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TR's April 2008 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

The time has come again for new system guide. In the two months since we last outlined system specifications, AMD has rolled out B3-stepping Phenoms that banish the TLB erratum that plagued the processor's initial release. Intel's 45nm quad-core chips have become available en masse, bringing with them a wave of price cuts that makes a Penryn-based CPU more affordable than ever. And Asus has busted the sound card market wide open with the introduction of its Xonar DX. There has been action on the storage front, too, with Western Digital's latest Caviar SE16 offering what we think is the best all-around value in a Serial ATA hard drive.

Naturally, these new products feature heavily in our latest system guide, which packs more goodness than ever before. We've revamped everything from our Econobox, which now offers loads of gaming power for just over 500 bucks, to our Double-Stuff workstation, which packs more parallelism than should be allowed by law. Between them, our Grand Experiment and Sweet Spot configs offer tremendous power for their respective price points. We've even included a fifth system this time around: the Couch Potato Mk. 2. This latest take on the ultimate home theater PC combines HD tuning capabilities with Blu-ray playback support all wrapped up in a quiet, power-efficient package. Keep reading to see which components made the cut for our recommended system configurations, and more importantly, why we selected them.

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 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.