If you're looking for a PC that's perfectly suited to your needs but don't want to pay over the odds for the luxury, your best bet is to build it yourself. We show how to create the PC of your dreams.
Graphics cards & monitors
Most of your system's components are in place – now it's time to think about getting an image out of it. The main choice you have here is whether to install a discrete standalone graphics card or to opt for a motherboard that has integrated graphics.
A standalone card will be more expensive, but will result in better 3D graphics. A modern integrated graphics chip will be sufficient for use with Windows – and should even be able to handle Vista's eye candy – but you won't be able to play the latest games or turn on the highest detail settings.
A standalone graphics card will also draw more power and require additional cooling, thus making your machine louder. nVidia has recently introduced hybrid SLI technology, which aims to combine the benefits of both options. The idea is that when you're just running Windows applications and don't need advanced 3D capabilities, the system uses the integrated graphics. As soon as you fire up a game, however, it switches to the standalone card instead. Hybrid SLI currently requires very specific components to work, however, so you'll have limited hardware choices.
If you find that one graphics card doesn't provide sufficient power to run the games you want then, depending on the model you choose, there is the option of adding an additional card to help matters. nVidia's solution is known as SLI, while ATI calls its CrossFire. In addition to two compatible cards, you'll also need a motherboard with two 16x PCI Express slots and a certified chipset. If you plan your system carefully, you can buy a single graphics card now, then add another at a later date to boost the system's graphics performance.
Hooking up two graphics cards inside one system is generally seen as an enthusiast activity for those who want to get the absolute maximum in 3D games performance, but both ATI and nVidia have recently released single-card products with two graphics processors. These products effectively create a dual-card setup, without the need for two individual cards.
nVidia's solution is called the GeForce 9800 GX2 (we've reviewed the GX2 here), while the ATI product is the Radeon HD 3870 X2 (reviewed here). Both cards are expensive. Unless you're a dedicated games player, you'd probably be better off with a single card.
Digital visual interface (DVI) is the standard for connecting graphics cards and displays. If you're building an entertainment centre, however, look for a card that also includes high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI). DVI and HDMI use the same signals to transmit video information, but the latter also carries audio and is more compact. HDMI is a standard feature on HDTVs and is frequently seen on computer monitors.
When choosing a display, it's worth considering what you'll be doing on your PC to ensure you choose the most appropriate resolution support. If you're only going to be using Windows applications, for example, a 1,680x1,050-pixel resolution will provide plenty of desktop space.
If you're thinking about also fitting a Blu-ray drive, you'll need a display that can stretch to 1,920x1,080 – sometimes referred to has 1,080p. Blu-ray movies are encoded at 1,080p so you'll need a screen that supports at least that to make the most of it. The Eizo FlexScan HD2441W (tinyurl.com/3t93gs) is ideal for an entertainment machine as it supports both HDMI and 1,080p playback.
Next page: Power supplies, fans & cases
- Build your own PC: price vs performance
- Build your own PC: tips on assembly
- Build your own PC: selecting a motherboard
- Build your own PC: processors & memory
- Build your own PC: hard disks & optical drives
- Build your own PC: graphics cards & monitors
- Build your own PC: power supplies, fans & cases
PUTTING IT TOGETHER: Click here for PC Advisor's detailed seven-step guide to assembling your components