Desktop PC Buying Guide

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Holiday Desktop PC Buying Guide: The Specs Explained

Hard Drive

Even a basic full-size PC should offer at least 320GB of hard drive space. Compact PCs, however, tend to start at the low end with capacities of around 160GB. At the upper end of the performance spectrum, Performance PCs may offer space for 2TB of storage--or more--along with choices of RAID for data redundancy (RAID 1) or speed optimization (RAID 0), or an option to combine a solid-state drive with a hard drive.

When shopping for a PC, check the specifications to see how many internal hard drive bays are available. Many all-in-one and small PCs limit you to just one. But with additional internal hard drives, you can store more data and create RAID arrays to safeguard your data from hardware failure, deliver faster performance, or do both.

Most drives today are Serial ATA-300 models, which spin at 7200 rpm. When shopping, pay close attention to the speed of the PC's hard drive: Small PCs may use 2.5-inch hard drives that spin at 5400 rpm, and the potential money savings may not justify the performance hit if you plan to do a lot disk-intensive tasks. For people who care more about speed than about capacity, Western Digital's VelociRaptor line offers 10,000-rpm drives, though these max out at 600GB.

Another option for speed-conscious buyers is a solid-state drive. The cost-per-gigabyte for SSDs is still far greater than for traditional hard-disk drives, but prices continue to fall. Some PC makers offer an SSD in tandem with a hard-disk drive--a low-capacity SSD to store applications and the OS, and a high-capacity HDD for data storage duties.

Networking

The days of dial-up are done. Broadband speed and performance vary by service provider and location, but you can maximize your PC's connectivity by choosing the right networking options. Fortunately, the options are clear-cut: wired or wireless.

Every system comes with a wired ethernet connection--generally gigabit ethernet, though inexpensive models may be saddled with a slower 10/100 ethernet connection. Wireless connectivity is an attractive option for small PCs and all-in-ones, and also for some tower and minitower systems (though you'll need it only if your system will be nowhere near your router). If you'd rather not tie down your otherwise svelte machine with an ethernet cable, go wireless and opt for 802.11n; this wireless standard offers better performance than the older 802.11b/g standards.

Wireless performance still has limitations. If you plan to use your PC to stream high-definition Internet content from sites like Hulu and Netflix, consider using a wired connection for best performance. You'll get measurably superior performance, and you'll future-proof your machine in case you later upgrade to network-attached machines with faster transfer speeds.

Keyboard and Mouse

Your keyboard and mouse are crucial devices, so get a set that works for you. But if you're buying a PC online, don't pay the upgrade price that the vendor offers: You can usually find a better deal by shopping around. If you aren't sure what your keyboard or a mouse options are, visit your local PC or electronics retailer and try out a few of the display models.

The desirability of most physical attributes of keyboards and mice varies from user to user, so keep in mind where and how you'll be using your machine. Every system comes with at least a basic mouse and keyboard. At build-to-order PC sites, though, you usually have relatively few options.

If you plan to use a small PC to stream media, consider a small, lightweight wireless keyboard and mouse combo--or a wireless keyboard with built-in pointing device--so you can operate it from the comfort of a couch. Wireless keyboards and mice use either radio-frequency (RF) or Bluetooth technology, and they require you to plug a USB receiver into a USB port on your machine.

When shopping for a keyboard, watch for handy media keys. These put media playback buttons and volume controls on your keyboard, heightening the couch-based computing experience.

If you plan to buy a tower PC, you'll likely have space on your desk for a full-size keyboard with number pad. If comfort is an issue or if you struggle with wrist pain, look for ergonomic keyboards and mice that conform to the shape of your hands, and workspace. If you're an avid gaming fan, consider keyboards and mice from brands like Razer and Logitech that offer backlit keys, programmable macro buttons, and other features that may give you a competitive edge.

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