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Monday
Feb072005

Desktop PCs: The Essential Buying Guide


http://www.pcmag.com/category2/0,1738,29,00.asp
Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, observed that chip transistor count doubled every 18 months and, as a result, the functions that could be packed onto an integrated circuit also rose rapidly over time. But must you constantly sink money into new technology just because advancements occur so quickly? Not necessarily. Processing power, speed, memory, video capabilities, and storage capacity are just a few of the criteria to consider, but knowing exactly what you need a personal computer to do for you is the key to making the right choice.

The desktop system has come a long way in a relatively short time. Back in 1975, the MITS Altair 8800 (a build-it-yourself kit) caused a stir in the electronics industry. Powered by the Intel 8080 processor, the Altair provided the blueprint for early systems. The Apple II, introduced in 1977, quickly moved into the business world to run spreadsheet and word processing applications. But the Apple II was also good for playing Atari-like games because of its color graphics and so the machine became a popular home system. 1981 saw the introduction of the IBM PC, available with up to two floppy disk drives and based on Intel's 4.77-MHz 8088 processor. IBM's box quickly took the business world by storm. With few exceptions, the desktop choices now boiled down to Apple versus IBM.

IBM, however, used a nonproprietary architecture, so hardware and software manufacturers began churning out expansion options and DOS-based applications, and the race was over. The IBM PC took its place as the business machine of choice, spawning a new industry of third-party hardware and software companies and paving the way for clones-IBM-compatible machines-to enter the growing marketplace. Through the 1980s, Intel continued to make strides in processor technology, engineering the 80286 (12.5 MHz), 80386 (33 MHz), and 80486 (50 MHz) processors. In 1993, Intel introduced the first Pentium chip, which contained 3.1 million transistors (the 8088 had 29,000) and featured clock speeds of up to 66 MHz. The result was a mixed blessing for PC buyers. The increased processing power meant more productivity for the desktop user, and competition among desktop manufacturers kept prices manageable, but with so many new PC companies claiming to build the cheapest, fastest machines, deciding on the right machine became daunting.

Through the mid-90s, PC Magazine featured PC reviews in which we regularly tested over 100 machines side by side. Today, the playing field has narrowed considerably. Many PC manufacturers have dropped out of the race or merged. Still, because CPU manufacturers such as Intel, AMD, and Motorola realize that people have different needs, these companies continue to design processors that push the envelope; not just in terms of raw power, but with an eye toward functionality and value, too. So even though there are many factors to consider when choosing a desktop, purchasing the right one has become easier than ever before.

In this buying guide, we've separated desktops into two main categories: Business and Home. Each category is broken down into subcategories. We'll take a look at a variety of important features in addition to the processor, such as memory, hard drives, optical drives, sound cards, and expansion options, and we'll let you know why you may or may not need a particular device. We'll discuss other factors to consider when buying a desktop, including budgetary concerns, technical support, and warranty options, and we'll post a list of top 10 buying tips that will help you get the most bang for your buck. Finally, we'll explain why the fastest desktop may not be the most powerful, and we'll tell you what all those acronyms stand for (and what they really mean).

As we mentioned above, choosing a desktop depends largely on what you intend to do. The goal is to end up with a machine that has all the necessary components to handle your type of work. Most vendors will configure a system to your specifications, allowing you to add or delete options according to your computing needs. The business user should factor processing power, manageability, serviceability, and total cost of ownership (TCO) into the buying decision. On the other hand, the ideal home system doesn't necessarily need the latest processor, but the system should be a well-rounded one that can run the latest educational, entertainment, and home office software, and load graphics-intensive Web pages. On-site technical support should come as part of the package. Also, if you're buying a desktop for your home, take into consideration the systems in use outside of the home. For example, many schools are equipped with Apple desktops, so you may want to think about an iMac or Power Mac G4, depending on your processing-power requirements.

Ease of use, although a major concern in the office, is even more important to the home user, who doesn't have the benefit of in-house training and technical support departments. We rate ease of use based on setup and startup, on the quality of the system's features, and on the ability to connect to the Internet. We also consider service, support, and how well the system lends itself to upgrading.

Business desktops:
  • Corporate or managed systems. Ideal for businesses that purchase large volumes of desktops, these systems should feature identical components across the board, provide tool-free removal of critical parts, and come with preinstalled desktop-management applications that allow IT managers to monitor system health and deploy software from a remote console. These systems often use the same software and require no advanced graphics or multimedia capabilities. In most cases, the Intel Celeron or Pentium III or the AMD Duron or Athlon processors provide sufficient computing power. Managed systems generally come in three sizes: desktop, mini-tower, and small form factor. Some manufacturers market sealed-box systems, with few or no removable parts and with built-in security features that allow IT administrators to disable components such as CD-ROM drives, USB ports, and other peripherals and peripheral connections. Another option, the sealed-box, legacy-free configuration-which has no serial, parallel, or PS/2 ports-further simplifies setup and maintenance.

  • Small-business systems. Many manufacturers offer desktops that are tailored to the small-business environment. As always, hardware requirements vary according to the type of business applications you'll be running. But a system should contain a hard drive with enough capacity to store your data locally and should be powerful enough to run office and accounting packages that do their processing locally. Small-business systems usually do not require high-end video or multimedia components (unless you're in the graphics-creation or Web-development field, for example), so these computers won't be as expensive as workstations and high-end machines. Look for a package that includes office software, 24-hour technical support, and, if you're an e-business company, a Web hosting service with support for building and maintaining your Web site.

  • Workstations. These desktops are all about speed and graphics and are the machines of choice for the CAD, CAE, and MCAD communities, as well as for digital content designers, Web developers, software developers, and financial institutions. Workstations can be configured as multiprocessor systems and are bundled with high-end graphics controllers that deliver exceptional 2-D and 3-D performance and support dual monitors. These systems are at the high end of the desktop price range. They can take up to 4GB of memory and use SCSI devices, including hard drives with capacities exceeding 200GB and hard drives in RAID configurations.

  • High-end systems. Depending upon its intended use, the high-end desktop can be considered a crossover machine, serving the needs of the power business user, the die-hard gamer, and the multimedia enthusiast. Featuring the latest processor (P4 or Athlon 4), lots of fast memory, a blazing 3-D video card, and a large hard drive, these systems usually offer a CD-RW drive for playing and burning audio and video CDs, a DVD-ROM drive, and better-than-average sound components for playing and mixing audio. The perfect high-end desktop contains bells and whistles, like IEEE 1394 (FireWire) support, integrated Ethernet, multiple USB ports, and hardware for encoding and decoding MPEG-2 files. Some manufacturers let you choose the latest office suites or audio- and video-editing programs as part of your custom configuration.

Home desktops:

  • Value systems. The demands made of home PCs are often light-accessing the Internet, collecting and storing recipes, and keeping track of the family budget, for example. Even the most affordable PC is capable of this and much more. Value systems use lower-cost processors such as those in the Celeron or Duron series and come loaded with the Windows Me operating system. They should also include at least 64MB of memory and a 20GB hard drive. They generally have integrated video and sound, an integrated 56K modem, and a CD-ROM drive. You can upgrade most value desktops by installing a more powerful processor, more memory, and larger hard drives, but the price will climb as well. If you plan to upgrade at a later date-by adding expansion boards, for example-be sure to choose a desktop that can handle additional PCI or AGP boards. (Some value systems don't have the ability to accept these devices.) To sweeten the pot, many manufacturers offer free printers or digital cameras as part of the package and some offer a huge discount on the system itself if you sign a multiyear contract for Internet service (see "Desktops: Pros and Cons"). As the home market has grown, companies have faced mounting costs for on-site and telephone support. As a result, many systems now come with self-diagnostic and troubleshooting tools, enabling you to resolve minor technical glitches or restore your system to its original state.

  • Multimedia systems. A good multimedia system need not be a high-end machine, but should have a Pentium III, Athlon, or G3 processor or better, a minimum of 128MB of memory, a DVD-ROM drive for audio and video playback, and a CD-RW drive for recording your projects as well as backing up your data. You'll want an AGP 4X video card for 3-D graphics, a minimum of 80GB of hard-drive capacity for storing those huge video files, and a high-quality sound system. If you're into digital editing, consider a DVD-R or DVD-RW drive instead of the CD-RW option, so you can create your own DVD discs that can be viewed on any DVD playback device. Also look for systems that are preloaded with multimedia software, such as audio- and video-editing applications and programs for CD and DVD creation.

  • Gaming systems. A hard-core gamer wants the fastest machine available (Pentium 4, Athlon, or G4), with the latest 64MB, 4X AGP video accelerator, plenty of hard drive space, and the ability to compete online. A 56K connection won't cut it for online gaming, so you'll want to configure your machine with a fast Ethernet card for broadband service-cable or DSL, generally. When choosing the ideal gaming or multimedia desktop, be sure to steer clear of machines that use on-board video controllers, which tend to have trouble processing the 3-D graphics used in today's most popular games. A quality add-on sound card will enhance your gaming experience, although the integrated sound controller that ships with most home systems will suffice. Top off the package with the latest in gameware, like a force-feedback joystick, gamepad, or steering wheel/pedal controller.


Staying within the budget is a major concern when buying a system, whether for business or personal use. Clearly, a top-of-the-line setup will cost more than the average home PC, but there's no sense in paying for features you'll never use. Buying a high-end workstation as a home entertainment machine is overkill, just as selecting a value system for doing engineering design will leave you underequipped. Desktops can cost as little as $400 for a home system to more than $10,000 for a high-end graphics workstation. Below is a summary of price ranges and what you can expect within each.

  • Budget-minded user (up to $600). Yes, there are vendors who offer free desktops through a series of rebates, sales promotions, and your commitment to sign with an ISP for any number of years. These are usually value systems with Celeron or Duron processors, 10 to 20GB hard drives, 64MB of memory, and a CD-ROM drive but little else. In most cases, monitors are sold separately and the machines are not easily upgraded.Look for a desktop in this price range if you're just getting started, on a very tight budget, or simply want a desktop for writing school papers and surfing the Web.

  • Mainstream home or small-business user ($600 to $1,000). At the low end of this price range, you can expect an 800-MHz Celeron or Duron system with 64MB of memory, a 20GB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, and possibly a 15-inch monitor. Upgrading to a Pentium III class machine with 128MB of memory and a secondary CD-RW drive will bring you to the top of the range, as will a 400-MHz G3 iMAC with similar components.Look for a desktop in this price range if you need a machine that will handle home office or small office applications or light multimedia functions, such as mixing and burning audio CDs.
  • Mainstream business or experienced home user ($1,000 to $1,500). Desktops in this price range can fill a wide variety of needs for both business and home users. This type of system should feature 128MB of memory, a 40GB hard drive, a 17-inch monitor, a 32MB, 4X AGP video card, and either a Pentium III, Pentium 4 or Athlon processor. As you add more memory, upgrade the video capability, and install CD-RW and DVD drives, the price will hit the top of the range.Look for a desktop in this price range if you're a home enthusiast, you want to run DVD movies and most games, or you need the extra power to quickly load Web pages that are graphical and contain rich content.

  • Power user ($1,500 to $3,000). This is where you'll find the high-end, expert gamer, and power user systems, and midrange workstations. These systems utilize the fastest processors (Pentium 4, Athlon, and G4) and come with at least 128MB of fast memory, a 40GB hard drive, a CD-ROM drive, a 17-inch monitor, and a 32MB graphics card. Upgrade to 256MB of memory and 64MB of video RAM and add an 80MB hard drive, a DVD-RW drive and other options such as fast Ethernet and a three-way speaker system, and you're at the top of this range.Look for a desktop in this price range if your computing needs demand cutting-edge technology-especially if you're involved in high-end multimedia editing, online 3-D gaming, or Web development.

  • High-end user ($3,000 and above). In a high-end professional workstations, a configuration with dual processors, 1GB of RIMMs (the trademark for memory modules made with Rambus high-speed memory), 128MB of graphics memory, a four-drive, high-capacity RAID storage solution, and a flat-panel display, the cost can top $10,000.Look for a desktop in this price range if you're into computer-aided design, engineering, or high-end animation.


The good news is that there are lots of features to consider when buying your desktop. The bad news, and it really isn't all that bad, is that wading through the choices can be time-consuming and confusing. To help you decide, we've compiled a list of features to consider.

  • Processors. For Windows-based desktops, the major players are Intel and AMD. Intel Celeron chips, available in speeds from 500 MHz to 766 MHz (66-MHz bus) and 800 MHz to 850 MHz (100-MHz bus), and AMD Duron chips, available in 800 MHz to 900 MHz (200-MHz bus) versions, are low-cost processors designed to keep desktop prices under $1,000 but still provide enough power to handle popular home software and standard business applications. Pentium III processors, running at speeds from 650 MHz to1 GHz, interface with 100-MHz or 133-MHz busses, depending on the chip. These processors feature an improved cache architecture and special instructions designed to improve the performance of streaming audio and video, 3-D imaging, and speech recognition applications, with a view toward enhancing the Web experience. Motorola's G3 processor for the iMAC comes in 400-MHz, 500-MHz, and 600-MHz versions and plugs into a 100-MHz system bus. The Intel Pentium 4 and the AMD Athlon processors are currently the fastest available, delivering speeds of up to 1.7 GHz and 1.33 GHz, respectively. The Pentium 4 chip features what Intel calls its NetBurst micro-architecture, which increases the bus speed to 400 MHz, adds over 100 new multimedia instructions, and moves information through the processor faster. AMD Athlon processors provide bus speeds of 200 MHz and 266 MHz, depending on the chip. They feature enhanced 3Dnow!, a technology designed for fast processing of the type of data encountered by multimedia applications such as digital video and video streaming. Motorola's G4 processor, which is used in Apple's Power Mac G4 system, runs at speeds of up to 733 MHz and has a bus speed of 133 MHz.

  • Memory. Along with the processor, system memory is one of the most important determinants of your desktop's performance, because this memory holds the data the CPU needs to do its job. System memory comes in a variety of speeds, shapes, and sizes.
    • DRAM (dynamic random access memory). DRAM temporarily stores data and instructions used by the CPU (and other devices). The information is lost when the system shuts down. Earlier desktops used FPM (Fast Page Mode) and EDO (Extended Data-Out) RAM, but these were too slow to keep up with the faster processors, creating a bottleneck that prevented the CPU from performing at optimal speed.
    • SRAM (static RAM). This is a very expensive high-speed memory used primarily to cache information, thus speeding the processor's access to data and instructions. System cache memory resided on the motherboard in earlier systems but is now integrated into the processor as L1 (primary) and L2 (secondary) cache, which hold small amounts of data that is frequently used by the CPU.
    • SDRAM (synchronous dynamic RAM). SDRAM is the most common form of desktop memory used today, SDRAM is synchronized with the CPU's clock, so there is little or no downtime when transferring data to the processor. SDRAM is available in 8MB to 256MB DIMMS (dual in-line memory modules) and is up to four times faster than its predecessor, DRAM.
    • RDRAM (Rambus Dynamic RAM). Developed by Rambus and Intel, this is some of the fastest system memory available for desktops. It transfers data at up to 600MHz. RDRAM is currently available in RIMMs of up to 256MB.
    • DDR SDRAM (double data rate SDRAM). This memory is similar to SDRAM but twice as fast. Data is accessed two times per clock cycle as opposed to standard memory, which accesses data only once per cycle. DDR memory is available at speeds of 200 MHz and 266 MHz in 64MB to 1GB DIMMs.
    • ECC DRAM (error correction code DRAM). ECC is a technology used in certain memory types, particularly SDRAM, that catches and corrects accidentally changed bits without stopping the system. ECC RAM costs more than non-ECC RAM and is used mostly in servers.

    • Motherboards. Commonly referred to as the system board or main board, the motherboard is the foundation upon which most computers are built. This is generally where the CPU, memory, I/O controllers and connectors are mounted, and where expansion boards are plugged in. The CPU, chip set (the collection of microchips that contains the main controller circuitry), other controller chips, and memory are connected by printed, electrically-conductive traces that provide the highway over which data and power are distributed among the system's components. Knowing what type of motherboard is installed in your desktop is important if you plan on adding expansion cards, memory, or additional processors at a later date. Desktop motherboards are manufactured in several form factors, depending on the desktop chassis, power supply, and the layout of chipsets and slots.

  • Hard Drives. Deciding which hard drive is best suited to your desktop will depend on several factors including speed, compatibility, and price. As far as storage space is concerned, more is better, but as the capacity of the hard drives rises, so does the price. For example, opting for a 60GB rather than a 20GB EIDE drive could cost another $100. An additional 9GB SCSI drive can cost over $200. The speed of your drive, as measured by its seek time and the rate of data transfer to and from the drive, will play an important role in the overall performance and cost of your desktop. Some common hard drive types are listed below.
    • IDE/ATA. ATA (AT attachment) drives, commonly referred to by the acronym IDE (integrated drive electronics), connect to the controller via a ribbon cable. Most non-SCSI motherboards have an integrated controller and two connectors capable of supporting a total of four EIDE (enhanced IDE) drives. The ATA specification is currently in its third revision (ATA-3), and features enhancements such as support for SMART (Self-Monitoring, Analysis and Reporting Technology) and high-speed data transfer via Ultra DMA (Direct Memory Access) modes.
    • SCSI (small computer system interface). SCSI is a faster interface than IDE. SCSI drives are widely used in high-end systems and cost more than IDE drives. Although most desktops include a built-in IDE interface, SCSI drives usually require an add-in SCSI controller. Besides speed, SCSI has the advantage of allowing numerous devices to connect to one controller. Configuration, however, is generally harder than with IDE.
    • RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives). This is not a drive type but rather a method for connecting several drives using a special controller. Data is stored across the array of drives simultaneously, according to one of several possible schemes, allowing for faster reads and writes and also enabling mirroring of drives, which provides a backup if a drives fails.
  • Optical drives. The most common forms of optical drives are CD-ROM and DVD-ROM. Almost all desktops ship with at least one of the two. The latest addition to the optical drive family is the combo drive, which integrates several different optical drives into one device. Most optical drives are available as internal devices and as external units and often come in IDE, SCSI, and USB versions.
    • CD-ROM. These are used for installing software and playing CD-based audio and video media. These drives read at speeds as high as 52X (7.8MBps maximum data transfer rate).
    • CD-R. This works as a CD-ROM drive but can also write to CD-R media, which can hold up to 650MB of audio, data, or a combination. CD-R drives are popular for burning audio CDs, which can be played back on any CD player. CD-R media can be written to only once.
    • CD-RW. CD-RW drives are similar to CD-R drives but allow recording to CD-RW media, which can be erased and re-recorded. CD-RW drives will read standard CD media, although older CD-ROM drives may not be able to read CD-RW media.
    • DVD-ROM. This is a read-only drive that supports DVD media, which are the same size as CDs, but recorded on both sides and capable of holding far more information. DVD drives are used to install and run large applications that previously required multiple CDs. DVD drives will play DVD movies as well, although an MPEG card or DVD software is suggested on slower PCs. DVD discs hold up to 17GB of data.
    • DVD-R. This is a DVD drive with the ability to write to DVD-R media. DVD-R discs are write-once media (cannot be erased and rewritten). They can be played back on standard home and computer DVD players.
    • DVD-RAM. These drives use special media enclosed in a cartridge, which cannot be used in non-DVD-RAM drives. The media can be written to, erased, and rewritten over 100,000 times and will hold over 4.7GB of data but are still fairly expensive. DVD-RAM drives will read all CD and DVD media and are ideal for storing files that tend to be large, such as those containing video, and for backing up critical data.
    • Combo drives. Combo drives offer an all-in-one solution. They can read from and write to CD-R and CD-RW media and read DVD-ROM media as well. Although generally not as fast as standalone drives, they use only one drive bay, conserving space.
  • Other drives. Other removable-media devices are available. Two of the most popular for data storage are Iomega Zip Drives and Iomega Jaz Drives.
    • Iomega Zip Drives. Zip Drives are similar in function to floppy disk drives. The proprietary disks, housed in plastic cases, are available in 100MB and 250MB formats and are ideal for midsize backups and easy transportation.
    • Iomega Jaz Drives. These use proprietary media similar to, but larger than those for Zip Drives. The disks hold up to 2GB of data.
  • Displays. If given the opportunity to choose your display, consider the following factors: display type (CRT or LCD), price, size, and most importantly, resolution. If you configure your desktop with a video card capable of 1,600-by-1,024 resolution, make sure your monitor can handle that resolution. For a more detailed look at displays, see the Displays Buying Guide.
  • Graphics. Pay special attention when choosing your video adapter, if you have the option of selecting one. Try to get a video card that will meet your current needs and that you can upgrade in accordance with your future plans.
    • Integrated video. On-board video (a video controller integrated onto the motherboard) is sufficient for most 2D applications, such as word processors and spreadsheets, if your documents aren't graphics-laden. Integrated video removes the need for multiple driver sets in an environment with multiple desktops, simplifying configuration and making troubleshooting and maintenance that much easier. Many value systems are equipped with integrated AGP graphics controllers.
    • 3-D video cards. This is the type of card you'll want if you seek high-speed video performance. Common uses include animation applications, gaming, and presentation graphics. There are plenty of 3-D video cards to choose from, each one more powerful than the next and as a rule, the more powerful the more expensive. Most are capable of running at resolutions of up to 1,900-by-1,200. The amount and type of video RAM on the board affects the cost, the graphics performance, and the quality of the image. For gamers, a 64MB 4X AGP video card will do the trick, although bumping the RAM up to 128MB won't hurt.
    • High-end video cards. Not for your typical desktop, these cards are usually found in workstations and other high-performance systems and carry hefty price tags, sometimes in the thousands of dollars. The cards generally rely on OpenGL architecture, the premiere technology used by developers of high-end video cards due to it's powerful rendering and texture-mapping capabilities, making this class of video controller ideal for precision applications such as CAD, medical imaging, and mechanical engineering.
  • Sound. Most desktops ship with some sort of audio hardware, either on-board (integrated on the motherboard) or in the form of a third-party sound card. As with most PC components, sound devices vary in functionality, features, and price.
    • Integrated sound. Recent advances in integrated sound hardware have resulted in good audio output without the need for an additional sound card. This frees an expansion slot for other peripherals. For a true multimedia system that will deliver surround sound and other special audio effects, though, an add-on sound card may be your best bet.
    • Add-on sound cards. Even though integrated sound has gotten better, there are advantages to using a third-party sound card. Integrated audio uses the CPU to process sound, but many third-party sound cards use their own Digital Signal Processor (DSP), freeing the CPU for other tasks. Also, add-in cards provide additional input and output connectors, allowing you to add up to six speakers.
  • Ports. There are several ways to connect peripheral devices such as printers, scanners, and modems, to your desktop. USB is the most recent, but IEEE 1394 (FireWire) is the current port of choice for peripherals, such as digital cameras, that transfer large amounts of data. Legacy (old technology) devices, which connect to parallel, serial, and PS/2 ports, are still popular, too. There are quite a few legacy devices in use and on the market.
    • Legacy ports. Although parallel, serial, and PS/2 devices are still widely used, newer technologies are surpassing them. Most desktops still support these ports, though. Parallel ports are mainly used for printers and external storage devices, such as CD-ROM drives; serial ports are used to connect modems and to hook up input devices such as mice; and PS/2 ports connect keyboards, mice, and other pointing devices.
    • USB. Most current desktops contain several USB (Universal Serial Bus) ports, sometimes as many as six. USB provides faster transfer rates (up to 12 Mbps) between peripheral devices and systems than legacy ports, and USB devices are fairly easy to install. Peripherals such as printers, digital cameras, speakers, and external storage devices have adopted the USB standard.
    • Ethernet. Until recently, Ethernet was used exclusively in the business arena as a means of connecting multiple systems in a network. But connecting to high-speed Internet services via cable or DSL requires devices that communicate with your computer using Ethernet, so most system makers offer Ethernet ports as an option, at least.
    • FireWire. Based on the IEEE 1394 standard, FireWire is similar to USB in that it provides a high-speed serial connection between the peripheral device and the system. Capable of moving data at up to 400 Mbps, FireWire is the preferred method for transferring data between the desktop and devices such as camcorders and digital cameras. Consider FireWire if you're into video editing and other multimedia applications.
  • Expansion slots. The ability to configure your desktop with additional expansion cards, such as network, video, and sound controllers, depends on the availability of unused expansion slots. Many slim desktops and small-form-factor systems have limited room for expansion. Mini-towers and full-size desktops often provide several open slots.
    • ISA (Industry Standard Architecture). Desktops today provide few, if any, expansion slots for ISA cards, although these cards still exist on the market (there are still a lot of systems with ISA slots out there). ISA has fallen into the legacy category due to its slow bus speed (8 MHz) and narrow bus width (16 bits).
    • PCI (Peripheral Component Interconnect). This is the standard bus architecture used in desktops today. PCI slots have direct access to system memory via a controller called a PCI bridge, use a wide bus (64 bits), and have bus speeds of up to 133 MHz.
    • AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port). Many machines include an AGP slot in addition to several PCI slots. The AGP slot is used exclusively for an AGP video controller card and provides a dedicated port for moving 3-D data from the controller to system memory at four times the speed of the PCI bus. This not only increases 3-D performance but also frees the PCI bus to move data to and from other devices.
  • Operating systems. The majority of home desktops ship with Microsoft Windows Me, Microsoft's Millennium Edition of Windows, which is geared toward the home-office and small-office markets. Windows Me includes tools for managing, editing, and sharing music, video, and digital images, as well as wizards for setting up a home network. Most business desktops ship with Windows 2000 Professional, which is built on the Windows NT platform and uses a Windows 98 interface for ease of use (Windows 98 and NT are still available, also). Look for the latest OSs from Microsoft, Windows XP Professional (for businesses) and Windows XP Home Edition, to ship later this year.
  • Apple's iMAC and Power Mac G4 desktops ship with either Mac OS 9.1 or with Mac OS X, Apple's latest OS, which is based on the Unix platform and which features a new user interface called Aqua, as well as enhanced Internet services and improved graphics capabilities.

  • Power. The amount of power used by a single desktop under normal operating conditions won't drive your utility bills through the roof, assuming the system is turned off when not in use. To cut down on system wear and tear and to ease power consumption in general (there are a lot of PCs running out there), the industry has developed several power-saving standards. APM (Advanced Power Management), ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface), and OnNow are good examples of how the OS and hardware components work together to shut down or to enter a sleep mode when not in use and to quickly resume operation when needed.

  • Bundled software. Most desktop manufacturers preinstall a suite of applications on their systems as a way of offering a complete package deal and enabling you to use your desktop right out of the box. These bundled packages vary from company to company and depend on the use for which the system is intended. Corporate desktops usually include desktop-management software that assists IT managers and administrators in monitoring the health and stability of PCs on their network. Depending on the size of your business, a suite of office applications, such as one of the Microsoft Office suites, may be bundled at no additional charge, as well as an antivirus program. Home desktops typically offer some combination of education, entertainment, and programs for editing audio and video as part of the deal. Software will add to the total cost of a desktop, so shop for the package that works for you.

  • Technical support and warranties. The level of after-sale support you'll receive will depend on where you buy your system. Warranty periods and restrictions will differ from manufacturer to manufacturer. Some warranties may not cover components such as mice, monitors, and other peripherals. Even purchasing a contract for on-site technical support doesn't guarantee that a service representative will show up at your home or place of business. The manufacturer will generally try to resolve any technical issues through other, cheaper means, such as over the phone or via the Web, and you may find yourself opening the system and installing replacement components. Free telephone tech support may leave you spending a good amount of time wading through phone menus and waiting for an available support agent. In some cases you may have to box the system up and ship or carry it to a repair depot. On the other hand, some vendors provide on-site technical support for your system or on-site service at no extra charge. Read the fine print before purchasing an extended warranty or on-site service contract.


With all the different processors, video options, sizes, and shapes of desktops available today, understanding what your system will really do for you, as opposed to what you're being told, is vitally important. Take note of the following common misconceptions before you buy.

  • The higher the CPU megahertz, the faster my applications will run. In most cases this is true, but not always. Buying a desktop with the latest processor will not always provide the best performance for your needs. For example, in a recent PC Magazine review, a 1-GHz Pentium III system outperformed a 1.5-GHz Pentium 4 system on our Business Winstone 2001 tests, proving that basic office applications do not need the fastest processor available. An AMD 1.33-GHz Athlon system beat out three 1.7-GHz Pentium 4 machines on the same test. On the other hand, when it came to processing sequential data sets such as those used in streaming media applications, the Pentium 4 systems outperformed the Pentium III system and the Athlon system.
  • Bigger is better. If you plan on adding more peripherals and expansion cards to your desktop, this is true. But where space is at a premium or in a corporate environment, small-form-factor or sealed-box PCs, which are easier to manage and maintain, may be the best option.
  • My desktop will be obsolete next year. Depending on your needs, a few upgrades may bring your desktop up to the performance level needed to run newer software applications. In some cases, adding more memory and a more powerful video card can help your PC outperform the latest system outfitted with less memory and a so-so video card. And because hardware advancements often outpace those of software, the system you buy today may satisfy your needs for some time to come.


TIPS
Be clear about what you expect your desktop system to do now and in the future. For example, if you plan to edit video or audio clips, you'll want a high-capacity hard drive (at least 160 GB), and both a CD-RW and DVD+, - or multiformat drive for back-ups, as these file types usually eat up lots of storage space. And in this day and age, in which a broadband connection is a must for faster downloads, make sure your system comes with integrated Ethernet. For notebooks, high-end desktop replacements are usually your best bet for multimedia tasks.

Manage your budget. Even though you know how much you can afford, getting carried away with optional features is easy. The costs can add up quickly. Buying a system with 1GB of memory is overkill if you typically run one application at a time, but 256MB is a reasonable amount of memory in a budget system. Note, however, that we recommend at least 512MB of memory in order to ensure that the Microsoft Windows XP operating system will run properly. Also, if you opt for a high-end video card, realize that you'll have to spend more for a display that can accommodate the card's highest resolution modes.

Look for bundled extras when comparing prices. Free software, printers, and other peripherals can add hundreds of dollars to the value of your desktop package. Check the cost of consumables, though, especially for printers. The cost of ink for some "free" inkjets, for example, can quickly outstrip the total expense for an equivalent printer from another manufacturer. For software, check if you are getting a full version, instead of a trial version that expires in 30 days.

Don't skimp on mass storage. The difference between a 40GB and a 60GB hard drive may be as little as $50 when you order your desktop, so configure your system with as big a drive as your budget allows. Upgrading to a larger drive later on will cost more and can be a difficult task for a novice, particularly if the PC is a notebook.

Some desktops and notebooks (particularly the lighter ones) don't offer support for legacy devices such as parallel printers, serial modems, and PS/2 pointing devices. If you own one or more legacy peripherals, be sure your desktop includes ports your old equipment can connect to. Otherwise, you'll have to purchase new peripherals that connect via USB or FireWire ports. Some notebook models offer optional docking stations that include all the legacy ports.

Read the fine print for hidden costs, especially where warranty options or "free" services are concerned. Some offer limited warranties, which last less than a year. You may want to invest in an extended warranty for your machine. Some system builders limit you to initial tech support only; you may have to pay for additional service calls.

If you're on a strict budget, make sure your desktop price includes a monitor. For those angling for a value notebook, look for a built-in wireless solution and hot-swappable optical drives.

Find out if there's an actual cost to those "free" technical support hotlines. Look for a toll-free number; otherwise you'll take a hit on your phone bill, especially since hold times for tech support are notoriously long. And beware of a "limited warranty." This may mean only 90 days of toll-free technical support, after which you may have to pay a premium just to call for help.

As with any sizable purchase, buy your desktop from an established, reputable company. There are plenty out there. If you're hankering for a more customized desktop or notebook setup, consider some of the better-known boutique vendors. Just be prepared to pay for it.

Consider the size of your workspace. If you have limited desk space at home, a tower or mid-size desktop could leave you with little or no room to work. Slim desktops and small-form-factor systems can free up some space, as can a flat-panel display. Realize, though, that small systems are often less expandable than larger ones and that flat-panel displays are more expensive than monitors. A desktop replacement notebook might be more ideal space saver, as many come with desktop processors and ample storage and optical drives.

DEFINITIONS

AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port)
Intel's AGP specification describes a high-speed bus that allows a computer's graphics controller to talk directly to portions of main system memory, bypassing the slower PCI bus. Older desktops supported AGP 1X (264-MBps transfer rate) and AGP 2X (528 MBps), but newer systems support AGP 4X (1.056 GBps).

ATA (AT Attachment) This is a standard for connecting mass-storage devices such as hard drives, CD-ROM drives, and tape drives to a PC. Also known as IDE.

Bus A bus is a collection of electrical lines that carry data (one bit per line), power, or a combination and to which multiple devices, such as expansion cards, can connect.

Cable modem This is a communications device that transmits data over cable-TV lines at speeds of 1 Mbps to 10 Mbps and connects to your computer via Ethernet.

Cache A cache is high-speed memory that normally resides in the processor and holds the most recently used data for quick retrieval. Most processors have Level 1 (primary) and Level 2 (secondary) caches. Level 3 is coming soon.

CD-ROM These optical discs store prerecorded digital data in read-only form and are most often used by publishers for distributing programs, data, music, or graphics.

CD-R CD-R media are optical discs that can be recorded on by the end user but cannot be erased.

CD-RW Optical discs of this type can be recorded on and erased numerous times.

Chip set A chip set is a group (generally) of separate integrated circuits that control the flow of information among the components on the motherboard.

CPU (central processing unit) This integrated circuit is the brains of a modern computer The CPU contains the arithmetic and logic hardware that does the bulk of the information processing.

DIMM (Dual Inline Memory Module) A small circuit board with memory chips mounted on both sides. The bottom edge of a DIMM has electrical contacts printed on it and plugs into a special connector that is usually on the motherboard.

DMA (Direct Memory Access) This is a method of moving blocks of data between a storage device and memory without utilizing the CPU. (See Ultra DMA.)

DRAM (Dynamic Random Access Memory) The term dynamic in this acronym refers to the need to constantly refresh the contents of this type of memory in order to retain information.

DVD These optical discs are capable of holding more data than a CD, in part because they use both sides of the media (CDs only use one side).

DVD-RAM This type of DVD can be recorded to, erased, and re-written many times, and can hold up to 17GB.

DVD-ROM These discs are read-only and can hold up to 17GB of prerecorded information. They are used for distribution of large programs, movies, music, data, and more.

IDE (Integrated Device Electronics) IDE makes the controlling circuitry for mass-storage devices part of the devices themselves. This technology is the standard way of connecting hard drives, CD-ROM drives, and tape drives to a system.

IEEE 1394 (Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineering standard number 1394) Otherwise known as FireWire, this is a high-speed serial bus used for connecting peripheral devices, such as digital camcorders.

Memory The processor stores the information it needs in these microchips, which are commonly referred to as RAM. Other devices, especially video cards, often have memory of their own.

Modem A modem converts digital signals from a computer to analog signals that can be transmitted over a telephone line and reverses the process for receiving information over the telephone line.

Motherboard This is the computer's main circuit board, on which the processor and system memory reside, as well as the chip sets that control information flow and the circuitry that connect components to the processor and each other.

RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Drives) The acronym refers to a collection of hard drives attached to a special controller that, among other abilities, can improve performance by sharing data across multiple drives (one such configuration is known as RAID 0) and improve reliability by having some drives mirror (fully duplicate) others in real time.

RAM (random access memory) RAM packs millions of data-storing electrical circuits onto a small chip. Devices can write to and read from these storage locations, and the CPU uses this memory to hold programs and data.

ROM (read-only memory) Memory containing information that can be read but not modified.

SCSI (Small Computer System Interface) SCSI is a standard for a high-speed bus used to connect multiple peripherals such as hard drives, printers, and CD-ROM drives.

SIMM (Single Inline Memory Module) SIMM is almost identical to DIMM, but mounts the memory on only one side of a small circuit board.

SMART Drive (Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology) Hard drives with SMART contain logic circuits that monitor the drives' health, providing a warning system that predicts potential drive failure.

SRAM (Static RAM) Memory that, unlike DRAM, doesn't require its contents to be constantly refreshed in order to retain information.

System bus The system bus interconnects the components on the motherboard, including the CPU.

Ultra DMA Also known as Ultra ATA, this improves on the original DMA protocol by enabling burst mode data transfer rates of 33.3 MBps. This is twice as fast as the previous standard.

USB (Universal Serial Bus) USB is a popular low-speed serial connection method for linking many types of peripherals to computer systems. USB is quickly replacing serial, parallel, ps/2, and even, on some systems, monitor ports. The current standard, USB 1.0, can transfer data at up to 12 Mbps and connect as many as 127 devices. Peripherals can be plugged in and unplugged without shutting down the system. More and more devices incorporate USB ports-digital cameras, displays (especially flat-panel), keyboards, joysticks, mice, modems-and the list keeps growing. A faster standard, USB 2.0, is in the works.

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