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

System-Based Key Component Selection

In the section that follows this page, I discuss in significant detail all of the characteristics and attributes that you should consider when selecting individual components. If you are interested in getting the absolute best PC you can, reading these detailed descriptions is worth your while, as they are loaded with tips regarding how to buy specific component types: what to look for, traps to avoid, and hints to get the best components for your PC.

For some people, however, I recognize that that is overkill. If you aren't planning to specify a system component by component, but rather buy an existing system, you don't need all the detail I have provided in the detailed consideration section (although you will learn a lot more about PC components if you read it, of course). So here, I am going to "cut to the chase" and discuss only the most important characteristics of key PC components, to help those of you who are most likely to be selecting and comparing pre-made systems. Think of this page as answering this question: "if I am comparing two systems that have different components, what are the most important things to look for?" Or this one: "If I want to pick a pre-made system, what are the most important component attributes to compare?"

Warning: By definition and intention, this discussion is limited and "boiled down", as I just described. I am not covering all the components here, just the most important ones, nor am I covering any of them in detail. Also be reminded that this just covers component-specific issues, so don't take this as a comprehensive list of all you need to look for in a PC!

Note: The information in this section will be of interest to both desktop and notebook buyers, but is oriented more towards desktop systems. Notebook buyers will want to supplement by reading the section on notebook component selection.

The following are the main components that are normally contrasted when comparing systems, and what attributes and characteristics you should pay attention to. Note that you can click on any component heading to go to the appropriate page discussing that part type in more detail:

  • System Case: Decide if you want a desktop or tower-style case; this decision depends entirely on your aesthetic requirements and your work area. Look for a case that is functional, solidly-built and good-looking. Get a larger case if you care about expandability, or a smaller case if you don't. Avoid proprietary or "all in one" designs if possible.
  • System Processor (CPU): The CPU is the main processing unit in the system and typically defines the platform of the PC, and as such the whole system to a point. There are three main things to look for:
    • CPU Speed: Generally speaking, the faster the CPU, the faster the system. Systems with higher-speed CPUs generally also come with other faster and higher-capacity components (to keep them balanced). However, an important rule for CPU selection is not to worry much about small differences in CPU speed; a 100 MHz or even 200 MHz difference in CPU speed doesn't make all that much difference to the overall performance of the machine. Don't spend money on the CPU to the detriment of other components.
    • Manufacturer: This comes down to Intel vs. non-Intel, and is largely a matter of personal choice and which company you feel most comfortable with. Intel is the "standard", but non-Intel machines can offer better value; compatibility is generally very good today. (Both Intel and its competitors have some proprietary instructions but software generally is written to run on all CPUs.)
    • System Cache: Most newer CPUs come with both primary and secondary system cache. Cache is high-speed memory integrated into the CPU that helps improve performance of the system as a whole. More cache is better than less, and faster-speed cache is better than slower-speed. Again here, don't worry too much about the numbers.
  • System Memory (RAM): The system memory or RAM (random access memory) is used by the PC for computations. The major considerations are:
    • Memory Size: The most important issue is how much RAM you have: the more RAM, the better performance is, especially with systems that are used heavily. For new systems, 64 MiB should be considered the minimum, with 128 MiB recommended. 256 MiB or more may be required for very serious users. RAM is cheap today, relatively speaking, so do not under-buy. Be sure that the system has at least one slot to allow for RAM expansion; avoid systems that have all their slots filled at the time of purchase or that cannot be expanded for other reasons.
    • Memory Technologies: There are a few different technologies: SDRAM, RDRAM, and DDR SDRAM are the current favorites. Frankly, the difference in overall performance between the technologies is overhyped and not worth much consideration for most people. Focus more on the amount of RAM and other components, and don't pay extra for fancy technologies that haven't proven their worth.
  • Video Card: The video card has always been responsible for producing the two-dimensional output you see on your screen; today, the job of doing much of the work for three-dimensional games and graphics software falls on the card as well. You need to consider the following primary aspects:
    • Video Chipset: The video chipset is the core chip that does the work of the video card. New video chipsets come out all the time, and usually are faster and more capable than prior generations. If you are into gaming, get the best-rated and highest-performance chipset you can, but if you are not into gaming the exact choice is not critical. Try to stick to major manufacturers, but even two- or three-year-old cards will do an adequate job for most users. Note that there are few major differences between particular video card brands using the same chipset.
    • Video Memory Amount: More video memory allows support for higher resolution displays with more colors. At one point video memory was expensive and this was a big issue. Today, 8 MB or 16 MB of video memory is adequate for most people and pretty much standard. Video memory above that total is typically used only for 3D work for games and graphics--it doesn't hurt, but don't pay a lot extra for it (again, if you're a hard-core gamer your priorities may be different).
    • Video Resolution Support: Be sure that the video card can send out display data at a sufficiently high resolution and refresh rate that you will be happy with the display (see below under the discussion of monitors.)
    • Video Drivers and Manufacturer Support: Video card performance and stability are almost as much a function of software drivers as of the hardware itself. Avoid video cards or chipsets made by companies with a poor track record of providing updated, bug-free drivers.
  • Monitor: The monitor displays the output of the video card. It is critical to the overall usability of the PC, largely because you will spend many hours looking at it. Be very careful not to just take "whatever is included" in a PC package without looking carefully at the monitor--you may regret it later. Here are some particulars:
    • Type: Traditional monitors use a cathode ray tube (CRT), just as a television set does. Desktop systems also now sometimes have available LCD screens, formerly the exclusive domain of notebook PCs. LCDs are considered by many to have a higher quality picture, but are usually smaller and also much more expensive than CRTs.
    • Quality: The quality of the monitor is essential, as I mentioned before. If at all possible, shop for monitors in person. Find out what the dot pitch of the monitor is; smaller is better because it means a sharper picture, and you should aim for 0.25 mm or less. Assess the monitor for quality in at least these areas: flatness; glare resistance; sharpness; color purity; straightness of lines and roundness of circles; brightness and contrast. Ask yourself: could I handle looking at this screen for several hours a day? Also find out what sort of controls the monitor has, and judge their utility.
    • Size: Standard screen sizes range from 14" to 22", measured diagonally. Most users find larger monitors to be easier to view than smaller ones, but they are more expensive than smaller ones. It's also harder to find a high-quality large monitor than a high-quality small one, and most people over time prefer a good smaller monitor to a cheap larger one. Be sure to find out the actual viewable image size of the monitor, not just the nominal size. Also, watch out for the physical cabinet size of larger monitors: some may not fit on your desk (there are special "short neck" models that have reduced depth for such applications).
    • Resolution and Refresh: Resolution is how many pixels the monitor can display, and refresh how frequently the data is updated. Higher resolution lets you see more, but each pixel is smaller, so if you go to very high resolution you give up some sharpness. Because of this, maximum usable resolution is a very personal decision. For any resolution you plan to use, look for a refresh rate of at least 75 Hz to avoid flickering. Also be sure the video card can support the resolution and refresh rate you want.
  • Hard Disk Drive: The hard drive stores your programs and data, and is also a component important to overall performance. All but the very most expensive systems come with IDE/ATA interface drives. Here's what to look for:
    • Performance: There are lots of performance factors, but the most important are seek time and spindle speed. Go for a drive that has a seek time of less than 9 milliseconds if possible. 7,200 RPM spindle speed drives have better performance than 5,400 RPM drives of the same approximate age. Avoid older drives, as performance improves with every generation and can increase dramatically within even a single year.
    • Capacity: The more the better; but don't overspend on capacity you won't use. If you are a gamer, or you are into photography, MP3 music or video, you can fill a 60 GB disk in a few months, but if you are mostly using the system lightly, for regular office tasks and such, most of that space will sit unused. 10 GB or 20 GB may be quite adequate for you in that event.
    • Manufacturer and Warranty: Find out who makes the hard drive and what the warranty is on it. Some hard disk manufacturers offer three year warranties on their products even if sold in pre-made PCs, but others do not, leaving you with only whatever the system maker offers.
  • Floppy Disk Drive: These are commodity items so you need not pay much attention to them aside from this: make sure the system has one. Sure they are old, and obsolete, and kind of boring. However, they are still a way that some hardware manufacturers distribute drivers, and they can be used to transfer information to older PCs or backup small, critical files. Higher-capacity options like LS120 drives are a "bonus" that you can use for backup or other purposes.
  • Optical (CD/DVD) Drive: All systems come with some sort of optical disk drive--so called because it uses a laser to read data--but you have more choices today than in the past. Here are the two main issues to consider:
    • Drive Type: The most "ordinary" are straight CD-ROM drives, as in years gone by. These are fine for an economy system and support software CD-ROMs and audio CDs as well. Newer systems often come with DVD-ROM drives, which support the above plus DVD-ROM and DVD video disks. DVD is a good idea if you can afford it, because years down the road DVD may catch on more; today almost all software is still in CD format but that could change. Finally, you may have the option of a CD-RW drive, which is a CD-ROM unit that can also write special CD-R and CD-RW disks. These drives are versatile because they let you record your own information to disk, for archiving and backup purposes. They cost more than regular CD-ROM drives and are not compatible with DVDs, generally.
    • Drive Speed: Optical drives are rated with an "X" speed, such as a 48X CD-ROM drive or an 8X DVD drive. These represent the relative speed of the drive compared to the speed of an audio CD player or video DVD player. (They aren't directly comparable either: "1X" for a DVD drive is over eight times the data transfer rate of "1X" for a CD-ROM drive.) Frankly, these numbers are much ado about nothing: they have no impact on video or audio playback unless you use a very slow drive--they only significantly affect performance while copying files, and how often do you copy files from your CD-ROM drive? Probably only for a few minutes a month. Faster drives will speed up software that runs directly from CD, but most of these have minimum requirements far slower than modern drives. Worse, some high-speed drives are fast, but they often are very noisy and create a lot of vibration due to that (usually unneeded) speed. Go for a higher-quality unit of moderate speed over a cheapo one with a big "X" number on it.
  • Sound System: The sound card allows you to produce music and sound effects that play on the system's speakers. There are many different brands and models of sound cards; for basic functionality most will do an acceptable job. Look for Soundblaster compatibility and wavetable support, rather than just FM synthesis. More expensive sound cards usually offer somewhat better sound quality but mostly just additional features: if you are into gaming you may want to consider one of the more expensive cards that offer 3-D sound and other fun features, otherwise there's little point. In many ways the speakers are the most important part of the sound system, and most of the speakers that come with PCs are of very poor quality--so consider an upgrade there, or even better, using the auxiliary input on your home stereo system.
  • Modem or Internet Connection: If you are still connecting to the Internet using a dial-up connection, look for a system that comes with a 56K modem. If possible, look for a true hardware modem and not a "Winmodem", which can bog down your system--but most PCs today do come with these "Winmodems" that run partially in software. If you are going to connect to the Internet using a cable modem or other high-speed access, you may not need a modem at all, though they are inexpensive and it can be nice to have one as a backup in case your cable modem or other high-speed connectivity is disrupted.
  • Printers: I would recommend against getting printers bundled with PCs, as most are of very poor quality, which makes them not worth even a small price tag. (See here for more on included components.) Buy a printer separately, in person if possible, examining the quality of the output carefully, and also considering important issues such as speed, paper requirements and ink consumption.

You may have noticed that I didn't discuss motherboards, even though I have said that they are very important to any PC system. Well, they are; but most pre-made PCs offer no choice of motherboard, and they often use proprietary designs and make little information available about them. So unfortunately, this isn't something you can use to help you select a pre-made PC in most cases. If possible, get systems that use standardized motherboards; otherwise, look at the overall feature set, realizing that many of them are enabled on the basis of motherboard features. Also find out the manufacturer's past history for making BIOS updates available for their systems, to allow support for hardware that comes out in the future.

Next: Detailed Considerations and Tips for Specifying Particular Components

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