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TR's March 2012 system guide

Waiting for Kepler and Ivy

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To be perfectly honest, we haven't exactly drowned under a deluge of new hardware since we published our last guide. It's true that we've witnessed the arrival of new SSDs, new cases, and a few next-generation Radeons (some tantalizing, others not so much). Overall, though, the PC hardware landscape has remained disappointingly static—down to the inflated mechanical storage prices caused by last year's Thai floods.

Of course, people build new PCs every day, and our readers deserve the most up-to-date component selection guidance. That's why we've put together a fresh system guide update with small changes and pricing tweaks, plus occasional major substitutions where necessary. Today's update should tide us over until we see new batches of next-generation processors and graphics cards arrive in the next few months.

To keep things interesting, we've augmented this guide with a fresh one-of-a-kind build: the Schooner. Our other builds are the result of careful deliberations and debates between TR's editors, but the Schooner is the unfiltered brainchild of TR Editor-in-Chief Scott Wasson. You can think of it as the build Scott might put together if he were shopping for new gear himself.

Read on for the scoop on the Schooner and our other builds.

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.