How to buy a home PC
11th Oct 2010 | 14:47
Perfect for browsing the web, email and home or office work
A PC opens up the entire internet and helps you get all your crucial projects done, it's as simple as that.
Call them entry-level PCs, call them budget PCs, a low-cost computer is made of the same basic components as a system that could cost ten times as much.
If you're shopping for an entire system or just an upgrade here's our expert advice on where you need to spend your budget.
The all-important motherboard connects the components together within your PC and on basic home PCs choosing the right motherboard is key to keeping the cost as low as possible and providing essential features such as audio and graphics without the need to splash out on extra parts.
The motherboard you choose dictates what type of processor and also memory that can be used. When you first start looking at motherboards the first important question to answer is if you want to use an Intel or AMD processor, the two main manufacturers of PC processors.
Usually for a home PC cost is the main motivator and both types at this level cost roughly the same, but AMD offers a wider selection of processors to choose from. The next question is the processor socket the motherboard should use. The socket is simply the type of connection used between the motherboard and processor, but will dictate the models of processor you can choose and these are split by the manufacturer.
AMD motherboards will have an AM2, AM2+ or an AM3 socket. Intel is a little more complex but the socket numbers you will see are 478, 775, 1156 and 1366, but for low-cost and Home PC options you will be looking at socket 775 models. Ignore socket 478 as this is outdated now, only used by the old Pentium 4 processor.
Now you know the manufacturer and type of socket it will use we can make sure the motherboard offers the other features you'll need. It should come with built-in audio either six- or eight-channel more importantly you'll want built-in graphics as well, ideally with an HDMI or DVI output, but VGA still works with most monitors.
There's an awful lot more to motherboard but these basics will help you choose a model perfect for a home PC.
For help with choosing a motherboard, check out our motherboard reviews.
Memory for home PCs
For home PCs in regards to general system speed, memory is as important as the processor. As a general rule of thumb 1GB of main memory should be a minimum, while 2GB will be adequate for most home PCs. When picking memory it's important to check it's compatible with the motherboard you currently have or are going to buy.
The type of memory is the single most important thing to check. It will need to be either DDR2 or DDR3, depending on your motherboard. Generally AMD AM2 and Intel 775 based motherboard use DDR2, AMD AM3 and Intel 1156/1366 motherboards will use DDR3.
Our article DDR2 vs DDR3: which RAM should you buy? goes into more detail on the two types of RAM.
The second feature of memory is the speed that it runs at, but for a home PC this really isn't an issue. You can happily buy the slowest and therefore cheapest memory without any issues and in fact as this would enable you to buy more memory, which with these systems plays more of a role in performance than raw speed.
For reference, memory speed is measured both in terms of the clock speed in MHz and also a bandwidth measure that refers to how many MB per second it can shift, written like PC-5300; a bigger number is better. For DD2 memory speeds range from 400MHz up to 1,066MHz. For DDR3 speeds go from 1,066MHz up to and over 2,000MHz.
A final point to keep in mind is that pretty much all motherboards support something called dual-channel memory. If you install two identical memory sticks into a motherboard this enables it to access both at the same time, effectively doubling the speed.
What does this mean to you? It means when buying 2GB of memory you actually need to buy two 1GB sticks, install both for a total of 2GB and enjoy the free speed!
Processor: AMD vs Intel
AMD's budget range is called Sempron and a few low-cost versions are available and will be fine for a basic home PC.
However, for around £10 extra the far more capable Athlon X2 and Athlon II processors become available, these are dual-core processors, which is like having a bigger engine that offers more power for difficult tasks. If your budget can stretch to one then it is worth the additional outlay.
Intel's budget range for Intel is named Celeron and models are available in both single and dual-core models. A little confusingly there's is also the Pentium Dual Core model but this is usually priced a little higher than the Celeron models.
You may see Pentium 4 processors for around the same price but we'd suggest you avoid these as its outdated technology. As with AMD processors it's worth paying extra for a dual-core model.
Hard drives for home PCs
A PC has to store Windows, applications and files somewhere and that's on the primary storage device, which is better known as the hard drive.
These haven't changed much over the year and the standard desktop PC drive remains a 3.5-inch device. These connect to the motherboard using an SATA cable and while different compatible versions are available the basic SATA 1.0 (1.5Gb) or SATA 2.0 (3.0Gb) is more than adequate for a home PC.
The amount a hard drive can store is measured in GBs or 1,000MBs. To put this into perspective Windows 7 requires around 20GB of space, while 1GB is enough to store around 250 MP3 songs or high-resolution JPEG images.
An entry-level drive is currently around 250GB, so offers plenty of storage to begin with. It is possible to add two or three more drives to most home PCs, so storage space can be upgraded over time as you need it, and this is besides adding external drives.
Our article How to buy the best new hard drive upgrade will help you choose a suitable hard drive.
Monitors for home PCs
The display is still an area where a good deal of money has to be spent in comparison to the rest of the system.
With even a basic 17-inch flatscreen costing around £70, you may find it more economically satisfying trying to pick up a cheap panel or CRT second hand for half this amount.
It'll likely not be as good as a new LCD but when the total cost of a Home PC can be under £300, the savings can justify the second-hand nature of the purchase.
It is useful to check the connection types available. There are three types: VGA aka D-Sub, DVI and HDMI. Try to match your motherboard's connector to the monitor, although adaptors are available for most configurations.
The only thing to keep in mind is that there are no HDMI to VGA adaptors, so if your motherboard only has VGA out and the monitor HDMI in, you're stuffed.
Our monitor reviews give you over 200 monitors to choose from.
Graphic cards for home PCs
With graphics integrated onto the motherboard there's no need to buy an additional card just to produce the display for Windows. You'll also find these 'integrated' or 'on-board' options are fine for playing many web browser games and even 3D games that are five or six years old.
If playing more up-to-date 3D games is something that interests you then really you need to read How to buy a gaming PC, but it can still be done on a budget.
Two firms, Nvidia and AMD are the dominating forces and when choosing a card there's little point in trying to cut corners so ignore any card that costs less than £65.
From Nvidia its current low-end gaming card is the GT240 or better the GT250. At a similar price point is the AMD HD5670 or the HD5570 but we'd suggest the GT240 is a better purchase than this last AMD card.
For more help, check out our Graphics card buying guide.
Thanks to the industrial Chinese, picking up a decent-quality keyboard and mouse will cost less than £10 with wireless options not costing much more. It's well worth shopping around online. Better known brands will cost around the £30 mark.
Liked this? Then check out How to buy a media centre PC
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