Build a powerfull gaming PC for less

This was always going to be a year of transition. The one-trick gaming PC brick of yesterday is increasingly looking more like a Raspberry Pi running an Acorn emulator than an all-singing, all-fragging modern games machine.

Obviously, as champions of the PC we’re going to be touting it as the saviour of gaming this year, but this perspective is increasingly entering mainstream consciousness.

Barely a day goes past when we don’t get called up by members of the mainstream press, definitely at the behest of Rupert Murdoch himself, asking about this gaming PC thing.

Wasn’t it meant to be dead? Nvidia says it’s seeing more and more console gamers making the switch to the gaming PC; either upgrading their old rig or starting anew. Sure, PC sales have dropped recently, but gaming PC hardware sales are still continuing to go up.

 

Nvidia has seen GTX sales significantly rise, against all its expectations. The dip in the gaming PC market has come at the low-end, especially on the laptop side, as tablets increasingly replace the machines people simply used for browsing them intermawebs.

So, what are the options in the world of gaming PC hardware? Well, that’s really the beauty of this ecosystem: the options are seemingly endless. We’ve put together three different builds for the newcomer and seasoned gaming PC alike, covering the direct, under-the-TV console replacement build, the budget build and the system for the full-blown gaming PC experience.

What’s been most interesting writing this feature though, is discovering just how cheap it has become to build a basic gaming PC that will play the most demanding of games at full HD resolutions. With the next-gen consoles expected to cost between £300 to £400 at launch, we can spend that and get next-gen quality gaming right now. Why would anyone go back to those one-trick gaming PC bricks?

The direct replacement

The small machine for sofa-surfing gaming PC 

gaming PC Setup 1

We’ll admit that there are things the consoles do well and that’s mostly low-end gaming plugged into your HDTV. The lounge has not been a particularly friendly environment for the gaming PC traditionally.

Sure, you could get a little media machine to sit under your TV and frustrate you with its weak performance and complete lack of gaming chops, but thanks to the ever-increasing power of low-end graphics cards and the rise of powerful mini-ITX boards, you can now easily put together a small gaming PC machine. And, with Valve making strides into the front room with Steam’s Big Picture Mode, gaming PC slumped on your sofa has never looked so good.

It’s not going to be cheap, though. Intel is the only company making competitive mini-ITX boards at the moment, and the combination of CPU and mobo is still rather pricey compared with what you can pick up on the standard-size AMD side.

Still, we’ve built a gaming PC machine for about £500 that will sit contentedly by your TV and run the latest gaming PC titles on high settings and at impressive speeds. And we haven’t really had to sacrifice too much in terms of gaming fidelity at all, despite that half-height low-end GPU.

The beauty of this sort of gaming PC machine is that as well as some decent gaming performance, it will also do everything a proper gaming PC system can do, from encoding HD video to letting you loose on the wilds of the internet.

The shopping list

CPU: Intel Core i5-3470 @ 3.2GHz – £143
Motherboard: Asus P8H77-I – £76
Memory: Crucial Tactical LP 8GB @ 1,600MHz – £38
Graphics card: Sapphire HD 7750 – £83
Storage: Samsung 830 250GB – £136
Chassis: Thermaltake Element Q (w/220W PSU) – £50
Total: £526

Technical analysis

We ran all the gaming tests at 1,920 x 1,080 and on the next rung down from the very highest graphical settings. Batman: AC and Max Payne 3 were run with FXAA and DiRT with 4x MSAA for the post processing settings. They were also all run with DirectX 11 settings turned on.

Bench 1 for gaming PC

Gaming PC Alternative

There are obviously alternatives to the components we’ve used. You could pick up a cheaper Intel i3 CPU for £100 for example, sacrificing some of the general performance, but still keeping most of the gaming performance.

Upgrading the GPU is tougher though, as you’ll need a beefier PSU with at least one six-pin PCIe connector, and currently there aren’t any more powerful half-height graphics cards. The Element Q should cater for larger cards, but the 220W PSU inside isn’t going to.

The CM Elite 120 will house a full ATX spec third-party option. Pack in the Silent Storm 500W PSU that we’ve got in the budget build with the Elite 120 chassis and you’ll be able to choose a modern GPU to jam into the mini-ITX build.

The budget option

Console yourself with and affordable gaming PC

gaming PC Setup 2

One of the big perceived barriers for gaming PC has long been a question of price. At the beginning of the last generation of consoles we were still sitting on DirectX 9 graphics hardware and the majority of our gaming PC were dual core at best. It took a little while for the mainstream gaming PC hardware of the time to catch up with the pseudo DX10ish Xbox 360, and even then it was much more expensive to get to the same level of performance.

How times have changed… the next-gen consoles are set to ship at the end of the year with current, mid-range PC components and a touted price tag of between £300 and £400. To us that seemed like a challenge: build a gaming PC for less than £400 that will still be happy gaming at full HD resolutions when the new consoles tip up.

When it comes to pricing, the erstwhile budget hound will find a home with AMD. It’s no surprise then AMD is supplying the hardware for both the PlayStation 4 and the new Xbox. Of course, that also comes down to Intel and Nvidia not wanting to surrender its hardware wholesale to Microsoft or Sony.

So we’ve built a six-core gaming PC machine running AMD’s 970 chipset and the latest Piledriver FX-6300 running at 3.5GHz. Coupled with a £100 HD 7770 this is a gaming PC machine that’s capable of hitting over 40fps, on very high DX11 settings with tessellation, in the likes of Batman: Arkham City. In fact we even topped 70fps in DiRT Showdown with 4x MSAA – that’s some proper gaming chops right there.

Now, these settings aren’t the top options in the benchmarks, but are still only one rung down the ladder with post processing effects on.

The shopping list

CPU: AMD FX-6300 @ 3.5GHz – £100
Motherboard: Gigabyte GB-970A-DS3 – £50
Memory: Corsair XMS3 4GB @ 1,600MHz – £20
Graphics card: AMD HD 7770 – £100
Storage: Seagate 1TB HDD – £53
PSU: Storm Silent 500W – £14
Chassis: Silverstone PS02B – £30
Total: £367

Technical analysis

Despite being a cheaper rig than the small form factor gaming PC machine, the full-size graphics card means that it comes with better performance at the same graphical settings. You can increase the gap even more with a £25 upgrade to the HD 7850 1GB card, adding between 10 and 20 per cent extra performance.

bench 2 for gaming PC

Budget  gaming PC Alternative

Again there are other options, notably the amazing HD 7850 1GB edition. For just £125 it’s a fantastic graphics card, capable of running games on the very highest settings at playable speeds. At just £25 over the HD 7770 it means we can still stay below the £400 upper limit.

The only serious compromise on this build is the lack of an SSD, opting for the 1TB HDD instead. You can pick up 120GB drives for about £70, but that’s barely enough for an OS and a few games, making it very much an unnecessary luxury in a budget  gaming PC build.

Full-blown gaming

The serious gaming behemoth

gaming PC setup 3

The depth of hardware available to PC gamers is immense, and means we can put together  gaming PC rigs for as little as £367 or spend an absolute fortune. Potentially, you could spend thousands on an eight-core Xeon for your X79 with four GPU cores thrumming away in your solid gold chassis.

Realistically, though, if you want to put together a top-end  gaming PC rig right now we probably wouldn’t recommend spending over £1,000. That’s still a huge amount of money to spend on one device, but it does mean you’ll be covered for a good few years of high-end gaming. It will also mean you have a great base from which to upgrade if you do decide you need some extra performance in one area.

We’ve put together a balanced base  gaming PC rig, combining the best gaming CPU you can buy with a decent closed-loop liquid-cooler to allow you to overclock. The base clock of the 3570K is 3.5GHz and all it takes is changing the multiplier to ’46’ in the BIOS to hit a sweet overclock. The cooler takes care of the load.

The new HD 7870 XT is included for the simple reason that for under £200 it’s an incredible card, offering the top AMD GPU in a new, cheaper, slightly cut-down setup. Our SSD/HDD combination also gives you the perfect mix of storage capacity and fantastic SSD performance.

You might say we’ve been a little conservative with the RAM, keeping with the same 8GB kit we’ve used in the compact machine, but the low voltage means you can push up the clocks to 2,133MHz if you wish. We prefer the lower latency, giving us better performance than just a higher frequency.

The shopping list

CPU: Intel Core i5-3570K @ 4.6GHz – £166
Motherboard: Asus P8Z77-V Pro – £139
Memory: Ballistix Tactical LP 8GB @ 1,600MHz – £38
Graphics card: Sapphire HD 7870 XT – £191
Storage: OCZ Vertex 4 256GB – £164
Seagate: 2TB HDD – £70
PSU: OCZ ModXstream 500W – £46
Chassis: Corsair Graphite 600T – £130
Cooler: Cooler Master Seidon 120M – £48
Total: £992

Technical analysis

We’ve left this rig running the benchmarks at the same settings as the other two machines to highlight the performance difference you get with the higher-specified components. The powerful HD 7870 XT card means that at 1080p you can run any modern game at the top settings without worrying about losing frame rate.

Bench 3 for gaming PC

Alternative

There are more alternatives to this build than either of the others, mainly because pricing and form factor aren’t so important. If you’re into productivity, such as video and photo manipulation, you may want to go for the i7-3770K with its extra four threads and some more memory. You may also want to change the GPU.

We’ve used AMD cards in all the builds because they offer the best performance and price balance in this generation, but if the likes of GFE and PhysX are important, the Nvidia GTX 670 is a great alternative. It’s a brilliant card – at £300 it’s pricey but it will give you a decent boost.

Gaming PC Rig building in twelve easy steps…

1. Temptation – resist it

gaming PC Step 1

The temptation to start throwing all your new bits into the chassis as soon as the box of delights turns up can be overpowering, but resist! It’s a lot easier to test and tell which components, if any, need to be returned if you set the parts up outside of the case. Rest the motherboard on the anti-static bag it came in, and sit it on top of its box ready to receive its new goodies. Start by installing the CPU.

2. Check and seat the vitals

gaming PC step 2

Attach the CPU cooler first, with a pea-sized blob of thermal paste in the middle of the chip. Now drop in the memory and the graphics card, making sure everything is securely settled in place. Nine times out of 10 a failed boot is memory-related, so make sure that’s seated properly. You can also connect the storage drives to make sure they are recognised by the board.

3. Plugged in and juiced up

gaming PC step 3

Time to attach that many-tentacled beast, the power supply. The key parts to remember to attach are the wide mainboard plug, the PCIe power connectors and the CPU power cable. With the GPU connected up to the monitor, you can power up for the first time and glory in how all your gear works straight away. If not, then remove the offending components and retest. ‘Tis why it’s easier out of the case.

4. Tool time

gaming PC step 4

With everything now working perfectly, you can take it all apart again and start to get everything jammed in your new chassis. You can leave the CPU and RAM in place though, making things a little easier when it comes to dropping in the mobo. First though, we need to screw the PSU in place and get those cables routed around neatly. Make sure to orient the supply so it’s sucking in air from the outside.

5. Sliding in your board

gaming PC step 5

It’s time to get the beating heart into your  gaming PC. We have the technology! Stick the backplate into the chassis and drop the board in place. Before you re-attach the CPU cooler, wipe the paste residue from both the contact plate and the CPU itself, and apply some fresh. To keep a good contact between the cooler and chip, a fresh globule is recommended. Now plug in all the power connectors – you’re so close.

6. Fix the pixel-pusher in place

gaming PC step 6

Before we fire her up for the second quick test, we need to get the supermodel component: the graphics card, safely ensconced in its new home. Make sure the way is clear of cabling and seat the GPU in place, ensuring it’s properly pressed down. Screw the card in place from the back and secure the power cables. We can leave the storage drives out for the minute so we can test the core components.

7. Test and test again

gaming PC step 7

It’s worth taking the opportunity to plug in all the necessary front panel connectors now – such as the power and reset switch, LEDs and so on. Plug your monitor back in, give the power button a wee shove and watch the screen light up. At this stage, there’s no reason for anything not to work here, but it’s good to check everything is seated properly.

8. Install your data centre

gaming PC step 8

You’re so close you can almost taste Windows’ sweet, sweet nectar. But power your  gaming PC system down and let’s get some storage in there so we can get the operating system and some lovely current games installed, shall we? Plug the SATA cables into the motherboard first, making sure to use the SATA 6Gbps sockets if you’ve got compatible drives.

9. The (optional) optical drive

gaming PC step 9

Adding an optical drive is almost an optional step these days. We haven’t included a drive in the components list because we’re not entirely sure if it’s necessary anymore, although we know some of you disagree. With the rise and rise of digital downloads, we haven’t installed a game from optical media in years. Still, it’s just a question of plugging in the cables.

10. Getting your in and outs right

gaming PC step 10

Now, plug in your keyboard and mouse, push the button and we’re good to go! As you hit the post screen, tapping [Delete] will take you into the BIOS. It’s a little too early to make with the overclocking just yet, but this is the time to sort out the boot options. Make sure your SSD, rather than HDD, is the first port of call for your  gaming PC. You’ll also want to check your RAM is running at the right speed.

11. Whacking on Windows

gaming PC step 11

Once you’ve got your rig all set in the BIOS, you’re ready to install your OS. This is where the optical drive comes in handy, but it’s almost as easy to create a USB drive with the Windows installation on it as a bootable stick. Well, so long as you’ve got another PC with an optical drive that is, and a large enough capacity USB drive. Make sure your OS is pointed at the boot drive and you’re good to go.

12. All set for game time

gaming PC step 12

So there you have it! There is now only the fun stuff to go now, like driver installations and getting your entire Steam library downloaded. All the time you’re waiting for the OS to install can be spent deciding which game you want to install first. And thanks to the awesomeness of the  gaming PC machine you’ve just built, any game will run like a dream. Congratulations, you’ve just built a fantastic wee  gaming PC.

 

We’ve put together a balanced base  gaming PC rig, combining the best gaming CPU you can buy with a decent closed-loop liquid-cooler to allow you to overclock. The base clock of the 3570K is 3.5GHz and all it takes is changing the multiplier to ’46’ in the BIOS to hit a sweet overclock. The cooler takes care of the load.

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Samsung Galaxy S3 (III) Update to Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean T-Mobile

T-Mobile is updating its Samsung Galaxy S III to Android 4.2.1 Jelly Bean.

The update is available OTA (Over-the-Air) or via the Kies app. The OTA T999UVDMD5 update will be pushed out over time to use and will continue until June 16. New Features of from Samsung are Multi-Window, Auto-pairing via NFC, enhanced Camera options, Sound Balance, Paper Artist, Samsung Gallery, Blocking Mode and Easy Mode. DO NOT STOP the process during the update, like we did with out ATT model (see video). You will not be able to make phone calls during the udpate process.Samsung Galaxy  S3 (III) Update to Android 4.1.2 Jelly Bean Prerequisites for the Samsung Update are:

  • T999UVDLJC
  • Device software is not rooted
  • 50% battery life.
  • Latest version of Kies software downloaded on PC or MAC.
  • Data connection.
  • File size of update is 168 MB.

Android Jelly Bean 4.1 offers a better keyboard and is faster/smoother (read features). The update should also include a faster TouchWiz experience. New features include camera filters, low-light photo mode, an easy mode, call blocking, SWYPE keyboard, low light photo mode, video pause/resume and Pop Up Play sizing/resume. Here’s how to update your Samsung Galaxy S III via Kies:

  •  Connect your Samsung Galaxy S III to your PC or laptop using the supplied USB cable. Ensure that Kies recognizes your Samsung device by looking in the upper section of the left-bar navigation menu. Your Samsung device should be listed.
  • Kies Device Once Kies recognizes the device you will see a screen stating new firmware is available.
  • Click Update.
  • Read through the Caution pop-up and, if you agree, click to populate the I have read all of the above information check box.
  • Read the Allow saving of information statement and select Allow saving or Proceed without saving and then click Start upgrade.
  • After a few minutes, Kies will then begin transferring the firmware binary to the Samsung device.
  • Then after a while the upgrade is completed.
  • If completed a data backup from your Samsung device to Kies prior to performing the update, you can now restore that data back to the device under the new Jelly Bean operating system.

 

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The Cloud Is Killing The PC, And Giving It New Life

The Cloud Is Killing The PC, And Giving It New LifeThe Cloud

For several months we have been hearing about the imminent demise of the Personal Computer. After all, new computer sales dipped 14% last year, so surely the industry must be doomed, Doomed, DOOMED!

The personal computer industry has certainly slumped, but these are dynamic companies. It is probably unwise to write them off because of a slump. Looking at the reasons for the slump is instructive. Some believe that the market is being lost to mobile and cloud applications. This school of thought holds that the newer, smaller, and faster technology has rendered the PC obsolete.

No Reason To Upgrade In Today’s Economy

One of the most popular theories is that the personal computer industry is slumping because the rest of the economy is slumping. There is certainly merit to this assumption. In some ways, the personal computer industry has made itself redundant. Gamers, professional video editors, and computer scientists want and need the latest and fastest machines. The average computer user wants to check email, update their social media, input sales data or other spreadsheet type application at work, and maybe play a few hands of solitaire while the boss is looking the other way.

Unfortunately for computer manufacturers, five year old processors are more than able to do the job. In the past, new computer sales were driven by the need to upgrade hardware to keep up with the newest applications. The “Killer App” phenomena has always been a driver of technology sales. The current Killer App is the Cloud, and for now, the Cloud does not need a new personal computer to be useful.

Mobile and Cloud

Part of the wonder of Cloud computing is that most of the actual computing, processing and storage, takes place in the Cloud. This means the end user enjoys better and more up to date services without the need to continually upgrade hardware. This is bad news for companies which depend upon sales of new computers.

Another factor thought to be eating away at traditional PC’s is the rise of touchscreen mobile devices. Touching and swiping seem to be a more elegant way to interface than being tied to an old fashioned, clunky keyboard and mouse. Mobile devices are also a terrific way to interface with Cloud applications- their small size and relatively limited storage often require an Internet Cloud connection for maximum usefulness.

Is Bill Gates dream of a Windows PC on every desk top in the world becoming a thing of the past? Probably not. Although sales are slumping, the personal computer will remain an important tool for work, entertainment, and communication. Granted, most of the things that are done on a desktop personal computer can also be done on an inexpensive smartphone. As slick as a touch screen seems, for many important applications, the PC can be a more efficient interface than the cloud interface .

By Pete Knight

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How To Create A Windows 8 Installation DVD Or USB Stick

Windows 8

Microsoft has made upgrading to Windows 8 really easy with its upgrade tool, but if you have special needs and need a more traditional installation disc, you might not know where to look. Here’s how to create one.

Image remixed from Nemo and geralt (Pixabay).

You may not realise this (I didn’t), but the Windows 8 upgrade tool actually gives you the option to create a DVD or USB — you just have to get past the activation screen first. Here’s what you do:

Install Windows 8 on a DVD Or USB

  1. Download the Windows 8 Installer from Microsoft’s web site and run it on an existing Windows system. It doesn’t actually have to be the PC you want to upgrade, even though it says so — heck, it can be a PC you’ve already upgraded to Windows 8.
  2. If it prompts you for licence details, enter the key you received when you originally bought Windows 8.
  3. Once you have passed the licensing screen, it will ask you how you want to install Windows 8. Choose “Install by Creating Media.”
  4. It will now give you a choice between a flash drive or an ISO file. If you want to create a thumb drive, choose “USB Flash Drive” — if you want to create a DVD, choose “ISO File.”
  5. If you chose the ISO file, you can now burn it to a DVD with a tool such as ImgBurn.

Note that if you create the installation media on a 32-bit PC, you’ll get a 32-bit ISO, and if you create it on a 64-bit PC you’ll get a 64-bit ISO. Also note that you won’t be able to use this disc to do a clean install on an empty hard drive if it’s an upgrade version of Windows 8, but you should be able to do a clean install over an existing copy of Windows.

Once you read the steps, the process is extremely obvious, but if you aren’t aware that the option exists, you might be confused about how to burn a more traditional disc (I know I was).

Download Windows 8 ISO From Microsoft [NirmalTV]

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Best PC upgrades under £100: get a faster PC for less

One of the greatest things about the PC is the sheer variety of hardware at our disposal. Whereas with a sealed-box console, or even a laptop PC, you’re stuck with the original hardware your device shipped with, you can upgrade your desktop machine ad infinitum.

Upgrading doesn’t have to be expensive either. Sure, you can drop £800 on a new top-end graphics card, or £1,500 on an octo-core Intel CPU, but you can get an awful lot of PC grunt for £100 or less.

SSD prices are dropping almost daily, you can pick up a huge amount of RAM for practically nothing, and GPU power is simply incredible at today’s ‘low-end’. We’ve put together our pick of the best £100-or-less upgrades for each important category, so sit back and enjoy. Then sit up, get out your screwdriver and upgrade.

  • PC cooling: a small upgrade makes a big difference

What’s the best upgrade if you’ve only got one hundred of her Majesty’s pounds to play with? Well, that’s actually a trickier question than it might seem. Realistically, and annoyingly, it’s a question that’s most likely to be answered with another question. Namely: what do you do most often with your PC and where are its main failings?

The instinctual answer for a PC gamer like me might be to spend the lot on a new graphics card, but realistically we need to know a few more things first. What card are you running in your rig and – almost as importantly – what screen are you plugging it into?

PC Processors
Upgrading your PC need not be expensive

If you’re more into your image manipulation or video editing, a bigger screen with more desktop real estate or a good chunk of RAM might be a better investment.The thing is, there’s no point in spending the cash in one place if you’re still going to be horrifically limited by another part of your setup.

The easy example is someone sitting on a gaming rig running a lowly 19-inch 1,280 x 1,024 monitor. If you’ve got a graphics card capable of throwing around frame rates in the 40s at that resolution, then chucking in an even faster GPU is only going to make that experience marginally smoother, giving you little impact for your cash.

Dropping the £100 on a 21.5-inch screen running at the full HD resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 would make everything you do with your PC far better. You are, after all, looking at your monitor for practically everything you do with your PC.

Keep the PC balance

Obviously, your games are going to run slower at that resolution, but you can always drop the graphical settings a little in favour of running at a higher res – or just cope with the slight blurring of running at a non-native res until you can afford to upgrade.

In terms of post-processing effects, you can drop AA settings when running a higher resolution too if you need to boost frame rates without negatively affecting image fidelity. The upgrade blade cuts both ways though, so if you’re struggling to hit gaming frame rates with your existing GPU and low-res screen then upping the resolution will just make things even more of a struggle. In that situation a new GPU is the only way to go for the gaming side of things.

  • Best monitor: 10 top displays reviewed and rated

Less sexy upgrades, like a new SSD or more RAM, are well worth a look if spending the cash in other places is going to wind up giving you an unbalanced rig. You may not get as much of a visual impact from such an upgrade, but the day-to-day benefits can be considerable.

If you’re a laptop user, these kinds of upgrades can make a huge difference. Storage and memory are pretty much your only options for upgrading your notebook, but dropping an SSD into your machine can give you the double-whammy of faster boot times and an even longer operating battery life. More RAM will make everything feel a little quicker on a portable device, and might mean you won’t have to buy a whole new laptop for a little while longer.

PC Cooling and clocking

There are other relatively inexpensive options for extending the life of your existing desktop components too – overclocking your CPU can give you the extra bit of performance that might put off that expensive upgrade.

Dropping less than £50 on a closed-loop liquid CPU cooler will give you the thermal headroom you need to indulge in a spot of the ol’ chip-cooking. That should give you a performance boost without you spending a huge amount of cash.

The outside counts too

You don’t need to simply spend cash on your internal components either. If you’ve already got a decent GPU, an SSD, a good chunk of RAM and a reasonable HD monitor then you’re not going to be gaining anything dropping £100 on your internals.

There are still some effective upgrades that won’t require you to wield a screwdriver. A good quality keyboard can be a joy to use. Whether you just use your machine for gaming or you like to indulge in a little light wordplay on the side, a decent keyboard is a worthy investment. I’m a big fan of mechanical switch keyboards, but they are on the pricey side. You can, however, pick them up for less than the £100 mark we’ve set ourselves in this upgrade session. Personally, I think Gigabyte’s latest is one of the finest keyboard I’ve ever used, and while £100 for a board is a lot of cash, it’s something that will probably outlast most of the other upgrade options in this feature.

The keyboard and mouse combo is the hallmark of PC gaming, and spending a decent amount of cash on a quality mouse will deliver its own rewards. I was happy gaming with an old Microsoft Intellimouse for years, but as soon as I laid my twisted claw on a Logitech G9, I was hooked on weighty, accurate gaming mice.

You don’t need to go all the way up to £100 for a rodent that will enhance your experience. We’ve split up the categories over the page, offering our pick of the best £100 or so upgrades for each. What we can’t do, however, is tell you which is necessarily right for you and your rig.

The beauty of the PC is that no matter what system you’ve got now, there is probably an upgrade out there that will improve your system for under a ton.

PC Graphics card

Pint-sized pixel-pushers for less than a ton

PC HD 7770

For any PC gamer, the graphics card is probably the first thing that comes to mind when you’re thinking about upgrading your machine. We’ve hit the end of this last generation of graphics cards, and with the new AMD and Nvidia GPUs coming sometime around the tail-end of this year, prices are about as low as they’re likely to get.

That said, we could see new silicon filling the gaps in this generation, like the HD 7870XT, but that may still not drive prices down. This generation has seen AMD become a far more aggressive competitor over price than it has in the past, and that means us consumers get far more graphical grunt for our money going for a Radeon card over an equivalently priced GeForce card.

The example in the sub-£100 market is the HD 7770 going up against the GTX 650. That’s a complete mismatch in terms of gaming performance, with the Radeon card posting significantly better results in the latest games than the Nvidia GPU. At 1080p resolutions and the graphics settings on full there’s at least a 10fps difference between the two GPUs in most titles. Batman: Arkham City is the exception, but in other Nvidia and AMD-sponsored titles, the gap is at least as wide.

When that’s around 25fps for the AMD card against the 14fps for the Nvidia, the difference is essentially between being able to play and not being able to play at all.

HD heroes

The fact though that you can nail playable frame rates at the top settings – and that includes 4x AA as standard in our gaming benchmarks – at the familiar 1,920 x 1,080 resolution is fantastic. And it shows just how much graphical power is available for such a relatively small outlay these days. This is the sort of performance that we were seeing from the £200 to £250 graphics cards found in the previous generation. If that’s the jump in performance from the last generation to this, what about the new GPUs that are on their way?

From what we’ve heard, the new HD 8000 and GTX 700 series of cards – from AMD and Nvidia respectively – are unlikely to herald the sort of performance improvements we’ve seen in the last round. The new graphics cards are only set to offer incremental improvements, so we wouldn’t expect to see much more graphics pace coming out of the £100 segment in six months’ time, unless you can find a cheap HD 7850 1GB under the ton mark.

That AMD card is our budget choice if you can stretch to the £125 it currently costs, as it absolutely hoses the competition in all of our benchmarks – it even offers playable frame rates at the crazy-high resolution of 2,560 x 1,600.

With a strict £100 limit on your upgrade, the HD 7770 won’t disappoint – it’s a proper gaming-capable GPU offering amazing performance for a great price.

Recommendation:

AMD Radeon HD 7770
Price: £89
Manufacturer: AMD
Web: www.amd.com
GPU: Cape Verde XT
Radeon cores: 640
ROPS: 16
Core clock: 1,000MHz
Memory clock: 1,125MHz
Memory capacity: 1,024MB

Processor

Cores for cash – that’s the mantra for the budget CPU hunter

PC AMD FX-6300

When we were considering the various components to include in this feature, we agonised over whether or not to include processors and motherboards. Harsh words were spoken, mugs were thrown and tea and blood were spilt.

They are quite obviously the key upgrades for a PC, but generally when you’re upgrading one it makes sense that you upgrade the other. And trying to keep below the £100 budget and pick up a decent mobo/CPU combo would be practically impossible, especially when you consider you’re looking to improve the performance of your current rig.

In the end, we decided that including motherboards in the test would be an exercise in futility – if you’re not upgrading the processor there’s probably very little to be gained by changing motherboard as well.

On the flip side, we’ve kept in the CPU category for precisely the opposite reason. AMD has kept the same CPU socket for a few generations now, so older boards are still compatible with more modern CPUs, and you can pick up a decent AMD processor for less than £100. In terms of Intel, that’s below where the bottom-end starts.

If you’re looking to upgrade your CPU, there’s probably not a lot of choices for your current Intel board as it’s likely not going to be pin-compatible with the latest CPUs from the same company.

PC Core values

So, as with the graphics card market, AMD gets the value crown. If you’ve got an AMD AM3 board from the last year or so, there’s a good chance that you’ll just need a wee BIOS update to allow compatibility with the latest FX chips.

If you’re looking to move up from an old Phenom X6, you may not necessarily be gaining a huge amount – the previous generation of AMD processors had superior single threaded performance, which is arguably more influential in gaming. But pick up anything below the top-end of the last AMD CPU generation and you’re laughing.

The FX-6300 uses the updated Bulldozer tech – codenamed Piledriver – and is the finest £100 CPU around. It will happily run up to a 5GHz overclock, and at that speed it will post games performance almost rivalling an Intel Core i5-3570K at stock speeds. For such a relatively modest upgrade cost, you’re getting an awful lot of CPU technology, and a hell of a lot of multi-threaded performance for your cash too.

That multi-threaded performance will also come in handy if you’re looking for your machine to do more things other than gaming. For any multi-threaded application, the Piledriver tech really makes use of those six threads of processing goodness – especially if you start waving that good ol’ overclocking stick about in earnest.

The performance boost this budget CPU can give an ageing AMD system is thoroughly impressive and is well worth the cash if you’ve got a motherboard that is capable of supporting it. AMD has been good in supporting the upgrade path, so it’s worth investing in. A little extra processor performance will also always help keep your performance graphics card filled with data too.

Recommendation:

AMD FX-6300
Price: £100
Manufacturer: AMD
Web: www.amd.com
Cores: Six
Threads: Six
Clockspeed: 3.5GHz
Socket: AMD AM3+
Lithography: 32nm
Memory cache: 14MB
TDP: 95W

PC System memory

More, more, more! Can you ever have too much memory?

PC Memory

Memory is probably one of the least sexy of the upgrades on offer. After all, unless you’re foolish enough to be trying to run an APU as fully fledged gaming system, then you’re not going to get much benefit from boosting the memory inside your beloved rig. Or are you?

Memory performance is a lot more opaque when it comes to assessing how it affects your computing experience – it’s more about what you do with your PC and how you use it. For most of us, 4GB is a perfectly adequate amount of memory to be jamming in your rig, but with prices of DRAM being so low these days – especially for the sort of performance RAM we’re talking about here – you’re never going to lose out sticking a good chunk more memory in your rig.

Granted, dropping £200 on a 32GB kit is probably going a tad overboard, but when you can pick up an 8GB upgrade for less than £40 it’s certainly well worth a gander.

Memory matters

Gaming is probably the least memory intensive thing you do with your PC – after all, most of the games that we’re playing these days have been put together with the last generation of consoles very much in mind. Those sealed boxes are so memory limited that developers have worked around the scarcity of DRAM, and so the resulting titles that hit the PC aren’t so bothered about system RAM and are more interested in what your GPU is up to. For those sorts of games, 4GB is really all you’re going to need.

That said, there are some PC-specific titles that very much benefit from a memory upgrade. Titles like my beloved Football Manager, with its heavy emphasis on computation and data processing, soak up any memory on offer. And if you’re doing anything that requires multi-tasking and switching between programs – or anything that requires a lot of computational work – then more RAM is always handy.

Although we’re talking up desktop upgrades in this feature, memory is also one of the few upgrades anyone can do to their laptop. Doubling the RAM on offer in your portable machine can really make a difference to how it performs, and again needn’t cost the earth to install.

But as I said, this is all about the desktop and in that market Crucial’s Ballistix Tactical LP range has really captured our imagination in recent months. As CPU coolers get ever larger and impinge on the DIMM slots of your mobo, a set of low profile RAM modules can really help. It also helps that these low profile modules are so darn good.

This kit is rated at 1,600MHz, but is capable of running at much higher frequencies – we had the 8GB modules running at 2,133MHz without trying. Because they’re low-voltage they can be pushed when it comes to overclocking. They’re pretty low latency too, and that’s arguably more important than raw speed.

Recommendation:

Crucial Ballistix Tactical LP 8GB
Price: £39
Manufacturer: Crucial
Web: www.crucial.com
Capacity: 8GB (2x 4GB)
Speed: 1,600MHz
Latency: 8-8-8-24
Voltage: 1.35v

PC Solid state drive

Sub-£100 SSDs are no longer the tiny, slow devices they used to be

PC SSDs

The solid state drive market is probably the most vibrant of all sectors of the PC components landscape, and that means it’s also the fastest moving. Which can make it both good and bad news for the consumer. More specifically, that’s bad news for the early-adopter as new technology is rolling around at a rate of knots.

This makes your latest performance SSD purchase effectively obsolete almost by the time you unwrap it and jam a Windows installation on it. But for the rest of us, it’s great news as we can then get the top drives of the last generation – which, let’s not forget, are still quality examples of SSD-dom – for a fraction of the price they once retailed at. It also means that where we were once scrabbling around for storage space for both our OS and a handful of games on a 64GB SSD, we can now look to spread out a bit more with 120 to 128GB drives now dropping below the £100 mark.

We’ve had SandForce drives knocking around the £70 mark for a 120GB drive – something like the Kingston HyperX – for a while now. And though they’re definitely decent drives, especially for the money, they don’t represent the pinnacle of SSD controller technology any more. For that you’ve got to be looking towards the likes of Marvell, Samsung and the OCZ-owned Indilinx.

Now that those guys are tossing out new SSD memory controllers that are toppling the SandForce stranglehold, we’re seeing prices drop once more. But what’s the benefit of an SSD upgrade?

Well, it depends on your starting point. If you’ve yet to take the plunge then it’s a great time to make the upgrade from your existing mechanical hard drive. The difference between booting your PC and your games from an SSD over an HDD is practically night and day, but in general day-to-day use you’ll notice your PC is much faster and more responsive too.

The easy example is the classic virus check. Originally, checking for viruses took forever, because the whole system was bottlenecking around the spinning platters of your hard drive. With solid-state storage, the bottleneck has been shifted to how fast your CPU can churn through the data the solid-state drive is throwing at it. Run a check on a rig with a HDD, and the CPU utilisation will hover around 15 per cent – chuck that onto a PC with an SSD, and the CPU will max out if you let it.

Lean on me

If you were worried about taking the plunge because of reliability fears, you can probably relax now. SSD failure rates are now below that of HDDs, and the performance degradation that used to accompany the early drives has more or less been eradicated.

So what do we recommend? Well, right now OCZ’s Vector is the finest SSD around, but it’s only just ahead of its older Vertex 4 stablemate – and you can pick up that excellent drive for less than £100 in 128GB trim. And because it’s running on a Marvell controller with Indilinx firmware, it’s a lot more versatile than an equivalent SandForce-based drive.

The Vertex 4 128GB then is a top-performing SSD, with enough storage for your OS and the games your playing right now for a bargain price.

Recommendation:

OCZ Vertex 4 128GB
Price: £96
Manufacturer: OCZ
Web: www.ocztechnology.com
Capacity: 128GB
Controller: Marvell with OCZ/Indilinx firmware
Memory: Synchronous MLC NAND
Interface: SATA 6Gbps
Form factor: 2.5-inch

PC. CPU cooling

Chilling your chips for fun and frosty frolics

PC Cooling

There are multiple reasons why you should think about upgrading the cooling in your PC, and considering that effective new solutions are available for less than £50, it’s also one of the cheapest upgrades you can make to your machine. So why would you want to upgrade your PC’s cooler?

If you’ve stuck with the stock cooler that arrived with your CPU – or the budget cooler that came with your rig when you first purchased it – then it’s probably not giving your CPU a lot of protection when it’s getting ragged. A decent performance CPU cooler, by its very definition, will keep your processor running cooler than with a stock option.

If you’re getting flaky performance from your rig when you really stress it, a quality cooler could solve all your problems. A decent cooler will also run a lot quieter than a budget or stock chiller. That could be because of an improved fin-stack and heatsink array, or because it ships with a bigger fan. Larger fans don’t need to spin as quickly to shift the same amount of air across the heatsink, they therefore run far quieter than fans spinning at maximum speed.

A quieter-running rig may not be your primary requirement for your gaming PC, but it sure can make a difference to your experience when you’re actually getting to hear the game and not the turbine roar of your chip cooler every time CPU load rises above 2 per cent.

Performance is going to be your primary concern with a gaming PC, and a decent CPU cooler can really make a difference. The origins of CPU overclocking came from people who couldn’t afford to upgrade, trying to squeeze the last drop of performance from their existing rig.

A quality cooler will allow you to get the most out of your processor and extend its life, even if you might be shortening its actual operating life. A processor running at a higher frequency generates far more heat than it does running at its stock speeds, and if your cooler can’t cope with this excess heat and shift it away from the CPU, then it will probably fall over. If you can upgrade to a cooler that allows you to keep running your processor at 1GHz over the base clockspeed, then you’re going to get a good chunk of extra performance out of it.

Modern air-coolers are excellent at shifting heat around, as well as remaining relatively quiet while they’re at it – but a closed-loop liquid chiller will go that extra mile especially in terms of overclocking. Where once liquid-cooling was the realm of the serial tinkerer or the clinically insane, closed-loop systems now require no real maintenance and are no more expensive than their air-cooled brethren.

Last month, we checked out the Cooler Master Seidon 120M, and it’s a fantastically effective chiller, despite the single fan, for a bargain price. It’s easy to fit and very good at what it does.

Recommendation:

Cooler Master Seidon 120M
Price: £43
Manufacturer: Cooler Master
Web: www.coolermaster.co.uk
CPU compatibility: AMD and Intel
Size: 120mm
Fans: 1x 120mm PWM
Fanspeed: 600-2,400 rpm
Waterblock: Copper

PC Monitor

The window to your digital world…

PC monitor

Resident technocrat, and all-round monitor-snob, Jeremy Laird, has long been of the opinion that a good monitor is a purchase that will most likely outlast the rest of the PC you’re plugging it in to. It’s the window to your digital world – and it’s also one of the few upgrades you can make to your rig that you will use every single time you come to switch the thing on. So investing in a decent monitor is surely a sound idea.

With that said then you could argue that the £100 limit is a bit tight in this instance – you should really be spending as much as you can afford to pick up the best monitor you can. Prices of monitors though are at a point where you can grab a 22-inch screen for a ton – and we’re not talking the VGA-only, 1,680 x 1,050 screens here either. You can pick up a full HD panel with all the inputs your heart could desire. Okay, maybe not if your twisted heart desires the newness of DisplayPort or Thunderbolt, that is.

The only difficulty is that graphics performance is inextricably linked to monitor resolution, and with flatscreens you really want to be gaming at the native res of your screen for the best results. If you’ve been gaming on a lowly 1,280 x 1,024 screen, then there’s a good possibility that your GPU won’t be able to keep pace with a full HD panel. If you’ve been running at 1,680 x 1,050, then there’s not a lot more strain being placed on your graphics card moving up to a 1080p resolution.

And a larger resolution isn’t just great for gaming, that extra screen real estate is incredibly liberating when it comes to regular desktop use too. Having more displayed on screen is always a bonus, and with the widescreen setup having multiple windows sat side-by-side, it makes things easier too.

Which tech?

If you’re not bound by a tight £100 limit though there are alternatives out there too. At the moment there’s a glut of affordable IPS screens around, offering response times around the same speed as the budget TN panels, but with far better viewing angles and colour reproduction.

There’s no denying IPS screens give better visual fidelity than a budget TN screen, and Viewsonic’s excellent VX2370Smh is available for just around £136. It’s quite incredible how cheap IPS screens have become.

But if £100 is your limit, the Iiyama E2278HD is a great budget screen too and wont leave you too far behind, it’s a full HD monitor with a decent display. It may be a lowly TN, but with a full HD panel and an LED backlight it’s still a very crisp, reliable monitor. And if you’re making the step up from something smaller with a low resolution, the 22-inch Iiyama will definitely satisfy those big screen cravings.

It may not have the top-end tech of an IPS screen, or the styling of an expensive bezel-less panel, but for £100 it’s a bargain. There’s also the fact that multi-screen desktop set ups are far more useful than having just a single screen.

Being able to pick up a 22-inch, full-HD monitor for just £100 is incredible and will help any and all kinds of multi-tasking you care to throw your PC’s way. So whether it’s a main screen upgrade or the addition of a second screen to your desktop set up, £100 is all you need to spend.

Recommendation:

Iiyama E2278HD
Price: £100
Manufacturer: Iiyama
Web: www.iiyama.com
Size: 21.5-inch
Panel tech: TN
Native resolution: 1,920 x 1,080
Backlight: LED
Response time: 5ms
Input: 1x DVI-D, 1x VGA

PC Chassis

Bargain armour for your gaming gear

PC Chassis

Buying a new chassis for your PC is less of an upgrade and more of a full body transplant, but a new case can make it feel like an entirely new machine. And while you can spend an absolute fortune on a new chassis, it can also be one of the most inexpensive upgrades for your PC.

It need not just be a cosmetic change either, a new chassis can be upgraded for entirely functional reasons. When you’re putting together a machine yourself, chances are you’ve allocated more of your budgetary resources to the internal components. You know, the ones that make all your games look awesome like your graphics card – so you may well end up with a bit of a dog of a chassis once you’ve assembled your new machine.

That’s not such a problem when you first build a rig, and hell, most of us are going to be more interested in what’s happening on screen than what our PC looks like to the naked eye. But aside from being less appealing than a dose of gonorrhea, a budget chassis will come without a lot of the improvements we’ve come to expect from a quality case.

A lot of budget chassis will ship without adequate cooling, and some may even ship without any exhaust fans either. When it comes to getting the most out of your components, decent airflow is vital for keeping everything chilled inside. Even with the best CPU air-cooler around, you need somewhere for all that heat to be vented out safely, and externally.

High air flow

But combine a new chassis with a new cooler for your CPU and you’ll be getting really close to accessing the full potential of your processor. The added thermal headroom you’ll gain from having effective cooling in your machine will really allow for some serious overclocking. Good airflow is always going to be beneficial for the other components too, especially if you can get a good flow going across the GPU too.

There’s also the matter of PSU placement. As the heaviest part of your PC, it’s become general practice to place the power supply at the base of the rig to improve stability. A lot of budget chassis – even new ones like the Cooler Master Force that’s just been launched – still jam the PSU right up into the roof of the case.

So what’s our budget recommendation then? You can easily spend up to the £100 budget on a new performance chassis, and there are plenty to choose from. Bitfenix does an excellent range of cases, including our favourite wobbly mini ITX chassis – the Prodigy. Corsair has also put together a brilliant range of affordable and downright desirable cases too, though sadly, the amazingly beautiful Graphite 600T is a little over our budget at £135, beautiful though it is.

Cooler Master has the classic High AirFlow (HAF) series of cases, and at just £63, the HAF 912 Plus is an absolute bargain of a chassis, and will comfortably house all but the most awkward of PC configurations. The HAF 912 Plus comes with a chunky 200mm fan on the front and a 120mm fan exhausting from the rear, as well as space for a large top-mounted fan or liquid-cooling radiator. The looks may still be a little polarising, but it’s striking at the very least.

Recommendation:

Cooler Master HAF 912 Plus
Price: £63
Manufacturer: Cooler Master
Web: www.coolermaster.com
Motherboard support: mATX, ATX
Drive bays: 4x 5.25-inch, 6×3.5-inch
I/O panel: 2x USB 2.0, 1x eSATA, audio and mic
Fans: 1x 200mm front, 1x 120mm rear
Dimensions: 230 x 480 x 496mm

PC Gaming mouse

Making the difference between fragging and being fragged…

PC Gamih3ng mice

For some PC folk, dropping a chunk of cash on something that isn’t going to affect the performance of your PC might seem like a waste of time and money and not a real upgrade at all. But as the primary input device for most of us, a good mouse can a huge difference to your overall experience.

Personally speaking, I used to be more interested in my machine’s innards and stuck with the same mouse and keyboard combination for years without really considering upgrading them. I used the same grubby Microsoft Intellimouse for maybe a decade, without ever feeling the need to make a change. It wasn’t until I was testing the Logitech G9 that my world shifted and I realised what a difference a quality, weighty mouse could make to my gaming world.

For the laptop crowd, a new mouse can really help too. Most trackpads, let’s be honest, are far from responsive, so a mouse can really change things up. Decent little wireless mice – like the excellent Roccat Pyra optical mouse – can be found for around £30.

For serious gaming though, a laser mouse is where it’s at. An accurate, sensitive laser sensor on a gaming rodent isn’t just about sending the mouse pointer flying across the screen at the slightest twitch – a better sensor will make all mouse movements smoother and easier to judge. It’s not just about looking for the highest DPI setting a mouse is capable of either, as some of those can be incredibly twitchy and not at all that smooth.

Recently, we have seen a range of 8,200 DPI mice arrive – possibly using the same Avago LaserStream sensor – with exceptional tracking performance. Given that the likes of Razer are throwing out mice for £110, you might reasonably expect something with such a high DPI capability to be hitting the same sort of sky-high price tag – but the best mice are easily within our budget.

Corsair has really started to make a name for itself in the peripheral market over the last year or so, and the update to the M60 mouse – smartly named the M65 – comes with the Avago sensor and that incredible tracking capability. So how come the Corsair isn’t our recommendation then?

Well, newcomer to the UK market Shogun Bros is also looking like it’s using the same sensor in its Ballista MK-1 gaming mouse – and while it will retail for around the same price as the Corsair, it has just a little more functionality and style about it.

Primary among the extra functions is the addition of a pair of programmable buttons positioned along the side of the right mouse button. They’re easy to get at and provide more control for your mouse hand.

To be perfectly honest, either the Corsair or the Ballista mice will give you a fantastic experience, so if you can’t find the one, the other will still impress. Though it’s worth noting that the Corsair one is available in stormtrooper white. Yes, we know.

Recommendation:

Shogun Bros Ballista MK-1
Price: £50
Manufacturer: Shogun Bros
Web: www.shogunbros.com
DPI: Up to 8,200
Sensor: Laser
Customisable buttons: 10
Polling rate: 1,000Hz
Connection: Wired

PC Gaming keyboard

Still the primary input device of choice, so make it a good one

PC Gaming keyboard

The humble keyboard is probably one of the last things you’d really considering upgrading. After all, that grint-stained, crumb-infested beige board you’ve been using since you bought your first PC is still functioning.

But after the mouse, it’s the secondary input device for your rig, and in-game is on an equal footing with the rodent for priority. The mouse/keyboard combination has come to be a talisman for PC gaming community, but if you just spend the cash on a good gaming mouse and neglect its keyboard companion, you’re doing all of PC gaming a disservice. Okay, that might be a tad emotive, but a good quality keyboard can really enhance your gaming experience, as well as improve any work you happen to do on the side too.

As we’ve seen over the last few months you can now spend an absolute fortune on a gaming keyboard should you so wish. The Razer DeathStalker Ultimate, despite its overly hyperbolic name, is a decent keyboard with a few light teething problems – but it comes with a ridiculous £250 price tag.

There’s also the Mad Catz STRIKE range, with the 5 and 7 in the series hitting £150 and £250 respectively. But neither of those boards come with the one thing I look for when I’m spending cold, hard cash on a gaming keyboard, and that’s mechanical switch keys. If you’re upgrading your board then you want to make sure it’s got the finest keyboard tech.

Insane membrane

Membrane switch keys are the standard tech used in most keyboards for the simple reason that they are cheaper to produce and can be used to make the fashionable chiclet key style of low-profile boards. Unfortunately, they’re not particularly durable or responsive, something that you’d really want your keyboard to be, especially if you’re spending a ton on one.

Mechanical switch boards come with that familiar clickety-clack sound when you strike them, making you feel like you’re typing along with Stephen J Cannell at the start of The A-Team. They’re also incredibly durable, lasting long after the membrane switches have perished, and are far more responsive. That’s also what makes them such good candidates for gaming keyboards – we love them.

Of all the keyboards I’ve tested recently, somewhat bizarrely, it’s Gigabyte’s Aivia Osmium keyboard that I’ve fallen in love with. In fact, this entire article has been lovingly typed on my chunky Osmium board. It may be rather plain-looking – despite the bright LED backlighting – but its one of the most responsive, sturdy and functional boards I’ve ever used.

It’s got simple macro functionality for the casual MMO enthusiast, media controls, independent wheel controls for the lighting and system volume and it’s also the only board that manages to jam in a USB 3.0 pass-through for good measure.

I genuinely wasn’t expecting to fall so convincingly for the Osmium, but its simple aesthetic and rock-solid build quality – coupled with its overall responsiveness – makes it my favourite gaming keyboard out there. It may not have a fl ashy LED display, but I would wager it’ll outlast many a pricier board.

Recommendation:

Gigabyte Aivia Osmium
Price: £100
Manufacturer: Gigabyte
Web: http://uk.gigabyte.com
Layout: Europe 105-key
Keyboard tech: Mechanical switch
Interface: Wired USB 2.0
Macro keys: Five
Extras: USB 3.0 pass-through

strong

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Cyberattack highlights software update problem in large organizations

A recent cyberattackcyberattack

targeting U.S. government employees working with nuclear weapons illustrates the vulnerability of large organizations that struggle with deploying protective software upgrades.

The Cyberattack, who compromised a Department of Labor website, exploited a previously unknown vulnerability, called a zero-day flaw, in Internet Explorer 8, commonly found on PCs running Windows XP. Javascript injected in the site redirected visitors using IE8 on XP to a malicious website.

Cyberattack choosing to go after federal agencies, the attackers understood that many government departments are still using outdated versions of Windows and IE, due to the huge expense of upgrading thousands of people to newer versions. Such migrations involve the difficult task of upgrading many other business applications to support the new OS.

“There’s a lot of government agencies, and commercial entities as well, that simply cannot upgrade to these latest versions,” Eddie Mitchell, security researcher for Invincea, said Monday. “They have internal applications, HR (human resource) applications, payroll applications and such that were designed explicitly to work with Internet Explorer 8, which is why these organizations are still vulnerable to Cyberattack.”

Researchers agree that the command-and-control (CC) servers in the latest Cyberattack, discovered last week, have attributes similar to those used in previous Cyberattack assaults originating from China.

FireEye reported that the host name of the CC servers in the latest Cyberattack included the phrase “microsoftUpdate,” which was also used in Cyberattack over the last six months against the Council on Foreign Relations website and news sites in China visited by Chinese dissidents.

[Also see: Army Corps database on dams compromised]

“I’m not going to be surprised if the Cyberattack are originating from the same group,” Zheng Bu, senior director of research for FireEye, said.

FireEye and Invincea have not identified the culprits, but AlienVault reported that the malware is using the same protocol to communicate with the CC servers as the one used by a Chinese hacking group called Deep Panda. The group is known to attack a variety of U.S. entities, including the high-tech and defense industries and state and federal government agencies.

The pages compromised on the Labor Department Cyberattack contained information that listed nuclear-related illnesses linked to Department of Energy facilities where employees are developing atomic weapons. Visitors were redirected to the malicious website unknowingly, since there was no obvious change in the browser.

That’s accomplished through the use of JavaScript and HTML inline frames. Called iFrames, the technology is embedded in pages to link to malicious sites. IFrames were the most commonly used exploit in Web-based Cyberattack in the second half of last year, according to Microsoft’s latest Security Intelligence Report.

Makers of popular exploit kits available in the criminal underground, such as Blackhole and Cool, are expected to incorporate the latest zero-day vulnerability soon, Mitchell said.

“It would not surprise me in the least, based on what we’ve seen in the past, to see this exploit loaded [in kits] in the next day or two, a week at the most,” he said.

Indeed, FireEye reported finding nine other websites besides the Labor Department’s redirecting visitors to the same malicious site. Microsoft issued an alert last Friday notifying customers of the Cyberattack vulnerability. The company has not said when it would release a patch.

“We strongly encourage customers to follow the workarounds listed in the advisory while we continue working on a full update to address this issue,” said Dustin Childs, group manager for response communications for Microsoft Trustworthy Computing.

Read more about application security in CSOonline’s Application Security section.

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Microsoft to redesign Windows 8 as PC sales plummet

Microsoft Windows 8 redesignWindows 8

When Microsoft Windows 8 boss Steve Ballmer first revealed his software for the touchscreen world in February 2012, he said he was “betting the company” on it.

There were “no compromises” made in replacing the time-honoured desktop with Windows 8’s colourful tile-based interface, Ballmer insisted.

But just six months after the official release, Microsoft – which relies on Windows licences for about half its profits – is getting ready to make compromises to key aspects of the software. It comes after its leap into the tablet computing future was described as “confusing” (or worse) by new users and has been blamed for plummeting sales of PCs, which had their sharpest drop on record in the first three months of this year, down 14%.

The biggest expectation is that the update to Windows 8, codenamed Blue and due within a few weeks, will revive the start button that had been familiar to users for 17 years but which was removed from the new version.

If correct, it will be a U-turn as momentous in its way as Coca-Cola’s abandonment of “New Coke” in 1985 just three months after its launch following consumer protests.

Tami Reller, promoted to head Microsoft’s Windows division after Ballmer ejected former chief Steve Sinofsky in November, announced on an internal Microsoft blog on Monday that Blue will be “an opportunity for us to respond to the customer feedback that we’ve been closely listening to” since the October launch.

“Are there things that we can do to improve the experience? Absolutely,” Reller told the Associated Press. “There is a learning curve [to Windows 8] and we can work to address that.”

The principal challenge for experienced users of Windows is the total absence of a Start button, familiar since 1995 as the place with all their programs and shortcuts stored in a huge list. Windows 8 instead introduces a layer of giant “tiles” over the traditional desktop.

But users find that perplexing – so much so that one of the bestselling apps on Windows 8 has been Stardock, which lets the user add the start button back in, and ModernMix, which lets tile apps run on the old desktop. That will have given Reller pause – along with the fact that sales of Windows PCs have shrunk for the past four quarters, declining sharply year-on-year by 11.4% between January-March to about 74m.

The blame for that was put squarely at Sinofsky’s door by Bob O’Donnell of the research company IDC: “At this point, unfortunately, it seems clear that the Windows 8 launch not only failed to provide a positive boost to the PC market, but appears to have slowed the market,” he said.

“The costs associated with touch have made PCs a less attractive alternative to dedicated tablets and other competitive devices.”

However Reller gave no other hints about what’s coming, or when. That’s a problem in itself, said Richard Doherty of Envisioneering, a market research company: “they had the Vista misstep in 2007 [when an earlier Windows update alienated users] and this is more of that. They’re telling people ‘take it or leave it’, and consumers have been leaving it.”

Even so analysts don’t think the Start button will return in exactly that form.

At Gartner, a rival research company, vice-president Michael Silver says Microsoft “didn’t listen to customers who were pointing [the start button problem] out in testing. They could have had a middle ground, but chose not to – I think Sinofsky made sure it was pretty difficult to make major changes if he didn’t want them.”

Sinofsky and Ballmer are understood to have argued over such flexibility – which saw the junior leave quickly. Even so Silver thinks the changes will only offer the chance to start the machine purely in the desktop mode, bypassing the tiles; he doesn’t expect the Start button back.

Meawhile the traditional PC business is merging rapidly with that of tablets and smartphones – in which Microsoft is barely visible. IDC said that while PC sales were plunging, tablet sales in the first quarter of 2013 hit 49.2m, overtaking desktop-based PCs. Smartphones passed that mark long ago, having outsold PCs since the end of 2010, and in developing countries they are becoming many peoples’ first computing device. But Microsoft’s Windows Phone has less than 5% share worldwide, compared with 70% for Google’s Android and 20% for Apple’s iPhone. Microsoft only has about 1% of the tablet market, according to IDC.

This week Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates defended Windows 8: “It takes the benefits of a tablet and the benefits of a PC, and it’s able to support both of those – so if you have [Microsoft own-brand tablet] Surface, Surface Pro, you’ve got that portability of a tablet but the richness of a PC in terms of the keyboard, Microsoft Office of a PC,” he said. “Microsoft is trying to gain share in what has been dominated by the iPad-type device.”

Paradoxically Microsoft’s stock is presently trading at a six-year high, after the hedge fund ValueAct Capital took a $2bn stake at the end of April, with its chief executive Jeffrey Ubben remarking “We see Microsoft’s consumer strategy challenges, and say ‘who cares’.”

Reller was also able to announce that Microsoft has now sold 100m Windows 8 licences in the six months since it was launched, matching the previous figure for Windows 7 at the same time in 2010. Though she didn’t explain it, business customers are buying Windows 8 licences but actually install the older Windows 7 – with its familiar start button.

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Facebook to design an open source switch

 

As part of the Open Compute Project (OCP), Facebook network engineering team is leading a project to develop an open source networking switch.

“It’s our hope that an open, disaggregated switch will enable a faster pace of innovation in the development of networking hardware,” wrote Frank Frankovsky from Facebook in a blog post announcing the project. Frankovsky is chairman and president of OCP, as well as Facebook vice president of hardware design and supply chain operations.Facebook

Facebook 

network engineering team head Najam Ahmad will lead the project, and engineers from Broadcom, Intel, VMware and Cumulus Networks, among others, will participate in the development of the specification.

Facebook announced the project Wednesday at the Interop 2013 conference in Las Vegas. It will formally kick off the project at the first-ever OCP Engineering Summit May 16 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The  design will specify how to build a top-of-rack switch that could be used in large data centers, such as Facebook . Frankovsky admitted that the project is starting with “just an idea and a clean sheet of paper.” He did specify the switch will use SDN (software defined networking) technologies, and would be OS agnostic. OCP wants to create specifications that cleanly separate different components — which Frankovsky calls disaggregation — so these components can be easily interchangeable and work together seamlessly.

Facebook created OCP two years ago as a way to spur development of more efficient data center technologies. The idea was that users and creators of data center technologies could collaborate to develop hardware designs more to their own liking, which then would be open sourced so any manufacturer could use them to build equipment. OCP, which has attracted over 50 corporate members, has since embarked on designing components such as racks, storage boxes, motherboards and interconnects.

Although no networking switch vendors have yet volunteered to build a switch using OCP’s specifications, presumably they will have at least a few ready customers in Facebook and other participants in the project.

Joab Jackson covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Joab on Twitter at @Joab_Jackson. Joab’s e-mail address is Joab_Jackson@idg.com

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Amazon’s new China app store could help pave way for Kindle products

Amazon’s app store built in the Chinese languageAmazon's china app store

Amazon.com has updated its mobile app store to include support for its Chinese customers, in a sign that the U.S. company could be preparing to sell its Kindle e-readers and tablets in the country.

The update effectively launches a new version of Amazon’s app store built in the Chinese language. The app store comes in the form of an Android app store, and the company has been promoting it since this past weekend.

The arrival of the new app store comes just months after Amazon launched its Kindle e-book service in China last December. Both are key platforms for bringing content to the company’s Kindle devices in the U.S. market. But in China, Amazon has yet to start selling its tablet and e-reader hardware, and its local offices have been mum on a future release date. The company on Monday did not immediately respond for comment.

Despite the absence of official sales, the Chinese market is showing some “pent-up demand” for Amazon’s e-readers, said Mark Natkin, managing director of Beijing-based Marbridge Consulting. Research data from last year showed that Chinese consumers were increasingly buying the e-readers from overseas markets, he added.

Amazon’s Kindle Fire tablets could also sell well in the country, Natkin said. Apple currently dominates the nation’s tablet sector, but the company largely focuses on the higher-end market. Amazon’s Kindle Fire products, which start at US$159, could appeal to many consumers wanting a lower-priced device from a well-known brand, he added.

Lenovo became the country’s second largest tablet vendor after Apple, with a 14 percent market share, by its focus on budget tablets, according to analysts.

Though a big name in the U.S., Amazon is, however, a small player in China’s e-commerce market. It faces fierce competition from the local rivals, including Alibaba Group’s Taobao sites and 360buy, another major online shopping mall. Both Taobao and 360buy also sell e-books.

China’s market is also already saturated with local app store, some of which are operated by handset makers and telecom operators. Amazon’s new Chinese app store has been designed to include more local products. Software from Chinese social networking site Sina Weibo and video-sharing hub Youku Tudou are listed, but U.S. apps including Netflix and Twitter are not.

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Microsoft Confirms Windows 8 Blue Upgrade, 100 Million License Sales to Date

Windows 8 Blue UpgradeWindows 8

Microsoft marketing chief Tami Reller says Windows 8 has sold 100 million licenses, and an upgrade (code-named Windows 8 Blue) is under development.


Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) confirmed an upcoming Windows 8 update, code named Windows Blue, that will enable the touch-enabled operating system to run on more devices (including smaller tablets) and, according to the vendor, addresses some of the criticism levied at the software.

Microsoft also said that its count of Windows 8licenses sold has reached 100 million, a 67 percent jump from where the figure stood in January, and spans licenses shipped with new tablets or PCs and upgrades.

With Windows Blue chatter building for months, Microsoft first mentioned in late March 2013 plans for an update. What’s expected in the Windows 8 update?

Right off the top, Windows Blue will run on more—as in smaller–devices.

“Windows Blue is a codename for an update that will be available later this year, building on the bold vision set forward with Windows 8 to deliver the next generation of tablets and PCs,” said Tami Reller, Microsoft chief marketing and chief financial officer, in a blog post“It will deliver the latest new innovations across an increasingly broad array of form factors of all sizes, display, battery life and performance, while creating new opportunities for our ecosystem.”

Translated, that means expect Windows Blue to be more suited to small screen format tablets, the building and not-yet-cresting-wave in mobile devices. The update also will include Microsoft’s response to critics of Windows 8, who’ve contended it is absent native applications and clunky on backward compatibility with earlier versions of the operating system.

“The Windows Blue update is also an opportunity for us to respond to the customer feedback that we’ve been closely listening to since the launch of Windows 8 and Windows RT,” said Reller. “From a company-wide perspective, Windows Blue is part of a broader effort to advance our devices and services for Microsoft.”

Along those lines, as for devices running Windows 8 and Windows RT, Reller said that it stands at some 2,400 devices, “and we’re seeing more and more touch devices in the mix.” That alone clues us in about where Microsoft is headed.

Reller also talked up PCs, addressing the much-discussed and well-documented decline in desktop and notebook sales, contending that the “PC is very much alive and increasingly mobile,” and, in Microsoft’s thinking, is “part of a much broader device market of tablets and PCs.”

So, in other words, PCs now should be considered as but one grove of trees on the IT hardware landscape, whereas once it spanned the entire horizon? Actually, yes. “The PC part of the market is rapidly evolving to include new convertible devices and amazing new touch laptops, and all-in-ones. These new PCs are hitting the market now and into the Back-to-School season, and they are more affordable than ever,” Reller said.

Here are some additional Reller nuggets:

  • The number of apps in Microsoft’s Windows Store has increased 6x since launch
  • More than 250 million Store apps have been downloaded in the first six months of Windows 8, and almost 90 percent of Microsoft’s app catalog has been downloaded every month.
  • Delivered major updates for Mail, People and Calendar and updated IE10 so that Flash works by default.
  • SkyDrive users worldwide total some 250 million people.
  • The Outlook.com integration with Skype, active in the U.K. now, will launch in the U.S. and Germany in a few weeks and worldwide in a few months.
  • The Outlook.com update Hotmail users is done. The newly-Web enabled software now has some 400 million accounts.

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