Buying advice: Budget PCs as of Nov 07 issue
Processor: You're not going to get the fastest processors at this price, but many of today's chips are powerful enough to make light work of standard applications. We've seem some amazing chips - this month's Core 2 Duo E6750 being a stand-out - but you're far more likely to see E6450 or E6550 chips. The Athlon 64 X2 6000+ is also a decent option.
Don't be fooled into buying an older Intel Pentium D. They've got dual-core facilities but their performance is a long way behind today's Core 2 Duo range.
Memory: In this Vista-dominated age 1GB has become a must-have. If you can get it then by all means go for 2GB, but that's likely to prove a little pricey at this level - make sure you're not being stung by compromises elsewhere. Check you're getting the full benefit of the memory - some onboard graphics controllers need to use system memory, which will ultimately slow the system down.
Storage: You can never have too much storage space. Digital media files such as video and music files will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard drive so buy the biggest you can. Drives with a capacity of 250GB are a good investment.
Make sure the PC has a DVD burner. Look for a drive that can write to the -R/+R formats 16-speed or better. Rewrite speeds of 8x are good. If you want to copy up to 8.5GB at once, look for DVD-R DL or DVD+R DL. Write speeds on these tend to be lower, but you need to look for an absolute minimum of six-speed on one of the formats. Realistically, you ought to be aiming for eight-speed.
Display: To keep the price of a PC down compromises have to be made and the monitor is often where the sacrifices start. Just remember that this is the part you're going to be spending most of your time looking at. All PCs now come with flat-panels - 19in models have become the most common size. Be very careful when going above this - the quality is unlikely to be good enough given the price constraints. We don't see many CRTs now, but they're still a pretty good deal if you can find them. Colour depth tends to be better than on flat-panels.
Graphics cards: Given that the best graphics cards can retail for £300 or £400, fervent gamers are unlikely to be best served by a sub-£500 PC. Nonetheless, the cream of the crop do tend to come with decent graphics cards. You should be looking for PCs that can produce 50fps (frames per second) if you're going to be playing games - 70fps or 80fps is better still.
Today's chips of choice come from the nVidia GeForce 8600 range. These cards can support DirectX 10.0 (although they're unlikely to be powerful enough to show tomorrow's DirectX 10.0 games titles in all their finery). More to the point, they have plenty of pace with which to tackle today's games. The ATI Radeon HD 2600 cards are just as good, however, and we expect to see more of these making an appearance in the coming months.
Sound card and speakers: You're unlikely to get a standalone sound card at this price point as it's an area in which vendors are likely to try and cut costs. Most motherboards have decent built-in audio chips that can handle six-channel sound, but to get the best out of them you'll need a 5.1 speaker system. Unfortunately, there's a good chance you won't get anything better than a 2.1-channel system in this category - indeed, you won't necessarily get a subwoofer or speakers at all.