Matters of religion and taste
Now that we've examined operating system choices in detail, let's have a look at some accessories, such as displays and peripherals. We don't have a full set of recommendations at multiple price levels in each of these categories, but we can make some general observations and point out a few specific products that are worthy of your consideration. What you ultimately choose in these areas will probably depend heavily your own personal preferences.
The world of monitors has enough scope and variety that we can't keep track of it all, especially because we don't often review monitors. However, we do appreciate a good displayor two or three of them, since several of us are multi-monitor fanaticsso we can offer a few pieces of advice.
Let's get one thing clear before we begin: LCDs have long since supplanted CRTs as the display type of choice for gamers and enthusiasts. LCDs might have been small and of insufficient quality for gaming and photo editing six or seven years ago, but the latest models have huge panels, lightning quick response times, and impressive color definition. Unless you're already content with a massive, power-guzzling CRT, there's hardly any reason to go with anything else these days.
However, despite their universal sharpness and pretty colors, not all LCDs are created equal. Besides obvious differences in sizes and aspect ratios, LCDs have different panel types. Wikipedia has a good run-down of different kinds of LCD panels in this article, but most folks will only be bothered by one differentiating attribute: color bitness. Most cheaper monitors with crazy low response times have 6-bit panels, which only have 18-bit color definition instead of 24-bit. Those panels use dithering to simulate colors that are out of their scope, yielding sub-optimal color accuracy. Panels with 8-bit colors look better, but their response times are often a little higher. Unfortunately, few monitor vendors advertise their monitor's color bitness, so you'll want to hunt for specifications in manuals and third-party sites to see what you can learn about a display's bit depth before buying. If the manufacturer advertises the display as capable of showing 16.7 million colors, it should be an 8-bit panel.
With that in mind, let's have a look at some popular monitors. Many users have taken a liking to wide-screen LCDs, which offer a more cinematic experience with movies or games and in practice tend to feel roomier than their squarer siblings. Many are also fond of Dell's UltraSharp LCD monitors, which are generally offered at attractive prices with rebates thrown in every now and then.
One of the most popular wide-screen Dell LCDs out there is the 8-bit, 20.1" UltraSharp 2007WFP, although Dell may be slowly replacing it with a 6-bit model known as the UltraSharp 2009W. Both models have 20.1" panels with 1680 x 1050 resolutions, but the 2009W has a higher contrast ratio and a lower response time, while the 2007WFP should have better color reproduction. We're personally fans of the UltraSharp 3007WFP-HC, which costs considerably more ($1,199) but delivers a stunning 30", 2560 x 1600 panel with 12ms response and 1000:1 contrast. The Dell isn't the only 30", four-megapixel monster out there (HP's LP3065 is another one, and it has more DVI inputs than the Dell), but the Dell is one of the best priced.
Keyboards and mice
In order to beef up our mouse and keyboard recs, we recently started trying out some different mice and keyboards around here. As part of that effort, we outfitted the latest iteration of the Kitchen PC with the Logitech Cordless Desktop LX710 Laser keyboard and mouse combo. The keyboard won praise for its sturdy feel, medium key travel distance, and soft but accurate positive feedback. However, we found that the goofy auxiliary buttons on the edges of the keyboard were way too easy to bump inadvertentlynot the best placement. We had a split over the included wireless laser mouse. Its tilt scroll wheel and laser sensor were excellent, all agreed. But Scott found the mouse's shape to be too narrow to grip comfortably, while it fit his wife's smaller hands much better than her previous Logitech MX500.
Scott also tried out the corded version of the same mouse, the LX3 Optical. Predictably, he found it to be too narrow for his average-sized-guy hands, though he did appreciate the fact that the shape is ambidextrous.
A new entrant from Microsoft, the Natural Mouse 6000, also caught Scott's eye. The shape is unconventionally "tall," and places one's hand at a very different angle than other mice, which makes it very comfortable and a nice ergonomic variation from the norm. This mouse is cordless and has lasers, too, so it's a veritable killing machine. The only downside is that it's decidedly right-handed, so lefties need not apply.
As TR's resident Neanderthal, Geoff tends to have a different opinion on input peripherals than some of our other staffers. His hands are like giant paddleslarge palms with short, stubby fingersso getting peripherals that feel right can be a challenge. He's one of probably only a, er, handful of people who actually prefers the original Xbox's bear-sized controller to the smaller "S" unit that eventually replaced it.
For years, Geoff has found Microsoft's mice to be the most comfortable under massive palms. Their shape just works for him, and the Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is no exception. There's more to the mouse than just its shape, though. The 6000 has all-important horizontal scrolling for those with massive Excel spreadsheets, and the wheel's vertical scrolling is silky smooth. That almost lubricated smoothness is great for web pages and zooming, but the lack of tactile "clicks" does make it less suitable for gamers looking to scroll precisely through available weapons. Wireless mice tend not to be the most responsive options for gamers, either, although the 6000 is plenty precise for age-impaired reflexes.
The Wireless Laser Mouse 6000 is often bundled with Microsoft's Comfort Curve keyboards, and the combo's usually pretty cheap. We like the idea behind the Comfort Curve, too: just enough shape to allow your hands to sit at a more comfortable angle while typing without completely separating the keyboard into a "natural" design that feels anything but. Unfortunately, the Comfort Curve isn't the sturdiest keyboard we've used; the keys have a little too much play for those who prefer a more solid feel, and you certainly don't get much in the way of clickety clack. But there are plenty of extra buttons, including a few programmable ones, and Geoff's been using one for a while now with few complaints.
Of course, both Microsoft and Logitech have a host of laser optical mice available at relatively low prices, so you can pick one to suit your tastes. Logitech's MX Revolution and G5 are popular choices for gamers. The Logitech MX Revolution is a wireless model with a high-precision laser optical engine, two scroll wheels, and charging cradle. The Revolution is plenty responsive, but hard-core gamers may nonetheless prefer its wired cousin, the Logitech G5. The G5 sports a similar design but uses a good old-fashioned mouse cord, and it features adjustable weighted cartridges.
Incidentally, if you're buying a mouse to play games, you might want to have a look at the following article on ESReality. Old-school Quake star Sujoy Roy has fashioned a benchmarking system for mice, and his resulting analysis should give you a good idea of which mouse is likely to get you the most kills in fast-paced action shooters.
There are at least two major schools of thought on keyboards. Some users will prefer the latest and fanciest offerings from Logitech and Microsoft, with their smorgasbord of media keys, sliders, knobs, scroll wheels, and even built-in LCD displays. Other users like their keyboards loud, clicky, and heavy enough to beat a man to death with. If you're one of the old-school types, you may want to try a Unicomp Customizer 101/104 or an original vintage-dated IBM Model M. Fifty bucks is a lot to put down for a keyboard, but these beasts can easily last a couple of decades.
Floppy drive/card reader combo
Since the advent of cheap USB drive keys and broadband Internet access, floppy drives have essentially been rendered obsolete. They can still come in handy in a few instances, though, like when you're installing Windows to a system with an unsupported Serial ATA controller. You could just spend $10 on a run-of-the-mill internal floppy drive, but we prefer to opt for a floppy/multi-flash-card reader combo like this Koutech model instead. You're still getting a floppy drive, but the added flash card reading functionality will probably prove more useful over the long run, and it only ups the price another $10.
We're recommending retail processors in all of our configs because they come with longer warranties. Those CPUs also come bundled with stock cooling units that, these days, are usually reasonably good in terms of cooling capability and noise levels. However, if you want to have an even quieter system or to buy yourself a bit of overclocking headroom (or both), you may want to look into an aftermarket CPU cooler. Our slam-dunk favorite is Zalman's CNPS9500 AT (and the CNPS9500 AM2 for AMD Socket AM2 processors.) As we noted in our review, the CNPS9500 offers excellent cooling performance and is whisper-quiet at its lowest fan setting. This cooler is a particularly good match for our Sweet Spot system, whose Antec P182 case can provide a stunningly quiet computing experience when paired with the right processor and graphics card cooling.
Here we are again, left to reflect on the many thousands of dollars in hardware painstakingly spread across five system configurations. Perhaps the most striking change this time around has been the Sweet Spot system's foray into the world of dual-GPU configurations. SLI is all too often written off as a gimmick, but given current prices and the performance of high-end single-card solutions, it's tough to beat a pair of GeForce 8800 GTs. This latest guide has also seen quad-core processors trickle down to our Sweet Spot build, and Asus' Xonar DX has all but taken over our sound card recommendations.
But is this really a good time to buy a new PC? Will some shiny new product just over the horizon make you regret pulling the trigger now? Based on our knowledge of public hardware roadmaps (and unofficial ones that have leaked onto rumor sites), we don't believe so. Some new high-end graphics cards may come in the summer, but it's too early to get a good read on when they'll arrive and how potent they may be. Intel's next-gen Nehalem processors and AMD's 45nm Phenoms aren't expected until the fourth quarter of the year, so all appears quiet on the processor front. After months of seemingly non-stop product launches, we could use a bit of a lull.
As always, feel free to take a stroll down to the System Builders Anonymous section of our forums if you're in need of further assistance. That forum is teeming with users asking for help with either building new machines or upgrading old ones, so you'll find plenty of companyand assistanceif you're not feeling particularly confident about a new build.