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TR's September 2007 system guide


Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs
— 12:00 AM on September 20, 2007

With so many pricing changes hitting the processor market over the past couple of months, a new system guide is overdue. As we were busy updating TR's look and feel, Intel and AMD lowered prices across their respective processor lineups and, in doing so, created two new trends: the effective disappearance of premium dual-core CPUs, and the democratization of quad-core chips.

Indeed, both Intel's speediest dual-core processor and its most affordable quad-core chip are now available for less than $300. AMD's fastest dual-core desktop chip also costs less than $300, although the world's number two processor maker has yet to roll out a quad-core desktop offering.

Join us as we outfit four recommended system builds with these recently-discounted CPUs and provide our take on what parts best complement them.

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Rules and regulations
Before tackling our recommended systems, we should explain some of the rules and guidelines we used to select components. The guiding philosophy behind our choices was to seek the best bang for the buck. That means we avoided recommending super-cheap parts that are barely capable of performing their jobs, just as we avoided breathtakingly expensive products that carry a hefty price premium for features or performance you probably don't need. Instead, we looked to that mythical "sweet spot" where price and performance meet up in a pleasant, harmonic convergence. We also sought balance within each system configuration, choosing components that make sense together, so that a fast processor won't be bottlenecked by a skimpy graphics card or too little system memory, for instance. The end result, we hope, is a series of balanced systems that offer decent performance as configured and provide ample room for future expandability.

We confined our selections to components that are currently available online. Paper launches and preorders don't count, for obvious reasons. We also tried to stick to $500, $1000, and $1500 budgets for our desktop systems. Those budgets are loose guidelines rather than hard limits, to allow us some wiggle room for deals that may stretch the budget a little but are too good to resist.

We've continued our tradition of basing the guide's component prices on listings at Newegg. We've found that sourcing prices from one large reseller allows us to maintain a more realistic sense of street prices than price search engine listings, which are sometimes artificially low. In the few cases where Newegg doesn't have an item in stock, we'll fall back to our trusty price search engine rather than limit our options.

Finally, price wasn't the top factor in our component choices. Our own experiences with individual components weighed heavily on our decisions, and we've provided links to our own reviews of many of the products we're recommending. We've also tried to confine our selections to name-brand rather than generic products, and to manufacturers with solid reputations for reliability. Warranty coverage was an important consideration, as well.

Even with the most informed part selections, one can still run into snags when assembling a system. In fact, one of our previous guides recommended a motherboard and memory combination that didn't play nicely together, affecting system stability and even the ability to POST. Such issues are usually caused by a motherboard BIOS's defaults not setting the correct timings or voltage for the memory used in the system. Because it tends to adhere to base JEDEC standards, "value" RAM usually gets along with even the most obscure motherboards. However, enthusiast-oriented memory designed to run at nonstandard voltage or latency settings can be more problematic.

Resolving memory compatibility issues is usually easy: one needs only to pop into the BIOS and manually set the correct timings and voltages prescribed by the DIMM's manufacturer. If a particular motherboard and memory combo won't POST, though, you're out of luck unless you have another set of memory modules lying around. To avoid such show-stopping problems, we aim to perform basic memory compatibility testing for our recommended systems. Memory and motherboard combos will be tested to ensure that they boot with the BIOS defaults, and that they're stable once correct timings and voltages have been set in the BIOS. We can't verify compatibility between each and every component in our recommended systems and still provide timely guide updates, so testing will be limited to the most common source of problems—motherboards and memory.

We haven't yet completed our first round of verification testing for the components in this guide. Notes on compatibility verification for specific system builds will be added as we complete our testing.