We're a great deal savvier than we used to be about PC hardware. No longer are the insides of a computer scary - merely dark and, depending on how neat you are, dusty. Sure, you might scratch yourself on a sharp piece of metal, or procure a burn from a toasty heatsink, but any gamer who's owned a system longer than five years has earned his licence to fly solo in the bowels of his silicon beast.
Titles such as Crysis have raised awareness of Direct3D 10, while Supreme Commander proved that dual and quad core processors have a place in the motherboard of the average gamer.
It's a shame then that it's become progressively harder to identify which graphics cards or processors are better, thanks to the irrelevancy of megahertz and esoteric product names packed with hyperbole. Is an Intel E6600 better than a Q6600, because E comes first in the alphabet? Shouldn't a GeForce 9600GT be faster than an 8800GT by the difference of 800 "whatevers" in its name? The answer would be "no" in both cases.
I recently made a few purchases for my brother, whose AMD-based system finally decided that being a working PC wasn't hip any more. As part of the process, I had to put together a few parts that would serve him for the next few years, but wouldn't leave him scrounging his pocket lint for food money.
Anyway, hit the jump for my recommendations.Note: For this guide, I'm going to assume no overclocking (running components faster than they're rated for), and a preference for future-proofing.
It's difficult to find single core CPU these days. But then, why would you want one? The benefits of a dual core processor for games and day-to-day tasks are hard to ignore. Even World of Warcraft, arguably the most popular game played today with minimal hardware demands, was recently optimised for multi-core processors.
The E8400 provides a good compromise between price and performance. For $200, you get 3GHz, two cores and a 45nm architecture. In simple terms, it runs cool and fast. By comparison the next CPU up, the E8500, is $100 more, yet provides only a few frames per second extra in most benchmarks.
Alternatives Intel Core 2 Duo E4600: You should only pick this up if you really have no money to spend on hardware. At its cheapest, it retails for around $125, but, at 2.4GHz and with only 2MB of cache, it's not going to future-proof your PC at all. At best, it'll run current games decently, when paired with a powerful graphics card.
Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600: If two cores are not enough, you could always go with four. Intel's Q6600 is not only cheap at $200, but it'll make rendering videos and encoding audio a breeze - if you're into that sort of thing. It's getting long in the tooth these days, with the Q9300 looking to take its place as the discount quad core chip. Overclockers, make sure you get the SLACR or G0-stepping, as it runs cooler than the B3.
Why no AMD processors?: Before you say it, no, I'm not an Intel fan boy. The Q6600 CPU I run in my current machine is the first Intel chip I've had. Ever. Before that, it was Athlon all the way. Sadly, while AMD has improved its position with its latest round of Phenom CPUs, it still has some ground to cover before it can compete with Intel on both price and performance. I'd recommend keeping your ear to the ground if you're particularly keen on AMD.
A note on motherboards: If you don't plan to overclock or use dual-graphics cards, then you don't need to speed more than $100 on a motherboard. However, if you do plan to run things hotter or have an SLI/Crossfire setup, you'll have to spend around $200 - you cannot go past quality parts.
AMD came out of nowhere with the 4000-series - in particular, the Radeon 4850. In both Call of Duty 4 and Bioshock the 4850 stays close to the high-end cards. Its price fluctuates greatly from store to store, but the intelligent buyer should be able to scoop one up for less than $230. It's successfully displaced NVIDIA's 8800GT as the price/performance king, and looks to stay there until NVIDIA can retaliate.
Alternatives NVIDIA GeForce 9600GT: At $140, the 9600 is a powerful little card for gamers with modest demands. It competes well with NVIDIA's 8800, and if titles such as Crysis and Assassin's Creed don't see regular play on your PC, then it'll do fine. Just don't expect it to cope with shader-heavy releases - basically, any game coming out in the next 12 months.
If you have a piece of hardware you'd like to recommend, post about it here!