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TR's Christmas 2008 system guide


Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs
— 4:39 PM on November 24, 2008

We cleverly side-stepped Intel's Core i7 offensive in our previous guide by focusing on cheaper systems. Now that Intel's latest CPU is out alongside matching motherboards and triple-channel memory kits, we've revised our guide with higher-end configs that take advantage of this new bounty of hardware. And, of course, price fluctuations have given us an opportunity to freshen up our other builds.

If you've been doing things like "going outside" and "socializing" these past few weeks, then you might not have heard about the Core i7. In a nutshell, this new processor series inaugurates Intel's Nehalem architecture, which brings goodies like a native quad-core design, an on-die triple-channel DDR3 memory controller, Hyper-Threading, and mind-blowing clock-for-clock performance. You can check out our review for all the specifics, but the Core i7 is now the fastest desktop processor on the market—by far.

We've put together two Core i7 configurations for this guide. The Crushinator is our $1,700 entry ticket, and it should deliver a balanced mix of CPU, graphics, and storage goodness. If you have (a lot) more cash kicking around, the reborn Double-Stuff Workstation is our fastest configuration ever at just over $3,700. For those who don't want to pay the cost of entry to the Core i7 party, our $500 Econobox, $800 Utility Player, and $1,200 Sweeter Spot systems have returned, as well. Read on for our picks for the best enthusiast hardware on the market.

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 helpful 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 generally 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, $800 and $1200 budgets for our three cheapest 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.