Best Of 2016
We Select Our Favorite Products From The Year In 13 Categories
We review a great many PC tech products throughout the course of a year, and sometimes as we move on to the next product, and the next one, and the next one, it’s easy to forget how great some of them really were. So this holiday season, the staff here at CPU decided to take a moment as one year slips away and another arrives to recognize some of the cool stuff we had come through our offices in 2016. We chose our favorite products from each of 13 categories; below you’ll find out what they were and why we chose them, as well as a couple products from each category that we thought merited Honorable Mention recognition.
Best Case: Fractal Design Define C
We’ve been fans of Fractal Design’s Define-series cases for several years; as a general rule, they look great, they’re easy to work with, and they come with all of the latest case design innovations, often well before you’ll see those things in other stock case offerings. They are also incredibly well made, and best of all, they all ring up at right around $100 or less.
The Define C retails for less than $90 and improves on the amazing Define S in a couple significant ways: It’s a hair smaller, while still accommodating a similar complement of hardware, and it comes with a power supply shroud that makes it even easier to keep the interior of your system squared away. We saw quite a few great cases in 2016, but at the end of the day, it’s hard to beat the Define C for quality, utility, and value. (www.fractal-design.com) Honorable Mentions:CaseLabs Bullet BH4, Deepcool Gamer Storm Genome
Best CPU: Intel Core i7-6950X
If early indications are accurate, 2017 may be a much more competitive year in the field of desktop CPUs than 2016 was, but there were still some pretty cool processor launches in the year we just left behind. The biggest, baddest CPU on the block—by a huge margin—was the flagship of Intel’s Broadwell-E family of chips, the Core i7-6950X.
The 6950X is a 10-core, 20-thread beast with a stock clock speed of 3GHz, but Intel’s Turbo Boost 3.0 technology can crank that up to 3.5GHz as needed, and Turbo Boost Max can pick specific cores based on perf needs and jack them up even higher, all the way to 4GHz.
This 14nm marvel packs 3.2 billion Tri-Gate transistors and 24MB of on-die Intel Smart Cache; it also has a TDP of 140 watts, which is pretty impressive, all things considered. The chip provides 40 PCIe lanes, and supports quad-channel DDR4 memory via the X99 chipset—up to a staggering 128GB of it. Benchmarks told the tale: The Core i7-6950X was far and away the highest-performing CPU released in 2016, and that gets it the nod in our list of favorites. (www.intel.com)
Honorable Mentions: AMD Athlon X4 845, Intel Core i5-6600K
Best CPU Cooler: Cooler Master MasterLiquid Pro 240
All-in-one liquid CPU coolers are largely the default choice for DIY builders who aren’t quite ready to commit to the complexity and expense of a custom cooling system, and the MasterLiquid Pro 240 from Cooler Master stood head and shoulders above similarly priced competitors in 2016. According to the manufacturer, the MasterLiquid Pro 240 has a dramatically redesigned waterblock with 657% more surface area, which Here’s what really made up our minds, though: In our tests, a Core i7-6950X cooled by the MasterLiquid Pro 240 never got hotter than 48.23 degrees Celsius, and that’s the temp we got while running Prime95’s small FFTs torture test; POV-Ray 3.7’s max CPU test only raised the mercury to 43 C. Lots of products make claims about superior cooling, but this one delivers, and we have the numbers to prove it. Cooler Master gave it an MSRP of $119.99, which is right in line with the market, too, so we gave it the CPUCutting Edge Award for innovative design. (www.coolermaster.com)
Honorable Mentions: EK-XLC Predator 360, be quiet! Pure Rock Slim
Best Desktop PC: AVADirect Avalanche Mini
Put simply, the Avalanche Mini is a microATX Death Star. Of course, like the lowest of which was a 57fps in The Witcher 3 with settings turned way up.
It’s ready and willing to game at 4K, and it’s VR-ready, as well.
But the Avalanche Mini doesn’t just run games at silky smooth frame rates without the slightest hitch; it also looks like a showpiece.
The immaculate interior is lit by a soft LED glow that shows off its custom hard tube cooling loop (you pick the color via remote control), and the Corsair Carbide Series Air 240 (in white, of course) is a great showcase for all that hardware. And we can’t forget that the Mini comes with AVA’s Silver Warranty Package, a three-year limited parts and labor warranty that includes lifetime tech support. Game, set, and match. (www.avadirect.com) Honorable Mentions:Altex AION Ares, MSI Trident
Best Graphics Card: SAPPHIRE NITRO+ Radeon RX 480 8GB
There were a ton of great ne w graphics cards this year, and although it’s not the fastest or even the most innovative, we love the NITRO+ 480 for pushing the price/per formance envelope. SAPPHIRE’s Dual-X custom cooling solution combines with its NITRO Boost overclock to push AMD’s Polaris GPU with its GCN architecture from its stock core speed 1,120MHz (1,266MHz Boost mode) all the way up to 1,342MHz with the flip of a switch on the top of the card—this will be the easiest overclock you’ve ever done.
The NITRO+ also serves up RGB LED lighting, VR compatibility, and high-end 1440p gaming, all for a wallet-friendly MSRP of just $269. (www.sapphiretech.com)
Honorable Mentions:MSI GeForce GTX 1080 GAMING X 8G, EVGA GeForce GTX 1070 FTW GAMING ACX 3.0
Best Headset: Arctic P533 Racing Gaming Headset
As most new gaming headsets are seemingly becoming bigger, bulkier, flashier, and more expensive, this headset’s simplistic but cool retro and authentic racing design helped it stick out from the crowd. Its price is affordable, and its performance was right on par with other midlevel headsets we tested throughout the year. (www.arctic.ac)
Honorable Mentions:Patriot Viper V360, Creative Labs SoundBlaster X Pro Gaming H5
Best Keyboard: Cooler Master MasterKeys Pro L
We reviewed the MasterKeys Pro S, which is the same keyboard but without the numpad the Pro L has in the customary position to the right of its main key array. We loved it, but we prefer the full-sized version; we are big fans of the numpad. We approve of the MasterKeys Pro boards’ minimalist design, bright LEDs, and on-the-fly macros. We also like the way you can cycle through LED backlight modes using the FN key. tactile “bump,” no click), and it proved itself a worthy gaming keyboard. (www.coolermaster.com) Honorable Mentions:Patriot Viper V760, AZIO MGK L80 RGB
Best Laptop PC: MSI GE72VR APACHE PRO
Our review from October says it all: “Notebooks with GeForce GT X 10 Series cards are now the ultimate power in the mobile gaming universe.” This 17.3-inch beauty is equipped with a GTX 1060 with 1,280 CUDA cores and 6GB of 8,000MHz GDDR5 memory, and it is ready and willing to run the latest games at blistering frame rates given the GE72VR’s 1,920 x 1,080 native resolution. And speaking of the display panel beneath this notebook’s lid, MSI builds in an IPS screen and its proprietary True Color Technology, which gives you easy access to preset viewing modes.
The GE72VR produced some very playable frame rates at 1080p, including 60fps in Metro: Last Light and in Dying Light, and 39fps in The Witcher 3. All that and it weighs less than six pounds and comes with SteelSeries’ excellent Engine 3 LED-backlit keyboard. Game on! (us.msi.com) Honorable Mentions:XOTIC PC MSI GT72VR Dominator Pro-015, EUROCOM Sky DLX7
Best Memory: Corsair Vengeance LED 32GB DDR4-3200MHz
Corsair is an old hand at making fast, dependable memor y, and its latest DDR4 lines are no exception.
High clock speed, low latency, and of course it doesn’t hur t that the Vengeance LED kit we chose as our favorite for 2016 looks amazing to boot; the LED bars on top of these DIMMs “breathe” when your system is powered up. The effect is ver y cool, especially when paired with a motherboard that’s also equipped with red LEDs. (www.corsair.com) Honorable Mentions:AVEXIR Red Tesla 16GB DDR4-2666, Patriot Viper Elite Series DDR4 16GB 3200MHz
Best Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-X99-Ultra Gaming
In 2016, the X99 chipset and Broadwell-E processors r uled the performance landscape in the high-end PC world, and GIGABYTE’s GA-X99-Ultra Gaming board is the finest blend of features, performance, aesthetics, and value that you’ll find on the market. Connectivity options include M.2, U.2, SATA Express, and USB 3.1 Type-C, among others. Its eight DIMM slots support up to 128GB of quad-channel DDR4 memory, and its Ultra Durable construction and other power management features make it a capable overclocker.
Want to run SLI? CrossFire? No problem, the X99-Ultra Gaming is ready and waiting. It performed admirably in our testing, has a great-looking red and white color scheme and customizable LED lighting, and it rings up at $280, which is a pretty good price for a board of this caliber. (www.gigabyte.us) Honorable Mentions:MSI X99A TOMAHAWK, GIGABY TE GA-Z170X-SOC FORCE
Best Mouse: Patriot Viper V560
There’s a lot to love about the Viper V560 laser gaming mouse, from its performance to its comfort and aesthetics, but most of all it shows that there’s still room for new players willing to innovate in the crowded peripherals market.
The rubberized black matte finish is comfortable to grip, even over extended periods of time, and the adjustable weight system lets you fine-tune the mouse to a weight and balance that best fits your play style. Additionally, we found it to be precise and easy to use at a variety of DPI settings, and it costs less than $50. (www.patriotmemory.com)
Honorable Mentions:Logitech G501 Proteus Spectrum, Bloody TL80 Terminator Laser Gaming Mouse
Best Power Supply Unit: ENERMAX Platimax D.F. 500W
Yes, we know that lots of DIY guys enjoy the big kilowatt-plus PSUs, and who can blame them? Those things are great, and if you are running X99, an Intel Extreme Edition CPU, and multiple GPUs, it’s better to have a little too much power than not quite enough. But ENERMAX has a real hit with the D.F. 500W, hich ses the company’s DFR (Dust Free Rotation) tech to keep fan blades clean and everything running smoothly. It has ENERMAX’s rock-solid power regulation, it’s fully modular, and—drumroll please—it comes with individually sleeved cables right out of the box, not to mention cable combs to keep them looking tidy. Oh, and lest we forget, the Platimax D.F. 500W has 80 PLUS Platinum certification and an MSRP of $139.99, which we consider a bargain for every-thing you get. (enermaxusa.com)
Honorable Mentions:FirePower Technology Firestorm 1050W, GIGABYTE XP1200M
Best SSDs: Patriot Hellfire 480GB
With the Hellfire PCIe SSD, Patriot roars back into the enthusiast SSD game. Toshiba 15nm NAND and a Phison PS5007 controller combine with all of the features you’d expect (TRIM support, advanced garbage collection, static and dynamic wear levelling, bad block management, and S.M.A.R.T.) to produce a really fast SSD in what has quickly become our hands-down favorite SSD form factor. M.2 drives are great because they are easy to install, take up very little space, and don’t require a connection to your power supply. If you haven’t tried one of these PCIe NVMe marvels yet, you owe it to yourself to take one—maybe this one—for a spin.
This drive produced some of the best benchmark scores we’ve seen to date and is reasonably priced for its capacity and performance. (www.patriotmemory.com)
Honorable Mentions:Toshiba OCZ RD400A 256GB, SanDisk Extreme 500 240GB