Buying advice: Power desktop PCs (January issue)
Processor: All the systems here use dual-core processors. Intel's E8600 chip now dominates the chart, although we're still seeing E8500-based machines delivering very good performance.
Even in the age of quad-core computing, you should still get plenty of performance from the top dual-core chips. If you want a PC that'll fly through next year's software library, however, a quad-core system may be a wise choice. You'll have to sacrifice a small amount of speed on today's apps but, in the long run, the benefits are likely to be worth it.
Memory: At this price point, 4GB should be considered a minimum, especially if you're running Windows Vista. All the PCs here come with at least this amount.
A 64bit OS will take full advantage of your RAM - but check beforehand that your software and drivers will be supported. If you opt for the 8GB Chillblast, a 64bit OS is essential.
Storage: Anything less than 400GB is now considered a small amount of storage space - the manufacturers of the systems in this month's chart have all opted for at least 500GB. Many users will get by comfortably with a 320GB drive, but with hard-drive prices continuing to fall it shouldn't be hard to find a 1TB (one-terabyte) drive at this price point.
Get a multiformat DVD writer that can write to dual-layer format if you want to store 8.5GB rather than 4.7GB on a disc. Look for a minimum of eight-speed DVD+R DL; DVD-R DL is nice but not essential. Also try to get eight-speed DVD+RW. At this price you should be able to find a drive that reads Blu-ray Discs - note that it won't burn to Blu-ray and DVD burning speeds will be slower.
Display: In this category, 22in flat-panels are the standard. Many PC manufacturers supply budget screens, but it's worth spending a little more if you intend to work with digital photos or video - you'll probably have to stare at the monitor for long periods. Give the display a try to ensure you can put up with the quality.
A screen with a response time of 8ms or less will minimise blur on fast-moving images. For image editing, contrast ratio and colour fidelity are more important.
A digital input can preserve picture quality, so think twice about displays that provide analogue inputs only.
Graphics card: At this price point, it's a pitched battle between nVidia's latest GeForce GTX 260 graphics card and the ATI Radeon HD 4870. If you can find a GTX 280, as seen in our Best Buy PC, then that's even better.
The GTX 260 and Radeon HD 4870 both offer strong performance and can be doubled up into dual-card solutions later on. In order to take advantage of such a setup, however, your motherboard and power supply will need to be compatible with this mode of operation.
It's also possible to go for a ready-made dual-card solution, such as a pair of Radeon HD 4850s. This can work out to be more expensive in the long run. Keep an eye out for factory overclocked graphics cards which come pre-configured to run at much faster speeds.
Sound card and speakers: Onboard sound has come on in leaps and bounds, but it's still no match for a decent sound card. Consider Creative's Audigy 4 family or the excellent X-Fi range. If you only want a 2.1-channel setup (two speakers and a subwoofer), make sure they're high-quality models. Most firms are bundling 5.1-channel speakers.
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