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  TechSpot's Low-end PC Buying Guide

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Memory

512MB (256x2) PC3200 DDR - $50
OR 1GB PC3200 DDR - $85

Memory plays a very important role in unleashing the full potential of your system. 512MB of PC3200 DDR should be considered the absolute minimum for a smooth office and Internet experience with Windows XP. If you are going to start getting into gaming and light content creation, you are going to want to bump this up another 512MB to 1GB. The addition of more memory is also going to be very important for those of you planning on upgrading to Windows Vista this summer. Oh, and don’t forget about buying pairs of modules to take advantage of dual channel technology.

It is important to remember that better quality memory is generally more expensive, but offers increased compatibility and better overclocking results. However, it does not necessarily improve performance. I’ve always had great results with Corsair and Micron memories, but the best place to look for memory compatibility is usually your motherboard manufacturer’s website.

 

Audio

Onboard sound - $0
OR Creative Labs Sound Blaster Audigy - $30

The Realtek ALC880 7.1 sound engine will be enough to satisfy most of you budget system builders, but those of you with gigantic ears may want to consider the refreshingly inexpensive SoundBlaster Audigy. This may be considered an important option for anyone who will depend on their budget PC for music/multimedia. Also, the Creative Audigy has been mass produced to death, giving you a great price on a great sounding card.

Speakers
Basic two-speaker configuration - $7

OR Logitech X-220 2.1  - $40

If you are hanging onto the integrated audio, then high fidelity sound equipment probably didn’t make the cut on your list of important things to buy. While any two-piece speaker setup will do for most budget system users, some of you might like to turn it up a few more notches to annoy the neighbors. The Logitech X-230 speaker set gives a nice three-piece salute to keeping it loud and affordable. They only cost a few dollars more than traditional speakers, and for the price, they sound like success.

 

Storage

80GB 7200RPM SATA - $55
OR 200GB 7200RPM SATA - $90

The amount of storage you will find on most computers these days is measured in hundreds of gigabytes, but I find a lot of budget PC users never get anywhere close to displacing this much disk space. Then again, I do find quite a few cost conscious pack rats that chew this space up in a matter of months.

What size you choose will really be based on how you will use your computer. For your typical office / Internet setup, an 80GB drive will be the perfect compliment. If you are a web junkie who loves to download whatever, whenever, however... Then you may want to spring for a 200GB or greater. Something great about all this enormous storage stuff is many times companies will offer huge rebates or clever incentives, making that unaffordable 400GB drive less than the older 200GB model.

How about brands? Well, there is not much difference in brands or models at the moment in the sub 200GB drive range. But I might suggest Seagate because of the 5-year warranty and their consistent medium to high marks for performance, reliability and acoustics. You shouldn't regret picking a model from other major manufacturers if you get a good deal on a Maxtor or Western Digital drive.

 

Display

BenQ 17” (FP71G+) - $215
Hyundai 19” (B90A) - $300

If you haven’t heard the good news, “Thin is in”. Adios CRT, Bienvenido el flat panel! LCD technology has progressed far enough where even the cheapest of LCDs emerging please the eye, so it is hard to go wrong here. The trick is to get the most for you money and find a display with the brightest, crispest picture. Also, the gaming and multimedia nightmare formerly known as ghosting is mostly a thing of the past, as most newer LCDs sport 8ms response times or lower.

BenQ has been cranking out some great (if somewhat uninspired) LCDs over the years that offer great visuals and stylish looks at affordable prices. The 17” FP71G+ continues this tradition. This flat panel supplies a vividly bright picture (500:1 contrast @ 250 cd/m²) and a low response time (8ms) attached through a standard VGA port. And lastly, the native resolution is a spiffy 1280x1024.

Being as mature as LCD technology is currently, even 19” displays are now attainable at close-to budget prices. Hyundai has supplied consumers with some pretty vivid and bright LCDs in the past with their ImageQuest series. They’ve really nailed what a 19” budget LCD should be, with the introduction of the B90A. It is crisp (1280x1024) and bright (700:1 contrast @ 300 cd/m²) and hooks up via your VGA port. It is a stellar deal at around $270 and you will wonder how you ever put up with that boxy little 15” CRT from several years back.

Don’t be afraid to visit your local store for a visual. Trying before buying is always a smart practice. While I only like to recommend what I’ve worked with myself, everyone’s preferences and eyes are different. It is important to invest in a display which you are pleased with, as you may have it for a substantial length of time.



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