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1/6/2006
08:13 AM
Fred Langa
Fred Langa
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Langa Letter: 10 Critical Factors When Buying A New PC

Fred Langa outlines and explains his top decision points when purchasing new desktop hardware.

CPU And Memory
Today's CPU landscape offers abundant, excellent choices: Except in the bargain-basement bin of obsolete chips, you'd be hard-pressed to find a poor performer from Intel or AMD. In fact, almost any midrange or higher CPU will perform general office tasks acceptably well. Naturally, if you're planning on a long service life for your new PC, it'd be better to "overbuy," selecting a chip with more clockspeed than you may need right now, in order to accommodate whatever new and more-demanding tasks may occur in the future.

Likewise, for the greatest future flexibility and also to accommodate today's most demanding tasks (such as video editing) you may wish to consider not only higher clockspeeds, but wider effective data paths. This can be accomplished through either dual-core chip designs (in effect, running two chips in parallel) and/or though a true 64-bit chip design. Either approach lets you do more with each given clock cycle.

The main drawback to these designs is the limited range of software that can fully exploit the new hardware. While this will change in time, I personally believe it's a little too early in the game for dual-core and 64-bit CPUs to pay off in most office applications; and so I don't think they're worth the extra expense except in very specialized circumstances. On an "average" desktop -- including the one I'm using to write this article -- a high-end 32-bit, single-core CPU is fully adequate, and will remain so for some time to come.

Because Microsoft is the 800-pound gorilla of the operating system world, it's also useful and instructive to look at how Vista will affect CPU choices: To some extent, you could say, "As Vista goes, so goes a good chunk of the PC industry." Intel's Vista-related CPU information is here; and AMD's is here.

The RAM question is easier to deal with because all modern operating systems work better with more RAM, and 512 MB of RAM is an affordable and effective minimum amount to spec, regardless of operating system type. (A given operating system may be able to run with much less RAM than that, but performance will most likely be suboptimal.) A full gigabyte or more of RAM is better still for more demanding applications. In fact, I have 2GB in my main system, and don't regret it at all.

But no matter how much RAM you spec for your new PC today, ensure that you have at least some RAM slots open for future expansion: Adding RAM is one of the fastest, least-expensive, and most effective ways to extend the life of a PC as it ages. So make sure any PC you buy today has one or more open RAM slots to exploit, or you'll end up having to remove and discard some of the already installed RAM.

Graphics/Video
Here, too, Microsoft's heavy footprint is affecting the entire industry: For example, almost all the popular Linux distributions ship with default desktops that echo the XP desktop's look and feel. We can expect something similar when Vista ships. So, let's start with a look at Vista's requirements for graphics/video:

Microsoft says, "PC systems should have a graphics processor that will support the Windows Display Driver Model (WDDM)." Indeed, the major graphics hardware vendors such as nVidia and ATI are already pre-qualifying their popular product lines. For example, nVidia lists its "Vista-ready" products here, and ATI offers a similar list here. These products also are often the very same ones with readily available Linux drivers, so they make a good, open-ended choice for just about any current PC purchase.

Less specifically, Microsoft also says, "If you are building or buying a PC today, you probably want to avoid the low end of the current GPU [graphics processing unit] range and make sure you get a GPU that supports DirectX 9 and has at least 64 MB of graphics memory." And broader still: Vista is designed to revert to XP's look-and-feel if it's run on a system whose GPU can't support the full Vista look and feel. So, as a rock-bottom minimum, make sure that any PC you buy can at least support XP.

The above may be especially important for PCs and laptops with nonupgradeable integrated or "onboard" video systems. While a few integrated chipsets (e.g. Intel's 945G express chipset or ATI's RS400 or RS480 chipsets) support WDDM, many do not. That means that these more-limited chipsets will be able to run Vista only in the more-limited XP-style graphics mode.

Some very low-end integrated video systems also may not be able to "borrow" enough system RAM to provide adequate video performance at all. For example, systems that reserve only 8- or 16- or 32-MB of RAM for video use may simply be too anemic for any modern operating system to use well. Integrated video systems that reserve 64MB or more of system RAM may be acceptable; but better still are integrated video systems that let you disable the onboard video and replace it with a more capable, separate video card at a later date, as your needs evolve.

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