Are you planning to buy new PC hardware parts during this holiday season to build a new computer or upgrade your current system? Let’s recap some of the products with the best cost/benefit ratios that we reviewed in 2011.
Disclaimer: All recommendations present in this article are based on the reviews we wrote in 2011. Hardware Secrets never receives any kind of monetary compensation or advertisement deals for recommending products.
Our recommendations below are just a starting point. Please use our “Recommendations for Custom PC Building” forums if you want to get personalized recommendations.
This year it was really clear that Intel has the advantage on the mid-range and high-end segments, while AMD still reigns in the entry-level and value segments. If you have a budget of up to USD 100 to spend on a CPU, our recommendation is the Phenom II X4 840. You can spend a little more and get the A8-3850, which comes with a very good integrated graphics solution if you want to play games but don’t want to spend a lot of money.
If you can spend more than USD 100 on a CPU, our recommendation is the Core i5-2500. Finally, if you are a high-end enthusiast, go with the Core i7-2600K.
According to our cooling editor, Rafael Coelho, the two CPU coolers with the best price/performance ratio from all the products he reviewed this year are the Cooler Master Hyper 212 EVO and the Evercool Transformer 4. Of course, there are coolers with higher performance, but they cost more.
The motherboard you need to buy must match the CPU you pick. However, motherboard manufacturers nowadays offer so many different models. You want to make sure that you pick a model that doesn’t come with features that you will never use but does contain features that you will require. For example, it doesn’t make any sense buying a motherboard that doesn’t come with USB 3.0 ports.
For AMD processors, the ASRock 890FX Deluxe4 provides a terrific cost/benefit ratio. It doesn’t support the AMD FX (“Bulldozer”) CPUs, but we don’t recommend these CPUs anyway. If you picked an AMD “APU” such as the A8-3850, the ECS A75F-A has an unbeatable price.
On the Intel side, we recommend motherboards based on the Z68 chipset. Even if you won’t use the Intel Smart Response Technology (SRT) right now, at least you have it available for a future upgrade. The prices for these motherboards vary greatly, depending on the features you want. The ASRock Z68 Pro3 is one of the most inexpensive models available, yet it provides all the features the average user will need. Of course, if you need additional features, you will have to get a more expensive model.
If you don’t play games, you can save money buying a CPU or a motherboard with integrated video, and you won’t need an add-on video card.
If you are just a casual gamer, then the AMD A8-3850 CPU is a good pick, as it comes with very good gaming performance for this segment.
Otherwise, you will have to pick a video card. It may be difficult to choose, as there are so many products at different price ranges.
If you have up to USD 120 to buy a video card, our pick is the GeForce GTS 450, as it is faster than its main competitor, the Radeon HD 6670. You can pay only USD 15 more to get the GeForce GTX 550 Ti, which provides higher performance.
At the USD 150-170 price range, we like the Radeon HD 6850; at the USD 180-200 price range, we like the Radeon HD 6870.
If you have up to USD 250 to spend on a video card, then our recommendation is the GeForce GTX 560 Ti.
If you are an avid gamer and have more than USD 300 to spend on a video card, then the Radeon HD 6950, Radeon HD 6970, and GeForce GTX 570 are good options.
The power supply market is improving a lot thanks to reviews such as the ones we do. This year manufacturers released great products. Currently, we think the average user should pick a unit with the 80 Plus Bronze certification. First, you will need to calculate the wattage you will require (use the eXtreme Power Supply Calculator Lite). Remember that the power supply presents its highest efficiency between 40% and 60% of its labeled wattage. You also want to leave some margin for future upgrades. Don’t buy a power supply with a labeled wattage that is too close to the amount calculated.
After picking a wattage based on your system configuration, you should decide between modular and non-modular. Modular models are better, as you can remove unused cables, which improves airflow inside the PC, but they are a bit more expensive.
If you are following our advice, you will probably need a power supply between 500 W and 650 W. At this range, we currently have several excellent products at very affordable prices. Take a look at the Antec High Current Gamer 520 W, Enermax NAXN 82+ 550 W, PC Power & Cooling Silencer Mk III 600 W, and OCZ ZS Series 650 W. If you need more power, the new Thermaltake TR2 700 W and the Corsair TX750 V2 are good picks.
Memory prices are so low compared to a couple of years ago, that you should buy at least 4 GB. Just make sure you install the 64-bit version of your operating system of choice. Otherwise, it won’t recognize more than 3.2 GB of RAM (more or less of this value, depending on the system). Also, make sure to buy a dual-channel kit in order to improve your system performance. For example, if you require 4 GB of memory, it is better to buy two 2 GB modules than one 4 GB module. Even though the total capacity is the same, the first configuration provides higher performance. Read our “Everything You Need to Know About the Dual-, Triple-, and Quad-Channel Memory Architectures” tutorial for more information.
We are no longer reviewing memory modules, but it seems that users in our forums like many of the G.Skill Ripjaws series.
We have really bad news. Due to the massive flooding in Thailand, hard drive prices have more than doubled. Most hard drive factories are located in Thailand. The problem is that the main hard drive motor manufacturer, which is responsible for 90% of the market, is also located in that country.
You should buy a hard drive of at least 1 TB, such as the Seagate Barracuda 7200.12 unless you decide to buy and use an SSD exclusively.
SSDs are still expensive, but you can use a small-capacity SSD in conjunction with a regular hard drive in order to increase performance. There are two different scenarios. The best one, if you decide to build an Intel-based system, is to use the Smart Response Technology available with the Z68 chipset. With this technology, you can use the ultra-fast Intel 311 Series SSD, which has only 20 GB and costs an affordable USD 115, to be a caching mechanism for the hard disk drive, thereby increasing performance. The other way to create a hybrid system is to install a small-capacity SSD, say 64 GB or even 128 GB, install the operating system and programs, and use the regular hard drive to store files such as movies, documents, pictures, and songs.
If you are trying to save money and are not looking into building the fastest PC possible, you can simply skip these options.
Finally, we have the computer case. While the case with the “perfect” design is a very personal choice, we selected some options.
If you are looking for the cheapest case with the most features possible, products from NZXT (such as the Tempest 210) and BitFenix (Merc Alpha, Outlaw, and Shinobi) are our recommendation.
If you have around USD 100 to spend on a case, there are many terrific options around, such as the Bitfenix Survivor, SilverStone Precision PS06, Nexus Prominent R, Fractal Design Arc Midi, Corsair Carbide Series 400R, and Cougar Evolution, just to name a few.
If you are looking for a monster that can fit four video cards, we were really impressed by the Antec P280, which provides a terrific price (USD 140) for its features, such as nine expansion slots.