Holiday Buyers Guide, Part I: CPUs, GPUs, Mobos, and RAMby Editorial Staff on November 21, 2007 2:01 PM EST
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Inevitably, around this time of year people repeat two questions like a daily mantra. What do you want for Christmas? What should I ask "Santa" to bring me? (Feel free to insert your own appropriately politically correct holiday references.) We won't try to say that it's better to give than to receive, but assuming the giving and/or receiving involves a computer geek, we can at least try to provide some good advice on what sort of packages might bring the most joy to this holiday season.
We try to do regular Buyers' Guides that put together several variants of a complete computer system at various price points, and we've recently covered the entry-level and midrange segments. For the holidays, we're going to scrap putting together complete systems and instead focus on a "best of" list of components for the various price ranges. By the time we're finished, you can also use the recommendations to put together a complete system if you so desire; just make sure everything is compatible and you should be fine. (In other words, don't grab that el-cheapo power supply and plan on running a tricked out CrossFire or SLI setup.)
Before you begin down the dark path of upgrading, however, it helps to take a step back and try to determine exactly why you're upgrading in the first place. If you have a three or four year old computer, it might be best to start from scratch rather than attempting any piecemeal upgrades. By the time you've added a new motherboard to accommodate that new processor, you probably also had to grab some new memory, an upgraded power supply, and a PCI Express graphics card. Add the optical drive, hard drive, and case and you have a new system!
If your computer is only a year or two old, wholesale upgrades might be more than you really need. Yes, you can easily find faster processors if you want, but if you already have a dual-core socket 939 Athlon/Opteron you might be able to wait a little longer. If you have a PCI Express compatible motherboard and are mostly concerned with gaming performance, you can probably get by with a new graphics card, some extra memory, and perhaps Windows Vista - what's DX10 hardware good for if you don't have an appropriate OS, right? Similarly, if you've been storing tons of videos and are running out of space, all you really need is a new hard drive. That's an easier and cheaper solution than adding a bunch of hardware you might not need.
We're going to break this Buyers' Guide into a couple parts, in order to keep things manageable. We'll start today with the major system components: processors, graphics cards, motherboards, and memory. The second installment will cover the remaining components and accessories. So let's get to the heart of the computer: the CPU.