CPU: AMD or Intel
The motherboard and the CPU are the brains of your PC, so selecting these components is probably the most important decision you'll make.
Choose the processor first: Despite running at slower clock speeds than their Intel-based rivals, AMD-based systems have maintained a significant performance lead in our WorldBench testing for a while now. At the high end, Athlon 64 FX CPUs are the fastest around.
Choose the motherboard next: This choice is mainly determined by the processor you select: Motherboards are designed to work with specific CPUs, indicated by the type of socket that the processor fits into. Socket A, Socket 939, and Socket 940 are designed to work with Athlon processors, while Socket 478 and the new LGA socket 775 are for Intel CPUs. Many dealers offer bundles consisting of a processor, a motherboard, and memory; these can be a good way to save some money. The system chip set (the chips that pass data between the peripherals and the CPU) is the other component that differs among motherboards; it determines which integrated components (graphics, sound, ethernet, and so on) will be included. Though integrated graphics aren't generally as good as dedicated cards, they're usually adequate for simple tasks.
New technologies to watch: Several influential new technologies and chips are making their way onto motherboards. On the Intel side, the new 915 and 925 chip sets support both PCI Express and DDR2 memory. Boards using these chip sets are designed to work with processors that fit the LGA775 socket. These motherboards weren't available when we built our systems, but they will be by the time you read this. Meanwhile, new chip sets that support the newer 939-pin Athlon 64 processors are starting to arrive and will be among the first to support PCI Express on the AMD side.
An OEM CPU is cheaper; can I use one? Yes--but OEM (for "original equipment manufacturer") chips have much shorter warranties (15 days), and they lack a cooling heat sink and fan.
Buying Tips: Keep Your CPU Quiet and Cool
The stock heat sinks and fans that accompany retail CPUs do an adequate job, but they're noisy. For truly silent cooling, swap out the standard heat sink and fan for quieter ones.
Thermalright and Spire make heat sinks that adjust to accommodate larger, quieter fans. You can reduce the speed--and hence, the noise--of any fan by adding a simple $5 device known as a fan speed regulator. Just make sure that you use a utility such as Motherboard Monitor to keep track of your CPU's temperature.
Upgrade Focus: Can I Upgrade My Motherboard?
Sure, as long as you're ready to add a new CPU and RAM with it. Your drives, AGP graphics card, and PCI add-in boards will work fine on almost any new motherboard (PCI Express motherboards without AGP slots are the exception). If you've kept the other components of your system up-to-date, a new motherboard will give you a faster machine for as little as $300. Read more pointers on when to upgrade and details on making the switch.
- Power PC: AMD Athlon 64 FX-53 processor ($800) and Asus SK8N motherboard ($180). If you want the fastest system you can buy, AMD's Athlon 64 FX-53 CPU is the way to go.
- Value PC and Upgrade: AMD Athlon 64 3000+ CPU ($230). and AOpen AK89 Max motherboard ($115). Intel has several good, low-cost processors, but we chose the cheaper AMD chip for its performance.
- Quiet PC: 2.6C-MHz Intel Pentium 4 CPU ($150) and Gigabyte GA-8IPE1000-G motherboard ($95). A fanless Zalman CNPS7000-AlCu quiet heat sink cools the processor.
- Media PC: AMD Athlon 64 2500+ CPU ($80) and Shuttle XPC SN41G2V2 motherboard (integrated into case). CPU speed isn't paramount for most dedicated media PCs; the graphics card does much of the heavy lifting.