Home TR’s February 2009 system guide

TR’s February 2009 system guide

Cyril Kowaliski
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Three months have passed since we published our last system guide, so it’s high time we took another look at the PC hardware landscape. We’ve seen surprisingly little new hardware come out during our hiatus, with the notable exception of AMD’s new Phenom II processors, in both Socket AM2+ and Socket AM3 flavors. The Phenom II X3 720 has turned out to be so competitive that we’ve actually given it a starring role in our mid-range Utility Player build.

Prices have changed quite a bit over the past few weeks, though: high-end graphics cards have become surprisingly affordable, and Core i7 hardware is now so much cheaper that we’ve managed to bring a Core i7-920 into our Sweeter Spot system, leading us to abandon the previous guide’s $1,600 Crushinator configuration. We’ve also re-thought all of our other picks to account for pricing changes big and small.

Finally, we decided to mix things up a little more this time by bringing you a new one-off build: the Kitchen PC, which melds power-efficient hardware, a very compact form factor, and surprisingly affordable pricing. Keep reading for all the details.

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.

The Econobox
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.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Pentium E5200 $72.99
Motherboard Asus P5Q SE Plus $96.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $42.99
Graphics PowerColor Radeon HD 4830 $89.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $79.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4480B w/380W PSU $79.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $482.93

The world of budget hardware moves slowly, so we haven’t yet found a processor worthy of supplanting the Pentium E5200 for the Econobox. Well, there’s the Pentium E5300 and E5400, but we don’t think you should stretch your budget just to go from 2.5GHz to 2.6 or 2.7GHz in this price range. The cheapest option still has a pair of speedy 45nm Wolfdale cores, and any minor performance differences should vanish once you start overclocking.

What about AMD? Athlon X2s are awfully cheap right now, but we still haven’t found one that can match the Pentium’s mix of good performance, low power consumption, and great overclocking potential. Should you wish to go AMD anyway, we’ve singled out an Athlon X2 for our alternatives on the next page.

For $97 (or $82 after a mail-in rebate), Asus’ P5Q SE Plus brings us a P45 chipset, six Serial ATA ports, Gigabit Ethernet, and an eight-phase power design. We’re admittedly missing out on the external Serial ATA, RAID, and FireWire features of our previous guide’s P43-based mobo, but that board has been discontinued. Remaining P43 offerings all seem to lack RAID, and their slightly lower price tags are accompanied by less enthusiastic user reviews. We could spend $20-30 more on a fancier offering with RAID, but avoiding luxuries in order to save cash is what this system is all about.

RAM prices have gotten to a point where we really have no qualms about outfitting even a budget setup with four gigs. 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 because it happens to the cheapest big-name-brand offering with a lifetime warranty on Newegg.

By the way, you’ll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of all this memory. 32-bit OSes 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 memory—and 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.

Since AMD’s Radeon HD 4830 delivers better overall performance than Nvidia’s GeForce 9800 GT for a little less dough, that’s what we’ve selected—a PowerColor Radeon HD 4830, to be precise. This card should comfortably handle the latest games at intermediate resolutions like 1680×1050 with graphical detail turned up and perhaps a dash of antialiasing. In some cases, the 4830 performs very closely to the pricier Radeon HD 4850. If you’d rather pay slightly more for a GeForce with better warranty coverage, have a look at our alternatives section on the next page.

Western Digital’s 640GB hard drives are all priced in the $70-80 range, and while the Caviar Black sits at the upper end 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.)

As for our optical storage option, Samsung’s SH-S223Q fits in just fine here. A 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 upgrading headroom; a roomy case with good cooling; and a reasonable price tag.

You might find cheaper possibilities 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 fashion—taking system components with it in the process.

Econobox alternatives
We’re happy with the selections on the previous page, but not everybody will want an Intel processor or integrated audio. Since users’ needs will invariably, er, vary, we’ve gathered a list of alternatives and extras on this page.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon X2 5600+ $72.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA78G-DS3HP $85.99
Graphics Gigabyte GeForce 9800 GT

AMD can’t quite match the performance and power efficiency of Intel’s Pentium E5200 in this price range, but the 2.9GHz Athlon X2 5600+ looks like a solid alternative if you like your CPU boxes black and green. It also enables you to choose a motherboard based on the 780G chipset, which has surprisingly capable integrated graphics and a good all-around feature set—a fine choice for those who don’t need a proper graphics card but still require a modicum of GPU power.

We picked this particular chip because it’s the fastest Athlon X2 we could find with a 65W power envelope. Faster models have 89W or higher TDPs, which strike us as a tad excessive for dual-core CPUs.

Our Socket AM2 processor won’t plug into our primary system’s LGA775 socket, so we’ve selected a matching motherboard based on AMD’s 780G integrated graphics chipset. The 780G is blessed with a surprisingly competent Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics processor that can run recent games as long as you can live with lower resolutions and detail levels. Cinephiles will be glad to know that the Radeon HD 3200 can accelerate high-definition video decoding to facilitate buttery-smooth Blu-ray playback, too.

We quite liked Gigabyte’s GA-MA78GM-S2H motherboard, but since it appears to have been discontinued, we’ve picked the GA-MA78G-DS3HP instead. This model has the same basic feature set, but with a larger, full-ATX form factor and more expansion slots. Both boards have great user reviews on Newegg.

As a side note, we should mention that motherboards based on Nvidia’s GeForce 8200- and 8300-series integrated graphics chipsets have hit stores, and they’re certainly interesting alternatives to the 780G. However, based on our experience with the GeForce 8300, we still favor the AMD chipset.

If you prefer Nvidia graphics cards for whatever reason, Gigabyte’s GeForce 9800 GT is a solid (albeit perhaps not quite as fast) alternative to the Radeon HD 4830. You may find cheaper 9800 GTs if you shop around, but this one has its GPU clocked at 700MHz instead of the stock 600MHz, and Gigabyte covers it with a decent three-year warranty.

The Utility Player
Value without major compromises

Our Utility Player build packs a fast triple-core processor, one of the speediest mid-range graphics cards out there, and some nice extras—all for just under $750. As affordable as this system is, it should be an excellent choice for playing the latest wave of PC games that cropped up during the recent holiday season.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Phenom II X3 720 Black Edition $144.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-MA790X-UD4 $114.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 $42.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 4870 XXX $209.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $79.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $129.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $749.93

Wait, what? A triple-core Phenom as the primary choice for a TR system guide build? No, we haven’t slipped into a parallel universe. Rather, as we pointed out in our review, the 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). In a nutshell, this chip is competitive with Intel’s pricier Core 2 Duo E8400 in single-threaded apps, and it’s generally quite a bit faster in both multi-threaded apps and multi-tasking scenarios. Also, it’s far easier to overclock—we managed to get ours to a very respectable 3.5GHz with a modest voltage boost.

There’s something to be said about the AMD platform, too. 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 get an Intel platform anyway or pay a little-more for a quad-core CPU, check out our alternatives section on the following page.

Gigabyte’s GA-MA790X-UD4 has almost everything you’d want for a build like the Utility Player: two physical PCI Express x16 slots with CrossFire support, six Serial ATA ports with RAID support, Gigabit Ethernet, FireWire, and an SB750 south bridge with Advanced Clock Calibration, which should help raise the overclocking headroom on older Phenom processors (Phenom IIs have ACC built-in).

This board is cheaper than the 790GX model we recommended last time because it lacks integrated graphics, and it apparently has fewer PCI Express lanes for multi-GPU configs. However, the GA-MA790X-UD4’s Serial ATA port placement doesn’t interfere with dual double-wide graphics cards, so it actually seems better suited to CrossFire configs.

Kingston has some of the cheapest memory available on Newegg right now, so we keep going back to it. The firm’s 4GB DDR2-800 kit costs around $40, 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.

Recent price drops have made the Radeon HD 4870 512MB surprisingly affordable, so we can comfortably include one in the Utility Player without going over-budget. This XFX offering isn’t the cheapest 4870 by far, but it’s the only one we could find with all three of the following: lifetime warranty coverage (double lifetime, as a matter of fact), a “factory overclocked” GPU speed, and a stock AMD cooler.

We’ve run into problems with non-standard graphics coolers recently, and we’re not too thrilled about the flimsy-looking contraptions on many of the cheaper 4870s. We like the way AMD’s default Radeon HD 4870 cooler keeps noise levels low while exhausting hot air out of the back of the system—and, you know, how AMD probably spent considerably more time tuning it for the 4870 than any of its partners did with their third-party solutions.

As we pointed out earlier, 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 we have a more generous budget for this system.

When we published our last guide, some readers questioned the wisdom of pairing a $90 discrete sound card with an $800 system. Ask any of us, and we’ll happily pay up for the 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, then we strongly recommend the upgrade. Otherwise, you’ll probably be just as happy with integrated audio—and 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.

Component Item Price
AMD Phenom II X4 940 Black Edition $229.00
Intel Core 2 Quad Q9400 $229.99
Intel Core 2 Duo E8400 $164.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EP45-UD3P $134.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce GTX 260 Reloaded $242.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $119.99
Asus Xonar DX $89.99

The $150-250 portion of the CPU market is pretty crowded right now, so we ended up choosing three alternatives to our triple-core Phenom II. The quad-core Phenom II X4 940 is a slightly fancier upgrade for folks who want an extra core and a higher clock speed. This chip will happily work in our primary motherboard, and thanks to its unlocked upper multiplier, it should be as easy to overclock as its three-core cousin.

On the Intel side of the playground, we’ve singled out two products. The Core 2 Quad Q9400 has the same price and overall performance as the quad-core Phenom, but it has a leaner power envelope. Meanwhile, the Core 2 Duo E8400 costs a little less than the triple-core Phenom but carries just two, higher-clocked cores, which offer higher single-threaded performance and lower power consumption.

As we noted earlier, Intel’s LGA775 socket has a more limited upgrade path than the AMD alternative right now. If you’d still like to go blue, keep reading to learn about our recommended Intel motherboard.

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 two more SATA ports and one extra Gigabit Ethernet controller. Judging from the gushingly positive user reviews on Newegg, this should nicely complement our alternative Core 2 CPUs.

If you have a little extra cash kicking around and want a graphics card with more than 512MB of memory to run games at higher resolutions, Zotac’s GeForce GTX 260 Reloaded is a fine step up from the Radeon HD 4870. Yes, you can get 1GB Radeon HD 4870s with equivalent performance for about the same price (XFX even has one with a double-lifetime warranty for just $240), but we find the GeForce slightly more compelling.

You see, Nvidia has forged a close relationship with many game developers through its “The Way It’s Meant To Be Played” program and other initiatives. Often, lately, new releases have run better on Nvidia GPUs. The GTX 260 Reloaded also draws less power than the 4870 1GB, which is less heat to be dissipated. The difference doesn’t amount to much under load, but we measured a 30W gap between the two cards at idle. (That’s at least two of those swirly light bulbs.) We could also make a case for Nvidia’s PhysX tech, but aside from Mirror’s Edge, few games support it.

This Zotac card has additional upsides over other GTX 260 Reloaded variants, including higher-than-normal clocks, a nice Nvidia dual-slot cooler, and lifetime warranty coverage. Well, technically, the warranty drops down to two years if you don’t register within 30 days of purchase, but that’s not a bad deal either way.

You might be wondering what LG’s GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive is doing in our alternatives section. We realize this is an expensive step up 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 $1,500 Sweet Spot from system guides of old has gone, leaving its place to the more affordable Sweeter Spot. Think of the Sweet Spot as brown sugar and the Sweeter Spot as white sugar. All we’ve done is cut the indulgent molasses, making the Sweeter Spot lighter on your wallet while keeping its payload of essential enthusiast hardware.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-920 $288.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD3R $199.99
Memory Kingston 6GB (3 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $119.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce GTX 260 Reloaded $242.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $79.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $79.99
Samsung SH-S223Q $26.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX650W $99.99
Enclosure Antec P182 $129.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $1358.90

Our processor choice for the Sweeter Spot might also come as a surprise. Thanks to recent drops in DDR3 memory and X58 motherboard pricing, we’ve managed to fashion this build into a full-blown Core i7 rig. The Core i7-920 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.

Raw performance isn’t our only reason for choosing a Core i7, either. The LGA775 platform is more or less a dead end, so folks who buy Core 2 processors today have next to no upgrade path. By contrast, Intel recently revealed that Gulftown, a 32nm six-core processor due in 2010, will happily work with existing X58 chipsets. That means you’ll most likely have no trouble upgrading the Sweeter Spot with a Gulftown CPU in a year or two.

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 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 obsolete—6GB is already a lot for a desktop PC.

DDR3 modules have come within range of their DDR2 brethren on the pricing ladder, which is good news for us, since we’re trying to build a Core i7 build without pushing our budget overboard. Kingston’s 6GB DDR3-1333 kit is one of the cheapest on Newegg from a major manufacturer with lifetime warranty coverage, so it gets our vote.

Again, you’ll want to run a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of any amount of RAM equal to or greater than 4GB. Skip ahead to the second-to-last page of the guide for more in-depth OS advice.

Update 03/04: We recommended a cheaper 6GB Crucial DDR3-1066 kit when we published this iteration of the system guide. However, we’ve seen several users complain of compatibility issues with that kit and Gigabyte X58 motherboards. To err on the side of caution, we’ve swapped the Crucial offering out for a Kingston one. The Kingston modules are in Gigabyte’s compatibility list for our recommended motherboard.

For the reasons we cited on the previous page, Zotac’s GeForce GTX 260 Reloaded has returned here as our primary selection. If you’d rather go with an equivalent ATI card or something a little peppier, check out our alternative choices on the next page.

Our storage recommendation might seem odd, but we find a pair of 640GB WD Caviar Blacks more compelling than a single, higher-capacity drive. You’d have to pay well over $80 a pop to get 750GB or 1TB hard drives with the same mix of great performance, long warranty coverage, and low noise levels. Also, picking two identical drives like these opens the door to RAID—more 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 fails—so 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).

We’re leaving the Blu-ray drive from our Utility Player alternatives out of the primary config here, opting instead for Samsung’s SH-S223Q. After all, we’re striving to keep the Sweeter Spot relatively affordable, and we think most folks will be happy with just a DVD burner.

Sticking with integrated audio might be fine on our sub-$800 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.

Power Supply
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, and—best of all—a 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 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. While the Silencer costs the same as the Corsair and actually has a higher rated wattage, we skipped it for two reasons. First, its 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 have been reporting dead-on-arrival units lately. Since the Corsair unit 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.

Component Item Price
XFX Radeon HD 4870 1GB $239.99
XFX GeForce GTX 285 $354.99
Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 X2 $439.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $129.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $129.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $119.99
TV tuner
AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe $109.99

Because of the wealth of options here, we’re proposing three alternative graphics cards for the Sweeter Spot. XFX’s Radeon HD 4870 1GB is the GeForce GTX 260’s most direct competitor, and it delivers pretty much equivalent performance at roughly the same price. If you disagree with our reasons for selecting a GeForce on the previous two pages, then this card should serve you well—especially since XFX covers it with a double-lifetime warranty that applies even after a re-sale.

If you can afford to pay another $100 or so for higher performance, then you could also opt for the new GeForce GTX 285. This is the fastest single-GPU graphics card available today, and it’s a nice step up from the GeForce GTX 260 and Radeon HD 4870 1GB. Here, too, the XFX variant has a double-lifetime warranty.

Finally, the high-end Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 X2 should satisfy those who want two GPUs without the hassle of multiple graphics cards. Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 295 is technically faster, but it also costs around $100 more, and we can’t seem to find it in stock either at Newegg or through our price search engine.

What’s better than two 640GB Caviar Blacks running in RAID-1 mode? Two 1TB Caviar Blacks, of course. These drives have meaty capacities, excellent performance, and five-year warranties, although they’re also relatively loud when seeking. Few products even come close in the realm of high-capacity system drives, however.

Movie lovers may want to complement the Sweeter Spot with LG’s GGC-H20L, as well. This drive burns DVDs and reads both Blu-ray and HD DVD discs, so it should prove a capable all-around choice.

TV tuner
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
Now 20% less extreme

We’ve dulled the thunder of our workstation build slightly by picking a more reasonable set of parts this time around. You might be hard pressed to actually notice the slower performance in day-to-day use, but the difference on your credit card will be quite obvious.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-940 $559.99
Motherboard Asus P6T $249.99
Memory Kingston 6GB (3 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $119.99
Graphics Zotac GeForce GTX 260 Reloaded $242.99
Zotac GeForce GTX 260 Reloaded $242.99
Intel X25-M 80GB $358.00
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $129.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB $129.99
LG GGC-H20L Blu-ray combo drive $119.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX850W $139.99
Enclosure Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 $189.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg. $2573.89

The Core i7-940 isn’t quite as fast as the Core i7-965, and it doesn’t have little pluses like an unlocked upper multiplier and support for memory speeds above 1066MHz out of the box. However, our benchmarks show the slower CPU really isn’t that far behind in terms of performance. Considering there’s a $400 price premium associated with the faster chip, the Core i7-940 seems like a much more reasonable proposition—even for a high-end system like this one.

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-endowed than the mobo we picked for the Sweeter Spot. With a price tag of around $250, though, the P6T isn’t too expensive a step up. Well, at least not when your whole computer costs over $2,500.

Our processor doesn’t support memory speeds above 1066MHz by default, but that doesn’t mean you can’t run faster memory by overclocking. There are a number of DDR3-1333 options available to choose from, but the Kingston kit we selected has three advantages: a relatively low price tag, a lifetime warranty, and a 1.5V voltage rating. Competing offerings are typically rated for 1.65V, and Intel warns that going over that threshold could damage your Core i7. With any luck—if you feel so inclined—you might squeeze a few extra megahertz out of this memory without taking any chances with your processor.

Our GeForce GTX 260 Reloaded SLI configuration costs more than the Radeon HD 4870 X2 from our Sweeter Spot alternatives, and it takes up an extra two slots. However, the GeForce setup should generate less noise, perform a little better, and bring some of the Nvidia-only perks we’ve talked about—namely better support for newer games as a result of the company’s closer ties with game developers.

We’ve traditionally sided with Radeons in our multi-GPU recommendations because of the company’s multi-monitor support, but Nvidia’s ForceWare drivers have had support for multiple displays in SLI mode for a few months now. That means you can connect two monitors to the Double-Stuff and start up games in SLI mode without any hassles—something we find vital for this class of system.

You might recall our previous workstation builds included 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 tests—and its access times are orders of magnitude quicker than those of traditional hard drives. 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. We’ve also passed on Intel’s new X25-E Extreme, which has much faster write speeds but only a 32GB capacity at an even higher price. The X25-M is expensive enough already.

(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 in 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 pricing. 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-definition DVDs on a system like this.

Asus’ Xonar DX fits in just as well here as in our other builds. That said, musicians and other users who need 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 slap the card in 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.

Power Supply
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 advantages—a greater-than-80% efficiency rating, five-year warranty, and a single 12V rail—but it has more juice and more cables (including two pairs of eight-pin PCIe power connectors for high-end graphics cards). The TX850W might admittedly 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 the Cosmos is bigger, badder, and more enthusiast-friendly. Four 120mm fans generate plenty of airflow, and the case 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.

Double-Stuff alternatives
As complete as our Double-Stuff Workstation is, we still have some alternative ideas for how to fill it out.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-965 Extreme Edition $999.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-EX58-UD5 $288.99
Memory Corsair 6GB (3 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $159.00
Sapphire Radeon HD 4870 X2 $439.00
Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB $229.99
Western Digital VelociRaptor 300GB $229.99
Sound card
Asus Xonar D2X $199.99
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, there are reasons to go with the faster and pricier offering. For one, the Extreme chip has an unlocked upper multiplier, which should allow for effortless overclocking. Also, this is the only member of the Core i7 series to support memory speeds above 1066MHz without overclocking. In our tests, we’ve seen that the higher bandwidth offered by faster memory can notably improve Core i7 performance in some applications.

Couple those two advantages with a 3.2GHz default core clock speed (up from 2.93GHz on the i7-940) and a faster 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.

The P6T is all well and good, but you can do better if your budget is looser. Gigabyte’s GA-EX58-UD5 has more SATA ports, dual Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and its PCI Express slots are arranged in a way that allows you to fit two graphics cards, a PCIe sound card, and the PCIe TV tuner we recommend below. Oh, and we like the way Gigabyte added a little button to clear the CMOS on the rear port cluster.

Since the Core i7-965 Extreme Edition supports DDR3 memory speeds above 1066MHz, we’ve gone ahead and picked some fancy alternative DIMMs. This DDR3-1600 Corsair kit is one of the fastest you can buy right now, and it doesn’t cost all that much more than comparable DDR3-1333 offerings. (The lifetime warranty coverage doesn’t hurt, either.) As our tests have demonstrated, higher DDR3 memory speeds can improve performance on Core i7 systems.

The Radeon HD 4870 X2 is a very capable alternative to our dual GeForces if you’d like to keep an expansion slot or two free. Do expect higher noise levels, however.

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, too.

Sound card
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.

TV tuner
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. Incidentally, you’ll need to use our alternative motherboard if you want to run this TV tuner alongside dual graphics cards and a sound card. The Asus P6T doesn’t have enough PCIe slots for such a configuration.

The Kitchen PC
It even weeps when you order pizza

We’ve given home theater PC setups a few stabs in past system guides, but we’d never tried a kitchen PC. As it turns out, you really can build a cheap machine that’ll let you look up recipes, run instant messaging software, and watch DVDs while taking as little space as possible on your kitchen counter. Nothing forces you to put this PC in your kitchen, of course—it’d probably be a nice solution for college dorm rooms and the like.

Component Item Price
Barebone MSI Wind 100 (Intel Atom 330) $149.99
Memory 2GB Kingston DDR2-667 SO-DIMM $19.99
Graphics Integrated $0
Networking Intel 3945ABG mini PCIe Wi-Fi card $22.99
Storage OCZ Solid Series 32GB $94.49
Samsung SH-S223Q $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Display Acer X193Wb 19″ 1440×900 $119.99
Input Logitech Deluxe 660 $26.99
Speakers Creative Inspire 245 $18.99
OS Ubuntu Linux 8.10 $0

Rather than purchase a separate processor, motherboard, enclosure, and power supply, we’ve entrusted MSI to deliver all four with its Wind 100. This barebone PC only costs $60 more than an Intel Mini-ITX mobo with the same CPU, and it has a tight form factor with room for a 3.5″ hard drive and 5.25″ optical drive—all useful attributes for building a small, ultra-cheap system like this one.

Speaking of processors, the Wind 100’s CPU is an Atom 330 with dual 1.6GHz cores. Don’t expect mind-blowing performance, but do look forward to something a little snappier than your typical netbook or nettop.

The Wind 100 takes laptop-style SO-DIMMs, and this 2GB DDR2-667 module from Kingston should complement it well. The $20 price tag is perfect for our budget, and we’re still getting lifetime warranty coverage.

Even if you won’t end up putting the Kitchen PC in an actual kitchen, chances are you won’t want to run a big, ugly Ethernet cable up to it. Since the Wind 100 has a mini PCIe slot, we’ve added a matching Intel Wi-Fi card. The 3945ABG doesn’t support 802.11n, but it seems to have better compatibility with our recommend Ubuntu Linux operating system than newer and faster models. And hey, $22.99 for a Wi-Fi card is pretty darn cheap.

By the way, the 3945ABG doesn’t (to our knowledge) come with an antenna, but the MSI makes up for that omission in the Wind 100’s accessory bundle. So, you know, don’t go thinking you have to jimmy-rig something yourself out of an old soup spoon.

We’d like the Kitchen PC to be as quiet as possible, which is why we’ve picked a 32GB OCZ solid-state drive to house our operating system and applications. You can probably dump a few MP3s and random documents on there, too, but the 32GB capacity encourages storing more voluminous files somewhere across the network. Still, this drive gets our nod for its low price tag, decent performance ratings, and good user reviews on Newegg.

The Wind 100 barebone doesn’t have a 2.5″ drive bay, so you’ll probably want to tape the drive to the inside of the case. You could get an adapter, of course, but it’s not like you risk damaging moving parts in a solid-state drive if the tape comes undone.

What about our optical drive? You can probably track down some cheaper offerings than Samsung’s SH-S223Q, but at this point, we really can’t imagine why you’d buy a bare CD or DVD drive with no burning capabilities just to save five to ten bucks.

It costs $120. It has a 19″ panel size with a 1440×900 resolution. And it has overwhelmingly positive user reviews on Newegg. We think that’s pretty much all we need to say about Acer’s X193Wb. If you don’t already have an old monitor lying around, this should be a fine, low-cost companion to the Kitchen PC.

We could save a few bucks by going with a wired keyboard and mouse, but at $27, Logitech’s Deluxe 600 combo doesn’t exactly break the bank. Having as few cables as possible cluttering up your kitchen counter is a nice plus, too.

Depending on what you want to do with the Kitchen PC, you may not even need a pair of speakers. If you feel like watching DVDs or listening to music on this system, though, then something like Creative’s Inspire 245 stereo set should do the trick. We probably don’t need to tell you not to expect thumping bass and crisp highs from sub-$20 speakers, but this is a budget config, after all.

Operating system
Windows is great, but it’s not cheap—even if you’re shopping for an OEM version. Ubuntu Linux 8.10 is free, by contrast, and it’s more than capable enough for a low-powered desktop like the Kitchen PC. We believe Ubuntu should recognize our recommended Intel wireless card out of the box, and it should have no trouble playing back DVDs once you install the required add-ons to the default media player. Ubuntu also comes with a host of open-source apps, including Firefox for web browsing and OpenOffice.org for spreadsheets and word processing. And hey, not being vulnerable to Windows malware is a definite plus, too.

Kitchen PC alternatives
Maybe you want a proper mechanical hard drive, or perhaps you just don’t feel like putting up with Linux. In any case, we have some alternatives for you.

Component Item Price
Networking Intel 4965AGN mini PCIe Wi-Fi card $32.92
Storage Western Digital Caviar Green 640GB $69.99
OS Windows XP Home Edition OEM $89.99

The Ubuntu 8.10 release notes mention something about system lock-ups with the Intel 4965AGN Wi-Fi card, so you probably want to stay away if you plan to follow our primary OS recommendation. Should you splurge on a Windows license (or scavenge one from an older system), however, this 802.11n network card should be a nice upgrade from the 802.11g one on the previous page.

WD’s 640GB Caviar Green should have much lower noise levels and power consumption than other 3.5″ mechanical hard drives, and its 640GB capacity is well out of the reach of affordable SSDs.

Operating system
We’re recommending Windows XP Home Edition instead of Windows Vista as an alternative here for two reasons: it costs less, and it should be lighter on our (limited) system resources than Vista. If the term “Linux” brings back flashbacks of manually editing configuration files to get around obscure bugs, then you might be happier with XP.

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 gaming—something 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.

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

Despite these little downsides, we think most enthusiasts will want to 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

Vista Business

Vista Ultimate

OEM price (32-bit) $89.99 $99.99 $139.99 $179.99
OEM price (64-bit) $89.99 $99.99 $139.99 $179.99
Retail price $158.49 $222.99 $278.99 $235.99

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 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 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 folks will only be bothered by one differentiating attribute: whether their display has a 6-bit twisted nematic + film (TN+film) panel. Most 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 systems you’re planning to build. For instance, folks who purchase the Sweeter Spot ought to splurge on a nice 8-bit, 24″ display—perhaps 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) with the Double-Stuff Workstation. Our workstation build has two high-end graphics cards, after all, and you should have an ample monitor budget if you’re purchasing a $2,500 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 one particular attribute lies at the heart of 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, some folks—typically gamers—find 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. Some favor wireless mice with docking cradles for that reason, since those let you plug in at night and not have to worry about finding a pair of charged AAs in the middle of 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 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. If you’re part of the clicky crowd and have an even bigger budget, then Metadot’s Das Keyboard Professional is worth a look, too.

Floppy drive/card reader combo
Since the advent of cheap USB thumb drives and broadband Internet access, floppy drives have essentially been rendered obsolete. They can still come in handy in some rare instances, though. You could just spend $10 on a run-of-the-mill internal floppy drive, but we prefer to opt for a floppy/multi-flash-card reader combo like this Koutech model instead. You’re still getting a floppy drive, but the added flash card reading functionality may prove more useful over the long run, and you’re not paying a whole lot more.

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’re fans of 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, though, so folks who go with our Sweeter Spot or Double-Stuff Workstation builds may want to consider Thermaltake’s V1 AX—it’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, because big fans move more air per revolution and can thus spin slower, producing less noise than their smaller counterparts.

And so we come to the close of another much-needed system guide refresh. It seems like every time we wrap up a system guide, we come off impressed by the sheer value of our more affordable builds. This time, the Utility Player has donned a fast triple-core CPU and a Radeon HD 4870 while actually falling well under our budget limit. And the Sweeter Spot now looks a whole lot like last November’s high-end Crushinator build—except it’s $300 cheaper.

As always, though, your upgrading fervor may be dampened by thoughts of upcoming hardware. We wouldn’t worry too much about future CPUs right now—with Socket AM3 Phenom IIs out the door, the next big update should come in the form of Lynnfield, Intel’s more affordable Core i7 derivatives. We wouldn’t expect those until the second half of the year, however. Things might move a little more quickly on the GPU front, since we’ve heard a plethora of rumors about impending 40nm graphics chips that could pop up in April and May.

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 company—and help—if you’re not feeling particularly confident about a new build.

The Tech Report - Editorial ProcessOur Editorial Process

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