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TR's back-to-school 2013 system guide


It's that time again
— 1:10 PM on August 23, 2013

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Millions of students are gearing up to return to class, and many of them need new computers for the coming term. Meanwhile, gamers are readying themselves for the incoming barrage of holiday titles, too. With a fresh console cycle promising to raise the bar for PC ports, now is a pretty good time for gamers to consider new rigs.

Any way you slice it, this is an ideal time for an update to our system guide. Though only a handful of new components have been released since the last edition of the guide, prices have fallen, and we've adjusted some of our recommendations accordingly. We've also added some microATX flavor, including a one-off config designed to be the envy of the dorm.

On top of that, we've revamped our mobile recommendations to reflect the latest tablets, high-PPI notebooks, and budget ultraportables. You might be surprised at the state of the landscape ahead of such a busy season.

Without further ado, let's get on to the guide.

Rules and regulations
A short disclaimer: this is a component selection guide, not a PC assembly guide or a performance comparison. If you're seeking help with the business of putting components together, you'll want to have a look at our handy how-to build a PC article—and the accompanying video:

If you're after reviews and benchmarks, we suggest heading to our front page and starting from there.

Over the next few pages, you'll see us recommend and discuss components for four sample builds. Those builds have target budgets of about $600, $1,000, $1,500, and $3,000. Within each budget, we will attempt to hit the sweet spot of performance and value while mentally juggling variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the manufacturer's size and reputation. We'll try to avoid both overly cheap parts and needlessly expensive ones. We'll also favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.

Beyond a strenuous vetting process, we will also aim to produce balanced configurations. While it can be tempting to settle on a $50 motherboard or a no-name power supply just to make room for a faster CPU, such decisions are fraught with peril—and likely disappointment. Similarly, we will avoid favoring processor performance at the expense of graphics performance, or vice versa, keeping in mind that hardware enthusiasts who build their own PCs tend to be gamers, as well.

Now that we've addressed the how, let's talk about the where. See that "powered by Newegg.com" logo at the top of the page? Newegg sponsors our system guides, and more often than not, it will double as our source for component prices. However, Newegg has no input on our editorial content nor sway over our component selections. If we want to recommend something it doesn't carry, we'll do just that.

We think sourcing prices from a huge online retailer gives us more realistic figures, though—so much so that we quoted Newegg prices long before this guide got a sponsor. Dedicated price search engines can find better deals, but they often pull up unrealistically low prices from small and potentially unreliable e-tailers. If you're going to spend several hundred (or thousand) dollars on a PC, we think you'll be more comfortable doing so at a large e-tailer with a proven track record and a decent return policy. That vendor doesn't have to be as big as Newegg, but it probably shouldn't be as small as Joe Bob's Discount Computer Warehouse, either.