Bang For the Buck (B4TB)

Bang for the Buck (B4TB)

The specifications listed here will be for gaming systems. If you just want a basic system for everyday web browsing, email, YouTube videos, etc. then the budget system is probably a good place to start, but the graphics card can be safely downgraded a notch or two.

I often get asked to look over a set of components that someone is considering for their new gaming rig or am asked to come up a set for the best gaming rig within a certain budget. Occasionally - when I'm very lucky - that limit is really, really large. Unfortunately, that type of budget is almost never for my own system. Still, I find it fun to spec out and build all types of systems. The system specs herein will be just the main box; the monitor(s), keyboard, mouse, speakers, etc. are not included here. The operating system will be.

Show Me What You Got, Big Boy

One big caveat/disclaimer before we get into the specifics. Except where noted, I haven't actually built the systems given in the specifications. I fully believe I could, and if someone wants to kindly send me the parts so I can test that theory, I will. If you discover something that just doesn't work, I'd love to hear about it. (Email me, but be sure to fix the email address by removing the SPAM part.) By request, I've written a breakdown of the heat I'm currently packing. That is, the gaming system I'm using today. If you're interested in what I've chosen for myself, I invite you to check out my current rig page.

Component Recommendations

The systems will be put together using prices from PC Part Picker. I used to use Newegg exclusively for doing up these estimates just to keep things simple as they were "close enough" in terms of price, but PC Parts Picker takes out the legwork of looking at a dozens of online sites. I don't work for or receive anything from any of the retailers. (I did once get a mouse pad and a hat from Newegg for a review I left on the site.) I'll happily ignore emails stating you could get this from <insert some other e-tailer here> for $5 less. That said, I'm also going to bypass all "combo" deals and rebates as those are usually for a limited time, but the time is not specified. I may mention I saw one, but I won't include it in the price. Now, on with the show.

  • Gaming on a budget — Gaming on what I consider the lowest end system worth calling a "gaming rig." Sure you could play that four-year-old game on something less, but this is the minimal system needed to play the games that are currently new and hot. The price of this rig will fluctuate a bit, but generally be under $1000 including operating system. I usually shoot for $800 - $900, and I often miss - being a bit higher than that. Yes, I know there are sites out there advertising gaming systems for $650 or $700 that will "run everything on ultra high settings." That's bull. My system is at the high end of the mainstream gamer level (see the next paragraph), and I can't run everything on ultra high settings.
  • Mainstream gaming — This is the system I probably have right now .. or would have if I was buying a system today. It should run the current lineup of PC games on at least medium to high (or ultra) settings. My target price range is a bit wider here at $1,400 - $1,800. I try to fall in the middle at $1600, but won't balk as spending an extra $100 that gives back more than $100-worth of performance. Most people will want to start with this one and upgrade/downgrade components as desired.
  • Enthusiast Gaming (or Price is not a consideration) — The system I would buy if I was filthy rich. While this one will be expensive, I won't go out of the way to include components that increase the price without a good reason. For example, if the CPU next to the top end can be had for $400 less, I'm there. Why? Because it's regularly found that the "one-off" CPU can be overclocked to the same speed as the higher-priced one or beyond. Doubling the cost of the graphics cards used to get an extra 10% more performance doesn't make sense to me, either. I don't mind spending (other people's) money if I feel it was well-spent. I just don't want to feel I wasted it. Expect systems in this range to break the $3,000 price level. Twice that isn't out of the question, but it would have to be one heck of a system.

Gaming on a Budget

So you want to play the latest games, but your budget is limited. Still, you want a system your friends won't laugh at. (And you won't scream at.) You want to be able to play the current crop of games on reasonably high settings and hope to run this system for the next year or two without having to back off the graphics settings to "minimum." This section's for you. The entries below will be in a blog format so I can just tack new months in front of older ones.

2015 - 07 (July) Budget Build

The Budget Gamer Component List for July 2015

As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker links in the table below where I tally up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using those links and get them at or near the prices quoted. My self-established goal is under $900 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1000.

CPU

My choices in this price range (which I try to keep in the range of $100 to $150) are the Intel Core i3-4330 or the AMD FX-8320. I currently prefer Intel CPUs to the AMD CPUs because the AMDs are essentially the same design released in 2012, and they tend to run hotter than Intel CPUs. That means more power required from the power supply and more cooling to dissipate the heat that is generated. That's not to say the 8320 is a bad part. When looking at benchmarks, the AMD wins those where multithreading is the key, but the Intel wins in just about as many overall even though it only has half as many threads (and those are hyperthreaded rather than dedicated cores). Games are becoming increasingly efficient with multiple cores, but the having more cores doesn't make a winner. Price isn't a deciding factor either as the Core i3-4330 goes for about $130 and the 8AMD FX-3820 goes for $135.

AMD's FX-8320 is an eight-core part with an unlocked multiplier for overclocking. My mental problem with it is that is has a 125W TDP before overclocking, which is about 2.5 times the Intel Core i3-4330. Overclocking that part begs for a closed-loop CPU cooler. By the time you add that cost, you've bumped into the next higher Intel part (i.e., the Intel Core i5-4590). AMD recently introduced the AMD FX-8320E, which is a lower power part (95W). However, from what I can tell from reviews, they mostly played around with the current architecture slightly and capped the TDP at 95W. Benchmarks show the 8320E the same or slightly slower that the 8320, but the prices is about $150. It makes no sense to me to pay more for less performance. Really either the Intel Core i3-4330 or the AMD FX-8320 is a good choice in this price/performance range, but I'm going with the Intel Core i3-4330 for this build.

Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (June 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.

CPU Cooler

We'll save cost here by using Intel's stock CPU heatsink and cooler. It's nothing to write home about, but it does the job and is included with the CPU. It's hard to beat a $0 cost.

Motherboard

Even though this is a budget build, there's no reason to use anything but a top-tier manufacturer's board. For me, that's Asus, Gigabyte and MSI. I have used ASRock in the past, too, but I find their motherboards can be a bit more finicky than the others. The headaches from cheap boards just aren't worth it for the few dollars saved. For this build, I've gone with the Gigabyte GA-Z97-HD3.

The GA-Z97-HD3 is a full-sized ATX board with two PCI-E x16 slots (but only one at PCI-E x16 speed), a pair of PCI-E x1 slots and a pair of legacy PCI slots. (The PCI slots almost seem an oddity now, but if you have an old sound card you'd like to keep for one more build, this will do it.) It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives. The back I/O panel has four USB 3.0 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio and video out. We won't be using the video out since we'll have a dedicated graphics card, but it's there in case we repurpose this CPU for some other build in the future. We will also make use of the USB 3.0 header to supply USB 3.0 on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.0 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the budget build is between $80 - $100. For $90, this is a hard motherboard to beat.

GPU (Graphics Card)

I'm going to be very prejudiced in my selection here. Simply put, for now and for the foreseeable future, I will recommend an Nvidia card each and every time. When I heard about the upcoming R9 3xx series from AMD (390X, 380 and 370), I thought it might be time to revisit the series. Then a friend tried out a AMD 290X ... twice. The first one wouldn't stay stable in any game he tried. The second one that he got (from returning the first one) didn't work any better in his system. We decided to try it in my system, since I knew that I had a really stable system. I couldn't get it to survive through the first 3DMark test. I don't know if it was the card or the drivers. Doesn't really matter.

It got so bad, I couldn't even keep it up long enough to uninstall the drivers. I put back in my Nvidia card (an EVGA GTX 670 at the time), and the sh*tty AMD Catalyst drivers - rather than gracefully handling the fact the card was missing and defaulting to the standard VGA drivers - blue-screened over and over again. I had to nuke and pave my operating system to recover. Three strikes and you're out. He returned that card and got an MSI Nvidia GTX 970. Problem solved. You would have to give me an AMD card for free and pay me on top of that to use one. This may change in the future, but it hasn't changed in over five years. On top of their driver issues, they are still shoveling out rehashed crap from 2012 with a few tweaks and a new name slapped on it.

Instead, I am recommending an Nvidia GTX 960. My favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA. For this build, I picked the EVGA 02G-P4-2966-KR GeForce GTX 960, which is slightly overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. EVGA doesn't cheap out on their cards - even the less expensive ones. This is a dual cooling fan unit and has HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-D port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card is likely not beefy enough to handle multi-monitor gaming. However, with a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor, this card will do pretty well. This card requires only a single 8-pin PCI-E connector. If you happen to have a PSU that only has 6-pin PCI-E connectors, a dual 6-pin to single 8-pin adapter is included.

If you are a real AMD fan, the card to compare my pick to is the AMD R9 380. It's right at the $200 mark. AMD also has an R7 370, but benchmarks put it far behind both the Nvidia GTX 960 and the AMD R9 380.

My rule of thumb for the budget and mid-range builds is that the cost of the video card should be between 120% to 150% of the CPU. In this case, that's $156 to $190. With the EVGA 02G-P4-2966-KR, I'm going to be just above the maximum of that range at $208. That said, I found it pretty easy to find a site where it was discounted to around $190. My rule does change over the years. It used to be 110% - 115%, but so much of the work has shifted from the CPU to the GPU for most games, the GPU is more important.

Memory

DDR 3 memory is quite the commodity, but you still have to have some. I use a number of manufacturers, but I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin. I've gone with 8 GB kit (2 x 4GB to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller) rather than 16 GB or more. The motherboard has four slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. I use 8GB in my gaming desktop, and I've never found a need for more. The motherboard supports a whole range of memory speeds, but I stuck with 8GB of DDR3-1866 from G.Skill for $50.

Storage (Hard Drive[s])

I'd really like to have a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and some storage, but the prices are still a bit too high to get a useful amount of storage. (I wouldn't even bother with an SSD less than 256GB in size.) If I have to use a traditional rotating hard disk, I'd really like to go with the Western Digital Caviar Black series. Unfortunately at this time, their cost per gigabyte is way out of line with their competitors. Instead, I'm going with a fast, large Seagate 3TB 7200 RPM (ST3000DM001) for $89. A 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black is going for $71 and 2TB for $123, and it's really hard to justify that kind of cost difference in this build. While 1TB used to be a lot of space, I'd recommend at least 2TB currently. The difference between the 2TB and 3TB Seagate drives is about $10, so it makes sense to bump up to 3TB. The Seagate drive has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface. My only hesitation about this drive is it only has a two-year warranty where the WD Caviar Black series has a five-year warranty.

PSU (Power Supply)

One upside of the budget build is we don't need any sort of outrageous power supply to make it run. We just need a competent one with sufficient connections. We still want quality here, though. A poorly designed, overloaded/underpowered power supply can manifest itself in a new build as all sorts of problems. If it drops power on one of the 12V rails, the graphics card can malfunction or a disk drive could get corrupted. A bad PSU can make it appear as if you have faulty memory or a faulty motherboard as well. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes Seasonic, FirePower Technology, FSP Group (Fortron), Corsair, Enermax and Antec.

I also like a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections. The latter lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. I have picked a Corsair CX series CX600M semi-modular 600W PSU for this build, which goes for $70. One nice thing that PC Part Picker does is estimate the power required by the build. Understand, they don't guarantee their number, but if you click on it, they do list the min to max numbers they have to make the estimate. This build is estimated to be 273W maximum draw. We want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. We would be at 46%, and we could really comfortably use a 500W or 550W PSU. For example, Corsair makes a 500W model, the Corsair CX series CX500M. The cost savings is only about $10 though. A 600W PSU is more likely to be usable in a future build with more demanding components.

Case

This is a component that often gets the short straw in a budget build because this is a place where some money can be saved. However, one can go too cheap and make building the new PC a miserable experience. There's nothing worse than having to tear everything apart just to be able to move one disk drive or add a new one. For this build, I have chosen the Corsair Carbide Series 200R Mid Tower ATX case, which runs from $65 to $70. I have not actually done a build into this case, but every review of it just gushes over how nice it is for the price.

My reasons for liking this case is that it is a tool-less design for the disk drives (including SSDs) and optical drives, decent cable management, rubber grommet fan mounts, a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the front panel (along with a mic and headphone jack). It has open mounting locations for many more fans, but for this build, we will use just the ones it comes with, which are a front 120mm fan and rear 120mm. The PSU, which is bottom-mounted in this case, also has a fan that will help push air through this case.

Optical Drive(s)

The optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays. After installing the OS, it may never be needed again. I very occasionally buy a game on disk, but it's probably been over a year since that has been the case. That said, for $20, why not. I've chosen the Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer. A newer version is the SH-224FB/BSBE. Both support all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds.

Sound Card

While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board video, it's a luxury we don't need for this build. The on-board sound supplied by today's motherboards is pretty darn good. It will do here.

Operating System

Take your choice of Windows 7 (Home Premium SP1 64-bit) or Windows 8.1 64-bit - OEM. Both are about $97. I use Windows 8.1 because it understands how to treat SSDs better, but pick either one. You're going to take the free upgrade to Windows 10 in a few months anyway. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.

Component List and Tally

The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.

Component Description Cost
Gaming on a Budget Component List
CPU Intel Core i3-4330 3.5GHz 130
CPU Cooler Stock (included with the CPU) 0
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-Z97-HD3 ATX LGA1150 90
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 960 2GB SuperSC ACX 2.0+ 208
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws X Series 8GB (1 x 8GB) DDR3-1866 50
Storage Seagate Barracuda 3TB ST3000DM001 89
Sound Card Stock (motherboard sound) 0
Optical Drive Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer 15
PSU Corsair CX 600W 80+ Bronze Certified Semi-Modular 70
Case Corsair 200R ATX Mid Tower 70
OS Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 OEM (64-bit) 97
     
Total   819

Not bad. For a total of $819 (or $60 less if you get in on current promotions and faithfully send in the rebates), you can build a pretty decent gamer. It should run most games on decently-high settings on a 1080p monitor. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.

2016 - 03 (March) Budget Build

The Budget Gamer Component List for March 2016

As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker links in the table below where I tally up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using those links and get them at or near the prices quoted. My self-established goal is under $900 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1000.

CPU

Rejoice followers of Intel! Skylake is upon us! If at all possible, I would like to take advantage of Intel's new faster and lower-power Skylake 14 nm processors if possible. I try to keep the price of the CPU in the range of $100 to $150.  My choices in this price range are the Intel Core i3-6300 or the AMD FX-8320. I currently prefer Intel CPUs to the AMD CPUs because the AMDs are essentially the same design released in 2012, and they tend to run hotter than Intel CPUs. That means more power required from the power supply and more cooling to dissipate the heat that is generated. The Intel chipset that works with the Skylake series also supports DDR4 memory which is faster than DDR3. In my last budget build, I had chosen the Intel Core i3-4330. According to the comparison of the two at CPU-Monkey, the i3-6300 is from 15-30% faster than the i3-4330 for the same price.

That's not to say the FX-8320 is a bad part. When looking at benchmarks, the AMD wins those where multithreading is the key, but the Intel wins in just about as many overall even though it only has half as many threads (and those are hyperthreaded rather than dedicated cores). Games are becoming increasingly efficient with multiple cores, but the having more cores doesn't make a winner. Price isn't a deciding factor either as the 6300 goes for about $140 and the 8320 goes for $139.

AMD's FX-8320 is an eight-core part with an unlocked multiplier for overclocking. My mental problem with it is that is has a 125W TDP before overclocking, which is almost 2.5 times the 51W TDP of the Intel Core i3-6300. Overclocking the AMD part begs for a closed-loop CPU cooler. By the time you add that cost, you've bumped into the next higher Intel part (i.e., the Intel Core i5-4590). AMD recently introduced the AMD FX-8320E, which is a lower power part (95W). However, from what I can tell from reviews, AMD mostly played around with the current architecture slightly and capped the TDP at 95W (mostly by lowering the base clock speed and limiting the turbo speed). Benchmarks show the 8320E the same or slightly slower that the 8320, but the price is about $126. Really, the Intel Core i3-6300, the AMD FX-8320 or the  AMD FX-8320E would be a good choice in this price/performance range, but my preference is to go with the Intel Core i3-6300 for this build. That will allow me to use the newer and faster DDR4 RAM as well.

Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (November 2015), Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks and CPU Monkey.

CPU Cooler

We'll save cost here by using Intel's stock CPU heatsink and cooler. It's nothing to write home about, but it does the job and is included with the CPU. It's hard to be a $0 cost. So long as we are not overclocking, this 14 nm chip runs fairly cool.

Motherboard

Even though this is a budget build, there's no reason to use anything but a top-tier manufacturer's board. For me, that's Asus, Gigabyte and MSI. I have used ASRock in the past, too, but I find their motherboards can be a bit more finicky than the others. Headaches from cheap motherboards just aren't worth it for the few dollars saved. In my last build, I went with the LGA-1150 socket Gigabyte GA-Z97-HD3. For this build, I considered that board's new sibling the LGA-1151 socket Gigabyte Z170-HD3. However, reviews from people who have this board are all over the place with many more DOA boards being received than I like to hear about. I also looked at the Asus Z170-P, but that also seems to have a number of issues according to the reviews from people who have purchased it. I ended up deciding that I would go with the MSI Z170-A Pro (not to be confused with the MSI Z170A Gaming Pro, which costs a bit more).

The MSI Z170-A Pro is a full-sized ATX board with two PCI-E x16 slots (but only one at PCI-E x16 lanes and the other at x4) and four PCI-E x1 slots. It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives and supports RAID 0, 1 5 and 10. It also has an M.2 slot for an onboard SSD storage unit, but it requires a separately-purchased Turbo U.2 Host Card if you want NVMe. The back I/O panel has four USB 3.1 ports, two USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio and video out. We won't be using the video out since we'll have a dedicated graphics card, but it's there in case we repurpose this CPU for some other build in the future. The motherboard has headers for four more USB 3.1 ports and four more USB 2.0 ports. If possible, we will also make use of one or two USB 3.1 headers to supply USB 3.1 on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.1 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the budget build is between $80 - $100, but the newness of the socket 1151 boards makes that pretty difficult. At $115, this board is outside of my target, but has some nice higher-end features that make it worth a bit extra.

GPU (Graphics Card)

I'm going to be very prejudiced in my selection here. Simply put, for now and for the foreseeable future, I will recommend an Nvidia card each and every time. When I heard about the upcoming R9 3xx series from AMD (390X, 380 and 370), I thought it might be time to revisit the series. Then a friend tried out a AMD 290X ... twice. The first one wouldn't stay stable in any game he tried. The second one that he got (from returning the first one) didn't work any better in his system. We decided to try it in my system, since I knew that I had a really stable system. I couldn't get it to survive through the first 3DMark test. I don't know if it was the card or the drivers. Doesn't really matter.

It got so bad, I couldn't even keep it up long enough to uninstall the drivers. I put back in my Nvidia card (an EVGA GTX 670 at the time), and the sh*tty AMD Catalyst drivers - rather than gracefully handling the fact the card was missing and defaulting to the standard VGA drivers - blue-screened over and over again. I had to nuke and pave my operating system to recover. Three strikes and you're out. He returned that card and got an MSI Nvidia GTX 970. Problem solved. You would have to give me an AMD card for free and pay me on top of that to use one. This may change in the future, but it hasn't changed in over five years. On top of their driver issues, they are still shoveling out rehashed crap from 2012 with a few tweaks and a new name slapped on it.

For this build, I am recommending an Nvidia GTX 960. My favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA. For this build, I picked the EVGA 02G-P4-2966-KR GeForce GTX 960, which is slightly overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. EVGA doesn't cheap out on their cards - even the less expensive ones. This is a dual cooling fan unit and has HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-D port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card is likely not beefy enough to handle multi-monitor gaming. However, with a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor, this card will do pretty well. This card requires only a single 8-pin PCI-E connector. If you happen to have a PSU that only has 6-pin PCI-E connectors, a dual 6-pin to single 8-pin adapter is included.

If you are a real AMD fan, the card to compare my pick to is the AMD R9 380. It's right at the $200 mark. AMD also has an R7 370, but benchmarks put it far behind both the Nvidia GTX 960 and the AMD R9 380.

My rule of thumb for the budget and mid-range builds is that the cost of the video card should be between 120% to 150% of the CPU. In this case, that's $156 to $190. With the EVGA 02G-P4-2966-KR, the price has dropped from $208 when I recommended it in July to $190, which still puts it at the top end of my target. My rule does change over the years. It used to be 110% - 115%, but so much of the work has shifted from the CPU to the GPU for most games, the GPU is more important.

Memory

With the new Intel Skylake processors and Z170 chipset, DDR 4 memory is now mainstream. The prices on it have dropped so rapidly, that it's cost is almost identical to that of DDR 3 memory. I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin as suppliers. I've gone with 8 GB kit rather than 16 GB (or more) to shave a few dollars off the cost. I've picked a 2 x 4GB kit rather than a single 8GB DIMM to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller. (Intel went with dual-channel rather than quad-channel for the Z170 chipset.) The motherboard has four DIMM slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. The motherboard supports a whole range of memory speeds, and I went with 8GB of G.Skill Ripjaws V (F4-3200C16D-8GVK) for $52. This memory runs at 3200MHz with 16-16-16-36-2N timings when using the XMP profile. This is the maximum that the motherboard supports, but should squeak out another 3-5% performance for about $15 more than similar memory at 2400MHz.

Storage (Hard Drive[s])

I'd really like to have a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and some storage, but the prices are still a bit too high to get a useful amount of storage. (I wouldn't even bother with an SSD less than 256GB in size.) If I have to use a traditional rotating hard disk, I'd really like to go with the Western Digital Caviar Black series. Unfortunately at this time, their cost per gigabyte is way out of line with their competitors. Instead, I'm going with a fast, large Seagate 3TB 7200 RPM (ST3000DM001) for $85. (There is also a Seagate 3TB 7200 RPM ST3000DM002, which has the same specifications, but includes onboard encryption.) A 1TB Western Digital Caviar Black is going for $74 and 2TB for $120, and it's really hard to justify that kind of cost difference in this build. While 1TB used to be a lot of space, I'd recommend at least 2TB currently. The difference between the 2TB and 3TB Seagate drives is about $10, so it makes sense to bump up to 3TB. The Seagate drive has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface. My only hesitation about this drive is it only has a two-year warranty (or more or less depending on what country you are from or where you buy the drive apparently) where the WD Caviar Black series has a five-year warranty.

PSU (Power Supply)

One upside of the budget build is we don't need any sort of outrageous power supply to make it run. We just need a competent one with sufficient connections. We still want quality here, though. A poorly designed, overloaded/underpowered power supply can manifest itself in a new build as all sorts of problems. If it drops power on one of the 12V rails, the graphics card can malfunction or a disk drive could get corrupted. A bad PSU can make it appear as if you have faulty memory or a faulty motherboard as well. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes Seasonic, FirePower Technology, Silverstone, FSP Group (Fortron), Corsair, EVGA, Enermax and Antec. Corsair and EVGA don't make their own PSUs, but they OEM them from the other manufacturers listed here. (This Tom's Hardware article of Whos Who in Power Supplies, 2014 has more details.)

I also like a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections. The former let's me build the system without worrying if I've put too much on one rail. The latter lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. I have picked a semi-modular Corsair CX 600M for this build, which goes for $65. (Newegg has a $20 rebate/promo on top of that price.) One nice thing that PC Part Picker does is estimate the power required by the build. Understand, they don't guarantee their number, but if you click on it, they do list the min to max numbers they have to make the estimate. This build is estimated to be 264W maximum draw. Ideally, we want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. We would be at 44% with this build; we could really comfortably use a 500W or 550W PSU. Corsair makes a 500W model, the Corsair CX series CX500M. The cost savings is only about $5 though. A 600W PSU is more likely to be usable in a future build with more demanding components.

Case

This is a component that often gets the short straw in a budget build because this is a place where some money can be saved. However, one can go too cheap and make building the new PC a miserable experience. There's nothing worse than having to tear everything apart just to be able to move one disk drive or add a new one. For this build, I have chosen the Corsair Carbide Series 200R Mid Tower ATX case, which costs $55 (from MacMall or $50 with a $10 rebate from NewEgg or MicroCenter). I have not actually done a build into this case, but every review of it just gushes over how nice it is for the price.

My reasons for liking this case is that it is a tool-less design for the disk drives (including SSDs) and optical drives, decent cable management, rubber grommet fan mounts, a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the front panel (along with a mic and headphone jack), and even dust filters. It has open mounting locations for many more fans, but for this build, we will use just the ones it comes with, which are a front 120mm fan and rear 120mm. The PSU, which is bottom-mounted in this case, also has a fan that will help push air through this case.

Optical Drive(s)

The optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays. After installing the OS, it may never be needed again. I very occasionally buy a game on disk, but it's probably been over a year since that has been the case. However, I've gone with a bit pricier model that supports Blu-Ray playback (but not recording), so I can watch both Blu-Ray and DVDs on my desktop. (That's about all I've been using the optical drive for lately.) I've chosen the LG UH12NS30 Blu-Ray Reader, DVD/CD Writer for $40. For DVD and CD burning, it supports all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds.

Sound Card

While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board video, it's a luxury we don't need for this build. The on-board sound supplied by today's motherboards is pretty darn good. It will do here.

Operating System

Take your choice of Windows 8.1 (64-bit) or Windows 10 Home (64-bit). Both are about $90. I have switched from 8.1 to Windows 10 because it has DirectX 12 support for games, and I really just like it better. If you really want Windows 7, but don't have an install disc (or other media), be prepared to pay through the nose to get one. It's around $140 for Windows 7 Professional and it seems Windows 7 Home goes for even more. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.

Component List and Tally

The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.

Component Description Cost
Gaming on a Budget Component List
CPU Intel Core i3-6300 3.8 GHz 140
CPU Cooler Stock (included with the CPU) 0
Motherboard MSI Z170-A PRO ATX LGA1151 Motherboard 115
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 960 2GB SuperSC ACX 2.0+ 190
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws V Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR4-3200 52
Storage Seagate Barracuda 3TB 7200RPM (ST3000DM001) 85
Sound Card Stock (motherboard sound) 0
Optical Drive LG UH12NS30 Blu-Ray Reader, DVD/CD Writer 40
PSU Corsair CX 600W 80+ Bronze Certified Semi-Modular 65
Case Corsair 200R ATX Mid Tower 55
OS Microsoft Windows 10 Home OEM (64-bit) 90
     
Total   833

For a total of $832 (or $30 less if you get in on current promotions and faithfully send in the rebates), we have a pretty decent gamer. July's build was $819, but that did not include a Blu-Ray reader, which makes the difference about dead even. This build should be noticeably faster due to the faster CPU and memory and should run most games on decently-high settings on a 1080p monitor. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.

Mainstream Gamer

This section is for you if you want to build a rig to play all the latest games on very high settings if not the highest settings. Also, you'd like that investment to be good for the next year or two. This is also the build that I'm most likely to have tested a least parts of, and often, the parts I recommend are the same or similar to the ones I'm using. Systems in this section tend to run from $1,400 - $1,800 depending on the current winds. The general target is $1500-1600. If this describes you, you are in the right place.

2015 - 07 (July) Mainstream Build

The Mainstream Gamer Component List for July 2015

As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker link at just below the table that tallies up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using the link and get them at or near the prices quoted. In the mainstream build, my is to stay around $1500 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1800. I might squeak a bit higher if there is the return is worth the investment.

CPU
As said, the prices here will be what's reported as the best found by PC Part Picker. However, if you happen to live close enough to a Micro Center, you can probably do even better. If you buy a CPU in the store, you can save anywhere from $30 - $100 off the price. In addition to that, they regularly give another $30 - $40 off on a CPU and motherboard bundle. Recently, they also had another $10 off for buying a Samsung SSD with a CPU or motherboard. Of course, they are hoping you'll see some other deals you can't resist. (They are often proven correct when I go there.)

My current choice in this category is the Intel Core i5-4690K., which is part of the Haswell refresh from the 2nd quarter of 2014. It's fast right out of the box, but it is unlocked for easier overclocking. This is a true four core part with four threads. We're going to pair this with a closed-loop water-based CPU cooler and a gaming motherboard that both support overclocking. We may not be doing any overclocking from day one, but we will have the option available and incredible cooling either way. This CPU goes for $230.

Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (June 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.

CPU Cooler

Rather then the stock cooler, I'm using a Cooler Master Nepton 120XL closed-loop water CPU Cooler. Reviews on this liquid CPU cooler have been very positive and the $90 price tag is on par with some of the top-end air coolers. It does take a bit of room for the pair of fans and a radiator, but we are using a case with lots of room.

Motherboard

I recently rebuilt a system with an MSI motherboard in their "Gaming" series for the 1150 CPU socket and was really impressed with the flexibility and features it had. I generally stick with Asus or Gigabyte, but MSI is always one I look at, too. At this time, however, I would likely buy one of these boards if I was in the market. Given that, I am going with the MSI Z97 Gaming 5 for this build.

The MSI Gaming 5 is a full-sized ATX board with three PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots (but only one at with all 16 channels - (16,0,0), (8,8,0), (8,4,4) modes are supported), four PCI-E x1 and an M.2 slot. It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives (however two of those are disabled if the M.2 port is used, which this build does not use). The back I/O panel has four USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio and video out. We won't be using the video out since we'll have a dedicated graphics card, but it's there in case we repurpose this CPU for some other build in the future. We will also make use of the internal USB 3.0 header to connect the USB 3.0 ports on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.0 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the mainstream build is between $140 - $190 and at $140, this one is right in the range.

GPU (Graphics Card)

Rather than repeat it here, see my rant against AMD cards in the GPU section of the budget build.

For this build, the only card to consider is one the Nvidia GTX 970 (in my opinion, of course). As my favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA, for this build, I picked the EVGA GeForce GTX 970 Super Clocked 04G-P4-3975-KR, which is overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. This is a dual cooling fan unit and has HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-I port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card might be enough to handle multi-monitor gaming, but really a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor is the target. This card will run that resolution excellently. This card requires both an 8-pin PCI-E connector and a 6-pin PCI-E connector. (That implies a maximum allowable draw on the 12V rail of 75W [supplied by the motherboard] + 75W [6-pin PCI-E] + 150W [8-pin PCI-E] for 300W. However, at EVGA's web site, they claim the card draws 145W max. The extra power is there for overclocking headroom, which apparently this card handles very well.)

My rule of thumb for the budget and mid-range builds is that the cost of the video card should be between 120% to 150% of the CPU. In this case, that's $199 to $345. With the 04G-P4-3975-KR, I'm going to be just below the maximum of that range at $335. My rule does change over the years. It used to be 110% - 115% of the CPU cost, but so much of the work has shifted from the CPU to the GPU for most games that the GPU is more important.

Memory

With previous Intel CPU generations, the common wisdom was buying memory with speeds over DDR3-1600 was a waste of money. Apparently, that is reasonably true up until the Haswell processors. Benchmarks by Corsair and Anandtech have found small, but consistent increases in performance at least up to DDR3-2400 (and even up to DDR3-3000, but that is pretty hard to find and somewhat expensive). With those benchmarks in mind, I've gone with 8 GB kit (2 x 4GB to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller) of DDR3-2400.

The motherboard has four slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. (I use 8GB in my gaming desktop, and I've never found a need for more.) I use a number of manufacturers, but I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin. The motherboard supports a whole range of memory speeds, but I stuck with 8 GB of G.Skill Ripjaws DDR3-2400 (F3-2400C10D-8GZH) for $60.

Storage (Hard Drive[s])

In this build, it would be (or should be) a crime to not use a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and the main storage. In my opinion, that requires at least a 256GB SSD, but 500 or 512GB is more realistic and managable. The MSI motherboard has an M.2 slot, and I'd love to use that with a SAMSUNG XP941 Series MZHPU512HCGL-00004(0) M.2 512GB PCIe Gen2 SSD that uses up to 4 PCIe lanes. It's twice as fast a a standard SATA III (6 Gb/S) drive. Unfortunately, it's nearly four times more expensive. Standard SSDs are still quite fast, so this build, I'm going with a standard 2.5" form factor Samsung 850 EVO-Series 500GB SSD. It costs $161, which is about 1/2 what I paid for a similar model about two years ago. It also comes with a five-year warranty, which tells me that Samsung believes in their product. The case for this build has four 2.5" SSD slots, so no additional hardware is needed to mount the drive.

Since 512 GB isn't enough storage by itself, let's pair a fast SSD with a fast hard drive, a 2TB Western Digital Caviar Black WD2003FZEX for $123. It has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface with 2TB of storage. The WD Caviar Black series is about the only drive left with a five-year warranty. Many have dropped to only two or three years.

PSU (Power Supply)

A lot of builders try to go with a cheap PSU, but we want quality here. A poorly designed, overloaded/underpowered power supply can manifest itself in a new build as all sorts of problems. If it drops power on one of the 12V rails, the graphics card can malfunction or a disk drive could get corrupted. A bad PSU can make it appear as if you have faulty memory or a faulty motherboard as well. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes Seasonic, FirePower Technology, FSP Group (Fortron), Corsair, Enermax and Antec.

I also like a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections (or fully modular, but that's rather a bit of overkill). The single rail keeps me from having to figure out how to balance the load across the connections. A modular PSU lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. The PC Part Picker System Builder is estimating the build at 353W. We want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. A 700W PSU then should only be at 50% load with the system running full out. The motherboard supports a second GPU, and in case that's a route taken with this build in the future, I have picked the Seasonic Platinum Series fully modular 760W PSU for this build. (PC Part Picker total is an estimate of the power required by the build. If you click on the estimate, a list is displayed with the min to max numbers they used to make the estimate.)

Case

This is a component that often gets the short straw in a budget build because this is a place where some money can be saved. However, one can go too cheap and make building the new PC a miserable experience. There's nothing worse than having to tear everything apart just to be able to move one disk drive or add a new one. For this build, I have chosen the Corsair Carbide Series Air 540 Arctic White High Airflow ATX Cube case, which runs $140. I have not actually done a build into this case, but I would love too.

This case is large - 16.33" long x 13.07" wide x 18.03" high, which makes it nearly twice as wide as a smaller case. With that width, I could practically step inside to wire it up. Much of it is a tool-less design with excellent cable management, a pair of USB 3.0 ports on the front panel (along with a mic and headphone jack). It has plenty of room for mounting the radiator that comes with the CPU cooler. The default fan configuration is a pair of 140mm fans in the front and another in the rear.

Optical Drive(s)

The optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays. After installing the OS, it may never be needed again. I very occasionally buy a game on disk, but it's probably been over a year since that has been the case. That said, for $20, why not. I've chosen the Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer. A newer version is the SH-224FB/BSBE. Both support all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds.

Sound Card

While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board video, it's a luxury we don't need for this build. The on-board sound supplied by today's motherboards is pretty darn good. It will do here.

Operating System

Take your choice of Windows 7 (Home Premium SP1 64-bit) or Windows 8.1 64-bit - OEM. Both are about $100. I use Windows 8.1 because it understands how to tread SSDs better, but pick either one. You're going to take the free upgrade to Windows 10 in a few months anyway. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.

Component List and Tally

The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.

Component Description Cost
Mainstream Gaming Component List
CPU Intel Core i5-4690K 3.5GHz Quad-Core Processor 240
CPU Cooler Cooler Master Nepton 120XL 76.0 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler 90
Motherboard MSI Z97-GAMING 5 ATX LGA1150 140
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 970 4GB SSC ACX 2.0 Video Card 335
Memory G.Skill Ripjaws Z Series 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-2400 Memory 60
Storage Samsung 850 EVO-Series 500GB SSD
Western Digital BLACK SERIES 2TB Hard Drive
162
123
Sound Card Stock (motherboard sound) 0
Optical Drive Samsung SH-224DB/BEBE DVD/CD Writer 15
PSU SeaSonic 760W 80+ Platinum Certified Fully-Modular 148
Case Corsair Air 540 ATX Mid Tower Case 140
OS Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 OEM (64-bit) 97
     
Total   1550

This is almost unheard of. I am actually close to my $1500 target with $1550 as the estimate at the time this was written. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.

 

2016 - 03 (March) Mainstream Build

The Mainstream Gamer Component List for March 2016


As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker link at just below the table that tallies up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using the link and get them at or near the prices quoted. In the mainstream build, my is to stay around $1500 if possible, with an absolute maximum of $1800. I might squeak a bit higher if there is the return is worth the investment.


CPU


As said, the prices here will be what's reported as the best found by PC Part Picker. However, if you happen to live close enough to a Micro Center, you can probably do even better. If you buy a CPU in the store, you can save anywhere from $20 - $100 off the price. In addition to that, they regularly give another $30 - $40 off on a CPU and motherboard bundle. Recently, they also had another $10 off for buying a Samsung SSD with a CPU or motherboard. Of course, they are hoping you'll see some other deals you can't resist. (They are often proven correct when I go there.)


My current choice in this category is the Intel Core i5-6600K, which is part of the new Skylake series 6th generation. It's fast right out of the box, but it is unlocked for easier overclocking. This is a true four core part with four threads. We're going to pair this with a closed-loop water-based CPU cooler and a gaming motherboard that both support overclocking. We may not be doing any overclocking from day one, but we will have the option available and incredible cooling either way. This CPU goes for $230.


Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (November 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.


CPU Cooler


Rather then the stock cooler, I'm using a NZXT Kraken X31 all-in-one (AIO) closed-loop water CPU Cooler. Reviews, such as this one at TweakTown, have been very positive and the $74 price tag is on par with some of the top-end air coolers. It does take a bit of room for the fan and radiator, the fan is a standard 120 mm fan and without a large air-cooled CPU heatsink, we have room to this at the back of the case. A number of reviews noted that the manual that ships with the cooler is minimal. NZXT points to this online manual, which has a set of animated pages showing how to install the cooler. As a building tip, you would want to mount at least the back plate to the motherboard before mounting the motherboard in the case.


Motherboard


I recently rebuilt a system with an MSI motherboard in their "Gaming" series for the 1150 CPU socket and was really impressed with the flexibility and features it had. I generally stick with Asus or Gigabyte, but MSI is always one I look at, too. At this time, however, I would likely buy one of these boards if I was in the market. Given that, I am going with the MSI Z170A Gaming M5 for this build.


The MSI Z170A Gaming M5 is a full-sized ATX board using Intel's new Z170 chipset and the LGA1151 socket compatible with the 6th generation Skylake processors. The board has three PCI-E 3.0 x16 slots (but only one at with all 16 channels - (16,0,0), (8,8,0), (8,4,4) modes are supported), four PCI-E x1 slots and a a pair of M.2 slots. It also has six SATA III (6 Gb/s) ports for disk and optical drives (however two of those are disabled if the M.2 slots are used, which this build does use). The back I/O panel has four USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, Gigabit Ethernet, audio and video out. We won't be using the video out since we'll have a dedicated graphics card, but it's there in case we repurpose this CPU for some other build in the future. We will also make use of the internal USB 3.0 header to connect the USB 3.0 ports on the front of the case. That makes life a lot easier than reaching around the back to plug in a USB 3.0 drive or the like. My target price for the motherboard in the mainstream build is between $140 - $190 and at $170, this one is in the middle of that range.


GPU (Graphics Card)


Rather than repeat it here, see my rant against AMD cards in the GPU section of the budget build.


For this build, the only card to consider is one of the Nvidia GTX 970 ones (in my opinion, of course). As my favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA, for this build, I picked (the same card I picked for the July 2015 build, which is) the EVGA GeForce GTX 970 Super Clocked 04G-P4-3975-KR. This card is overclocked at the factory from the reference specifications. This card includes a dual cooling fan unit and has one HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-I port. It can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but in reality, that would only be practical for editing text. This card might be enough to handle light multi-monitor gaming, but real target is a standard 1920 x 1080 (1080p) monitor. This card will run that resolution excellently. This card requires both an 8-pin PCI-E connector and a 6-pin PCI-E connector. (That implies a maximum allowable draw on the 12V rail of 75W [supplied by the motherboard] + 75W [6-pin PCI-E] + 150W [8-pin PCI-E] for 300W. However, at EVGA's web site, they claim the card draws 145W max. The extra power is there for overclocking headroom, which apparently this card handles very well.)


My rule of thumb for the budget and mid-range builds is that the cost of the video card should be between 120% to 150% of the CPU. In this case, that's $199 to $345. With the 04G-P4-3975-KR, I'm going to be right at the maximum of that range at $334. The prices for this card seems to have stayed flat or risen by about $5 since last July, which just tells me that AMD needs to get on the ball and release something competitive that doesn't require a separate substation to power it.


Memory


With previous Intel CPU generations, the common wisdom was buying memory with speeds over DDR3-1600 was a waste of money. Apparently, that is reasonably true up until the Haswell processors. Benchmarks by HardOCP and Anandtech have found small, but consistent increases in performance at least up to DDR3-2400 (and even up to DDR3-3000). With those benchmarks in mind, the Z170 chipset uses DDR4 memory, and I've gone with 16 GB kit (2 x 8GB to take advantage of the motherboard's dual-channel memory controller) of DDR4-3200.


The motherboard has four slots and two of those will be open for additional memory. (I use 16GB in my gaming desktop. It's really overkill in that 8GB seemed to be plenty for gaming. However, when I'm not gaming I sometimes load up enough apps to need more than 8GB.) I use a number of manufacturers, but I tend to stick with Corsair, Crucial, G.Skill, Kingston and Mushkin. The motherboard supports DDR4 with a whole range of memory speeds, but I stuck with 16GB of G.SKILL TridentZ DDR4-3200 (F4-3200C16D-16GTZ) for $97. I choose this one because it has pretty low memory timings of 16-16-16-36. My experience with G.SKILL memory has been outstanding over the year (save a recent failure on my desktop gaming rig).


Storage (Hard Drive[s])


In this build, it would be (or should be) a crime to not use a solid-state drive (SSD) drive for the boot drive and the main storage. In my opinion, that requires at least a 256GB SSD, but 500 or 512GB is more realistic and manageable. The MSI motherboard has an M.2 slot, and I'd love to use that with a Samsung SSD 950 PRO M.2 512GB PCI-Express 3.0x4 MZ-VKV512 SSD that uses 4 PCIe lanes. It's four to five times as fast a a standard SATA III (6 Gb/S) drive. Unfortunately, it's nearly four times more expensive as well and I believe the MSI motherboard requires the Turbo U.2 Host Card, which adds another $28. Standard SSDs are still quite fast, so this build, I'm going with a Samsung 850 EVO M.2 500GB (MZ-N5E500BW) SSD. It costs $158, which is about 1/2 what I paid for a the sibling 2.5" 500GB model about two years ago. It also comes with a five-year warranty, which tells me that Samsung believes in their product. If you want to make sure this drive could be used with some other system in the future (like a laptop you want to speed up), the 2.5" version, Samsung 850 EVO 2.5" 500GB SSD (MZ-75E500B/AM) is also a good choice and the case has plenty of slots for SSD drive.


Since 512 GB isn't enough storage by itself, let's pair a fast SSD with a fast hard drive, a 2TB Western Digital Caviar Black WD2003FZEX for $120. It has a SATA 6.0Gb/s interface with 2TB of storage. The WD Caviar Black series is about the only drive left with a five-year warranty. Many drive manufacturers have dropped to only two or three years. While not SSD-level fast, this drive is fast for a rotating platter version.


PSU (Power Supply)


The PC Part Picker wattage number displayed in the title bar of a system build sheet is an estimate of the worst-case power required by the build. If you click on the estimate, PC Part Picker displays a list with the min to max expected current draw numbers used to make the estimate. The estimate is just the sum of the maximums for each part in the build sheet.


The PSU is not the place to cheap out. A poorly designed, overloaded/underpowered power supply can manifest as all sorts of problems. If it drops power on one of the 12V rails, the graphics card can malfunction or a disk drive could get corrupted. A bad PSU can make it appear as if you have faulty memory or a faulty motherboard. You could swap out a lot of good parts before definitively tagging the power supply as the problem. My short list of PSU suppliers in my personal order of preference includes Seasonic, FirePower Technology, Silverstone, FSP Group (Fortron), Corsair, EVGA, Enermax and Antec. Corsair and EVGA don't make their own PSUs, but they OEM them from the other manufacturers listed here. (This Tom's Hardware article of Whos Who in Power Supplies, 2014 has more details [but needs updating].)


I prefer a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections (or fully modular, but that's not generally necessary). The single rail keeps me from having to figure out how to balance the load across the 12V connections. A modular PSU lets me use only the power connectors I actually need rather than having to tie up the unused ones out of the way somehow. The PC Part Picker System Builder is estimating the build at 365W. We want to run the power supply at 40-70% of its rated load. A 700W PSU then should only be at 50% load with the system running full out. The motherboard supports a second GPU, and in case that's a route taken with this build in the future, I have picked the EVGA SuperNOVA P2 750W 80+ Platinum Certified Fully-Modular PSU for this build, which costs $110. This PSU comes with a 10-year warranty and 62.4A m +12V rail. [Cue mad scientist voice:] Yes. Yes, that will do nicely.


Case


This is a component that often gets the short straw in a budget build because this is a place where some money can be saved. However, one can go too cheap and make building the new PC a miserable experience, and upgrading later a nightmare. There's nothing worse than having to tear everything apart just to be able to move one disk drive or add a new one. For this build, I have chosen the Corsair Obsidian 750D Black Aluminum Full Tower case, which runs $130. This case is very understated, but still very good looking. It says, "Yeah, the outside looks expensive, but you should see what's inside."


This case is large - 22" long x 9.25" wide x 21.50" high. Much of it is a tool-less design with excellent cable management, a pair of USB 3.0 ports and a pair of USB 2.0 ports on the front panel as well as a mic and headphone jack. The standard fan configuration is a pair of 140mm fans in the front and another 140mm fan in the rear. There is also plenty of room in the top for the 120mm fan from the closed-loop CPU cooler. You can get matching colored wire sleeves and fan rings if that's something that interests you.


Optical Drive(s)


The optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays. After installing the OS, it may never be needed again. I very occasionally buy a game on disk, but it's probably been over a year since I bought one. I realized though that I would like to be able to watch Blu-Rays and DVDs on my desktop, and since Blu-Ray writers only cost about $10 bit more than Blu-Ray read-only drives, I've included one of those all the necessary formats and have the typical speeds. The one I've put in this build is the LG Super Multi Blue Internal 14x Blu-ray Disc Rewriter (WH14NS40) for $50.


Sound Card


While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board video, it's a luxury we don't need for this build. The on-board sound supplied by today's motherboards is pretty darn good. This motherboard even keeps the circuit paths for the audio separate from the others in order to reduce cross talk.


Operating System


Take your choice of Windows 8.1 (64-bit) or Windows 10 Home (64-bit). Both are about $90. I have switched from 8.1 to Windows 10 because it has DirectX 12 support for games, and I really just like it better. If you really want Windows 7, but don't have an install disc (or other media) already, be prepared to pay through the nose to get one. It's around $140 for Windows 7 Professional and it seems Windows 7 Home goes for even more. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.


Component List and Tally


The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.
















Component Description Cost
Mainstream Gaming Component List
CPU Intel Core i5-6600K 3.5GHz Quad-Core 245
CPU Cooler NZXT Kraken X31 69.5 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler 70
Motherboard MSI Z170A GAMING M5 ATX LGA1151 174
GPU EVGA GeForce GTX 970 4GB SSC ACX 2.0+ ( 04G-P4-3975-KR) 334
Memory G.SKILL TridentZ Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR4-3200 97
Storage Samsung 850 EVO 500GB M.2-2280 (MZ-N5E500BW) SSD
Western Digital Black Series 2TB (WD2003FZEX )Hard Drive
157

120
Sound Card Stock (motherboard sound) 0
Optical Drive LG WH14NS40 Blu-Ray/DVD/CD Writer 50
PSU EVGA SuperNOVA P2 750W 80+ Platinum Fully-Modular 110
Case Corsair 750D ATX Full Tower Case 145
OS Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit) 90
     
Total   1592

At $1,592, this isn't too far over the $1500 target. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to PC Part Picker list.

Enthusiast Gamer

You would think this build would be the easiest to configure as it is the money-is-not-a-consideration option. It would be except I don't fly that way. While this one will be expensive, as I mentioned in the overview, I won't go out of the way to include components that increase the price without a good reason. This is the system I would buy if I had a big budget to work with, but I will always want to feel I haven't wasted money to get the absolute pinnacle of products. Expect systems in this range to break the $3,000 price level. Twice that isn't out of the question, but it would have to be one heck of a system.

2015 - 07 (July) Enthusiast Build

The Enthusiast Gamer Component List for July 2015

As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker link at just below the table that tallies up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using the link and get them at or near the prices quoted. In the enthusiast build, I'm trying to build the most cost effective top-end system I can imagine. I don't really have a firm limit here, but expect it to be more than $2,000 and less than $6,000.

CPU
As said, the prices here will be what's reported as the best found by PC Part Picker. However, if you happen to live close enough to a Micro Center, you can probably do even better. If you buy a CPU in the store, you can save anywhere from $20 - $100 off the price. In addition to that, they regularly give another $30 - $40 off on a CPU and motherboard bundle. Recently, they also had another $10 off for buying a Samsung SSD with a CPU or motherboard. Of course, they are hoping you'll see some other deals you can't resist. (They are often proven correct when I go there.)

My current choice in this category is the Intel Core i7-5930K. This is the middle of the three new LGA2011-3 socket parts introduced by Intel last year. It is unlocked for easier overclocking, uses DDR4 memory in a quad-channel bus (requiring four sticks of matched memory DIMMs rather than two like dual-channel memory), has six cores (with twelve threads) and 40 PCIe 3.0 lanes.

A lot of people would argue that the 5820K is all that's needed, but I'm planning on going with 2-way SLI initially with room to go up to 4-way SLI later. The 5820K PCIe lanes are pared back to 28 from 40. If we were only gaming on a 1080p monitor with a single graphics card, 28 lanes are plenty. My belief is that a system at this level should be paired with at least a 1440p (2560 x 1440 pixels) or more likely, a 4K monitor (3840 x 2160 pixels) and dual Nvidia GTX 980 Ti graphics cards in SLI. I think those lanes are going to be pretty darn handy.

In addition to SLI, we're going to pair this with a closed-loop water-based CPU cooler and a gaming motherboard that both aid in overclocking. We may not be doing any overclocking from day one, but we will have the option available and incredible cooling either way. This CPU goes for $560.

Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (June 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.

CPU Cooler

Unlike other Intel CPUs, these don't come with any stock cooler. Intel surmized (correctly, in my opinion) that people building with these CPUs aren't interested in a stock CPU fan and heatsink. Instead, they will want to use their preferred air or water-based system. For this build, I'm using a Cooler Master Nepton 280L (RL-N28L-20PK-R2) closed-loop water CPU Cooler. Reviews on this liquid CPU cooler have be very positive and the $120 price tag is reasonable. It does take a bit of room for the pair of fans and a radiator, but we are using a case with lots of room.

Motherboard

When it comes to enthusiast builds, I like Asus. While Gigabyte and MSI have very good boards is this arena, Asus wins my head and heart. Their ROG series has more tweaks than I will likely understand. Even their low-end enthusiast boards have the key features that makes the board stable and overclockable. Also, Asus really loves to promote their products. You will find Asus reps at gaming conventions and talking on hardware sites. I get the sense they really understand the enthusiast community and love what they do. They also have a really interesting YouTube channel, PCDIY, where they talk about all manner of overclocking and tweaks applicable to Asus and other products

I want a motherboard here that makes every tweak I've ever heard of and a few I haven't. I also want more ports than I can ever use. The Asus Rampage V Extreme/U3.1 is an enthusiast's dream in those regards. It is a based on an Intel X99 chipset. That board has twelve SATA 6Gb/s ports, two SATA Express ports, an M.2 (Gen 3.0) socket, 8 DIMM slots, five PCIe 3.0 x16 slots, two USB 3.1 slots (in the form of an expansion card), ten USB 3.0 ports on the back I/O panel plus four more (two headers) placed in the middle of the board near the SATA 6 connectors (for front-panel case connectors), two USB ports on the back I/O panel plus four more (two headers) on the motherboard.

This motherboard also comes with OC Panel, which is an overclocking tool that can be handheld or converted to be mounted in a 5.25-inch drive bay. The tool displays several overclocking values, can be used to apply overclocking profiles, control fan speeds and more. It also has built-in 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac wireless networking (whether you want it or not) and Bluetooth 4.0. The integrated sound has several features to work with up to 7.1 speakers and a feature to improve audio when using a headset (via the front panel audio). This isn't even a complete list of all the features.

GPU (Graphics Card)

Rather than repeat it here, see my rant against AMD cards in the GPU section of the budget build.

For this build, I'm going with a pair of Nvidia GTX 980 Ti graphic cards in SLI. This motherboard supports two cards in X16 mode (requiring 32 PCIe lanes). As my favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA, for this build, I picked the EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti Superclocked ACX 2.0+ (06G-P4-4993-KR) which is overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. Each card has a dual cooling fan unit and has an HDMI port, three Display Ports and one DVI-I port. Each can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but our target in this build is to be able to support a single 4K resolution monitor (3840 x 2160 pixels). Each card requires two 8-pin PCI-E connectors. That implies a maximum allowable draw on the 12V rail of 75W (supplied by the motherboard) + 150W (1st 8-pin PCI-E) + 150W (2nd 8-pin PCI-E) for 375W total. However, at EVGA's web site, they claim the card draws 250W max. The extra power is there for overclocking headroom.

Memory

This motherboard sports eight slots supporting two banks of DDR4 memory in a quad-channel arrangement. We are going to fill half of those with 16GB of DDR4-2666 CL13 DIMMs from the Kingston HyperX series (HX426C13PB2K4/16). Technically, a gaming system will run fine on 8GB of RAM, but we want to take advantage of the quad channel architecture and putting four 2GB DIMMs in there just seems silly.

This motherboard has been tested with up to DDR4-3200, but the sweet spot at the moment seems to be DDR4-2666 and the HyperX memory has the best timings on the Qualified Vendor's List for the Asus Rampage V Extreme. Since DDR4 RAM is the new hotness, it hasn't had its price driven down yet, so this is a bit pricey at $225.

Storage (Hard Drive[s])

No moving parts. Starting off with a screaming fast Samsung SM951 512GB AHCI MZHPV512HDGL-00000 M.2 80mm PCIe 3.0 x4 SSD. I could not find the official data at Samsung, so I offer this TweakTown review instead. This drive has up to 2150/1500 sequential read/write data transfer rates, which is about four times the read speed and three times the write speed of a fast SATA 6Gb/s SSD and so far ahead of rotating hard drives, they aren't worth mentioning. However, this comes at a cost of $370. (Note that PC Part Picker doesn't have a category for this class of SSDs yet, so this was added as a custom part using Newegg's listing. They were $30 cheaper than anyone else I could find. They were $40 cheaper when I first wrote this, but raised the price $10. I better write faster.) It's going to absolutely scream. My system boots in 15 - 20 seconds on a Samsung 830 from a couple years ago; this one should boot before you even finish thinking about it.

Since 512 GB isn't enough storage by itself, let's pair a screaming fast SSD with a pair of fast, large(r) Samsung 850 EVO MZ-75E1T0B/AM 2.5" 1TB SSDs. We can even put those in RAID 0 if we like. That's 2.5 TB of disk space without any rotating hard disk drives. We have plenty of room to add one of those if we need it for video or the like, but the going in stance is SSDs all the way. They go for $360 each, so that's about enough cost for storage.

PSU (Power Supply)

Wimpy PSUs need not apply here. We have two high-end video cards, a power hungry CPU and motherboard, and they all need unwavering power. PC Part Picker estimates this build at 779W. That doesn't include the M.2 Samsung SM951 512GB drive, which is estimated at 6.5W. If we want a PSU at 50-60% load when this system is running full tilt, that's a 1310W to 1572W PSU. (The PC Part Picker total is an estimate of the power required by the build. If you click on the estimate, a list is displayed with the min to max numbers they used to make the estimate.)

I still want a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections (or fully modular, but that's rather a bit of overkill). The single rail keeps me from having to figure out how to balance the load across the connections. A modular PSU lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. I have picked the EVGA SuperNOVA G2 1600W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular PSU for this build. At $325, it alone costs half of what some complete systems cost, but it is what this type of system deserves.

Case

A system this good should be cuddled inside a killer case. I actually wanted to go with something a bit snazzier, but I really couldn't find one that had the right amount of pizazz without looking gaudy. At one time, there were a number of companies doing custom painted cases, but I wasn't able to find one still left in the business that had something as big as I was looking for. I eventually settled on the subtle, but still great-looking Corsair 900D ATX Full Tower Case. The black brushed aluminum front looks quite professional - like this is not a system to be triffled with. At $340, it's not cheap, but then cases built like tanks are bound to cost more.

This case is tall and deep - 25.60" long x 9.90" wide x 27.20" high. It's all aluminum on the outside with a steel frame and weighs 41 lbs empty. It can handle a pair of PSUs or a PSU and a water-cooling system reservoir. It has room for nine 3.5" or 2.5" drives (or up to fifteen with the purchase of additional drive cages) and four 5.25" optical drives. It has fifteen fan mounting locations for regular fans or less if one or more of the five radiator mount points is used. There are four USB 2.0 ports and two USB 3.0 ports on the front (which I wish was the other way around) tucked in behind a closeable panel at the top. Dust filters cover all the air intakes to keep the bunnies out. There's cable management everywhere there needs to be. Any build into this case will have plenty of room and should be able to be made quite tidy.

Optical Drive(s)

Even though an optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays, if we are going to have a 4K monitor with this system, it should be able to play the occasional Blu-ray movie. Since the LG 16X BD-R 2X BD-RE SATA Blu-ray burner (WH16NS40) is under $60, there's no reason not to have one in a system of this sort. If you find you need to back up 100-128 GB of data on a reasonably permanent medium, this burner can to that - at $12 - $27 a disc.

Sound Card

While I still like sound cards and think they produce better sound than on-board audio, I found myself convinced by Asus YouTube videos on this motherboard that there's really no reason to go there. The on-board sound supplied by this motherboard sounds excellent on paper, and if it doesn't pan out, there's plenty of room to add one later.

Operating System

Take your choice of Windows 7 (Home Premium SP1 64-bit) or Windows 8.1 64-bit - OEM. Both are about $100. I use Windows 8.1 because it understands how to tread SSDs better, but pick either one. You're going to take the free upgrade to Windows 10 in a few months anyway. Do get the 64-bit version of whichever one you pick.

Component List and Tally

The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.

Component Description Cost
Enthusiast Gaming Component List
CPU Intel Core i7-5930K 3.5GHz 6-Core Processor 560
CPU Cooler Cooler Master Nepton 280L 122.5 CFM Liquid CPU Cooler 120
Motherboard Asus RAMPAGE V EXTREME/U3 EATX LGA2011-3 516
GPU
2 - EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti 6GB Superclocked ACX 2.0+
($650 times two for 2-Way SLI)
1300
Memory Kingston 16GB (4 x 4GB) DDR4-2666 225
Storage SAMSUNG SM​951 MZHPV5​12HDGL 512 GB M.2 SSD
2 - Samsung 850 EVO-Series 1TB 2.5" Solid State Drive ($360 X 2)
370
720
Sound Card Stock (motherboard - believe it or not) 0
Optical Drive LG WH16NS40 Blu-Ray/DVD/CD Writer 50
PSU EVGA SuperNOVA G2 1600W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular 325
Case Corsair 900D ATX Full Tower Case 340
OS Microsoft Windows 8.1 OEM (64-bit) 97
     
Total   4623

OK. This one is a bit higher than my usual "money is no object" system at $4623. The dual GTX 980 Ti are a bit of a splurge. They would be wasted on less than a 4K monitor. Going with all SSDs is another high dollar decision, but I absolutely, positively won't build another system for myself that isn't using SSDs for booting and the primary storage. I'm able to get by with 1.5TB on my own desktop, but that's not the point. With this much SSD space, there won't be much of a reason to worry. If more space is needed, there's room for three or four hard disk drives in addition to the SSDs. It's a lot of money, but I don't think any of it is wasted. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.

If I were to build this system, I would want to pair it with a strong 4K monitor. The Asus PQ321Q 31.5" UHD monitor would probably be my first choice at the moment. That said, at $1400, it makes this system - already pricey - downright expensive at about $6K.

 

2016 - 03 (March) Enthusiast Build

The Enthusiast Gamer Component List for March 2016


As mentioned in the introduction, all prices are from PC Part Picker unless explicitly specified otherwise. No special prices (e.g., after mail-in-rebate prices or combo prices) are included if that can be avoided. If you are a conscientious rebater, you may be able to spend a bit less. I will include the PC Part Picker link at just below the table that tallies up all the prices. You should be able to load these items in your cart using the link and get them at or near the prices quoted. In the enthusiast build, I'm trying to build the most cost effective top-end system I can imagine. I don't really have a firm limit here, but expect it to be more than $2,000 and less than $6,000.


CPU


As said, the prices here will be what's reported as the best found by PC Part Picker. However, if you happen to live close enough to a Micro Center, you can probably do even better. If you buy a CPU in the store, you can save anywhere from $20 - $100 off the price. In addition to that, they regularly give another $30 - $40 off on a CPU and motherboard bundle. Recently, they also had another $10 off for buying a Samsung SSD with a CPU or motherboard. Of course, they are hoping you'll see some other deals you can't resist. (They are often proven correct when I go there.)


I have to say that at this moment in time, I'm kind of stumped. The new Skylake processors have been out for a while, but LGA1151 chipsets like the Z170 have only 20 PCIe lanes and dual-channel memory support whereas the LGA 2011-v3 chipset has 40 PCIe lanes and has quad-channel memory support of the LGA 2011-v3 chipset . My going in stance was because of what I perceived as those shortcomings, the Intel Core i7-5930K would kick the Intel Core i7-6700K's butt. After all, the 5930K also has six (albeit slower) cores (with twelve threads). However, all the benchmarks I can find say it ain't so for at least for systems with single and dual (SLI) GTX 980 Ti graphics card.


My stance is that a system at this level should be paired with at least a 1440p (2560 x 1440 pixels) monitor or more likely, a 4K monitor (3840 x 2160 pixels). While a single Nvidia GTX 980 Ti can handle 1440p reasonably, we will want dual Nvidia GTX 980 Ti graphics cards in SLI for 4K and above resolution. I though having 16 dedicated PCIe lanes per card were a requirement, but the numbers just don't reflect that. Triple or quad SLI systems probably still require a LGA 2011-v3 chipset's 40 PCIe lanes. There are no games out there that really require that kind of power, so triple and quad setups exist primary because they can and have the bragging rights. So, in a major departure at the moment - at least until I see the numbers from Skylake-E processors later this year - I think the Intel Core i7-6700K is the way to go. That means I'm looking at a $370 CPU instead of a $560 CPU.


In addition to SLI, we're going to pair this with a closed-loop water-based CPU cooler and a gaming motherboard that both aid in overclocking. We may not be doing any overclocking from day one, but we will have the option available and incredible cooling either way. Good resources to check out the benchmark scores are Tom's Hardware's Best Gaming CPUs For The Money article (June 2015) and Anandtech's CPU Benchmarks.


CPU Cooler


Unlike most CPUs, these don't come with any stock cooler. Intel surmised (correctly, in my opinion) that people building with these CPUs aren't interested in a stock CPU fan and heatsink. Instead, they will want to use their preferred air or water-based system. For this build, I'm using a NZXT Kraken X61RL-KRX61-01 closed-loop water CPU Cooler. Reviews on this liquid CPU cooler have be very positive, it comes with a six-year warranty and the $140 price tag is reasonable. It does take a bit of room for the pair of fans and a radiator, but we are using a case with lots of room. Here are reviews from Tweaktown and HardOCP.


Motherboard


Once I pick the CPU, the motherboard is next, and is generally it is not hard for me to choose one. I have mentioned before that when it comes to enthusiast builds, I prefer Asus. Their ROG series has more tweaks than I will likely understand. They also have a really interesting YouTube channel, PCDIY, where they talk about all manner of overclocking and tweaks applicable to Asus and other products. The price range I tend to look for for this build is $250 as a rough starting point and up to the cost of the CPU (which is $370 in this build). I will go higher if there's it gets me a feature I want to take advantage of, but spending more on the motherboard than on the CPU just seems somehow. I also feel it's wrong to spend less than 1/2 the cost of the CPU on one.


Looking at the Asus offerings in this range, we have the ASUS ROG MAXIMUS VIII FORMULA, ASUS ROG MAXIMUS VIII HERO ALPHA, ASUS Z170-DELUXE and ASUS ROG MAXIMUS VIII HERO. However, each of those models seem to be having quality issues. It's rare to see users report such a high rate of build problems on so many models, which includes quite a few DOAs. I also considered the ASUS SABERTOOTH Z170 MARK 1, but while it seems to be having fewer build issues, the memory speeds supported seem artificially neutered at around 2400MHz-2666MHz maximum. (It still has the high grade components as earlier SABERTOOTH models, so my only guess is that it is artificially limit so that it doesn't compete with the ROG models.)


Next, I looked at Gigabyte's offerings, which includes the GIGABYTE G1 GA-Z170X-Gaming 7 at around $200, the GIGABYTE GA-Z170X-UD5 TH (where the "TH" stands for Thunderbolt) also at about $200, the GIGABYTE G1 GA-Z170X-Gaming GT at $230 and then a big empty hole until the GIGABYTE GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE at $380 and the GIGABYTE G1 Gaming GA-Z170X-Gaming G1 at $480. The GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE comes with all the overclocking bells and whistles you could want including the largest number of buttons on a motherboard I've ever seen, 22 phases of power filtering, 4-way SLI support, three M.2 devices, very high memory overclocking and much more. However, several professional and customer reviews mentioned that the board has issues recognizing USB devices during the boot - including the keyboard and mouse - until they are disconnected and reinserted (in other USB ports by some accounts).(Interestingly, most assumed it was an issue with their keyboard and mouse and not the board in general.) That's a daily headache I don't need.


The choice I finally decided upon this is the GIGABYTE G1 GA-Z170X-Gaming 7. I almost feel like I have to apologize for how little it costs, however I won't. It's got everything I need for the high-end build I have in mind. So much so, I wonder why it is only $200. It inherits a lot from its (much) higher-priced sibling, the Gaming G1. The motherboard has dual PCIe Gen3 x4 M.2 slots supporting up to 32Gb/s data transfer per slot with PCIe NVMe SSDs (as well as SATA and AHCI support). These two slots support RAID configurations, and an insanely fast RAID 0 set up is what I have in mind for this build. Other storage support includes 3 SATA Express connectors (which I don't see any use for at this time), six SATA 6Gb/s connectors from the Z170 chipset plus two more SATA 6Gb/s connectors from the ASMedia ASM1061 (supporting AHCI mode only).


This board has dual GB NIC for Ethernet connections. One uses the Intel Gigabit LAN controller and the other users a Rivet Networks Killer 2400. The latter is supposed to offer better online gaming and media performance, but the Intel chip is no slouch either. The two NICs cannot be teamed, but I'm not a big believer in that anyway. I'm not convinced there's any advantage to pairing two gigabit LAN connections to a 60 Mb/s spout. If I did a lot of competitive gaming on a local LAN, I would care.


The motherboard supports dual graphics cards in Crossfire or SLI (in PCIe x8 x8) and three graphics cards in Crossfire (in PCIe x8 x4 x4). However, when using the second M.2 slot (M2H_32G), the PCIE x4 slot is no longer usable, so triple-Crossfire would not be an option. Not to worry as my intent is to go with two Nvidia cards in SLI.


Memory-wise, the Gaming 7 has 4 288-pin DDR4 DIMM slots and supports dual-channel memory mode up to a maximum of 64GB or RAM.


The Gaming 7 has USB connections galore starting with a USB 3.1 Type C connector on the back I/O panel that is Thunderbolt 3 certified, a second Type A USB 3.1 port also on the back panel, five USB 3.0 ports on the back and motherboard headers four more USB 3.0 ports (via the Z170 chipset and a Renesas USB 3.0 hub) and four USB 2.0 ports. I do wish there was (and I believe there is) a way to get the USB 3.1 Type C connector to the front of the machine. I have seen an add-on front panel adapter that does just that.


The onboard sound on the Gaming 7 is a step above what most motherboards are offering. It is using a Creative Sound Core3D quad-core audio processor. As I understand it, this processor is the same or nearly the same as Creative's discrete sound cards. Additionally, it also has what Gigabyte is calling the "AMP-UP Audio Technology that sports an upgradable OP-AMP (but I could not find any available upgrades), high-end audio components, gain boost for the headphone jack and isolated audio circuitry.


This may be the most I've ever written about a motherboard for this section. I'm just amazed at all that $200 can get you. I also took a good hard look at the MSI Z170A XPOWER GAMING TITANIUM for $270, and that would be my second choice. The main thing it offers for the extra $70 is triple and quad SLI support. However, it lacks a second NIC like a Killer NIC. To use the M.2 slots in NVMe mode, additional turbo modules are needed, which seems a bit like gouging to me on a board that's already near the middle to top end in price.


GPU (Graphics Card)


Rather than repeat it here, see my rant against AMD cards in the GPU section of the budget build.


For this build, I'm going with a pair of Nvidia GTX 980 Ti graphic cards in SLI. This motherboard supports two cards in X8 mode (requiring 16 PCIe lanes). As my favorite video card vendor at the moment is EVGA, for this build, I picked the EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti FTW GAMING ACX 2.0+ 06G-P4-4996-KR, which is overclocked at the factory from the base specifications. The card has a dual cooling fan unit to keep it cool and has a three-year warranty.


For output ports, each card has an HDMI 2.0 port, three Display Ports (1.2) and one dual link DVI-I port. Each can handle up to four monitors simultaneously, but our target in this build is to be able to support a single 4K resolution monitor (3840 x 2160 pixels). Each card requires two 8-pin PCI-E connectors. That implies a maximum allowable draw on the 12V rail of 75W (supplied by the motherboard) + 150W (1st 8-pin PCI-E) + 150W (2nd 8-pin PCI-E) for 375W total. However, at EVGA's web site, they claim the card draws 275W max. The extra power is there for overclocking headroom if needed. This setup will be able to laugh in the face of a VR headset .. if it had one. Heck, attach two.


Memory


This motherboard sports four slots supporting two banks of DDR4 memory in a dual-channel arrangement. We are going to fill half of those with 16GB (as 2x8GB DIMMs) of G.SKILL Trident Z F4-4000C19D-16GTZ rated at a maximum frequency of 4000MHz. The motherboard supports a maximum of 3800MHz memory, and we will likely start around 3200MHz and see what we can comfortably work up to. DDR4 RAM prices have dropped like a rock since its introduction (and the Z170 chipset made it mainstream). Even though this is top-of-the-line memory, it is only $155. I say "only" because last summer this memory would have been upwards of $300 if it existed, which I don't believe it did.


Storage (Hard Drive[s])


No moving parts. Starting off with a screaming fast Samsung 950 PRO M.2 512GB MZ-V5P512BW, which support NVMe data rates of This drive has up to 2500/1500MBps sequential read/write data transfer rates, which is about four times the read speed and three times the write speed of a fast SATA 6Gb/s SSD and so far ahead of rotating hard drives, they aren't worth mentioning. This comes at the low, low cost of $322. It's going to absolutely scream. My system boots in 15 - 20 seconds with a Samsung 840 from a couple years ago; this one should boot before you even finish thinking about it. I'd like to get a pair of these and run RAID 0 on them, but with the dual graphics cards taking 16 PCIe lanes (in x8 x8 configuration for SLI), I think there's insufficient PCIe lanes for two drives.


Since 512GB isn't enough storage by itself, let's pair screaming fast SSDs with a pair of fast, larger Samsung 850 EVO MZ-75E1T0B/AM 2.5" 1TB SSDs. We can even put those in RAID 0 if we like. That's 2.5TB of disk space without any rotating hard disk drives. We have plenty of room to add one of those if we need it for video or the like, but the going in stance is SSDs all the way. They go for $260 each (down from over twice that a year ago and $50 less than a few months ago), so that's about enough cost for storage.


PSU (Power Supply)


Wimpy PSUs need not apply here. We have two high-end video cards, a power hungry CPU and motherboard, and they all need unwavering power. PC Part Picker estimates this build at 720W. If we want a PSU at 50-60% load when this system is running full tilt, that's a 1200W to 1440W PSU. (The PC Part Picker total is a worst-case estimate of the power required by the build. If you click on the estimate, a list is displayed with the min to max numbers used to make the estimate.)


I still want a PSU with a single 12V rail and semi-modular connections (or fully modular, but that's rather a bit of overkill). The single rail keeps me from having to figure out how to balance the load across the connections. A modular PSU lets me use only the power connectors I actually need. I have picked the SeaSonic X Series 1250W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular ATX Power Supply. SeaSonic is my favorite PSU vendor at the moment and this is the largest PSU they offer. At worst case, the system would only be pushing this PSU at 58.4% of it's rated load. This PSU sports a 104A single 12V rail. It also has a five-year warranty.


Case


I usually don't go in that much for aesthetics, but that snazzy white, red and black motherboard would look oh so nice in a white case. Even better would be one with some red accents. I came across the Corsair 760T White V2 ATX Full Tower Case, and while it doesn't have any red accents, it's so nice looking that stopped searching. This line of cases are known for being easy to build into. It has plenty of room for the radiator from the CPU cooler, built in 2.5 drive mounts for the SSDs, and the full side window is a nice, unique look. The cost is $170, which is about where the cost of the case in this build usually is. You could always add a set of red LEDs lining the side window for that extra snazziness.


Optical Drive(s)


Even though an optical drive is pretty much an optional part nowadays, if we are going to have a 4K monitor with this system, it should be able to play the occasional Blu-ray movie. Since the LG 16X BD-R 2X BD-RE SATA Blu-ray burner (WH16NS40) is just under $60, there's no reason not to have one in a system of this sort. If you find you need to back up 100-128 GB of data on a reasonably permanent medium, this burner can to that - at $12 - $27 a disc.


Sound Card


While I still like discrete sound cards and think they produce better sound than onboard audio, I think this motherboard's solution from Creative is an exception. The onboard sound supplied by this motherboard sounds excellent on paper, and if it doesn't pan out, there's room to add a discrete sound card later.


Operating System


Take your choice of Windows 8.1 (64-bit) or Windows 10 Home (64-bit). Both are about $90. I have switched from 8.1 to Windows 10 because it has DirectX 12 support for games, and I really just like it better. If you really want Windows 7, but don't have an install disc (or other media) already, be prepared to pay through the nose to get one. It's around $140 for Windows 7 Professional and it seems Windows 7 Home goes for even more. Do get the 64-bit version of whatever operating system you pick.


Component List and Tally


The prices given below are static and are the ones captured when this was written. Click on the link below the table to load the list into the PC Part Picker system builder.
















Component Description Cost
Enthusiast Gaming Component List
CPU Intel Core i7-6700K 4.0GHz Quad-Core 370
CPU Cooler NZXT Kraken X61 106.1 CFM Liquid 140
Motherboard Gigabyte GA-Z170X-Gaming 7 ATX LGA1151 200
GPU
2 - EVGA GeForce GTX 980 Ti 6GB FTW ACX 2.0+

($640 times two for 2-Way SLI)

1280
Memory G.Skill TridentZ Series 16GB (2 x 8GB) DDR4-3600 155
Storage Samsung 950 PRO 512GB M.2-2280 SSD (MZ-V5P512BW)

2 - Samsung 850 EVO-Series 1TB 2.5" SSD ($260 X 2)
322

520
Sound Card Stock (motherboard - believe it or not) 0
Optical Drive LG WH16NS40 Blu-Ray/DVD/CD Writer 55
PSU SeaSonic X Series 1250W 80+ Gold Certified Fully-Modular 179
Case Corsair 760T White V2 ATX Full Tower 170
OS Microsoft Windows 10 Home OEM (64-bit) 87
     
Total   3478

Wow. My July 2013 build was $4623, and this one comes in at $3478 - a full $1145 difference. I don't feel this is $1100+ less of a system. The SSDs and RAM prices have dropped significantly, which is part of the reduction in the cost. Going with the top-of-the-line Skylake CPU available (at this time) over a Haswell-E CPU save several hundred dollars, and the Gigabyte motherboard save about $350 more. I don't feel anything significant was given up to work with those. We lost two full cores (four thread), 1/2 the PCIe lanes (most of which were going to the GPUs in x16 x16 mode) and quad-channel memory. Even so, most of the benchmarks I've seen put the 6700K right up there with the 5930K. The Skylake-E CPUs are due out in 2016 (Q2 or Q3 are rumored), and will likely return back to six or eight core parts and an LGA 2011-v3 socket.


We did not give up the dual GTX 980 Ti graphics cards in SLI. They would be wasted on less than a 4K monitor, but with good 4K monitors dropping below $700, there's no reason not to have one. We also didn't give up on going with all SSDs. I absolutely, positively won't build another system for myself that isn't using SSDs for booting and the primary storage. I'm able to get by with 1.5TB on my own desktop. With 2.5TB of SSD space, there won't be much of a reason to worry. If more space is needed, there's room for three or four rotating hard disk drives in addition to the SSDs. It's still a lot of money, but I don't think any of it is wasted. To see the current prices for these components, check the link to the PC Part Picker list.