My, what an awkward position we’re in. We’re overdue for a regular update to our system guide, yet Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors are missing in action due to an unforeseen chipset bug that took motherboards off store shelves completely. Worse, replacements aren’t due out in volume until late March or April, which is an awfully long time to wait—especially if all of this year’s game releases are making you itch for an upgrade.
We’ve attempted to minimize the damage by restructuring our recommended builds somewhat. We’ve added a $300 configuration based on AMD’s Brazos platform, which has no competition from Sandy Bridge so far, and merged our regular $800 and $1,200 builds into what we call the Grand Placeholder, a system meant for users who can’t afford to wait for bug-free Sandy mobos. Our other builds, the $500 Econobox and $2,800-ish Double-Stuff Workstation, aren’t really affected by the shortage, since the processors they feature haven’t been rendered obsolete by Intel’s new generation of chips.
The result, we hope, is a sensible survival guide to this troubled era for PC enthusiasts. As you peruse the next few pages, you might come to realize, as we did, that living without Sandy isn’t an impossible ordeal… and that there are enough new graphics cards, solid-state drives, and other goodies, not to mention price cuts, to make building a PC today not just possible, but entirely reasonable.
Rules and regulations
Before we get into our component recommendations, we should explain our methodology a little bit. Before that, though, a short disclaimer: this is a component selection guide, not a PC assembly guide or a performance comparison. If you’re seeking help with the business of putting components together, we have a handy how-to article just for that. If you’re after reviews and benchmarks, might we suggest heading to our front page and starting from there.
Over the next few pages, you’ll see us recommend and discuss components for four sample builds. Those builds have target budgets of $300, $500, $1,000, and a little under $3,000. Within each budget, we will attempt to hit the sweet spot of performance and value while mentally juggling variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the manufacturer’s size and reputation. We’ll try to avoid both overly cheap parts and needlessly expensive ones. We’ll also favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.
Beyond a strenuous vetting process, we will also aim to produce balanced configurations. While it can be tempting to settle on a $50 motherboard or a no-name power supply just to make room for a faster CPU, such decisions are fraught with peril—and likely disappointment. Similarly, we will avoid favoring processor performance at the expense of graphics performance, or vice versa, keeping in mind that hardware enthusiasts who build their own PCs tend to be gamers, as well.
Now that we’ve addressed the “how,” let’s talk about the “where.” See that “powered by Newegg.com” logo at the top of the page? Newegg sponsors our system guides, and more often than not, it will double as our source for component prices. However, Newegg has no input on our editorial content nor sway over our component selections. If we want to recommend something it doesn’t carry, we’ll do just that.
We think sourcing prices from a huge online retailer gives us more realistic figures, though—so much so that we quoted Newegg prices long before this guide got a sponsor. Dedicated price search engines can find better deals, but they often pull up unrealistically low prices from small and potentially unreliable e-tailers. If you’re going to spend several hundred (or thousand) dollars on a PC, we think you’ll be more comfortable doing so at a large e-tailer with a proven track record and a decent return policy. That vendor doesn’t have to be as big as Newegg, but it probably shouldn’t be as small as Joe Bob’s Discount Computer Warehouse, either.
The Compact Fusion Reactor
Fusion that isn’t just a load of hot air
Sandy Bridge’s troubles don’t affect all categories of PCs. In the price range of this lilliputian build, only uber-cheap, low-power CPUs can compete—and there’s some new hotness from AMD that shakes up this segment almost as much as Sandy Bridge does more expensive systems.
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (1 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$41.99|
|Storage||WD Scorpio Black 250GB||$49.99|
|Samsung SN-S083F slim DVD-RW||$26.99|
|Case/PSU||Antec ISK 300-65||$69.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$298.95|
Processor, motherboard, and graphics
Integration is the name of the game with AMD’s new Brazos platform. Much like other Mini-ITX Brazos motherboard we’ve looked at, ASRock’s E350M1 incorporates a Zacate processor with dual 1.6GHz cores and DirectX 11 integrated graphics on a cute little 6.7″ x 6.7″ circuit board. The only difference is that, with a $109.99 asking price, the E350M1 is quite a bit cheaper than the competition.
Don’t let the low price fool you, though. The E350M1 has a surprisingly complete array of features: one physical PCI Express x16 slot, four internal Serial ATA ports, six USB 2.0 ports, one eSATA port, and a choice of DVI, HDMI, and VGA display outputs. We wish the heatsink covering both the Zacate CPU and its Hudson I/O hub weren’t crowned by a tiny fan, since such small fans can and often do get noisy over time, but active cooling seems hard to avoid among Mini-ITX Brazos mobos right now.
Unfortunately, the E350M1 unexpectedly went out of stock as we were writing this guide. We think it’s almost too good a deal to pass up, but if you can’t wait, check out the next page for a slightly pricier alternative mobo that’s actually in stock.
DDR3 prices have sunk so low that, even for a bargain-basement build like this one, we’d be remiss not to include 4GB of RAM. Since Zacate doesn’t have a dual-channel memory controller, we’ve gone with a single, high-density 4GB module, courtesy of Kingston. A dual-channel kit would cost about the same, but it’d fill both of the ASRock board’s DIMM slots. This way, if you ever feel the urge to upgrade your $300 pint-sized PC with 8GB of RAM, you can. Neat, huh?
Just remember to install a 64-bit operating system if you want to use 4GB of RAM or more. 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, which will matter if you ever feel like chucking a real graphics card into the Compact Fusion Reactor. 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. We’re inclined to echo that recommendation. Check out our OS section on the second-to-last page of the guide for more details.
Our chosen enclosure doesn’t have room for full-sized hard drives and optical drives, so we’ve had to opt for mobile offerings. On the mechanical storage front, WD’s Scorpio Black 250GB looks to us like a sensible choice, considering its 7,200-RPM spindle speed, low price, five-year warranty, and overwhelmingly positive user reviews on Newegg. If you think 250GB is cutting it a little close, check our alternatives on the next page for a higher-capacity option.
On the optical side of things, Samsung’s slim SN-S083F drive appears to be an equally capable candidate, with DVD burning capabilities, Serial ATA connectivity, good user reviews, and a surprisingly affordable price tag.
Enclosure and power supply
And now, for a teeny little case to tie all of this hardware together. We’ve used boxy Mini-ITX cases before, but Antec’s ISK 300-65 takes the form factor to the next level, featuring an external power-supply brick and much slimmer dimensions: just 12.9″ x 3.8″ x 8.7″. That leaves room for only a pair of 2.5″ hard drives and a slim optical drives, but it makes for a svelte PC that’s easy to tuck away out of sight. Antec still provides space for a low-profile expansion card, too, which will come in handy as we explore home-theater-PC expansion in our alternatives section on the next page.
Compact Fusion Reactor alternatives
With its DirectX 11 integrated graphics and UVD3 video decoding logic, AMD’s Brazos platform—and, by extension, the Compact Fusion Reactor—is perfectly suited for use as a home-theater PC. We just need to add a TV tuner, some extra storage, and a nice wireless keyboard.
|TV tuner||Hauppauge WinTV-HVR-2250||$129.99|
|Storage||WD Scorpio Black 750GB||$69.99|
|VisionTek Candyboard Black||$78.99|
Before we get into HTPC gear, let’s first throw in a recommendation for Gigabyte’s GA-E350N-USB3, which has the merit of being available right now—unlike ASRock’s E350M1. The Gigabyte mobo has much in common with its ASRock cousin, but it trades two USB 2.0 ports for USB 3.0 ports and lacks external Serial ATA connectivity. Considering the transfer speeds enabled by USB 3.0, that’s probably a net gain. The only real downside here is the $149.99 price tag, which is a little high—and doesn’t get you a passive cooler. Like we said on the previous page, small fans are the unfortunate norm on Brazos boards right now.
Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR-2250 seems to be one of the most popular tuner cards on Newegg, and it’s not hard to see why. Its low-profile circuit board enables compatibility with slim enclosures like our Antec ISK 300, yet it still features dual tuners with support for the ATSC, ClearQAM, and NTSC standards. There’s also MPEG-2 and MPEG-1 hardware encoding capabilities, a PCI Express x1 interface, and a Windows Media Center remote with a bundled receiver. Provided you set up everything correctly on the software end, you should be able to use this bad boy to record dual high-definition streams.
Recording video on the Compact Fusion Reactor may call for some additional storage capacity. That capacity could come in the form of any old external hard drive, which you could connect to the ASRock board’s eSATA port or the Gigabyte board’s USB 3.0 ports. Or, it could come in the form of WD’s Scorpio Black 750GB, which recently earned a TR Recommended award for its excellent performance, relatively large capacity, and five-year warranty.
We’ve singled out two candidates for driving the Compact Fusion Reactor from your couch—you know, when you leave the cushy confines of Windows Media Center (or its Linux counterparts) and need to get stuff done.
The first, SIIG’s JK-WR0312-S1, looks more or less like the bottom half of a laptop. There are 88 standard keys, a touchpad, a palm rest, and some media keys. The whole thing runs on a pair of AAA batteries; just plug in the USB receiver, and you’re good to go.
Our second, pricier pick might appeal to smartphone users. VisionTek’s Candyboard Black also has a touchpad and QWERTY keyboard, but it’s considerably smaller: only 5.8″ x 2.25″ x 0.25″, with tiny keys to match. We don’t have first-hand experience with this device, so we’re more hesitant to recommend it on the off-chance that its ergonomics might not be up to snuff. Still, the Newegg user reviews look decent, and if you don’t want a full-sized keyboard taking room on your coffee table, this device is certainly worth considering.
Because speed doesn’t have to cost a fortune
As our second-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 decent performance and headroom for upgrades, which should result in a surprisingly well-rounded system for the price.
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X4 840||$109.99|
|Motherboard||Asus M4A87TD EVO||$109.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$43.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 460 768MB||$149.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$64.99|
|Enclosure||Antec One Hundred||$59.99|
||Antec EarthWatts Green 380W||$44.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$602.92|
There is a silver lining to the Sandy Bridge chipset snafu: AMD processors have gotten a lot cheaper all of a sudden. Thanks to AMD’s new pricing, we can outfit the Econobox with a Phenom II X4 840 processor for only $109. Now, this chip’s lack of L3 cache and Propus die really make it an honorary member of the Athlon II X4 series, but its 3.2GHz clock speed still places it above that series’ official flagship, the Athlon II X4 645—and, believe it or not, it’s actually cheaper right now.
The Phenom II X4 840 really does packs a heck of a punch. Just check out our video encoding benchmarks, where this CPU manages to keep up with much more expensive quad-core offerings from Intel… not to mention some of AMD’s own six-core Phenom IIs. The Econobox has never had it so good.
Users seeking overclocking bliss—or lower power consumption—may want to contemplate the Core i3 alternative on the next page. That said, our value numbers from earlier this year clearly showed that the Athlon II X4 series already had an overall performance-per-dollar edge over the Core i3—and this Phenom II X4 is essentially a faster, cheaper Athlon II X4. AMD also enjoys a more compelling platform right now, with cheaper motherboards that have native support for 6Gbps Serial ATA. Speaking of which…
Thanks to AMD’s new SB850 south bridge, our Asus M4A87TD EVO motherboard offers six third-gen SATA ports, a number unequaled even by top-of-the-line Intel motherboards. (Yes, we realize Intel’s Sandy Bridge chipsets have quicker native SATA 6Gpbs connectivity, but they only offer two ports of it.) The rest of the M4A87TD EVO’s features are also remarkable considering the price tag: dual USB 3.0 ports, external Serial ATA connectivity, FireWire, and two physical PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots, although one of those only has four lanes of connectivity.
Gigabyte offers a similar motherboard with additional eSATA and FireWire ports, but Asus offers superior fan-control functionality for a similar price. We don’t know about you, but we like our PCs as quiet as they can be.
Since the Econobox’s Phenom II X4 processor has a dual-channel memory controller, we’ve opted for a 4GB kit—specifically, one of Kingston’s value-oriented offerings. This two-DIMM ValueRAM kit is rated for operation at 1333MHz with a 1.5V voltage setting, which should ensure both speed and power efficiency.
Graphics card prices are also on a downward trend, which is a blessing for the Econobox. MSI’s N460GTX Twin Frozer II SOC, a custom-cooled flavor of Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 460 768MB with higher-than-normal clock speeds, can be had for a scant $149.99. Keep in mind plain-Jane GTX 460 768MB cards can happily handle demanding games like Metro 2033 at 1680×1050 or above with antialiasing and anisotropic filtering enabled.
We’ve chosen this particular MSI card because of its low price, higher-than-average clocks, and the bundled coupon for free copies of Mafia II and Just Cause 2. We trust MSI to provide good warranty support throughout the card’s three-year coverage, as well.
Based on the findings of our last 7,200-RPM, 3.5″ hard drive roundup, the 1TB Samsung Spinpoint F3 combines excellent desktop performance and low noise levels in a surprisingly affordable package. We were so impressed, in fact, that we gave this drive our Editor’s Choice award. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better deal in this price range. The Samsung does have a shorter, three-year warranty (the Caviar Black gets five years of coverage), but three years is pretty much the standard for desktop drives.
For our optical storage option, we’ve taken a liking to Asus’ DRW-24B1ST DVD burner. Not only is it the best-rated DVD burner on Newegg, but it’s also remarkably cheap.
As we’ve now noted in several editions of the guide, we’ve given up on an all-in-one case and PSU bundle for the Econobox. Our previous favorite, Antec’s NSK 4482, has an undeniably ugly design and fairly run-of-the-mill expansion capabilities, yet Antec continues to price it around the $100 mark. For a similar amount of dough, we can we can outfit the Econobox with the same power supply and a much better case. So we did.
Antec’s EarthWatts Green 380W power supply is available both inside the NSK 4482 and as a stand-alone unit. We looked around for a better option, but this one has a very low price tag, 80 Plus Bronze certification, and more than enough juice for the Econobox. Also, because the model name includes the words “earth” and “green,” we assume this PSU saves more polar bears than other, comparatively priced units.
Our previous pick, Antec’s Three Hundred enclosure, has given way to the new Antec One Hundred. While it costs the same as its predecessor, the One Hundred offers a number of added conveniences, like cut-outs in the motherboard tray for cable routing and heatsink installation, more front-panel USB ports, liquid-cooling support, and a 2.5″ drive bay for an SSD. Also, the interior has a sleek, black paint job. What’s not to like?
Want to tweak the Econobox with a more overclockable and power-efficient CPU or a different graphics config? Read on.
|Processor||Intel Core i3-550||$129.99|
|Graphics||Asus Radeon HD 6850||$179.99|
|Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB||$189.99|
|Storage||Western Digital Caviar Black 1TB||$89.99|
Intel’s Core i3-550 is tougher to recommend than AMD’s Phenom II X4 840. It costs more, calls for a motherboard from the soon-to-be-extinct LGA1156 generation, and based on what we can infer from benchmarks of slightly slower offerings, should be slower overall when running at stock speeds. However, we expect the Intel CPU to have superior power efficiency and overclocking potential. We got the slower i3-530 model to just over 4.4GHz after swapping the stock cooler for a tower-style heatsink. That CPU subsequently ran our Cinebench test almost as quickly as the $200 Core i5-750, despite having two fewer cores.
We’re not kidding about the power efficiency part, either. With a relatively power-hungry H57 motherboard, our overclocked Core i3-530 system only drew about 5W more under load than a similarly equipped Athlon II X4 635 build running at stock speeds. The X4 635 is slower than the Phenom II X4 from the previous page, but for all intents and purposes, we’d expect the two parts to have largely similar power draw—they are, after all, based on the same silicon and rated with identical power envelopes.
If you’re planning to overclock the Core i3, make sure to check out this guide’s last page for our aftermarket cooler recommendations. You wouldn’t want to be held back by a dinky little stock cooler.
We wanted an Intel motherboard that would also serve up integrated graphics, for the few non-gamers out there. The Core i3-550 actually houses this platform’s integrated graphics component, but sadly, using that IGP involves paying extra for a board with an H55 or H57 chipset. (Intel’s Q-series chipsets also support integrated graphics, but they’re for business PCs.)
Studying prices has led us to choose Gigabyte’s GA-H55M-USB3, which offers an H55 chipset, USB 3.0, dual physical PCI Express x16 slots, and single external Serial ATA and FireWire ports, all for about the same price as our AMD mobo. However, when compared to the AMD board, this specimen does have a smaller form factor, less expansion capacity, fewer I/O ports, and no 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity at all. Opting for Intel hardware in this price range usually involves either paying more or sacrificing some bells and whistles; we went with the second option.
Price cuts in the graphics card market haven’t just affected the GeForce GTX 460 768MB. For an extra $30 or so, you can step up to one of Asus’ Radeon HD 6850s, which packs 1GB of RAM and can thus deliver smoother frame rates at high resolution and with antialiasing or anisotropic filtering enabled. Some folks are partial to AMD graphics cards, too, and the Radeon is certainly a worthy competitor.
To go a rung up the performance ladder, we suggest grabbing Gigabyte’s GV-N460OC-1GI—a bona-fide GeForce GTX 460 1GB with 336 stream processors, a higher-than-normal (715MHz) core clock speed, and custom cooling. In Metro 2033, we saw a similar GTX 460 1GB card clocked at 725MHz clearly distance itself from both the 6850 and the GTX 460 768MB at 1920×1080.
You might find slightly cheaper variants of these cards on sale if you look hard enough. However, we think Asus and Gigabyte, just like MSI, are better-positioned to offer satisfactory after-sales support than smaller card vendors without established track records.
Some users may want a terabyte of affordable storage and a five-year warranty. The Samsung drive on the previous page only has three years of coverage, but Western Digital offers five years with the 1TB Caviar Black. Remember, however, that this drive costs $25 more than the Samsung and doesn’t have noise levels anywhere near as low.
The Grand Placeholder
So long… I’ve been looking too hard, I’ve been waiting too long
Sandy Bridge’s absence didn’t hurt our first two builds too badly, if at all. As we venture forth into higher price points, however, Sandy’s leave begins to cause problems. That’s why we’ve merged our $800 and $1,200 builds into a single configuration, the Grand Placeholder, which attempts to address a very real question. What do you buy if you want a decently powerful enthusiast rig but, for whatever reason, can’t wait a few weeks for bug-free Sandy Bridge motherboards? What are your options?
|Processor||AMD Phenom II X6 1090T BE
|Motherboard||Asus M4A87TD EVO||$109.99|
|Memory||Kingston 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR3-1333||$43.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC||$249.99|
|Storage||Samsung Spinpoint F3 1TB||$64.99|
||Asus Xonar DG||$29.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Graphite Series 600T||$139.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$1019.91|
We’re aware that Intel still has LGA1156 Core i5 and Core i7 processors on the market. However, we think the Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition is the best deal in this price range, for several reasons.
First, Intel hasn’t replaced the Core i5-760 at $200 with a non-Sandy Bridge part. Our last value comparison told us the Phenom II X6 1055T was quicker overall than the Core i5-750 by a decent margin, which strongly suggests the 1090T has a solid lead over the i5-760. It’s not rocket science; the 1090T’s base clock speed is a whole 400MHz quicker than the 1055T’s, while the i5-760’s is only 133MHz above the i5-750’s. Second, being a Black Edition chip, the Phenom II X6 1090T has an unlocked upper multiplier. That means easy-as-pie overclocking. Aside from Sandy Bridge, Intel offers no similar functionality in a quad-core processor in this price range.
Finally, AMD’s 800-series chipsets are available in cheaper motherboards with more Serial ATA 6Gbps ports than any product on the Intel side. Even the first wave of (buggy) Sandy Bridge motherboards had fewer 6Gbps SATA ports, although those ports did offer better performance.
There’s only one reason we’d still recommend the Core i5-760 at this point, and that’s if you care about power efficiency. The Core i5 still has a lead there. If you really feel it’s worth spending more money and sacrificing some overall performance for, then skip forward a page and check out our alternatives.
The Asus M4A87TD EVO motherboard we picked for the Econobox works just as well here. With SATA 6Gbps, USB 3.0, eSATA, FireWire, and dual physical PCIe x16 slots, the EVO really does everything we need. Just keep in mind that the second x16 slot only has four lanes of bandwidth.
4GB of DDR3 RAM should be plenty even for a $1,000 system, so we’re bringing back the DDR3-1333 Kingston kit from the Econobox. Again, be sure you’re running a 64-bit version of Windows if you want to use that memory fully. If you’d like to splurge on an 8GB kit, check the next page for our recommendation.
Our budget for the Grand Placeholder gives us two clear choices: the GeForce GTX 560 Ti on the Nvidia side and the Radeon HD 6950 1GB on the AMD side. After much deliberation, we gave our nod to the GeForce—specifically, MSI’s N560GTX-TI Twin Frozr II/OC, which has a custom cooler and above-normal speeds (880MHz for the GPU and 4200MT/s for the memory).
The AMD and Nvidia cards are both capable and should perform similarly overall. However, the MSI GeForce has superior tessellation performance, was quieter than the stock-cooled Radeon HD 6950 1GB we tested, has the usual Nvidia extras (like PhysX, CUDA, and 3D Vision), and is available with a free coupon for Just Cause 2 and Mafia II. In short, it’s a sweeter deal pretty much all around. That said, we’ve decided to accommodate those who prefer Radeons with our alternative recommendation on the next page.
Samsung’s Spinpoint F3 returns from the Econobox. We didn’t give this drive our Editor’s Choice award on a whim; it’s a fantastic offering with a unique blend of great desktop performance, low noise levels, and attractive pricing. Our only nitpick is that warranty coverage tops out at three years, not five. Check out our alternatives if you value longer warranty coverage more than lower noise levels.
Blu-ray burners have become pretty affordable, so much so that LG’s WH10LS30 is a shoo-in for the Grand Placeholder at $90. Hundreds of Newegg user reviews rate it highly, and you get a copy of PowerDVD 9 plus some dorky 3D glasses in the box.
We’re bracing for angry comments from the same handful of sound-card haters as we write this, but it has to be done. This is a $1,000 PC; Asus’ Xonar DG raises the price by a paltry 3%, and in return, it delivers starkly superior sound quality with any halfway decent set of speakers or headphones. In our blind listening tests, the difference between the Xonar and Realtek onboard audio was immediately noticeable with an $85 pair of Sennheiser HD555 headphones. We’re hardly trying to push high-end audiophile gear here. The simple reality is that onboard audio codecs on the majority of motherboards still suck, even when compared to uber-cheap sound cards like this one.
If you’ve resigned yourself to buying a system now rather than waiting for Sandy Bridge, you might as well get a nice power supply and a separate, enthusiast-friendly case instead of a cheap bundle. The Corsair TX650W is a holdover from last season’s Sweeter Spot config, but judging by the continued influx of five-star reviews on Newegg, it’s still very much a solid choice. Looking at the unit’s single 12V rail, plentiful connectors, 80 Plus certification, single 120-mm fan, and five-year warranty, it’s easy to see why.
In the interest of full disclosure, we should point out that Corsair appears to have switched TX650W production to a different manufacturer, so the units in stores today might not be entirely like the originals. Newegg users still sound overjoyed, though, and Corsair itself claims the new units are better.
After getting our hands dirty with Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T enclosure, we decided it was worthy of our Editor’s Choice award. And it’s the perfect choice for the Grand Placeholder. Corsair’s latest might not have the most elaborate noise-reduction features around, but it’s quiet, cool, shockingly well-designed, delightful to work in, and aesthetically pleasing to boot. We’re particularly fond of the little touches, like the USB 3.0 ports and the fact that all hard drive bays can accommodate 2.5″ SSDs. We wouldn’t settle for less in a $1,000 PC.
Grand Placeholder alternatives
As with the Econobox, we have some alternative propositions for how to fill out the Grand Placeholder.
|Processor||Intel Core i5-760||$204.99|
|Motherboard||Asus P7P55D-E LX||$149.99|
|Memory||Kingston 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1333||$85.99|
|Graphics||Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB||$189.99|
|Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 1GB||$244.99|
|Storage||OCZ Agility 2 120GB||$202.99|
|Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB||$89.99|
|Enclosure||Antec Sonata III||$139.99|
The Core i5-760 looks like the logical Intel alternative to AMD’s hexa-core Phenom II. This processor costs about the same and may not perform quite as well, but if it’s anything like the slightly slower Core i5-750, it should have modest power consumption and decent overclocking headroom. Just keep in mind that getting a solid Intel motherboard involves spending a little extra cash.
The Asus P7P55D-E served as the Core i5-760’s sidekick in our guide last fall, but it’s now out of stock. In its absence, the P7P55D-E LX is filling in. Both boards have dual SATA 6Gbps ports, six SATA 3Gbps ports, eSATA, USB 3.0, heatsinks covering the processor’s power-regulation circuitry, and overwhelmingly positive Newegg reviews. The only differences are that the LX offering lacks FireWire and CrossFire support, neither of which are huge losses—especially since CrossFire on this class of board involves the use of a physical PCIe x16 slot with only four lanes of half-speed connectivity.
Gigabyte has a slightly cheaper alternative in this price range, which trades eSATA support for CrossFire. For the reason we just cited, we think an eSATA port is more valuable than CrossFire.
There was once a time when 4GB memory kits cost nearly $100, and the prospect of building a PC with 8GB of RAM appealed to few outside of hardcore workstation users. That was, like, at least several months ago. Today, you can snag one of Kingston’s 8GB DDR3-1333 kits, which are made up of two high-density 4GB modules, for just under $90. With deals like that, it makes sense to grab the extra RAM in order to remove the need for an upgrade down the line.
If you’re not a die-hard gamer and want to save a few bucks, stepping down to the Gigabyte GeForce GTX 460 1GB we recommended for the Econobox alternatives makes sense. The GTX 460 1GB should still handle most current games at resolutions of up to 1080p, but it’s a good 50 bucks cheaper
You might also disagree with our choice of an Nvidia card at $250. If that’s the case, then you might like Sapphire’s Radeon HD 6950 1GB, which costs slightly less and should deliver roughly similar performance, albeit with potentially higher noise levels, poorer geometry performance, and no bundled games. I guess it doesn’t sound like such a great deal when described in those terms. Still, the 6950 1GB is a capable alternative to the GTX 560 Ti.
Since the Grand Placeholder is, after all, a $1,000 system, some folks might want a speedy solid-state drive playing host to the operating system. For that purpose, we think OCZ’s Agility 2 120GB SSD is an uncannily good deal, with a price tag just above $200, a fast SandForce controller that enables rated transfer speeds of 275-285MB/s, and a three-year warranty.
Since that SSD has only 120GB of storage capacity, you’ll obviously want to pair it with a high-capacity mechanical drive to make sure your
BitTorrent iTunes video downloads have a place to reside. For that purpose, we can think of no better solution than Western Digital’s Caviar Green 2TB, which is dirt-cheap and provides all of the capacity most folks should need. Just don’t install an operating system on it, since the reduced spindle speed would make it somewhat sluggish as a boot drive.
There’s no substitute for the ease of use and convenience of Corsair’s Graphite Series 600T case. However, users who don’t need to tinker inside their PCs all that often—and don’t mind a less powerful PSU—might want to consider Antec’s Sonata III bundle as a more affordable alternative. This case has an 80 Plus-certified 500W PSU, a clean internal layout, sideways-mounted hard drive bays, and plentiful noise-reduction features. We can’t say we hate the way it looks, either. Antec even slaps an eSATA port on the Sonata’s front bezel, should you need to plug in a fast external hard drive without crawling behind the system.
The Double-Stuff Workstation
Who needs Sandy when there’s Gulftown?
Much like our first two builds, the Double-Stuff isn’t really affected by the Sandy Bridge chipset snafu. This is the realm of six-core, 32-nm processors and motherboards with more PCI Express lanes than they know what to do with.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-970||$599.99|
|Motherboard||Asus Sabertooth X58||$199.99|
|Memory||Kingston 12GB (3 x 4GB) DDR3-1600||$169.99|
|Graphics||Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 2GB||$276.99|
|Sapphire Radeon HD 6950 2GB||$276.99|
|Storage||Crucial RealSSD C300 256GB||$524.99|
|Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB||$89.99|
|Western Digital Caviar Green 2TB||$89.99|
|Audio||Asus Xonar DG||$29.99|
|Power supply||Corsair HX750W||$141.99|
|Enclosure||Corsair Obsidian 800D||$269.99|
|Total||Buy this complete system at Newegg||$2,761.88|
We’ve downgraded the Double-Stuff somewhat in light of the recent price cut to Intel’s Core i7-970, the cheapest six-core Gulftown model. At its $900 introductory price, the i7-970 wasn’t all that appealing when you could get a fully unlocked Core i7-980X Extreme for just a hundred bucks more. At $600, though, this CPU has become a rather sweet deal, since it performs better than the fastest Sandy Bridge Core i7 overall without costing an arm and a leg. Power consumption is higher, of course, but Intel fabs this chip using the same 32-nm process as Sandy Bridge; Gulftown just trades the newer architecture and integrated graphics for more cores.
As a TR Recommended award winner, Asus’ Sabertooth X58 motherboard is a great match for the Double-Stuff. This $200 board gives us dual, full-bandwidth PCI Express x16 2.0 slots with SLI and CrossFire support, next-gen I/O, external SATA, FireWire, five-year warranty coverage, those Asus-specific fan control and overclocking features we appreciate, and plenty of little extras, like an extensive network of meaty-looking heatsinks.
Going for the cheapest board in Asus’ X58 repertoire might seem absurd for a system like this, but we really don’t need much more. The only real downside here is the fact that the board’s Gigabit Ethernet controller runs off a PCI interface, which limits its throughput to around 700Mbps. If you really need a full 1Gbps of Ethernet bandwidth for the the Double-Stuff, you could always throw in a cheap PCI Express Ethernet card like this $30 Intel model.
Affordable 4GB DDR3 modules are the latest rage, and Kingston’s latest 12GB HyperX kit has three of ’em, all rated for operation at 1600MHz. Going with six 2GB modules would have saved us $10-15, but this way, we’ve got room in the Double-Stuff for an eventual upgrade to 24GB of RAM. You know, for when that Gulftown CPU becomes self-aware.
The previous iteration of the Double-Stuff featured dual GeForce GTX 460 1GB graphics cards, but in light of the new releases the $200-300 price range, we felt we could do better.
A pair of Sapphire’s Radeon HD 6950 2GB graphics cards should provide not just better overall performance, but also better performance at ultra-high resolutions (or with multi-display gaming setups) thanks to their extra memory. We like the fact that Sapphire has stuck with AMD’s blower-style cooler, too, which exhausts hot air directly outside the case—a blessing in cramped quarters like those of a high-end workstation packed to the gills with fast hardware.
Western Digital’s new VelociRaptor is an intriguing option for workstations like the Double-Stuff. However, the VR200M can’t keep up with near-instantaneous SSD access times. We’ve therefore chosen the 256GB variant of Crucial’s RealSSD C300 to house the Double-Stuff’s operating system and applications. This drive has less than a third the capacity of the new ‘raptor, but it offers much better performance, an immunity to mechanical failures, and zero noise output. TRIM support should also help the drive skirt flash memory’s dreaded block-rewrite penalty, preventing write performance from degrading dramatically over time. You’ll have to make sure you’re running Windows 7 or a newer version of Linux for TRIM to work, of course.
For mass storage, we’re backing the C300 with a pair of 2TB Western Digital Caviar Greens. These would be a little too sluggish to serve as system drives, but they’re affordable and should store bulky multimedia files—or a backup of your SSD’s contents—more than adequately. We advise you run two of these 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. Similarly, we’re ruling out WD’s 3TB Caviar Green, mainly on account of its excessive price tag.
On the optical side of things, that LG Blu-ray burner from the previous page seems like a fine addition to the Double-Stuff. (Just keep in mind that it doesn’t ship with Blu-ray playback software.)
Asus’ Xonar DG might seem a tad low-end for this build, but the truth is that, unless you need more than 5.1 channels or plan to use the Double-Stuff to make music, it’s more than enough. Check out the alternatives on the next page for a fancier option.
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.
Sharp-eyed shoppers might notice Corsair has an 80 Plus Gold-rated AX750W unit selling for a few bucks more. Thing is, a look at the 80 Plus website shows that the HX750W actually made the cut for 80 Plus Gold certification, too. The HX750W also has a larger fan and masses of positive user reviews. The AX750W is more of an unknown quantity at this point, so we feel more confident recommending the HX750W.
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, the $270 asking price 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 back plate 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.
As complete as our Double-Stuff Workstation is, we still have some alternative ideas for how to fill it out.
|Processor||Intel Core i7-990X Extreme||$999.99|
|Graphics||MSI GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC||$249.99|
|MSI GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC||$249.99|
|Storage||Crucial RealSSD C300 128GB||$269.99|
|Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB||$169.99|
|Western Digital Caviar Black 2TB||$169.99|
||Asus Xonar Xense||$279.99|
|TV tuner||Hauppauge WinTV-HVR 2250||$129.99|
|Enclosure||Cooler Master Cosmos 1000||$199.99|
Got $400 burning a hole in your pocket? The step up from the Core i7-970 to the Core i7-990X isn’t a breathtaking one—you’re only going from 3.2GHz to 3.46GHz with a matching Turbo Boost increase— but the key selling point, in our view, is the unlocked upper multiplier. We saw first-hand that the slightly slower Core i7-980X Extreme can and does overclock quite impressively, so we expect the 990X to be no different. You haven’t tasted power until you’ve pushed a hexa-core CPU past 4GHz.
We made our reasons for selecting dual Radeons on the previous page clear. Should you be leaning more toward GeForces, be it for their superior geometry performance or because you simply don’t expect to run a crazy-high-resolution multi-monitor setup, then a pair of the MSI GeForce GTX 560 Ti OC graphics cards we recommended for the Grand Placeholder should do fine. Do note that we’re not quite as confident in MSI cooler’s ability to keep temperatures low in a cramped dual-GPU configuration, though. We’re more partial to blower-style coolers like the Radeons’ in such instances.
Can’t afford the 256GB RealSSD C300? Then you could always step down to the 128GB model, as long as your operating system and vital applications will fit within the lower capacity.
One could also opt for a pair of faster mechanical hard drives to complement either SSD. If you can afford them, a pair of WD’s 2TB Caviar Blacks in RAID 1 will do a fine job of melding high capacity, high performance, and fault tolerance. Hopefully, you won’t grow too impatient while apps that didn’t fit on the SSD load from the mechanical array.
We can’t seem to find our old pick, the Xonar D2X, in stock anywhere. The Xonar Xense is kind of a pricey step up, but it justifies its high asking price with an exceptionally complete set of features and a bundled Senhheiser PC350 headset worth a decent chunk of change on its own. As we said in our review comparing this card to the cheaper Xonar DG from our primary picks, the Xense combines all of the attributes that have made previous Asus Xonar sound cards appealing, like Dolby Digital Live encoding, a built-in headphone amp, socketet OPAMPs, and high-quality components.
If you feel like making your high-powered workstation double as a digital video recorder, Hauppauge’s WinTV-HVR-2250 kit will be a fine addition to this system. Should anyone give you funny looks, just tell them how fast this beast can encode video.
The Corsair Obsidian 800D ain’t exactly cheap, and some folks might be just as happy downgrading to Cooler Master’s Cosmos 1000. That enclosure shares some design elements with the 800D, like a flipped internal layout that houses the power supply at the bottom, but it’s smaller and much less extravagant. Still, the Cosmos has four 120-mm fans that generate plenty of airflow, and there’s enough space inside to accommodate six hard drives, five 5.25″ drives, multi-GPU configurations, and internal liquid cooling systems.
Cooler Master primed this case for quiet operation by using insulated side panels and low-speed fans, as well. Hit our full review of the Cosmos for additional details on this case’s unique features and swanky design.
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|
|Internet Explorer 8||X||X||X|
|Windows Media Center||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|
|Interface language switching||X|
|Price—OEM (64-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||$179.99|
|Price—OEM (32-bit) license||$99.99||$139.99||$179.99|
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 prices.
What should you get? We think that largely depends on which of our builds you’re going with. For instance, those who purchase the Grand Placeholder ought to splurge on a nice 8-bit, 24″ display like the HP LP2475w, HP ZR24w, or Dell UltraSharp U2410, all of which have IPS panels, reasonable price tags, and a cornucopia of input ports. (The ZR24w is the only one with a normal sRGB color gamut, though.)
We recommend something bigger, like Dell’s 27″ UltraSharp U2711 or 30″ UltraSharp U3011, for use with our opulent workstation or an upgraded Grand Placeholder build. Don’t be shy about adding more than one screen, either.
By the way, we should point out that the Radeon HD 6000-series graphics cards we recommended in this guide support triple-monitor configurations. This scheme, which AMD calls Eyefinity, even works in existing games. You’ll need either an adapter or a display with a native DisplayPort input if you want to run three monitors, though. The first two may be connected to a Radeon’s DVI or HDMI outputs, but the third needs to be driven by the card’s DisplayPort out.
Nvidia has a competing feature similar to Eyefinity, called Surround Gaming, that enables gaming across three monitors, as well. However, that feature requires the use of dual graphics cards.
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 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. Sadly, the ABS M1 we used to recommend in this section seems to have been discontinued. More expensive clicky keyboards with similar designs can be purchased at the EliteKeyboards online store.
Another intriguing option is a keyboard with laptop-style scissor switch key mechanisms like the Enermax Aurora Premium, which we found to be surprisingly pleasing, both in terms of tactile feedback and industrial design.
This section traditionally included a floppy drive/card reader combo, but we’re in 2011 now. We’ve had the Internet, USB thumb drives, and Windows-based BIOS flashing tools for many years. It’s time to let go.
If you absolutely must stick something in that external 3.5″ drive bay, we suggest this all-in-one card reader. It costs just over $10 yet has good user reviews on Newegg, and it should happily accept any flash card you find lying around.
You know what they say: it’s all fun and games until someone’s hard drive starts developing bad sectors and kicks the bucket in a dissonant avalanche of clicking and crunching sounds. If you’re unsure how to formulate a backup strategy, you can check out our article on the subject, which recommends a fairly straightforward approach. That article deals with Windows Vista’s built-in backup software, which isn’t bad. Win7’s backup tools are even better, though, and Microsoft has included them in the Home Premium edition of the OS.
All you need to get Windows 7 backups going is a decent external hard drive. For that purpose, Thermaltake’s BlacX docking station should work well with any of the hard drives we’ve recommended throughout this guide (perhaps the 2TB Caviar Green). This newer USB 3.0 version of the BlacX left a pretty good impression on us, and backing up large files and drive images with it should be a snap.
As impressive as Intel’s Sandy Bridge processors might be, I think we’ve demonstrated with this guide that they’ve by no means made alternatives irrelevant or unappealing. AMD’s Phenom II X4 840 and Phenom II X6 1090T Black Edition, which power our Econobox and Grand Placeholder builds, respectively, are both great bargains capable of excellent performance. Outside of Sandy Bridge’s pricing turf, cheap small-form-factor rigs like the Compact Fusion Reactor and high-end workstations like the Double-Stuff are more appealing than ever.
That said, if you’re shopping smack dab in Sandy Bridge territory and don’t mind waiting until bug-free motherboards start shipping in late March or April, then why not hold off for a few weeks? You can get a great system in the same price range today, sure, but waiting a short while for something even nicer is by no means unreasonable, as long as you’re sufficiently patient.
If you need assistance in the meantime, 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.