Christmas Is Coming: PC Shopping Guide

Posted by THG Staff

In the last time I got vast amounts of email with questions or recommendation requests

Introduction

In the last time I got vast amounts of email with questions or recommendation requests. As you can imagine we spend a lot of time doing our normal work, which often doesn't leave enough time for answering emails. Thus I have to apologize first that many emails cannot be answered. Christmas is near once again and this is the classic time for many users to buy a new computer. Maybe you know this situation: Working with your two year old computer becomes boring and your new graphics software as well as some new games just don't run very well. It just seems as if the PC had become slower over night. Many of our readers have decent computer knowledge and improve their system's performance by upgrading some components, e.g. the CPU or the graphic card. But still more users don't want to put their hands on their computer; they will rather go for a completely new machine. That's why this article is split into two major parts: Single hardware recommendations for most relevant computer components and complete buying recommendations depending on your wishes and requirements. Always keeping an eye on the market, its developments and innovations isn't always possible; so I will try to sum up the most important facts to make it as easy as possible for you to find the right components or the right computer.

Component Recommendations - CPU

Buying a CPU is basically easy: The more MHz, the better. But today there is another factor, which has become very important: The L2 cache. CPUs with integrated L2 Cache have proved to be faster since the cache works with full CPU clock (Pentium Pro, Celeron A, Pentium II Xeon) or half CPU clock (Pentium II) instead of "just" at the external bus speed as with Socket 7 systems (K6, K6-2, M2, Pentium MMX, WinChip C6).

  • Intel Celeron
    Be careful with the Celeron: There are two models which I personally would avoid. It's the Celeron 266 and Celeron 300. Both do not have any L2 Cache and are inadequately slow (except with games). If you want a Celeron, get the Celeron 300A or the Celeron 333. They do have 128 kB L2 cache on-chip, which also works at full clock speed, and makes them as fast as a Pentium II at the same clock speed. If the price for a Pentium II 300 and a Celeron 300A is the same, you may want to get the Celeron because of two advantages: it uses 2.0V core voltage and has less heat production than the Pentium II and it's easier to overclock. The core voltage and heat production are no issue if the PII 300 is using the Deschutes core though. The Celeron 300A works with 66 MHz x4.5, but you can try 100 MHz x4.5 on a BX motherboard (= 450 MHz). Most Celeron CPUs will do this perfectly, but they need proper cooling (active). So you have spent less than $200 and get the performance of a Pentium II 450.
    If you want to overclock other Celerons you may be glad to hear that it is easy and quite safe as well. The only thing you have to do is getting a motherboard which lets you chose the external bus speed independently from the CPU (How to Get All 66 MHz Slot 1 CPUs Running 100 MHz). If you rise the FSB from 66 to 100 MHz, the 266 MHz Celeron will run at 400 MHz, and the 300 MHz type at 450 MHz. But be careful: Never buy a Celeron 333 for overclocking. At 100 MHz FSB it would run at 500 MHz, and this is really too much for the CPU. Since Intel CPUs come with fixed multipliers in the last time, it wouldn't be possible to run it at x4.5 instead of x5. The Celeron family has one disadvantage, which may be irrelevant for most of you: It cannot be used in multiprocessor systems unless you do a special procedure that includes the usage of your soldering iron.
     
  • Intel Pentium II
    The Pentium II 233 and 266 MHz using the Klamath core should be avoided today. First they get quite hot, and second the Celeron 300A or 333 offers better performance at nearly the same price. If you want high performance without overclocking, there's no alternative for the Pentium II. It's the only CPU available at up to 450 MHz now. And this CPU can even be overclocked to 504 MHz (112 instead of 100 MHz bus speed). Just the price is very high (as always with Intel's top CPU).
    All overclockers should try to get one of the Pentium II 300 CPUs (labeled SL2W8 from Costa Rica, also SL2YK, SL35V, SL2W7, SL33D, SL2VY) which have the Deschutes core and even 225 MHz cache modules (as used in real 450 MHz types)! This makes it possible to run them at 100 MHz x4.5 (450 MHz) or even 504 MHz. At this speed the cache modules require additional cooling of course. It's difficult overclocking the classic 300 MHz Pentium II with Klamath core. This CPU does really get hot and could possibly be damaged by overclocking.
  • AMD K6-2
    Intel is often associated with "expensive", so if you are out for the K6-2 you may try to save some money. Try to get one which is designed for 100 MHz bus speed (300 MHz or faster). Since the L2 cache is extremely performance relevant it is necessary to run it as fast as possible. The 300 MHz CPU can be run at 66 MHz x4.5 or 100 MHz x3, for example. Thanks to the 3DNow! instruction set, the little Socket 7 CPU is almost as fast as a Pentium II, but at a much lower price. So you do really benefit from 3DNow! while the sense of MMX is still questionable. AMD plans to release a new CPU, code name 'Sharptooth', with integrated L2 cache as well (making the board's cache L3 cache); so the future of Socket 7 seems to be secured for the next months. Nevertheless, high end user's should be aware that the K6-2 has still got a slower FPU than the Pentium II or Celeron.

Component Recommendations - Motherboard and Ram

As you know, the K6-2 requires a Socket 7 motherboard while the Celeron and Pentium II need a board with Slot 1. You should always chose your motherboard first by features, flexibility and compatibility and second by performance. A modern board should at least offer the following: at 4 PCI slots, 2 or 3 ISA slots, at least 3 DIMM sockets, flexible CPU setup options (various bus speeds, higher multipliers). Two USB ports, two COM ports, one parallel port, two IDE connectors, floppy controller and a PS/2 mouse connector are standard today. Socket 7 boards today use either the ALi Aladdin V chipset or the VIA Apollo MVP3. There are more chipsets available for Slot 1 now: Intel's 440BX (the top model, 100 MHz, up to 1GB), the 440LX (66 MHz, up to 1GB), the 440EX (no ECC, limited amount of slots, 66 MHz), the VIA Apollo Pro, the SiS 5601/5595 and the new ALi Aladdin Pro II chipset. To find your motherboard, please refer to our latest motherboard reviews:

  • Socket 7 Review Summer 1998
    Recommendations: Asus P5A, AOpen AX59Pro, MSI 5169, DFI P5BV3+, FIC VA-503, Tyan S1590S
  • Slot 1 Review Fall 1998
    Recommendations: MSI 6119, Chaintech 6BTM, Asus P2B, EPoX EP-61 BXA-M, AOpen AX6B
  • Review of Motherboards with Alternative Slot1 Chipsets from SiS and VIA

The memory question can be answered quickly: 32 MB are minimum for Windows 95. If you want to run Windows 98 or Windows NT, don't install less than 64 MB. But as the prices for memory are relatively low, I would strongly recommend 128 MB. More are only necessary for memory intensive applications (picture publishing or other graphic stuff, servers) or permanent multitasking. Try to get always the biggest modules available. If you want 128 MB, don't take two 64 MB memories to save $10. Maybe you will have to upgrade again soon, than you will be glad to have free DIMM sockets. All modern architectures do require SDRAM, so buying the wrong memory should not happen. If you have some money left, you could also get parity memory (for ECC). Then the system is able to correct single bit errors. Just don't forget that this feature has to be supported by the chipset and BIOS as well.

Component Recommendations - Graphic Card

A lot has happened on the graphic card sector. The next generation of multimedia and 3D accelerators is ready to enable higher resolutions, better frame rates, better effects and more details. If you only do office work, you can buy almost every video card. But gamers and graphic freaks are out for more. There are some things to consider when buying a graphic card:

  • Signal quality
    The best are still the Matrox and Number Nine cards (Millennium G200 and Mystique G200, Millennium II, Revolution IV), others luckily have reached good quality as well (Riva-TNT, Banshee, Savage 3D).
  • Memory
    How much memory is on the board? Can it be upgraded? What type of memory? Bulkware is sometimes only equipped with SDRAM. Maybe you want to get a card with the sometimes faster SGRAM. If possible, the memory specs should be less than 10 ns.
  • Chip cooling
    Particularly the Riva-TNT boards get very hot; and if you even want to overclock it you will need an active cooler. Some cards come with a fan by default (e.g. Elsa Erazor II, Asus AGP-V3400TNT).
  • Interface
    Most new cards are mainly available for the AGP bus. I would try to get such a card (if your board features AGP), since the bus clock is twice as high as the PCI clock. This improves 3D games and DVD video playback, for example.
  • Special Features
    Some cards feature a TV in- or output. It's always great to play Quake II on a 80cm TV :)

An overall recommendation is simple: The best 2D/3D chip available is the nVIDIA Riva-TNT. Best features and functions, best performance, AGP support, 16 MB local memory, twin texture unit. I switched Quake II to 1600x1200 resolution on a Pentium II 400 and could have played it at almost 20 fps. Of course the frame rate decreases with increasing details or many enemies, but it's great to see that the TNT is basically able to run this resolution relatively fast. I think with a 600 MHz CPU it would be fantastic. This makes the TNT the best one-card solution. If you want the highest frame rates possible you should consider two Voodoo² boards, which have to be used additionally to an existing 2D or 2D/3D card. To find the right Voodoo² card, please refer to: Voodoo² accelerator review. I recommend teaming up the Voodoo2 cards with either a Riva TNT or a Matrox G200 card. If you fancy video editing abilities go for the Matrox Marvel G200. The differences between different Riva-TNT boards are quite small, particularly in terms of performance. Usually I would recommend to take those cards from popular manufacturers to ensure a proper driver support. But it's all a bit different with nVIDIA. Those guys regularly release updated reference drivers, which offer almost all important features and the same performance as drivers from card manufacturers. So I don't expect e.g. the Diamond Viper V550 to be particularly faster with the Diamond drivers than with the nVIDIA reference drivers. The trend seems to be the same as with the Voodoo²: The chip manufacturer provides the drivers, and the card manufacturer just adds some sliders and their logo. The best Riva TNT board is the one with the best active heat sink and the fastest driver release, currently it looks as if Asus made the race with its excellent AGP-V3400TNT board. 3Dfx has recently presented Voodoo3 and I expect it to regain the performance crown for 3D game accelerators once it's released.

Component Recommendations - Monitor

Try to get at least a 17" screen. The 68 kHz models are quite cheap, for $400 the monitor can even be fine. Sometimes it can be useful to have two line inputs (BNC and D-SUB), e.g. if you have two computers or two video cards (Voodoo board and 2D card). Personally I would get one with at least 86 kHz, this makes it possible to run 1280x1024 at least at 75 Hz if needed. A 19" monitor is today the best compromise between a large screen and acceptable price. One of the best is the Idek Iiyama S901GT, it has over 100 kHz and a brilliant picture. Tom is using the 21" model from Iiyama. Of course high end users will rather go for e.g. an Eizo monitor, but the price for the Idek 21" monitor is quite good and the quality makes most 17" monitors look quite cheap. TFT screens can be regarded as state of the art. The 14" types have become attractive but are quite small. All bigger sizes are still very expensive and cannot be recommended for home users.

  • Good 17" monitors:
    Eizo F55S, F56, T57S
    miro D1795 T or F (both for Germany only)
    Idek Iiyama S701GT, A701GT
    Samsung 700p or 700p plus
     
  • Good 19" monitors:
    Eizo F67
    miro D1995 FE (for Germany only)
    Elsa Ecomo 19H98
    Idek Iiyama S901GT

Of course other monitors can be good as well, but I'm definitely not going to recommend hardware which I don't know.

Component Recommendations - Harddisks

The eternal question whether to use IDE or SCSI has not been answered yet. Here is a list of some pros and cons to help you in your process to decide what to go for:

  • IDE
    1. Usually cheaper than SCSI solution
    2. Usually there is an IDE interface on the Motherboard already
    3. Up to 4 devices, 2 on each of the 2 IDE channels, Master and Slave
    4. Uses up to 2 IRQs (14 and 15), but usually no PCI slot
    5. Interface transferrate up to 33 MB/s (Ultra-DMA/33), soon up to 66 MB/s (Ultra-DMA/66)
    6. No external connectors, doesn't support hot plugging
    7. Doesn't support multitasking (only one device at a time can be accessed) nor command queuing
    8. Available devices are Harddisks, CD-ROMs, CD-Rs, CD-RWs, streamers, changeable disks/floppy etc.
    9. High-end devices usually aren't available in IDE versions

     

  • SCSI
    1. Usually more expensive than IDE solution
    2. You need to buy a SCSI adapter or pay more for a motherboards with onbaord SCSI
    3. Up to 7 devices (15 for Wide SCSI)
    4. Consumes one IRQ and maybe a PCI slot
    5. bandwidth up to 80 MB/s (Ultra2 Wide SCSI), that can be used by all SCSI devices at the same time, e.g. 4 times 20 MB/s
    6. Often offers an external plug-in, allows hot plugging
    7. Supports multitasking and command queuing
    8. Available devices are Harddisks, CD-ROMs, CD-Rs, CD-RWs, streamers, changeable disks/floppy, scanners, printers etc.
    9. High-end devices are available in SCSI versions (harddisks with 10,000 rpm, high-end CD-Rs, etc.)

Please don't get deceived by the interface transferrates! The transferrate of a harddisk for example is defined mainly by its internal transferrate, not the interface speed. However, a faster interface leaves more room for other tasks or for future faster products. Actually it is quite easy: If you only need one or maybe two harddisks later, and a CD-ROM, go for IDE. The performance is well and can achieve about the same like SCSI systems. If you have the money and need more, like a professional scanner or other external devices, like dealing with great amount of data or if you want highest performance available, even with many devices connected, go for SCSI. And this is the area where SCSI really outperforms any IDE solution: many devices, working at the same time (multitasking). The mix use of IDE and SCSI is unproblematic mostly today. Most of the motherboard BIOSs allow to change the boot device. The only real downside of mixing IDE and SCSI might be that you get really depressive of the 'not-enough-free-IRQs syndrome'.

  • IDE
    Today a decent hard drive should have a rotational speed of 5,400 rpm, an access time of less than 12 ms and at least 3-4 GB capacity. Of course you can buy smaller drives, but you won't save any money. Even the 6 GB models have become so cheap that I would go either for such one or a 8 GB model. Bigger hard disks (10, 12, 16 GB) are still more expensive, but fast as well. The new Western Digital 10 GB drive does not reach the same high performance as e.g. the Maxtor or IBM drives. The most recommendable IDE hard disks for Christmas 98 are:
    • IBM DTTA series (available at 5,400 or 7,200 rpm!)
    • Quantum Fireball EX series
    • Diamond Max Plus series (7,200 rpm)
    • Seagate ST39140A, ST36530A

     

  • SCSI
    SCSI hard drives are more expensive (as always) than their IDE pendants. The new generation of U2W harddisks delivers best performance - but at what prices! Recommendable are:
    • Seagate Cheetah series (10,000 rpm)
    • almost all IBM hard drives, especially DGVS and DRVS series (10,000 rpm)
    • Fujitsu MAC series (10,000 rpm)

    These drives usually must be cooled with a fan. Due to the 10,000 rpm they are generating more heat. They are louder also. If you are concerned, you might want to go for 7,200 rpm drives like the:

    • Western Digital Enterprise series (7,200 rpm).

Component Recommendations - Multimedia

Of course a sound card is today standard. There are a lot of different cards available, but if I wanted to play games on my computer I would insist on an original Creative Labs Sound Blaster. It's still the only card family which ensures that even all old DOS games like e.g. Wing Commander II or X-Wing work properly. Other cards may be better, there are excellent cards from Terratec or Turtle Beach, for example. But most of those cards are not 100% compatible to the Sound Blaster 16 standard, but only Sound Blaster or Sound Blaster Pro. This situation is changing now, since all new games are coming for Windows9x platforms. SoundBlaster compatibility is not an issue for those games anymore and sound cards come as PCI solutions today. Creatives new SoundBlaster Life is certainly an interesting product to look at, but Diamond's MX300 looks even better at a very interesting price point. Keep an eye on the drivers, not all cards will work with Windows NT!!! Something else is becoming really hot now: It's the DVD. I recently bought the Guillemot DVD kit which included the Real Magic decoder card (PCI, analog loop through) and the Toshiba 5x DVD drive which also reads normal CDs like a 32x drive. I must confess that I'm really impressed! The TV output can be switched between PAL and NTSC and makes it possible to watch your favorite movies on a larger television screen. But even without a decoder card the quality of software MPEG-2 decoding is still much better than CDi/MPEG-1 videos. You should have at least a Pentium II 300 MHz and a decent graphic card (ATI XPert 98 or a TNT board, for example) to decode the video data in real-time. The system will be busy almost 100%; using a Pentium II 450 makes this a bit better, but still it's almost impossible to run other performance intensive applications. So the DVD solutions with special decoder card seem to be much better in case you want to use it regularly, else it is wasted money. Creative Labs is also releasing a new Encore DVD kit with 5x drive now.

Advice for a complete new computer

This part of the article is meant to find out what you need or want to guide you to your very personal computer. First you have to think about your wishes and requirements; there are two classic mistakes which can happen when buying a computer: The first one consists in buying a super-cheap offer that initially sounds great and seems to provide enough performance and upgrade abilities. The second mistake is buying the fastest and biggest high-end computer, which is available, without thinking about the applications, you want to run. Of course you will most likely be happy with such a monster machine, nevertheless it's not particularly a good feeling to see that you have a powerful video card or gigantic hard drive that you do never really make use of and which gradually loses its value. Nobody needs a 16 MB video card for office applications. My most important advice is the following: Never buy a component or a whole computer that you may need only a few months later. You will always get good offers thanks to the fast devaluation of computer components. A computer which is six months old loses about 30% of its value! A Pentium II CPU which today costs about $400 will be available for $250 in a few months. Just think about this, $150 can later be used for more RAM or other better components. Buy what you need right now. Realize that there is no such thing as a PC that's future proof for more than maybe 3 months. If you want to get a Slot-1 system, please insist on getting a motherboard, which supports 100 MHz bus clock. It's important to keep upgrade paths open as long as possible. Also check that a computer with 64 MB RAM should be equipped with one 64 MB module, not with a pair of 32 MB types. Some manufacturers try to save money by using the cheaper 32 MB modules. The same applies for the Celeron: There are two different 300 MHz Celerons available. Keep an eye on the "A", only this CPU has an integrated L2 cache of 128 kB. Basically all available computers are fast enough to do common business tasks and to surf the web. The following three pages should correspond to your needs and requirements. Every profile is scaled into three budget types: Small budget, normal budget and unlimited budget. I also have found a useful thing for the USB: Some days ago I saw the Creative Web Cam II. This is a small camera designed for video conferencing over the web or similar stuff. It is available as USB or as parallel version. I'm glad that I got the USB version since the data rate and thus the picture quality can be better. Since the USB is a hot plug bus, just plug in the connector and Windows 9x detects it. The first time you have to install the drivers from the CD, and the next time the drivers will automatically be loaded when the cable is plugged in. The quality is of course far away from any kind of quality standard, but it is good enough to communicate with others over a local network or the internet. A picture grabbing function has been included as well: You can also make photos of max. 640x480, but the quality suffers from this resolution. A similar product is available from Philips, too. All people who want real fine quality need to get a classic video camera and a video or TV card with line in or a combination card for 2D/3D/video editing and TV. A good TV card is the Hauppauge (does anybody know how to pronounce this name?) WinTV Radio. You shouldn't go for the Primio version since only the "Radio" type supports stereo. The card is a full TV tuner with line in and line out for all applications. And you don't lose any signal quality thanks to the TV card being a PCI bus master without requiring a loop through cable. Matrox offers a very attractive 2D/3D-video editing and TV card, called Marvel G200, which combines excellent video editing and a TV tuner with very good 2D quality and speed and pretty fast 3D acceleration.

Gaming, office applications, internet, programming

If you are a user who doesn't know exactly what will be the exact task for the PC, keep an eye on upgradeability. A Socket 7 board has to have all higher multipliers. If you want a Slot 1 system, be sure to get a BX board with PC-100 memory even if you do "only" use a Celeron. If you want to upgrade later, you just have to exchange the CPU. Be sure that you don't spend too much money on peripheral hardware you do not need (e.g. scanner). Better get them afterwards in case you really need it. The relation between price and performance has to be right.

  • Small budget:
    CPU: AMD K6-2, 300 MHz or faster
    RAM: 64 MB SDRAM
    HDD: EIDE, 4 GB or bigger
    Graphic: cards with Riva128 chipset, cards with Intel i740 chipset
    Monitor: 17" or bigger
     
  • Medium budget:
    CPU: AMD K6-2, 350 or 400 MHz (board with 1MB L2 cache) or Celeron A 300/333 (BX motherboard!) or Pentium II 300, 350 MHz
    RAM: 64 MB SDRAM
    HDD: EIDE, 4 to 8 GB
    Graphic: Matrox Mystique G200, cards with Riva128 or Riva128ZX, cards with i740 chipset
    alternative graphic: Matrox Procudtiva 8 MB AGP and Voodoo² board 12 MB
    Monitor: 19", 90 kHz or more
     
  • Unlimited budget:
    CPU: Intel Pentium II, 400 MHz or faster
    RAM: 128MB SDRAM or more
    HDD: EIDE, 8 GB or more (7200 rpm)
    Graphic: Riva-TNT board, 3Dfx Banshee board. Maybe two additional Voodoo² boards 12 MB
    Monitor: 19", 100 kHz or bigger

3D games, graphic applications (rendering, raytracing)

You clicked on this profile, so you will need really fine hardware. Since the FPU of all Intel CPUs is much better than the AMD or Cyrix FPU, you shouldn't go for any other CPU than the Celeron or the Pentium II. If you take a look at Tom's last CPU benchmark comparison you will notice why I insist on mentioning this.

  • Small budget:
    CPU: Intel CPU (Celeron A or Pentium II) with BX motherboard
    RAM: 128 MB SDRAM or more
    HDD: EIDE, 6 GB or more
    Graphic: at least 8 MB video memory, cards with S3 Savage3D chipset, Matrox Millennium G200 or cards with Banshee chipset
    Monitor: 17", 86 kHz or more
     
  • Medium budget:
    CPU: Intel Pentium II, 350 MHz or faster
    RAM: 128 MB SDRAM or more
    HDD: EIDE or SCSI, 6 GB or more
    Graphic: at least 8 MB video memory, Riva-TNT board, Permedia 3 board
    gamers maybe additional Voodoo² board(s)
    Monitor: 19", 100 kHz or bigger
     
  • Unlimited budget:
    CPU: Intel Pentium II, 450 MHz
    RAM: 256 MB SDRAM or more
    HDD: SCSI, 9 GB or more (7200 rpm or more)
    Graphic: at least 16 MB video memory, Riva-TNT board plus 2 Voodoo²s, Diamond Fire GL3000 or 4000 with Voodoo²(s)
    Monitor: 19", 100 kHz or bigger

Video or audio editing, harddisk recording

If you want to do video editing you should really go for capacity. Splitting the data onto two or more hard drives ensures the data stream while accessing files of the operating system. If you can afford it, use one medium drive for the OS and your application software and additional harddisks for the video or audio data.

  • Small budget:
    CPU: Intel Pentium II or Celeron A, 300 MHz or faster
    RAM: 128 MB SDRAM or more
    HDD: SCSI, 6-9 GB or more
    Graphic: any graphic card combined with a video editing card (busmaster)
    Audio: Sound Blaster AWE64, Terratec EWS64S, Guillemot Maxi Sound 64 Pro PnP
    Monitor: 19", 90 kHz or bigger
     
  • Medium budget:
    CPU: Intel Pentium II, 350 MHz or faster
    RAM: 128 MB SDRAM or more
    HDD: SCSI, 9 GB or more (7200 rpm)
    Graphic: any graphic card combined with a video editing card (busmaster), e.g. miroVIDEO DC30 plus
    Audio: Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold, Terratec EWS64XL, Turtle Beach Pinnacle Project Studio, Guillemot Maxi Sound 64 Pro PnP
    Monitor: 19", 90 kHz or bigger
    Plextor SCSI CD-ROM drive for audio grabbing
     
  • Unlimited budget:
    CPU: Intel Pentium II, 350 MHz or faster
    RAM: 256 MB SDRAM or more
    HDD: one 4.5 GB SCSI (7200 rpm) for OS and applications and additional 9 GB or bigger (7200 or 10000 rpm) for data
    Graphic: any graphic card combined with e.g. a miroVIDEO DV300
    Monitor: 19", 100 kHz or bigger
    Audio: Sound Blaster AWE64 Gold, Terratec EWS64XL, Turtle Beach Pinnacle Project Studio, Guillemot Maxi Sound 64 Pro PnP
    Plextor SCSI CD-ROM drive for audio grabbing, CD recorder 4x or faster, maybe DAT