There are several options to consider when purchasing a new PC. It can
be confusing to a Lay-Person. The amount of money you will spend on a PC
can vary greatly. Here are the major components to consider before
Choosing the central processor unit (CPU) chip is one of the most
important choices in buying your PC. If it’s been a few years since
you’ve bought a PC, you might be familiar with choosing CPUs based on
their GHz rating. That’s no longer the sole thing you should be
concerned about – the type of processor makes a big difference (Intel’s
Core 2 Duos are considerably faster than Pentium 4s at the same GHz, for
In the last couple of years, processors have also taken an
interesting turn: rather than simply bumping up the speed, CPU makers
are now packing multiple processing cores into a single chip. Your
computer splits up tasks and works on them in parallel, boosting the
effective speed of processing. The catch? Most software hasn’t yet been
very effectively optimized for multi-core processing, so it doesn’t get
much benefit from more than two cores (“dual core”). Quad-core
processors are mainly useful for heavily mathematical tasks like video
encoding and non-gaming 3D rendering.
It’s worth going for a dual-core CPU such as an Intel Core 2 Duo
- for a start, they are barely more expensive than single core chips,
and they also help with the general smoothness of your computer. If one
program is hogging a CPU core, Windows can still run reasonably smoothly
on the other core, rather than the whole system slowing down.
You’ll also need to choose between an Intel or an AMD CPU. The two
manufacturers are always at each other’s throat trying to outdo each
other on speed, so it’s impossible to say which is faster. The best
thing to do is to read CPU reviews in computer magazines and websites at
the time you’re thinking of buying your PC.
You’ll only need to choose the motherboard if you’re specifying every
component of the PC and getting a shop to build it, or building it
yourself. Brand-name PCs use their own motherboards and pre-priced PCs
at shops will be based around a certain motherboard too.
The motherboard you buy must be matched to the CPU you buy. There are
several different CPU socket types, and boards for Intel CPUs and AMD
CPUs are totally different.
Motherboards are mostly differentiated by the extras that are
included on them over and above the basic reference design provided by
the original motherboard designer such as Intel or NVIDIA. These extras
may include RAID (for automatic hard drive backup to a second drive, or
for higher performance throughput by ‘striping’ data across multiple
drives), built-in support for wireless networking, Firewire support for
connection of video cameras, and so on.
Some boards are designed with overclockers in mind – people who want
to be able to tweak the settings on their board to drive chip speed
above the original speeds set out by the manufacturer. This can be
worthwhile – most CPUs have a lot of headroom in them to allow them to
run faster than the manufacturer’s spec, but it does mean you’ll need to
learn about the intricacies of overclocking as well as investing in
specialized cooling systems to keep the PC’s heat under control.
In simple terms, if you want a motherboard, buy from a well
established brand-name such as Intel and you’ll benefit from better
ongoing support and automatic software updates and so on.
RAM – the memory space your computer uses to hold active programs and
‘think’ while it’s switched on – has always been an expensive component
of the computer, but offers big speed increases if you add more.
As a guide, Windows XP will run reasonably well in 512MB of RAM, but
bumping that up to 1GB will provide good performance. RAM is now so
cheap that if you’re not under a tight budget, you may as well go up to
2GB as it will provide lots of headroom for big applications like
Photoshop, or running one operating system (such as Linux) inside
another (like Windows) using virtualization software.
Vista is considerably more RAM hungry. For ‘OK’ performance, 1GB is
the minimum, and 2GB will provide good speeds. Put as much memory in
your PC as you can afford – however, the maximum the mainstream version
of Vista can use is about 3GB. To go beyond that, you’ll need to step up
to the 64bit version of Vista, which may have problems with
compatibility with software that wasn’t written specifically for it.
You need to buy RAM that is the appropriate type and speed for your
motherboard. If you are specifying the components for your PC
individually, be sure to check what the right type of RAM is before
buying or specifying it.
Storage: too much is never enough
One thing that PC users can never have enough of in the era of
downloadable TV shows, movies and music is storage space. The good news
is that enormous hard drives are very affordable indeed.
For most users, a 250GB drive will be a good starting point,
providing storage space that will last for a fair while. As a guide, a
TV episode takes about 0.5GB and a downloaded movie takes about 1GB –
1.5GB. A backup of a DVD can take up to 9GB, and video downloaded from
your video camera for editing takes about 12GB per hour of video.
If you want to splurge, 500GB drives are also very affordable. It’s
only at the 750GB and 1TB points that hard drives start to get
expensive. Of course, most desktop PCs come with multiple drive bays, so
you can always buy multiples of the cheaper hard drives (such as 3 x
500GB) to get a large amount of storage.
If you have a digital camera, you may want to look into getting a PC
with a card reader built in to the case. They provide faster downloads
than by connecting your camera to the PC, because the card is being read
directly by the computer. Card readers are common in brand-name PCs, but
if you’re buying from a local PC supplier, you’ll need to specifically
mention that you want this – they’ll install a card slot into the one of
the drive bays on the front of the case. Usually these card readers
provide multiple slots for different types of cards – but make sure the
particular type of card your camera uses will have an appropriate slot
in the card reader that is going to be installed into your PC.
Choose your graphics card carefully
There are three main choices in video cards: motherboard built-in
graphics (fine for everyday tasks but not usually enough for gaming), a
mid-range graphics card that will cost around $250 - $300 (and offers
good gaming performance with a just-super ceded chipset), or a top-end
graphics card that will cost you about $700 - $1000 (which offers a the
very latest, fastest chipset, but is being sold at a premium for the
If you decide to go for the latter two options, you’ll also have to
choose between one of the two major graphics chip makers: NVIDIA or AMD
(formerly known as ATI). NVIDIA does not make its own graphics cards –
it sells card designs to other video card manufacturers, who manufacture
them. It doesn’t matter too much which manufacturer you choose – they
all produce the reference NVIDIA design. AMD does make its own cards.
The two companies are constantly overtaking each other in the speed
stakes, so the best thing to do when choosing a graphics card is to
check out the latest card reviews and comparisons in computer magazines
One really important thing to check, though, is the connectors on the
card. There are three main types: VGA (the oldest, analogue connection
standard, designed for CRT monitors, but works with many LCD monitors as
well), DVI (a fully digital connector used on most LCD monitors and some
plasma and LCD TVs) and HDMI (the latest home-theatre connector found on
newer Plasma and LCD TVs.)
Most people will want to go for a card that includes both DVI and
HDMI so they can connect to an LCD monitor and potentially to a
plasma/LCD TV. However, if you have a CRT monitor (or older LCD
monitor), you’ll need to get a card with a VGA port.
If you are planning to use a very large screen such as a 30” display,
you may need to get a card that has two DVI connectors on the back, or
one that has a single DVI connector that supports “duallink” – a cable
with a single DVI port on one end and two DVI plugs on the other end.
This is because the 30” monitors and above generally need two DVI feeds
at once to supply the picture to them.
CD / DVD drives
DVD burners are now so cheap, there’s no real point in getting a CD
drive in your PC any more. It’s so useful to be able to backup files to
the larger storage capacity of recordable DVDs – 4.3GB vs only 0.65GB on
One thing you may want to consider is whether it’s worth investing in
a high-definition optical drive, such as an HD-DVD or BluRay drive. At
the time this article was written, the jury was still out over which
format would prevail in the tense standoff between the two camps, so
most people are holding off buying for the time being.
Additionally, high-def drives cost over a thousand dollars, and the
recordable media costs over $50 per disc, so it’s clearly still
Most motherboards come with very good on-board sound nowadays. The
only people that need to buy additional sound cards these days are
gaming enthusiasts who want the very best possible multi-channel
Our recommendation in most cases is to buy your PC with the standard
motherboard sound first, see whether it’s good enough, and if you want
better, to add a third-party sound card later.
Connecting your desktop at home
Most motherboards come with inbuilt gigabit Ethernet networking, for
very high performance file transfers over a wired network. But
increasingly, people are appreciating the convenience of wireless
Although wireless networking can easily be added to a desktop PC
later via an add-on card or a USB adaptor, it’s worth checking whether
it’s possible to get a PC with it built-in. This will keep your card
slots free for other things.
If you are buying wireless networking with your PC, try to get one
that has draft 802.11n support. This will be compatible with older types
of networks such as 802.11g and 802.11b, but if you do install a draft
802.11n network at home, you’ll get much better file transfer speeds
between the different computers on your network. On the older networks
such as 802.11g, transferring a TV episode from one computer to another
over the wireless can be a tortuously slow experience – it could take
half an hour, for example.
Choosing a modem, monitor, keyboard, mouse
Older desktop PCs used to come with a dialup modem built-in, but
that’s very uncommon these days because most people getting a powerful
new PC want to use broadband. Broadband modems are always external to
the PC, usually plugged in via Ethernet or USB (Ethernet connected
models are much better as they do not need software or drivers installed
on the PC.) Although the computer shop may be able to sell you a modem,
it’s not always a good idea, unless you’ve spoken to your ISP first and
found out exactly what kind of modem you need. Generally, buying a modem
from the ISP (or at least the same model of modem) is a good idea
because if you need to ring up and troubleshoot connection problems,
they’ll be better able to help you with modems that they supply.
Choice of monitor is tougher Suffice to say, flat-panel LCDs are the
way to go these days as they’ve come down to very affordable prices, and
don’t take up as much space or consume as much power as the older style
When choosing your keyboard and mouse, it’s really worth not skimping
on them. Many computer shops can supply a cheap mouse and keyboard, but
while a cheap keyboard can be OK, do spend a little bit to get a good
mouse. You’ll want to budget $50 - $100 for a Logitech or Microsoft
mouse. It’s better to go for corded rather than wireless keyboards or
mice, as you can run out of batteries quite quickly, and there’s nothing
worse than having to go foraging for batteries right at that crucial
moment when you just want your keyboard or mouse to work.
Planning to use an old printer / scanner / monitor / Other?
The latest PCs generally only have newer types of connectors for
external devices, such as USB for peripherals, DVI for monitors and
Ethernet for modems. If you have an old device like a printer that only
has a large 25-pin Parallel port on it, or keyboard/mouse with the old
circular PS/2 connectors, or a monitor with a VGA plug, be sure to tell
the PC retailer so they can recommend a PC to you that has the
Also, be aware that if you’re buying a PC with Windows Vista on it,
you may not be able to get compatible driver software for your older
devices. Windows XP will be available until June 2008, so if you are
planning on using older devices, that’s a much better choice of
If you have a video camera, you’ll probably need to get a Firewire
port in your new PC. Most video cameras use this port, though some now
come with USB ports or even memory cards that can be removed and plugged
directly into a card reader on your PC