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TR's Christmas 2013 system guide

Last-minute shopping ahoy!

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It's been less than six weeks since we published our last system guide, and the market isn't exactly overflowing with fresh releases. In fact, aside from the arrival of AMD's Radeon R9 270, I don't recall any major new parts hitting stores.

That's not to say things haven't changed, though. The holiday shopping season has taken its toll on the availability of many items. Some prices have been driven up, and some items have been driven out of stock. This phenomenon is particularly noticeable in the graphics card realm, where the latest high-end Radeons are nigh on impossible to find at the moment.

So, yes, it is time for a new system guide. We have old recommendations to tune up, availability constraints to account for, and price hikes to work around—all to serve those of you preparing for some last-minute Christmas shopping.

To keep things interesting, we've also added a new build to the mix: a small-form-factor gaming rig with everything needed to make console gamers jealous, including a 27" Korean IPS display, studio monitor speakers, and some lovely, aluminum-clad peripherals.

As you read the following pages, keep in mind that, because of the aforementioned surge in demand, some of our recommendations may go in and out of stock, and their prices may fluctuate. We've done our best to account for these uncertainties, but we couldn't completely contain them.

All right. Let's get to it, shall we?

Rules and regulations
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, you'll want to have a look at our handy how-to build a PC article—and the accompanying video:

If you're after reviews and benchmarks, 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 about $600, $1,000, $1,500, and $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.