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TR's Summer 2010 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

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With new processors and solid-state drives launching left and right these past few weeks, we felt it was prudent to wait for things to settle down before updating our system guide. Now, with the Fourth of July weekend coming up and the great summer lull well on its way, we've finally gotten a breather—and a chance to review our component recommendations.

The latest round of CPU introductions has clearly left its mark on this guide, since three of our four builds have gotten upgrades. (Spoiler: we now have AMD processors in two of those builds, including the $840 Utility Player.) Best of all, we were able to make these upgrades largely without hiking system prices.

We've also taken cues from our recent SSD coverage, outfitting some of our builds with Crucial's freshly released RealSSD C300 drives. The super-high-end Double-Stuff Workstation now packs a 256GB SSD in its default config. Read on 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.