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TR's Christmas 2011 system guide

'Tis the season to buy a new PC

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Everything seemed perfectly normal as we hit the "publish" button and watched our last system guide go up. Not long afterward, we noticed a disturbing trend: hard-drive prices were climbing, and climbing... and climbing. Drives that were once on sale for $64.99 were suddenly priced over $150, and higher-capacity offerings were soaring well above the $200 mark. The rise in prices was connected to those nasty floods in Thailand, which submerged numerous factories associated with mechanical hard drive production under several feet of water.

Though we hoped for a prompt recovery, it soon became clear there was no easy fix. In November, Seagate's CEO predicted the industry wouldn't get fully back on its feet for another year. Last week, Western Digital announced production had finally resumed... at one of its Thai facilities. We're not out of the woods yet—far from it.

Those developments have left us with the unpleasant task of rethinking a system guide once tuned for dirt-cheap mechanical drives. As you'll see over the following pages, the sudden rise in hard-drive prices has forced us to reconfigure all of our usual builds extensively. We've had to rename some systems and do a little soul-searching to determine their true target audiences. We're happy with the end result, but this may be the first time we've had to make so many changes due to price increases rather than price cuts or new component releases.

Now, things aren't all doom and gloom. Some of AMD's FX-series chips are finally in stock, and we were able to include them as alternatives in a couple of our configs. Nvidia's new GeForce GTX 560 Ti 448 has earned a choice spot in one build, and Sandy Bridge-E now reigns supreme in the Double-Stuff Workstation. To keep things interesting, we've also added a fresh home-theater PC to the mix, complete with a Blu-ray drive, an optional CableCard tuner, and a neat keyboard-and-touchpad combo the size of a remote. Read on for all the details.

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.