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TR's Spring 2011 system guide

Sandy Bridge has arrived... for real this time

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From the first time I laid eyes on the sweet Miss Sandy Bridge, I knew she had to be mine. Intel's new girl first strutted her stuff in early January, but it turns out she plays hard to get. Sandy wanted to see if we'd really hold off on that system purchase until she was good and ready. And, well, there was also this embarrassing little chipset bug she needed to get taken care of before we could really be, you know, intimate.

That bug was a flaw with the Serial ATA implementation of the accompanying 6-series chipsets—Sandy's baggage, as it were. Almost as suddenly as our love affair with Intel's latest starlet began, the whole thing came grinding to a halt. That was more than two months ago, and we've eagerly awaited the arrival of new motherboards with fixed B3-revision chipsets ever since. Those boards have finally started turning up at online retailers, prompting a much-needed refresh of our system guide.

Sandy's the sort of girl who can dress down for the Econobox or slip into something expensive and glamorous for the Double-Stuff Workstation, so her fingerprints are all over this edition of the guide. She's not the only new girl in town, either. A couple of cute little budget GPUs from AMD and Nvidia have turned heads since our last system guide was published, and several new SSDs have put themselves on the market. Sandy might be the star, but there's plenty of new hotness to go around. To celebrate the occasion, we've concocted some tantalizingly potent configurations to suit a range of budgets. So, let's get down to it.

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 $600, $900, $1,500, 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.