|Introduction - The Best Of The Best In 2009|
|2009. It's the end of a decade, but just the beginning of an era. A lot has changed since Y2K frightened the world and then made us all look like fools for being worried, and it's safe to say that 2009 ushered in some of the most advanced technology this world has ever seen. More so than in years past, this year's tech innovations had a more direct impact on the average Joe. It used to be that technology was most appreciated by enthusiasts--nerds and geeks who could appreciate the thinking and planning that went into such things as iPods and cell phones.
Today though, moms and grandmothers are just as likely to be taking advantage of technology. Just think of the Peek--an email only handheld designed for those who didn't grow up with the Internet running through their veins. Or the netbook: a notebook for almost everyone. Or the smartphone, which is becoming more than a status symbol, and more like a necessity. It's easier than ever to stay connected, and social networks have allowed exactly that. And let's not forget the impact that Twitter and Facebook have had.
Clearly 2009 has been a watershed year for all of technology, and we'd be remiss of our duties if we didn't break down our favorites in our most closely watched segments to close out the decade. Read on to see which products and technologies raised the bar and garnered our praise in 2009--from CPUs to SSDs to peripherals, it's all here. Our top picks represent the best bang for the buck and / or most impressive products in a category, while the runners-up require some sort of compromise in one area or another, whether it be price, features, or performance.
|CPUs And GPUs|
The gigahertz war as we knew it may have ended, but that's not to say that the competition in the CPU space is any less heated. 2009 brought about a few new platforms and a whole new world of performance, and while AMD managed to keep its footing and make strides in the year (not to mention winning and receiving a huge, huge payout from Intel), Intel still held down the overall performance crown.
Our top choice for 2009 in the CPU category is the Intel Core i7 860. It's not the fastest quad-core Intel CPU out, but it represents a tremendous value in the grand scheme of things. Clocked at 2.8GHz and with 8MB of cache, this Lynnfield-based processor (along with the other Core i7 options) helped to raise the performance bar in the consumer PC market. It can power through even the latest games and software with aplomb, and at under $300, it's priced well within reach of those willing to pay a small premium for excellent performance. You can spend more on a faster CPU, but you won't find a better overall value.
Intel Core i7 860
Intel's Core i5 750 is yet another quad-core CPU that offers great performance for the price. Launched in Q3 of this year, this 2.66GHz CPU includes 8MB of cache and an relatively low $196 street price. The only real negative is that Hyper-Threading is not supported, but considering that it can be overclocked to much higher speeds without much hassle, we suspect the potential bump in frequency will help users forget about HT. It's been hailed as the new mainstream king in the PC performance sector--how could we possibly omit it?
Intel Core i5 750
We couldn't close out the year without acknowledging AMD's accomplishments, and there's no question that the Athlon 64 X4 620 deserves a spot on the list. You'll sacrifice some performance here, but the $99 price tag makes up for it. Arguably one of the best bargain chips of the year, this cheap quad-core processor lacks L3 cache but still managed to impress us in our testing. It won't be breaking any benchmark records, but it will offer enough performance for virtually any mainstream computer user. In case it wasn't pounded home enough already, this thing costs just $99. Not bad for a quad-core desktop chip, wouldn't you say?
AMD Athlon II X4 620
Hardcore gamers have more options than ever in the GPU arena, and we know choosing the right card can be daunting for some. If you need a quick fix, here are our top three choices from the year that was.
In late September, ATI's Radeon HD 5870 launched and became the fastest single GPU we had ever seen. It was supplanted just a month later by a dual-GPU powered card in terms of performance, but that doesn't stop it from snagging our top spot when you consider what kind of performance the card offers for the money. Priced at around $399, you'll be hard pressed to find a better, more feature-rich pixel pushing powerhouse for the dollar.
ATI Radeon HD 5870
The 5870 card above was toppled by the Radeon HD 5970 in terms of raw performance, prompting us to include the 5970 as a top runner up in the year 2009. As of today, you can't buy a more potent consumer-level graphics card, though you'll be paying just under $600 to take it home. Are those triple-digit FPS numbers worth it? Your call.
ATI Radeon HD 5970
NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 275 gets the relative-bargain nod, with its $249 retail price falling well below the other options. Of course, it's not exactly cheap, but it's cheap enough and yet it offers enough performance for any serious 3D gamer. In short, it offers 85% or 90% of the performance of NVIDIA's fastest single-GPU, the GTX 285, but for at least $60 less.
GeForce GTX 275
|Motherboards and Cases|
It just might be the most baffling component to purchase when assembling a new desktop. The models numbers are weird and confusing, there's a plethora of options and form factors to consider. Yes, we're talking about the motherboard. Thankfully for you, we've got our favorite trio from 2009 below.
We couldn't recommend Intel's newest Core i7 and Core i5 processors without a proper motherboard to support them, and that's why the Asus P7P55D Deluxe is here. Chock full of features including intelligent performance enhancements, ATI and NVIDIA multi-GPU support, and an overclocker friendly BIOS, this $216 board offers serious bang for the buck if you're already committed to building a high-end (and potentially expensive) rig.
Asus P7P55D Deluxe
EVGA has earned a solid reputation in the gamer mobo market as of late, and the EVGA X58 3X SLI Classified is as solid as they come. Offering support for Core i7 CPUs, room for 24GB of RAM, more than a few PCI Express 2.0 x16 slots, numerous SATA ports and a wicked look. You'll pay a chart-topping $425 to get this in your rig, but you'll be computing with the best of the best.
EVGA X58 3X SLI Classified
For the AMD crown we have the MSI 790FX-GD70 AM3, a mobo designed to suit AM3-compatible Phenom II chips that made waves earlier in the year. This one supports CrossFireX, HyperTransport 3.0 (handling speed up to 5200MT/s), room for 16GB of RAM, four PCIe 2.0 x16 slots and plenty of other connectivity portals. It will also keep your wallet happy at around $175.
We found many things to like about the towering (yet classy) CoolerMaster ATCS 840 when we first spent some time with it. For just under $200, it's actually one of the cheaper all-aluminum, premium options when looking for a full-size case that can handle a few years of expansion, and there's even a choice now between black and silver.
Cooler Master ATCS 840
You knew there was no way we would pass over the Thermaltake Level 10 on this list, and while it failed to grab our top spot (there's little "value" to be found here), it's easily the case to get if money is no object and extreme design is your primary objective. This is probably the wildest, sexiest case we've ever seen, and if you have just under $1000 you don't mind parting with, it can be yours.
Thermaltake Level 10
We couldn't round out this list without including over favorite mid-tower of the year. The NZXT Panzerbox offers excellent air-flow, and the all-black, pure aluminum design is bound to suit just about anyone. There's room for four HDDs, a trio of optical drives and plenty of expansion cards, and at around $120, it won't break the bank.
|SSDs And Hard Drives|
Solid State Drives still command a hefty premium, but they're far more attainable now than they were at the end of 2008. They offer significant performance gains over traditional hard drives, and particularly in notebooks, they can really change the feel of a machine.
Intel's 34nm X25-M Gen 2 SSD is the best all-around SSD this year. It had some issues out of the gate, but Intel has worked hard to remedy those problems (and has largely succeeded). Our own testing showed impressive benchmark results, and the comparatively low prices put them in reach of nearly any enthusiast willing to make the investment necessary for a serious boost in performance
Intel X25-M Gen 2
OCZ Technology's Vertex Series was actually introduced late last year, but they weren't widely available to the public until 2009. These SATA II 2.5" drives strike a decent balance between power and price, but they're clearly designed for premium users. Boasting 64MB of cache, blazing 200MB/sec read and 160MB/sec write speeds and capacities of 30GB, 60GB, 120GB, and 250GB, this is the drive to get if you're looking to treat yourself to an upgrade.
OCZ Vertex Series
What could be better than a Vertex? A Vertex Turbo! These SATA II 2.5" SSDs ship with a proprietary firmware and 64MB of 180MHz DRAM cache, and they promise read and write speeds clocking in at up to 270MB/s read and 210MB/s write. Available in capacities of 30GB (32), 60GB (64), 120GB (128), and 250GB (256), these also come with a 3-year warranty.
OCZ Vertex Turbo
SSDs may be all the rage, but let's face it: they're both expensive and offer low capacities. If you're in need of a spacious (yet quick) conventional hard drive, we're glad to say that the storage mainstays haven't given up on those platters just yet. Below are our favorite three hard drives from 2009.
Western Digital's 2TB Caviar Black HD gets the nod. With a 7200rpm spindle speed, 2TB of storage capacity and a knack for blasting through benchmarks, the only thing sweeter is the reasonable price tag (relatively speaking, of course). If you're looking for the largest and fastest single internal HD the market has to offer, your search ends here.
WD Caviar Black 2TB
It's not the cheapest way to get 2TB of space into your new desktop rig, but it's one of the fastest. With an MSRP of $299, the 2TB Barracude XT drive takes advantage of the new SATA 6Gbps standard, but you'll need to ensure you snag a motherboard that supports that. It also maintains backward compatibility with the SATA 3Gb and SATA 1.5Gb interfaces, but be honest, you're not buying this to use with some transfer tech from yesteryear.
Seagate Barracuda XT
WD Caviar Black 640GB
With strong performance in its own right, the 640GB edition of WD's Caviar Black is the bargain choice for those who can't quite justify the price on those 2TB options. This 3.5" drive may be smaller in capacity, but it still packs 32MB of cache, a 7200RPM spindle speed, and offers great performance for the money.
|RAM And Cooling|
There's a little rule in PC building: you can never have too much system memory. Over the years, we've found that to be as accurate as can be, and if you're looking for a quick upgrade with minimum outlay, additional RAM may be just the ticket.
OCZ's Blade DDR3 PC3-17000 / 2133MHz takes the top spot this year, with robust performance and stability that's a perfect match for Core i7 CPUs and Intel's X58 Express chipset. This ultra fast 2133MHz kit is also priced well given the high-end nature of the RAM, and if you're looking for peace of mind (and who isn't?), these babies are designed to operate at the low 1.65v voltage required to safely operate run Core i7's triple channel mode.
OCZ Blade DDR3 PC3-17000 / 2133MHz
Corsair's CMG6GX3M3A1866C7 CAS 7 PC3-15000 / 2000MHz kit, which is a member of the company's Dominator GT family, is a well rounded, high-performance triple-channel memory kit. The modules are designed to handle extreme overclocks and feature Corsair's DHX cooling technology. These memory sticks aren't cheap, but you'll be glad you splurged while overclocking.
Corsair CMG6GX3M3A1866C7 Memory Kit
G.SKILL may not be as well known as OCZ or Corsair, but the gaming crowd knows them well. This 4GB kit is plenty to get you started on your new 64-bit rig, and the bundled heatspreaders ensure that things don't get too toasty. These modules were designed to run cool and stable, and at under $100 for the kit, it'll be tough to find a better bargain from 2009 in the RAM department.
G.SKILL 4GB (2 x 2GB) F3-10666CL8D-4GBH
Cooling may be an afterthought for some, but those who love to overclock know exactly how important keeping things cool really is. From CPUs to RAM modules to GPUs, keeping your most important components cool can help your entire system run better (and more reliably).
Corsair tapped Asetek for help on the Hydro Series H50 CPU cooler, and the result is a stylish and simplistic piece that outperforms mainstream CPU coolers by a significant margin. Utilizing a copper CPU cooling plate and integrated pump connected to a 120mm radiator and high-efficiency, low-noise fan, the Hydro Series H50 delivers excellent cooling for those looking to test the liquid-cooling waters. It's also a closed-loop system that comes pre-filled and requires little to no maintenance. $60 is a small price to pay to for this kind of device.
Afraid of liquid? Don't worry, you aren't alone. The Venomous-X is one of the most monolithic CPU heatsinks to come from Thermalrite, and it can be installed to work with both Intel and AMD chips. There's a six-heatpipe design, all of which are nickel plated, and a massive amount of surface area thanks to its myriad heatsink fins. Just make sure you have enough headroom in your case to shove this monster in there.
If you're just one step away from dipping your entire rig in liquid nitrogen and boosting the CPU clock speed to 8GHz, the CoolIT Freezone Elite is a great stepping stone. Burdened with a lofty price tag, this is one of the higher-end units on the market, and with a thermal dissipation potential of around 250W, you can understand why. The maintenance free system comes pre-plumbed and charged, but you should probably be extra careful during the install. Wouldn't want to ruin a $350 part, now would you?
|Peripherals / Extras And Smartphones|
It's one of just two devices that most users use to interact with their machines, so you better make sure that you have one that fits your hand (and personality). Of course, we're talking about the mouse--an essential part of any desktop experience, and an even more vital weapon in the arsenal of any hardcore gamer. There's also the keyboard, which we'll take a look at below. Finally, our top three extras finishes up with some true 3D action, courtesy of NVIDIA.
Logitech's G9x is an improvement on the already popular G9, and while the design may strike you as odd at first, it was clearly designed with gaming in mind. The interchangeable grips gives gamers the ability to customize their experience, and the on-board memory allows for up to five ready-to-play profiles to be stored. There's also a weight-tuning system and an ultra high-res laser sensor, all of which contribute to the $100 price tag.
Logitech G9x Gaming Mouse
We've already schooled you in the benefits of owning a mechanical keyboard, and if you're still plugging along on your membrane-based board, there's always time to upgrade. The Topre Realforce 103UB is one of our favorites, and a real gem from 2009. It may look relatively plain at first glance, but the $228 price tag definitely clues you in that something special is up. The Topre Realforce features unique capacitive switches that'll last a lifetime, and a key feel that's second to none.
Topre Realforce 103UB
Who would have known that 2009 would be the year 3D regained its footing and finally made a legitimate push in the mainstream market? What started in the cinema has since bled over into the PC realm, and NVIDIA was one of the first to jump onto the bandwagon with its GeForce 3D Vision Glasses. Granted you'll need glasses and a compatible GPU / monitor setup to take advantage, but for those who enjoy the added depth, there's hardly a wilder accessory to add to your rig than this.
GeForce 3D Vision
The smartphone market exploded in 2009. There's just no other way to put it. As if the market wasn't already booming in 2008, 2009 proved to be a banner year for smart phones that require a monthly data plan. At this point, you're seen as behind the curve if you're not toting some sort of Internet-connected phone around, and we felt that this year's top three were pretty easy to spot.
Apple's iPhone 3GS may seem like a cliche choice at #1, but it was the only smartphone introduced this year that brought out lines of consumers that were hundreds deep. No other phone had the same amount of buzz, and aside from AT&T's fumblings with the network, hardly anyone has complaints about the hardware itself and the App Store. The boost to 32GB was also a welcome addition for those that needed additional storage, and the $199 (on contract) price has established a new bar for other smartphones to match or beat.
Apple iPhone 3Gs
Motorola returned to the scene in a big way this year. Not since the original RAZR have we seen this type of buzz surrounding a Moto phone, but the DROID put the company's mobile division back on the map. This is Verizon's answer to the iPhone, and while the Android App Marketplace still has a long ways to go before it reaches the level of the App Store, it's well on its way. The DROID is also $199 on contract, but at least in the US, it definitely has access to more 3G zones thanks to VZW's superior network.
Palm also revived itself this year with the introduction of the Pre. The first webOS smartphone was announced at CES 2009, but the phone itself didn't ship until later in the year. It has easily become Sprint's most heralded device, and while it has yet to match the proliferation of the iPhone, it just might be viewed one day as the phone that saved Palm from imminent doom. At the very least, it got people talking about multitasking on a smartphone, which is something that the iPhone still can't do in many scenarios.
|Notebooks And Netbooks|
Whittling down the notebook category to just a few of our favorites was a tough, tough task. So many incredible mobile machines were born in 2009, along with the CULV platform, the mobile Core i7 CPU and intense dual-GPU options. If you think we've left your favorite machine from '09 out, be sure to shout it out in the comments section below.
Thin and Light Notebooks:
Asus' UL80Vt grabs top honors here because of its reasonable price (just over $800), flexibility and overall portability. It's big enough to use comfortably on one's lap (unlike some netbooks), yet it's sleek and thin while still offering up both an integrated GPU and a discrete GPU. Our benchmarks showed that the CULV-based rig could handle most any daily and multimedia related tasks, and when the discrete GPU isn't needed, it can be switched off to save battery life.
Apple's MacBook Pro (13") grabbed our runner-up spot. It's ability to dual-boot into Windows 7 and OS X is a significant advantage for anyone who enjoys running certain applications in the latter, and it's portability/excellent battery life also helped out. It also has a fantastic and durable design, and the resale value is second to none. The price is admittedly on the high side, but it's a premium worth paying if you really want to boot today's best two operating systems on a single mobile rig.
MacBook Pro (13")
Dell's Adamo is receiving an honorable mention, and while we weren't able to benchmark it specifically, the public at large has welcomed it with open arms. It set a new bar in terms of PC design, and for a company that has largely relied on plain boxes for years, that's saying something. At around $2000, this is hardly a practical piece, but the CULV processor, built-in SSD and optional WWAN module make it very useful if you've got the cash to spare.
Alienware has always had a thing for producing killer gaming rigs, and that didn't change this year. The M17x still stands as one of the most potent gaming notebooks on the market, and while it experienced a few issues at launch, the company was quick in dishing out a firmware update to make things right. Our own benchmarking proved just what a beast this was, and while you don't want to try and use it for too long away from an AC outlet, this machine has essentially obliterated the notion that a notebook can't be a hardcore gaming rig.
Asus chimed in at the tail end of this year by sliding a Core i7 chip into its G51J, and what we got was one of the most powerful gaming laptops that we've ever seen that also happened to be a good value. To this day, we're still impressed at the kind of power you can get for around $1500, and while the battery life was pitiful and it did run warm, this machine is still far more portable than the company's gargantuan W90Vp. The outer shell design won't please everyone, but you'll be hard pressed to find a better gaming notebook from 2009 in terms of performance-per-dollar.
2009 wasn't exactly a riveting year for netbooks. The Atom platform didn't change a bit, which forced just about every netbook that came out to be exactly like the prior. The only real shake-up came about when Microsoft launched Windows 7, and not surprisingly, the bulk of our favorites came from the October-to-now period.
Asus has always been at the forefront of netbook development, and the Eee PC 1201N is the culmination of style, battery life and portability. At $499.99, it's not the cheapest netbook out, but we still think it provides the most value. It will handle more multimedia than any other netbook thanks to the Ion GPU, and the dual-core Atom 330 CPU is far more powerful than the generic Atom N270 that comes with most netbooks. Throw in the full-size keyboard, multi-touch trackpad and spacious 12.1" LCD, and you've got the best netbook of the year.
The Eee PC 1008HA established a new design bar for netbooks. It was the first in the "Seashell" range, and it has set the tone for all Asus netbooks going forward. The style factor here is second to none, and for just over $300, you'll be hard pressed to find a better all-around netbook with fantastic battery life. Granted, this one still ships with Windows XP, but the Atom N280 CPU and 10.1" LCD makes it both powerful enough for basic tasks and highly portable for the traveling crowd.
The HP Mini 311 is another hot-and-fresh netbook that makes the cut, largely because of HP's heralded build quality and the integrated Ion GPU. The CPU is "only" a 1.6GHz N270, but Windows 7 and NVIDIA's touch on the GPU front helps it to perform far better than some of the older 1.6GHz N270-based machines that shipped with Windows XP. The 11.6" display includes a better-than-average resolution (1366x768), though this machine would've ranked higher if the $530 street price were lower.
Got any other recommendations for the Best of 2009? Toss them down in the comments section below--we're sure everyone has that certain special gadget that really made the year for them.