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TR's Windows 7 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

Windows 7 is upon us. Microsoft's new operating system has finally made it to retail stores across the country, bringing with it an improved user interface, layers of much-needed polish over Windows Vista, DirectX 11, and even a fresh version of the Windows Calculator. Also, that old Windows 3.1-era font dialog Microsoft inexplicably kept around forever is gone. You can see why everyone is excited.

Redmond's latest operating system arrives at the dawn of a new graphics processor generation. Late last month, AMD introduced its first DirectX 11 GPU, the Radeon HD 5870. Since then, it's added three other cards in the same lineup, the cheapest of which can be purchased today for only $130.

It's about time for a new system guide, wouldn't you say? We're happy to oblige. Keep reading to see how we've updated our four builds with DirectX 11 goodness, not to mention our tips for outfitting your new PC with the right version of Windows 7.

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.