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TR's May 2006 system guide

Recommendations for the right enthusiast's PCs

WE PUBLISHED OUR FIRST SYSTEM GUIDE about five months ago, and surprisingly little has changed since then. AMD still has the upper hand in the desktop and workstation processor markets, and aside from a new round of graphics chips from ATI and NVIDIA, there have been few major new releases. That doesn't mean our system guide hasn't benefited from an overhaul, though. Prices have dropped pretty steeply since last year, and we managed to lower the cost of our four recommended systems while fitting them with faster hardware, more memory, and extra storage capacity.

The system guide will now be receiving regular updates, so we can keep you better up to date on the latest and greatest deals out there. We also hope to introduce some gradual changes to the guide's structure, with the final goal being to simplify the long and painful process of choosing parts for a new machine. In the meantime, here's our new and improved system guide, May 2006 edition.

Rules and regulations
Before tackling our recommended systems, we should explain some of the rules and guidelines we used to select components. The guiding philosophy behind our choices was to seek the best bang for the buck. That means we avoided recommending super-cheap parts that are barely capable of performing their jobs, just as we avoided breathtakingly expensive products that carry a hefty price premium for features or performance you probably don't need. Instead, we looked to that mythical "sweet spot" where price and performance meet up in a pleasant harmonic convergence. We also sought balance within each system configuration, choosing components that make sense together, so that a fast processor won't be bottlenecked by a skimpy graphics card or too little system memory, for instance. The end result, we hope, is a series of balanced systems that offer decent performance as configured and provide ample room for future expandability.

We confined our selections to components that are currently in stock and available online. Paper launches and preorders don't count, for obvious reasons. We also tried to stick to $500, $1000, and $1500 budgets for our desktop systems. Those budgets are loose guidelines rather than hard limits, to allow us some wiggle room for deals that may stretch the budget a little but are too good to resist.

Budgets make relative pricing an important factor for component choices. Rather than using the lowest prices displayed by various online search engines, though, we've tapped a single major retailer for all our price comparisons. Comparing search engine prices for individual components gets messy really quickly and would give us a system guide filled with recommendations that required users to shop at a number of different retailers to meet the system's budget. Our reference prices are taken from a single retailer—Newegg in this case—so folks should be able to order all of the components for any of our systems from a single source with the knowledge that the total will stay on budget. Newegg doesn't always have the lowest price around, so we've supplied lowest price links—in addition to reference pricing—for each system component.

Pricing wasn't the top factor in our component choices, though. Our own experiences with individual components weighed heavily on our decisions, and we've provided links to our own reviews of many of the products we're recommending. We've also tried to confine our selections to name-brand rather than generic products, and to manufacturers with solid reputations for reliability. Warranty coverage was an important consideration, as well.