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Anybody who chooses a well-outfitted Intel system nowadays should be prepared to spend some money on its various components. A good machine calls not just for a well-equipped motherboard but speedy RAM as well; for a 955X or nForce4 motherboard, this means DDR2-667. But where fast timings increase memory throughput by only a few percent, they can nearly double the prices you'll pay. Still, if you're considering overclocking your system, your RAM should be ready to do likewise - any savvy reseller will be glad to help you pick out compatible DIMMs for such a system.
Two 512 MB modules are the bare minimum for today's active PC users. It's better to buy DIMMs in pairs anyway, so as to get best use from dual-channel memory architectures, which can nearly double throughput - at least in theory. In practice, you'll improve performance by at least a couple of percentage points, and at no added cost.
Don't forget the hard disks, either. Not everybody needs a 400 GB drive, but whatever hard disk models are the newest at any given moment are also likely to be the fastest in their class as well. Important numbers to consider include data transfer rates and disk access times, as well as support for enhanced functionality such as Native Command Queuing (NCQ). This last feature lets the drive execute read and write requests in the optimal order for best performance.
If you really want to go full out, we recommend Western Digital's WD740 Raptor drives. In contrast to the more usual 7,200 RPM rate at which most hard disks operate, these run at 10,000 RPM; this extra speed can make a noticeable difference in performance when hard disk speed matters. You pay for the speed of course; $200+ for 74 GB is not cheap by any means. For the same money you can buy a 7,200 RPM 300 GB SATA-II drive with change left over.
How much money you decide to invest in graphics cards depends in large part on how much real-time 3D support you need. If you only game every now and then, a cheap graphics card for under $100 will probably suffice. In that case, you might want to look at passively cooled models, whose quiet operation may cost a little more but will also soothe your nerves. Ordinary features related to 2D or video handling are so commonplace today as to provide little ground for distinguishing the graphics cards from each other.
As you move up in price from $150 to $600 you gain increasing amounts of 3D capability, to help improve real-time 3D graphics rendering and boost display resolutions in tandem. Buzzwords to watch for here include anisotropic filtering and anti-aliasing.
Those who want to spend even more on graphics need one of the nForce4-based motherboards with the Intel Edition chipset that we're about to cover in this story. These permit the installation and use of two GeForce graphics cards, 6600 GT or better. This doesn't do much for anything except gaming, where it can offer nearly double the performance of single card configurations. You'll find the details about this technology covered in our SLI Tutorial: NVIDIA's Double Graphics Whopper: SLI Comes to Market .