Power PCs buying advice
Processor: Intel’s second-gen Core i5 and i7 CPUs are the only serious contenders at this price. These ‘Sandy Bridge’ chips are much faster and use less power than their predecessors.
The 3.4GHz Core i7-2600K is the fastest available, with its ‘K’ designation denoting an unlocked multiplier. K-series CPUs are designed for overclocking, but demand a compatible motherboard.
At 3.3GHz, the Core i5-2500K offers a slightly lower specification. Unlike the Core i7, it has no support for hyperthreading and 6MB rather than 8MB of level-three cache.
Motherboard: K-series chips require a motherboard that supports overclocking. These boards cost a little more, but a good version will do the hard work for you, providing a significant speed boost without any specialist knowledge.
Never pair a K-series CPU with a motherboard based on the H67 chipset – these don’t support overclocking. If you want to overclock, you should also invest in a third-party CPU cooler.
A 64bit OS will take full advantage of your RAM, but check that your software and drivers will be supported.
Storage: With storage prices falling, expect 1TB. We’re even seeing systems with 2TB at this price. A solid-state drive (SSD) may be available, providing a noticeable improvement in bootup times and system responsiveness. Their price requires cutbacks elsewhere, however.
Get a multiformat DVD writer that can write to a dual-layer format if you want to store 8.5GB on a single disc. Look for a minimum of eight-speed DVD+R DL. Try to get eight-speed DVD+RW.
It’s not uncommon to find a DVD drive that also reads Blu-ray discs, but DVD-burning speeds will be slower. Look for separate Blu-ray and DVD drives for the fastest performance.
Flat-panel: 24in flat-panels are standard at this price. Many vendors supply cheap screens to leave more cash for other components, but it’s worth spending more on a display if you intend to work with digital photos or video.
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 (HDMI, DVI or DisplayPort) can preserve picture quality.
Graphics card: At this price, the 2GB ATI Radeon HD 6950 is an excellent choice for gamers. It offers multi-screen and DirectX 11.0 support.
nVidia’s GeForce GTX 560 Ti is also DirectX 11.0-compatible and delivers similar performance, as well as support for the company’s 3D Vision glasses.
You may find a GeForce GTX 570 at this price, which will give you even better gaming framerates.
Look for souped-up versions with faster clock speeds or additional memory.
Many nVidia and ATI graphics cards can be upgraded to dual-card setups. However, motherboards that support the new CPUs have only limited support for multiple graphics cards, so we advise you to buy the fastest single card you can.
Power supply: The level of power you require will depend on the graphics card you want to use. Look for at least a 500W unit or 750W-plus if you plan to add another card or overclock the CPU.
Sound card and speakers: Onboard sound is so good these days that you’re unlikely to need a sound card. Look for a set of external speakers and a subwoofer.