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Component Considerations

The $300 PC
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Processors

AMD's entire product range consists of enthusiast Athlon 64 FX CPUs, which retail for as much as $1,000; Athlon 64 X2 dual-core processors for the mainstream and upper mainstream segments, Athlon 64 single-core processors for the entry level market and low-end Sempron processors. All AMD processors that retail for approximately $100 and up are dual-core devices nowadays. If possible, you should definitely go the dual-core route. A dual-core processor does not only almost double computing power for modern, thread-optimized applications, but it will also make your computer much more responsive, so we generally recommendthe Athlon 64 X2. These devices are, however, too expensive for our project, so we looked at Semprons in the price range of $50-$60. Beware of socket AM2 processors, because socket 939 and socket 754 are outdated.

The same is valid for Intel processors. There is the top-notch Core 2 Extreme for those who want to spend $1,000 (the Q6700 offers as many as four processing cores), the Core 2 Duo family for mainstream and high-end mainstream computers, Pentium D and Pentium 4 for entry level PCs and the Celeron family for budget machines. Pentium D and Core 2 Duo are dual-core devices, while the Core 2 is far superior and more energy-efficient than anything else. Celeron and Pentium 4 are single-core processors. We chose the Celeron D line, because anything else would have exceeded our budget. All Intel processors in the channel utilize the socket 775.

Motherboard

Motherboards offer many upgrade opportunities today, whether you decide to go with AMD or with Intel. Socket AM2 or socket 775 platforms can host single- or dual-core processors. It is absolutely possible to buy a cheap single-core processor today and exchange it for a dual-core processor later. Be sure to look into your motherboard manual to get specific information about processor support. Sophisticated socket 775 motherboards can also accommodate Intel's Core 2 Quad processor. We expect that many socket AM2 motherboards will be capable of running future AMD quad core processors as well. Be sure to invest in a decent motherboard, which is usually at least $150.

We had to limit our expenses and couldn't put much emphasis on a particular chipset, but we did find something suitable within a $50-$80 price range. This is still enough to get at least two Serial ATA ports for two individual hard drives, one or two PCI slots for expansion cards and an x16 PCI Express slot in case you want to use a video card instead of integrated graphics. Any motherboard carries several USB 2.0 interfaces, a sound system and basic network connectivity.

RAM

The memory question is crucial, but simple. Anything below 512 MB RAM is unacceptable. While Windows XP can run on 512 MB if you limit yourself to very few applications at a time, Windows Vista requires one gigabyte of RAM to run smoothly. Memory is fairly inexpensive nowadays and we found memory devices for as little as $65 for 1 GB. You should, however, go for a pair of memory modules instead of a single module with the same capacity, because systems can operate two or four memory modules in so-called dual-channel mode to effectively double the memory throughput.

Hard Drive

Although hard drive performance has quite some impact on your overall experience, this item is secondary for us. You can easily get 250 GB and more for under $100. If you're willing to invest $150, you will get 320-400 GB, which is enough storage capacity to hold an extensive multimedia database.

There are significant performance differences between older and current hard drives, but the performance of most 3.5" desktop drives on the low end of the scale do not vary much.

Case, Power Supply

When it comes to the chassis, you can spend as little as $40 for a very basic model or $400 for a sophisticated aluminum case. Differences can be found in the amount of drive bays, modularity of elements such as a motherboard shuttle or removable drive cages, ventilation options and front interfaces. Power supplies vary in their maximum output, which is rated in Watts. Go for at least 350 W today if you want to use a dedicated graphics card. The more the better, but anything above 500 W is only necessary for high-end systems with multiple graphics cards and other components. More differences can be found in the way power supplies are cooled and in energy-efficiency. Some work entirely with heat sinks (choose one with large-diameter fans if you want a quiet model). The efficiency level of some power supplies are indicated on the outside of the case. Anything above 85% is excellent, but usually expensive.

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