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 How to Buy a Desktop PC

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PostSubject: How to Buy a Desktop PC   Tue Jul 31, 2007 4:31 pm

Introduction

With so many factors to consider, deciding which desktop PC to buy can be a real challenge. From components to software to accessories, new PCs offer a bewildering array of choices, and, for some folks, sifting through the large number of options can be daunting. At PC World, we test dozens of new desktop PCs every year. What follows is the collective knowledge of our editors and Test Center analysts.

The Big Picture Before you go out shopping for a new desktop computer, you have to decide what you want to use it for. We'll guide you through the options. more

The Specs Explained From CPUs to RAM to optical storage, we'll break down the jargon--and tell you which specs are most important to your purchase. more

Desktop PC Shopping Tips Want some advice before you head to the store or visit a Web site? Our recommendations will help you build a system that fits both your needs and your pocketbook. more

The Big Picture

Today, almost any PC on the market can more than adequately handle such standard office chores as word processing and spreadsheets, as well as basic Internet functions such as e-mail and general browsing. So for $1000 or less, you can get a PC that will suit most people's needs.

If you're a more demanding user who wants to edit digital video or manage a large database, however, you may need more than the basics. You're better off looking at systems that start in the $1500 to $2000 range. For high-end needs, check out our reviews of power systems, which cost $2000 or more.

The best way to pay only for what you need is to carefully consider what you want to do with your system now and anticipate what might interest you next year. Specific applications call for certain types of hardware, whether at home or in the office.

Key Features

Processor: If you plan to use your PC for standard office productivity and basic Internet tasks, most any processor will do. But if you want more power, an Intel Core 2 Duo chip or an Athlon 64 X2 processor is your best bet. Both are dual-core processors, which will allow for faster multitasking and speedier performance on certain kinds of graphics and video applications. To save a couple hundred dollars, buy one or two levels down from the top--you're unlikely to lose more than 5 to 10 percent per tier in performance.

If you need top performance, choose a PC with a high-end Core 2 Duo chip or perhaps the Athlon 64 FX-62 processor. These CPUs are best for the most demanding applications, such as video editing or high-resolution game play. You can find some reasonably priced PCs with these chips, but to get the lower price you may have to sacrifice graphics performance, hard-drive size, and possibly monitor size (among other things). For the absolute top peformance, buy a PC with Intel's top-of-the-line chip, the 2.93-GHz Core 2 Extreme X6800--but be aware that such a system won't come cheap.

Memory: To give Windows XP and applications sufficient room to work, you should get a minimum of 512MB of RAM. If you can afford to get more, do it. RAM costs a lot less today than it did some years ago. High-end PCs should have at least 1GB--that amount lets you keep more applications open and comfortably handles memory-intensive applications like Photoshop. (But if Photoshop is your app of choice, get 2GB of RAM; you won't regret it.)

Storage: In most cases basic PCs come with hard drives of 80GB or larger. This amount of storage is fine for the majority of mainstream tasks. If you plan to work with graphics files, large databases, video, or music, however, you'll want to bump the storage capacity up to at least 120GB. You'll need it because 30 minutes of uncompressed digital video takes up nearly 6.5GB of space, while 250 4-minute MP3s at 128 kbps use more than 1GB.

Graphics and display: Responsible for generating all images on your monitor, the graphics subsystem in a PC ships either as a removable expansion board or as a chip that's soldered permanently--or integrated--onto the motherboard.

Only dedicated gamers or people who work with 3D modeling need a top-of-the line graphics card. Home users who want an inexpensive system with decent graphics should choose a card with an older-generation nVidia chip such as the GeForce 6600 or a base-level ATI chip such as the Radeon X1300; for as little as $100, they can boost performance even with recently released games. If you want to do some gaming and are keeping an eye on the future, get a card with at least an nVidia GeForce 6800 chip or a Radeon X800 chip. Try to get a board with 256MB of RAM. (See "How to Buy a Graphics Board" for details on specific cards.) In the office, integrated graphics should satisfy your needs and save you money unless you're doing high-end graphics, Web, or multimedia development. Some motherboards with integrated graphics, such as models from Intel or nVidia, allow you a graphics upgrade option via an unoccupied PCI Express slot. Ask for the slot when you buy, if you want to be able to upgrade later.

Get at least a 17-inch LCD monitor--prices are low enough that you should be able to buy one for about $300. You can spend $400 or more for a high-quality model. For about $400, you can have a 19-inch monitor, which provides over 20 percent more screen area than a 17-inch model. Better models range from $450 to $600. (See "How to Buy a Monitor" for more specifics.)

Removable storage: Your most cost-effective removable-storage option is a CD-RW drive. However, home users may want to consider substituting the more flexible DVD-rewritable drive: You still get CD-RW functionality, and DVDs store at least 4.7GB of data, versus 650MB for most CDs. They also let you create your own video DVDs to play in your living-room DVD player. DVD write speeds are much slower than CD write speeds, though.

DVD drives cost more than CD-RW drives, but prices are falling quickly. If you want the latest, buy a drive that supports dual- or double-layer DVD writing, which allows you to put more data on a single disc. (See "How to Buy a DVD-Rewritable Drive" for more specifics.)

USB thumb drives and micro-drives are also growing in popularity. These keychain-size devices, made by a number of manufacturers, can store large amounts of data, even 1GB or more. If you use Windows 2000 or XP, a thumb drive requires no additional software; Windows will detect the device as soon as you pop it in a port, and will assign it its own drive letter in Explorer. If a standard key-fob style doesn't suit you, some companies have integrated thumb drives into pens, watches, and even a Swiss army pocket knife. Whichever model you choose, make sure you pick one that transfers data at USB 2.0 speeds; the older USB 1.1 devices move files at a pokier pace.

Communications: Most PCs come with a modem for dial-up Internet access and an ethernet port for broadband access. If you want to connect to the Internet wirelessly, you'll need a wireless network adapter.

To share your broadband connection or to network your PCs, get a gateway or router. A PC and router with gigabit ethernet will give you a faster local network connection than products with 10/100 ethernet. If you go wireless, you'll also need a card or an external adapter for each PC. (See "How to Buy Home Networking Products" for more specifics.)

Sound: In the office, the basics should suffice; integrated sound in your PC is more than adequate for most work. At home, though, you'll probably want surround sound. If your PC doesn't already support surround sound, for $100 or more you can buy an upgraded sound card with Dolby 5.1 support, plus a decent set of speakers that includes a subwoofer.

Design: A good case can make your everyday work easier and can simplify the task of upgrading or servicing components--an especially valuable perk in offices with multiple systems. A well-designed case will offer tool-less access to the interior, hard drives mounted on easy slide-out trays, and color-coded cables for internal and external parts.

At home, look for at least two USB ports in front so that you can easily hook up peripherals. If you have a digital video camcorder, get a PC with a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port.

If you plan to keep the system for a while, make sure you have some room for expansion. You'll want at least a couple of open drive bays and probably a free PCI slot as well.

Software: Most home and office PC users should find Windows XP Home a perfectly acceptable operating system. You should buy Windows XP Professional only if you want to take advantage of its management features, such as Remote Desktop, which lets users control the computer remotely over the Internet. Most vendors offer XP Home, XP Pro, and the increasingly popular Windows XP Media Center Edition.

Warranty and tech support: Because most PC problems tend to crop up in the first year, a one-year warranty should be fine. A two- or three-year warranty will add about $150 to $200 to your cost. Businesses can get options like 24-hour on-site response, but they must pay dearly for it.

Keyboard and mouse: Almost all systems include these commodity components, usually a Windows-compatible 102-key keyboard and a two-button mouse with a scroll wheel. Many vendors are switching from PS/2-connected devices to USB models that offer more features, such as additional programmable keys that can launch favorite applications or Web sites. Wireless keyboards and mice are especially useful for Media Center PCs. Optical mice, which use a small camera to detect motion, provide smoother, more precise control over mouse movement. They also eliminate the need for you to remove and clean a coated ball, as with older mice.

The Specs Explained

The vast majority of people buy a PC to browse the Web, check and send e-mail, and perform word processing or spreadsheet work. Today, even the least-expensive, lowest-of-the-low-end PC can perform any of those jobs admirably.

However, you'll want more performance oomph when you use certain peripherals, such as a scanner. You'll want even more performance if you're a gamer or if you engage in processor-intensive tasks, such as digital video editing and encoding--or, if you simply need to have the latest and greatest gear available.

Most vendors let you customize and upgrade base-model PCs with a mind-boggling selection of features. Need extra storage? Pick a larger hard drive. Want extra memory? Load up with 4GB of RAM. Ready to burn Blu-ray Discs or watch HD DVD movies? Choose an optical-drive option that supports your desired format.

We recommend you take your time and select only what you need today, based on the following guidelines. If your budget allows, buy what you anticipate needing within a year from today. And be sure to check our charts of the Top Value PCs and Top Power PCs, before making your purchase.

Important: Processor (CPU)

A central consideration to any PC purchase, the processor determines how quickly the PC runs applications and performs many tasks. It also tends to determine how costly your system will be. Processor speed is measured in billions of operations (gigahertz, or GHz) per second. Most new processors from chip giants AMD and Intel have two cores inside to improve performance. Even if you're buying a low-end system, getting one with a dual-core CPU is worthwhile.

At the low end (sub-$1000), we recommend either AMD's 2-GHz Athlon 64 X2 3800+ or Intel's 2.8-GHz Pentium D 915 as a starting point. Midrange buyers--those who need to strike a balance between price (sub-$2000) and performance--should zero in on either AMD's 2.6-GHz Athlon 64 X2 5000+ or Intel's 2.3-GHz Core 2 Duo E6400. Shoppers with bigger budgets and greater processing needs should look to Intel's 2.67-GHz Core 2 Duo E6700 or 3.93-GHz Core 2 Extreme X6800.

If you plan to play back high-definition movies on Blu-ray Disc or HD DVD, you'll need a lot of processing power. Software manufacturer CyberLink, maker of the popular PowerDVD movie playback application, recommends the following CPUs for Blu-ray and HD DVD: for Intel, the Pentium Extreme Edition, the Pentium D 9xx series, the Core Duo T2xxx series, and the Core 2 Duo E6xxx series; for AMD, the Athlon 64 FX series, the Athlon 64 X2 series, and the Turion 64X2 series.

For more details on specific chips within these series, visit CyberLink's site.

Important: Installed Memory (RAM)

The more installed memory your PC has, the more applications you can run smoothly at once, and the better the system will perform. Upgrading memory in a desktop after you purchase the PC is a snap, but usually it's worth buying the amount of memory you want preinstalled with the system. At the low end--sub-$500--you'll want at least 512MB of memory. Our recommendation for $500-to-$1500 systems is to seek a minimum of 1GB of memory. At the high end ($1500 and up) you should get 2GB or more.
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PostSubject: more .........   Tue Jul 31, 2007 4:31 pm

mportant: Graphics Board and Graphics RAM

The graphics board or integrated graphics chip generates all images on the PC. Graphics boards come with variable amounts of on-board memory; only hard-core gamers need the speediest, most advanced models.

Many sub-$1000 systems, and all sub-$500 systems, offer integrated (on-board) graphics. Generally, integrated graphics will do fine for basic computing, but if you're multitasking while watching a video, for example, the graphics may hiccup. For the midrange, you'll want at least a 128MB nVidia GeForce or ATI Radeon card. Higher-end configurations will require dual-GPU arrangements, either on a dual-GPU graphics card or via two cards in an SLI nVidia GeForce 7800-based or ATI Radeon CrossFire X1950XTX-based setup.

If you want to prepare for high-definition video, movie player software maker CyberLink recommends nVidia GeForce 7600 GT, 7800 GTX 512, 7900 GX2, 7900 GTX, and 7950 GX2 cards with nVidia PureVideo HD, or ATI x1600, X1800, and X1900 series cards with ATI Avivo technology.

Important: Monitor

Your monitor is what you'll be staring at for hours on end, so pick something that will serve you well over the long haul. Many people can get by just fine with a 17-inch LCD monitor, but we recommend jumping up to a 19-inch model for the extra screen real estate. Look for a digital monitor with DVI (you'll receive a sharper image with digital) instead of an analog-only model (often, the sort that comes by default with the cheap PCs advertised online). Wide-screen monitors are an increasingly popular option, as are dual-monitor displays (if you want to go the latter route, look for a graphics card with dual-DVI ports).

Important: Hard Drive

The larger the hard drive, the more data you can store. Most business users don't need a hard drive larger than 80GB, but for mixed use you'll want more capacity. People who work with big databases, spreadsheets, or digital photo, music, or video files should think larger--drives are available in up to 750GB capacities. Two drives in a striped RAID 0 array can offer a boost on performance; alternatively you can get two drives mirrored together in a RAID 1 (or similar) configuration, to provide fault-tolerance against hardware failure.

Most drives today are Serial ATA and spin at 7200 rpm; however, serious gamers and other users who thrive on speed will appreciate the 10,000-rpm high-performance drives of Western Digital. The Western Digital Raptor X maxes out at 150GB, though, so you must make a trade-off in capacity to get the performance edge.

Somewhat Important: Optical Drive

All PCs need an optical drive--a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM model at the bare minimum--to read CDs and DVDs, respectively (a DVD-ROM can also read CDs). For a few dollars more, you can add a rewritable drive so you can back up your data to CD or DVD (low-end systems sometimes provide only a CD-RW drive; most PCs offer a multiformat, dual-layer rewritable DVD burner). For standard DVD, the best drive you can buy is one that handles writing to double- or dual-layer DVD discs, and offers LightScribe Direct Disc Labeling.

If you're eager to get a head start on the next-gen revolution, some PC makers are now offering Blu-ray Disc burners as an option; expect to pay at least $500 extra for the luxury of being able to play back high-definition Blu-ray Disc movies and to write to 25GB and 50GB discs. Competing next-gen format HD DVD is now available on PCs as an HD DVD-ROM drive only, for disc playback and often for standard DVD recording, too. HD DVD burners won't be available until sometime in 2007.

Somewhat Important: Removable Storage and Ports

You want to make sure your PC has at least one or two USB ports on the front of the system, to plug in your digital audio player and a USB memory drive, for example. You'll want more USB ports in back, for attaching everything from an external hard drive to a printer. Higher-end systems and Media Center PCs should also have audio/video inputs and FireWire ports within easy reach.

Somewhat Important: Input Devices

You can easily upgrade your system's input devices after you purchase it. This way, you can choose the right mouse and keyboard for your needs, and maybe even try out whichever models you're considering at your local store. At the least, your system will come with a 102-key PS/2 keyboard and USB optical mouse. Many systems offer keyboards with programmable multimedia- and task-centric buttons. Wireless keyboard and mouse options are also common. Windows Media Center PCs generally include wireless keyboards and mice, as well as a remote control (if the system has a TV tuner).

Important: Warranty and Service Plan

Your PC manufacturer probably will be the party you'll turn to in your hour of need, when your video card flakes out, say, or when your hard drive makes chattering noises. A service plan provides a valuable lifeline for busy professionals or novice users who may not be able to repair difficult problems themselves. Check PC World's annual Reliability & Service survey, where readers collectively determine which PC makers provide the best and worst technical support and warranty service. Most PC makers offer multiple tiers of service, so you can get--and pay for--the level of service you want.

At minimum, look for a PC with at least a one-year parts and labor warranty, and phone support for the duration of the warranty. Better still is finding a PC with 24-hour phone support for the lifetime of the machine. If you're buying a pricier system, or if you want the safety net that longer support periods can provide, look to upgrade to a two- or three-year (or longer) parts warranty and a one-year (or longer) labor warranty; typically such plans offer 24-hour phone support and even on-site service (when the PC vendor deems it necessary).

Desktop PC Shopping Tips

Ready to buy a desktop? Here are PC World's recommendations for the average user's minimum requirements.

A 2-GHz Athlon 64 X2 3800+ or 2.8-GHz Pentium D 915 processor. For everyday work, word processing, spreadsheets, and e-mail, you don't need the latest, greatest, and most expensive processor, though you should get one that has two cores, like those we recommend here. Such a processor will provide you with good performance now, and will prolong the life of your PC.

At least 512MB memory. Anything less will slow your work, especially if you plan to run several applications under Windows XP. Buy as much as you can afford, up to 1GB.

Be careful when you buy integrated graphics. If you buy a computer with integrated graphics, ask if it has a PCI Express slot. If it doesn't, you won't be able to upgrade your graphics chip.

Subwoofers improve sound. Adding a sound system with a subwoofer (a large speaker that produces very low bass tones) can dramatically improve the sound quality of a home system, even if the speaker set is inexpensive. In the office, however, a booming subwoofer may trigger an uprising among your coworkers.

A 17-inch flat-panel LCD monitor. CRTs are dead. Unless you're really pinching pennies, a 17-inch LCD will let you see your documents with greater definition (or at a higher resolution) than smaller displays would.

A rewritable DVD drive. Floppy drives have faded away. CD-RW-only drives are on the way out. Though your computer might still include a CD-RW drive, many users find that thumb drives, CD-RW/DVD-ROM combination drives, and recordable DVD drives are better options for data storage and transfer. They allow you to back up important documents (up to 1GB on a thumb drive, 700MB on a CD, and 4.7GB on a standard DVD), share files with colleagues, and create custom audio or video discs. A CD-RW may be all that most people need, but a DVD recorder lets you back up larger amounts of data.

A 60GB or larger hard drive. A 40GB hard drive is fine for simple word processing or Web browsing tasks, but you'll likely fill that hard drive pretty quickly. In the long run it's best to buy more hard drive than you think you'll need. Today's largest hard drives reach 500GB, but unless you're planning to use your PC as a mini server for your office database or for electronic entertainment, a smaller drive may be more cost-effective.

Connectivity up front. Many PCs now offer a pair of USB ports on the front of the case, so you can connect multiple peripherals without having to fumble around in back. If this is important to you, look for PCs with up-front FireWire (IEEE 1394) ports, audio and video connectors, and USB 2.0 ports.

Graphics cards for novice gamers. If you want to do some gaming and you're keeping an eye on the future, get a mainstream graphics board, which can be about $200. You'll need a card with a built-in TV tuner if you plan to record video from your TV. (See "How to Buy a Graphics Board" for details on specific cards.)

Other Shopping Tips

In addition to choosing a PC with the above specifications, PC shoppers can save money and avoid unnecessary hassle by following these tips:

Don't buy additional software unless you really need it. Purchase an operating system, an office suite, and an antivirus package. But if you need more, look for vendors' software bundles to upgrade your software. For as little as $100, you can often upgrade from Microsoft Works Suite or a similar package to a full office suite like Microsoft Office XP Small Business Edition--a great value considering Office XP runs more than $300 off the shelf.

Don't get caught up surfing price reductions. If you need a new PC now, don't wait a few months to see whether prices will drop further and upper-end performance will improve. Some readers find themselves stuck in an endless price-drop waiting game. Instead, decide when you need the system, and go for it.

Buy above minimum specs for the longest useful life span. If longevity is a priority (and if you can afford it), get something closer to, but below, the current top of the line. This will extend the useful life of your PC.

Check an LCD monitor's interface. Depending on the brand or model of LCD monitor, it could have one of several interface connectors--the part that plugs into the PC. These include the well-known VGA and the superior DVI connectors. If you're buying a nonbundled display, make sure it will work with the system you want--or that you at least have a money-back guarantee.

Upgrade at the time of purchase. Often, you can get a better deal on a larger hard drive or a better monitor when you first order your computer. Even doubling the size of a hard drive may add very little to the cost, and upgrading to a higher-quality monitor may add only $100.

Avoid gimmicky keyboards to save money. Many vendors tout fancy keyboards with extra buttons for launching apps. Save some money by choosing the cheapest option unless you have a specific need for the fancier one.

Get the scoop on the vendor before you buy. Check out PC World's annual Reliability & Service survey, where readers tell us which PC makers provide the best (and worst) technical support and warranty service.
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