Speed where you need it

Gateway's 7200XL, priced at $2,805 without the monitor and extras, has a 3.6-GHz Pentium 4, 1G of SDRAM and DVD read and write drives.

MPC's Millenia 940i, includes a 3.6-GHz Pentium 4, DVD read and write capability and 1G of SDRAM. It's priced at $3,291 without a monitor.

Power PCs have more than fast chips; they deliver optimum performance to multiple functions

When I last wrote a Buyers Guide on Super PCs, I set these parameters:

It should have one fast processor, a motherboard and chip set that let the processor perform optimally, enough RAM to run multiple applications simultaneously without slowing down, a fast and capacious hard drive, one or two optical drives capable of performing both CD and DVD read/write/rewrite tasks, and top-quality video and sound cards. Good dial-up or network communications options rounded out the list of basics.

Frankly, I can't improve much on the criteria. But PC makers have certainly improved on how they fulfill them.

In developing this guide, I ruled out dual-processor devices, those with multiple video cards and those with RAID configurations, including RAID controllers. For my purposes here, those are workstations, not PCs.

And in the interest of keeping comparisons simple and fair, I did not include the many options you'll likely buy with your PC, such as monitors, speakers, floppy drives, extra USB or FireWire ports, wireless capability, external drives, keyboards, mice and pointers, modems, extra power supplies, extended warranties and assorted software options.

All the models listed in the accompanying chart came with either the Windows XP Pro or the Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Whenever possible, I selected a tower case over a desktop case. No productivity software was selected.

What should you look for in components?

Processors. Intel's latest Pentium 4 processors have core speeds of up to 3.6 GHz and come with Hyper-Threading Technology, which lets the processor execute multiple instruction threads in parallel for multitasking environments. The company's NetBurst Microarchitecture, built into the processors, is set up to deliver high-quality performance in video, graphics and multimedia applications.

The new P4's 800-MHz system bus (1,066-MHz for the 925 Express Edition) provides a high-bandwidth pipeline between the processor and the rest of the system.

Other improvements include Hyper-Pipelined Technology, Streaming SIMD Extensions 2, Rapid Execution Engine and other features. Check out Intel's Web site (www.intel.com) for full descriptions of these features.

AMD's new Athlon 64 FX series is designed for cinematic computing, which combines intense graphics, high-resolution video and artificial intelligence. The series also allows simultaneous high-performance 32-bit and 64-bit computing, according to the company.

AMD64 technology also has enhanced virus protection when used with the Windows XP Service Pack 2 and provides a 128-bit integrated double-data-rate memory controller.
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The 64 FX-51 and 64 FX-55 CPUs listed in this guide run at 2.2 GHz and 2.6 GHz respectively. Athlon aficionados say this apparent deficiency is offset by the 64 FX's huge, 1,600-MHz system bus with AMD's HyperTransport technology, which provides up to 6.4 Gpbs of system bandwidth.
Motherboard and chip sets. Intel's newest chip sets for its P4 processors are the 925XE Express, 915G Express and the 915P Express. To date, only a handful of vendors use them, but more will jump on the bandwagon as the latest P4s with Hyper-Threading take hold.

All these sets offer advanced options for supporting innovative audio, graphics, storage and RAID, and future wireless capabilities. They also support the PCI Express bus architecture, which Intel says delivers more than 3.5 times more theoretical bandwidth than AGP8 or PCI.

The wide internal data buses in the Express series support dual-channel DDR2 memory at 533 MHz, or 8.5 Gpbs. With an 800-MHz front side bus (1,066 MHz for the 925XE), the new chip sets maximize processing efficiency for digital video editing, music conversion to MP3 and high-end gaming, according to Intel.

On the AMD side, the company depends on third-party vendors to support its Athlon 64 FX processors. The AMD Web site provides a list of preferred chip set vendors for the 64 FX/motherboard matchup, depending on the specific processor selected.

RAM. Given the profusion of high-end applications and the need to run them concurrently, 1G of memory is the minimum amount you should have in a super PC.

Hard drives. With the extensive space requirements of computer applications and the relatively low cost of hard drives, it makes sense to pack at least two 160G or bigger drives into your super PC. Drive speeds of 10,000 rpm are terrific, but 7,200-rpm drives are much less expensive.

Optical drives. If you have two optical drives in your system, it makes sense to include both rewritable CD and read-only DVD-ROM or rewritable DVD +/- R/RW capability.

Video and sound cards. For intensive graphical environments, the $400 to $500 price for top-quality video and sound cards is worth it if you want the best 3D graphics and sound available. Top-of-the-line video cards include ATI's Radeon X800 Platinum Edition and nVidia's GeForce 6800 Ultra PCI Express. The best video cards provide 256M of memory and DVI and TV-OUT capability.

J.B. Miles writes from Honomu, Hawaii. E-mail him at jbmiles@starband.net.

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