Three months have passed since we published our last system guide, so it's high time we took another look at the PC hardware landscape. We've seen surprisingly little new hardware come out during our hiatus, with the notable exception of AMD's new Phenom II processors, in both Socket AM2+ and Socket AM3 flavors. The Phenom II X3 720 has turned out to be so competitive that we've actually given it a starring role in our mid-range Utility Player build.
Prices have changed quite a bit over the past few weeks, though: high-end graphics cards have become surprisingly affordable, and Core i7 hardware is now so much cheaper that we've managed to bring a Core i7-920 into our Sweeter Spot system, leading us to abandon the previous guide's $1,600 Crushinator configuration. We've also re-thought all of our other picks to account for pricing changes big and small.
Finally, we decided to mix things up a little more this time by bringing you a new one-off build: the Kitchen PC, which melds power-efficient hardware, a very compact form factor, and surprisingly affordable pricing. Keep reading 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 generally 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, $800 and $1200 budgets for our three cheapest 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.