Building an inexpensive, high-performance PC for Windows 7

The time is right to start putting together a system that will make Windows 7 shine -- without breaking the bank.

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To increase the Phenom II x4 955's performance, I'll overclock it (run it at a higher clock speed than it is rated for). There are some dangers when overclocking -- you could void the warranty or even destroy the processor. That said, a little overclocking (a few MHz) can boost performance and maximize the value of the processor. (Tom's Hardware offers an excellent guide to overclocking AMD processors if you need instructions.)

Although the 955 is an AM3 socket chip, it is still backward compatible with AM2+ motherboards, which means that you could buy a low-priced discontinued board as a way to save money. In that case, however, you wouldn't be able to overclock the 955.

AMD offers several other processors under the Phenom name, which can save you a few extra dollars, but at the cost of performance. The other Phenom models widely available today range from the older 2.6GHz Phenom X4 9950, which goes for around $160, to the 3.0GHz Phenom II X4 945 at around $215.

Motherboard

Having selected the Phenom II x4 955 for the CPU, I wanted a motherboard with an AM3 socket and DDR3 RAM. Several manufacturers offer appropriate motherboards, ranging from an $85 Gigabyte GA-MA770T-UD3P to a $200 Asus M4A79T Deluxe ATX. The wide variation in price is due mostly to features and options. For example, the bargain-basement Gigabyte motherboard does not have onboard video and features only one PCI 2.0 slot.

Because I was looking to maximize value without sacrificing future upgrades or performance, I chose a motherboard that includes the latest chipset, offers plenty of expansion options, supports overclocking, and features onboard video as well as integrated sound. My choice: the $150 Asus M4A78T-E system board.

The M4A78T-E offers a plethora of connectivity options and onboard ports that should please even the most fickle of system builders. The board sports HDMI, DVI, VGA, USB, FireWire, Gigabit Ethernet and a slew of other connectors.

Asus M4A78T-E motherboard
Asus M4A78T-E motherboard

In my experience, Asus has always offered high-quality products, with top-notch instructions and support. And system builders will appreciate Asus's specialized features that help to speed assembly, such as the Q-Connector kit, which simplifies the process of plugging in the various case LEDs and switches.

Graphics

When Windows Vista shipped, most experts advised PC buyers to get a discrete graphics card to handle its increased graphical demands. Thanks to motherboard manufacturers using more powerful integrated graphics processing units (GPUs) and better chipsets, however, the performance of onboard graphics has improved a great deal in the last year.

Today's onboard graphics paired with Windows 7 will offer a perfectly acceptable computing experience for most users, with enough oomph to watch HD videos and graphically intense presentations -- and you can save several hundred dollars by not buying a separate graphics card. If you decide to dive into the world of high-end gaming or video production later on, you can always add a graphics card to boost video performance.

Kingston Technology 2GB DDR3 RAM modules
Kingston Technology 2GB DDR3 RAM modules

RAM

RAM is the easiest component to choose here. I opted for a kit from Kingston Technology (model P/N KHX12800D3K2/4G) that comprises a pair of 2GB, 1600MHz DDR3 modules for a total of 4GB of RAM. This should prove enough to run the 64-bit version of Windows 7, as well as Virtual PC's XP compatibility mode, very efficiently. The Kingston kit goes for around $115.

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