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TR's Summer 2008 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

After a couple of months of relative quiet in the PC hardware industry, AMD and Nvidia spat out new generations of graphics processors within days of each other. Nvidia tackled the high end of the market with the GeForce GTX 200 series, which features a behemoth GT200 graphics processor that packs an almost unbelievable 1.4 billion transistors. AMD, on the other hand, targeted more reasonable budgets with devastatingly fast Radeon HD 4000 series offerings at $199 and $299. These products have dramatically reshaped the graphics landscape, and we've updated our system guide accordingly.

Nvidia and AMD haven't been the only busy ones these past two months, though. Intel launched its P45 Express chipset, a refined version of the enthusiast favorite P35 with excellent overclocking potential and the same great features. Western Digital's fastest Serial ATA hard drive yet—the 300GB VelociRaptor—finally hit online retailers, too. Read on to see how we've used this bounty of new hardware to fashion our most potent systems yet.

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.