Desktop PCs Buying Guide

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January 5, 2012, 4:38 IST

Jayesh Shinde

Although laptops are fast-replacing desktop PCs in sales depot and consumer’s hands, the convenience and importance of a good old desktop computer at your home or office hasn’t completely lost relevance yet. Veteran PC gamers still prefer desktop PCs over laptops, so do people who like to frequently tinker with their PC’s components and upgrade them from time to time. If you’re confused what PC to pick or what components matter, here’s our definitive guide on specs that matter.

Types of desktop PC

You may need a desktop PC in your home for any of the following usage scenarios: browsing the web, working on office documents, watching movies, listening to music, gaming, video or graphics editing, video conferencing, and more. But for the sake of this explanation, let’s assume there are three broad categories - 1) Basic home use, 2) Gaming, 3) Entertainment.

Desktops available in the market these days are also of three broad categories and shape: 1) Traditional tower desktops, 2) All-in-one PCs, and 3) Compact desktops or nettops. The question between choosing a traditional desktop, all-in-one or nettop is purely about available space and usage. All-in-one and nettop PCs require less space to fit in to your home, and they also have a low power footprint. But, compared to a traditional tower desktop PC, all-in-ones and nettops have limited performance potential and they’re generally used for entertainment or basic use. So if you don’t mind cosmetics and space-saving design, building your own PC from scratch with a traditional tower design allows you the maximum possible potential of customizing your desktop experience.

Specs that matter:

Processor

One cannot stress the importance of the CPU enough, it is simply the most important part of your desktop PC. Things to consider while buying a processor are its speed, cache, and cores -- greater is always better for performance and thereby also costlier. Faster clock speed, greater cache and more cores is pretty much the name of the game, whatever fits your budget should actually be the deciding factor.

If you’re a basic user a low-end Core 2 Duo, Core i3 or AMD Athlon X2 will suffice your needs, but for a mainstream PC (with multimedia needs) opt for a Core i5 or AMD Phenom processor. For high-end gaming and video processing requirements, choose a powerful quad-core Intel Core i7 or AMD Phenom X4 or X6 processor. Generally we’ve seen Intel processors to be more powerful than AMD chips, but they’re also more costly. Buiding a high-performing machine at a budget is always a good idea on AMD chips.

Graphics

The second most important factor in deciding the shape of your desktop PC is the graphics processing unit or GPU inside it. There are a host of graphics options at your disposal, but simply put if you aren’t one for PC gaming, integrated graphics present on your motherboard or processor should be enough. Both Intel and AMD’s onboard graphics solutions are pretty good, with AMD slightly edging out Intel’s integrated graphics chips. Another thing to remember that integrated graphics isn’t removable, you have to make do with it.

Gamers or high-end video designers or professional graphics artists need discrete graphics card inserted into their PC’s motherboards for superior graphics performance. These graphics cards, sold either by Nvidia or AMD, sit inside a PCIe x16 slot inside the chipset. Depending on your budget, look for a card based on Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 400 or 500 series or AMD Radeon HD 5000 or 6000 series. Gamers who need the absolute best in terms of GPU power can even crank up the performance by installing multiple GPUs into their system through Nvidia SLI or AMD CrossFire technology.

RAM

System memory or RAM is another factor that determines how fast your PC performs or rather responds. In today’s day and age 2GB of RAM should be a bare minimum for users interested in doing nothing more than accessing the Web through their PCs. Gamers definitely need a minimum of 4GB of RAM, while video and graphics editing professionals need a minimum of 8GB of RAM. Of course, more is always good.

But before you pick a motherboard, check the number of available DIMM slots where RAM modules are inserted. Another thing to remember, 32-bit operating system will only recognize only about 3.2GB of RAM, no matter how much RAM is installed in the system. To fully utilize, say, 8GB of RAM in your PC, you need a 64-bit operating system which can address all of them properly.

Hard drive

Most drives available in market these days are SATA drives, spinning at 7200 rpm. For desktop PCs, generally you require a 3.5-inch hard drive -- 2.5-inch hard drives are mostly found in laptops, all-in-one PCs and nettops. For the basic home user, a standard 320GB, 7200 rpm hard drive either from Seagate or Western Digital will do. For gamers and HD movie enthusiasts at least a 1TB hard drive is a bare minimum. For absolute speed junkies, you can opt for something like the WD Velociraptors spinning at 10,000 rpm, but these drives aren’t of high capacity. Another option, albeit a costly one, is to opt for an SSD which has very fast read-write speeds. Some analysts like to have a combo of SSD and traditional spinning drive for their usage scenarios. Setting up multiple drives in RAID configuration can also boost its speed or allow data security, should one drive fail.

Monitor

In the world of monitors, widescreen resolutions rule. Don’t even think of buying a non-HD resolution monitor simply because they are that many in the market, and at the entry level segment also. Whether you’re a basic user, gamer or movie buff, you should go with at least a 22-inch, 1920 x 1080 resolution monitor. Anything bigger or better is dependent on your budget.

If you aren’t a stickler for image quality and viewing angles, any off-the-shelf TN panel monitor should be okay for your needs. But for superior color reproduction and close to 180-degree viewing angles, you’ll need an IPS panel display which are obviously more costly than regular monitors. High-end gamers playing fast-paced FPS games should look for buying a monitor with higher refresh rates, anything more than 60 Hz.

Sound

These days, 5.1 surround sound audio is a de facto on motherboards sold in the market. However, 7.1 channel audio support can only found on mainstream or higher end boards. Most motherboards have an onboard sound chip, but just like GPUs, adding a discrete sound card can take the entertainment and game experience to the next level, and it will also help speed up performance for sound folks doing audio editing on their PC.

Speakers still remain a highly personal buying decision and a subjective area of judgement. Whether you remain content with a standard 2.0 speaker set up or opt for a high-end 7.1 surround sound home theater, remember these choices are mainly driven by the room area and expendable cash. Bar speakers found in most TVs and all-in-one desktops are good enough if sound quality isn’t paramount, but opt for a separate speaker with a sub-woofer for a better multimedia experience.

Cabinet

Probably the most prevalent cases are all ATX, whether its in a minitower or tower design. This is pretty much the backbone of most of desktop PCs you see at offices or in schools or colleges. ATX is a specification followed by case and motherboard manufacturers on the placement and arrangement of connectors. Micro-ATX is a shrunk down version of ATX with fewer expansion slots. Mini-ITX is an even smaller version of Micro-ATX, found mostly in HTPCs or very small form factor PCs.

Most traditional cabinets and cases are of a set size and shape and they’re nearly the same price. Differences occur when cabinet manufacturers start selling them with bundled power supplies, additional bays, extra connection slots, and fan slots. Expensive cabinets have modular bays, screwless arrangements, and great cable management, and at least 4 to 5 fan slots for keeping the innards cool.

Operating system

If you’re configuring a brand new system today, opt for Microsoft Windows 7, as Windows XP is nothing but an old OS. But Microsoft sells six different versions of Windows 7, choosing the right one for you can be a cumbersome and confusing task. If you’re a regular consumer, stick to either Windows 7 Home Premium, Professional or Ultimate. Remember, choosing a 32-bit OS will limit the access of installed RAM to under 4GB, so choose a 64-bit OS for installing and accessing greater RAM.

Keyboard and mouse

Always choose a full-sized keyboard for your desktop, your fingers will thank you in the long run. It’s difficult to find a good old PS/2 keyboard these days, so a USB-connected keyboard is good enough. Make sure the keyboard has a dedicated number pad, some keyboards have the number pad detachable so it can be plugged into the left side of the keyboard, but these devices are generally costly. Mice these days are also connected over USB.

Wireless keyboard and mouse generally connects over either radio frequency or Bluetooth, there’s a USB dongle included with the set. If you need a fancy-looking keyboard and mice, with glowing LED lights, programmable macros, etc., look for something from Logitech or Razer.


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