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JULY 21, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 28 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Search and Destroy
Want a lean, mean gaming machine but don't know your Pentiums from your pajamas? Come shopping with us
By STUART WHITMORE

Play. Once upon a time, that seemed like the right verb to describe what you did with a videogame. It's an innocent word, wholly appropriate for the childlike fun of batting a ball in Pong, maneuvering building blocks in Tetris or dodging cute, colored ghosts in Pac-Man.

These days you don't so much play a computer game as experience a sensory overdose, an assault on the eyes and ears that leaves your heart racing and your thumbs raw. It's a serious business, and you'll need a serious PC. Forget bargain hunting in the sub-$1,000 bracket. Here's how to buy the ultimate gaming machine.

You can make this as complicated as you want it to be. Hardcore gamers often build their own systems, mixing and matching components for optimum performance. You don't have to go that far, but you will need to know what you're looking at, and that means familiarizing yourself with what makes a computer tick.

The golden rule: speed matters. Casual computer users never fully exercise their PC's capabilities. Gamers stretch them to the limit. For the full white-knuckle experience you'll need the fastest desktop on the market. Right now that means a machine with a one-gigahertz Intel Pentium III or AMD Athlon processor inside. If you can wait a few more months, Intel is to introduce its new Pentium 4 chip by the year's end. The next generation CPU will clock in at 1.4GHz.

If you can't afford the latest and greatest, but still want to milk every last drop of speed from your processor, pay attention to one other piece of fine print: the type of cache the chip has. A cache is a small memory store where the chip keeps the data it accesses most frequently. There are normally two caches, designated as Level 1 and 2. What matters most is not the cache's size (measured in kilobytes) but whether it is "on-die" — integrated into the chip itself — or off-die, located next to the processor. On-chip cache is better as it allows the data to be reached more quickly.

The computer's main memory bank is equally important. You may already recognize the term RAM, meaning Random Access Memory. But the familiar acronym has grown a confusing number of extra letters over the years. Buyers now have a choice between SDRAM (for synchronous dynamic) and RDRAM (known as Rambus, after the firm that makes it). Which to choose? Even Intel and AMD can't decide, the former favoring Rambus, the latter SDRAM. The main difference is price. Rambus costs over five times as much as SDRAM, but only offers a marginal speed boost. The Pentium 4 is expected to make fuller use of Rambus's potential, but until then save your money or buy extra SDRAM. Whichever flavor you go for, get at least 128MB.

Now for the fun stuff. A good games machine stands or falls by its graphics card. This is no time to scrimp. All that speed means nothing if your PC is not equipped to handle great visuals. Top of the current crop is Nvidia's GeForce2 GTS. It supports a rainbow of 32-bit color, ensuring smooth blends from one hue to another, and comes with a massive 64MB of memory, more than enough to hold the huge files needed to create the minutely detailed scenes your character will race through or fight in. Even better, the card uses DDR (double data rate) memory so that data can be accessed twice as fast, making movements perfectly smooth.

Sound is playing an increasingly important role in games, whether it's a David Bowie-penned soundtrack or chilling noises that alert players to dangers lurking in the darkness. Creative Labs of Singapore virtually invented the market for sound cards, and still leads with its SoundBlaster Live. Marry it to a kicking speaker system from a specialist such as Boston Acoustics for full effect. A subwoofer under the desk will ensure a monstrous bass growl while surround-sound speakers envelop you with atmospheric effects.

When you're ready to play, you'll need a classy joystick. They've come a long way since Pong's paddles. Force feedback controllers like Logitech's WingMan range are a must for flight simulators — they push back at you just like the real thing. You can also get race-car steering wheels that do the same for added realism in driving games. Microsoft's Sidewinder Dual Strike controller is a must for shoot-em-ups, if only because it looks far cooler than using a mouse and keyboard.

When finalizing your system, remember bigger is better. Go for a huge monitor and a hard drive the size of Texas. Games look great on a big screen, and many eat up hundreds of megabytes of disk space at a time. Get a DVD-ROM drive, too. Some role-playing games tell their story over several CDs already. The switch to high-capacity DVDs can't be far away. You can also use it to play movies. After all, that's the only playing you're going to be doing.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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