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How to Max Out Your Windows Performance for $1000

You can't hit the top score in the Windows Experience Index without a load of expensive hardware, but you can get very close

Ever since Microsoft released Windows Vista, all Windows PCs have included a benchmark tool called the Windows Experience Index, which gives you a quick look at how well you can expect the system to handle basic Windows tasks, Aero graphics, more-demanding applications, games, and more. Hitting the overall maximum score--7.9, at the time of this writing--isn't easy without investing in a lot of expensive, specialized hardware, but we've found a PC build that you can tweak to reach 7.8 overall (with a 7.9 in every category except processor speed) for about $1000.

Frankly, a PC with a 7.8 WEI score packs enough power to do just about anything you want to do with a PC--except brag about your perfect 7.9 score. So unless you're willing to spend a few thousand dollars to show off that 7.9, we think you'll be plenty satisfied with this build.

What Are WinSAT and WEI?

When Vista launched, it came with a built-in suite of benchmarks designed with multiple purposes in mind. The Windows System Assessment Tool, or WinSAT, consists of five benchmarks that evaluate the performance of a system's processor, memory, graphics subsystem, and primary storage drive. Each individual benchmark score in the Windows System Assessment Tool contributes to the calculation of the PC's Windows Experience Index, or WEI. You can find your own WEI score by going into Control Panel and selecting System.

Microsoft's main goals in creating the Windows Experience Index were to give users a simple metric by which they could evaluate their computer's performance (or that of a new PC), help system builders find performance bottlenecks, and give software developers a score to refer to in lieu of hard-and-fast system requirements. (Instead of listing minimum CPU, memory, and storage requirements, for example, developers can list a minimum WEI score.)

The Windows System Assessment Tool runs five individual tests to come up with a Windows Experience Index score:

  • Processor
  • Memory (RAM)
  • Graphics
  • Gaming graphics
  • Primary hard disk

On Windows Vista systems, the scores ranged from 1.0 to 5.9. With Windows 7, the maximum score increased to 7.9 to compensate for newer, higher-performing hardware that wasn't available when Vista debuted.

The processor test runs both single- and multithreaded workloads to assess a CPU's performance. Microsoft has stated that a system with a processor score above 6.0 would be suitable for demanding applications, and would rarely be CPU-bound. The memory benchmark evaluates memory operations per second, but is also limited by total capacity on 64-bit editions of Windows; a 64-bit system with less than 4GB of memory will have its score capped at 5.9. The basic graphics benchmark examines interface and Aero performance on the Windows desktop, while the gaming graphics benchmark evaluates a GPU's DirectX 9 and 10 texturing and fill-rate performance. For a GPU to achieve a score above 6.0, it must be DirectX 10 compliant and have WDDM 1.1 drivers; older GPUs with WDDM 1.0 drivers will be able to run only the DirectX 9 portion of the benchmark, and will be capped at a score of 5.9. Finally, the primary hard disk test assesses the drive's transfer rate.

As I've mentioned, each of the individual tests in the Windows 7 WinSAT produce a score ranging from 1.0 to 7.9. The overall WEI score, however, is determined by the lowest of the five scores, not an average of the five. If four of the five tests report a score of 7.9 but the fifth is 4.2, for instance, that system's WEI score is 4.2.

According to Microsoft, "A PC with a score of 2 is typically sufficient for basic tasks like word processing or web browsing. Running the Aero desktop experience requires at least a 3, while graphics-intensive software frequently requires a 4 or higher." As PC enthusiasts, we at PCWorld respectfully disagree with Microsoft's assessment. A system with a WEI base score of 2.0 would be torturous to use even for basic tasks, and a 3.0 or 4.0 isn't all that great, either--which is why we've picked out the parts to put your PC in the top ranks without breaking the bank.

Selecting the Parts

Our goal with this project was to see how close we could get to a perfect 7.9 WEI score using roughly $1000 worth of hardware. If money were no object, maxing out the WinSAT benchmarks and overall WEI score would (theoretically) be easy; but with only $1000 to spend, we'd have to make some strategic decisions with our hardware.

Knowing how the Windows System Assessment Tool works, we focused the largest portions of our budget on the system's processor, GPU, memory, and storage. For the CPU, we jumped right to the top of Intel's current Sandy Bridge Core i7 lineup and grabbed a Core i7-2600K. We also scored 8GB (two 4GB modules) of fast DDR3 memory, a relatively powerful Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 Ti-based graphics card, and one of OCZ's SandForce SF-2281 controller-based Agility 3 solid-state drives. We never want to skimp on other components, such as the motherboard, optical drive, case, or power supply, but because those items wouldn't directly affect the WEI score, we set aside less of our budget for them.

Our build consisted of the following components.

  • CPU: Intel Core i7-2600K ($315)
  • Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z68X-UD3H-B3 ($155)
  • Memory: Corsair Vengeance 8GB (2 x 4GB) DDR-1866 Kit, CMZ8GX3M2A1866C9R ($69)
  • Graphics: MSI N560GTX-Ti Twin Frozr II ($239; $219 with rebate)
  • Case and power supply: Cooler Master Elite RC-310-OWR460 with a 460W PSU ($65)
  • Primary storage: OCZ Agility 3 120GB SATA III SSD ($194; $164 with rebate)
  • Total: $987

Astute readers will notice a couple of omissions in our build tally. Although the components we chose for the build are enough to assemble a fast, perfectly functional system, you'll probably want more than 120GB of storage, and possibly an optical drive. We left them out since we wanted to stay under $1000, but you can grab a 500GB, 7200-rpm Seagate Barracuda hard drive ($39) and a Lite-On DVD-R/CD-R drive ($18) and still stay pretty close to $1000. Alternatively, you could use the hard drive and optical drive from your existing desktop PC, if you have one.

Originally we hadn't planned to shell out as much money for the GPU as we did; but when we tested the parts ourselves, we discovered that we needed to spend that extra cash. AMD's Radeon HD 6850 and 6870 graphics cards earned scores of 7.7 and 7.8, respectively, in the WinSAT graphics tests. Nvidia's GeForce GTX 550 Ti hit 7.4, and a GTX 560 reached 7.8. We tried overclocking all of the boards as well, but ultimately we couldn't attain that elusive 7.9 with the more affordable cards. The GeForce GTX 560 Ti, however, pulled it off right out of the box.

Fire It Up

With all of our components in hand, we assembled the system and installed Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit. (Read "How to Upgrade Your Graphics Card," "Upgrade Your Motherboard," and "Upgrade Your CPU" for the basic steps.) After fully updating the OS, we installed the latest drivers for our motherboard's core logic chipset and storage controller, as well as for the graphics card. We then performed a few simple tweaks to the OS: We manually set the pagefile size to the recommended maximum value (go to Control Panel, System, Advanced system settings, click the Advanced tab, select Performance, Settings, Virtual memory, and change the amount to the recommended maximum), and disabled any unnecessary background applications to keep them from starting with Windows. Then we ran the Windows System Assessment Tool to see how we did.

We immediately saw a great WEI score of 7.8. The graphics card and solid-state drive each achieved a score of 7.9, but the system's processor and memory landed at 7.8. Time for some more tweaking.

To improve the performance of the system's processor and memory, we altered a few settings in the system BIOS. First we changed the memory's operating frequency from its default/stock value of 1333MHz to 1600MHz; we knew that if 1600MHz wouldn't do, we still had some headroom left since the kit was rated for 1866MHz. We also changed the processor's peak Turbo multiplier, which would effectively overclock the chip when running under load. Intel Core processors with the "K" designation (such as our Core i7-2600K) have unlocked multipliers that users can easily alter to improve performance, provided that the chip is adequately cooled. By default, the Core i7-2600K's standard clock speed is 3.4GHz, and its peak Turbo speed is 3.8GHz. That Turbo speed is achieved using a default base clock of 100MHz with a multiplier of 38. In our increasing of the peak Turbo multiplier via the system BIOS, each step up would result in a 100MHz increase to the processor's max frequency--a multiplier of 39 would result in 3.9GHz, 40 in 4.0GHz, and so on.

After setting the memory speed, we initially set the peak CPU multiplier to 42, for a maximum Turbo frequency of 4.2GHz, and tried running the Windows System Assessment Tool again. Unfortunately, we were still stuck with an overall score of 7.8: The boost to the memory frequency pushed the memory score to a 7.9, but the CPU score refused to budge.

At this point, we tried some more CPU overclocking and pushed the CPU all the way up to a stable 4.7GHz--but even at that speed, it could not achieve that elusive 7.9.

So Close, Yet So Far

Ultimately, though we may not have achieved a perfect Windows Experience Index score of 7.9 with a $1000 system, we certainly learned a few things along the way. With current-generation CPU architectures, hitting a mark of 7.9 in the Windows System Assessment Tool's processor benchmark apparently isn't possible with off-the-shelf components. We've seen some reports of quad-core processors and 2P 12-core setups doing it when heavily overclocked--but without exotic cooling and big bucks, it isn't happening. Current-generation memory, graphics cards, and solid-state storage products, however, are capable of reaching 7.9 in the WEI. Once Intel releases Sandy Bridge E-series processors, we'll have another go at it. Until then, however, getting this close for only $1000 isn't a bad deal at all.


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