TR’s March 2010 system guide

TR’s March 2010 system guide

We’ve waited a little longer than usual before publishing our first system guide of the year, but there’s good reason for that. Over the past few weeks, AMD has released new batches of low-end processors and cheap DirectX 11 Radeons, while Intel has outed its 32-nm Core i3 and Core i5 dual-core processors. At the same time, motherboard makers have started selling boards with next-generation USB 3.0 and 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity. All those releases have largely reshaped what we’ve come to expect from a low-end PC.

On top of that, we can make better-informed processor choices now that we’ve completed our latest CPU roundup. In that article, we pitted the latest Athlon IIs against 32-nm Core processors, added a plethora of other offerings to the mix, and took another crack at detailed value calculations using our famed scatter plots. All of that information tells us which processors deliver the most bang for your buck—quite valuable for a system guide such as this.

In the aftermath of all these product releases and furious benchmarking, we’re finally ready to share our latest recommendations. Let’s have a look, shall we?

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

As our cheapest build, the Econobox presents an affordable formula for gaming and general use. Rather than picking leftover components from the bottom of the bargain bin, we tried to balance low cost with performance and upgrading headroom, which should result in a surprisingly well-rounded system for the price.

Component Item Price
Processor AMD Athlon II X4 630 $108.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-770TA-UD3 $94.99
Memory Crucial 2GB (2 x 1GB) DDR3-1333 $57.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5670 $99.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 640GB $74.99
Samsung SH-S223L $26.99
Audio Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec NSK 4482B w/380W PSU $79.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $543.93

Again, the value section from our latest CPU showdown (and our subsequent blog post) now lets us choose processors with more confidence. In terms of raw overall performance per dollar, we found AMD’s Athlon II X4 630 to be the most competitive offering within the Econobox’s budget—no wonder, considering that this CPU packs four 2.8GHz cores yet sells for just over $100.

There’s more to processors than just performance and pricing, though. We initially wanted to choose Intel’s Core i3-530 for that reason. While the i3-530 doesn’t perform quite as well as the Athlon II overall, it has a tighter thermal envelope (73W vs. 95W), better power efficiency, and incredible overclocking potential. Unfortunately, going that route would distend our already stretched budget, so we’ve relegated the Core i3 to the alternatives.

USB 3.0 and 6Gbps Serial ATA ports have flooded the motherboard market since our last guide. Part of the Econobox’s appeal comes from its low cost, and it turns out that you can get next-gen I/O on relatively cheap boards like Gigabyte’s GA-770TA-UD3. USB 3.0 alone promises substantial performance improvements with all manner of external devices, and 6Gbps SATA could make a big difference with future solid-state drives, so not spending the extra $10-15 now seems a little short-sighted.

The GA-770TA-UD3 has a nicely rounded set of features, too, with a gaggle of ports (including external SATA and FireWire) plus an 8+2 power phase design capable of fueling 140W CPUs.

This board’s DDR3 memory slots might seem like a downside because DDR3 has regained its slight price premium over DDR2. Here, too, however, we’re prioritizing future expansion over small, short-term savings. DDR3 is taking over the system memory market, and DDR2 will likely become more expensive as DDR3 demand increases and DDR2 production wanes. That means adding more RAM down the line could be cheaper, and you may be able to re-use memory from this system in your next one.

Our Econobox had quite a long run with four gigs of RAM as standard. Sadly, that was only possible because of a wave of oversupply and various other factors that wreaked havoc in the memory industry. The situation has now stabilized, and memory prices are back to their pre-crunch level—good news for memory makers but bad news for us.

Until memory makers resume bankrupting themselves to flood the market with cheap RAM, we’ll have to step down to 2GB to stay within our budget. Crucial’s 2GB DDR3-1333 memory kit ought to be sufficient for everyday use and even most cross-platform games, and Crucial covers it with a lifetime warranty. Should the upgrade itch strike you some time in the future, our recommended motherboard has room for two more 1GB DIMMs. We’ve set aside a 4GB kit for inveterate multitaskers and hard-core gamers in our alternatives, as well.

As much as we want to fashion the Econobox into a lean, mean, gaming machine, we have to make minor sacrifices to keep within reach of our $500 budget. Stepping down to XFX’s Radeon HD 5670 is part of that. This graphics card doesn’t quite have the muscle of our previous recommendation, the Radeon HD 5750. But as we saw in our review, the 5670 is still powerful enough to run the latest and greatest games at 1680×1050 with antialiasing turned up—and 1680×1050 happens to be the native resolution of most budget 20″ and 22″ monitors with 16:10 aspect ratios, ideal companions for the Econboox.

Unless you feel the urge to pair the Econobox with a bigger, higher-resolution display, the 5670 will be more than adequate. Otherwise, head on to our alternatives for a meatier GPU recomendation.

Western Digital has three 640GB hard drives in this price range, and we think the Caviar Black is the one best suited for a system drive. Not only does it have a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, 32MB of cache, and the same noise level ratings as the slower SE16 model, but WD also covers the Black with a five-year warranty. We haven’t seen another 640GB hard drive with specifications quite as good or warranty coverage quite as long.

For our optical storage option, Samsung’s SH-S223L makes another appearance here. We like the combination of positive user reviews and low pricing, and its Serial ATA interface is reasonably future-proof. Samsung even includes LightScribe support.

Enclosure and power
The Antec NSK 4482B looks to be the latest revision of the Econobox’s usual enclosure. This sleek-looking model apparently has the exact same features as our former pick, including a 380W, 80%-efficient power supply (with 80 Plus Bronze certification), nice noise-reduction features, plenty of room for hard drives and expansion, and a clean, easy-to-work-in layout.

You might find cheaper cases out there, but we don’t think you’ll be able to save a whole lot once the cost of a PSU is factored into the equation. 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
Want to tweak the Econobox with a more power-efficient CPU, more RAM, or a different graphics config? Then read on.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i3-530 $124.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-H55M-USB3 $109.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $104.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $159.99

As we noted on the previous page, the Core i3-530 falls a little behind the Athlon II X4 630 in our benchmark suite overall. However, the Intel CPU also happens to have much better power efficiency and incredible overclocking potential—we got ours to just over 4.4GHz after swapping the stock cooler for a tower-style heatsink. The i3-530 ran our Cinebench test almost as quickly as the $200 Core i5-750 at that speed, despite having two fewer cores.

The icing on the cake? Even with a relatively power-hungry H57 motherboard, our Core i3-530 system overclocked to 4.4GHz only drew about 5W more under load than the Athlon II X4 630 build running at stock speeds. Just make sure to check out this guide’s second-to-last page for our aftermarket cooler recommendations.

We usually feature a motherboard with integrated graphics in our Econobox alternatives. Today, Gigabyte’s GA-H55M-USB3 fills in as both our Intel motherboard and our IGP option, since it can pipe the Core i3-530’s integrated graphics through VGA, DVI, DisplayPort, and HDMI outputs. (Clarkdale processors all have integrated graphics cores on the actual CPU package.) In spite of its microATX form factor, this puppy also features dual physical PCI Express x16 slots plus USB 3.0, external SATA, and FireWire connectivity. Slightly cheaper H55 mobos do exist, but none have those kinds of perks.

We aimed to keep our primary build near the $500 mark, but you don’t have to. Anyone with a little more spare cash ought to consider jumping up to 4GB of RAM, which should smooth out multitasking and long gaming sessions. Windows 7 isn’t quite as resource-intensive as Vista, but it will still put spare memory to good use thanks to technologies like SuperFetch.

Now, you’ll need a 64-bit operating system to take full advantage of all this memory. 32-bit OSes 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, 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 exist for 32-bit Windows, but Microsoft says they can hurt compatibility; it advises that folks run a 64-bit version of Windows instead. Considering how many pre-built PCs ship with Win7 x64 these days, we’re inclined to echo that recommendation. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.

Similarly, folks who play state-of-the-art 3D games may want to step up to the new Radeon HD 5770. We saw first-hand that this card pretty much shadows the old Radeon HD 4870 1GB, generally reaching playable frame rates at 1920×1200 with 4X antialiasing. The somewhat inflated cost isn’t hard to swallow for a system with plenty of gaming potential, and you’ll notice the difference at higher resolutions and detail levels.

Why not just get the 4870 1GB for about the same price? First, the 5770 consumes quite a bit less power, generates less noise with the stock cooler, has a shorter circuit board, and has better texture filtering than its predecessor. Last, but not least, the 5770’s DirectX 11 support may bring image quality or performance bonuses in DX11 games (a couple are already out, with more to follow in early 2010).

We chose XFX’s variant of the 5770 because it has double-lifetime warranty coverage, a relatively quiet dual-slot cooler that exhausts air outside the case, and a price tag barely above that of other models.

The Utility Player
Value without major compromises

For an extra fistful of Franklins, the Utility Player gives us more of everything—processing power, graphics performance, memory, storage capacity… you name it—while remaining tantalizingly affordable.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i5-750 $194.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD3 $134.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $104.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5770 $159.99
Storage Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB (6Gbps) $119.99
Samsung SH-S223L $26.99
Integrated $0
Enclosure Antec Sonata III w/500W PSU $99.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $841.93

We ran the numbers on the Core i5-750 in the value section of our latest processor roundup, and when we accounted for the price of a full system much like the Utility Player, this CPU came out on top of both our performance-per-dollar and power-efficiency-per-dollar rankings. With four Nehalem cores, a 95W thermal envelope, and a sub-$200 price tag, it’s no wonder the Core i5-750 does so well. What better choice for this build?

The Utility Player is getting some USB 3.0 and 6Gbps Serial ATA love, too, courtesy of Gigabyte’s GA-P55A-UD3. This motherboard looks like a good fit for the Utility Player, combining plenty of expansion, two of each next-gen I/O port type, and a surprisingly affordable price. Gigabyte even got this board CrossFire-certified, although as far as we can tell, the second physical PCI Express x16 slot only has four lanes running to it. Should you seek more graphics horsepower, we invite you to resist the multi-GPU temptation and head to the next page for our alternate graphics recommendation, instead.

A pattern is starting to form here: this is our third Gigabyte motherboard recommendation in as many pages. No, Asus didn’t murder one of our editors’ firstborns, nor did an MSI executive run away with one of our significant others. Rather, the simple truth is that, at present, Gigabyte motherboards pretty consistently have more features at equivalent or lower prices than comparable offerings from other tier-one manufacturers.

Don’t believe us? Take a look at Newegg’s listings. The GA-P55A-UD3 is the cheapest P55 mobo with both USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA by a whole $25, and the pricier Asus board doesn’t have a whole lot going for it (Newegg customers have given it fewer five-star ratings, as well). To tip the odds further, Gigabyte has another, higher-end board priced identically to the Asus that features more eSATA ports, so if we were going to pay more, we’d probably still shun Asus. If you’re wondering about MSI, that company’s cheapest P55 mobo with next-gen I/O costs well over $200.

We’ve had good experiences with Gigabyte’s recent motherboards, so we see no reason to recommend more expensive alternatives just for the sake of variety.

Despite memory pricing increases, our budget lets us include 4GB of Kingston DDR3-1333 RAM in our primary config. The Utility Player would look a little lopsided with a $200 CPU, $160 graphics card, and just two gigs of RAM, after all. Just make sure you install a 64-bit operating system, or you won’t be able to make use of all this RAM easily.

What we wrote on the previous page rings true here, also. The Radeon HD 5770 performs quite closely to the old Radeon HD 4870 1GB and costs pretty much the same, but it has lower power consumption, quieter cooling, better texture filtering, and DirectX 11 support, so we think it’s a better deal. If you’d like more performance and have some wiggle room in your budget, see the next page.

For what seems like ages, we’ve been recommending 640GB Western Digital hard drives across our three cheapest builds. We prolonged this tradition because we couldn’t find a 1TB drive with the same mix of great performance and low noise levels. In light of today’s pricing landscape and the release of WD’s 1TB Caviar Black with 6Gbps SATA, however, we’ve decided to compromise a little bit. The new 1TB drive might have relatively high seek noise levels, but it also has more storage capacity, better performance, the same five-year warranty as the Econobox’s 640GB Caviar Black, and roughly the same cost per gigabyte.

For a cheaper, potentially quieter 1TB alternative, see our alternatives.

We’re sticking with the Samsung SH-S223L as our optical drive. DVD burners have become commodity items, so we’re not terribly inclined to get something fancier just because of our more generous budget.

Our inclusion of a discrete sound card in previous Utility Player builds elicited some very polarized responses, with some folks praising the Asus Xonar DX for its superior analog sound quality and others labeling it a waste of money. This time, we’ve stuck with onboard audio in our primary config—not because we now side with the latter camp, but because price increases on other components (namely memory) mean the Xonar would push us well over budget, making it much tougher to justify.

This decision involved a fair amount of hand-wringing and some experimentation with the Realtek-powered onboard sound from a Gigabyte GA-P55-UD3R. Our verdict is that, if you use a pair of cheap headphones or speakers, the Realtek codec will sound okay—not great, just okay. Good enough for gaming, YouTube, and listening to MP3s, certainly. Besides, if you’re running a receiver or speakers with a digital input, the burden of good digital-to-analog conversion will rest with those components rather than the motherboard.

If you have a halfway decent analog audio device and care the slightest bit about sound quality, a good sound card will make a very real, palpable difference. Bass will be less boomy, mids will sound far more detailed, and highs won’t chirp away louder than they should. Everything will sound distinctly, unmistakably more natural. If better analog sound is worth an extra $90 to you, then skip over to our alternatives page.

Enclosure and power
The Antec Sonata III costs more than the NSK 4482B we selected for the Econobox, but it has several advantages, including 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.

You might notice we’re not throwing in a processor alternative here. As we said earlier, the Core i5-750 outclassed all competitors in our value rankings. You could go with a Phenom II X4 965 for a few dollars less, but why do that when the Core i5-750 has both better overall performance and substantially lower power consumption?

Component Item Price
Graphics Gigabyte Radeon HD 5850 $309.99
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $89.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $69.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99

The Radeon HD 5770 might be quick enough to run most games at 1920×1200 with antialiasing on, but the Radeon HD 5850 guarantees smoother frame rates at those settings and the ability to run a good number of titles at 2560×1600 with AA enabled, as well. Not only that, but the 5850 can yield higher frame rates in current and upcoming DirectX 11 games like DiRT 2 and Metro 2033, which make use of the DX11 API’s tessellation capabilities and thus put a greater strain on the GPU than vanilla cross-platform titles do. A Gigabyte card gets our nod of approval here because it’s competitively priced and has three-year warranty coverage.

By the way, AMD will soon fill the gap between the Radeon HD 5770 and 5850 with a new graphics card, the Radeon HD 5830. Word is that this GPU may become widely available next month, so if you read this in March, be sure to look around for it either on our price search engine or at Newegg. We’ll have a review out very soon, too.

We’re not quite as confident in the 1TB SpinPoint F3 as we are in the Caviar Black, since we haven’t tested the Samsung drive yet. However, the SpinPoint’s specs look solid: a full 7,200-RPM spindle speed, 32MB of cache, and two 500GB platters. More importantly, Samsung quotes noise levels of up to 29 dB during seeks, which should be quieter than the new 1TB Caviar Black, for which WD quotes maximum seek noise of 33 dB. On the flip side, we wouldn’t be surprised if the SpinPoint had poorer random access times and lower overall performance than the Caviar.

Looking at Blu-ray drives, Lite-On’s iHOS104-08 should do a fine job as a standalone reader; it has great user reviews, relatively recent software (PowerDVD 8), and an affordable price. None of the combo offerings we’ve come across lately really stand out, usually because of lackluster software bundles or high prices. In the end, we figure you’re better off pairing a standalone Blu-ray reader with the DVD burner from our primary parts list.

As we said on the previous page, onboard audio can’t match the analog output quality of a good sound card like Asus’ Xonar DX. The Xonar also happens to handle real-time Dolby Digital Live encoding, and it does a pretty good job of emulating EAX 5.0 positional audio effects, which is an extra bonus for gamers. Just about anyone with a decent set of analog speakers or headphones should be able to appreciate the difference in output quality between the Xonar and our onboard audio.

The Sweeter Spot
Indulgence without excess

The Utility Player probably has enough goodies to satisfy the majority of enthusiasts. However, the Sweeter Spot goes the extra mile to bring you even more processing and graphics power, plus extras like a fancier motherboard, Blu-ray, a bigger enclosure with more elaborate noise-dampening features, and a beefier power supply.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-860 $289.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD4P $184.99
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $104.99
Graphics Gigabyte Radeon HD 5850 $309.99
Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB (6Gbps) $119.99
Samsung SH-S223L $26.99
Lite-On iHOS104-08 Blu-ray reader $69.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair TX650W $99.99
Enclosure Antec P183 $149.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $1,436.90

The Core i7-860 costs a good 90 bucks more than the Utility Player’s Core i5-750, but it has two major upsides: a higher clock speed and Hyper-Threading. Thanks to Windows 7 and its SMT parking feature in particular, HT can help quite considerably in certain tasks without compromising performance in others. We’ve found that Core i7 CPUs are notably faster than the i5-750 in 7-Zip compression, video encoding, and 3D rendering, all of which take advantage of the Core i7’s support for additional threads. We think that’s worth the premium in a system of this caliber.

Just like our previous two motherboard picks, the Gigabyte GA-P55A-UD4P brings both USB 3.0 and 6Gbps SATA connectivity to the mix. Why does it cost a good $50 more than the Utility Player’s board? Support for both CrossFire and SLI multi-GPU configurations with a proper eight lanes for the second PCIe x16 slot, for starters. There are also two external Serial ATA ports, two FireWire ports, two Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and 12 processor power phases, all of which fits with the Sweeter Spot’s higher-end pedigree.

Why not pick an Asus motherboard? In this price range, too, Asus has a more expensive offering with little going for it besides the brand name. The $190 P7P55D-E Pro has similar functionality to the Gigabyte board, but with just one eSATA port, one FireWire port, and one Gigabit Ethernet controller, we don’t think the Asus is worth the extra scratch.

Our 4GB kit of DDR3-1333 RAM easily fits into the Sweeter Spot’s budget. Four gigs of RAM should be plenty even for multitasking-crazy types.

Now that AMD’s 40-nm supply issues have eased somewhat, we can safely recommend a Radeon HD 5850 for the Sweeter Spot’s primary config. We already talked about this card on the previous page; the 5850 has enough horsepower to handle many games at 2560×1600 with 4X antialiasing and the rest of the eye candy turned up. Most gamers probably don’t need anything faster at the moment.

Just like in the Utility Player, we’ve replaced our venerable 640GB Caviar Black with its 1TB, 6Gbps sibling. The new 1TB Caviar Black has excellent all-around performance and a five-year warranty, although it’s not the quietest drive out there. You’ll want to peruse our alternatives section if low noise is a priority.

As for our optical storage, the dual-drive solution we suggested on the previous page should also work well here: Samsung’s SH-S223L will be in charge of DVD burning, while Lite-On’s iHOS104-08 will take care of Blu-ray playback.

We may not have had room for Asus’ Xonar DX in the Utility Player, but we do here. 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 more potent than a case-and-PSU bundle, so we’ve picked out a Corsair TX650W. This power supply has a single 12V rail, plenty of connectors, 80% or greater rated efficiency, active power factor correction, a single 120-mm 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 that the TX650W is quieter. And the Newegg user reviews are excellent, which is usually a good sign.

Antec’s P183 case isn’t particularly cheap, but it has many upsides, including composite panels, adjustable-speed 120-mm fans, partitioned cooling zones, and a cable-management system that lets you snake 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 to max out your RAM, or maybe you’d like a different hard drive and some TV tuning options. Regardless, our alternatives should cover your needs.

Component Item Price
Memory Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $104.99
Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333 $104.99
Storage Samsung SpinPoint F3 1TB $89.99
TV tuner
Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit $104.99

Sure, RAM isn’t anywhere near as cheap now as it was last year, but some folks may still want to fill each of our recommended motherboard’s memory slots with a 2GB DDR3 module (using a pair of 4GB Kingston kits). Anyone who goes that route will only need to make sure they run a 64-bit operating system; otherwise, they’ll have trouble making use of more than 4GB or so.

What we said about Samsung’s SpinPoint F3 1TB two pages ago applies here, as well. If you’re after low seek noise levels and don’t mind potentially slower performance, the SpinPoint’s a good system drive candidate. Naturally, you can pair two of either these drives or the WD Caviar Blacks in RAID arrays for extra performance (RAID 0) or added redundancy (RAID 1). Just keep in mind that RAID 0 configs double the chance of data loss, because they stripe data across two drives—if one drive fails, the data on the other one will be useless.

TV tuner
The AVerMedia AVerTV Combo PCIe tuner of system guides past has faded out of online listings. In its absence, we’ve chosen Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit. Just like the AVerTV, 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, a hardware MPEG encoder, Windows Vista certification, and a remote that works with Windows Media Center. Newegg customers sound fairly happy with it, too.

The Double-Stuff Workstation
Recession? What recession?

In the realm of enthusiast PC hardware, there’s good enough, better than good enough, and as good as it gets before becoming a waste of money. The Double-Stuff Workstation belongs to the third category.

Component Item Price
Processor Intel Core i7-960 $589.99
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-X58A-UD3R $209.99
Memory OCZ 6GB (3 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $159.99
OCZ 6GB (3 x 2GB) DDR3-1600 $159.99
Graphics XFX Radeon HD 5870 $399.99
Storage Intel X25-M G2 160GB $499.00
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $179.99
Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB $179.99
LG WH08LS20 Blu-ray burner $179.99
Audio Asus Xonar DX $89.99
Power supply Corsair HX750W $149.99
Enclosure Cooler Master Cosmos 1000 $179.99
Total Buy this complete system at Newegg $2,976.89

We have two choices at this price point: the Core i7-870 and the Core i7-960. We opted for the latter. The i7-870 offers excellent performance and works in inexpensive LGA1156 motherboards, but the Core i7-960 is faster. Since this is our highest-end build, we’re going with a high-end motherboard, anyway. On top of that, our LGA1366 motherboard should support six-core Gulftown processors when they come out later this year, giving us a clearer upgrade path than LGA1156.

Some folks might think we’re not shooting high enough by snubbing the Core i7-975 Extreme Edition. Those readers would do well to peruse the value section from our latest processor roundup, specifically the scatter plots, which show the i7-975 barely edging out the i7-960 on the performance axis despite costing nearly twice as much.

Gigabyte’s GA-X58A-UD3R happens to be the cheapest X58 motherboard with USB 3.0 and 6Gbps Serial ATA, and we think it has a nice, well-rounded feature set, with perks ranging from SLI and CrossFire support to dual eSATA/USB combo ports, 10 internal SATA ports, and four physical PCIe x16 slots. The only other X58 mobos with next-gen I/O cost $290 and up, and we don’t think the few little additions they bring warrant spending that much more.

Yeah, yeah. Most folks will be perfectly content with 4GB of RAM, so recommending three times that much might seem a little crazy. However, keep in mind that our second 6GB OCZ DDR3-1600 kit only raises the full system’s price by about 6%. The extra memory will surely come in handy for users faced with actual workstation tasks, and who wouldn’t enjoy the bragging rights?

With a single Radeon HD 5870, you’ll be able to enjoy virtually all of the latest games at 2560×1600 with all the eye candy cranked up. What more could you ask for? Our motherboard has multi-GPU support just in case, but we think a single 5870 has more than enough horsepower for even the Double-Stuff. Here, also, XFX gets our vote for its superior warranty coverage.

Now that Intel’s latest solid-state drives have TRIM support, a good part of our rationale for excluding SSDs from the Double-Stuff’s primary config has faded. So, we’re now recommending a single 160GB X25-M G2 SSD from Intel instead of dual WD VelociRaptors. This drive has about half the capacity of the ‘raptor, but it has even lower access times, better performance, an immunity to mechanical failures, and zero noise output. TRIM support also means performance shouldn’t degrade significantly as the drive gets used, because the X25-M won’t have to deal with the dreaded block-rewrite penalty as you delete files and write over them later. You’ll have to make sure you’re running Windows 7 for TRIM to work, of course.

For mass storage, we’re backing the X25-M with a pair of 2TB Western Digital Caviar Greens. These would be a little too sluggish to fill in as system drives, but they’re affordable and should store bulky multimedia content—or even a backup of your SSD’s contents—more than adequately. We advise you run these two drives in a RAID 1 array for extra redundancy, so your data remains safe even if one mechanical drive kicks the bucket.

We should note that Seagate’s low-power Barracuda LP 2TB is a credible alternative to the Caviar Green. The ‘cuda is a little quieter, too. However, we haven’t been impressed by the reliability of Seagate drives of late, so we’re going to stick with the Green, which has more positive Newegg reviews than the LP.

On the optical side of things, Blu-ray burners have gone down in price sufficiently to become no-brainers for inclusion in the Double-Stuff. LG’s WH08LS20 can write to Blu-ray discs (single- and dual-layer), DVDs, and CDs, and it ships in a nice retail package with CyberLink PowerDVD software. Definitely not bad for $180.

Just as in the Sweeter Spot, Asus’ Xonar DX fits perfectly in the Double-Stuff. That said, musicians and others who require more connectivity options might want to consider the Xonar D2X from our alternatives section.

Power Supply
The victor from our latest PSU roundup has found its way here. Corsair’s HX750W earned our Editor’s Choice award for its near-90% efficiency, great modular cabling system, (relatively) low price, and seven-year warranty. This unit’s long, detachable cables in particular should nicely complement our tall case.

A good workstation can really use 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 P183 (like a flipped internal layout that houses the power supply at the bottom), but it’s bigger, badder, and more enthusiast-friendly. Four 120-mm fans generate plenty of airflow, and the Cosmos has enough space inside 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.

Intel’s X25-M SSDs are just more attractive than 10,000-RPM mechanical hard drives now that they have TRIM support—we’ve established that. However, you don’t necessarily have to go with a single 160GB SSD. For the same amount of dough, you can grab a pair of 80GB X25-M G2s and configure them in a RAID 0 or RAID 1 array. RAID 1 will give you 80GB of failure-tolerant storage, while RAID 0 will deliver a full 160GB and potentially better performance than the single 160GB X25-M, albeit at the cost of an increased likelihood of data loss. Another downside for performance-hungry users: TRIM won’t work in RAID mode with Intel’s current storage controller drivers, so used-state write performance might suffer a little.

You might also want faster mechanical hard drives sitting alongside the Double-Stuff’s SSD(s), if only because some of your games and applications may spill over the 160GB mark. If you can afford them, a pair of WD’s 2TB Caviar Blacks will do a fine job of melding high capacity and high performance.

Sound card
Asus’ Xonar DX will perform fantastically 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, just with more bundled cables and 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, Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR 1800 MCE kit should be a fine addition. Should anyone give you funny looks, just tell them how fast the Core i7-960 can encode video.

For someone building a high-powered workstation/gaming rig who wants to tinker and upgrade often, it doesn’t get much better than Corsair’s Obsidian 800D. Sure, $290 is downright exorbitant, but this case has it all: exceptionally roomy internals, hot-swap hard drive bays at the front, excellent cable management with oodles of cable routing holes, a gap in the motherboard backplate for easy access to the back of the CPU socket, three 140-mm fans, room for an additional four 120-mm fans, support for all kinds of liquid cooling setups, a tough steel frame, and a window.

We really do mean it when we say this thing is roomy. At two feet tall and two feet deep, the Obsidian 800D absolutely dwarfs a full-sized ATX motherboard—see the image below. Anyone who’s ever cut his hands on a sharp case corner while trying to plug in an unruly connector should see the appeal.

The operating system
Which one 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 or other desktop 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.

Now, if you’re buying a copy of Windows today, you should really be thinking about Windows 7. We explained in our review that this OS may well be Microsoft’s finest to date, because it draws from Vista’s strengths while adding a healthy dose of polish, not to mention improved performance and non-disastrous backward compatibility. Building a new system with Windows 7 instead of Vista or XP is really a no-brainer at this point.

Just like its predecessors, Windows 7 comes in several different editions, three of which you’ll find in stores: Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate. What makes them different from one another? The table below should help answer that question:

  Windows 7 Home Premium
Windows 7 Professional
Windows 7 Ultimate
New Aero features X X X
Windows Search X X X
Internet Explorer 8 X X X
Windows Media Center X X X
HomeGroups X X X
Full-system Backup and Restore X X X
Remote Desktop client X X X
Backups across network   X X
Remote Desktop host   X X
Windows XP Mode   X X
Domain Join   X X
BitLocker     X
Interface language switching     X
Price—full license $183.49 $274.49 $291.99
Price—upgrade license $109.99 $179.49 $199.99
Price—OEM (64-bit) license $104.99 $139.99 $174.99
Price—OEM (32-bit) license $104.99 $139.99 $174.99
Price—Anytime Upgrade —> $89.99 $139.99

As you can see, Windows 7 editions follow a kind of Russian nesting doll pattern: Professional has all of the Home Premium features, and Ultimate has everything. Since most users probably won’t find the Ultimate edition’s extras terribly exciting, the choice ought to come down to Home Premium vs. Professional for almost everyone.

Some of TR’s editors like hosting Remote Desktop sessions and running network backups, so we’d probably go with the Professional package unless we were on a tight budget. However, we should also note that Windows 7 Home Premium includes some features formerly exclusive to more upscale editions, namely full-system backups and Previous Versions (a.k.a. Shadow Copy). See our review for more details.

If you go with Home Premium and find you need some of the Professional features down the road, you can always use the Anytime Upgrade program to step up. It’ll only set you back $90.

Speaking of upgrades, you’ll notice upgrade licenses are quite a bit cheaper than full ones. That’s because you need a legit version of Windows XP or Windows Vista to use them. The edition doesn’t matter, but you do need the previous OS to be activated and installed on your hard drive for the Windows 7 upgrade to work. Mind you, Vista upgrade installers don’t seem to protest when a user does a clean install of Vista without a product key and then runs an upgrade installation over that. Windows 7 could allow for the same trick. Microsoft doesn’t sanction this method, however, and who knows how future updates to the Windows activation system might affect it.

To save even more, you could also opt for an OEM license. Microsoft aims these at pre-built PCs, and for that reason, it prohibits users from carrying an OEM license over from one PC to another one. You may therefore be forced to buy a new copy of Windows 7 after a major upgrade. (Retail editions have no such limitation, as far as we’re aware.) Also unlike their retail brethren, OEM licenses only cover one version of the software—32-bit or 64-bit—so you’ll have to pick one or the other up front and stick with it.

That brings us to another point: should you go 32-bit or 64-bit? Since all of the processors we recommend in this guide are 64-bit-capable and all but one of our systems has 4GB of memory or more, the x64 release strikes us as the most sensible choice. This recommendation is relevant to folks who buy retail and upgrade editions, too—you might have to ask Microsoft to ship you x64 installation media first, but installing an x64 variant looks like the best idea.

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 new OSes and games pushing the envelope in terms of memory use, the 4GB limit can get a little uncomfortable for an enthusiast PC.

There are some caveats, however. 64-bit versions of Windows don’t support 32-bit drivers, and they won’t run 16-bit software. You’ll probably want to make sure all of your peripherals have compatible drivers, and vintage game lovers may also have to check out emulators like DOSBox. Still, hardware makers have improved x64 support quite a bit since Vista came out three years ago, so you’ll probably be fine unless you have something like a really old printer. (For some background on what makes 64-bit computing different at a hardware level, have a look at our take on the subject.)

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 users will probably care about one major differentiating attribute: whether their display has a 6-bit twisted nematic + film (TN+film) panel or not. The majority of sub-$500 monitors have 6-bit TN panels, which means 18-bit, rather than 24-bit, color definition. Those panels use dithering to simulate colors that are out of their scope, yielding sub-optimal color accuracy, and they often have poor viewing angles on top of that. 8-bit panels typically look better, although they tend to have higher response times and loftier prices.

So, what should you get? We think that largely depends on which of our builds you’re going with. For instance, those who purchase the Sweeter Spot ought to splurge on a nice 8-bit, 24″ display—perhaps HP’s LP2475w or Dell’s UltraSharp U2410, both of which have IPS panels and reasonable price tags. 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 27″ UltraSharp U2711 or 30″ UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC, for use with the Double-Stuff Workstation. Our workstation build has a very high-end graphics card, after all, and you ought to have an ample monitor budget if you’re purchasing a $3,000 machine.

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 20″ LCD should do fine.

By the way, we should point out that the Radeon HD 5000-series graphics cards we recommended throughout this guide support triple-monitor configurations. This scheme, which AMD calls Eyefinity, even works in existing games. You’ll just need either an adapter or a display with a native HDMI or DisplayPort input, since new Radeons all have two DVI outputs with one DisplayPort and one HDMI on the side.

Mice and keyboards
New mice seem to crop up every other week, but we tend to favor offerings from Logitech and Microsoft because both companies typically make quality products and offer great warranty coverage. (Nothing beats getting a free, retail-boxed mouse if your old one starts behaving erratically.) Everyone has his preferences when it comes to scroll wheel behavior, the number of buttons present, and control panel software features. But here, too, one particular attribute lies at the heart of many debates: wirelessness.

Wireless mice have come a long way over the past few years, and you can expect a relatively high-end one to feel just as responsive as a wired mouse. However, certain folks—typically hard-core 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. Because of that last issue, some favor wireless mice with docking cradles, which let you charge your mouse at night and not have to worry about finding charged AAs during a Team Fortress 2 match.

We can also find two distinct schools of thoughts on the keyboard front. Some users will prefer the latest and fanciest offerings from Logitech and Microsoft, with their smorgasbord of media keys, sliders, knobs, scroll wheels, and even built-in LCD displays. Others like their keyboards simple, clicky, and heavy enough to beat a man to death with. If you’re one of the old-school types, you may want to try a Unicomp Customizer 101/104 or an original vintage-dated IBM Model M. $50-70 is a lot to put down for a keyboard, but these beasts can easily last a couple of decades.

If you’re part of the mechanical keyboard club and are looking for something a little less… well, ugly, then Metadot’s Das Keyboard Professional or ABS’s M1 might interest you. The Das Keyboard is pretty pricey (over $100), but it has a more stylish look and a softer feel than the Model M and its modern derivatives. The M1 costs less and has non-clicky mechanical switches, which are softer still, even though they make typing feel more solid than the rubber-dome switches on the average multimedia keyboard.

Another intriguing option is a keyboard with laptop-style scissor switch key mechanisms like the Enermax Aurora, which we found to be surprisingly pleasing, both in terms of tactile feedback and industrial design.

Card reader
This section traditionally included a floppy drive/card reader combo, but we’re in 2010 now. Windows Vista is already three years old, and Windows 7 is now out. We’ve had the Internet, USB thumb drives, and Windows-based BIOS flashing tools for considerably longer than that. It’s time to let go.

If you absolutely must stick something in that external 3.5″ drive bay, we suggest this Super Talent all-in-one card reader. It only costs $10 yet has good user reviews on Newegg, and it should happily gobble up any flash card you find lying around.

We’re recommending retail processors in all of our configs because they come with longer warranties. Those CPUs also come bundled with stock heatsinks 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.

Our latest cooler roundup has left us particularly impressed with Noctua’s NH-U12P tower-style cooler, and a new version of it that supports all current Intel and AMD socket types is now available. This mass of metal allows for exceedingly low noise levels with the accompanying fan, and it managed to keep our test CPU a couple degrees cooler than a pricier liquid-cooling setup. Impressive.

For a cheaper solution, we suggest taking a look at Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 Plus. Although the $30 price tag might suggest mediocrity, this heatsink has a large, tower-style design, three copper heat pipes, and a 120-mm fan with a four-pin PWM connector. The mounting system also works happily with LGA1366, LGA1156, LGA775, AM2, and AM3 sockets, so like the Noctua, you can use it with any of our recommended builds.

And just like that, we wrap up another edition of the TR system guide. On the surface, our four builds haven’t changed all that dramatically. Remember, however, that we were forced to recommend previous-gen DirectX 10 graphics cards last time because of Radeon HD 5850 and 5870 card shortages. This time, we got to include all the parts we wanted, from confidently picked processors to state-of-the-art DirectX 11 GPUs and motherboards with next-generation connectivity.

Before we sign off, let’s talk about upcoming products for a second. We’ve mentioned two of them over the past few pages: the Radeon HD 5830, which will soon fill the gap between the 5770 and 5850, and Gulftown, Intel’s six-core processor possibly due by the middle of the year. In late March, Nvidia will also unleash its GeForce GTX 480 and 470 graphics cards, which should give AMD’s DirectX 11 product line some competition at the high end. Finally, rumblings around the web suggest AMD’s six-core Thuban processors will arrive in May.

With the possible exception of the Radeon HD 5830, these new introductions seem poised to affect only the high end of the market or take place months in the future. Nothing most folks should be too worried about, then; we’d say now is a fine time to upgrade.

If you need assistance, feel free to head over 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 support if you’re not feeling particularly confident about a new build.

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