Every year, a procession of PC parts enters our Lab. Each component is tested mercilessly, but only a handful manage to win us over with a combination of killer performance, unique skills, and an all-inclusive feature set. Over the following pages, we pay tribute to those proud few and explain what makes them stand out among their peers in each major PC category. Ladies and gentlemen, we present this year’s hardware best in show!
Best CPU: Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650
Intel’s been on cruise control for more than a year, but that doesn’t mean the giant has been asleep at the wheel. On the heels of its proven 65nm Core 2 Quad design, Intel gets tiny with a new 45nm process chock-full of under-the-hood enhancements that boost performance 10 to 15 percent over its predecessor in a clock-for-clock comparison. But the real story of the 45nm Penryn chip is its clock-speed headroom. While the 65nm quad cores top out at 3GHz (with overclocked chips pushing 3.73GHz), the QX9650 promises to push clock speeds far higher thanks to the more efficient 45nm process. The only downside to Penryn is that it won’t work in some older motherboards. Nevertheless, this is the best CPU in town. $1,000, www.intel.com
Best Motherboard: Asus P5E3 Deluxe
If you don’t like controversy, stop reading. After taking Asus’s new P5E3 Deluxe motherboard and its new Intel X38 chipset for a ride, we’re willing to toss aside conventional power-user wisdom and embrace this DDR3 non-SLI board as our top pick. Wha, wha, what?! Just hear us out: First, the board supports Intel’s new 45nm Penryn—our favored CPU. Second, DDR3 is beginning to hit speeds that make it attractive—at 1,800MHz, who gives a damn about latency? We’re also willing to forgo SLI support—for now—when single-card performance is so damned fast. (In the meantime, maybe Nvidia will finally unlock SLI on Intel chipsets.) The hardcore features and killer performance of this board make it worth the trade-off.
(Reviewed at http://tinyurl.com/2cvl4b) $280, www.asus.com
Best Air Cooler: Zalman CNPS9700 LED
The fact that we’ve adopted the CNPS9700 as a benchmark against which we compare all other coolers is a testament to the raw strength of this shiny little guy. It’s just that powerful; it’s loud too, but if you want your CPU temps lowered to the extreme, the CNPS9700 is the cooler to do it.
(Reviewed February 2007) $80, www.zalmanusa.com
Best Case: Cooler Master Cosmos
We’ve read the pages upon pages of forum posts complaining about the Cosmos: that it’s too bulky, that it’s too warm, that it sucks. Well, you disbelievers are wrong! We’ve found nothing but blissful joy when using this holiest of holy chassis. Its adherence to screwless construction and soundproofing, not to mention its front-panel eSATA support and durable exterior, made the Cosmos the natural choice for this year’s Dream Machine, and it remains our favorite to this day. To praise this case more would require ticker tape and a flashy car.
(Reviewed October 2007) $200, www.coolermaster.com
Best Videocard: Asus EN8800 GTX
The videocard market has been a one-horse race this year. Nvidia obliterated AMD without doing much of anything new. And while this might seem out of character for Maximum PC, we’re not anointing a card with Nvidia’s absolute fastest GPU—the 8800 Ultra—with our Best of the Best designation.
No, we’ve decided to stick with the 8800 GTX, as represented by Asus’s EN8800 GTX. It’s fast, it’s quiet, and it delivers incredible performance with DX9 (its DX10 performance is admittedly less impressive). Yes, the Ultra is faster. It’s also hotter and a whole lot more expensive. We just don’t think the modest speed bump justifies the mountain of cash you’ll need to acquire one.
(Reviewed January 2007) $550, www.asus.com
Best Optical Drive: Samsung SH-S203B
It’s all well and good to have next-gen hardware—if it makes sense. And right now, with a format war raging and hardware and media costs still sky high, next-gen optical is a foolish choice for most folks. The majority of disc-burning and -reading needs are best handled by a good old-fashioned DVD burner, and Samsung’s SH-S203B is our fave in this category, offering a SATA interface, 20x write speeds, and a competitive price.
While we’re still admirers of the large 1920x1200 native-res LCDs we’ve been recommending the last few years, the widespread adoption of these screens has definitely diminished their cachet. So we’re thrilled that a really, really high-res screen is now a viable option. Thanks to Gateway’s XHD3000, power users can enjoy all the benefits of a 30-inch, 2560x1600 panel without suffering any of the indignities inherent to other 30-inch LCDs. The XHD3000’s unique use of an internal scaler means you can choose among multiple interface options, adjust the screen’s image in a variety of ways, and play high-def content at its intended res. Righteous!
It’s been a long wait, but 802.11n wireless routers are finally worth buying—even if the IEEE hasn’t published the final spec. After testing models from every major vendor, we found that D-Link’s DIR-655 offers the best combination of features and performance. With unparalleled tweakability, customizable quality-of-service settings, best-in-class range and throughput, and a built-in Gigabit Ethernet switch, no other router comes close.
Let’s get the messy details out of the way first: The single-drive FreeAgent Pro is slower than Western Digital’s RAID-enabled MyBook Pro Edition II. But that’s only if you consider the storage mediums themselves. The MyBook Pro II supports only USB and FireWire connections, while the FreeAgent Pro provides support for both those specs as well as eSATA, making it the ultimate winner for file transferring. And unlike the MyBook, it works perfectly in Vista!
We were inches away from declaring Hitachi’s 7K1000 terabyte drive the best hard drive of 2007, when—whammo!—terabyte offerings from Western Digital and Seagate hit the Lab within a day of each other. Storage competition makes us salivate, so we couldn’t wait to run the drives through our benchmark obstacle course.
It’s a good thing we did: Seagate’s four-platter Barracuda 7200.11 drive is the fastest terabyte drive we’ve ever tested, with an average read speed of 86.6MB/s—a whole 15 megabytes a second faster than the 7K1000. Attribute the win to the Barracuda’s increased areal density. At 250MB per platter, the ’Cuda packs more for a decisive read/write punch!
(Reviewed Holiday 2007) $330, www.seagate.com
Best Thumb Drive: Corsair Voyager GT 8GB
Corsair’s Voyager GT is the zenith of zippy thumb drives. Sure, there are larger keys—including the 16GB Voyager—but their speeds don’t compare to those of the blazing-fast Voyager GT 8GB. It’s fast and spacious enough to swallow nearly the entire contents of a dual-layer DVD; Corsair’s Flash Voyager GT is hands-down our pick for petite portable storage.
There’s plenty of buzz about Apple’s new iPod Touch, but that device didn’t ship in time for us to consider. No matter, we’ll happily give SanDisk’s Sansa Connect the win in this category. The Sansa Connect’s built-in Wi-Fi capabilities tie into Yahoo’s Launchcast Internet radio and Yahoo Music Unlimited services to provide a nearly unlimited source of music you can share with other subscribers.
(Reviewed July 2007) $150, www.sandisk.com
Best NAS Box: QNAP TS-109 Pro
It’s hard not to love QNAP’s TS-109 Pro network attached storage (NAS) box. For starters, it sprinkles magic dust over your data transfers—it was the speediest of all the NAS devices we’ve ever tested in both our small- and large-file transfer tests. The TS-109 also comes with a plethora of outstanding features: It can stream music (iTunes supported!), download BitTorrent files, act as a server, back up your PCs, and even pull files from USB devices. Consider us smitten!
We’ve auditioned a number of innovative and great-sounding earbuds this year, including Etymotic’s wireless ety8 and M-Audio’s bass-boomin’ IE-20 XB, but nothing caressed our drums as tenderly as Shure’s SE530.
Three microdrivers in each earbud—one tweeter and two woofers—deliver the entire sonic spectrum with crystal clarity and plenty of oomph at the bottom end. They’re pricey, to be sure, but we think their excellent fit and audacious sound fully justify their cost.
(Reviewed August 2007, as model SE530PTH) $500, www.shure.com
Best Speakers: Audioengine 5
2007 was a good year for speakers, with a number of great systems going through the Lab’s sonic chamber. TBI’s passive Majestic Diamond I and B&W’s incredible Zeppelin (reviewed on page 88) were both exceptional. But we’re giving the nod to the Audioengine 5 bookshelf system, which combines outstanding character with features that render it useful for nearly any application.
It makes a great near-field stereo monitoring system, yet it can fill a room with sound. There’s a built-in USB port on top for charging your portable media player, and an AC outlet in back that’s just the ticket for powering a streaming box.
(Reviewed May 2007) $350, www.audioengineusa.com
Next: Worst of the Worst!
Worst of the Worst
With so much killer hardware in our midst, you might think we’re strangers to crappy products. Not so! Here are some of the lemons from 2007 and what we had to say about ’em
“By the end of the game, we were praying the cops would shoot us to put us out of our misery.”
(Reviewed January 2007)
Belkin Cable-Free USB Hub
“If Belkin’s Cable-Free USB Hub is any indication of what we can expect from other wireless USB products, the technology’s future is bleak.”
(Reviewed April 2007)
Overway Technology Vacuum Superconductive Heat Cooler
“Yes, it took more than half an hour to get the device in place. And for all that, we were rewarded with a cooler that actually performs worse than [a] cheapo stock cooler…”
(Reviewed June 2007)
Toshiba Portable External Hard Drive
“We sure can’t think of a compelling reason to pick up this device, as the Toshiba is as slow as it is featureless.”
(Reviewed November 2007)
Philips amBX Gaming Peripherals
“Amsterdam is just 66 miles from Philips’s headquarters in Eindhoven. Hmm. Could that explain how this bizarre concept got off the drawing board, into a factory, and onto retailers’ shelves without someone asking, ‘Why?’”
(Reviewed March 2007)
CoolerMaster iTower 930
“You could practically open a Greek restaurant with all the PITA that comes with assembling a computer using this case.”
(Reviewed February 2007)
Genius HS-04U Headset
“The Genius HS-04U is made of plastic, but it sounds like tin.”
(Reviewed July 2007)
Abit iDome D500 Digital 2.1
“Seriously, the audio that emerged from this milquetoast system was so blasé… we had to check the iDome’s subwoofer to make sure it was warm.”
(Reviewed February 2007)
Western Digital My Book World Edition II
“If you love holding down a power button for more than 20 seconds just to shut off a device, you’ll love WD’s My Book World.”
(Reviewed August 2007)