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TR's February 2008 system guide


Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs
— 1:43 PM on February 27, 2008

Much has changed since we published our last system guide in November. On the graphics front, AMD has released its CrossFire-on-a-stick Radeon HD 3870 X2, while Nvidia has introduced a sub-$200 marvel in the GeForce 9600 GT. The latter seems to have started a price war in the mid-range graphics card market, with the GeForce 8800 GT finally falling to its intended price bracket and Radeon HD 3800 series cards enjoying hefty discounts. And there's new hotness on the processor front, too, in the form of dual-core 45nm desktop chips from Intel. Prices for all kinds of components have also continued their decline, which has brought components previously restricted to our most expensive builds within the reach of mid-range systems.

The combination of exciting new products and falling prices has created the perfect environment for would-be system builders. We can't think of a better time to be putting together a new PC, so we've put together a fresh system guide to help you sort through the rich selection of options available to enthusiasts. At the low end, our $600 Econobox packs unprecedented gaming potential thanks to a GeForce 9600 GT graphics card. The $1000 Grand Experiment and $1400 Sweet Spot systems are both up to 4GB of memory with Penryn Core 2 Duos. Even our $3200 workstation offers impressive value with 8GB of memory, four hard drives, and two graphics cards.

We've been able to pack an incredible amount of very fast hardware into these recommended systems, especially our most affordable builds. Keep reading to see what we picked and why.

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Rules and regulations
The first thing you should know about this guide is that it's geared toward helping you select the parts for a home-built PC. If you're new to building your own systems and want a little extra help, our tutorial on how to build your own PC is a great place to start and a good complement to this guide.

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.