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TR's fall 2008 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

The holiday season looms, and you can tell by just looking at hardware prices: processors, graphics cards, and memory are cheaper than ever, and some interesting new products have had time to slip out into the wild just before the impending shopping rush. It's definitely time for a new system guide.

However, we faced a bit of a dilemma with this update. You see, Intel says it plans to release next-generation Core i7 processors next month, and the rumor mill has repeatedly hinted that those chips might cost as little as $284 when they come out. Telling readers to buy high-end Core 2 systems now would make no sense, but our system guide still needed an update. What to do?

In the end, we opted to rethink the guide's price targets and focus on cheaper configurations. We had been planning such a move for a while, anyway, because the hardware pricing landscape has evolved quite a bit since we started publishing system guides. We've therefore replaced our traditional $500, $1,000, $1,500, and ~$2,500 builds with more wallet-friendly $300, $500, $800, and $1200 configurations. These new setups are more affordable, and you'd be surprised how much you can get for even 800 bucks these days.

We expect these builds are safely out of the way of the incoming Core i7 tide, as well. Even if Core i7 chips do cost as little as $284, you'll still need to pair them with expensive DDR3 RAM and presumably pricy X58 motherboards. By contrast, our fastest config in this guide includes a $270 CPU, a $130 motherboard, and cheap DDR2 RAM. Read on for all the details.

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 $300, $500, $800 and $1200 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.