Buying advice: budget desktop PCs (August issue)

Processor: Intel’s Core 2 Duo range offers almost unbeatable performance for the price. But don’t buy a standard desktop powered by any processor beginning with ‘E6’ – those chips’ time has passed. The E8500 is a far better choice.

If you’re feeling adventurous, by all means go for one of Intel’s latest quad-core processors, such as the Q9300. We’re starting to see very good results with newer applications and games.

Memory: If fast processors speed up your PC, a large bank of memory stops it from slowing down. Get the most out of your processor by including at least 4GB of RAM. You can get by with 2GB, but your PC will run more smoothly with 4GB. Memory is only going to become more important in the next 12 months.

Storage: Digital media files such as video and music will quickly fill a reasonably sized hard drive, so buy the biggest you can afford. A 400GB to 500GB drive should make a good investment. If you’ve got space, consider buying a pair of smaller drives – a terabyte (1TB) is a huge amount of information to lose in one go when your drive eventually fails.

Your DVD drive should write to the –R/+R formats at 18-speed or better. Eight-speed rewriting is good; if you want to copy up to 8.5GB at once, look for fast DVD-R DL or +R DL burning. Drives that can also read Blu-ray Disc are becoming affordable, but be aware that you’ll
have to compromise your DVD speeds. Since DVD burners are low-cost items, it may be worth buying a second one to complement your Blu-ray unit.

Display: Many PC manufacturers make sacrifices here to keep the price down. But a poor monitor can ruin your computing experience, so try it first to check you can put up with the quality.

At this price point you could be offered a 19in, 20in or 22in model. Be aware that 19in displays offer a lower resolution; 20in and 22in displays offer the same number of pixels. This means 22in monitors will display larger text and icons, which may be easier to read.

Consider whether you need built-in speakers. If you want to connect additional devices to the display you’ll need at least two inputs. Finally, look for a good response rate – 8ms or below should be fast enough for games.

Graphics cards: Hardcore gamers are unlikely to be happy with a sub-£750 PC – after all, the top graphics cards alone can cost £400. But you should be able to find a decent graphics card at this price.

Although 50 frames per second (fps) is enough to make a game playable, you can set your sights a little higher in this category. Look for a system that can manage 80-100fps on a number of titles. Just don’t expect to be able to run the latest cutting-edge titles at the very highest-quality settings.

The best card you’re likely to be offered at this price is a 512MB GeForce 9800 GTX, although the 512MB 8800 GTS is close behind and can cost significantly less.

Sound card and speakers: You’ll occasionally get a budget sound card at this price point, but most motherboards depend on a decent built-in audio chip that can handle six-channel sound. These are improving all the time.

To get the best out of them you’ll need a 5.1-channel system (five speakers and a subwoofer). Unfortunately, you may have to settle for a 2.1-channel system in this category. Insist on the subwoofer.

OUR VERDICT

The excellent landmark Mesh Elite Q9300 PRO proves quad-core systems make great mainstream PCs as well as specialist workstations.