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Desktop Computer Buying Guide - by Paul Tansey

Pick a Card: Video and Sound for Your PC
You can improve almost any PC's performance by installing an enhanced sound or video card. For entry-level systems, these cards may be integrated into the motherboard, limiting your expansion options. Integrated cards use system memory, so your performance on the spec sheet may not translate to actual performance.

Anything above an entry-level system should give you the option to upgrade the video or sound cards, via AGP (Accelerated Graphics Port) and PCi (Peripheral Component Interconnect) slots, respectively. These dedicated cards have their own memory and processing chipsets to reduce the load on your CPU.

For video cards, look for an minimum of 64MB. A card with 128MB or more is a good idea if you are into 3D gaming or graphics and video editing.

If you want enhanced sound performance, avoid going with an integrated sound card. Many dedicated sound cards can now connect straight to your home entertainment system, with some even delivering Dolby Digital, 5.1 Surround for multiple speakers. Be sure to choose a card that suits your needs, now and in the future.

Bringing it All Together: The Operating System
The operating system you choose will also make a big difference, depending on the type of user you are. Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 brings together the best of previous Windows editions, blending home entertainment, productivity, and communications in one seamless environment. When used on a Media Center PC, this OS will let you do anything you've ever thought possible. You can watch TV and record or pause it in real time, play movies or music, or browse the Web, all by remote control on your big-screen TV, from anywhere in the room.

Of course, Windows XP Home is no slouch, either, delivering simple and efficient operation for most productivity and online purposes, while Windows XP Professional offers powerful networking enhancements for business and pro users.

From the Outside In
The monitor, keyboard, and mouse you select also affect how enjoyable and productive your computing experience will be.

The monitor brings your system's performance to life. You will want to look for image quality and sharpness in any monitor, and should consider an LCD (liquid crystal display) flat-panel instead of a standard CRT (cathode-ray tube) monitor if you want more room on your desk. They consume less power, are easier on your eyes, and look pretty cool, too.

With any monitor, look at the number of pixels (picture elements) and dot pitch rating, which denotes the distance between each pixel. More pixels and a smaller dot pitch results in better picture quality. This is important if you work with graphics and video, or play high-resolution 3D games. To learn more about choosing the right monitor, check out our Monitor Buying Guide

Keyboards come in standard configurations, or 'Natural' keyboards split into two sections for more ergonomic use. Some also include dedicated buttons for Internet or media functions. Wireless keyboards are a good way to improve operating flexibility and reduce clutter.

Choosing your mouse used to be more straightforward, but you can now choose between wireless and standard mice, or optical models with fewer moving parts and no need for a mousepad. Heavy users will want to look at a mouse and keyboard that make the most ergonomic sense to help avoid strain on not only fingers and hands, but arms, neck, and back, as well.