Well, believe or not, the hardware market seems to be giving us—the over-indebted Steam addicts—a break this summer. Graphics card prices have fallen sharply over the past little while, and they’re now lower than ever. The price tags on some cards have dropped by the equivalent of a full performance tier, or close to it. The getting is unquestionably good.
Then there are Intel’s Devil’s Canyon and Pentium Anniversary Edition processors, the latter of which is perhaps the best CPU value we’ve seen in years. Picture this: a $75 dual-core processor that’s fully unlocked and can overclock by up to 50% on air, at which point it can nip at the heels of $200 quad-core chips. Talk about a return on investment.
On top of that, some new, value-friendly solid-state drives have joined the party. Crucial’s MX100 offers an almost unbeatable combination of value and performance at 256GB and 512GB, ideal capacities for a gaming PC.
If you haven’t maxed out your credit on Steam games already, you really ought to get in on this. The deals are there, and so are the performance rewards. There’s hardly ever been a better time to upgrade—and you don’t need to break the bank to do it.
A short disclaimer: this is a component selection guide, not a PC assembly guide or a performance comparison. If you need help with the business of putting components together, look at our handy how-to build a PC article—and the accompanying video:
On the next several pages, we’ll discuss the main categories of components needed to build a PC: processors, motherboards, memory, graphics cards, storage, cases, and power supplies. We’ll then recommend a handful of carefully selected parts split into three tiers: budget, sweet spot, and high end.
For the budget tier, we won’t seek out the absolute cheapest parts around. Instead, we’ll single out capable, high-quality parts that also happen to be affordable. The sweet-spot tier is self-explanatory; it’s where you’ll find the products that deliver the most bang for your buck. Finally, our high-end tier is a mirror image of the budget tier. There, we’ll seek out the fastest and most feature-packed components, but without venturing into excessive price premiums that aren’t worth paying.
Each recommendation will involve a mental juggling of sorts for us. We’ll consider variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the size and reputation of the manufacturer or vendor. In most cases, we’ll favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.
Finally, each recommended component will have a “notable needs” box. In that box, we’ll point out any special requirements one should consider when building a full system with that part. For instance, we’ll address socket type and form factor compatibility between different processors, motherboards, and cases.
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 serve 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.
Somewhat amazingly, all of the CPUs we’re recommending in this edition of the guide are recent arrivals. That’s thanks to Intel, which has updated its desktop processor lineup with the Haswell Refresh and Devil’s Canyon series—not to mention the Pentium Anniversary Edition, a bargain-basement dual-core chip with a fully unlocked upper multiplier. We’re still a ways off from a true generational refresh, but these new models are all better deals than their predecessors, and their arrival is definitely welcome.
Sadly, AMD remains in a somewhat uncompetitive position. Its Socket AM3+ platform is growing long in the tooth, with relatively slow processors, excessive power consumption, and chipsets that date back to 2011. AMD’s new Kaveri chips come with a newer platform and lower power use, but the retail-boxed versions of Kaveri are either unavailable or marked up excessively for how they perform. Last we heard, AMD was seeing high demand for Kaveri processors in China, and it had delayed the $119 A8-7600 until the second half of the year. That processor still isn’t listed at Newegg today.
In the end, we’re pretty much stuck with Intel, which continues to offer the best overall CPU performance, the smallest power envelopes, and the best upgrade path. (Motherboards based on the company’s new 9-series chipsets should support next-gen Broadwell CPUs.) AMD’s Kaveri processors do have better integrated graphics, but that doesn’t help us much. Gaming on integrated graphics still yields a sub-par experience in many cases, especially in titles designed to take advantage of the new consoles. If you care the least bit about gaming performance, you ought to be buying a discrete graphics card. Sadly, that means there’s not much point in us recommending an AMD processor right now.
The Pentium G3258, also known as the Anniversary Edition, is the first sub-$100, overclocking-friendly processor we’ve seen from Intel in years. It has only two cores, and it lacks both Hyper-Threading and Turbo Boost, but we managed to overclock ours from the base 3.2GHz speed to a blistering 4.8GHz. At that frequency, the Pentium G3258 can keep up with much faster, higher-priced chips in all but the most heavily multithreaded apps. The Pentium is surprisingly capable in games, too.
If you’re not interested in overclocking, the Core i3-4150 may be a better budget buy. Its base clock speed is a little higher, at 3.5GHz, and it adds Hyper-Threading to the mix, which helps performance in multithreaded tasks. (The Core i3 also has AES acceleration, which the Pentium lacks.) Both of these chips are good choices for non-gamers, since they have basic integrated graphics built in.
Some people might be surprised to see us leave out AMD’s low-end quad-core processors here. The thing is, those CPUs have rather poor single-threaded performance, and our numbers continue to show the importance of single-threaded speed in consumer apps and games. Multithreaded performance does matter, but in day-to-day use, two fast cores will feel noticeably quicker than four slow ones. The same holds true in games, where low single-threaded performance can act as a bottleneck and cause noticeable frame time spikes. (In the words of Jurjen Katsman, one of the guys behind the PC versions of Thief and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, most PC games “flatten off at one core.”)
AMD’s low-end quad-core chips have other disadvantages, as well, including high power consumption and, in the case of the FX series, an outdated platform. AMD’s new A8-7600 would make a potentially suitable alternative here, thanks to its 65W TDP and its relatively modern Socket AM2+ platform, but it’s still missing from e-tail listings.
In our view, the processors in this price range make up the sweet spot of the desktop CPU market. They all have four fast cores, which ensure speed and responsiveness in both single-threaded tasks and heavily multithreaded ones. The ones with the letter “K” in their model numbers also have fully unlocked upper multipliers, which open the door to easy overclocking.
The Core i5-4460 belongs to the Haswell Refresh lineup, and it also happens to be Intel’s most inexpensive quad-core desktop processor. This is a good, no-frills option if you plan to run at stock settings. Those folks wanting to overclock their CPUs will want to grab either the Core i5-4690K or the Core i7-4790K, which make up the new Devil’s Canyon series.
Devil’s Canyon is supposed to have more overclocking headroom than the original Haswell series, thanks to a new thermal interface material (TIM) that sits between the die and heat spreader. We didn’t see much of a difference when overclocking our sample, but Intel seems to have high hopes those rare chips that, through miracles of fabrication, are imbued with unusually high headroom. Those chips might have been held back by the original TIM in the first-gen Haswell series.
Even assuming identical headroom, Devil’s Canyon is worth it. These chips are the same price as their predecessors, but they’re both faster out of the box. In the case of the Core i7-4790K, you’re getting a 500MHz higher base speed essentially for free. Not only that, but these processors support two features that were disabled on the original Haswell K series: Virtualization Technology for Directed I/O, also known as VT-d, and transactional memory, or TSX. (VT-d and TSX are also absent from the Pentium and the Core i3 in our budget selections.)
AMD has a couple of processors in this price range: the $230 FX-9370 and $300 FX-9590, the latter of which is available with a bundled liquid cooler for $370. As refreshing as it is to see AMD competing above $200, these CPUs are difficult to recommend. They have extremely high power consumption, with thermal envelopes of 220W that dwarf Devil’s Canyon’s 88W TDP. That means they require a significant investment in cooling, preferably in the form of a water cooler with a large radiator. In spite of that fact, the FX-9000 series seems to keep up with competing Intel chips only in select workloads, and it’s bound to the same old Socket AM3+ platform and outdated chipsets as the rest of the FX lineup.
The Core i7-4930K isn’t a Haswell chip like our other picks. It’s based on the Ivy Bridge-E architecture, which is older but fabbed on the same 22-nm process. The “E” suffix in the code name denotes the silicon’s server and workstation pedigree: Ivy Bridge-E has more cores, more cache, more memory channels, and support for higher memory speeds than any Haswell processor available today. A similarly beefed-up offering called Haswell-E is expected later this year, but Ivy Bridge-E is worth considering if you’d rather not wait.
The Core i7-4930K has six cores, 12 threads, 12MB of L3 cache, and support for quad channels of DDR3-1866 memory (yielding peak theoretical bandwidth of almost 60 GB/s, up from about 26 GB/s for Haswell). It performs best in heavily multithreaded workloads or heavy multitasking scenarios. And yes, it has VT-d, so you can virtualize to your heart’s content.
Intel sells an even faster Ivy Bridge-E, the Core i7-4960X. However, it costs over $1,000 and doesn’t offer much beyond the Core i7-4930K—just a marginal clock speed increase and a little more cache. We think you’re better off getting the Core i7-4930K and spending the difference on something more consequential, like a faster graphics card or a better solid-state drive.
Note that the Core i7-4930K requires a different motherboard than its Haswell siblings, and because it has a quad-channel memory controller, it needs at least four memory modules (one to populate each channel). Also, Intel doesn’t include a heatsink and fan in the box; you’ll need to supply your own. Finally, unlike Haswell, Ivy Bridge-E doesn’t have integrated graphics, so it requires a discrete graphics card. Recommendations for all those components can be found on the next several pages.
Buying a motherboard these days is pretty straightforward. There are only four major manufacturers to choose from, and their offerings have very similar performance and peripherals at each price point. The main differences between competing boards lie with their Windows software, onboard firmware, and overclocking tools:
For this edition of the guide, we’ve recommended motherboards for Haswell and Ivy Bridge-E exclusively, since those are the only processors featured on the previous page.
We’ve included both ATX and microATX solutions for our budget and sweet-spot tiers. The microATX form factor sacrifices three of the seven expansion slots available with ATX in order to save a few inches of vertical space. Since few gaming rigs need more than two or three expansion slots, going microATX is a nice way to build a smaller PC without losing too much expansion capacity.
For our LGA1150 selections, we’ve opted solely for boards based on Intel’s new 9-series chipsets. Mobos featuring the older 8-series chipsets are still around, and some are quite good. They may be a little cheaper in some cases, too. But 9-series boards offer a potential upgrade path to Intel’s next-generation Broadwell processors, not to mention more refined firmware and, in most cases, support for SATA Express and M.2 solid-state drives.
In a budget build where overclocking isn’t a priority, a motherboard based on Intel’s H97 Express chipset is probably your best bet. H97-based boards are priced a little lower than those powered by the flagship Z97 Express chipset, and they have almost all of the same stuff. The only missing features are multiplier overclocking support (at least officially—more on that below) and support for two-way SLI and CrossFire multi-GPU configurations (which aren’t wise purchases in this price range, anyhow). Not all H97 boards are cheaper than Z97 ones, but aside from the missing features, they tend to get you more bang for your buck.
On the microATX front, Gigabyte’s GA-H97M-D3H covers the basics, with a sensible assortment of slots and plentiful USB 3.0 and Serial ATA 6Gbps connectivity. For $20 more, Asus’ full-sized H97-Plus serves up additional expansion, including an M.2 slot for a next-generation SSD. Its integrated audio is insulated from the rest of the motherboard circuitry, too, which should ensure at least passable sound quality. (Speaking of audio, neither of these boards have optical S/PDIF outputs. Some of ASRock’s motherboards, like the Fatal1ty H97, don’t skimp on that front, so they may be worth a look. We haven’t tested them, though.)
Right now, H97 motherboards from both Asus and ASRock allow multiplier overclocking in flagrant defiance of Intel’s official restriction. The workaround used to enable this feat is very much unofficial, and if history tells us anything, there’s a fair likelihood that the workaround won’t survive future firmware updates. We wouldn’t make that gamble ourselves, but folks with very tight budgets may feel differently.
Otherwise, low-end Z97 motherboards do exist in this price range. MSI’s Z97 PC Mate is one of them. With only two USB 3.0 ports and neither M.2 nor SATA Express connectors, it’s a little light on bells and whistles compared to its H97 peers. However, its multiplier overclocking support is fully sanctioned by Intel—and not liable to change.
The sweet spot of the LGA1150 motherboard market is where slightly upmarket Z97 boards can be found. Our favorite right now is Asus’ Z97-A, a fairly feature-packed and reasonably priced board that earned our TR Recommended award in May.
Also worth a look is MSI’s Z97-G45 Gaming. We haven’t tried it ourselves just yet, but we’re impressed with the software and feature payload of MSI’s more upscale Z97 Gaming 7 mobo.
Folks looking to save a few bucks may also want to consider Gigabyte’s GA-Z97X-SLI, which costs $20 less and isn’t hugely different—though it lacks optical S/PDIF in its I/O cluster. Asus’ Z97-K is another option at $130, but it lacks S/PDIF, and its Ethernet controller is from Realtek rather than Intel.
Finally, those building smaller systems will want a microATX board like Gigabyte’s GA-Z97MX-Gaming 5. This mobo is more feature-packed than the Asus alternative in just about every respect, down to the inclusion of SATA Express and an optical S/PDIF output. It’s also much more affordable than MSI’s cheapest microATX Z97 board.
The motherboards we picked for the other tiers all have LGA1150 sockets designed to accept Haswell processors (and, hopefully, future Broadwell ones). If you’re splurging on an Ivy Bridge-E chip like the Core i7-4930K, then you’ll need an LGA2011 mobo.
Asus’ X79-Deluxe is our LGA2011 board of choice. It’s a newer model that was released last year alongside Ivy Bridge-E, and it’s absolutely loaded with features. There are eight DIMM slots, three PCIe x16 3.0 slots, 14 Serial ATA ports, eight USB 3.0 ports, and both 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth wireless connectivity. This thing ain’t cheap, but older X79 boards from other vendors aren’t that much more affordable—and they aren’t as nice. The X79-Deluxe has pretty much all of the firmware and software upgrades rolled into Asus’ 8-series Haswell boards.
Every desktop PC today needs DDR3 RAM. Unfortunately, DDR3 memory prices are rather high right now. The word from Taiwanese media is that memory makers have shifted production to mobile memory, which has reduced the supply of PC memory. Whatever the reason, outfitting a new build with any given amount of RAM costs more now than it did a year ago.
This Ripjaws model from G.Skill is one of the most popular options on Newegg, and it’s one of the most affordable, too. Just keep in mind that the tall head spreaders may interfere with tower-style aftermarket CPU coolers. If you’re not going to use the stock Intel unit, then check our CPU cooler recommendations a few pages ahead for a suitable alternative.
Corsair and Crucial are unexpectedly competitive here, so we can tap the former for our 8GB kit and the latter for our 16GB bundle.
8GB of RAM is probably as much as most folks need these days. Where 4GB can feel a little cramped with newer games and heavy multitasking, 8GB rarely proves to be a bottleneck. Very heavy multitaskers (and those eager to future-proof) may feel compelled to spring for a 16GB kit, though.
Note that we’re not going to extra lengths to make provisions for memory overclocking here. The multiplier-unlocked processors we recommended earlier can be overclocked just fine without bringing memory into the picture. Memory overclocking doesn’t usually pay much in the way of real-world performance dividends, anyway, and it can lead to data loss and stability problems. We don’t think it’s worth the hassle for most folks.
These quad-channel 16GB and 32GB kits from G.Skill are primed for Ivy Bridge-E. They’re both made up of four DIMMs, one for each of the processor’s memory channels, and they can both operate at 1866MHz, the CPU’s maximum supported memory speed.
We’re back to G.Skill memory here, since similar quad-channel kits from other, U.S.-based vendors seem to be much more expensive for some reason. Even if you’re building a high-end machine, there are limits to how much you should pay.
Not building a gaming PC? Feel free to skip this page—unless you’re getting an Ivy Bridge-E processor. Ivy-E doesn’t have built-in graphics.
We’ve come a long way since last winter, when GPU prices were inflated because of the cryptocurrency mining boom. Prices slowly fell back to normal in the spring, and they’re even lower today, particularly at the middle and high end of the range. As icing on the cake, AMD’s and Nvidia’s game bundling promotions are still in effect. Some Radeon R7 and R9 graphics cards are offered with various incarnations of the generous Never Settle Forever bundle, which includes games like Thief and DiRT 3, plus some indie packs. Meanwhile, GeForce GTX 760, 770, 780, and 780 Ti cards ship with Watch Dogs.
Before we tackle our recommendations, a quick word about graphics card vendors. For any given GPU type, a number of cards from different vendors exist. For the most part, those cards aren’t all that different from one another. Some of them are identical except for the stickers on the cooling shrouds. You’re free to buy any card you wish, but we’ve tried to pick offerings based on three criteria: the vendor, the type of cooler, and the core and memory clock speeds. We favored major vendors known to have decent service, and we looked for quiet coolers (especially dual- and triple-fan solutions) and higher-than-normal clock speeds (provided they didn’t carry too high a price premium). The cards you see below may not be the absolute cheapest of their kind, but they are the ones we’d buy for ourselves.
Oh, and one last thing: some of the motherboards we recommend support multi-GPU configurations, but we wouldn’t advise building a multi-GPU setup unless you absolutely must. Multi-GPU configs open up a whole can of worms, with occasionally iffy driver support for new games and potential microstuttering issues. There’s a heat, power, and noise cost involved, too. We’ve found that it’s almost always preferable to buy a faster single-GPU solution, if one is available, than to double up on GPUs.
If you’re even moderately serious about playing games, the Radeon R7 260X and GeForce GTX 750 are about as cheap as we’d go. Cards like these will run current titles quite well at 1080p with the graphical detail dialed down a little. With anything cheaper, you’d have to lower the resolution and image quality.
As for whether to go with the Radeon or GeForce, they’re both good choices—for different reasons. The GTX 750 is based on Nvidia’s brand-new Maxwell GPU architecture, and as a result, it’s much more power-efficient than the Radeon. It won’t tax your PSU or case cooling as much. Also, the GTX 750 doesn’t require an auxiliary power input and could work well as a drop-in upgrade for a pre-built desktop PC with integrated graphics. The R7 260X 2GB is a little more affordable than the 2GB version of the GeForce GTX 750, though, and it performs just as well.
Some folks may want to consider the GeForce GTX 750 Ti, which is about 15-25% faster than the GTX 750 and still shares most of the same perks, including a short circuit board, impressively low power consumption (60W at peak), and no need for a discrete PCI Express power connector. This would be a fine card for a quiet, small-form-factor build, or even as a replacement GPU for a pre-built system without PCIe power leads.
If power consumption and connectors aren’t major concerns, we’d strongly recommend springing for the Radeon R9 270, which is featured in our sweet-spot recommendations below. That card is now available for a little over $150, and it’s considerably faster than the GTX 750 Ti—not to mention AMD’s own Radeon R7 265, which still sells for $150 despite its lower performance.
All of the offerings in the table above can run current games at 1080p with high or maxed-out detail levels, and cards at the upper end of this spectrum will deliver the smoothest performance at the highest image quality settings at that resolution. Here again, you should simply get the fastest card you can afford.
Between $150 and $170, one must choose between the Radeon R9 270 and GeForce GTX 660. The Radeon is a little faster and a fair bit more affordable; it also comes with two free games as part of the Never Settle Forever Silver bundle. The GeForce does have a trump card, though: a bundled copy of Watch Dogs.
Just below the $250 mark, the Radeon R9 280 and GeForce GTX 760 are vying for supremacy. The vanilla R9 280 is essentially the same thing as the old Radeon HD 7950 Boost, which means it’s pretty much neck-and-neck with the vanilla GTX 760. We’re dealing with higher-than-reference clock speeds for both cards, keeping them on fairly equal footing. The only notable differences are in memory capacity (the R9 280 has an extra 1GB of RAM, which may help at very high resolutions and with lots of antialiasing) and game bundles (the R9 280 comes with a choice of three free games, while the GTX 760 ships with Watch Dogs).
Want to play games at 2560×1440? The GeForce GTX 760 and Radeon R9 280 will pull it off, but for better results, we’d recommend a Radeon R9 280X or GeForce GTX 770. The R9 280X is the faster of the two, and it’s a little more affordable, as well.
The next step up comes in the form of the Radeon R9 290 and GeForce GTX 780, which should open the door to 4K gaming. These are nearly as fast as the speediest single-GPU solutions on the market—the Radeon R9 290X and GeForce GTX 780 Ti. Unless you’re prepared to pay a premium for a few extra percentage points of performance, we’d recommending opting for the cheaper, nearly-as-good variants. There is, however, some merit to going all out, especially since the next fastest option involves multiple GPUs.
Competitively speaking, the R9 290 is about neck and neck with the GTX 780. Given that the 290 costs $70 less, it’s easily the better deal. In fact, we really like the R9 290’s value proposition. Meanwhile, the GTX 780 Ti has a sizable performance lead over the 290X and consumes less power to boot.
We’re recommending 290-series cards with custom coolers here, since they run cooler, quieter, and faster than variants with AMD’s stock cooling apparatus. See Scott’s article on custom-cooled Radeons for more details.
Oh, and all three of these Radeons come with a Never Settle Forever Gold voucher good for three free games, while all three of the GeForces ship with a key for Watch Dogs.
For storage, we’ll be looking at three categories of devices: system drives, mass-storage drives, and optical drives. The idea is to buy the best combination of the three that you can afford, based on your individual needs.
The system drive is where the operating system, and hopefully most of your games and applications, ought to reside. We’ve included a 1TB mechanical hard drive for budget builds where a two-drive config is out of the question. The rest of our recommendations are SSDs. Budget buyers may not be able to afford an SSD, but everyone else should spring for one and get an auxiliary mechanical drive for their mass-storage needs. Solid-state drives offer huge improvements in transfer rates and load times, which are more than worth the extra expense.
There are a few things to keep mind when shopping for an SSD. Currently, most mid-range and high-end drives offer similar overall performance. Pricing differences tend to have a bigger impact on which products deliver better value. (See our scatter plots.)
Drive capacity can affect performance, especially for smaller SSDs. Lower-capacity drives don’t have as many flash chips, so they can’t saturate all of their controllers’ memory channels. That dynamic usually translates into slower write speeds for smaller drives. For most older SSDs, write performance falls off appreciably in drives smaller than 240-256GB. Newer drives with higher-density flash chips can require 480-512GB to deliver peak performance. Small SSDs are still much faster than mechanical hard drives, so we still recommend them to folks who can’t spring for larger drives.
Also, you may be familiar with our long-term SSD Endurance Experiment. The results we’ve gathered so far show that drives with two-bit MLC flash are more resilient than models with three-bit TLC NAND. No surprise there. With that said, our TLC drive only started accumulating bad blocks after 100TB of writes, which works out to more than 50GB of writes per day for five years. That total is well beyond the endurance ratings attached to most SSDs, and it’s far more data than most desktop users will need to write to their drives. As a result, we have no reservations about including TLC-based SSDs in our recs.
The recommendations below are the most cost-effective options today, but they may not be the best values tomorrow. SSD prices fluctuate a fair bit. Shopping around for discounts is a good idea—just make sure to stick with trusted brands that have proven track records.
Can’t afford an SSD or auxiliary mechanical storage? Then the WD Blue 1TB will do just fine. Its 7,200-RPM spindle speed isn’t terribly slow, and the 1TB capacity is sufficient for both system and secondary storage.
For our entry-level SSD, we picked Kingston’s HyperX 120GB. More affordable options exist, but they tend to be outfitted with smaller numbers of higher-density flash chips. As we’ve noted, such configs can translate into slower write speeds. Some of them, like Samsung’s 840 EVO, make up for that deficit to some degree by using an SLC cache. Still, in this tier, we prefer drives like the HyperX that have more, lower-density chips. We’d only consider the 840 EVO if it were substantially cheaper, which isn’t the case right now.
The sweet spot here is probably the 256GB Crucial MX100, which is aggressively priced and, for the most part, quite fast. Folks with deeper pockets can spring for one of the 512GB and 1TB models listed above. Those drives are cheaper per gigabyte, and they have enough flash chips to sustain solid write speeds. (See our scatter plots for a quick peek at overall performance.) We’d definitely advise getting the highest-capacity SSD you can afford, especially for a gaming build. Many games have voracious appetites for storage—like Titanfall, which requires 48GB of free capacity.
Note that we’ve included one drive with a five-year warranty: the Intel 530 Series 240GB. It’s not quite as affordable on a per-gigabyte basis as our other recommendations, but some people may prefer to pay a little extra for a couple more years of peace of mind.
Those of you who like to walk on bleeding edge might want to look at Samsung’s new 850 Pro. Though priced somewhat outlandishly, this drive is the fastest SATA SSD we’ve ever tested, and it’s backed by a 10-year warranty.
Plextor’s M6e 256GB, one of the first SSDs based on the new M.2 interface, may also be worth a look. This drive is rated for peak read speeds of up to 770MB/s, well above the theoretical maximum allowed by the SATA 6Gbps interface. The M.2 modules comes mounted on a PCIe x2 adapter, but you should be able to remove the module and stick it into one of the corresponding slots on a compatible 9-series motherboard.
Since SSDs still aren’t capacious enough to take over all storage duties in a desktop PC, it’s a good idea to get a secondary drive for large video files, downloads, personal photos, and the like. In this role, a mechanical drive can be used either by itself or with a twin in a RAID 1 configuration, which will add a layer of fault tolerance.
In part based on Backblaze’s recent reliability study, which showed higher failure rates for Seagate drives, we’ve moved our selections toward the Western Digital camp. Hitachi drives did even better according to the study, but they seem to have poorer Newegg reviews than comparable WD products, so we feel less confident about them.
There are other reasons to favor WD’s mechanical drives. The ones we’ve tested have been faster and quieter than their Seagate counterparts.
The WD Green and Red drives have spindle speeds around 5,400-RPM, which translates to slightly sluggish performance but good power-efficiency, low noise levels, and affordable prices. Since we’re not recommending these drives for OS and application storage, their longer access times shouldn’t pose a problem. The Reds have some special sauce that makes them better-behaved with RAID controllers than the Greens, and they have longer warranty coverage, as well: three years instead of two.
We’ll throw in an honorable mention for Seagate’s Desktop HDD.15 4TB. It did almost as well as the WD Green 3TB in the Backblaze study—and it has slightly fewer one-star Newegg reviews than the Green 4TB. Keep in mind that the Desktop HDD.15 is louder and slower overall than the competing WD drives, however.
WD’s Black 4TB drive has a 7,200-RPM spindle speed and is tuned for high performance, at least by mechanical storage standards. It’s a better option than the Green or HDD.15 for storage-intensive work that may exceed the bounds of reasonably priced SSDs. The Black is also quicker than what Seagate offers at this capacity.
For even higher capacities, Seagate now has a 5TB drive available, and it’s not all that expensive, either, at around $350. Well, relatively speaking. It’s certainly a better deal than Hitachi’s 6TB Ultrastar He6, which retails for over $500. For that price, you could build a RAID out of four 3TB drives and still have cash to spare.
Living without optical storage is easy today, thanks to the ubiquity of high-capacity USB thumb drives and high-speed Internet connections. Some people still like their DVDs and Blu-rays, though, and we’re happy to oblige.
Asus’ DRW-24B1ST DVD burner has been a staple of our System Guides for quite a while. It costs only 20 bucks, reads and burns both DVDs and CDs, and has a five-star average out of more than 4,000 reviews on Newegg. We feel pretty safe recommending it.
On the Blu-ray front, the LG drive we usually recommend isn’t available anymore, and its replacement, the WH16NS40, seems to have an awful lot of one-star reviews. We’ve changed our recommendation to the Asus BW-12B1ST, which is a little slower but has higher user ratings.
Choosing a case is kind of a subjective endeavor. We’ve listed some of our favorites below, and we recommend them wholeheartedly. That said, we acknowledge that not everybody will like their look or design as much as we do. To be honest, we don’t mind folks following their hearts on this one—so long as they wind up buying something well-built from a manufacturer with a good track record for quality.
Buying a cheap, bare-bones case is one way to save a bit of cash, but it’s not a very good way to do it. Quality cases make the system assembly process much more straightforward thanks to tool-less drive drays, cable-routing amenities, pre-mounted motherboard stand-offs, and internals roomy enough to accommodate adult-sized hands without causing cuts and scrapes. Quality cases tend to be quieter and to keep components cooler, as well. There’s a whole world of difference in usability between a crummy $25 enclosure and a decent $50 one. Trust us on this one; we’ve put together enough PCs to know.
Ever since we reviewed it last year, Corsair’s Carbide Series 200R has been our favorite budget ATX enclosure. It’s loaded with enthusiast-friendly goodies, from ubiquitous thumbscrews to tool-less bays for optical, mechanical, and solid-state storage. There’s ample room for cable routing, too, and the stock fans are rather quiet. This is an ATX case that will accommodate any of the motherboards we recommended.
Cooler Master’s N200 is a smaller, slightly more affordable alternative that’s designed to accommodate microATX motherboards. The N200 is more compact than the microATX Obsidian Series 350D we recommend below, which means it’s also a little more cramped inside. Nevertheless, the N200 is quite comfortable to work in, and it has plenty of tool-free gizmos to speed up the installation process.
Our old favorite, NZXT’s H2, seems to have been discontinued. We haven’t tested its replacement, but we did recently take a look at Corsair’s Obsidian Series 450D, which fits our idea of a good, mid-range ATX case. The 450D costs only about $20 more than the old H2, and it’s a newer, more modern enclosure with roomier internals and toolless goodies to spare. The fans in the 450D are arranged to generate positive pressure inside the case, which should help to keep out dust. Our only complaint is that the 450D’s vented front panel lets a little too much fan noise through—unlike Corsair’s other cases, where the panel is solid with side vents. Still, the 450D is a great enclosure overall, and we graced it with our TR Recommended award.
On the microATX front, there’s the Obsidian Series 350D. This enclosure isn’t as small as you might expect a microATX case to be, but that’s perhaps a good thing. The 350D accommodates the microATX form factor without sacrificing comfort or roominess. It has an excellent internal design with very easy-to-use internal drive bays. Corsair’s stock fans are pretty quiet, as well, and they’re arranged in a positive-pressure config like in the 450D. Don’t like the window? A windowless version is available for $10 less.
Finally, we have the Obsidian Series 750D, the luxury sedan of PC enclosures. This case is similar in design to the 350D and 450D, but Corsair makes it large enough to accommodate E-ATX motherboards. This is an extremely spacious case that’s an absolute delight to work in. It’s pretty darn quiet, too.
At roughly 14″ x 28″ x 26″, the Cooler Master Cosmos II is humongous. And at $300, it’s also quite expensive. This thing is unarguably impressive, though, with even roomier innards than the 750D and all kinds of premium features, including gull-wing doors, sliding metal covers, and a compartmentalized internal layout. We didn’t give it an Editor’s Choice award by accident.
This should go without saying in this day and age, but we’ll say it anyway: buying a good power supply is a must.
Cheap PSUs can cause all kinds of problems, from poor stability to premature component failures. Also, many cheap units have deceptively inflated wattage ratings. For example, a “500W” bargain-bin PSU might get half of its rating from the 5V rail, which is relatively unimportant, leaving only 250W for the 12V rail, which supplies most power-hungry components like the CPU and GPU. By contrast, quality PSUs derive most of their wattage ratings from the capacity of their 12V rails. That means an el-cheapo 500W unit could be less powerful in practice than a quality 350W PSU.
The power supplies we’ve singled out below are quality units from trustworthy manufacturers who offer at least three years of warranty coverage. You’ll notice that these PSUs all have modular cabling, as well. Going with a non-modular PSU can shave a few bucks off the price of a build, but modular cabling makes cable routing and general system assembly much more convenient. Since there isn’t a particularly large price premium involved, we think modular cabling is worth it.
We also tried to find PSUs with 80 Plus Bronze or better certification. 80 Plus Bronze guarantees efficiency of 82-85%, depending on load. The higher a PSU’s efficiency, the less energy it turns into heat while converting AC to DC power, the easier it is to cool quietly. 80 Plus Bronze, Silver, or Gold units tend to have large, slow-spinning fans that are barely audible during normal use. They’ll save you a bit of money on your power bill over the long run, too.
Corsair’s CX430M was the PSU of choice for the Econobox build from last year’s System Guides, and it’s still a fine budget solution. It has modular cabling, 80 Plus Bronze certification, a large intake fan that should cool the unit quietly, and three years of warranty coverage. Hard to beat for 50 bucks.
This model’s 430W output power should be enough to handle a system based on the other budget components we’ve recommended. If you’re splurging on higher-end parts, however, one of the higher-wattage units below is probably a better bet. Also note that this unit only has a single PCIe power connector.
Seasonic’s G Series 550W power supply looks like one of the nicest options in this price range. It features modular cabling, 80 Plus Gold certification, five-year warranty coverage, competitive pricing, and good Newegg user reviews. Seasonic has an excellent track record, too, not just as a purveyor of its own PSUs, but as a manufacturer of units for other vendors. For a mid-range build that might need more than one PCIe power connector, this thing looks like a safe bet.
Corsair’s HX650 is another good option. It’s a little more powerful and features seven years of warranty coverage instead of five. We’ve had good experiences with Corsair’s HX-series PSUs in the past.
Corsair’s AX860 normally gets our vote here, thanks to its 80 Plus Platinum certification and seven-year warranty—and the fact that we’ve been happily using AX-series units to power our own test rigs. Lately, however, the AX860 seems to have accumulated a bunch of one-star reviews at Newegg, mostly from users complaining about “DOA,” or dead-on-arrival, units. Corsair has told us it’s “not had reports of any unusual problems” and is investigating the situation. For now, just to err on the side of caution, we’ve changed our recommendation to Corsair’s HX850. The HX850 has most of the same perks as the AX860, but it’s a little larger and only has 80 Plus Gold certification.
You’ll notice that we’re not recommending 1kW or higher-wattage units here. Those aren’t really necessary to power the kinds of single-GPU builds we’re advocating. The field of 1kW power supplies is also very competitive, with many PSUs from lots of manufacturers striving for supremacy, and we haven’t reviewed many of them. We may revisit this segment in the future, but for now, we feel better-qualified to comment on lower-wattage units.
Need a fancy processor cooler or a sound card? You’ve come to the right place. This is where we talk about components that, while not always strictly necessary, can improve a build in very real ways.
With the exception of the Core i7-4930K, all of the CPUs we’ve recommended come with stock coolers from Intel. Those coolers do a decent enough job, and they’re generally small enough to fit happily inside cramped enclosures. However, Intel’s stock coolers don’t have much metal with which to dissipate thermal energy, and their fans are relatively small. They can get noisy under load, and they may be unable to handle the extra heat from an overclocked processor.
The coolers list below are all more powerful and quieter than the stock Intel solutions. The more affordable ones are conventional, tower-style designs with large fans, while the higher-priced Corsair H-series units are closed-loop liquid coolers that can be mounted against a case’s exhaust vents.
Thermaltake’s NiC coolers are designed specifically to accommodate tall memory heat spreaders. They use relatively slim fin arrays to achieve this feat. Despite that fact, they’re capable of cooling very power-hungry processors. The NiC F3 can dissipate as much as 160W of heat, while the NiC C5 can do 230W, according to Thermaltake. That’s way beyond the needs of stock-clocked Haswell CPUs, which top out at 84W.
Cooler Master’s Hyper 212 EVO has a similar design to the NiC F3, but with a wider fin array. The extra metal may allow for somewhat quieter cooling, but it may also interfere with tall memory modules. This cooler is a very popular option, though, with over 6,000 five-star reviews at Newegg. (Cooler Master makes another, similar cooler called the Hyper T4, but the 212 EVO is supposed to have better performance and a better mounting bracket.)
Corsair’s H60 and H80i liquid coolers are entirely self-contained and require no special setup. You simply mount them against a case’s exhaust vent with the fan blowing through the radiator fins, and the closed-loop liquid cooling system takes care of everything. The H80i has a larger fin array than the H60 and supports Corsair’s Link feature, which lets you monitor coolant temperatures and control fan speeds via Windows software. Both of these coolers take next to no space around the CPU socket, since their radiators are mounted to the case wall. For that reason, they’re ideal for something like an Ivy Bridge-E system packed with tall memory modules. In fact, we very much recommend water cooling for any Ivy-E build, given how crowded the area around the socket tends to be.
We’ll throw in an honorable mention for Noctua’s NH-U12P, which has a beefy tower-style fin array and dual 120-mm fans. This behemoth costs $80 and is probably the finest air cooler we’ve tested. It performed even better than an older closed-loop liquid cooler from CoolIT in our air vs. water showdown several years back. However, its fin array may be too large to accommodate tall memory modules.
A lot of folks are perfectly content with their motherboard’s integrated audio these days. However, each time we conduct blind listening tests, even low-end discrete sound cards wind up sounding noticeably better than integrated audio. That’s with a pair of lowly Sennheiser HD 555 headphones, not some kind of insane audiophile setup.
In other words, if you’re using halfway decent analog headphones or speakers, a sound card is a worthwhile purchase.
It’s fine to stick with motherboard audio if you use digital speakers or USB headphones, since those handle the analog-to-digital conversion themselves. That said, even with digital speakers, the sound cards we recommend below will do things that onboard audio cannot, such as surround sound virtualization and real-time Dolby multi-channel encoding.
The Xonar DSX and Xonar DX can both drive analog headphones or 7.1-channel speaker setups (either analog or digital). In our blind listening tests performed with analog headphones, these two cards sounded very similar. The DSX is the more affordable of the two, but the DX gets you Dolby Headphone virtualization in exchange for a $30 premium.
There are other options out there, including Creative’s Sound Blaster Z series. You can try your luck with those. Personally, we can’t recommend them—not because we don’t like them, but because we just haven’t had a chance to review them and subject them to blind listening tests. Analog audio quality is an awfully difficult thing to infer from a spec sheet on the Internet.
By now, you should have the info you need to configure your own build based on your needs. However, we thought it would be helpful to outline a few sample configs, if only to offer a better sense of the kinds of component pairings one might want to make—or need to make, based on the components’ compatibility requirements. We’ve put together four sample builds: one for each of our main pricing tiers, plus a one-off build just for kicks. These are merely examples of what’s possible, but you’re free to replicate them wholesale if you wish.
This time, we’ve spiced up our budget sample build a little. Rather than go with the absolute cheapest configuration, we’ve made some provisions for overclocking, choosing an entry-level Z97 motherboard and throwing in an aftermarket cooler. With a chip like the Pentium Anniversary Edition, it’d be a sin not to. We’ve also splurged a little on our graphics card, since the Radeon R9 270 is now by far the best deal around the $150 mark. All of this should make for a very capable gaming machine.
Like the Pentium Anniversary Edition, the Core i5-4690K is fully unlocked, but it features two more cores, which means it can perform far better in multithreaded apps and heavy multitasking scenarios. This build’s 8GB of RAM will see to that, as well.
Otherwise, our chosen motherboard is a TR Recommended award winner, and the GeForce GTX 760 should let you max out in-game detail levels at 1080p while still delivering silky-smooth animation. We’ve also got a good-sized SSD, a larger mechanical hard drive, a discrete sound card to ensure good analog audio quality, a Blu-ray drive for backups and HD movies, and a beefier, more efficient PSU with enough PCIe power connectors for our graphics card.
The high-end sample build in our previous System Guide was powered by Ivy Bridge-E. With Haswell-E on the horizon and the Core i7-4790K offering such nice performance out of the box, we decided to go with Devil’s Canyon this time around. The build is a fair bit more affordable as a result, but it’s still incredibly potent—especially thanks to the Radeon R9 290, which is speedy enough to slather eye candy across 2560×1440 and 4K monitors.
Notice the two WD Red 4TB hard drives. If we were building this system ourselves, we’d configure them in a RAID 1 array. In that arrangement, data would be mirrored on both drives. If one drive should fail, the RAID controller would simply drop it out of the array, and its contents would remain accessible on the other drive.
Just keep in mind that RAID isn’t a true backup method. If your computer catches on fire, your data will be gone regardless of the internal storage redundancy. We recommend backing up files to an external drive or an online service like CrashPlan no matter what.
Here’s our one-off build: the Grand Experiment, named after the $1,000 builds from System Guides of old.
This build is a blend of components from the budget and sweet-spot configs with a focus on gaming potential. We’ve stuck with the Pentium processor, only we’ve paired it with an even beefier cooling solution that should allow it to reach its full overclocking potential. The GeForce GTX 760 should make sure that potential doesn’t go untapped in games, as well. We’ve selected an enthusiast-class Nvidia card in part because of the firm’s recent work on DirectX CPU overhead in its drivers. The lower the overhead, the better the performance on low-end processors. (AMD’s Mantle API has a similar effect on systems with Radeon graphics cards, but only when you run Mantle-enabled games—and those are still few and far between.)
We’re not going to wax poetic about Windows. We will say this: if you’re building a new PC and don’t already have a spare copy of Windows at hand, we recommend that you buy Windows 8.1 instead of Windows 7.
We’re not huge fans of the Modern UI stuff Microsoft introduced with Windows 8, since it’s pretty pointless for gaming desktops like those we recommend. However, we do like the various improvements Microsoft made to the desktop interface, like the new-and-improved File Explorer, the more powerful Task Manager, and the multi-monitor improvements. The faster startup speed doesn’t hurt, either. The demise of the Start menu is deplorable, but the Start screen isn’t such a bad substitute—and you can always bring back the menu with third-party add-ons, if you can’t bear to live without it.
Another good reason to grab Windows 8.1: Windows 7 has been out for more than four years, and Microsoft plans to end mainstream support for it in January 2015. Windows 8.1 will continue to be supported until at least 2018, if Microsoft doesn’t change its support policy.
Now, there are multiple versions of Windows 8.1 available: vanilla, Pro, retail, OEM, 32-bit, and 64-bit. Which one should you get?
With Windows 8, OEM editions were the best deals, since Microsoft’s licensing terms allowed them to be used on home-built PCs and to be transferred to a new machine after an upgrade. With Windows 8.1, however, Microsoft’s System Builder License says OEM editions are “intended only for preinstallation on customer systems that will be sold to end users.” If you’re building a PC for your own use, you’re technically supposed to buy a full retail edition of Windows 8.1.
That makes the issue of 32-bit vs. 64-bit somewhat moot, since retail editions of Windows 8.1 include both versions of the software. (OEM editions are still separate, and in that case, you want the 64-bit version. 64-bit versions of Windows are required to fully utilize 4GB or more of system memory.)
As for Windows 8.1 versus Windows 8.1 Pro, you can compare the two flavors here on Microsoft’s website. Notable Pro features include BitLocker and the ability to host Remote Desktop sessions. Whether those extras are worth the price premium is entirely up to you. Newegg charges $119.99 and $199.99, respectively, for retail versions of Windows 8.1 and Windows 8.1 Pro. Take your pick!
The first edition of our TR peripheral staff picks can be found here. Our latest mobile staff picks can be perused in this article.
We’ll wrap things up, as we usually do, by sharing our limited knowledge about what’s on the horizon. Considering future products is always a good idea when making a buying decision, particularly in this industry.
As we said earlier, Haswell-E is expected to succeed Ivy Bridge-E at the high end of Intel’s processor lineup soon. The latest rumors peg Haswell-E’s arrival some time in the third quarter, meaning September at the latest. That’s part of the reason we kept Ivy Bridge-E out of our sample high-end build this time around.
There’s also been some talk about next-generation Nvidia GPUs. Leaked pictures of what’s supposedly a “GeForce GTX 880” were posted on a Chinese site earlier this month. Considering the relative dearth of rumors and the conflicting speculation about Nvidia’s launch schedule, though, we may not see this thing right away. There have been whispers about some new AMD GPUs, too, but it’s even harder to tell fact from fiction there.
Finally, there are Intel’s next-gen Broadwell desktop processors, which may be an even longer way off. VR-Zone says we won’t see them until the second quarter of 2015. If that’s true, then it means Devil’s Canyon and Haswell-E will be about as good as it gets for at least another nine months or so.
So, yeah. All things considered, now’s a pretty safe time to buy and build a new PC. Just make sure you don’t put together an Ivy Bridge-E machine now unless you absolutely must.
The Corsair 200R looks interesting but then I see Newegg has the Fractal Design R4 available for $20 more (on sale which it seems to be every month or two.) That seems to be a much nicer case for not much more money. Even the 300R sells for the same price at my local Microcenter.
I think it is a really good time to buy a really stable and well-proven platform that’s been polished to perfection. First it was Z77, then z87 and now z97… the last gen Z97 motherboards from Asus, Gigabyta and MSI are about as good as motherboards get.
And Haswell-E is not going to have higher IPC than Devil’s Canyon. DDR4 is not going to be significantly faster than DDR4 at launch (or at all?). And Broadwell is the shrink of Haswell, so probably same IPC again…
DDR4 is meant for memory capacity and lower power consumption. It will not that much faster than DDR3. It is meant for servers/workstation where the demand for memory continues to increases (64GiB+).
Just IMO the game bundles with the add-on GPUs don’t ever affect my choice. If I really want a game I get it when it comes out or wait for a sale or price drop. Yes, you can say it adds some value, maybe more for a budget system or a serial upgrader, but given the typical life of a system it’s not a strong consideration. And not everybody who needs add-on GPU would even necessarily be interested in the games bundled. It’s worth noting in the notes, but saying stuff like “trump card” seems a bit much. IMO.