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TR's Summer 2011 system guide

Because we can't wait forever for Bulldozer

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We presently stand at a crossroads in the realm of PC hardware. AMD and Nvidia have expertly arranged their various graphics processors to match each other dollar-for-dollar, and we're enjoying an abundance of memory, storage, enclosures, and other components with unprecedentedly low prices. Yet we're still waiting for AMD to unleash its answer to Sandy Bridge—first with mainstream Llano accelerated processing units, then with Bulldozer-based FX CPUs to fill out the middle and high end of the spectrum.

Unfortunately, not all of us have the luxury of being able to wait. For users who need to buy a PC now, the promise of fresh AMD chips that may or may not be competitive showing up in several weeks or months isn't much help.

This summer edition of our system guide is for users who desperately need to ditch their tattered old gaming rigs or desktops sitting on the brink of obsolescence. We've tweaked our four usual system configurations to reap the rewards of today's exceptionally cheap, fast, and capable components. Although you may ask yourself after the fact, "what if I'd waited," we doubt you'll regret jumping the gun. In fact, we've made provisions in some of our builds to provide an upgrade path to Bulldozer.

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.