Choosing a Home Desktop

A typical day's work for a digital home PC includes simultaneous downloading, video transcoding, and file streaming. This can bring a typical PC to its virtual knees. You need to buy with performance in mind.

A typical days work for a digital home PC includes simultaneous downloading, video transcoding, and file streaming. This can bring a typical PC to its virtual knees. You need to buy with performance in mind.

It all begins with getting the most up-to-date processor and chipset you can afford. Everything from transcoding to playing back video and audio requires a lot of behind-the-scenes math, and the processor has to do these operations quickly to ensure a smooth experience. A current chipset gets data from the processor to other parts of the system fast.

If you want an Intel-based system, opt for one built on a 915 or 925 chipset, both of which support DDR2 memory and PCI Express. Pair that platform with the fastest 5-series Pentium 4 processor you can get—that is, look for the highest number in the series, such as 560. Unless money is truly no object or 3D gaming is your primary passion, we dont recommend splurging on a Pentium 4 Extreme Edition chip. You wont feel this chips benefits as much in multimedia apps as you would in gaming, so its hard to justify spending several hundred dollars extra on it.

AMD works with multiple chipset vendors, so if you want an Athlon 64–based system, you need to find one with a high-rated Athlon 64 processor, such as a 3700+, and then consider whether the motherboard supports the technologies you are likely to be using. The Athlon 64 gets you the extra future-proofing of 64-bit support. Like Intel with the P4 Extreme Edition, AMD has an extra-pricey chip—the Athlon 64 FX—which makes sense only for hard-core gamers. And finally, Apple offers impressive power in the dual 64-bit CPU setups for all its Power Mac G5 machines.

Get at least 1GB of memory; digital files, particularly video, are large, and your PC will need the virtual workspace. The ability to access memory quickly helps, which is why we recommend DDR2 support. True, its not any faster than DDR today, but DDR2 is expected to approach 800 MHz by years end, and it will be useful to have the upgrade path.

Youll want a capacious and fast hard drive: ideally at least 200GB of storage in a Serial ATA (SATA) drive. Most high-end systems have a SATA RAID controller, making it possible to connect two identical drives and stripe data on them with a RAID 0 configuration. This doesnt just give you double the storage; your system will see the two drives as one logical drive, and it can access data on them roughly twice as fast as it would from just one drive.

Despite the proliferation of integrated graphics on both AMD- and Intel-based systems, youll want a discrete graphics card. Not only will it offload tasks from the CPU and improve performance, but a discrete card may also put out a "hotter" output signal thats less prone to motherboard noise. If you expect to play a lot of compressed video, consider the best ATI Radeon card you can afford. DivX is optimized for Radeon cards, and they seem to do the best job at smoothing out pixelation in DivX files.

Your graphics card should have digital and analog (VGA) connectors, and you should also shop for a CRT or LCD monitor with digital connectors if possible. This is most important with LCDs: All PC video signals are digital, and LCD panels are digital. If you can avoid having to convert the signal to analog at the graphics card and then back to digital at the LCD, you will get a much better image.

Connectors aside, most CRTs beat most LCDs for watching video, but you can get an LCD with an impressive 16-millisecond pixel response time. On top of that, LCDs add a stylish, futuristic touch to your home. If youll mostly be burning content for standalone players or streaming to TVs, you can keep the monitor to 17 inches or so to save money.


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