This guide will only cover the box. Monitor, keyboard, mouse and speakers are not included. I do this for brevity's sake, as the monitor alone would require its own guide, especially if I were to cover LCD monitors. Since this site is called "Guru3D" this guide will target a system intended for gaming primarily. So what sort of criteria do I take into account when deciding what parts to recommend?
Price and Performance: First and foremost, what gives the most bang for your buck, in terms of gaming primarily of course.
Reliability: Second on the list but just as important. This includes things such as compatibility (ever had RAM that worked on one motherboard but not in another?), trustworthiness of a brand overall (do they have a history of making reliable parts?) in addition to the reliability of the part in question.
Overclockability: Overclocking can help squeeze out that extra performance out of a system and can make a big impact on price versus performance (why should you buy a $1000 CPU if you can overclock a $200 CPU to match it?) so this factor can always swing my decision.
Heat and Power Issues: Heat is the enemy of a computer and it can affect the stability (and reliability) of your machine. Performance per watt has become a buzz word and as power requirements for computers rise I eye this more and more closely.
For those wondering about "Target Resolution," instead of listing a particular price point (since price will vary somewhat with vendor/e-tailer) I have listed here what type of resolutions you can expect to be playing most of today's games (with AA and AF on of course) on such a rig, both standard and widescreen resolutions were taken into consideration.
Intel Core i5-3570K
As much as we like competition unfortunately Intel stands unchallenged for gaming CPUs. Yes I know there will be angry emails from people claiming "but most games are GPU limited." True, but some are not and when they aren't the Intel processors race way ahead. We wish it was more balanced, but honestly Intel is the way to go if gaming is concerned. We absolutely recommend the Core i5-3570K, you can save a few dollars by purchasing a non K model, but those are locked processors (and slightly lower clocked) and will never ever give you as much overclocking pleasure and scalability as the K model. So go for the K series okay?
Stepping up is to go with the Core i7 3750, which we also can really recommend as a very nice processor for a mid-range gaming PC. But the price will jump up fast though.
The stock HSF will provide passable cooling power for your Ivy Bridge, but you want to treat your CPU right don't you??? There are a number of inexpensive, quality coolers available now, don't let your CPU languish beneath the stock cooler. Remember to always check to make sure your cooler is compatible with your choice of motherboard and case! We'd recommend a nice Noctua cooler, or Corsairs H100i.
What to look for when buying a motherboard, regardless of chipset or processor it supports:
Good chipset cooling. Chipsets these days continue to run hotter. Better cooling means improved stability, improved longevity and better overclocking potential. Be mindful when using a passively cooled motherboard (even one with the works, including copper heatsinks and heatpipes) to ensure that you can provide the coolers with adequate airflow.
Solid state capacitors. Offers improved longevity and heat resistance as well as avoids the dreaded "leaking" capacitor problem.
Improved voltage regulator. Does the motherboard use a 3 phase voltage regulator or something higher? How do you determine the phase you ask? It is determined by the number of MOSFETs (Metal Oxide Semiconductor Field Effect Transistor) used. As a rule the higher the number (and hence the phase) and quality of the MOSFETs, the cleaner (higher quality) the voltage delivered to the CPU, offering improved stability and overclockability of the CPU and improved thermals for the MOSFETs. Many motherboards now feature heatsinks to cool the MOSFETs as well, always nice.
Features. What features do you need? Chipset features vary broadly as do features individual motherboards may offer. Do you need RAID? If so what type? If you chose to use onboard sound then take a close look at the audio chipset and its associated features as they differ widely.
Editor's Choice: A motherboard based on the Z77. The successor to the Z68 chipset and the only choice to make if you're an overclocker.
If you haven't yet made the switch to a solid state drive, it will be one of the biggest performance upgrades you have made to your computer in some time. Prices have continued to fallen and the latest generation of drives have reached us. Be sure to do your research, SSD technology continues to change rapidly and there have been a lot of firmware problems... I also suggest you read one of our many many reviews. Things to be aware of:
Know how much space you need. Space is still at a premium with SSD's as you'll see. Before you upgrade check to see how much space you are currently using. Anticipate needing more then that in the future!
There are a number of different types of memory controllers on the market. They each have their performance strengths and weaknesses. Samsung uses their own MDX controller for their 840 series. OCZ is using the Barefoot 3 controller for their Vector drives. Plextor Pro drives use the new Marvel 88SS9187-BLD2 controller. The Corsair Neutron series uses the Link_A_Media Devices LM87800 controller... This list goes on. Do your research!
There are also a number of different types of NAND. SLC, MLC, TLC... 45nm, 32nm, 21, 19nm... Asynchronous vs synchronous... even different size capacities of the same model drive... All of these things affects performance and lifespan. Again... research!
You will absolutely want a secondary traditional hard drive to store all your multimedia, it will not fit on that small SSD (for example I use a 256 GB Crucial M4 for the OS and applications and a 2 TB hard drive for everything else).
Editor's Choice: 256 GB Samsung 830. The 830's have proven to be reliable and a good performer, an excellent combination. With the new 840's now out, this is an excellent time to snag one of these drives on sale. Also check OCZ's latest Vector drives. Extremely fast.
Even for a low end machine, for gaming you'll want a lot of memory. It's very cheap right now so I suggest you take advantage of the prices, even with a budget machine like this. The integrated memory controllers on CPUs these days are quite efficient, so unless you want to overclock, 1600 MHz is the sweet spot (save those dollars for something else). An important note to remember: if you select a 3rd party heatsink for your processor there could be clearance issues with the RAM depending on its height (particularly the modules with larger RAM heatsinks).
Editor's Choice: Samsung's 30nm low voltage DDR3 1600 MHz modules (example: MV-343G3D/US). Its very low profile ensures this memory will fit any system you care to build and is an easy overclocker.
AMD Radeon 7870 GHz Edition or NVIDIA GeForce GTX 660 Ti
AMD has done a lot of price cutting, new "boosted" versions of their GPUs, as well as significant driver performance improvements this year to remain competitive against NVIDIA's more power efficient Kepler based GPUs that slowly trickled out this past year. The AMD 7870 GHz (Boost) comes in just a bit cheaper while the NVIDIA's GTX 660 Ti holds a slight performance edge making these two very good choices.
Also if you can chunk in a tiny bit more, the Radeon HD 7950 comes in really recommended. For those of you who don't know, Guru3D maintains charts of the performance of all recent video cards in a wide variety of games, check it out here!
Vista left the audio card market wide open by removing direct hardware access, thus taking away Creative's long enjoyed performance advantage thanks to EAX. Into the fray entered Asus, who have offered an array of audio cards for various users and pricepoints.
Our own audiophile Brann Mitchel: Speaking of fearsome, it took all of 5 seconds of listening to the Xonar D2X to know that it is our new reference sound card. This unseats the Auzentech X-Fi Prelude at the high end (not that we really keep track of these things) as our favorite all-around card to game, listen to music, and watch movies with.
How often do you use physical discs anymore? Thanks to digital distribution platforms like Steam, time to take this one off this list I think. If you want to burn DVD's or watch Blu-rays, by all means go ahead but for a gaming machine you may no longer need (plus I imagine most of you already have a spare optical drive laying around).
Okay I'm going leave this one open to your decision. Cases are a love-hate thing, what one person likes another will not. So go find a case you think suites you and remember you're the one who will have to look at it every day! A few things to remember when looking for a case:
Decide what type of computer you want and what you want in it. A LAN party, portable gaming system... or a full sized, water cooled, overclocked system with Quad-SLI. The parts, power and cooling requirements are going to be very different.
Remember your case will decide some of your other components. A small case will limit the size of your motherboard, your CPU heatsink and the number of peripherals you can install.
For on the go aluminum is a definite plus as it will make your computer significantly lighter. Being able to mount 140mm fans is the way to go as well, ensuring good airflow in your case while maintaining a minimum of noise. A removable motherboard tray is particularly useful in cramped cases, while a CPU backplate cutout is very nice if you want to later mount a different CPU cooler (without removing the motherboard).
The power demands of the PC continue to escalate, thanks in large part to GPU's and the move to quad core CPU's. Be sure to go out and get the biggest and best power supply you can, do not skimp on the power supply! This is an often overlooked part and yet it's the source of so many computer woes. Be sure to check the amps on the 12V rail(s), you want a power supply that can handle a lot, multiple 12V rails is an additional plus (although not required, PC Power and Cooling is well known for their excellent single 12V rail power supplies).
For a frame of reference: For a single AMD Radeon 7970 GHz Edition we here at Guru3D recommend a 550 Watt power supply and 750 Watt for Crossfire. Just remember: don't try and buy a cheap generic brand to save some cash, just because it says 1000 Watts (or whatever the number is) doesn't mean it can actually handle that (sadly). Quality counts big, be sure to get a quality power supply or you can face any number of problems. Also remember it never hurts to err on the side of caution and get more watts then you need, then to come up short when you decide in 6 months to upgrade to that latest video card!
Check out some of our many power supply reviews here. Onwards to the next page please where we look at the high-end gaming PC of our choice.
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