The Specs That Matter [and the Specs That Don't]

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Your Next Desktop PC

A closer look at a desktop PC ad.
A closer look at a desktop PC ad.
One second you're talking about wanting to use your next PC to make quick edits of home videos. Suddenly the salesperson is pushing a computer suitable for Pixar. But no matter what retailers say, you don't need a supercomputer. For a system capable of handling most basic tasks flawlessly, you probably shouldn't have to spend more than $750. So fend off the salesfolk and take a closer look under the hood.

CPU: Vendors love to highlight GHz numbers in ads, because those numbers go up constantly and are sure to look better than what you have on your current system (even if it's only two months old). The truth: Any recent CPU can handle the basics. Pile on power thoughtlessly, and you waste money. Often the performance gain after a certain point is minimal--though if you'll be juggling tons of multimedia files, you do need a little muscle. AMD's Phenom 9600 Quad-Core CPU, for example, goes toe-to-toe in price with Intel's Core 2 Duo 8400 and will power you through any workday job. But only the most demanding multimedia users need heavy-duty hardware like Intel's quad-core Core 2 Extreme QX9770.

RAM: This quick-and-easy upgrade for your desktop comes with a catch: the maximum amount that your operating system can handle. Common 32-bit versions of Windows Vista and Windows XP can address no more than 4GB of RAM, even if your machine has more available. So unless you're using the 64-bit version of Vista (or 64-bit XP, if you can still find a copy), 2GB to 4GB of memory is the right target.

Graphics board: In bygone days, a high-quality graphics board mattered only to gamers. But now everyone with a digital camera to download or a TV show to watch craves graphics performance. Even so, premium cards don't offer enough of a boost to justify their high-end pricing unless you are a serious gamer. Instead, look for a PC configured with a decent CPU and a good GPU--such as nVidia's GeForce 9800 GTX or ATI's Radeon HD 4850. Only hard-core gamers and video editors need to drop $600 on a fancy graphics card.

Expandability: A desktop PC lets you upgrade later without having to rebuild from scratch. But few stores provide a full accounting of a system's upgrade options. Don't let that discourage you from checking. Note how many open PCIe slots and available internal and external drive bays the system has. And look for easy access to FireWire and USB ports.

Buying Guide: How to Buy a Desktop PC

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