Next Generation PCs


An Old Friend
Next-Generation PCs
What will the everyday PC of tomorrow look like? Probably a lot like these super systems, all packing an array of cutting-edge technologies--and all available right now.

Kirk Steers
From the October 2005 issue of PC World magazine
Dual-Core Duel: AMD Beats Intel
First look: Two processors in one Athlon chip give performance extra oomph.

Features Comparison: High-end PCs Show Desktops' Future
Systems with dual-core CPUs, dual graphics cards, and lots of storage will soon appear in affordable, everyday desktops.

Should Your Next System Be a Workstation?
A typical entry-level unit, the Xw4300 Workstation from HP uses either a 32-bit Intel Pentium 4 processor or a 64-bit, dual-core Pentium D CPU. Its subdued gray-and-black case lacks the adolescent flash of some expensive gaming systems; inside and out, it's all business. Here's what separates the Xw4300 and other workstations from standard, everyday PCs.

Performance: Squeezing every last ounce of performance out of a PC means having high-powered hardware. In our $4200 review configuration, the Xw4300 came with a Pentium D CPU and 2GB of RAM; HP also offers more advanced (and expensive) workstations that carry Intel's Xeon or AMD's Opteron processors.

The Xw4300 supports up to 8GB of RAM but requires a 64-bit OS, such as Windows XP Professional X64 or Red Hat Enterprise Linux Workstation, to use more than 4GB. Down the road you can expect heavy-duty workstation applications to move to 64-bit sooner than average desktop software because they're most in need of, and benefit most from, more memory.

High-speed bus: You won't find any PCI expansion slots on most of today's workstations, just the newer PCI Express x16 and x1 slots. The Xw4300 also has a PCI Express x8 slot with the bandwidth to run a SCSI host adapter for 15,000-rpm SCSI hard drives.

Fast and stable 3D graphics: Graphics board makers tune high-end consumer cards for fast game play, not stability. HP offers the Xw4300 with a number of expensive professional graphics cards, including models from ATI's FireGL and NVidia's Quadro lines. These cards supply proven stability plus hardware acceleration for the OpenGL API that 3D graphics and animation professionals use. In addition, the key software vendors test and certify the cards to work with their applications.

Fast and safe hard drives: Workstations also must be reliable, as busy professionals don't have time to recover from a hard-drive crash. The Xw4300 comes with two hard drives and supports up to four drives with RAID 0, RAID 1, RAID 5, and RAID 10.

High-end ECC RAM: Computers using multiple gigabytes of RAM are more likely to experience random data errors that can result in corrupt data, buggy software performance, and system crashes. That's why many mission-critical workstations use the more expensive Error-Correcting Code RAM, which stores a 7- or 8-bit code with every 32 or 64 bits of data to identify and fix random errors in the data.

ISV certification: Buyers want to know that a workstation will work with their software before they buy. Leading workstation vendors submit their systems to independent software vendors (ISVs) for certification and maintain a list of ISV certifications. The Xw4300's ISV certifications include Adobe's Photoshop CS, Premiere Pro, and After Effects, as well as Alias's Studio Tools and Discreet's 3D StudioMax.

Superior warranty: A workstation should come with a good warranty. HP provides a standard three-year warranty on parts, labor, and on-site service for the Xw4300.

Before you hit the stores or the sites, makes sure you get the tech gear that'll keep you up-to-date.

  • Buy a system, not a processor. Any processor can handle Internet browsing, e-mail, and word processing, so spend your money on other components first. For example, a PC that has a fast processor and a small hard drive has only half of what you need for video editing.
  • Get at least 512MB of RAM. 256MB of RAM is the bare minimum for Windows XP; 512MB will help ensure your system works well. But watch out for systems that fill their slots with small RAM modules--two 256MB modules instead of a single 512MB module, for example. You'll pay less initially, but if you want to upgrade, you may have to throw away some of it.
  • Spend a little more on the hard drive. Nearly any hard drive should have plenty of space for most people, but tasks like television recording and video editing gobble up space quickly, and a moderately large hard drive usually doesn't cost substantially more than the smallest option. But you don't have to buy the biggest drive, because nearly all systems have room to add another hard drive should you need more storage later.
  • Don't combine integrated graphics with too little RAM. The least expensive computers usually come with a minimum amount of RAM and with integrated graphics that borrows from the system's main memory (so you may end up needing to buy more memory).
  • Look for systems that have integrated networking, USB, and FireWire ports. You probably won't need to upgrade those components, and systems that integrate them often have more PCI slots available for other upgrades.
  • Integrated audio is fine for an inexpensive system. Many systems come with integrated 5.1-channel sound; a sound card will often add support for high-definition audio (for which you need special discs) and sometimes a FireWire port.
  • Unless you're looking for a barebones system, get a DVD-Rewritable drive. These drives have become remarkably inexpensive--and they write CD-RWs, too. The fastest models currently write to write-once media at 16X speed.
  • Special slots for flash memory are nice--unless you can't reach them. Some systems put these slots at or near the top of the case, but ones on the bottom of the case will be hard to reach if you plan to keep the PC on the floor.
  • Pay attention to deals on monitors and bundled software. You can often save money buying a monitor and office software at the same time that you buy a system. And even if you have a monitor you like, some graphics cards will let you connect two monitors at the same time.