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TR's Christmas 2010 system guide

And now for something completely different

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It's that time of year again. Christmas is but a few days away, and seemingly every tech site on the web has celebrated the occasion with a holiday gift guide. We did that once. However, we haven't since, perhaps because our regular system guides do such a good job of detailing the hardware we most recommend and covet.

In the more than a month and a half since we published our last guide, we've witnessed the arrival of fresh 6900-series Radeons from AMD and 500-series GeForce cards from Nvidia. AMD has also chipped in a batch of new mid-range and budget desktop processors to shore up its lineup ahead of Intel's next-gen Sandy Bridge CPUs. Sandy Bridge debuts in early January, and since it's kind of a big deal, we're going to wait for Intel's new hotness before updating the collection of desktop systems that usually appear in our system guide.

Those regulars—the Econobox, Utility Player, Sweeter Spot, and Double-Stuff Workstation—cover a wide range of budgets. They all follow the basic ATX desktop formula, though. To mix things up, we'll occasionally throw in a one-off build with an entirely different or altogether narrower focus. Exploring these tangents has been so refreshing that we've decided to put together a new guide made up exclusively of side projects.

We haven't abandoned the desktop entirely, however. In addition to a home-theater PC for the living room, a tiny gaming system for LAN parties, and an over-indulgent workstation to impress your friends, we've also come up with an Editor's Choice build that details what we'd actually buy if we had to replace our desktops today. Let's get down to it, then. The Couch Potato, Roadster, Editor's Choice, and some Straight-up Excess await.

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. For three of them, we'll 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. Components for the fourth system were chosen based on similar criteria, but we've thrown any sense of budgetary constraint out the window.

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.