Super PCs

The IBM NetVista M42 8305 has a 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512M of double-data rate synchronous dynamic RAM and a combination CD-RW and DVD drive. It's priced, without monitor, at $3,156.

If you need speed, power and versatility, these models are up to the task

If you need a PC with real horsepower, you're in the right place at the right time.

You can order a dream machine with a processor in the 2-GHz range, a 100G hard drive, 512 megabytes or more of fast memory and high-speed optical drives. An abundance of well-designed audio and video cards will boost performance, and fast IEEE 1394 FireWire and Universal Serial Bus ports will help you connect the digital cameras and scanners that you can't do without.

You don't have to pay an arm and a leg for a super PC'although, compared with the average PC, it's not cheap. The machines I built on my virtual workbench were priced from a low of $1,460 for Cyberpower Inc.'s Custom AMD Athlon XP (without monitor) to $3,771 for Alienware Corp.'s high-end Area-51. Most of the systems I configured came in between $2,500 and $3,000, reasonable prices considering what you get.

I started my hunt by choosing specifications.

CPU. I chose Intel Corp.'s new 2.53-GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor with a 533-MHz front-side bus as my target for the Intel-based PCs. When the new Pentium 4 wasn't yet available, I went with the next fastest machine.

I also aimed for Advanced Micro Devices Inc.'s new 1.8-GHz Athlon XP 2200+ with a 266-MHz front-side bus, but I was able to find only five vendors who had incorporated it into their products by press time. So, nine PCs with the slightly slower 1.7-GHz Athlon XP 2100+ processor were included in this roundup. Expect many more machines based on the XP 2200+ to show up in the near future.

Which is the best choice between the Pentium 4 or an Athlon XP? If raw speed is your only consideration, you have to go with the 2.53-GHz Pentium 4 because it's flat-out the fastest PC processor to date. But the XP 2200+'s QuantiSpeed architecture with 0.13-micron technology'the same as the Pentium 4's'gives the XP 2200+ almost as much processing speed as the Intel CPU at less cost.

With the same amount of high-speed RAM, a 7,200-rpm 120G hard drive, fast optical CD-RW and DVD-ROM drives and a speedy video card with at least 64M of memory, an AMD-based super PC could cost as much as $500 less than one with an Intel processor.

Motherboard. Some vendors give you a choice of motherboards when configuring either an Intel or AMD PC, but choosing the right one can be a risky business. Motherboards for the Pentium 4 contain sockets designed around the 478-pin Pentium 4 Northwood architecture; AMD motherboards are all very different Socket A types.

In either case, a motherboard's chip set has a direct bearing on a PC's bus speeds, I/O and other aspects of performance such as USB 2.0 interfaces, support for 5.1 channel digital audio and RAID support.

If you lack the expertise to fully judge the capabilities of different motherboards for your super PC, it's probably a good idea to accept the default option suggested by your vendor, as I did in all cases for this guide.

RAM. Because so many of today's advanced office, graphics and video programs require a lot of RAM, I configured all the PCs in the accompanying chart with at least 512M of RAM. Most new systems typically come with at least 256M of RAM, but I strongly suggest more. You can generally add inline modules of memory up to 2G for the most memory-intensive applications.

Hard drive. The storage capacity and price-to-performance ratio of PC hard drives has improved by quantum leaps during the last few years, to the point that they're among the best buys in computerdom. You can still buy a 5,400-rpm 40G hard drive, but with
so many relatively inexpensive 7,200-rpm drives with capacities of between 80G and 120G for faster seek time and huge storage capacities, why settle for less?

Most drives come with about 2M of cache, but you'll get better performance with more. My personal choice for a fairly inexpensive but high-performance hard drive would be the 7,200-rpm Western Digital drive with 8M of cache.

CD-RW drive. CD-rewritable drives allow up to 1,000 writes and rewrites to a single optical disk, and are fast replacing the nonrewritable CD-ROM drives that used to come with all PCs.

CD-RW drives are rated by three different speed capabilities: write, rewrite and read. My own new HP Pavilion 761c came with a fast 24x10x40 CD-RW drive, which can write an entire 650M disk in under five minutes.

DVD drive. There has been a lot of hype about rewritable DVD drives for PCs, but only a few are actually being marketed and they tend to be expensive. If you absolutely must have digital video capture and editing capability, buying a DVD-RAM or DVD+RW drive, an external unit connected to your PC's FireWire or USB 2.0 port would be a good idea. Otherwise, look for an internal 16x DVD-ROM (read only) drive with your machine.

Graphics/video card. To handle heavy-duty applications, you need a graphics/video card with at least 64M, preferably 128M of RAM. The best, fastest and most expensive cards, such as the ATI All-In-Wonder Radeon 8500 DV and the nVidia GeForce4 Ti 4600, are packed with features that can include astounding 3-D performance, an integrated TV tuner, digital-audio output, video capturing and editing and even RF remote control.

If the $300 to $400 price tag for this class of card puts you off, you can drop back a level and save $100 or so for a card such as the MSI GeForce4 Ti 4400.

Sound card and speakers. Next to 3-D graphics, gamers and high-end PC aficionados seem to value 3-D-like 'positional audio' in which particular sounds can be localized in space.

This takes an audio engine that is more like a sound accelerator than a typical sound card. Vendors support various technologies that provide an array of audio features, including occlusion'whereby an object moving in front of a sound source blocks it'or wave tracing, in which sound waves are tracked in 3-D space to provide accurate echoes and reverberations.

As for speakers, you can spend from $14 to over $300 for stereo speakers. Because speaker quality is so often a matter of personal taste, I generally selected low-end to midrange speakers for the PCs in this roundup.

Communications cards. Virtually all PCs are bundled with a 56-Kbps V.90 or 56.6-Kbps V.92 modem card. But given the widespread interest in high-speed broadband connectivity, especially for the Internet, I included a 10/100-Mbps Ethernet card for the PCs configured in this guide whenever the option was given'in all cases but one.

Monitor. Most PCs sold online come with a monitor, typically an inexpensive 17-inch flat-panel CRT. Keep in mind that if you want a large LCD screen or a high-resolution CRT that will do justice to the high-end video card you selected, you'll likely have to get something more than the standard equipment.

Other features. You can buy extra cooling fans, an uninterruptible power supply and even a small RAID system from most manufacturers for a few extra dollars.

J.B. Miles of Pahoa, Hawaii, writes about communications and computers. E-mail him at [email protected].

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