Desktop PC Buying Guide

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Holiday Desktop PC Buying Guide: The Specs Explained

Removable Storage

Your operating system and system restore disks (if any) will ship on a DVD; consequently all but a handful of compact PCs ship with a dual-layer multiformat DVD burner. If you're a fan of high-definition media, consider adding a Blu-ray reader/DVD burner combo drive (for about $100 extra) to store data on your own CDs and DVDs and to watch media stored on Blu-ray discs.

To take advantage of the massive storage opportunities offered by Blu-ray discs, you'll need a Blu-ray writer--a $200 add-on that lets you read and write in every disc-based media format.

HP and other companies market portable media drives, ranging in price from less than $100 to as high as $250. These hard-drive models work with a USB cable, but they are designed to slide into a media drive bay included on select desktop models. Portable hard drives are and crucial to anyone who wants to protect data from hard-drive failure or to transport lots of content. Consult our "Top 10 Portable Hard Drives" chart for further options.

Sound

The integrated sound provided on a typical PC's motherboard today supports 5.1-channel audio. This should suffice for users who don't want to spend a lot of money on their PC's audio system. But a dedicated sound card will improve the dynamic range of compressed audio, add rich environmental effects to games, and improve system performance when you record or mix audio.

On most PCs above the budget level, motherboards come with 7.1-channel audio. A sound card can increase your PC's initial cost by $40 to $80, depending on the technology that the card uses. Higher-end cards can cost more than $200, but these generally target creative professionals or gamers who require 3D environmental audio effects for competitive play.

If you do opt for a sound card, make sure that your motherboard has a spare PCI or PCI-Express slot, depending on the requirements of the card that you've chosen. The manufacturer's specifications for the machine or motherboard you're buying will list the slots it has available.

As with all upgrade options, comparison-shop before you settle on a particular sound card or set of speakers. You may find a better deal elsewhere. On the other hand, if you buy the card yourself, you'll have to crack open your system to install the card.

Speaker preferences are personal, and the physical dimensions of the room your computer is in may limit your options. PCs of all shapes and sizes have analog audio outputs, and some models include a digital optical connection, reducing the number of cables you'll need.

Many all-in-one PCs include a speaker bar attached to the screen. Audio from these sound bars varies from model to model, but in general the quality will be akin to that of laptop speakers, with deeper, richer sound from more-expensive models. If sound quality isn't a high priority, the included speaker bar will perform adequately, just as built-in speakers usually suffice for an HDTV. But if you plan to use your all-in-one as a primary media machine, we recommend choosing dedicated speakers with a subwoofer.

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