How to Buy a Desktop PC

The Specs Explained

The Processor

If you plan to use your PC for standard office productivity and basic Internet tasks, almost any processor will do. But if you want more power, an Intel Core 2 Duo chip is probably your best bet over an AMD Athlon 64 X2 processor. Though both are dual-core processors, which will allow for faster multitasking and speedier performance on certain kinds of graphics and video applications, Intel has wrested the edge in performance back from AMD. To save a couple hundred dollars, buy one or two levels down from the top--you're unlikely to lose more than 5 to 10 percent per tier in performance.

For maximum performance when multitasking or when using demanding, multithreaded applications, you may wish to investigate quad-core CPUs such as the 3-GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme Processor QX6850, or the dual-core 2.93-GHz Core 2 Extreme X6800; both processors are popular in high-performance gaming machines and power PCs.

For anyone playing games or manipulating audio or video on a regular basis, having a four-core processor can potentially deliver benefits. We qualify that statement because, aside from a few games such as Crysis and World in Conflict, the list of optimized applications is short, dominated by expensive offerings such as the latest versions of Adobe's Premiere Pro and Encore DVD, Autodesk's 3D StudioMax, and Steinberg's Cubase 4.

Additional multithreaded software titles are on the way, however, and eventually every activity that can benefit from multiple-core processing will do so, as multiple CPUs work together to get jobs done faster. Intel's current quad-core desktop speed kings work well in any LGA775-socket-based motherboard, so you can upgrade at any time.

Unfortunately, AMD is a little behind in the high-end, high-performance quad-core CPU race. In our tests, AMD's Phenom 9600 CPUs performed about as well as year-old Intel chips. There's little incentive to buy into AMD's vision of its unified "Spider" platform. At least not yet.

For the time being, though quad-core sounds sexy, dual-core is the sweet spot for most users. Early adopters can elect to buy a quad-core processor now and see better performance with the few optimized applications.

Tip: Intel and AMD have detailed CPU-comparison tables on their respective Web sites.

Memory

The more installed memory your PC has, the more applications you can run smoothly at once, and the better the system will perform. Upgrading memory in a desktop after you purchase the PC is a snap, but usually it's worthwhile to buy the amount of memory you want preinstalled with the system.

We ran a few Vista-versus-XP comparison tests with 512MB of memory installed on our low-end test machines. Though the multitasking test didn't slow down much, the times for our Photoshop test nearly doubled under Vista. The moral of the story: Don't run Vista with less than 1GB--and even with that much, you should approach Vista with caution.

In our Vista RAM boost report, we noted that moving up to 2GB produced significant gains only in our Photoshop test. On an old, low-end Pentium 4 system, the upgrade to 2GB generated a 10 percent performance boost. Meanwhile, a dual-core desktop showed a more modest gain of around 5 percent (PC World generally considers performance differences of less than 5 percent to be unnoticeable in basic business applications).

Motherboards

A new motherboard can provide cool new technologies that your PC might be missing: faster, second-generation SATA connections, which currently reach 3 gigabits per second (gbps); gigabit ethernet; high-definition audio; and even dual-card graphics (SLI or CrossFire).

To make sure you choose the right motherboard for your needs, see our Top Motherboards chart. Rather than attempting to make an apples-to-oranges comparison between AMD- and Intel-equipped motherboards, we split the chart into two lists: seven boards based on AMD's socket AM2 (for use with the latest AMD chips requiring DDR2 memory) and seven boards employing Intel's socket LGA775 (for use with that company's latest dual-core and quad-core processors).

Make sure your motherboard has at least one or two USB ports on the front, to plug in your digital audio player and a USB memory drive, for example. You'll want additional USB ports in back, for attaching everything from an external hard drive to a printer. Higher-end systems and Media Center PCs should also have audio/video inputs and FireWire ports within easy reach.

The other big news for PC enthusiasts is Intel's "Skulltrail" motherboard. This enthusiast motherboard has dual LGA 771 CPU sockets that support the 45nm Penryn chips, and it also sports four x16 PCI Express 1.1 slots, two PCI 2.3 slots, six SATA 3.0 gbit/second ports, and two eSATA ports. In short: Whoa.

But don't put the carriage before the horse: Prior to buying any motherboard, consider all of the components you hope to squeeze into your PC, and then go forth and purchase.

The Case

A good case can make your everyday work easier and can simplify the task of upgrading or servicing components--an especially valuable perk in offices with multiple systems. A well-designed case will offer tool-less access to the interior, hard drives mounted on easy-to-slide-out trays, and color-coded cables for internal and external parts.

If you plan to keep the system for a while, leave some room for expansion. You'll want at least a couple of open drive bays and a free PCI slot as well. And since motherboards come in different shapes and sizes, commonly known as a form factor, so do case designs.

The most common form factor is ATX. The ATX specification not only dictates where the connectors on the back of the motherboard should be (to line up with the holes in the case), but also encompasses details such as the power-supply connector. Form factors have variations--for example, MicroATX follows the basic ATX specification but has fewer expansion slots to allow for smaller cases. Other motherboard formats exist. AT was the de facto standard before ATX, and NLX is used in slimline PCs. A new size to emerge, designed to replace the ATX standard, is BTX. Intel is the driving force behind this new form factor, which features some radical design changes to increase cooling. The BTX range has its own variations, too, such as picoBTX and microBTX.

Some people hate the boring cases that most PCs come in--and we mean hate. Such folks frequently take matters into their own hands. If you're of the mind to customize your PC's case and you need some inspiration, check out our slide show of some truly weird and wonderful PC case mods.

Graphics Cards

Responsible for generating all of the images on your monitor, the graphics subsystem in a PC ships either as a removable expansion board or as a chip that's integrated onto the motherboard. Though we recommend buying a discrete graphics board for gaming, integrated graphics (common on value-priced PCs) are adequate for most other uses. Just make sure to choose a motherboard that has an available PCIe x16 slot so that you can add a graphics card later if necessary.

If you want games, graphics, and other multimedia programs to run faster, a dedicated graphics card should be a priority. And Microsoft's Windows Vista, with its 3D-accelerated Aero environment, gives you another reason to upgrade. To run Aero, you'll need a DirectX 9-capable graphics chip and at least 128MB of dedicated memory. Our advice is to consider nVidia's GeForce 8800 GT; it's the most cost-effective graphics card and, with full DirectX 10 support, it ensures that you won't need another upgrade immediately.

Serious gamers with bigger budgets will want a multiple-graphics-card setup using either nVidia's 3-Way SLI technology (which stacks up to three cards on a motherboard) or ATI's CrossFire technology (which jams as many as four cards onto the motherboard). With great power comes an even greater price tag, though, so expect to pay premium prices for the graphics cards and for a new SLI- or CrossFire-compatible motherboard.

Before you go shopping, find out what kind of card will work in your PC. You can still wring a bit of performance out of some older PCs with AGP connectors, but for the most part any new PC (or one worth upgrading) will have a PCI Express x16 slot for its graphics board.

You can browse our Top 5 charts for good candidates: See our Value Graphics Cards, Mainstream Graphics Boards, and Power Graphics Cards rankings for more.

Hard Drive

The minimum size of a new hard drive these days has risen significantly over the past 12 months, and consumers should be able to find a sub-$1500 desktop PC with a drive of 200GB to 500GB. Single drives with up to a whopping 1 terabyte of space (such as Hitachi's $400 Deskstar) are currently available, although you pay a significant premium for hard disks at the top end of the capacity spectrum. If you plan on storing large amounts of data, such as digital images or multimedia files, on your PC, the bigger the drive, the better.

Most business users don't need a hard drive larger than 80GB, but for mixed use you'll want more capacity. People who work with big databases, spreadsheets, or digital photo, music, or video files should think larger--drives are available in up to 750GB capacities. Two drives in a striped RAID 0 array can offer a boost in performance; alternatively you can get two drives mirrored together in a RAID 1 (or similar) configuration, to provide fault-tolerance against hardware failure.

Most drives today are Serial ATA and spin at 7200 rpm; serious gamers and other users who thrive on speed will appreciate the 10,000-rpm high-performance drives of Western Digital. The Western Digital Raptor X maxes out at 150GB, though, so you must make a trade-off in capacity to obtain the performance edge.

See our Top 10 Internal Hard Drives chart for more.

Monitor

Don't take your eyes--or your computer--for granted. While monitor shopping, a lot of people become transfixed by huge, beautiful displays and don't take into account a very important number: the native resolution (the average resolution of low-end displays is 1024 by 768 pixels). This is the optimal resolution intended for the monitor. The higher the resolution, the better the graphics card you'll need if you intend to run any video-intensive applications. Keep those factors in the back of your mind as you deal with the temptation to buy a 30-inch panel.

Many people can get by just fine with a 17- or 19-inch LCD monitor, but we recommend buying a 22-inch wide-screen model, many of which now cost only a little more than their 19-inch counterparts do. Look for a digital monitor with DVI (you'll enjoy a sharper image with digital) instead of an analog-only model (often, the sort that comes by default with the cheap PCs advertised online). Wide-screen monitors are an increasingly popular option, as are dual-monitor displays (if you want to go the latter route, look for a graphics card with dual-DVI ports).

For more of the latest news and tutorials on LCDs, visit our Monitors Info Center.

Removable Storage

All PCs need an optical drive--a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM model at the bare minimum--to read CDs and DVDs, respectively (a DVD-ROM can also read CDs). For a few dollars more, you can add a rewritable drive for backing up your data to CD or DVD (low-end systems sometimes provide only a CD-RW drive; most PCs offer a multiformat, dual-layer rewritable DVD burner). For standard DVD, the best drive you can buy is one that handles writing to double- or dual-layer DVD discs and offers LightScribe Direct Disc Labeling.

All of the talk about the next wave of optical formats--Blu-ray Disc and HD DVD--might make you think that the venerable rewritable-DVD drive is passé. Not so fast: DVD burners, and the media you use with them, remain a significantly less expensive option for writing discs than those costly new formats. Plus, you can get superior performance from a dedicated DVD burner, as the write speeds top out now at 20X.

Rewritable DVD's advantages over CD-R are long established: Single-layer DVD media lets you store up to 4.7GB on a disc, while dual-layer (also referred to as double-layer, for the DVD+R format) media lets you pack up to 8.5GB on a single disc. Like CD-RW drives, rewritable-DVD drives support both write-once and rewritable media; write-once discs are best for creating movies playable on standard DVD players and for data archiving, while rewritable discs are well suited for regular file backup.

DVD writers cost more than CD-RW drives, but prices continue to fall. If you want the latest, buy a drive that supports dual- or double-layer DVD writing, which allows you to put more data on a single disc. (See our Top 5 Internal DVD Drives chart.)

USB thumb drives and microdrives are also growing in popularity. These keychain-size devices, made by a number of manufacturers, can store large amounts of data, even 1GB or more. If you use Windows Vista, XP, or 2000, a thumb drive requires no additional software; Windows will detect the device as soon as you pop it into a port, and will assign the device its own drive letter in Explorer. If a standard key-fob style doesn't suit you, some companies have integrated thumb drives into pens, watches, and even a Swiss army pocketknife. Whichever model you choose, pick one that transfers data at USB 2.0 speeds; the older USB 1.1 devices move files at a pokier pace.

You may have heard about Windows Vista's ReadyBoost feature, technology that promises to let you speed up Windows by plugging an inexpensive USB flash drive into your PC. We found, however, that while ReadyBoost may speed up Vista a tiny bit, it can also slow the OS down in some instances. See "ReadyBoost Flash Drives Lack Significant Boost" for more.

Communications

Most PCs come with a modem for dial-up Internet access and an ethernet port for broadband access. If you want to connect to the Internet wirelessly, you'll need a wireless network adapter.

To share your broadband connection or to network your PCs, get a gateway or router. A PC and router with gigabit ethernet will give you a faster local network connection than products with 10/100 ethernet. If you go wireless, you'll also need a card or an external adapter for each PC. (See "How to Buy Home Networking Products" for more specifics.)

Sound

In the office, the basics should suffice; integrated sound in your PC is more than adequate for most work. At home, though, you'll probably want surround sound. If your PC doesn't already support surround sound, for $100 or more you can upgrade to a dedicated sound card with Dolby 5.1 support, plus a decent set of speakers that includes a subwoofer.

Most modern PC motherboards deliver extremely high-quality sound, because they all integrate Intel's High Definition Audio standard. Hardware that conforms to the standard can produce up to 7.1-channel, 24-bit output (32-bit internal processing) and 192-kilohertz sound. Compared with the older AC'97 specification's maximum output of 20-bit, 48-kHz audio, the newer standard provides substantially better audio quality. To take advantage of the more advanced audio capability, of course, you need to have content that has been encoded at the higher quality level--for example, songs on DVD-Audio or DTS audio discs--as well as software that can play it.

The real question is: Do you want to ring your desktop workstation with a home theater's worth of speakers? Only you can answer that question for yourself, but if you're any sort of audiophile, at least consider a 2.1 speaker kit. The "0.1" stands for the subwoofer. Adding a sound system with a subwoofer (a large speaker that produces very low bass tones) can dramatically improve the sound quality of a home system, even if the speaker set is inexpensive. In the office, however, a booming subwoofer may trigger an uprising--or a party--among your coworkers. Consider yourself warned.

Keyboard and Mouse

Almost all systems include these commodity components, usually a Windows-compatible 102-key keyboard and a two-button mouse with a scroll wheel. Many vendors are switching from PS/2-connected devices to USB models that offer more features, such as additional programmable keys that can launch favorite applications or Web sites. Wireless keyboards and mice are also common; Windows Media Center PCs generally include wireless keyboards and mice, as well as a remote control.

Try to ensure that you get an optical mouse, which uses a small camera to detect motion and provides smoother, more precise control over cursor movement. Such models also eliminate the need for you to remove and clean a coated ball, as with older mice.

Operating System: Vista or XP?

XP has been the biggest-selling operating system in the universe for almost half a decade now, so it's where most of the action is. Whatever you long to do with a PC--accounting, blogging, photography, engineering, aimless wandering on the Internet--the necessary hardware and software will function under Windows XP.

Of course, to keep that copy of XP running smoothly, you'll have to work to keep the wolves at bay. While Service Pack 2, Windows Security Center, and Internet Explorer 7 have closed a lot of holes, XP is sure to attract hackers and malware writers for years to come. Your firewall, antivirus software, and spyware protection remain as important as ever.

According to Forrester Research, 40 percent of business Windows customers will transition to Vista within the next year, and consumer adoption will expand gradually from 12 million users in the first year to 73 million after four years. Microsoft will continue to roll out Windows XP security fixes until April 2009. If you're hesitating to upgrade, you can breathe easy for now. You still have time.

Windows Vista does deliver improvements in security (though you'll still need a third-party firewall unless you're up for some complex configuration tasks), plus several improved utilities and new features. It's the look, though, that makes Vista a desirable upgrade for most people. Vista's Aero environment displays windows, icons, and other desktop elements with more colors, shading, and shadowing, as well as--for the first time--transparency. Buttons glow like red or blue LEDs when you hover over them. Translucent window frames, menus, and title bars remind you of other applications buried a layer or two deep, and the Flip 3D task switcher is clearly inspired by Apple's Exposé, which displays cleverly arranged thumbnails of all your running applications.

Cribbing more directly from Apple, the gadget-populated Windows Sidebar is a variation on OS X's Dashboard widgets. However, the redesigned Media Player, Control Panel, mail, and photo previewing interfaces are evidence that many of Vista's changes are only skin deep. Drilling down through a new menu structure often reveals the very same dialog boxes that were present in Windows XP.

Gamers should eventually see great dividends by switching to Vista. DirectX 10 promises to accelerate games eightfold. And Vista's Windows Presentation Foundation makes it easier for software developers to produce graphics-hardware-accelerated applications.

Vista's many innovations come at a cost, however. Recent PC World Test Center trials demonstrated that although Vista performs just fine on the Microsoft-recommended hardware, Windows XP runs the same applications significantly faster (see "Lab Tests: Vista's Fast If You Have the Hardware"). It's especially apparent in games, which are struggling with Vista's birthing pains and not performing up to spec. So unless you can tolerate a downgrade in performance, you may want to upgrade your PC right along with your operating system. Nevertheless, on a reasonably equipped machine, Windows Vista provides fast search results for files, documents, e-mail messages, and Web sites.

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