- 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
Although some motherboards support different features, several key components are present on all current models. Each will be designed to take either a socket- or contact-based processor (a contact-based processor is one that doesn't have pins on it) and there will be memory module slots for either DDR2 SDRAM or DDR3 SDRAM. There will also be expansion slots so you can add any extra devices such as a digital TV tuner or a wireless networking card; support for multiple hard drives and optical drives (such as a DVD burner and Blu-ray player); and, finally, connectors for your keyboard, mouse and peripherals.
Motherboards with built-in sound and graphics
Nearly all motherboards on the market today will have a sound card built into them, so there is no need to install one separately. However, gamers or enthusiasts might still want their PC to be configured with a high-end Creative SoundBlaster X-Fi sound card in order to give their PC ultimate performance. Musicians might also want to invest in a professional sound card that will enable them to plug in keyboards and controlling instruments. For the rest of us, the built-in sound from today's motherboards is excellent and, in many cases, it can support up to eight speaker channels.
Not all motherboards will have built-in graphics cards, although they can be found in many business machines and media centre PCs. Motherboards with built-in graphics are good low-cost solutions and they're adequate for PCs that won't be used for gaming and extensive image editing. Integrated graphics chips will use up some of a PC's system RAM, so it's best to get plenty of RAM if you plan to buy a PC with this type of graphics solution. For connectivity, most motherboards with integrated graphics will offer at least one analogue D-Sub port, but some might also offer a digital DVI port or even an HDMI port. The performance of a PC with integrated graphics should be the same as a comparable system with a separate graphics card, except when advanced video work is being done, or when games are being played.
For more on motherboards you might like to read our Motherboards buying guide.