Buying advice: Power desktop PCs (May 09 issue)

Processor: Taking this price bracket by storm is Intel's new Core i7 chip. This is a match for the best dual-core systems and will outpace any previous-gen quad-core machine. However, Core i7 chips require more expensive DDR3 memory and a new motherboard design, so expect to make sacrifices elsewhere.

Dual-core CPUs are still very popular at this price point, offering good performance and considerably lower overall system costs. Intel's competitively priced E8600 offers the best performance.

Quad-core processors, such as the Q9400, are also available at this price. These chips use the same memory and motherboard as dual-core PCs and can offer huge speed advantages if you run multithreaded applications.

Memory: Generally speaking, you should consider 4GB as a minimum, particularly if you're running Vista. But if you're buying a Core i7-based PC, expect 3GB. These install memory chips in threes.

A 64bit operating system (OS) will take full advantage of your RAM - but check that your software and drivers will be supported. If you opt for more than 4GB, a 64bit OS is essential.

Storage: Anything less than 400GB is now considered a small amount of storage space. Many users will get by with 320GB but, with prices continuing to fall, it isn't impossible to find a terabyte of storage at this price point.

Get a multiformat DVD writer that can write to a dual-layer format if you want to store 8.5GB rather than 4.7GB on a disc. Look for a minimum of eight-speed DVD+R DL; DVD-R DL is nice but not essential. Also try to get eight-speed DVD+RW. At this price you should be able to find a drive that reads Blu-ray discs - note that it won't burn to Blu-ray, and DVD burning speeds will be slower.

Display: 22in flat-panels are the standard here. Many vendors supply budget screens, but it's worth spending a little more if you intend to work with digital photos or video. Try before you buy to ensure you can put up with the quality.

A screen with a response time of 8ms or less will minimise blur on fast-moving images. For image editing, contrast ratio and colour fidelity are more important.

A digital input can preserve picture quality, so think twice about displays that provide analogue inputs only.

Graphics card: At this price point, it's a pitched battle between nVidia's GeForce GTX 260 and the ATI Radeon HD 4870. If you can find a GTX 280, that's even better. When buying a GTX 260, make sure it's the newer 216-core type.

The GTX 260 and HD 4870 can be used in dual-card setups later on. But to take advantage of this, your motherboard and PSU will need to be compatible with this mode of operation.

It's possible to go for a ready-made dual-card setup, but this can work out more expensive in the long run.

Power supply: The level of power you require will depend largely on the type of graphics card you expect to use. Look for at least a 500W PSU at this price point, but consider 750W upwards if you have any thoughts of moving up to a dual-card solution later. Overclocking will also demand a powerful, high-quality PSU.

Sound card and speakers: Onboard sound is no match for a decent sound card. Consider Creative's Audigy 4 family or the excellent X-Fi range. If you only want a 2.1-channel setup, make sure they're high-quality models.

OUR VERDICT

Arbico's Elite i748 XL combines the flexibility of quad-core multiprocessing with raw speed.