How to Choose a Desktop PC

Choosing a desktop PC is a tough and very personal decision. While it's easy to compare the picture quality on HDTVs or the features on a DVD player, desktop PCs are hard to understand until you get them out of the box and start using them. Knowing a little about how a desktop PC works will help you find one that can meet your needs for years to come, and you'll be pleasantly surprised at how much your desktop PC dollar can buy.

Mac or PC?
It used to be an either-or proposition, but thanks to Apple's new Intel-powered Macs and BootCamp software that allows their desktop PCs to run Windows, Macs are more compatible than ever. If the thought of wading through specs overwhelms you, an all-in-one iMac or Mac Mini is a quick and easy solution. You'll find two or three standard models each year. All iMacs have a built-in monitor, while a Mac Mini requires a separate monitor.

The downside to these desktop PCs from Apple is that they cannot be upgraded, and iMacs can be more expensive than an equally powered Windows desktop PC. If you want to run Linux or Windows in a native environment, you'll need to choose a desktop PC from someone other than Apple. Gamers will also find a more limited selection on Apple platforms, but business users and graphic designers can get Mac versions of most industry standard software.

Desktop PC Memory
The first thing to consider in a desktop PC is RAM (random access memory), which is used to run software and help the hard drive operate efficiently. The bigger the RAM numbers, the more speed and storage you'll have. You'll need a minimum of 512KB RAM to run current Windows operating systems, but 1GB is a better minimum if you plan to use multimedia files. If you're editing audio, video or high-resolution images on your desktop PC, consider upgrading to 2GB of RAM for better performance.

Gaming speed and resolution also improve with more RAM, which is much cheaper today than it was a few years ago. If you don't have enough RAM, your computer will run slowly and your ability to operate multiple programs at the same time will be limited. Investing in at least 1 GB of RAM is an excellent payoff for most of today's mutlitasking computer users.

Hard drive storage keeps getting bigger and cheaper too, which gives you extra space to store family photos, audio and video on your desktop PC. Hard drives with 60 to 80GB of space are common, even in budget-priced desktop PCs, and these will do for most users. If you're using the desktop PC for multimedia editing or to store an extensive music collection, you can find hard drives up to 1TB (terabyte), or you can use an external hard drive for additional space.

If you plan on using an external hard drive, consider the connection options between the external and your desktop PC. The most common options are USB, which is slower and better for archiving, and FireWire, which is the fastest connection available and a good choice for large audio and video files that you need to manage and edit.

Desktop PC Processors
The processor is the "brain" of your desktop PC, and spending more on a desktop PC always means a faster machine. Intel's Core Duo and Athlon's XD processors are dual-processor chipsets that work together to speed performance, which is measured in gigahertz (GHz). The higher the GHz, the faster your desktop PC will run.

Surfing the Web, using Microsoft Office or reading and sending e-mail doesn't require much processing power. Gaming, watching videos or editing multimedia files requires a more robust processor, and you'll see a dramatic difference performing these tasks on desktop PCs with faster chipsets. Since you want your desktop PC investment to last three to five years, think about what you're likely to do with it down the road and try to get a little more speed than you think you need.

Graphics and Display
Unless you choose an iMac, you'll need a monitor for your desktop PC. LCD displays start at around $250, and they're a worthy upgrade from an older CRT monitor. If you already own a monitor, make sure it's compatible with the resolution of your new desktop PC.

The graphics card is another consideration, but these can be upgraded. The included graphics cards on desktop PCs are excellent for everything but video editing and high-resolution gaming. If you need more graphics power for your desktop PC, choose a chip with at least 256MB of built-in RAM. The GeForce 6800 or Radeon X800 are excellent choices for graphic design, multimedia editing and gaming. Some high-end desktop PCs will come with an advanced graphics card already installed, but it's usually cheaper to get the graphics card and the desktop PC separately.

Optical Drives
At a minimum, a desktop PC needs a CD drive so that you can install store-bought software. More commonly, you'll find CD-RW drives that let you burn CDs and DVD+R drives that can burn DVDs. If you're creating videos professionally or for family and friends, you'll want to be able to burn DVDs. Otherwise, you can save money by choosing a drive that reads DVDs but only writes CDs.

High-resolution Blu-ray and HD DVD drives that can read and write new DVD formats are another option for your desktop PC. The prices of these new drives are high, so unless you're a professional video editor, it's best to wait on this technology.

Connecting a Desktop PC
Half the fun of a desktop PC is connecting to the Internet. At a minimum, you'll need a built-in modem for dialup access or an Ethernet port for a cable or DSL modem.

With so many peripherals, including printers, keyboards and external drives, running on USB connections, it's amazing that most desktop PCs still offer only two USB ports. If you have a lot of USB devices, you can find a desktop PC with extra ports, or buy a separate, powered USB hub. A good rule of thumb is to have at least four USB ports. An additional convenience to consider is USB port location. Ports located in the rear are fine for printers, but you'll also want some ports up front for flash drives, MP3 players and digital cameras that you only connect for short periods of time.

A new item to look for is an HDMI port. This allows you to connect your desktop PC to a compatible HDTV, so you can watch media files on the big screen. Online digital movie rentals are a reality today, so this feature may be worth the investment.

You'll also need a mouse and keyboard to operate your desktop PC. Be aware that some new desktop PCs lack the PS/2 ports that were once common for keyboard and mouse connections, so you might need to get new peripherals.

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