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TR's March 2011 system guide

Waiting for Sandy

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My, what an awkward position we're in. We're overdue for a regular update to our system guide, yet Intel's Sandy Bridge processors are missing in action due to an unforeseen chipset bug that took motherboards off store shelves completely. Worse, replacements aren't due out in volume until late March or April, which is an awfully long time to wait—especially if all of this year's game releases are making you itch for an upgrade.

We've attempted to minimize the damage by restructuring our recommended builds somewhat. We've added a $300 configuration based on AMD's Brazos platform, which has no competition from Sandy Bridge so far, and merged our regular $800 and $1,200 builds into what we call the Grand Placeholder, a system meant for users who can't afford to wait for bug-free Sandy mobos. Our other builds, the $500 Econobox and $2,800-ish Double-Stuff Workstation, aren't really affected by the shortage, since the processors they feature haven't been rendered obsolete by Intel's new generation of chips.

The result, we hope, is a sensible survival guide to this troubled era for PC enthusiasts. As you peruse the next few pages, you might come to realize, as we did, that living without Sandy isn't an impossible ordeal... and that there are enough new graphics cards, solid-state drives, and other goodies, not to mention price cuts, to make building a PC today not just possible, but entirely reasonable.

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 $300, $500, $1,000, and a little under $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.