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HotHardware Holiday Gift Guide: PC Components
Date: Dec 13, 2011
Author: Dave Altavilla and Marco Chiappetta
Processors and Cases

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The holidays are fast upon us and this final HotHardware Holiday Gift Guide will wrap up our series with what’s near and dear perhaps to many of you DYI’ers out there – components.  Whether the geek in your life is itching to rebuild that gaming rig or just starving for the right upgrade to relieve a system bottleneck, we have something for everyone here.  And hey, if that geek in your life is you, all the better.  With all that selfless holiday shopping you’re likely doing right about now, you deserve a little reward, right?  Onward then.  Let’s round-up the good stuff.

Processors –

With the obvious sizable performance advantage Intel processors command these days, literally across the board, it’s no wonder our three recommendation in each price range are punctuated with Intel Sandy Bridge and Sandy Bride-E Core processors.  For the fastest desktop CPU on earth currently, Intel’s Core i7-3960X is definitely money.  That said, you’ll need a lot of it to own one, so maybe take a step down to the Core i7-3930K if you weren’t looking at a spending a grand or so on a six-core CPU.  For more budget-minded folks, in quad-cores, we like the value curve of the Core i7-2600K and the Core i5-2500K's dual-core goodness. An honorable mention goes to the 8-core AMD FX-8150 as well.  At $265 or so, it’s hard to look an octal-core gift horse in the mouth.

High-End System:  Core i7-3960X Extreme Edition or Core i7-3930K - $619 - $1099
Midrange System:  Core i7-2600K - $315
Budget Build:  Core i5-2500K or AMD FX-8150  $219 - $265

PC Cases  

Your build is only as pretty as you make it and as cool as your cable management and case allow it to be.  Or is it the other way around?  Whether you’re shooting for pretty, cool or a combination of both, NZXT, Corsair and Silverstone are names that conjure up both style and function.  NZXT has been a relative newcomer on the scene punching out some striking designs, while Corsair and Silverstone underscore quality with virtually every design we’ve looked at.  Here are three of our favorites but there are scads to choose from, both within these models and other portfolios from these chassis design greats.

NZXT Phantom 410 - $125
Corsair Graphite 600T (White) - $159
Silverstone SG06-450 (Mini-ITX) -  $119

Motherboards and Memory

Socket 2011: MSI X79A-GD65 (8D) X79 Express-Based Motherboard

The MSI X79A-GD65 (8D) features a mouse-friendly “Click BIOS II” UEFI that’s much easier to navigate than traditional text-based BIOS menus. The board is also in MSI’s “Military Class III” family and features super ferrite chokes, highly conductive polymer capacitors and / or solid capacitors throughout, which should offer increases stability and longevity. MSI also claims the board is PCI Express 3.0 ready.

The MSI X79A-GD65 (8D) also supports “1 second overclocking” thanks to its OC Genie II feature, but the UEFI sports all of the overclocker-friendly features we’ve come to expect from MSI for manual tweaking as well. MSI also includes their new Instant OC Control Center II utility, which gives users the ability the monitor and control system parameters from within Windows, with no need to reboot when making changes.

Other features of the MSI X79A-GD65 (8D) include USB3.0 and CrossFire / SLI support, along with “Super Charger” which allows users to charge USB devices even when the system is powered down. We found the layout of the MSI X79A-GD65 (8D) to be quite good and also like the dark blue and black features on the board. Its accessory bundle is also top-notch and includes additional USB 3.0 ports and numerous cables and manuals.

If a socket 2011 system is our of reach, however, a socket 1155 Z68 Express based board may be just the ticket. To that end, we like the Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD Z68 Express due to its good feature set, competitive price, and built-in 20GB SSD for taking advantage of Intel's Smart Response Technology.

Socket AM3+: Asus CrossHair V Formula 990FX-Based Motherboard

The Asus CrossHair V Formula is based on the AMD 990FX chipset and supports all current socket AM3 processors and future AM3+ based processors as well. Asus has also augmented the board with a number of additional controllers to further enhance its feature set and connectivity options. In addition to exploiting all of the features inherent to the 990FX chipset, the CrossHair V Formula also sports a pair of ASMedia controllers that add additional SATA 6G ports and six USB 3.0 ports. The board supports both 3-Way NVDIA SLI and AMD CrossFireX multi-GPU configurations and the board is outfitted with an advanced UEFI BIOS and DIGI+ digital VRM design as well. As you'll see a little later, the UEFI setup menu on this board is about as good as it gets.

As expected from an Asus RoG (Republic of Gamers) board, there are plenty of overclocking tools built in too and an onboard SupremeFX X-Fi 2 chip delivers decent audio, especially for an integrated solution. Other noteworthy features of the Asus CrossHair V Formula include its "CPU Level Up" tool which allows for easy overclocking, RoG Connect for accessing PC health status via a secondary system like a notebook or netbook, ProbeIt voltage check points, and its Intel Gigabit LAN controller. The layout of the board is also very good and there is ample cooling for the chipset and voltage regulators. As you can see in the final image above, there is also plenty of connectivity in the board's backplane, including USB 3.0, USB 2.0, eSATA, PS/2, LAN, digital and analog audio, and RoG connect port.

High-End Intel System: MSI X79A-GD65 (8D) X79 Express - $279
Mid-Range Intel System: Gigabyte GA-Z68XP-UD3-iSSD Z68 Express - $229
AMD System: Asus CrossHair V Formula - $229


G.SKILL RipJaws Z F3-14900CLQ9-16GBZL Quad-Channel DDR3-1866 Memory Kit

The G.SKILL RipJaws Z memory kit you see here consists of four, 4GB, DDR3-1866 sticks of memory (total 16GB), model number F3-14900CLQ9-16GBZL. The sticks run at only 1.5v with CL9-10-9-28 timings, and are XMP 1.3 compatible. This is the memory kit we used for all of our SBE testing, on four different motherboards, and it ran perfectly throughout. And at about $130 it's fairly affordable too.

Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1866 Memory Kit, Model CMZ8GX3M2A1866C9

DDR3-1866 memory seems to hit the sweet spot this holiday season. While DDR3-2000 and 2133 kits abound (and some even faster), they're price much higher than their DDR3-1866 counterparts. One of our preferred dual-channel kits comes by way of Corsair, the Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1866 (PC3 15000) memory kit, model. CMZ8GX3M2A1866C9. As its name implies, this kit will run at 1866MHz at CAS 9, but it does so at only 1.5v. The kit also suppports XMP and it plenty overclockable as well. Although the kit is optimized for Intel platforms, its relatively low votlage requirements and high-clocks make it ideal for AMD-based systems as well.

High-End System: G.SKILL RipJaws Z Quad-Channel DDR3-1866 Memory Kit - $129
Mid-Range System: Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR3-1866 Memory Kit - $79
Storage and Power

Storage –

When it comes to storage technology innovation, though hard drive density has scaled exponentially as of late, the performance of SSDs has scaled even more amazingly.  To think only a couple of years ago we were limited by the average desktop hard drive at ~ 100MB/s of bandwidth.  Now top-of-the-line SSDs offer in excess of 500MB/s.  5X ain’t too shabby.  Of course if you consider PCI Express SSD cards hitting in excess of 1.4GB/s, over 10X is downright amazing.  Still, even through hell and high water (literally) hard drives offer the best value if you need bulk storage.  We suggest getting both of course.  Drop that OS on the SSD as a speedy boot drive and commission that 3TB bad boy spinning drive for the rest of your pack-rat needs.  OCZ, Samsung , WD and Seagate will keep you humming along well.  Here’s what we’d suggest.

Solid State Drives:
OCZ Vertex 3  - 120GB: $215, 240GB: $320
Samsung SSD 830 – 128GB:  $229, 256GB: $485
OCZ RevoDrive 3  and X2 PCIe SSD Card – 120GB - $399, 240GB - $575

Hard Drives:
Seagate Barracuda XT 3TB - $329
WD Caviar Black 750GB - $149

Power Supplies –

Shame on you!  You might make the naughty list if you didn’t think of robust, clean power for your build until now.  Rest easy though, we have suggestions that will redeem you.  This is an area where too much of a good thing can almost never hurt you.  You can go all out and budget enough power to afford you copious upgrade headroom or take the midline and just go for top quality power that meets your needs right now.  These days, we like what Corsair and OCZ have to offer at 750Watts to the light-dimming 1200Watt range.

Corsair Gold AX1200/1000/850/750 - $199 (750W) - $320 (1200W)
OCZ Silencer Mk II 750W - $149

Graphics and Input Devices

Graphics Cards / GPU:

EVGA GeForce GTX 580 Classified 3072MB

Technically, the Radeon HD 6990 and GeForce GTX 590 are still the fastest graphics cards money can buy, but they’re becoming increasingly harder to find now that next-gen cards featuring new GPUs are on the way. While we dig having that much GPU horsepower in our rigs, sinlge-GPU powered cards suffer from fewer compatibility issues, require less power, put out less heat, and are usually somewhat quieter. They can, however, also be uber-powerful.

Take the EVGA GeForce GTX 580 Classified, for example. This puppy sports 3GB of GDDR5 memory clocked at an effective 4,212MHz paired to an NVIDA GeForce GTX 580 humming along at 855MHz. The GTX 580 was already the fastest single-GPU available, goose the clocks like EVGA has done, however, and slap on double the amount of frame buffer memory and you’ve got a killer combo on your hands. EVGA also outfits the card with a custom PCB geared toward optimal power deliver, a massive custom cooler, voltage check points and handful of other enthusiast-class features. Weak-hearted gamers need not apply.

MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III Radeon HD 6950 2GB

The Radeon HD 6950 GPU powering the MSI R6850 Twin Frozr III is bumped up from the reference design’s 800MHz to 850MHz and the memory clock has been increased from the reference design’s 1,250MHz to (5Gbps effective) to 1,300MHz (5.2Gbps effective). The increases in GPU core and memory clocks will obviously give the card a performance edge over straight-up reference designs, but in addition to tickling the frequencies, MSI has tweaked a number of other aspects of the Radeon HD 6950 as well. The cooler and PCB on the MSI R6850 Twin Frozr III been revamped and the card sports high-density heatsinks, with dual cooling fans, and thick heatpipes that run from the cooler’s base up through the heatsink fins. We should also point out that the cooler’s base is made of pure copper and the entire assembly is nickel-plated.

Other features of the MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III include a 6+2 phase PWM design that’s not only more efficient and offers more stable, cleaner output, but it’s capable of outputting up to 37% more current than the 4+1 PWM on reference designs. Bundled with the MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III are a quick installation guide and user’s manual, a CrossFire bridge connector, dual peripheral to PCI Express 6-pin power adapters (the card requires two 6-pin feeds), a mini-DP to DVI dongle, a DVI to VGA adapter, and of course a driver / utility CD. Also available for the card is a copy of MSI’s Afterburner performing tuning and monitoring tool, which is available for download right from MSI’s website.

For users that don't need as much GPU power, and want to save a few bucks, the HIS Radeon HD 6850 1GB is a great option. The card is available for under $120 after rebates currently, and offers DX11 capabilities and plenty of performance for mainstream gaming on a single monitor.

High-End System: EVGA GeForce GTX 580 Classified 3072MB - $599
Mid-Range System: MSI R6950 Twin Frozr III Radeon HD 6950 2GB - $299
Low-End System: HIS Radeon HD 6850 - $119

Input Devices:

Logitech G9x Gaming Mouse

Logitech's G9x is an improvement upon the older, but popular G9, and while the design may strike some users 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 5700DPI laser sensor, all of which contribute to the G9x's price tag. It's been out for a while, but the Logitch G9x is worth every bit of its $55 - $79 asking price.

Rosewill RK-9000 Mechanical Keyboards - Affordable and Widely Available

Users looking to enter the world of mechanical keyboards should definitely check out the Rosewill RK-9000 series of products. Rosewill recently introduced four mechanical keyboards based on Cherry MX Blue (clicky / tactile), Black (linear / non-clicky), Red (linear / non-clicky / light touch), and Brown (tactile / non-clicky) keyswtiches. All of the Rosewill boards look exactly the same and differ only in the type of keyswitches used. Rosewill prices the boards from $99 (black, blue, red) to $109 (browns). And anyone that’s shopped for quality mechanical boards with these keyswitches knows those are fairly good prices, especially for the Cherry MX Red version. Marco has been typing exclusively on the Rosewill RK-9000 since getting his hands on one and can say that it is a quality product all around. The only gripes with the board are the looks of the logo—which looks somewhat dated—and the fact that the cable end protrudes out of the back on the board, rather that being recessed into the case.

Mouse: Logitech G9x - from $55
Keyboard: Rosewill RK-9000 - from $99

That about wraps up our 2011 PC components Holiday Gift Guide. If you’d like to check out our thoughts on Notebooks / Laptops, Smartphones, and Tablets we’ve got you covered on those fronts too. We should point out, however, that the items we’ve featured are far from the only ones deserving of consideration. While we've highlighted a few of our favorites from 2011, we'd love to hear some of your alternatives down in comments below. Got any good gifts you're giving away or hoping to receive? Let us know!

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