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TR's Spring 2010 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

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Going into this system guide, we weren't expecting to make too many dramatic changes. Not much new hardware has come out since we published our last guide in February, right? That's true to an extent, but there's been room for more than enough little tweaks and modifications to keep us occupied.

At the low end, our Econobox has now drifted closer to our $500 target price, and we've started to recommend a more enthusiast-friendly enclosure in the alternatives. The $850 Utility Player has gained a new motherboard with more ports, connectors, and other little perks than before, as well. At the high end, our Double-Stuff Workstation now has a hexa-core processor almost fast enough to become sentient and start building man-killing humanoid robots.

To keep things even spicier, we've thrown together a completely new configuration: a microATX system that favors not low power and low cost, but a mix of strong performance and low noise levels. That build includes a Core i5-750, a Radeon HD 5770, a 1TB hard drive, and some very quiet cooling options, all for about the same price as the Utility Player. 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.