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TR's Memorial Day 2012 system guide

Ivy, Kepler, and cheap SSDs ahoy

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At long last, the wait is over. Intel's Ivy Bridge processors are here, as are graphics cards based on Nvidia's new Kepler GPU. AMD has churned out a couple of new Radeons since our last guide update, as well: the 7870 GHz Edition and the 7850. We're looking at a heaping helping of brand-new hardware, and that, of course, calls for a brand-new system guide.

The arrival of Ivy Bridge has helped us revamp our two middle-of-the-road builds, the $1000 Sweet Spot and $1500 Editor's Choice, though Intel's new chip is still too pricey for the sub-$600 Econobox. Nvidia's new GPUs have made appearances in the Editor's Choice and Double-Stuff Workstation, either as primary choices or, when availability problems got in the way, as alternatives. That, coupled with the arrival of AMD's latest Radeons, has allowed us to equip all four of our builds—yes, even the Econobox—with state-of-the-art 28-nm GPUs.

There's something else. Substantial price drops in solid-state storage have democratized 60-64GB SSDs, so for the first time, our $1000 Sweet Spot build boasts an SSD by default alongside its 7,200-RPM mechanical hard drive. The 128GB and 256GB SSDs in our higher-end builds have gotten cheaper, too, which has left enough room in our budgets to include faster graphics cards while also lowering total system costs.

All in all, we'd say this is a pretty exciting guide update. Come peruse it with us.

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.