What's in a Desktop PC?

How do you estimate the capabilities of a desktop PC, from spec alone? We take on the challenge in preparation for June's issue of PC World.

In June 2011’s issue of PC World, we’re taking a close look at home desktop PCs. If you look only at off-the-shelf PCs from major retailers (Bond and Bond, Dick Smith, Harvey Norman, JB Hi-Fi and Noel Leeming), there are around 25 distinct desktop models available (as opposed to ultra-compact PCs, and the fast growing category all-in-ones).

Given the full specs of 25 PCs, we wanted some way to estimate each machine’s capabilities when it comes to common home tasks: Web browsing and communications, Productivity, Multimedia and Gaming. The best method would be a rigorous set of scientifically executed benchmarks, but there’s a downside: by the time we were finished, most of those 25 machines would no longer be on sale.

Working within the cruel limitations of reality, we came up with a detailed scoring system, which takes key specs into consideration for each category. Here we present that system, along with our definitions of each category, for your perusal.

This is an exercise in heuristics and estimation, not hard science. Think we’ve got it wrong somewhere? Please leave your comments, because we’re out to get it right.Application: Web Here we’re looking at your basic, day-to-day web tasks. What does that mean?

  • Watching cats do humorous and/or physically impossible things on YouTube
  • Checking World Cup scores
  • Catching up with people you barely know on Facebook
  • Emailing in sick to work (come on, it’s totally acceptable...)
  • Using Skype to communicate with friends and family abroad

In other words, the things you’d do on a smartphone if not for the tiny screen and impossible keyboard – or on a tablet, if not for the price tag.

For the most part, these are computationally undemanding tasks. Dual-core processor, 2GB of RAM to run Windows 7, and you’re set. If you were running XP, those requirements would be even lower (Dual-core processor? Two whole gigabytes of RAM?). But then, you’d be running Windows XP, and I’m not even going to go there. Windows 8 is coming... moving forward, people.

Though not really necessary for the most basic of web-kiosks, 4GB of RAM is ideal in my book. I’m a Firefox user, and that thing eats RAM like I mainline caffeine.

I’m going to spec this as:

CPU: Dual-core or greater

(base score: 2pts)

RAM: At least 2GB (+2pts)

RAM: At least 4GB (+1pt)

How do we apply this scoring system to real desktop PCs?

Example A: Acer eMachine EL1850-003

Meets requirements (2pts) + 2GB RAM (2pts) = 4 points of a possible 5

Example B: Dell Inspiron 580s (“Good” configuration)

Meets requirements (2pts) + 4GB RAM (2pts + 1pt) = 5 points of a possible 5Application: Productivity In terms of basic home productivity, you’re looking at things like:

  • Drafting job applications
  • Working on that novel you’ve been writing for the last twenty years
  • Updating the rulebook for your Back to the Future re-enactment club
  • Keeping a spreadsheet of your Bonsai tree’s growth
  • Creating slideshows of your holiday snapshots to torture... er... entertain your friends and acquaintances
  • Building a website devoted to your cat’s total awesomeness
  • Following along with James Sugrue’s Coding Tips column in PC World, or writing your own hobbyist software projects

What do we need here? A dual-core processor and 2GB of RAM gets you running Microsoft Office or OpenOffice.org quite happily. A quad-core CPU makes a real difference if you’re multitasking heavily (running many application simultaneously), or running virtual machines – something you might do when testing homebrew wesites or software across different platforms, or experimenting with other operating systems such as Linux or Chrome OS.

Four gigabytes of RAM is also a huge advantage when multitasking, and an all-out necessity if you do find yourself using virtual machines. For the latter, you really want 6-8GB of RAM – but I’m calling that outside the bounds of average home-desktop productivity. You’re really getting into enthusiast territory there, which is not something we’re looking at today.

CPU: Dual-core or greater

RAM: At least 2GB

(base score: 2pts)

CPU: Quad-core or greater (+1pt)

RAM: At least 4GB (+1.5pts)

HDD: Size at least 500GB (+0.5pts)

Example A: Acer Aspire M3400-009

Meets requirements (2pts) + Quad-core CPU (1pt) + 4GB RAM (1pt) + 650GB HDD (0.5pts) = 4.5 points of a possible 5

Example B: HP Pavillion Elite HPE-575A

Meets requirements (2pts) + Quad-core CPU (1pt) + 8GB RAM (1pt) + 1.5TB HDD (0.5pts) + 7200RPM HDD (0.5pts) = 5 points of a possible 5Application: Multimedia Multimedia requirements are often split into two categories: “production” (creating media) and “consumption” (viewing or listening to media). This might seem a logical division at first glance, with home desktops sitting firmly in “consumption” territory – but humour me, as we take a closer look.

Say you’re “consuming” a nice 1080p high-def video. Want to watch that on your smartphone? Sure thing... but that video is going to take up most of your phone’s memory card... if your phone is even capable of playing back 1080p video. It’s an impressive (and largely useless) capability for any smartphone to have, considering no current model has a full-HD (1920 x 1080) screen.

So, what do you do? You “transcode” that video on your desktop PC, creating a smaller, lower resolution file for your smartphone. You might not even know you’re doing this: depending on the phone you’re using and its associated software, it might be done seamlessly for you as you copy the video to your device. While your desktop PC shows a slow-moving progress bar and a message like “Preparing video”, it’s doing a whole lot of video-production work in the background.

Similarly, take music. Ripping your CDs and compressing them to MP3 or WMA format, so you can listen to them on your media player? “Production” task, wrapped right into your everday life.

Resizing photos from your digital camera to send via email, or chopping the “is it recording” seconds off the front of a home video, are more obvious production tasks, that most of us will come across at some time or another. So, technically, is recording from TV if you have a TV tuner card – an excellent addition to any multimedia-focussed PC.

So, what’re we talking about here?

  • Watching high-definition video from the internet, TV or Blu-ray discs
  • Ripping CDs or DVDs
  • Transcoding video for smartphones, tablets or media players
  • Editing large, 10+ megapixel images from digital cameras
  • Splicing together video, adding titles and captions, or other simple editing work
  • Using applications like Adobe Creative Suite 5, which eat RAM and excrete gigabytes of data

What do you need? At least 4GB of RAM (preferably 6-8), plus some kind of contemporary onboard or dedicated GPU supporting at least DirectX 10. Why the GPU? Many image, video editing and design applications make use of your graphics card to accelerate rendering. If you’re stuck with highly antiquated DX9-only graphics, even the Windows 7 UI is going to be taxing on your CPU; let alone intense 2D or 3D graphics work.

Useful features here include a large hard-drive (at least a terabyte, if you’ve got an extensive photo, music and video collection), at least 7200RPM in speed. Slower 5400RPM drives are going to prove annoying when working with and copying around masses of small music files, and huge video files alike. If you’re capturing video live from your TV tuner or an external source like a high-def webcam, that high HDD speed is also a must.

CPU: Dual-core or greater

RAM: At least 4GB

GPU: At least DirectX 10 compatible

(base score: 2pts)

CPU: Quad-core or greater (+0.5pts)

RAM: At least 6GB (+0.5pts)

HDD: Size at least 1TB (+0.5pts)

HDD: Speed at least 7200RPM (+0.5pts)

Blu-ray disc drive (+0.5pts)

TV tuner (+0.5pts)

Example A: eMachine EL1850-003

Only 2GB RAM, less than the minimum 4GB. Score = 0 points of a possible 5

Example B: Acer Aspire X3950-048

Meets requirements (2pts) + Quad-core processor (0.5pts) + 6GB RAM (0.5pts) + 1.5TB HDD (0.5pts) + TV Tuner (0.5pts) = 4 points of a possible 5Application: Gaming Games come in many forms. In this category, we’re thinking of games that are at least somewhat graphically or computationally demanding. Bubble shooters, Facebook games and online poker fall happily into the basic Web category above.

On the graphical high-end, you’ve got first-person action games like Crysis, Battlefield and Call of Duty. Down a step are titles like Mass Effect or Fallout, which will run happily on any midrange graphics card but stumble on integrated graphics (even Intel’s new Sandy Bridge variety).

Down another step you’ve got titles like Starcraft, The Sims, Dragon Age and World of Warcraft: at their full settings they may be just as graphically demanding as their more action-filled counterparts, but the gameplay doesn’t hinge on the graphics: you can afford to turn things down a lot more before you ruin the experience.

For any kind of contemporary gaming, I’m calling a Dual-core 3.0GHz CPU, or a Quad-core (or greater) 2.6GHz CPU a necessity. You’re also going to need at least 4GB of high-quality DDR3 RAM (yes, there are still a few machines in the wild with the slower DDR2). Finally, at least a DirectX 10 compatible graphics card.

We won’t count out integrated graphics entirely here – the Intel Integrated HD Graphics platform delivered as part of Intel’s Sandy Bridge processor lineup can hold its own in games such as Starcraft, The Sims 3 and Dragon Age. However, the better the GPU, the more titles you’re going to be able to play, and the higher the graphical settings you’ll be able to use.

How do we take this into account? Using our own benchmarks (where available), and the results available in our sibling-publications and online, we ranked the graphics cards found in desktops on New Zealand shelves. Each was given a score of 0-2, based on its ability to play modern games.

We’re not venturing into the territory of specialist gaming machines here: we’re talking about running most modern games at medium graphical settings... not running the newest-release, machine-melting titles in stereoscopic 3D, at 1920x1080, with the most extreme graphical settings known to humankind enabled (shadows for each individual hair? SURE!).

This is a fairly rough ranking: think we’ve got it wrong? Give us your comments or suggestions, and we’ll most certainly take them into account.

0.0DirectX 9 only, or otherwise unsuitable for modern gamingIntegrated (no detail given)

Integrated Nvidia GeForce 6150 SE

Nvidia GeForce 7100 512MB

0.5Limited gaming capabilities: RPG and strategy games.

Unlikely to handle graphically-intensive first-or third-person games.

Dedicated 512MB-1GB(no detail given)

Integrated AMD Radeon 3000 1GB

AMD Radeon HD 4250 1GB

AMD Radeon HD 5450 1GB

Integrated Intel HD (Sandy Bridge)

Nvidia GeForce G310 512MB

Nvidia GeForce G315 512MB

1.0Most games, at low graphical settings.AMD Radeon HD 5570 1GB & 2GB

AMD Radeon HD 5670 1GB

AMD Radeon HD 6570 2GB

AMD Radeon HD 6450 1GB

Nvidia GeForce GT320 1GB

Nvidia GeForce GT430 1GB

1.5Most games, at low-medium graphical settings.AMD Radeon HD 5750 1GB
2.0Most games, at medium-high graphical settings.AMD Radeon HD 6850 1GB

With that groundwork laid, back to gaming desktops.

A 500GB or larger hard drive is a plus, but it really depends on what you want to play. If you run The Sims 3, and only The Sims 3, a 320GB drive (the smallest we’ve spotted in a contemporary Windows-based desktop) is sufficient for the game and all its current expansion packs. The larger your hard drive, however, the more games you can have installed.

CPU: Dual-core 3.0GHz, or: Quad-core 2.6GHz or greater

RAM: At least 4GB DDR3

GPU: At least DirectX 10 compatible (base score: 2pts)

CPU: Quad-core or greater (+0.5pts)

HDD: At least 500GB in size, at least 7200RPM in speed (+0.5pts)

GPU: High performance and up-to-date feature set (+0-2pts)

Example A: Acer Aspire M3400-007

Meets requirements (2pts) + Six-core processor (0.5pts) + 640GB, 7200RPM HDD (0.5pts) + AMD Radeon HD 5570 GPU (1pt) = 4 points of a possible 5

Example B: HP Pavillion Elite HPE-595A

Meets requirements (2pts) + Quad-core processor (0.5pts) + 2TB, 7200RPM HDD (0.5pts) + AMD Radeon HD 6850 (2pts) = 5 points of a possible 5

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Harley Ogier

Harley Ogier

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