- The PC processor
- Intel processors
- AMD processors
- Dual processors and multi-core processors -- a dual-core CPU
- The motherboard
- Motherboards for AMD and Intel
- Graphics controller
- Hard drive
- PC case
- Sound cards
- Speaker systems
- Media centre PCs
- Questions to ask the retailer
What are the hard drive interfaces?
The drive interface is the "language" a drive uses to communicate with a PC. The main type of interface is Serial ATA (also known as SATA) and this is a point-to-point connection. One end of the SATA cable plugs into the hard drive, while the other plugs into the motherboard. A motherboard will usually have between two and six SATA ports, or more, depending on whether it's an entry-level or high-end model.
Prior to SATA, the common interface for hard drives was ATA, also known as the IDE interface..This is a wide interface that requires the hard drive to be properly configured and the dual-headed IDE cable to be correctly plugged into the drive, whereas SATA hard drives don't require any configuration and any end of the cable can be used. SATA cables are also much thinner than IDE cables, so they take up less space in a case. Nowadays, only some optical drives, such as older DVD burners use IDE. SATA is the preferred interface for new hard drives, so make sure your new PC has SATA drives installed instead of IDE and also that it has at least four to six SATA ports. This is important for another reason: all new motherboards on the market only come with one IDE port and, in many cases, this port will be required by your DVD burner. Hence, SATA-based hard drives will be your only option.
The biggest benefit of SATA over IDE is its increased data transfer rates. While the fastest performing IDE drives offer data transfer speeds of 133MBps, SATA operates with a data transfer speed of 183MBps and SATA II operates at 375MBps. Note that these speeds refer to the transfer of data between the controller and the system chipset. The actual retrieval and writing of data is much slower (around 65MBps for reading and writing tasks). SATA drives also take up less room within the PC case due to smaller cabling (making them great for use within compact systems).
Prices for today's SATA-based hard drives are extraordinary. Depending on the brand you choose, you can buy a 500GB hard drive for as low as $130, which translates to an incredible 27 cents per gigabyte (calculated with the usable formatted capacity of 465GB).
A good case can simplify the task of upgrading or servicing components -- as well as making your home or office environment that much more pleasant. A well-designed case will offer tool-less access to the interior, will have hard drives mounted on easy slide-out trays, and use colour-coded cables for internal and external parts.
Since motherboards come in different shapes and sizes, commonly known as a form factor, so do case designs.
The most common form factor is ATX. The ATX specification not only dictates where the connectors on the back of the motherboard should be (to line up with the holes in the case), but also encompasses details such as the power supply connector. There are variations on form factors -- for example, MicroATX takes the basic ATX specification, but has fewer expansion slots to allow for smaller cases. Other motherboard formats exist. BTX takes the ATX form factor and flips it so that the CPU is located closer to the front of the case. Only some Intel-based systems used this form factor, such as ones from Dell. DTX is a new small form factor design from AMD (see our review of AMD's DTX small form factor PC), which is designed primarily for business PCs and media centres.
As mentioned previously, the most common case that you'll come across when shopping for a new PC is the mid-tower ATX case. This should have at least four external bays for optical drives and at least three internal bays for hard drives. It will also have up to seven slots for motherboard expansion cards. As today's high-end components can generate a lot of heat, also look for a case that has plenty of cooling. At least one intake fan at the front, near the hard drives, and one extracting fan at the back, near the CPU, is required to maintain a cool airflow within the case. For cleanliness, make sure the intake fan, at least, has a dust filter. Also look for a case that has at least two USB ports located on the front as this will make it easier to plug in regularly used devices such as USB sticks.