Whether you're buying a pre-built desktop from the likes of Dell, HP, Optima or IBM, or building a rig on your own, your PC will only be as good as the sum of its parts. Here's a short guide to the main PC components you'll find available in 2006, so you'll be able to make component choices that match your performance requirements and budget realities.
Clock speed isn't everything anymore -- other important specs include Level 2 (L2) cache and system-bus speed. L2 cache is high-speed memory that stores data or instructions the system uses repeatedly. Amounts of L2 cache generally range from 512K to 2MB; more is better. A fast system bus allows for quicker data transfers among the processor, memory and components. Intel's fastest is currently 1,066MHz, while AMD's is 2,000MHz.
Dual-core processors, which harbour two execution cores on one chip, keep your system from slowing down while you multitask, particularly useful if you're running a virus checker or other utility while you work. It also prepares you for future multithreaded applications. Vendors have quickly adopted dual-core CPUs, so expect to see them readily available.
Unless you need advanced security and networking options, choose Windows XP Home Edition over XP Professional. Most vendors don't charge a premium for Home, whereas Professional is usually AU$120 to AU$180 extra. Microsoft's Windows Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE) has expanded multimedia capabilities, including the ability to record and play television content.
Most configurations now start with 256MB of RAM. If you plan on multitasking even a little, spend another AU$80 or so to up the RAM to 512MB. If you're into gaming or digital imaging, you may want to juice this up even more. Going to 2GB and beyond, however, is only necessary for memory-hungry applications such as advanced digital-video and -audio editors.
The frequency, or speed, of the RAM is another consideration. Measured in megahertz (MHz), the higher this number, the better and faster your PC will perform. If you want the best performance now (and also down the road), look for DDR2 memory. It's capable of faster speeds.
With the proliferation of digital images, music, and movies, 80GB is now approaching the low end of acceptability. The extra money you'll pay for a 160GB or even a 250GB drive would be well-spent. Also, with ever-larger hard drives available, it's possible to get 1 terabyte (1TB) of storage or even more.
Many vendors now let you add a second hard drive in a RAID Level 0 (striping) or Level 1 (mirroring) array. Level 0 spreads data across two drives to enable better performance on storage-intensive operations such as gaming and video editing. Level 1 puts the same data on both drives, giving you extra protection in case one drive fails. It's an effortless backup strategy that's worth considering.
The graphics processing units (GPUs) on many budget PCs are integrated onto the motherboard. Although performance has improved, an integrated graphics accelerator has two main drawbacks: it shares main system memory, and it relies on your CPU to handle graphics-processing chores. Unless you're on a tight budget, go with a dedicated graphics card.
The entry-level ATI Radeon X300 SE handles most everyday tasks, but stepping up to a midrange X600 card will allow for some 3D-game playing. Hard-core gamers and videographers should look for a card with 256MB of RAM; for the truly obsessed, nVidia's Scalable Link Interface (SLI) multi-GPU technology accommodates two graphics cards working in parallel.
If you forgo the card for now, make sure the PC's motherboard has a vacant slot for adding one later. Ideally, your PC should have available slots to employ the newer and faster PCI Express (PCIe) cards, as opposed to older-tech AGP cards.
LCDs have all but killed CRTs. Either way, 17 inches is the minimum screen size to consider. If you'll play games on your LCD, look for a refresh rate of no more than 16 milliseconds (ms), plus a DVI interface for better image quality. Wide-screen models are plentiful now, too, and are nice for DVD viewing and working with side-by-side windows.
If money's tight, we recommend a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive, which plays DVDs and CDs, and burns CDs. Adding a DVD burner can cost as little as AU$60 more, however.
Mainstream buyers should go with a DVD burner and a DVD-ROM drive, while high-end users should opt for a DVD burner and a combo DVD-ROM/ CD-RW drive. The latter pairing burns CDs faster and makes one-to-one copies.
If you're going with an HP PC, the company's LightScribe burners let you etch custom labels onto specially coated discs. The process is slow and monochrome, though, and the discs are expensive.
For most users, the onboard sound processor and the speakers bundled with the PC are adequate. But gamers and audiophiles will be happier with at least a six-piece (5.1) speaker system, which provides four satellites, a front centre channel, and a subwoofer. To take advantage of enhanced audio, however, you'll need a quality sound card. Creative Labs is the top name in sound cards, and its Sound Blaster Audigy 2 and newer X-Fi cards provide great audio for both music lovers and hard-core gamers.
Additional reporting by Asher Moses, CNET.com.au