Even if you decide to go for a low-cost motherboard you will certainly receive a feature set that can be considered decent. Today, you will always get an audio subsystem with at least 5.1 channel sound, a network interface that supports either 100 Mb or Gigabit Ethernet as well as a couple of USB 2.0 ports for attaching peripheral devices. In addition, there will be several 32- bit PCI slots for expansion cards such as TV tuners, video editing hardware, professional sound cards or others. PCI Express will usually be represented on recent motherboards by a small number of x1 slots.
Graphics cards are usually attached via PCI Express today, while older systems are based on AGP. If you want to make sure your system is future proof in terms of graphics support, don't go for an AGP solution any more. New graphics boards will primarily be developed and offered with PCIe rather than AGP interfaces.
In the Intel world there is usually not much to do when it comes to setting up the processor. The system clock speed has been remaining at 200 MHz in quad-pumped mode, resulting in marketing-friendly 800 MHz or FSB800. The actual speed setting is done via a multiplier that is used to create the processor clock speed.
Looking at the mass storage interfaces is more interesting. All current Intel chipsets offer four ports for Serial ATA devices, but no more than one UltraATA channel. This is ideal to assemble a new system using SATA hard drives, but as soon as you need to run more than two UltraATA devices (e.g. a hard drive, DVD-ROM and burner), you will need an additional storage controller. So far, optical drives have almost exclusively been equipped with parallel ATA interfaces and this won't change until the second half of 2006.
If you are looking at upgrading, we recommend going for a new hard drive as well. Not only is the current generation much faster than prior models, but they also provide much more storage capacity. Slightly above $100 for 200-250 GB should be quite acceptable.
Processor: Pentium 4 Or Pentium D?
If you belong to the small minority with unlimited budget, you might want to go for a fast single core Pentium 4 processor for your new socket 775 system today. We recommend the 600 series due to its 2 MB L2 cache, EM64T extensions and Enhanced SpeedStep, which is responsible for saving energy and reducing heat dissipation when idle. Despite the core clock speed reaching up to 3.8 GHz today, the system will speed down to 2.8 GHz using SpeedStep. What you need are SpeedStep enabled components such as the motherboard/BIOS and the CPU. To activate it, make sure it is enabled in the BIOS and switch Windows from desktop to notebook/portable mode.
The Pentium D can be considered the more advanced processor thanks to its dual-core architecture and attractive price. However, you should consider the higher energy requirements that will go up by 15% (without the display) although the clock rate of today's Pentium D models is only 2.8 to 3.2 GHz. If you like running several applications and services at a time or want to have a system that is highly responsive to user inputs, you will never go back to a single-core chip after using a dual-core CPU - although single applications, especially non-thread-optimized ones, will be executed somewhat slower compared to what a fast Pentium 4 offers.
Slated for launch in spring 2006, the Pentium D 900 series will shrink the Intel dual core to 65 nm and double the L2 cache to L2 cache per core. In addition, the virtualization technology called VT or Vanderpool technology will also be added. This will allow for logically splitting the CPU into several partitions for executing different operating systems independently from each other. One example would be sharing the computer to install both Windows XP and Linux at the same time, in order to develop software or web services. The development could be done under Windows while the Linux OS would be available for immediate testing without any additional hardware required.