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Topic Title: The Computer Buying Guide
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Created On: 03/27/2004 02:45 PM
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 03/27/2004 02:45 PM
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Hey, I thought I'd enlighten the newbies and other board trolls by posting the unofficial Computer Buying Guide! (copyright pending)...

Version 1.2, May 22, 2005 @ 12:45PM EST:

The key to building your own computer is research! In fact, my last computer took about 24-30 hours of solid research and only 5 hours to put together! It is imperative that you make sure all the parts are compatible and that you get the best buy from a reputable dealer. Personally, my favorite dealers are,, and They have great customer service and ship the orders quickly.

Disclaimer: I'm not really that knowledgable about Intel components as I haven't used them since 1998. For my system specifications, see my signature. If it's too hard to read, Private Message me and I'll give you the stats. This post is partially my own personal opinion and partially what I believe to be fact. Personal recommendations are time-sensitive, and what could be a "Best Buy" right now could be awful in a month - or less!

Intel vs. AMD
As I'm sure most of you users are aware, Intel holds the vast majority of market share. However, because of the new x86-64 extension (if you're not on a 64-bit chip you're running an x86 most likely) AMD has been grabbing market share quickly with vendors like HP, Sun and even are starting to make an impact on Dell.

The main difference in the chips is within the actual architecture of the chip itself. Intel's chips have many pipelines where the information travels in bursts. This allows Intel to get that high clockspeed you see (3.4, 3.6 Extreme Edition, etc...) but THE CLOCKSPEED IS NOT THE ONLY INDICATION OF HOW YOUR MACHINE WILL PERFORM!. AMD's chips, by contrast, have far fewer pipelines, allowing information to go through to the computer parts quicker and faster.

Let me visualize for you. Imagine a 3-liter soda bottle with a small mouth. That's Intel. They can have a lot of fluid in the container but only so much can come out of the top at once. Now, AMD's only got a 2-liter soda bottle, but their mouth is twice as large, so the data can go by in bigger chunks although it's a little slower. This is why AMD can afford to use slower clockspeeds. Benchmarking refers to a series of computer based tests in (hopefully) a control environment. DO NOT USE just one website as a reference for benchmarking, and make sure the benchmarks are FAIR and both machines have comparable equipment! The best programs to use for Benchmarks are SuperPI to 1M Digits and AquaMark3. DO NOT USE SISOFT SANDRA, as this program gives excessive "simulated" bonus points for performance to Intel-based chips since they use a dual-channel memory system.

Get on with it, already!
Alright, so now you need to ask yourself, "What do I want my computer to do for me?" Well, are you going to be a lean, mean, CD-burnin' machine, a multimedia solution, a word processor, a gaming platform, a server, or what?

I'll attack each of these things independently after we get through the mumbo-jumbo. Either way, regardless of what you're going to make your computer do for you, you will need to purchase the following, unless you plan on stripping an old machine for parts:
1. A system motherboard
2. A system processor
3. Memory
4. Fixed Data Device (Hard Drive)
5. Power Source
6. Case
7. Floppy Disk Drive
8. Audio Device and Speakers
9. Internet Connection Device
10. Keyboard and Mouse
11. An optical data device (CD-Rom, DVD-Rom, etc.)
12. A monitor or display device
13. A video card.

1. Motherboard
You really can't pick your system motherboard until you've answered the questions about what kind of computer you'll need. Motherboards have sockets (slots have died out) where the processor goes, so each motherboard design is specific to a certain batch of processors. Each batch of processors are referred to as the Socket or Pin design. AMD's current pin design is Socket A for the Duron/AthlonXP systems, and Socket 754 for the Athlon64 Non-FX systems. Opterons and Athlon64 FX's use the Socket 940. AMD plans a transition to Socket 939 in MAY 2004! This means if you're going to make a big purchase to last you for years, your best option may be to wait until May or June before you buy! AMD will most likely discontinue production of Athlon64 chips for the Socket 754 by the end of 2004, but this will be replaced with the 32-bit AthlonXP chips (evolving from Socket A).

You can see an unofficial roadmap of the future AMD chips by clicking the link in my signature...

If you're in for a gaming computer, which the majority of users on this forum are, you should look into the top manufacturers for the motherboard: Asus, Abit, MSI, Gigabyte, and Chaintech are the best-known. You get what you pay for. Remember that.

2. The Processor
Ah, yes, the "brain" of the computer as one may think. If you're after high-tech hardcore gaming/application performance and some future-proofness, look into the AMD Athlon64 series. I think the best buy right now is the Athlon64 3000+, because the difference in performance as indicated by benchmarks is very very small. For Word Processing or other non-demanding applications such as browsing the internet, checking e-mail (in other words no hardcore gaming), you should look into the AMD Duron line. It's the "Intel Celeron" of AMD, but don't confuse the two -- AMD's Duron line totally obliterates the Intel Celeron line. For entertainment, CD-Burning and other normal everyday applications the AthlonXP line (32-bit) is for you. Be advised though, the AthlonXP and Duron lines ARE 32-bit. Athlon64's are the only processors on the market today (from AMD) that will allow you to run the new WindowsXP 64 bit edition which will perform better.

The newest AMD Athlon64 2800 aired in March of 2004 that is about 50 dollars cheaper than its 3000 counterpart - $175 for an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) on If you're a casual gamer or just someone looking for a cheap upgrade that'll last you a few years, I'd recommend that over every other processor right now. The 2800 allows you to also have a lot of upgrade options in the future after AMD stops making chips for the Socket 754 (so you can upgrade to like the AMD64 4000.)

Again, if you love living on the bleeding edge of technology, look into the FX line or the higher AthlonXP/64's.

3. Memory
Memory is really important to the performance of your computer. If you're going for a hardcore gaming platform, you want something called BH5. This is also denoted as Latency 2-2-2... With latency, lower is better. It's the delay from your memory to your computer. Most motherboards can support DDR400, which is PC3200. This refers to the actual transmission speed between the memory sticks and your processor's memory controller. It's actually 200MHz, but since it goes both up and downstream at the same time, it's a Dual-Data-Rate of 400MHz. The big names here are Corsair XMS, Mushkin Level One, and Kingston HyperX. If you plan on overclocking your memory, you can buy a frequency higher than your motherboard; such as PC3500 (DDR433) and overclock a bit. Be warned: most DDR433+ memory sticks have higher latency.

4. Fixed Data Device (Hard Drive)
You need to store your data somewhere! Don't get a hard drive under 80GB if you're going to play hardcore games or download stuff. Drives are cheap now, so there may only be a difference of 20 bucks or so between an 80GB model and a 140. Pay attention to the things that impact a HD performance: the way it connects (Serial ATA which transfers at a max of 150MB/s, Ultra ATA which is 133MB/s, and ATA which is 100MB/s)... Make sure your motherboard supports SATA if you get SATA Hard Drives! Also, the rotational speed is important to the seek time (time it takes to locate data on your disk)... 10000 is the fastest popular internal drive (Western Digital Raptor), and 7200's are common for gamers. You can use 5400RPM if you're not building an elite system, but performance will suffer when doing extended writes (writing from temp folders to your hard drive, precaching data for games, loading applications to a system pagefile). Lastly, keep an eye on the BUFFER or CACHE of the disk. Don't get anything less than 8MB if you're going for a good performance system... otherwise 2MB is fine for someone making a workstation. Another option you could do is RAID (see the RAID-0 post on this forum) which means your data will go onto two disks instead of one, which usually means that you'll get quicker response time. If you do RAID, you can use two smaller disks rather than one large one. Big names here are Seagate, Western Digital, and Maxtor.

5. Power Source
Make sure you get a named power source and that its rails (5V, 3.3V, 12V) are all suited for your processor. Big names are Zalman, Antec, Vantec, Fortron, Sparkle, and Source. Usually a 350W source is fine. Make sure you keep an eye on the noise pollution from the unit. Stay under 40 dba... and anything under 35 is great. For reference, 30 is about a soft whisper at 10 feet.

6. Case
Not really much to say here, unless you're in to case modding or soundproofing. If your case has a window, you can either put a cathode inside to light it up or some LED's/Fan LED's to do it. Another option is to line the interior of the case with Akasa pax.mate soundproofing to keep all the noise inside/dampen it. Remember if you do this, your system temperature will increase by a few degrees! Buy the largest case fans for your case that put out a decent amount of air (in cubic feet per minute) but ensure that the noise pollution is under 25 for each fan if you don't like that annoying buzz from the fans.

7. Floppy Disk Drive
I recommend you still get a FDD, especially if you're getting a SATA Hard Drive. You need to load your drivers and some BIOS updates specifically though a FDD.

8. Audio Device and Speakers
Some motherboards have integrated audio. Some don't. The audio device should be the same setup as the speakers for the full effect... in other words, there's no reason to buy 6.1 speakers if you've only got a 5.1 sound card... you won't get the 6.1 features from it.

9. Internet Connection Device
Some motherboards have an integrated LAN port. Some don't. If you need to buy one, most likely you'll need a PCI Ethernet card for broadband or a 56K Modem for a dialup connection. Popular ones are 10/100 and at the high end 10/100/1000 (gigabit) LAN connections.

10. Keyboard and Mouse
If you're a big fan of reducing desktop clutter, look into Wireless Keyboard/Mouse combo, but any Keyboard will do. You may want to consider an Optical mouse because they have smoother, more refined movement compared to their analog brethren. Also, it may make your life easier if you get a mouse with a wheel on it to scroll.

11. An optical data device (CD-Rom, DVD-Rom, etc.)
You need a CD-Rom. LiteOn and BenQ are two of the top brands, also Pioneer and JVC make decent ones too. If you have a DVD Player, you may want to buy another CD Rom devoted to high-speed burning.

12. A monitor or display device
Although LCD's are all the rage right now, there are some complaints about blurring when moving objects get multiple particle lighting effects (Halo). For the workstation and casual users, this is fine as long as you're not doing 3D-programs. For gamers, the best bet at this point would be the old Cathode-Ray Tube monitors, since they give the sharpest, clearest image with a good refresh rate.

13. A video card.
This will directly tie into your performance.of your machine. Granted, this may be one of the most expensive parts for your machine - maybe even more than your processor! The video card, like an ATI Radeon or an NVidia FX, renders 3d images on your screen and takes the load off your processor. If you're a gamer, buy a good one... you'll appreciate it later. Performance increases a lot more in most cases with a better video card rather than a processor upgrade! The new PCI-Express architechture, which is supposed to launch this year, will take the place of AGP and PCI slots on machines. If you are not a heavy gamer, you can look into an economy or non-3d card. You can get a basic/mediocre 3D card rendering for an excellent price since the graphic market is primarily directed at the high end for the hardcore gamers.


I hope this helped you, please post questions or comments via the Private Message button!

AMD 64 3000 @ 2.0GHz || Running Microsoft Windows Vista Ultimate
Apple iBook G4 1.42GHz (PPC Core) || Running Apple OSX Tiger
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