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TR's back-to-school 2012 system guide

New GeForces and Dorm PCs ahoy

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We've got about a month of summer left, give or take, and that means the back-to-school season is in full swing. What about the PC upgrade season? Well, we've certainly seen the arrival of a few noteworthy components since the publication of our last system guide. Just today, Nvidia's new GeForce GTX 660 Ti raised the bar for graphics performance at $300.

Other recent arrivals include AMD's Radeon HD 7970 GHz Edition graphics card and Western Digital's Red hard drives. We've seen a continued decline in the prices of solid-state drives and system memory, too. Even mechanical hard drives have come down in price ever so slightly, taking a much-needed step back toward the pricing levels we saw last year, before the flooding in Thailand threw component suppliers a curve ball.

If you're reading this, you've probably guessed what this new system guide is about. We've updated our four staple builds to account for all of the new hardware and pricing changes. SSD and memory capacities have increased, and we've squeezed in faster GPUs in a couple of spots. We've also made other, more minor revisions to account for the inevitable price fluctuations and stock changes that have occurred since last month.

As icing on the cake, our four regular builds are joined by a fifth one: the Dorm PC 2.0, a sub-$600 Mini-ITX system that packs enough of a punch to run all the latest games smoothly. This small-form-factor build should be right at home in dorm rooms—and possibly the lairs of other geeks who appreciate its small size and compelling value proposition. 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.