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TR's Fall 2010 system guide

Recommendations for building the right enthusiast's PCs

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To be completely honest, we didn't think we would have enough material for a fresh system guide this fall. The releases of new graphics processors from both AMD and Nvidia have changed that, however, and we've seen other important product introductions and shifts in pricing, like the arrival of Corsair's excellent Graphite Series 600T enclosure and falling cost of DDR3 memory.

Because of those changes, we now have our most powerful Econobox to date, with a quad-core Athlon II and a GeForce GTS 450. We were also able to outfit our $800 Utility Player build with its quickest GPU yet without stretching our budget, and our other two builds have gotten little upgrades here and there to keep them current for the holiday season.

As icing on the cake, we've thrown in a one-off build: the Vespa, which is essentially our answer to nettops. It costs less than $300, has a dual-core Athlon II with integrated graphics, and leaves room for a full-featured graphics card, extra storage, and other additions.

Keep reading to see what we've concocted this time around.

Rules and regulations
Before we get into our component recommendations, we should explain our methods 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.