People are always asking me for my advice when they build a computer, so I’ll write down the advice once and for all.
1) The Display
The monitor is the most important part of your system. It is one of the few things you interact with directly and the component most directly linked with your productivity. You should buy the largest display you can afford. It should probably cost at least half as much as the rest of your computer. It should be an LCD, unless you’re not paying for your electricity and have a very low budget. It should have at least VGA and DVI inputs. As of this writing, I would recommend the Dell Ultrasharp line of displays.
The only other trick here is that two 19″ LCDs can cost less than a single 20″ LCD. More screens makes you as productive as a single large screen, so the choice depends on your specific applications.
2) The Keyboard
The keyboard is the next most important part of your computer. It is one of the two components which can damage your body if used improperly, so you should choose the most comfortable keyboard. I prefer the ergonomic layout (as does EVERYONE after using it for a while), so my recommendation here is the Microsoft Natural 4000 Keyboard.
3) The Mouse
As you might have guessed, I consider the mouse the next most important component. It is also the most difficult to make a recommendation on. There are many design variations, and you should try several out and choose the one you find most comfortable. The mouse should definitely be an optical one, and not a ball-mouse. The mouse should definitely have a scroll wheel. Features like extra buttons, wireless capability cost extra and are worth it if you use them.
4) The Case
The case is the next component you should choose. It is highly dependent on the parts that follow later in the guide, and they, in turn are dependent on the case. As one of my professors used to say, “it’s a whole-system design issue.” In general, you will want to decide on the size of the case, and then the aesthetics. The current recommendations are the Antec Performance I P180 or P150 for a full-size ATX tower, or an In-Win Z720 for a MicroATX tower.
5) The Optical Drive
The rest of the components are not in order of importance. You should buy a DVD burner because the price difference between optical drives is very small. As of this writing, a regular CD-ROM is ~$15, a DVD-ROM is ~$20, a CD-RW is ~$25, a CD-RW/DVD-ROM combo drive is ~$30, and a DVD-burner of all formats is ~$40. Spend the extra $10 just in case you want to burn a DVD sometime in the next few years.
6) The Hard Drive(s)
You should purchase the fastest drive that you can stand. Generally, the faster the drive, the louder it is. While SCSI U320 drives are wicked fast, I don’t want to be within a few feet of one. The Western Digital Raptors are the fastest SATA drives, and are quiet enough for your machine. Standard SATA drives are nice and quiet. Your drive selection will depend on your budget, your storage space needs and your noise sensitivity.
7) The Rest
Buy at least 512MB of RAM and leave room for more. This depends very much on your application load. Unlike most guides, I leave the Motherboard/ CPU/ RAM/ Video combination until the end. This is mostly because the recommendations for these change every few months, and each time there are different recommendations for different budgets. In general, as of this writing in October 2005, an Athlon64 X2 processor should be the core of your system. The rest depends on your exact needs.
There are already a number of guides out there that keep track of the latest recommendations. After you read this guide, you should look at the latest Ars Technica guides and the latest Anandtech Price Guides.