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TR's back-to-school 2010 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

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The days are getting shorter again, and everywhere, schools and colleges are getting ready to re-open their doors—if they haven't already done so. Meanwhile, in the world of PC hardware, freshly released graphics cards and processors are yearning for places in our shopping carts. Most surprising of all, system memory has gotten to be relatively affordable again.

This all calls for a fresh edition of TR's system guide, don't you think?

Sure enough, we've tuned up our four signature builds for the back-to-school season, trimming prices across the board. Our Utility Player system in particular has turned out rather nicely, retaining its speedy six-core processor and gaining a GeForce GTX 460 768MB, all for a little less than $800. Our workstation build has been discounted, too, despite featuring faster-than-ever graphics thanks to a pair of GTX 460 1GB cards. And let's not forget the Econobox, which now packs a 3GHz quad-core processor and a 1TB hard drive.

After the price hikes and stagnating graphics options we saw in the first part of the year, it's nice to see deals we can actually get excited about once again. Keep reading for all the nitty-gritty details.

Rules and regulations
Before we get into our component recommendations, we should explain our methodology a little bit. Before that, though, a short disclaimer: this is a component selection guide, not a PC assembly guide or a performance comparison. If you're seeking help with the business of putting components together, we have a handy how-to article just for that. If you're after reviews and benchmarks, might we suggest heading to our front page and starting from there.

Over the next few pages, you'll see us recommend and discuss components for four sample builds. Those builds have target budgets of $500, $800, $1200, and around $3,000. Within each budget, we will attempt to hit the sweet spot of performance and value while mentally juggling variables like benchmark data, our personal experiences, current availability and retail pricing, user reviews, warranty coverage, and the manufacturer's size and reputation. We'll try to avoid both overly cheap parts and needlessly expensive ones. We'll also favor components we know first-hand to be better than the alternatives.

Beyond a strenuous vetting process, we will also aim to produce balanced configurations. While it can be tempting to settle on a $50 motherboard or a no-name power supply just to make room for a faster CPU, such decisions are fraught with peril—and likely disappointment. Similarly, we will avoid favoring processor performance at the expense of graphics performance, or vice versa, keeping in mind that hardware enthusiasts who build their own PCs tend to be gamers, as well.

Now that we've addressed the "how," let's talk about the "where." See that "powered by" logo at the top of the page? Newegg sponsors our system guides, and more often than not, it will double as our source for component prices. However, Newegg has no input on our editorial content nor sway over our component selections. If we want to recommend something it doesn't carry, we'll do just that.

We think sourcing prices from a huge online retailer gives us more realistic figures, though—so much so that we quoted Newegg prices long before this guide got a sponsor. Dedicated price search engines can find better deals, but they often pull up unrealistically low prices from small and potentially unreliable e-tailers. If you're going to spend several hundred (or thousand) dollars on a PC, we think you'll be more comfortable doing so at a large e-tailer with a proven track record and a decent return policy. That vendor doesn't have to be as big as Newegg, but it probably shouldn't be as small as Joe Bob's Discount Computer Warehouse, either.