CNET editors' desktop buying guide:
Connect your digital devices to your desktop
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.
Connect your digital devices
Desktop cases serve up a number of ports on the back panel for connecting the system's peripherals, such as a monitor, speakers, a keyboard, and a mouse. There are also ports for using printers young and old and others for hooking up any number of digital devices, including digital cameras, camcorders, MP3 players, and handhelds.
USB and FireWireUnless you're particularly attached to an ancient printer, you need not concern yourself with legacy ports, such as serial and parallel connections, though they are still being supported by the majority of today's motherboards. USB has replaced these slower ports for connecting printers and other devices, such as digital cameras, MP3 players, and handhelds. Many mice and keyboards also use a USB connection instead of the old PS/2 port. At 480Mbps, the newer USB 2.0 offers 40 times the speed of USB 1.1. With so many USB devices out there, we suggest you settle for a minimum of four USB 2.0 ports, and you shouldn't have to look too hard to find six or eight, with a couple of them conveniently located on the front panel.
FireWire, also referred to as IEEE 1394 and as iLink by Sony, is another popular port for peripherals. The standard was developed by Apple and is used mostly for connecting digital video camcorders or external hard drives. Not to be outdone by USB 2.0, FireWire recently received an upgrade that doubles the speed to 800Mbps. The two versions are referred to as FireWire 400 and FireWire 800. One FireWire port should do the trick.
Most PCs today have front-mounted ports that make it easier to connect digital devices, such as a digital camera or MP3 player. No longer do you have to reach around to the back of a PC to view your photos or refresh the playlist on your MP3 player. Pictured here is the front of a Sony VAIO desktop, which boasts three slots for a variety of media cards (Memory Stick, CompactFlash, and SmartMedia). And below these slots are audio and video ports along with a couple of USB and FireWire ports.
Audio and video portsMany systems have a blue VGA port that's integrated to the motherboard and accessible on the back panel for connecting the PC to a CRT monitor or an analog LCD. If the system has a graphics card, the card will offer this same port, while some graphics cards will also furnish you with a white DVI connection (possibly two) for digital LCDs. If you want to connect your PC to your TV, you'll need a system with an S-Video port, unless your TV has an HDMI input, in which case you can purchase a DVI-to-HDMI adapter. A few video cards also come with HDMI ports built in. This new standard hasn't really hit the desktop in great quantities yet, but we suspect that it's only a matter of time.
As with graphics, a PC can provide sound processing via an integrated chipset or a dedicated card. The latter option generally offers better sound quality and more features, as well as better performance. If you are after a completely immersive gaming or DVD-viewing experience, be sure to spring for a sound card. And if you have a digital speaker set bundled with your PC, make sure it has the appropriate digital-audio outputs, which are called S/PDIF (Sony/Philips Digital Interface).
Getting onlineFor connecting to the Internet, it's simple. If you are stuck with dial-up service (or you just love to fax), you'll need a modem port. Sometimes referred to as an RJ-11 port, this is integrated to some motherboards and, at other times, provided by an expansion card. For broadband, you'll need an Ethernet port. More often than not, you'll find this integrated to the motherboard; if it's not, look for it as an option listed as a network interface card or NIC. Recently, we've seen some systems that contain an integrated wireless receiver. Although your desktop will still need at least one wire (the power cord), integrated wireless functionality means that you will be able to easily add your new PC to your wireless home network.
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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.