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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components ]

Detailed Considerations and Tips for Specifying Particular Components

Having looked at general issues related to specifying components, it is now time to turn our attention to the particulars of selecting each of the components commonly found within a PC system. Every component serves a different function in the PC, has different attributes and characteristics, and therefore each requires a somewhat individualized approach.

I should say from the start that I can't cover here every kind of component that exists, nor can I explain absolutely everything there is to know about the ones I do discuss. There are just too many different considerations, and the technology changes too rapidly. I also cannot possibly know what aspects of any component are most important to you. However, I do cover all of the most common PC components, and I have provided enough detail to certainly let you make good selections, and avoid most of the common pitfalls made by those who don't thoroughly research their component choices. To make a truly optimal choice that is ideal for you, augment my comments and recommendations with your own research and evaluation. Of course, you don't have to make an optimal choice of every component to be happy with your PC. It doesn't have to be perfect, just good for your needs.

The best overall advice I can give you regarding the selection of different parts of the PC is this: know thy components. In this buyer's guide I am going to discuss the particulars of what to look for when shopping, but I am not going to try to explain the workings and characteristics of every component in detail. This would not only make this section ridiculously long, it would duplicate much of the information presented elsewhere. See the Reference Guide for full details on most of the components discussed here.

I am also not going to recommend particular components--that's not the idea of The PC Buyer's Guide at all. There are numerous online resources that produce a monthly buyer's guide that focuses on telling you what specific makes and models are good for each component type; I urge you to refer to these if you want more specific help. Consistent with the goals of the Guide as described in the Introduction, I am trying to "teach you to fish", let you know how to look at all the component types in a way that empowers you to make your own decisions.

Note: The individual sections on selecting components are fairly long and detailed. I have tried to cover all the considerations that go into making a good component selection choice. If you are building your own PC, buying a build-to-order or configure-to-order system, or planning your system for future expansion or upgrading, this information will be essential to you. On the other hand, if you are buying a pre-made PC and are considering components only within the scope of an existing system, you may find these pages to be a bit more detail than you need for comparing systems. You'll certainly learn a lot about how to evaluate the various parts of systems if you read them in full, but may not want to bother. In this case, the page on system-based component selection and comparison may be sufficient for your needs.

For most of the components there is a lot to cover, so I have structured the material to make it a bit "easier to digest". For each component, the following topics are covered:

  • Description: A basic description of the component.
  • Role and Subsystems: The subsystems this component is usually a member of, and the role it plays in those subsystems and the PC as a whole.
  • Related Components: Other components that are strongly related to this component, or that are normally purchased at the same time.
  • Key Compatibility Selection Criteria: The key criteria for determining what general type you will need for this component. These will be the first issues to address in deciding what sort of this particular component your system needs, before looking at other matters that differentiate compatible alternatives. Issues such as form factor, interfaces, power requirements and so on are covered here.
  • Performance and Capacity Selection Criteria: A discussion of the most important performance and/or capacity criteria for selecting this component.
  • Quality Selection Criteria: An explanation of the important criteria to use to evaluate the quality, expandability and other attributes of this component not related to performance and capacity.
  • Important Features: A description of the some of the more important specific features that you may wish to look for when selecting this component (in addition to what has already been covered in the criteria sections above).
  • "Magic Numbers" To Watch For: The most commonly touted magic numbers associated with this component, and how to properly treat them.
  • Performance Impact: A discussion of how important this component is to the overall performance of the PC, and for which PC uses its performance is most relevant.
  • Retail, OEM and Gray Market Issues: How this component is usually sold, and the implications of OEM or gray market variants of this component type.
  • Importance of Manufacturer: How important it is to choose a good manufacturer for this component, and also if it matters much if you use a generic for this kind of part.
  • Typical Component Lifetime: The length of service typical of this component, in terms of both time until wearout and obsolescence.
  • Warranty Issues: Any specific issues related to the warranty usually found on this sort of component.
  • Driver Support Issues: Some components are very dependent on their drivers. Support for a particular component type may vary from one operating system to another depending on whether drivers are available.
  • Special Specification Considerations: Special considerations to keep in mind when specifying this type of component, above and beyond what is mentioned above.

Next: System Cases

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