Today, almost any PC on
the market can more than adequately handle such standard
office chores as word processing and spreadsheets, as well as
basic Internet functions such as e-mail and general browsing.
So for R3000 or less, you can get a PC that will suit most
If you're a more
demanding user who wants to edit digital video or manage a
large database, however, you may need more than the basics.
You're better off looking at systems that start in the R4500
to R6000 range. For high-end needs, check out our reviews of
power systems, which cost R8000 or more.
The best way to pay only
for what you need is to carefully consider what you want to do
with your system now and anticipate what might interest you
next year. Specific applications call for certain types of
hardware, whether at home or in the office.
Processor: If you
plan to use your PC for standard office productivity and basic
Internet tasks, most any processor will do. But if you want
more power, Intel Pentium 4 or AMD Athlon 64 systems are your
best bet. For the highest performance, buy a system with a
dual-core processor, which will allow for faster multitasking.
To save a couple hundred dollars, buy one or two levels down
from the top--you're unlikely to lose more than 5 to 10
percent per tier in performance.
The Pentium 4, the
Pentium D or Extreme Edition (both dual core), and the Athlon
64, 64 FX, or 64 X2 (dual core) can support most high-end
work. Dual-core systems are best for the most demanding
applications, such as video editing or high-resolution game
play. Our tests currently show that the top AMD-based PCs tend
to do a bit better than the leading Intel-based systems on our
WorldBench 5 applications test suite. You can find bargain PCs
with either of these chips, even at fast speeds. To pay a
lower price, you'll have to sacrifice graphics performance,
hard-drive size, and possibly monitor size (among other
Memory: To give
Windows XP and applications sufficient room to work, you
should get a minimum of 512MB of RAM. If you can afford to get
more, do it. RAM costs a lot less today than it did some years
ago. High-end PCs should have at least 1GB--that amount lets
you keep more applications open and comfortably handles
memory-intensive applications like Photoshop. (But if
Photoshop is your app of choice, get 2GB of RAM; you won't
Storage: In most
cases basic PCs come with hard drives of 80GB or larger. This
amount of storage is fine for the majority of mainstream
tasks. If you plan to work with graphics files, large
databases, video, or music, however, you'll want to bump the
storage capacity up to at least 120GB. You'll need it because
30 minutes of uncompressed digital video takes up nearly 6.5GB
of space, while 250 4-minute MP3s at 128 kbps use more than
Graphics and display:
Responsible for generating all images on your monitor, the
graphics subsystem in a PC ships either as a removable
expansion board or as a chip that's soldered permanently--or
integrated--onto the motherboard.
Only dedicated gamers or
people who work with 3D modeling need a top-of-the line
graphics card. Home users who want an inexpensive system with
decent graphics should choose a card with an older-generation
nVidia chip such as the GeForce 6600 or a base-level ATI chip
such as the Radeon X1300; for as little as R200, they can
boost performance even with recently released games. If you
want to do some gaming and are keeping an eye on the future,
get a card with at least an nVidia GeForce 6800 chip or a
Radeon X800 chip. Try to get a board with 256MB of RAM. In
the office, integrated graphics should satisfy your needs and
save you money unless you're doing high-end graphics, Web, or
multimedia development. Some motherboards with integrated
graphics, such as models from Intel or nVidia, allow you a
graphics upgrade option via an unoccupied PCI Express slot.
Ask for the slot when you buy, if you want to be able to
Get at least a 17-inch
LCD monitor--prices are low enough that you should be able to
buy one for about less than a R 1000. You can spend R800 or
more for a high-quality model. For about R900, you can have a
19-inch monitor, which provides over 20 percent more screen
area than a 17-inch model. Better models range from R950 to
Your most cost-effective removable-storage option is a CD-RW
drive. However, home users may want to consider substituting
the more flexible DVD-rewritable drive: You still get CD-RW
functionality, and DVDs store at least 4.7GB of data, versus
650MB for most CDs. They also let you create your own video
DVDs to play in your living-room DVD player. DVD write speeds
are much slower than CD write speeds, though.
DVD drives cost more than
CD-RW drives, but prices are falling quickly. If you want the
latest, buy a drive that supports dual- or double-layer DVD
writing, which allows you to put more data on a single disc.
USB thumb drives and
micro-drives are also growing in popularity. These
keychain-size devices, made by a number of manufacturers, can
store large amounts of data, even 1GB or more. If you use
Windows 2000 or XP, a thumb drive requires no additional
software; Windows will detect the device as soon as you pop it
in a port, and will assign it its own drive letter in
Explorer. If a standard key-fob style doesn't suit you, some
companies have integrated thumb drives into pens, watches, and
even a Swiss army pocket knife. Whichever model you choose,
make sure you pick one that transfers data at USB 2.0 speeds;
the older USB 1.1 devices move files at a pokier pace.
Most PCs come with a modem for dial-up Internet access and an
ethernet port for broadband access. If you want to connect to
the Internet wirelessly, you'll need a wireless network
To share your broadband
connection or to network your PCs, get a gateway or router. A
PC and router with gigabit ethernet will give you a faster
local network connection than products with 10/100 ethernet.
If you go wireless, you'll also need a card or an external
adapter for each PC.
Sound: In the
office, the basics should suffice; integrated sound in your PC
is more than adequate for most work. At home, though, you'll
probably want surround sound. If your PC doesn't already
support surround sound, for R100 or more you can buy an
upgraded sound card with Dolby 5.1 support, plus a decent set
of speakers that includes a subwoofer.
Design: A good
case can make your everyday work easier and can simplify the
task of upgrading or servicing components--an especially
valuable perk in offices with multiple systems. A
well-designed case will offer tool-less access to the
interior, hard drives mounted on easy slide-out trays, and
color-coded cables for internal and external parts.
At home, look for at
least two USB ports in front so that you can easily hook up
peripherals. If you have a digital video camcorder, get a PC
with a FireWire (IEEE 1394) port.
If you plan to keep the
system for a while, make sure you have some room for
expansion. You'll want at least a couple of open drive bays
and probably a free PCI slot as well.
home and office PC users should find Windows XP Home a
perfectly acceptable operating system. You should buy Windows
XP Professional only if you want to take advantage of its
management features, such as Remote Desktop, which lets users
control the computer remotely over the Internet. Most vendors
offer XP Home, XP Pro, and the increasingly popular Windows XP
Media Center Edition.
Warranty and tech
support: Because most PC problems tend to crop up in the
first year, a one-year warranty should be fine. A two- or
three-year warranty will add about R350 to R500 to your cost.
Businesses can get options like 24-hour on-site response, but
they must pay dearly for it.
Keyboard and mouse:
Almost all systems include these commodity components,
usually a Windows-compatible 102-key keyboard and a two-button
mouse with a scroll wheel. Many vendors are switching from
PS/2-connected devices to USB models that offer more features,
such as additional programmable keys that can launch favorite
applications or Web sites. Wireless keyboards and mice are
especially useful for Media Center PCs. Optical mice, which
use a small camera to detect motion, provide smoother, more
precise control over mouse movement. They also eliminate the
need for you to remove and clean a coated ball, as with older