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It's easy to forget just how good we PC and technology fans have it. Sure, the cryptic acronyms, evolving standards, and boneheaded salespeople can be annoying, but if you think they're bad, try shopping for furniture some time. This sofa's almost perfect, but the color doesn't match your d&#233;cor. This other one's the right color, but the style's all wrong. Want to add on another seat to accommodate a growing family? Forget it.

With PCs you can get what you want at any time by upgrading your current PC or by building one from scratch. A few simple upgrades can make the system you already have more productive and more pleasurable to use. Short on hard-disk space? Add a new drive. Getting creamed in the latest games because they run so slowly? Time for a new graphics board. But maybe you need a whole new system. With just a little more technical know-how than a typical upgrade requires, you can build a PC yourself from hand-picked parts. And you might even save a little money along the way.

Choosing the right components is critical to ensuring that you end up with the perfect PC. To get you started on the right track, we've assembled a guide to the main components in a PC, including recommendations for each part (based on what you intend to do with your machine), along with shopping tips and advice on installing or upgrading each piece.

Build It Yourself

If you'd like to assemble your own, our step-by-step guide shows you how to put everything together. We made four special-purpose PCs for this article: a loaded power system, a mainstream system built for maximum value, a computer designed to operate as silently as possible, and a media PC that can serve as a living-room entertainment hub. We include complete lists of components and prices for these four systems.

A few rules of thumb can help you decide whether it would be more cost-effective to upgrade your existing PC or to acquire a new one by buying it ready-made or by building it from individual components.

To decide which way to go, use our guide to each of the components, make a list of the parts you want to upgrade to, and then add up their cost. If the total comes to more than about $600--or to more than four components in need of upgrading--it's time to think about getting a new system instead. For around $700 you can pick up a new system like the Dell Dimension 4600 that probably runs faster than your current system would after upgrading.

Building your own PC can save money, but you're unlikely to save a huge amount in these days of stiff competition between PC vendors. Still, by building your own you'll get exactly the system you want, and gain insight into how PCs are put together.

One drawback of building a PC is that you won't get an overall warranty. PC vendors offer warranties and tech support on the whole system when you buy one; but if you build your own, you'll have to rely on the warranties offered with the individual components, which may be shorter or have conditions attached. For instance, if you damage a processor while building a PC, you may have trouble getting a free replacement CPU.

In every section that follows, you'll find a list of the components we selected for each of the four systems we built, plus guidelines on what to look for while shopping. We picked the best components we could find for each type of system, but our recommendations are merely starting points; in your quest to build the ideal PC, you may find parts that better suit your needs.

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