The CNET editors' guide to desktops clues you in to what you need to know, from finding the type of PC that fits your lifestyle to catching up on all of the latest trends.
Select the processor and memory
Desktops' specs and prices vary widely, from budget boxes for basic tasks such as word processing and e-mailing to performance PCs for playing the latest 3D games or editing digital video. The speed and the type of processor and memory you choose will play a large role in determining overall system performance. Here, we'll help you navigate the many choices you have in this area.
Processor | Memory
The brains of any PC is the CPU, or central processing unit. It is the single most important component of a desktop PC. Generally speaking, the faster the processor speed the better your performance, but once you really start to look into the complex world of CPUs, you'll realize that determining which CPU is the best for you is a little more complicated than merely counting gigahertz. For one, of the two major PC chip players, AMD and Intel, AMD's chips feature lower clock speeds than similarly performing Intel chips. And secondly, most new mainstream and high-end PCs come with dual-core or increasingly quad-core chips in them, meaning multiple processing brains on one physical piece of silicon.
If that seems like more CPU than you need, don't worry, dual-core PCs are still affordable, and they're becoming the norm. eMachines' $500 T5230
is a dual-core system, and we've seen plenty of others in the same price range. And it's a good thing, too, because dual-core chips are good at multitasking, processing digital media, and taking care of all the other modern tasks for which we use computers. And Windows Vista benefits particularly from a dual-core chip, as it's been written specifically with them in mind.
Right now, the superior chip technology comes from Intel, in the form of its new Core 2 Duo and Core 2 Quad processors. Thanks to recent price cuts, AMD's competing Athlon 64 X2 chips also offer strong performance for the dollar. In PCs under $1,000, as long as you have a Core 2 Duo or an Athlon 64 X2, that's about all you need to look for. Any more expensive than that and in most cases you're going to want to go with an Intel processor.
For more information on AMD's and Intel's processors, see our CPU roadmap
PROS AND CONS
|AMD Athlon 64||Budget or mainstream||You might still find some of these single core chips in lower-end PCs. They were solid performers in their day but have since been outpaced in price and performance by other CPUs from both AMD and Intel. We wouldn't suggest paying more than $500 for a PC with one of these chips in it.|
|AMD Athlon 64 FX||Performance||AMD's high-end dual-core line had its performance crown taken away by Intel's Core 2 Duo CPUs. Even after AMD fired back by reducing prices, the FX series still couldn't compete with Intel in price/performance. They're plenty fast, and if you purchase a PC with one today, it will last you for a long time, but you should see PCs with faster Intel Core 2 Duo chips for less.|
|AMD Athlon 64 X2||Budget to performance||Like the Athlon 64 FX chips, this former mainstream dual-core CPU of choice has been overtaken by Intel's Core 2 Duo chips. You can get them for a steal now, though, which helps keep them on the market.|
|AMD Quad FX||Performance||Not an actual processor per se but a pair of dual-core Athlon 64 FX-70 series chips on a specialized motherboard. Similar to Apple's approach of marrying two dual-core Xeon chips inside its quad-core Mac Pro. It's found on only the most high-end of desktops and is a precursor to more advanced quad-core chips yet to come (and software that can take advantage of four processing cores). Not recommend due to cost and complicated setup.|
|AMD Sempron||Budget||We still see these single-core budget chips in sub-$500 desktops, but we expect that as supplies dwindle, they won't last long in the market. After recent price cuts, AMD's dual-core, 64-bit Athlon 64 X2 CPUs should be widely available in sub-$1,000 PCs, with the single-core Athlon 64 taking over the extreme low-end, rendering the Sempron obsolete.|
|Apple PowerPC G5||Mac Mini, iMac, and Power Mac||You won't find Apple's PowerPC G5 chip in any desktop purchased directly from Apple, but you might still find a G5-based Mac from other retailers. They're fast enough for day-to-day use, but we wouldn't recommend paying a lot for one, since the new Macs with Intel's Core and Core 2 Duo CPUs are faster. |
|Budget||Like AMD's Sempron chips, we expect that Intel's Celerons will slowly disappear from the market, although they might linger in extremely low-end PCs. Intel's Core 2 Duo chips have come on strong in a broad swath of the mainstream, and Intel has said that it will transition the Pentium name on lower-end chips. While Intel hasn't officially issued Celeron's demise, the superior Pentium D or even Pentium 4 CPUs have become so affordable, that it would be hard to justify paying for a Celeron-based PC. |
|Intel Core||Budget or mainstream||While Intel Core is mostly a laptop chip, it achieved widespread desktop use, thanks to Apple's iMac and Mac Mini. Available in single-core (Core Solo) and dual-core (Core Duo) versions, these power-efficient, fast CPUs are solid performers, especially for small-form-factor desktop designs. We expect that they might not last on the market too long as Intel has updated its notebook chips to Core 2 Duo. You will probably still find it in Macs and a handful of Windows-based desktops, and as long as the price has been reasonably reduced, you should get fast, extended use from a PC with one of these chips in it.|
|Intel Core 2 Duo||Budget to performance||Intel's flagship line of CPUs are fast, power efficient, and affordable. We've seen them in budget PCs that cost less than $1,000, as well as in high-end gaming boxes upward of $6,000. These chips are dual-core, 64-bit powerhouses that will run current apps with no problem, and they're poised to run Vista smoothly, as well. The Core 2 Duo is our current favorite CPU on the market.|
|Intel Core 2 Quad||Performance||You might not need a PC with such a pricey chip now, but our testing found that for applications and scenarios that will put it to the test, Intel's new quad-core chip will give you an absolute boost in performance.|
|Budget or mainstream||These mainstream dual-core chips were never well loved due to their lack of performance compared to AMD's Athlon 64 X2 chips, as well as their ridiculous heat output and power demands. They're fast enough for most day-to-day computing tasks, and you should find them in lower-end PCs. Just be sure to check that there's no similar deal on a comparable Athlon 64 X2-based PC.|
The amount and type of memory you choose goes a long way toward dictating your system's level of overall performance. Microsoft recommends a minimum of 512MB to run Windows Vista, but we think doubling that amount is well worth the added expense. Memory isn't nearly as expensive as it once was, which makes going with at least 1GB the right decision for most PC buyers.
Written in one of two ways, memory speed is referred to by the speed in which it communicates with the CPU (400MHz, for example) or by its data bandwidth (3.2GB per second or PC3200).
For the most part, you'll find two different types of memory in new systems: DDR SDRAM and DDR2 SDRAM. Older AMD Athlon-based systems support only DDR (without tweaking), generally running 400MHz. You might see some configurations with 333MHz memory, but they're likely bottom-of-the-barrel systems. All current Intel CPU-supporting chipsets, as well as the Socket AM2 chipsets for AMD's chips, support more-advanced DDR2 memory, which can run at 533MHz, 667MHz, or higher. You can also find brand new DDR3 on the market, but it's so new that it's exceedingly expensive right now. We don't expect you will want to consider DDR3 if you're buying a new PC this year.
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Rich Brown, Dan Ackerman, and Matthew Elliott wrote and edited this guide. For more information on desktops in general, please visit our desktop center