
The Sweeter Spot
Indulgence without excess
The Utility Player might be good enough for many gamers, but the Sweeter Spot more closely represents what TR’s editors would buy for themselves if they were in the market for a new PC. Here, we recommend paying a premium for more processing power, a better platform, better storage options, better audio, and a bigger enclosure with fancier noise-reduction featuresamong other things.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-920||$288.99|
|Memory||Corsair 6GB (3 x 2GB) XMS3 DDR3-1600||$98.00|
|Graphics||BFG GeForce GTX 260 reloaded||$178.99|
||Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB||$74.99|
|Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB||$74.99|
|LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive||$109.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Power supply||Corsair TX650W||$109.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$1,344.91|
Thanks to recent drops in DDR3 memory and X58 motherboard prices, the Core i7-920 has become our CPU of choice for the Sweeter Spot. This is admittedly the cheapest and slowest member of Intel’s new processor family, but it’s still fast enough to outrun higher-clocked Core 2 Quads more often than not, and it can leave ’em choking in a trail of dust (so to speak) when overclocked.
We didn’t just choose a Core i7 for its raw performance, either. While the LGA775 socket is more or less a dead end, Intel recently revealed that Gulftown, a 32nm six-core processor due in 2010, will happily work with existing X58 chipsets. That means there’s a good chance you’ll eventually be able to slap a shiny six-core CPU in our recommended X58 mobo.
At just $200, Gigabyte’s GA-EX58-UD3R is one of the cheapest Core i7-compatible motherboards around. That low price does come with some drawbacks, of course. Compared to the GA-EX58-UD5 we recommended for our Crushinator build last year, this board is missing two DIMM slots, one PCI Express x16 slot, two SATA ports, and one Gigabit Ethernet controller.
Frankly, though, we don’t expect you’ll regret any of those omissions. You still get two 16-lane PCIe slots (with SLI and CrossFire support) and eight SATA ports. The reduced number of DIMM slots does require you to arrange memory sticks in a particular order to populate all three channels, but once that’s done, you probably won’t need to upgrade until the whole platform is obsolete6GB is a lot for a desktop PC.
We won’t start saying DDR3 memory is cheap just yet, but look at it this way: the 1333MHz kit we picked last time was around $120, whereas our 6GB DDR3-1600 selection this time around is just $98. We could even reach below $90 by going with something a little slower, but all Core i7s should be able to run DDR3 RAM at 1600MHzand doing so can make a real difference. There’s no point in limiting a $1,300 PC just to save 10 bucks.
What we said on the Utility Player page applies here, too. This BFG GeForce GTX 260 reloaded has enough muscle to run every current game at 1920×1200typically with a generous dose of antialiasingso most gamers probably won’t need anything faster. Those who do are welcome to peruse our alternatives section.
This storage recommendation might seem odd, but we find a pair of 640GB WD Caviar Blacks more compelling than a single, higher-capacity drive. Few drives offer the same mix of great performance, long warranty coverage, and low noise levels. And 640GB is a heckuva lot of capacity as it is. Also, picking two identical drives opens the door to RAIDmore specifically, a mirrored RAID 1 array.
RAID 1 arrays can improve read performance, and their redundancy allows systems to survive single-drive failures without data loss. Having a real-time mirror of the contents of your system’s hard drive can save loads of time when a drive failsso much so that at least two of TR’s editors run RAID 1 in their primary desktops. If you value storage capacity over redundancy, though, nothing stops you from running these two drives independently or combining them in a 1.28TB JBOD array (or an even riskier but potentially faster RAID 0 setup).
Last, but not least, LG’s GGC-H20L optical drive should please both backup freaks and movie lovers. It burns dual-layer DVDs and can read both Blu-ray and HD DVD discsand its price tag makes it a reasonable addition to the Sweeter Spot.
Sticking with integrated audio might be fine on our $700 Utility Player build, but it starts to get a little ridiculous in this price range. That’s why we’ve put Asus’ Xonar DX in our primary configuration. 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, this is easily the best mid-range sound card on the market today.
A high-end Core i7 system calls for something a little meatier than a case-and-power-supply bundle, so we’ve picked out a Corsair TX650W. This unit has a single, beefy 12V rail, plenty of connectors, 80% or greater rated efficiency, active power factor correction, a single 120mm fan for cooling, andbest of alla five-year warranty. We weren’t all that thrilled with load noise levels when we tested this unit’s 750W big brother last year, but reviews around the web suggest that the TX650W is quieter.
TR system guide regulars might be wondering why we didn’t pick PC Power & Cooling’s 750W Silencer PSU, which earned our Editor’s Choice award and spots in several previous guides. The Silencer costs the same as the Corsair and actually has a higher rated wattage, but we skipped it for two reasons. First, the Silencer’s elongated design makes it a tight fit in our recommended case, especially if you decide to throw in a second graphics card or extra hard drives. Also, an unusual number of Newegg users reported dead-on-arrival units recently. Since the Corsair PSU is a worthy alternative, we feel more confident with it right now.
Antec’s P182 case isn’t particularly cheap, but it has many upsides, including composite panels, adjustable-speed 120mm fans, partitioned cooling zones, and a cable management system that lets you run cables behind the motherboard tray. The cooling design and composite panels in particular should enable delightfully low noise levels given the Sweeter Spot’s relatively quiet components.
Sweeter Spot alternatives
Perhaps you want an AMD graphics card, or maybe you’d rather trick out the Sweeter Spot a little more. Either way, our Sweeter Spot alternatives should cover your needs.
|Graphics||BFG GeForce GTX 260 reloaded (secondary)||$178.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 275||$259.99|
|XFX Radeon HD 4890||$249.99|
|Storage||Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB||$109.99|
|Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB||$109.99|
||AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe||$109.99|
As we see it, grabbing a second GeForce GTX 260 and teaming the two in SLI mode is the simplest way to run every current game comfortably above 1920×1200. That extra GTX 260 may even increase frame rates by almost 100%, like in Far Cry 2 at 2560×1600. However, dual GTX 260s will draw a fair amount of power and take up a good chunk of space inside your case.
If you don’t feel like dealing with the hassles of SLI, you can still get a handful of extra FPS by opting for a single EVGA GeForce GTX 275 or XFX Radeon HD 4890. You’ll be paying a $70-80 premium for a relatively marginal performance increase, but we acknowledge that some gamers do care about that extra bit of smoothness.
The GTX 275 and 4890 OC ran pretty much neck and neck in our tests, so we can probably assume this vanilla 4890 is a tad slower. It’s also $10 cheaper than the GeForce, however, and it comes with a $20 mail-in rebate on top of thatnot a bad deal. Both of these alternatives also have lifetime warranty coverage if you register on the vendor’s website within 30 days.
What’s better than two 640GB Caviar Blacks running in RAID 1? Two 1TB Caviar Blacks, of course. These drives have meaty capacities, excellent performance, and five-year warranties, although they’re relatively loud when seeking. Few products even come close in the realm of high-capacity system drives, however.
The AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe we picked for our last home-theater PC build has returned here, since we figure you might want to watch or record TV on your PC. This tuner 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 AVerTV is certified for Windows Vista x86 and x64, and it comes with a Vista Media Center-ready remote control. Newegg customers sound quite happy with it, as well.
We suggest running either Windows Vista Home Premium or Windows Vista Ultimate if you get this tuner, since both OSes come with Microsoft’s Windows Media Center software. You might also want to grab the Windows Media Center TV Pack, which adds support for tuning unencrypted digital cable, among other improvements.
The Double-Stuff Workstation
Recession? What recession?
In the realm of enthusiast PC hardware, there’s good enough, better than good enough, and as good as it gets before becoming a waste of money. Can you guess which category the Double-Stuff Workstation falls into?
|Processor||Intel Core i7-940||$569.99|
|Memory||Corsair 6GB (3 x 2GB) XMS3 DDR3-1600||$98.00|
|Corsair 6GB (3 x 2GB) XMS3 DDR3-1600||$98.00|
|Graphics||EVGA GeForce GTX 275||$259.99|
|EVGA GeForce GTX 275||$259.99|
|Storage||Intel X25-M 80GB||$393.00|
|Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB||$109.99|
|Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB||$109.99|
|LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive||$109.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DX||$89.99|
|Power supply||Corsair TX850W||$149.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master Cosmos 1000||$159.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$2,628.90|
The Core i7-940 is the quiet middle child of the Core i7 line, delivering higher performance than the i7-920 but without the perks of the i7-965 (which include an unlocked upper multiplier). We’re cool with paying a $270 premium over the i7-920 for that little extra kick, since after all, this is supposed to be a high-end build. We think that the $710 premium the i7-965 commands is a little too high for our primary config, though.
Similarly, we’re not going with the fanciest possible motherboard here. Asus’ P6T has three physical PCIe x16 slots (with CrossFire and SLI support), six DDR3 memory slots, and nine SATA ports (including one eSATA port), so it’s definitely better equipped than the mobo we picked for the Sweeter Spot. With a price tag of less than $250, though, the P6T isn’t too expensive a step up. Well, at least not when your whole computer costs over $2,600.
Yeah, yeah. 4GB of RAM is probably good enough for most folks, so recommending three times that much might seem a little crazy. However, keep in mind that a second 6GB Corsair kit only raises the full system price by about 4%, and it’ll come in handy for folks faced with actual workstation tasks. And hey, who wouldn’t enjoy the bragging rights?
We established on the previous page that dual GPUs are a requirement for those seeking a significant leap from a single GeForce GTX 260. We could just go with two GTX 260s, but here, our ample budget allows us to spring for more expensive (and faster) GeForce GTX 275s from EVGA. Not only should these two cards provide higher multi-GPU performance, but in games that don’t support SLI well, you’ll still get a faster single GPU on which to fall back. The only major drawback (aside from the price) is higher power consumption when gaming, since the GTX 275 draws quite a bit more power under load than the GTX 260. Our 850W PSU should have no problem with that, however.
So, why not dual Radeon HD 4890s? We haven’t tested the 4890 or GTX 275 in multi-GPU mode, but we’ve found that a Radeon HD 4870 1GB CrossFire setup doesn’t always scale as well from one GPU to two as a pair of GeForce GTX 260 cards in SLI. From that, we can extrapolate that dual GTX 275s should have a notable performance edge over their counterparts with red PCBs.
You might recall that our prior workstation builds used to include dual 10,000-RPM VelociRaptors. Well, we’ve traded those for one of Intel’s new 80GB X25-M solid-state drives. If you’ve read our review, you’ll be able to guess why. While write performance is nothing to, er, write home about, the X25-M absolutely zooms past mechanical hard drives in read speed testsand its access times are orders of magnitude quicker. We’re not going with a RAID configuration because the X25-M lacks mechanical components, so it should be much more reliable than a traditional hard drive. (Also, it’s expensive enough already.) We’ve passed on Intel’s new X25-E Extreme, which has much faster write speeds but only a 32GB capacity at an even higher price.
By the way, the X25-M has a 2.5″ form factor, so it probably won’t fit in a regular desktop case on its own. We suggest either purchasing an adapter or just duct-taping the thing inside your case. Hey, it’s just a bunch of flash memory chips inside a metal enclosure, after all.
Since the X25-M only has an 80GB capacity, we’re combining it with a pair of 1TB Western Digital Caviar Blacks for mass storage. Both Seagate’s 1.5TB Barracudas and WD’s 2TB Caviar Greens are slower overall, and the 2TB Caviar Greens have the added downside of considerably higher prices. On the optical side of things, we’re featuring our Blu-ray/HD DVD combo drive as a primary pick here, since we doubt you’ll want to watch only standard-def DVDs on a system like this.
Asus’ Xonar DX fits in just as well here as in our other builds. That said, musicians and others who require more connectivity options may want to consider the Xonar D2X in our alternatives section.
Eagle-eyed readers might notice that, with two dual-slot graphics cards installed, our recommended motherboard won’t have any PCIe x1 slots free for the Xonar DX. But that’s okay: you can slip it into the remaining PCIe x16 slot. That will admittedly prevent you from running a three-GPU setup, but as far as we’ve seen, that third GPU wouldn’t do much for performance, anyway.
PC Power & Cooling’s 750W Silencer would fit happily in this case, but we’re still shunning it because of negative user reports on Newegg. Instead, we’ve settled on Corsair’s TX850W, a higher-wattage version of the Sweeter Spot’s PSU. This unit has similar advantagesa greater-than-80% efficiency rating, five-year warranty, and a single 12V railbut it has more juice and more cables, including two pairs of eight-pin PCIe power connectors for high-end graphics cards. The TX850W might be louder than the Silencer, but we’re not as worried about noise levels here. All of these high-end parts will make some noise when they kick into high gear, anyway.
We believe a good workstation requires a big, roomy case, so we’ve brought back Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000 for that purpose. This enclosure shares some design elements with the Antec P182 (like a flipped internal layout that houses the power supply at the bottom), but it’s bigger, badder, and more enthusiast-friendly. Four 120mm fans generate plenty of airflow, and the Cosmos has enough room to accommodate six hard drives, five 5.25″ drives, multi-GPU configurations, and internal liquid cooling systems.
Cooler Master also primed the case for quiet operation by using 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.
As complete as our Double-Stuff Workstation is, we still have some alternative ideas for how to fill it out.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-965 Extreme Edition||$999.99|
|Storage||Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB||$229.99|
|Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB||$229.99|
||Asus Xonar D2X||$189.99|
|TV tuner||AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe||$109.99|
We’ve established that the Core i7-940 has a more sensible value proposition than the Core i7-965 Extreme. However, the Extreme chip has an unlocked upper multiplier that should allow for effortless overclocking. Couple that with a 3.2GHz default core clock speed (up from 2.93GHz on the Core i7-940) and a higher out-of-the-box L3 cache clock, and you really are getting the fastest desktop processor ever. The Core i7-965 Extreme even outpaced a Core 2 Extreme QX9775 “Skulltrail” dual-CPU configuration in several of our benchmarks.
300GB VelociRaptors might not have the mind-blowing read speeds or near-instantaneous access times of Intel’s X25-M, but they have way more storage capacity and still offer great overall performance. You can run these in a RAID 1 setup for redundancy’s sake or combine them in a faster striped array.
Our Xonar DX will do a fantastic job in games and with analog speakers or headphones, but audio professionals might want something with a few more ports. The Xonar D2X is effectively the same product, but with more bundled cables, as well as coaxial S/PDIF input and output ports. Oh, and the rear ports light up in the dark.
If you feel like making your high-powered workstation double as a digital video recorder, AVerMedia’s AVerTV tuner card should be a fine addition. If anyone gives you funny looks, just tell them how fast the Core i7-965 can encode video. The Asus P6T motherboard doesn’t have enough PCIe slots for this tuner card and a PCI Express Xonar, so you’ll have to run the PCI-based Xonar D2 instead.
We’ve just sung the praises of Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000, but the Thermaltake Spedo is a great alternative for overclockers and tinkerers. We love the many little touches, like the fan mount behind the CPU area, the elegant tool-less drive sleds, and the straightforward cable routing system. Take note if you want a quiet system, though: although the Spedo’s wealth of large fans and cooling grills will help keep an overclocked system cool, it will probably result in higher noise levels compared to the Cosmos.
The operating system
Which Vista is right for you?
Before we begin, we should acknowledge that some readers may not feel comfortable with Windows’ prominent place on this page. We hold no particular grudge against Linux, FreeBSD, or other desktop PC operating systems, but we think most TR readers will want to stick with Windows. For starters, most of you play PC games, and we’ve tuned all of our main configs for gamingsomething Linux doesn’t do nearly as well as Microsoft’s OSes. Also, we figure enthusiasts with enough expertise to run Linux on their primary desktops will already have a favorite Linux distribution picked out. As for Mac OS X, we find both the dubious legality and the lack of official support for running it on standard PCs too off-putting.
You may also be wondering whether Vista is really worth choosing over Windows XP. After all, Windows XP still works, and from a distance, Vista looks like little more than a prettied-up version of the same old OS. Appearances can be deceptive, however, and Windows Vista really is much more than that. 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 graphics card in DX10 games like Crytek’s Crysis Warhead or Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed, then you’ll want Vista.
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:
Vista Home Basic
Vista Home Premium
|Aero user interface||x||x||x|
|Windows Meeting Space||x||x||x|
|Windows Media Center||x||x|
|Basic scheduled backups||x||x||x|
|Complete system backups||x||x|
|Remote Desktop Connection||x||x|
|Windows DVD Maker||x||x|
|Windows Movie Maker HD||x||x|
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. If you’re going to bother with Vista at all, you might as well enjoy the additional features available with full-fat versions of the OS. Besides, 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 used to be Vista Business, which oddly now sells for the same price as Vista Ultimate, at least in a retail package. As its name implies, Vista Business is designed mainly for professional users. This version lacks media center functionality, but makes up for it with industrial-strength backup and networking tools.
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. Home Premium and Business editions used to be much better values than Vista Ultimate, but that’s not necessarily the case anymore.
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. The core system components we’ve recommended should 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 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 retail release in January 2007, 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
|OEM price (32-bit)||$89.99||$99.99||$139.99||$179.99|
|OEM price (64-bit)||$89.99||$99.99||$139.99||$179.99|
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. We don’t have a full set of recommendations at multiple price levels in the categories below, but we can make general observations and point out specific products that are worthy of your consideration. What you ultimately choose in these areas will probably depend heavily on your own personal preferences.
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 displayor two or three of them, since several of us are multi-monitor fanaticsso 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 little reason to avoid LCDs.
Despite their near-universal sharpness and thin form factors, 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 users will probably care about one major differentiating attribute: whether their display has a 6-bit twisted nematic + film (TN+film) panel or not. The majority of sub-$500 monitors have 6-bit TN panels, which means 18-bit color definition instead of standard 24-bit color. Those panels use dithering to simulate colors that are out of their scope, yielding sub-optimal color accuracy, and they often have poor viewing angles on top of that. 8-bit panels typically look better, although they tend to have higher response times and loftier prices.
So, what should you get? We think that largely depends on which of our builds you’re gonna go with. For instance, those who purchase the Sweeter Spot ought to splurge on a nice 8-bit, 24″ displayperhaps the latest revision of Dell’s 2408WFP, which seems to lack the kinks of the original model, or HP’s LP2475w, which has a reasonable price tag despite its fancier IPS panel. Pairing the Sweeter Spot with a small, $200 display would really be a waste, since high-end graphics cards provide headroom specifically for gaming at high resolutions. It’d be a bit like hooking up a Blu-ray player to a standard-def TV.
We recommend something bigger, like Dell’s 30″ UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC, for use with the Double-Stuff Workstation. Our workstation build has two high-end graphics cards, after all, and you ought to have an ample monitor budget if you’re purchasing a $2,600 machine, anyway.
On the lower end of the spectrum, we think the Utility Player matches up well with less expensive monitors, like 20″, 22″, and 24″ displays with TN panels. Picky users may scoff at 6-bit displays, but they’re quite a bit cheaper and more than adequate for most applications. With the Econobox, something like a sub-$200 19″ or 20″ LCD should do fine.
Mice and keyboards
New mice seem to crop up every other week, but we tend to favor offerings from Logitech and Microsoft because both companies typically make quality products and offer great warranty coverage. (Nothing beats getting a free, retail-boxed mouse if your old one starts behaving erratically.) Everyone has his preferences when it comes to scroll wheel behavior, the number of buttons present, and control panel software features. But here, too, one particular attribute lies at the heart of many debates: wirelessness.
Wireless mice have come a long way over the past few years, and you can expect a relatively high-end one to feel just as responsive as a wired mouse. However, certain folkstypically hard-core gamersfind all wireless mice laggy, and they don’t like the extra weight of the batteries. Tactile preferences are largely subjective, but wireless mice do have a few clear advantages and disadvantages. On the upside, you can use them anywhere on your desk or from a distance, and you don’t run the risk of snagging the cable. That said, good wireless mice cost more than their wired cousins, and they force you to keep an eye on battery life. Because of that last issue, some favor wireless mice with docking cradles, which let you charge your mouse at night and not have to worry about finding charged AAs during a Team Fortress 2 match.
We can also find two distinct schools of thoughts on the keyboard front. 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. Others like their keyboards simple, 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. $50-70 is a lot to put down for a keyboard, but these beasts can easily last a couple of decades.
If you’re part of the mechanical keyboard club and are looking for something a little less… well, ugly, then you may be interested Metadot’s Das Keyboard Professional or ABS’s M1. The Das Keyboard is very expensive ($130), but it has a more stylish look and a softer feel than the Model M and its modern derivatives. The M1 costs less and has non-clicky mechanical switches, which are softer stilleven though they make typing feel more solid than the rubber dome switches on the average multimedia keyboard.
Another intriguing option is a keyboard with laptop-style scissor switch key mechanisms like the Enermax Aurora, which we found to be surprisingly pleasing, both in terms of tactile feedback and industrial design.
This section has always included a floppy drive/card reader combo recommendation, but it’s now April 2009. Windows Vista has been out for over two years. We’ve had the Internet, USB thumb drives, and Windows-based BIOS flashing tools for considerably longer than that. It’s time to let go.
If you absolutely must stick something in that external 3.5″ drive bay, we suggest this Super Talent all-in-one card reader. It’s only 13 bucks, it has good user reviews on Newegg, and it should happily gobble up any flash card you find lying around.
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, offer decent cooling performance with reasonably low noise levels. However, if you want an even quieter system, additional overclocking headroom, or both, you may want to look into an aftermarket CPU cooler.
We like Zalman’s CNPS9500 AT (and the CNPS9500 AM2 for AMD Socket AM2 processors), but there are plenty of alternatives, from massive, tower-style heatsinks with 120mm fans (like Scythe’s SCINF-1000) to elaborate liquid cooling kits. Not all of those coolers will work with a Core i7, so folks who go with our Sweeter Spot or Double-Stuff Workstation builds may want to consider Thermaltake’s V1 AXit’s served us well in Damage Labs, and it’s nice and quiet.
Speaking of which, we have a general preference for air coolers paired with large fans. Big fans move more air per revolution and can thus spin slower, producing less noise than their smaller counterparts.
Man, computer hardware is cheap. Yes, we knowwe often close our system guides with something to that effect. But never has a system embodied the vertiginous decline in PC component prices like our latest Utility Player. For less than $700, you’re getting three fast processor cores, four gigs of RAM, gaming-worthy graphics hardware, blazing-fast mechanical storage, and a quiet enclosure with an 80%-efficient PSU. Unbelievable.
As always, there’s shiny new hardware on the horizon. Intel should release more affordable Core i7 derivatives by the end of the year, and we may see next-gen high-end GPUs in a similar time frame. We don’t think any of that warrants holding off a purchase right now, though.
If you need assistance in the meantime, feel free to take a stroll down to the System Builders Anonymous section of our forums. That forum is teeming with users asking for help, either with building new machines or upgrading old ones, so you’ll find plenty of companyand helpif you’re not feeling particularly confident about a new build.