Power PCs buying advice (March 07 issue)
Processor We may shortly reach the tipping point in the delicate balance of power that exists between Intel’s dual-core Core 2 Duo chips and the quad-core stunners in the Core 2 Quad range, but we haven’t got there yet.
If you want a PC that’ll fly through next year’s software library, the Quad Q6600 is worth a gamble. You may have to sacrifice a small amount of speed on today’s applications but, in the long run, the gains could far outweigh the pains.
Having said that, dual-core chips continue to improve. For today’s programs, the likes of the E6850 are the best bet. Even in the age of quad-core, you should still get plenty of performance from the top dual-core chips.
Memory Make no mistake about it: the age of the 2GB PC as standard is here. If you skimp on memory now, you might find yourself having to administer a critical upgrade later on. Indeed, most PCs at this price point now come with 4GB. You can make do with less, but expect 4GB to become the norm.
Storage It’s unbelievable that anything less than 400GB is now considered a small amount of storage space, but look at our chart and you’ll see that three of the manufacturers have actually opted for a hefty 500GB. Many users can actually get along very comfortably with considerably less than this – 320GB is a respectable capacity – but those intending to store lots of video and audio files should be prepared to stock up.
Cover backup with a multi-format DVD writer. Dual-layer capabilities (allowing you to store 8.5GB rather than 4.7GB on a disc) are a must, and you should make sure the drive supports DVD+R DL with a minimum of eight-speed – although 10-speed or 16-speed would be better still. DVD-R DL is nice but not essential. Also, look for good eight-speed DVD+RW facilities. Other optional formats to consider include DVD-RAM.
Flat-panel Flat-panels can vary wildly in quality. We’re starting to see 22in flat-panels as standard but, for the best image quality, the safe bet remains a good 20in screen. Bear in mind that you’ll probably have to stare at this screen for long periods so, if you’re buying a cheap 22in, give it a try to ensure that you’ll be able to put up with the picture quality. Try to get a screen with a response time of 8ms or less so that the screen doesn’t blur on fast-moving images.
Graphics card At this price point, you should be able to get something rather impressive. The 8800 GTS 512 has just jumped on to the scene and is already making waves. Its support for DirectX 10.0 means Vista users can look forwards to some impressive games in the future. However, the 8800 GT isn’t far behind. The latter is a cheaper card, and you may be able to find a PC housing not one but two of them. In scaleable link interface mode, this should produce good results.
Sound card and speakers Onboard or integrated sound has come on in leaps and bounds, with support for 7.1 channel sound – but it’s still no match for a decent sound card. Hunt around and you should be able to get a PC with a card from Creative’s Audigy 4 family or the excellent X-Fi range. If you only want 2.1-channel speakers, make sure they’re high-quality models, but most manufacturers are bundling 5.1 speakers. For audio excellence, hold out for a set of 7.1-channel speakers in this price range.