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TR's March 2010 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

We've waited a little longer than usual before publishing our first system guide of the year, but there's good reason for that. Over the past few weeks, AMD has released new batches of low-end processors and cheap DirectX 11 Radeons, while Intel has outed its 32-nm Core i3 and Core i5 dual-core processors. At the same time, motherboard makers have started selling boards with next-generation USB 3.0 and 6Gbps Serial ATA connectivity. All those releases have largely reshaped what we've come to expect from a low-end PC.

On top of that, we can make better-informed processor choices now that we've completed our latest CPU roundup. In that article, we pitted the latest Athlon IIs against 32-nm Core processors, added a plethora of other offerings to the mix, and took another crack at detailed value calculations using our famed scatter plots. All of that information tells us which processors deliver the most bang for your buck—quite valuable for a system guide such as this.

In the aftermath of all these product releases and furious benchmarking, we're finally ready to share our latest recommendations. Let's have a look, shall we?

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.