Home TR’s February 2008 system guide

TR’s February 2008 system guide

Cyril Kowaliski
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Much has changed since we published our last system guide in November. On the graphics front, AMD has released its CrossFire-on-a-stick Radeon HD 3870 X2, while Nvidia has introduced a sub-$200 marvel in the GeForce 9600 GT. The latter seems to have started a price war in the mid-range graphics card market, with the GeForce 8800 GT finally falling to its intended price bracket and Radeon HD 3800 series cards enjoying hefty discounts. And there’s new hotness on the processor front, too, in the form of dual-core 45nm desktop chips from Intel. Prices for all kinds of components have also continued their decline, which has brought components previously restricted to our most expensive builds within the reach of mid-range systems.

The combination of exciting new products and falling prices has created the perfect environment for would-be system builders. We can’t think of a better time to be putting together a new PC, so we’ve put together a fresh system guide to help you sort through the rich selection of options available to enthusiasts. At the low end, our $600 Econobox packs unprecedented gaming potential thanks to a GeForce 9600 GT graphics card. The $1000 Grand Experiment and $1400 Sweet Spot systems are both up to 4GB of memory with Penryn Core 2 Duos. Even our $3200 workstation offers impressive value with 8GB of memory, four hard drives, and two graphics cards.

We’ve been able to pack an incredible amount of very fast hardware into these recommended systems, especially our most affordable builds. Keep reading to see what we picked and why.


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 good 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 $79.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L $89.99
Memory 2GB Kingston DDR2-800 $45.99
Graphics eVGA GeForce 9600 GT $179.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 320GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S203B $29.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480 w/380W PSU $79.95
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $580.89

Prices for processors in the sub-$100 range have continued to drop since last year, so we’re now able to squeeze a Pentium E2180 comfortably into our Econobox. This chip may be affordable, but it’s not lacking in horsepower thanks to a 2GHz clock speed and the very same architecture as more expensive Core 2-branded offerings. Overclocking headroom should be quite decent, as well, and our recommended motherboard should give you plenty of options on that front.

We think the E2180 is the best choice for this build, but if you prefer AMD processors, we have selected an AMD alternative on the next page.

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, a solid upgrade path, passive cooling, and plenty of connectivity options. You also get four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet, S/PDIF audio inputs and outputs, and a full array of PCI Express and PCI 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.

Until now, we’ve stuck with DDR2-667 RAM for the Econobox on grounds that the price premium for DDR2-800 wasn’t worth it in a system like this. However, the price difference between the two memory types has become largely insignificant of late. 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 really the lowest amount we recommend in light of today’s prices, and Kingston has a strong reputation for both product quality and customer service.

We’ve splurged a little for the Econobox’s graphics processor, causing the build to tip over our $500 target price point. Considering the performance delivered by Nvidia’s new GeForce 9600 GT, though, that kind of indulgence makes sense. A cheaper yet still-game-worthy graphics card would trim the price of our system by $70 or so, but it would also seriously reduce gaming performance with recent titles. We don’t think that kind of savings makes any sense, especially when you look at the wealth of good PC games that have come out recently (and the many games still to come). If you really can’t afford the extra $70, or you’re not much of a gamer, check out our alternatives list on the next page for a cheaper recommendation.

We’ve picked eVGA’s flavor of the GeForce 9600 GT. The card is “factory overclocked” 25MHz above the stock core clock speed, yet it costs the same as other, slower models. eVGA covers it with a lifetime warranty and under the company’s step-up program.

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 and Western Digital offers only three. We don’t think a warranty alone is worth going with a more expensive, slower, and louder drive, though, so the Caviar SE16 has become our primary selection. 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. There are slightly cheaper drives with Serial ATA interfaces and similar features, 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 5.25″ bays, two 3.5″ bays, three 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 $55 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 $60 or so, we’d recommend sticking with a name-brand 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 64 X2 4400+ $74.99
Motherboard Asus M2N-VM $72.99
Graphics Biostar GeForce 8600 GTS $104.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.10 320GB $79.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $80.99

We’ve selected the Athlon 64 X2 4400+ as our alternative for the Econobox. This chip’s advantage lies in its lower price, which is a useful trait for folks looking to cut corners wherever possible. We’d expect performance to be comparable to that of the Pentium E2180, since the higher clock-for-clock performance of Intel’s Core architecture likely negates the Athlon’s 300MHz clock speed advantage.

We found a very affordable motherboard with Nvidia SLI multi-GPU technology support to match our Athlon last time around, but we can no longer find that model in stock. Since the main point of recommending an Athlon 64 X2 processor as an alternative is to cut costs, we’ve opted for a cheaper mobo with integrated graphics instead: the Asus M2N-VM. This board features a GeForce 7050 “motherboard GPU,” which means folks not interested in gaming can bypass a discrete graphics card purchase altogether and cut the Econobox’s price to around $375.

The Asus M2N-VM also packs an AM2 socket, a microATX form factor, four 300MB/s Serial ATA ports with RAID capability, Gigabit Ethernet, a PCI Express x16 slot, support for up to 8GB of DDR2-800 RAM, and both DVI and VGA monitor outputs—a very decent feature package for a motherboard priced like this one.

Nvidia’s GeForce 9600 GT may be a low-cost speed demon, but we recognize it may not be quite cheap enough for some. As an alternative, we’ve selected Biostar’s GeForce 8600 GTS. The 8600 GTS is a tad long in the tooth now, so don’t expect it to let you play Crysis with the detail turned up. However, it will happily run less demanding games at acceptable settings, and its near-$100 price tag makes it a good value proposition.

If you’re prepared to spend slightly more for five years of warranty coverage and don’t mind slower performance and higher noise levels than our primary recommendation, Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.10 320GB is the drive for you.

Sound card
We’ve gotten rid of the Chaintech AV-710 that starred in so many of our guides, simply due to the fact that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find. In its stead, we’re recommending Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer. The XtremeGamer is more expensive (a good deal more, in fact), but as the successor to the older X-Fi XtremeMusic, it features great analog surround sound quality and hardware acceleration in games—two features the AV-710 lacks. Not all games will support hardware acceleration with the X-Fi in Vista, but Creative has a workaround in place for that.

Creative also offers a PCI Express X-Fi Xtreme Audio sound card for around $50, and we considered it as a cheaper alternative to the XtremeGamer. However, the Xtreme Audio isn’t based on the same audio chip as pricier X-Fis, and it has the worst sound quality specifications of the lot. Releasing stripped-down, low-quality cards under the same brand as high-end models seems to be common practice for Creative, so we suggest you pay the extra for the proper model.

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 $239.99
Motherboard Asus P5N-E SLI $114.99
Memory Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $88.99
Graphics XFX GeForce 8800 GT 512MB $239.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar SE16 500GB $104.99
Samsung SH-S203B $29.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $80.99
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $129.95
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1029.88

We’ve splurged a teeny bit on our processor recommendation for the Grand Experiment, but with good reason. Prices for other components have gone down, and the Core 2 Duo E8400 is a significant step up from any of Intel’s Core 2 Duo E6000 series models for one simple reason: it’s based on the new Penryn core. Penryn brings 45nm process technology, architectural enhancements, clock-for-clock speed improvements, and incredible overclocking headroom. We’re seeing numerous reports of users overclocking the E8400 from its default speed of 3GHz to the neighborhood of 4GHz with nothing but the stock air cooler. For a machine like the Grand Experiment, the E8400 is a no-brainer.

Keeping in mind the E8400’s price, some might say the Core 2 Quad Q6600 would be a more sensible choice, since it packs two extra cores and only costs an extra $30 or so. The long and short of it is that the E8400 has a 600MHz clock speed edge and a clock-for-clock performance advantage over the Q6600, which makes the E8400 considerably faster in all but a handful of tasks optimized to take full advantage of more than two processor cores (and there aren’t that many of those). We might reconsider when Intel releases 45nm Core 2 Quads, but right now, we think the E8400 is a better overall choice than the Q6600 for a desktop machine.

A word of caution, though. Availability on the E8400 is currently tight, and the chip seems to go in and out of stock at Newegg and other e-tailers. We suggest hitting our price search engine to find one in stock if Newegg doesn’t have any available.

For the Grand Experiment, we’ve picked the Asus P5N-E SLI once again. Nvidia’s nForce 650i SLI chipset is a worthy alternative to Intel’s latest offerings, and it has the advantage of supporting both new 45nm Core 2 chips with 1333MHz front-side buses (like the Core 2 Duo E8400) and SLI multi-GPU configurations. SLI functionality is a nice plus should you wish to add an extra GeForce 8800 GT to boost gaming performance, a compelling option at current prices for those who play games on large monitors.

The P5N-E SLI also features four Serial ATA ports with RAID support, one eSATA port, two IDE channels, Gigabit Ethernet, and FireWire. You get fewer Serial ATA ports on this board than on the latest offerings based on Intel chipsets, but the P5N-E SLI makes up for that shortcoming with its excellent overclocking potential. In our labs, we’ve been able to crank the P5N-E SLI up to a front-side bus speed of 470MHz—enough to push our recommended Core 2 Duo E8400 to 4.23GHz.

Last time, we upgraded the Grand Experiment to DDR2-800 RAM. Now we’re bumping up the memory amount from 2GB to 4GB with one of Mushkin’s 4GB DDR2-800 kits. The increase only adds around $40 to the price of the Grand Experiment, and the extra headroom is definitely valuable for gamers and heavy multitaskers who’ve made the jump to Windows Vista. Other users will likely enjoy the additional capacity one or two years down the line, so we think this is a good investment.

As we point out each time we recommend 4GB of RAM, you’ll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of it. 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, a 32-bit OS will only be able to use 3 to 3.5GB of actual system RAM, and it’ll also limit the amount of memory each application can use. That’s not quite the end of the world, and there are workarounds like Physical Address Extension in place. However, Microsoft says PAE causes compatibility problems, and it recommends that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. Since Windows Vista x64 is quite mature at this point, we suggest installing that. You’ll find more details in our operating system section on the second-to-last page of this guide.

The GeForce 8800 GT is a very straightforward choice for this machine, especially given its recent migration back into Nvidia’s intended price range. As we saw in our review, the GT’s performance rivals that of the pricier GeForce 8800 GTS 640MB for around $100 less, and its G92 graphics processor has some extra goodies like better high-definition video decoding. Our recommendation is XFX’s PVT88PYDE4 GeForce 8800 GT, which is both very affordable and well furnished in terms of extra features and warranty coverage. XFX “factory overclocks” the card to a 640MHz core speed and 950MHz memory speed, and covers it with a “double lifetime” warranty that extends to second-hand cards.

We’re selecting Western Digital’s Caviar SE16 500GB hard drive over the Seagate alternative for the same reasons as in our Econobox: the WD drive is simply cheaper, quieter, and faster. We don’t think Seagate’s five-year warranty is enough to tip the odds in favor of Seagate’s Barracuda 7100.11 500GB. Again, though, we’ve featured the Seagate drive in our alternatives for this system.

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

Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer gets our vote as the primary choice here. We used to recommend the X-Fi XtremeMusic for the Grand Experiment, but as we said on the previous page, the XtremeGamer is the XtremeMusic’s replacement. The two cards are similar, with the XtremeGamer using a smaller form factor and missing an AD-Link connector for the break-out X-Fi I/O console. The XtremeGamer does have excellent sound quality, though, and it features an HD Audio-compatible front-panel connector. Again, Vista users who want 3D sound acceleration in all their games will want to use Creative’s ALchemy software.

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.

This case 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 as the Sonata III 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 up or down in price and capabilities a little bit.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000+ Black Edition $94.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-M57SLI-S4 $89.99
Graphics Diamond Radeon HD 3850 $169.99
Storage Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 500GB $119.99

We have a smoking fast Intel dual-core chip as our primary reccommendation, but our alternative is “only” AMD’s Athlon 64 X2 5000+ Black Edition. Why the slower chip? Simply put, the 5000+ Black Edition offers much better value than AMD’s faster dual-core models for folks who aren’t afraid to get their hands a little dirty. The 5000+ Black Edition runs at a default clock speed of 2.6GHz, but it has an unlocked multiplier, which lets you overclock without stressing the rest of the system. Want to bump this chip from 2.6GHz to 3GHz? Just change the multiplier from 13 to 15. It’s as simple as that—although, as always with overclocking, your mileage may vary.

The Abit KN9 SLI we’ve featured as an alternative AMD motherboard in past system guides has gone out of stock, so we’ve replaced it with Gigabyte’s GA-M57SLI-S4. The Gigabyte has the same chipset—Nvidia’s nForce 570 SLI—and similar features, but it’s actually available, and Gigabyte claims it has full support for AMD’s new Phenom processors. Phenom may not be a particularly attractive choice at the moment, but if you’re going to go with an AMD system, there’s no sense limiting your upgrade path.

After selecting several Nvidia graphics cards, we’re mixing things up a little bit with our Grand Experiment alternatives. Like the Athlon 64 X2 5000+ Black Edition above, Diamond’s Radeon HD 3850 is a smart alternative to our main choice for folks who want to cut costs without sacrificing too much performance. Based on what we’ve seen in our tests, this particular model performs similarly to a stock-clocked Radeon HD 3870, and it’s not a huge step down from the 8800 GT in most games. You may not be able to play at quite the same settings or at the same resolutions, but you will save $65, and that’s a decent tradeoff for some.

We’re again suggesting a Seagate hard drive as an alternative for folks who really want a five-year warranty. Do keep in mind that the Barracuda 7200.11 500GB costs a few bucks more than the Western Digital drive in our main recommendations, and that it’s slower and louder overall.

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.

This build is probably closest to what TR’s editors would choose for themselves in order to get the most value for the dollar in an enthusiast’s PC. Most of the components are chosen because they’re in that proverbial “sweet spot” for price and performance—hence the name.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 $239.99
Motherboard Abit IP35 Pro $174.99
Memory Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $88.99
Graphics eVGA GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB $289.99
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F1 750GB $149.99
Samsung SH-S203B $29.99
Audio Creative X-Fi XtremeGamer $80.99
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 $169.99
Enclosure Antec P182 $149.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1374.91

If you’ve taken a gander at our previous system guides, you’ll know that we’ve “downgraded” from a quad-core processor to a dual-core one this time around. That’s a much more sensible move than it may seem at first glance. As we pointed out a couple of pages back, the Core 2 Duo E8400 has a higher clock speed and superior performance per clock versus the Core 2 Quad Q6600—our previous recommendation for this system. Because of these advantages, the E8400 outperforms the Q6600 in virtually any task that’s not optimized to make full use of more than two processor cores, including most of today’s software. The E8400 is even more desirable because 45nm process technology gives it great power efficiency and formidable overclocking headroom.

Those who do need to run quad-core-optimized tasks are welcome to pay a little extra for Q6600, and we’ve included it in our alternatives list on the next page. Like we said earlier, we may opt for a quad-core chip again once Intel releases its 45nm Core 2 Quads. However, the E8400’s overall performance advantage in everyday tasks and its other qualities make it the best choice for most folks right now.

Remember, availability on the E8400 is tight, so you may have to hit our price search engine to find one in stock.

We were pretty happy with Abit’s IP35 Pro when we reviewed it back in June. This board packs two PCI Express x16 slots (in a x4/x16 lane setup) with CrossFire support, eight Serial ATA ports (including two eSATA ports at the back), two Gigabit Ethernet ports, and heat pipe-based chipset/voltage circuitry cooling. Overclockers will also enjoy the board’s µGuru overclocking, tweaking, and fan-monitoring tools.

We’re going with the same 4GB Mushkin DDR2-800 kit we used in the Grand Experiment, largely because higher-speed offerings cost significantly more and the performance returns from tricked-out modules are too small for our liking. If you have extra cash to burn, you’ll benefit more from spending it on a bigger hard drive, a faster graphics card, or a nicer monitor.

Again, you’ll want to run a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of 4GB of RAM. A 32-bit OS won’t let you use all this memory without complicated workarounds, and now that Vista x64 has matured and gained improved support from software and hardware makers, we recommend hopping on the 64-bit bandwagon. Check out our operating system section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more information.

Thanks to our choice of a cheaper processor in this iteration of the Sweet Spot, we’ve been able to upgrade our graphics card recommendation from a GeForce 8800 GT to the faster GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. Both cards are based on the same G92 graphics processor, but the GTS features 128 stream processors instead of the 112 on the GT. For the extra $50 or so, the eVGA 8800 GTS 512MB also brings a 670MHz core clock speed and 970MHz memory speed, up from the 640MHz core and 950MHz memory speeds of the XFX GeForce 8800 GT in our Grand Experiment build. The GTS 512MB’s dual-slot cooler should mean quieter operation, too. This eVGA card is also covered by eVGA’s “Step-Up Program,” and it has a lifetime warranty.

We’ve traded the 750GB Western Digital Caviar SE16 hard drive from our previous guide for one of Samsung’s new 750GB SpinPoint F1s. We were very impressed with the 1TB SpinPoint F1 in our review, so the 750GB model gets our vote here. The Samsung should be quieter and faster than the SE16, with the same warranty term and a lower price tag.

For the optical drive, we’re picking the Samsung SH-S203B, since more expensive SATA DVD burners don’t have anything particularly worthwhile to offer.

Creative’s Sound Blaster X-Fi XtremeGamer still gets our nod for the Sweet Spot. This card provides excellent sound quality and accelerated 3D audio effects in games for a very attractive price. More expensive models don’t offer a significantly different formula, so we see no reason to pony up the extra cash. There are better options for die-hard audiophiles, of course, and we’ve included one as an alternative on the next page.

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.

The PC Power & Cooling’s Silencer 750 won an Editor’s Choice Award in our enthusiast power supply round-up. Although its 750W rating might seem like overkill for this particular system, the Silencer runs about the same price as some lower-wattage offerings from other brands. This PSU also has enough headroom for folks wanting to throw in a Core 2 Quad or a second GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB. 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.

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 enable prodigiously low noise levels, provided your processor and graphics card fans aren’t too loud.

Sweet Spot alternatives

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

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 $264.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP35-DS3P $154.99
Graphics HIS Radeon HD 3870 $199.99
Seagate Barracuda 7200.11 750GB $169.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $169.99
Pioneer BDC-202BK Blu-ray reader & DVD burner $219.99
Sound Asus Xonar D2 $164.99

The Core 2 Duo E8400 in our main recommendations list ought to be faster than the Core 2 Quad Q6600 in most desktop tasks. However, some folks may have usage patterns that justify quad-core chips at lower clock speeds, such as video encoding or 3D rendering. If that’s you, you may prefer the Q6600’s four slower cores to the E8400’s faster two.

As you might have noticed, we’ve taken AMD’s Phenom out of the picture here altogether. The truth is that while Phenom is capable of providing decent performance, so long as you turn off the TLB erratum fix, there are just no good, affordable motherboards that let you do that right now. The only motherboard based on AMD’s 790FX chipset we’d recommend is priced at more than $200, making it more expensive than AMD’s cheapest Phenom. Under these circumstances, we have no compelling Phenom-based alternative to recommend for this system.

We’ve had good experiences with the Abit IP35 Pro in our main recommendations list, but some folks might prefer a cheaper offering from a bigger company. That’s why we’re recommending Gigabyte’s GA-EP35-DS3P as our alternative. This board is about $25 cheaper than the IP35, but it has many of the same features, including dual PCI Express x16 slots (one of which has only four lanes of connectivity), six Serial ATA ports with RAID support, and passive cooling. The Gigabyte mobo even has some perks the IP35 Pro lacks, like two FireWire ports and eight USB 2.0 ports at the back. If you don’t think you’ll miss the sophisticated monitoring and tweaking features of the Abit board, you should be happy with the GA-EP35-DS3P.

Graphics card
AMD currently has no direct competition for the GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB, but its Radeon HD 3870 is a decent choice for folks who want to save a few bucks and don’t want an Nvidia card for whatever reason. Make no mistake, though: Nvidia’s GeForce 8800 GT is faster, and the GeForce 9600 GT delivers similar performance for less. Unless you have a good reason to pick the Radeon, we recommend looking at the 8800 GT we singled out for our Grand Experiment build or the 9600 GT in our Econobox. Still, the Radeon HD 3870 delivers decent performance, and its dual-slot cooler will quietly exhaust warm air out of a system.

We have three storage suggestions in our alternatives list. The first is Seagate’s Barracuda 7200.11 750GB, which is our recommendation for users who care more about a long warranty than higher performance, lower noise levels, and a lower price tag.

The second is Western Digital’s 150GB Raptor. We don’t expect you to trade our recommended 750GB drive 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, making it an ideal operating system and application drive. With 750GB and 150GB drives in one machine, you’ll enjoy the best of both worlds: high speed where needed with high capacity riding shotgun.

Our third storage recommendation is Pioneer’s BDC-202BK Blu-ray combo drive. This drive combines Blu-ray reading and DVD burning capabilities at a relatively reasonable price tag (for a high-definition drive, anyway). Now that the format war is over and Blu-ray has been declared the winner, we feel safe in recommending a high-definition drive.

Creative’s X-Fi XtremeGamer may be a fine sound card, and it may satiate most folks’ need for crisp surround sound audio. However, Asus’ Xonar D2 is a superior alternative for audiophiles with a little more cash to spend. We tested the Xonar D2X, the PCI Express x1 version of this card, and it scored better in our RightMark Audio Analyzer test than any other sound card we’ve reviewed in the past. The Xonar fared well in our listening tests, too, and we were impressed with the little extras Asus tosses in, like illuminated rear audio ports, loads of cable adapters, and music conversion software. About the only downside to the Xonar is poorer game performance than cards based on Creative’s X-Fi audio chip, but Windows Vista’s changes to the audio hardware-software interface largely negate that disadvantage.

Although we reviewed the PCIe Xonar D2X, we’re recommending the PCI Xonar D2 here. The D2X costs more, and since every motherboard out there still has at least one PCI slot, we see no real reason to pay extra for PCIe connectivity. If you plan to keep the card a few years and are looking for something to put in your empty PCIe x1 slots, though, feel free to grab the D2X.

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 Core 2 Quad Q6700 $539.99
Motherboard XFX nForce 780i SLI $249.99
Memory Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $88.99
Mushkin 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $88.99
Graphics eVGA GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB $289.99
eVGA GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB $289.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar GP 1TB $269.99
Western Digital Caviar GP 1TB $269.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $169.99
Western Digital Raptor WD1500ADFD 150GB $169.99
Pioneer BDC-202BK Blu-ray reader & DVD burner $219.99
Audio Asus Xonar D2 $164.99
Power supply PC Power & Cooling Silencer 750 $169.99
Enclosure CoolerMaster Cosmos 1000 $189.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $3172.86

Intel’s Core 2 Quad Q6700 is essentially a re-badged version of the older Core 2 Extreme QX6700, with the same 2.66GHz clock speed, 8MB of total cache, and 1066MHz front-side bus. Since the Double-Stuff Workstation is meant to be, well, a workstation, we think going with a quad-core CPU here makes sense. Besides, the Q6700’s 2.66GHz clock speed makes it a more-than-competent performer in tasks optimized for only one or two cores.

We’re going with dual GeForce 8800 GTS graphics cards teamed up via SLI for this build, and that calls for an Nvidia-based motherboard. The nForce 780i SLI is Nvidia’s new flagship chipset for Intel processors. XFX’s 780i SLI mobo is based on a reference design by Nvidia, 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 X38 and P35 chipsets, but this board’s mix of SLI support and tweakability makes it our choice for the Double-Stuff.

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. Yes, lower-latency RAM could get you an extra frame per second or two in Unreal Tournament 3, but you’ll hardly notice if you’re already averaging 80 FPS at 2560×1600 with everything maxed out.

Of course, you’ll want to install a 64-bit operating system in order to use more than 4GB of RAM. See our operating system section a couple of pages ahead for details.

Our graphics card recommendation for the Double-Stuff mirrors that of the Sweet Spot. The eVGA GeForce 8800 GTS 512MB delivers performance close to that of Nvidia’s 8800 GTX for much less, and it’s an ideal contender for a high-end dual-GPU system. Until the next generation of cards rolls out, this is pretty much the bee’s knees as far as multi-GPU graphics goes. Yes, there’s three-way SLI, but our performance testing suggests that’s mostly for show.

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 storage speed 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.

Since we mentioned our positive appraisal of Samsung’s 1TB SpinPoint F1 hard drive earlier, you might be wondering why we didn’t pick that instead of the Caviar GP. The answer is that the SpinPoint seems to have problems with Nvidia storage controllers like those of our XFX nForce 780i motherboard. The Caviar GPs are slower, but they’re still solid performers, and they’re cheaper than the SpinPoints. (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 instead of the regular Caviar GP’s three-year coverage. See our review of that drive here.

On the optical drive front, we’ve upgraded this machine to the same Pioneer 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.

As we’ve noted, the Xonar D2 will provide better sound quality than the X-Fi XtremeGamer we recommended for our other systems, and it’s a more suitable match for the Double-Stuff. Gamers will probably want to have a look at our X-Fi alternative for this machine on the next page, though.

Power supply
PC Power & Cooling’s TR Editor’s Choice award-winning Silencer 750 power supply is back from our Sweet Spot system. The unit 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.

Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000 is another TR Editor’s Choice award winner. This case shares some design elements from 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.

Workstation alternatives

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

Component Item Price
Processor Core 2 Extreme QX9650 $1059.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-X38-DQ6 $282.90
Graphics Diamond Radeon HD 3870 X2 $449.99
Storage Samsung Spinpoint F1 1TB

Sound Auzentech X-Fi Prelude $169.99

This is an expensive trade up, but there are tangible advantages to selecting the Core 2 Extreme QX9650. For one, this processor is based on Intel’s new Penryn core and 45nm process technology, and it runs at a default speed of 3GHz. That will make it as fast as the Core 2 Duo E8400 in applications not coded to use more than two cores, and much, much faster in those that do. 45nm process technology also affords some nice overclocking headroom; we were able to push the QX9650 to a whopping 3.67GHz in our tests. Your own mileage may vary, of course, but the QX9650 is definitely a substantial upgrade if you can afford it.

Gigabyte’s GA-X38-DQ6 motherboard is based on Intel’s high-end X38 chipset, which supports second-generation PCI Express connectivity. All the trimmings one would expect from a high-end motherboard are also included, such as eight 300MB/s SATA ports, dual GigE controllers, passive chipset and voltage circuitry cooling, digital audio outputs, Firewire, and eSATA options. The DQ6’s BIOS is also loaded with overclocking and tweaking options, and we’ve been able to turn its front-side bus up to a whopping 500MHz in our labs.

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 X38 board, which lacks support for Nvidia’s SLI multi-GPU scheme. Fortunately, AMD’s Radeon HD 3870 X2 is a decent alternative to our two GeForce 8800 GTS 512MBs. The X2 won’t be quite as fast, but with two RV670 graphics processors, it rightfully deserves the title of fastest single-card GPU. You can check out detailed performance numbers in our review. Even more importantly for a system of this caliber, AMD’s drivers allow the X2 to operate seamlessly with multiple 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.

The Spinpoint F1 1TB‘s apparent issues with nForce storage controllers shouldn’t faze our alternative configuration’s X38-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 also delivers the fastest performance with sequential transfers that we’ve ever seen from a Serial ATA hard drive.

The Xonar D2 is great for audiophiles, but the Auzentech X-Fi Prelude has a few extras for gamers and multimedia enthusiasts. Auzentech has combined a Creative X-Fi chip, with its support for EAX hardware acceleration and fancy 3D audio effects in games, with the audio quality and features one might expect from high-end sound card. What’s more, the Prelude supports real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding, an ability not available in other X-Fi cards. The Prelude earned a TR Recommended award when we reviewed it, too.

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 is really far more than Windows XP with a new user interface.

For one, Microsoft has completely 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, the 64-bit version of Windows Vista seems like a pretty compelling 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 will “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. And of course, having a 64-bit operating system means you can use more than 4GB of system memory without any convoluted workarounds.

There are a couple of 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.

Also, the x64 edition of Vista breaks compatibility with older applications in a couple of ways. Vista x64 can’t run 16-bit software, which will matter to those folks who are attached to a really old application for some reason. Also, Thurrott points out that 64-bit versions of Vista lack automatic registry and file redirection, a key element of Vista’s backward-compatibility provisions. As a result, more recent 32-bit and even 64-bit applications written for Windows XP may not run properly under Vista x64.

We’re not quite sure where PC enthusiasts will go on this issue. There may be something of a split between the gaming-oriented enthusiasts who pick the 32-bit version of Vista for minimum hassle and the computer propellerheads who go the x64 route for maximum performance and security. As for us, we’re tentatively recommending the x64 version of Vista here, since our system guide is oriented toward those building themselves brand-new PCs. By and large, the newer hardware recommended here ought to have 64-bit drivers ready, and the x64 version’s improvements in memory support, security and the like are probably worth the hassle, so long as you can successfully navigate the hardware and app-level incompatibilities. With a retail version of Vista, nothing should stop you from giving Vista x64 a go and reformatting and installing the 32-bit version if you run into 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 $218.99 $249.99 $329.99

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.

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 appears to be replacing it with a 6-bit model known as the UltraSharp SP2008WFP. Both models have 20.1″ panels with 1680 x 1050 resolutions, but the SP2008 has a higher contrast ratio, a lower response time, and a webcam, while the 2007WFP should have better color reproduction. To get a larger 8-bit panel, you’ll have to splurge for the new $700 UltraSharp 2408WFP, which has a 1920 x 1200 resolution, 6ms response time, and 3000:1 contrast ratio. We’re personally fans of the UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC, which costs considerably more ($1,399) 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.

We should also mention that a number of our forum readers have taken a liking to the Westinghouse’s 37″ LCD TV display for use as a computer monitor. As a 1080p display, it has a native resolution 1920×1080, about half that of the Dell and HP 30″ panels, but it has two big advantages: being versatile enough to serve as a high-def television or game console display, and being fricking huge. We’d rather have a 30″ Dell or HP panel ourselves, but we can’t argue with this puppy’s virtues.

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/7-in-1 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.

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 (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.

This latest system guide really highlights just how cheap hardware is these days. Our revamped Grand Experiment build is the best example, with a blazing-fast 45nm processor, 4GB of RAM, a GeForce 8800 GT graphics card, a 500GB hard drive, and an X-Fi sound card—all with a price tag of just over $1000. The Econobox has reached new heights, too. This sub-$600 system could play on the same field as the $1062 Grand Experiment build from last July.

Our only disappointment this time around was AMD, whose quad-core CPU offerings need some help in the form of better motherboard choices and clearer documentation on disabling the TLB erratum workaround, or, ideally, revised silicon that banishes the erratum altogether.

AMD may catch up once erratum-free Phenoms roll out in the coming months, though. In the same time frame, Intel should be releasing its 45nm Core 2 Quads, and there are rumors Nvidia has some additional GeForce 9-series graphics cards planned for the not-too-distant future. Those same rumors suggest the cards will be based on existing graphics processors, though, so you’re probably safe buying an 8800 GT or 8800 GTS 512MB today.

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 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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