Power desktop PCs buying advice (March 09 issue)
Processor: While dual-core processors are the most popular at this price point, quad-core chips are making a big impression. If you want to go down the dual-core route, look for Intel's E8600.
Quad-core processors such as the Q9400 are also available at this price. These chips use the same memory and motherboard as dual-core PCs and can offer huge speed advantages if you run multithreaded applications.
At the top of this price bracket comes Intel's new Core i7 chip. This is a match for the best dual-core systems and will outpace any previous-gen quad-core machine. However, Core i7 chips require more expensive DDR3 memory and a new motherboard design, so expect to make sacrifices elsewhere.
Memory: At this price point, 4GB should be considered a minimum, especially if you're running Vista. If you're buying a Core i7-based system, expect only 3GB. These systems install memory chips in threes, so the next step up would be 6GB.
A 64bit OS will take full advantage of your RAM - but check that your software and drivers will be supported. If you opt for an 8GB PC, 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 terabyte of storage 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 vendors 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 GeForce GTX 260 and the ATI Radeon HD 4870. If you can find a GTX 280, that's even better. When buying a GTX 260, make sure it's the newer 216-core type.
The GTX 260 and HD 4870 both offer strong performance and can be used in dual-card solutions later on. In order to take advantage of such a setup, however, your motherboard and PSU 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. But this can work out more expensive in the long run.
Sound card and speakers: Onboard sound processing has come on in leaps and bounds, but it's 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, make sure they're high-quality models.
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