The components you choose for your system determine its features, performance level, and reliability. How and where you buy those components determines how much the system costs.
Sometimes it is a good idea to spend more for additional features or performance, but often it is not. The trick is to figure out where to draw the linewhen to spend extra money for extra features and performance, and when to settle for a less expensive component. Our years of experience have taught us several lessons in that regard:
Benchmarks lie. Buying PC components based solely on benchmark results is like buying a car based solely on its top speed. It's worse, actually, because no standards exist for how benchmarks measure performance, or what aspect of performance they measure. Using one benchmark, Component A may be the clear winner, with Component B lagging far behind. With another benchmark, the positions may be reversed. When you select components for your new system, we suggest you regard benchmarks with suspicion and use them only as very general guidelines, if at all.
Performance differences don't matter if it takes a benchmark to show them. Enthusiast web sites wax poetic about a processor that's 10% faster than its competitor or a video card that renders frames 5% faster than its predecessor. Who cares? A difference you won't notice isn't worth paying for.
It's easy to overlook the really important things and focus on trivialities. The emphasis on size and speed means more important issues are often ignored or at best given short shrift. For example, if you compare two hard drives you might think the faster drive is the better choice. But the faster drive may also run noticeably hotter and be much louder and less reliable. In that situation, the slower drive is probably the better choice.
Integrated (or embedded) components are often preferable to standalone components. Many motherboards include integrated features such as video, audio, and LAN. The integrated video on modern motherboards suffices for most purposes. Only hardcore gamers and others with special video requirements need to buy a separate video adapter. The best integrated audiosuch as that on motherboards that use Intel and nVIDIA chipsetsis good enough for almost anyone. Integrated LAN adapters are more than good enough for nearly any desktop system.
Vista and Integrated Video
The one exception to the general suitability of integrated video is systems that will run Windows Vista. The fastest integrated video currently available is fast enough for running Vista, but only just. If you plan to use Vista, particularly if you will place additional demands on the video adapter other than just running the interface, consider installing a standalone video adapter that is approved to run the Vista Aero Glass interface.
The advantage of integrated components is three-fold: cost, reliability, and compatibility. A motherboard with integrated components costs little or no more than a motherboard without such components, which can save you $100 or more by eliminating the cost of inexpensive standalone equivalents. Because they are built into the motherboard, integrated components are usually more reliable than standalone components. Finally, because the motherboard maker has complete control over the hardware and drivers, integrated components usually cause fewer compatibility issues and device conflicts.
Bang for the Buck
To find the sweet spot, just compare the price of a component to its performance or capacity. For example, if one processor costs $175 and the next model up is 10% faster, it should cost at most 10% more. If it costs more than that, you've reached the wrong part of the price/performance curve, and you'll be paying a premium for little additional performance. Similarly, before you buy a hard drive, divide the price by the capacity. At the low end, you may find that a small hard drive costs more per gigabyte than a larger drive. At the high end, a very large drive probably costs significantly more per gigabyte than a medium capacity model. The sweet spot is in the middle, where the cost per gigabyte is lowest. Make sure, though, that you compare apples to apples. Don't compare a dual-core processor to a single-core processor, for example, or a 5,400 RPM hard drive to a 7,200 RPM model.
Buying at the "sweet spot" is almost always the best decision. The sweet spot is the level at which the price/performance ratio is minimizedwhere you get the most bang for your buck. For example, Intel sells a broad range of processors, from $50 Celerons to $1,000 Core 2 Duo Extreme Editions. Celerons are cheap, but slow. Extreme Edition processors are fast, but hideously expensive. There must be a happy medium. The sweet spot for Intel processors is around $175 for a retail-boxed CPU. If you spend much less, you get less performance per dollar spent. If you spend much more, you get only a slight performance increase. This sweet spot has stayed the same for years. That $175 buys you a faster processor every time Intel cuts prices. But that $175 processor has always been the bang-for-the-buck leader.
It's almost always worth paying more for better quality and reliability. If the specs for two components look very similar but one sells for less than the other, it's a safe bet that someone cut corners to reduce the price of the cheaper component. The cheaper component may use inferior materials, have shoddy build quality, or poor quality control, or the manufacturer may provide terrible tech support or a very short warranty. If it's cheaper, there's a reason for it. Count on it. The best way to avoid the trap of poor-quality components is to be willing to pay a bit more for quality. The price difference between a mediocre product and a top-quality one can be surprisingly small. Throughout this book, we recommend only high-quality products. That's not to say that products we don't list are bad, but those we do recommend are good.
Brand names really do mean something, but not all brands are good ones. Brand names imply certain performance and quality characteristics, and most manufacturers take pains to establish and maintain those links in consumers' minds. Different brand names are often associated with different quality and/or performance levels in a good/better/best hierarchy, in the same way that General Motors sells their inexpensive models as Chevrolets and their expensive models as Cadillacs.
For example, ViewSonic makes several lines of LCD displays, including their high-end Pro Series, their midrange Graphics Series, and their entry-level E2 Series. Like many vendors, ViewSonic also maintains a separate brand name for their cheapest products, which they call OptiQuest. If you buy a Pro Series monitor, you know it's going to cost more than the lower-end models, but you also know it's going to have excellent performance and will likely be quite reliable. Conversely, if you buy an OptiQuest monitor, you know it's going to be cheap and not very good. Some manufacturers also have a "high-end" brand name, although that practice has declined as margins have eroded throughout the industry.
A Rose by Any Other Name
It's not uncommon for several manufacturers to relabel identical or closely similar products from the same Pacific Rim factory. For example, the factory that makes many of the cases that Antec sells under its brand names also makes similar cases that are sold under other brand names such as Chieftec and Chenming. Contrary to web wisdom, that doesn't mean those similar products are identical to the Antec case. Different companies can specify different levels of finish, quality control, and so on. A case with the Antec name on it meets Antec's quality standards. An "identical" case with a different brand name may not be of the same quality.
If you're on a tight budget, shop by brand name rather than by performance specifications. For the same price, it's usually better to choose a component that has less impressive specifications but a better brand name rather than a component with better specifications but a poor brand name. For example, if you can't afford a high-end 19" Samsung LCD display with 4 ms response time, but an 8 ms Samsung model or a similarly priced Brand-X 19" LCD display with 4 ms response time is within your budget, choose the 8 ms Samsung model. It may be a bit slower than the Brand-X display, but the Samsung will almost certainly have better display quality and be more reliable. In other words, if you have to choose between better quality and higher performance, choose quality every time.
In this chapter, we tell you what we've learned based on more than 20 years of buying PC hardware components. In the first edition of this book, we recommended specific brands and models. The obvious downside to doing that is that products change in Internet time. A product that is leading edge when we proof the final galleys may be midrange by the time the book arrives in bookstores and discontinued by the time you read it.
So, rather than a detailed discussion of such ephemera, this chapter focuses instead on important characteristics of hardware componentsthe things you need to understand to make good decisions. But we recognize that many people want detailed recommendations, so we also include links to our online forums, where we post our current recommendations for specific products by brand name and model that are reliable and offer good value for money. If you hew closely to our advice when you make your buying decisions you won't go far wrong.
With so many alternatives, it's easy to buy the right part from the wrong source. Accordingly, the last part of this chapter distills what we've learned about how and where to buy PC hardware components. When you finish reading this chapter, you'll have all the information you need to make the right buying decisions.