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TR's August 2006 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

MAJOR NEW CPU ARCHITECTURE INTRODUCTIONS don't happen every day. Intel launched the Netburst microarchitecture with the Pentium 4 almost six years ago, and AMD kicked off K8 on the desktop with the Athlon 64 just under three years ago. Another one of those introductions is occurring now: desktop variants of Intel's new Core microarchitecture are hitting stores in the form of the Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Extreme processors.

As we've seen in our review of the Core 2 lineup, these new CPUs pretty much unequivocally outclass the competition in both raw performance and power consumption. They're rather affordable for new introductions, too. The original Pentium 4 1.4GHz started at $644 and required expensive Rambus memory, and the original Athlon 64 3200+ launched at $417. The Core 2 Duo line, meanwhile, starts at a recommended price of just $183. Add in relatively affordable DDR2 memory and some nice motherboard choices at around $150, and the Core 2 Duo is a very exciting choice indeed for early adopters.

Intel's new hotness hasn't left AMD entirely in the dust, though. The Athlon 64, Athlon 64 X2, and Sempron lines have recently been subjected to massive price cuts that make them more affordable than ever before. With those price cuts and the new Core 2 chips in mind, we've decided to roll out a brand-spanking-new system guide to give you guidance in scratching the early adopter's itch.

We also have a new sponsor for the system guide: the excellent online retailer Newegg's support will allow us to make more frequent updates to the guide, and considering its excellent track record and competitive pricing, it's also a fine source of components for prospective buyers. Of course, the component picks in the guide are still very much our own. They have evolved from our previous system guides, with obvious input from our more recent hardware reviews and new developments in the market.

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.