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TR's Christmas 2009 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

All of this year's exciting hardware launches are behind us. So is Windows 7. What we're left with, now, is the short stretch leading up to December 25. We've decided to give the TR system guide a last touch-up before 2010 arrives and we face another new batch of launches in the first quarter.

For better or for worse, the hardware landscape has clearly shifted since we published the previous edition of the guide in late October. On the upside, we have new budget processors to play with. However, memory prices have gone up, and AMD's Radeon HD 5800-series cards are harder to find than ever. We've taken these changes into account to give you a complete, definitive, and pragmatic resource for your Christmas PC shopping.

To mix things up, we also included a new one-off build: the Console on Steroids. A small-form-factor gaming PC geared specifically for the living room, that configuration combines better gaming graphics than current-gen consoles, considerably greater versatility (including the ability to chuck in a TV tuner card), access to online distribution services like Steam, Blu-ray playback, and Microsoft's excellent wireless Xbox 360 controller. Keep on reading for all the dirty 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.