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TR's Summer 2012 system guide

Who needs fireworks when PC hardware is this good?

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Summer is here at last. For most people, that probably means sunglasses, chilled cocktails with little umbrellas in them, and roasting under the hot sun at a trendy vacation spot. It probably means spending long days outside and short nights recovering from extensive drinking and partying. And this week in particular, it probably means fireworks—lots of them.

For us geeks, though, this is more likely an occasion to draw the blinds, crank up the air conditioning, and immerse ourselves in some of the season's hottest games. We'd rather keep our skin a translucent shade of white than miss out on, say, the new Skyrim expansion, Max Payne 3, or exciting indie titles like Quantum Conundrum.

In a nod to our geeky brethren, we've refreshed our system guide to account for the latest releases and price fluctuations in the ever-changing hardware market. Among other changes, we've made our sub-$1,000 Sweet Spot rig faster, and we've outfitted our decked-out Editor's Choice config with a higher-capacity solid-state drive. We've even included a brand-new config, the Next-Gen Console, which packs a quad-core Ivy Bridge CPU and a Radeon HD 7850 graphics card inside a diminutive Mini-ITX enclosure—and can be configured to fulfill home-theater duties in addition to showing off the eye candy in the latest games.

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.