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.