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TR's back-to-school system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

The back-to-school season is upon us, bringing with it droves of students stocking up on books, school supplies, and something trendy to wear on that all-important first day back. Notebooks are popular at this time of year, of course, but if portability isn't a priority, desktops can offer substantially more horsepower and flexibility at significantly lower prices. The time is right, then, for another update to our system guide.

It's been almost two months since the guide was updated, and its contents already read like an ancient Babylonian tale etched on stone tablets. Well, maybe not. But things change quickly in this industry, and the last two months have been no exception. Thanks to falling prices spurred by the introduction of new products, we've managed to slip a quad-core processor and a Radeon HD 4870 into our $1,000 Grand Experiment system. The $500 Econobox's gaming chops have been upgraded with a GeForce 8800 GT, too, and our $1500 Sweet Spot build has been lavished with RAID and other high-end luxuries.

To make things even more interesting this time around, we've fashioned a sub-$300 PC based on Intel's new Atom processor. This system won't set any performance records, but it should satisfy users looking for basic, no-frills desktop functionality in the kind of small form factor that easily squeezes into cramped dorm rooms. Read on for all the details on this and other builds in our latest system guide.

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.