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Bits to Buy 2002

First hardware update of the year, hip hip

To paraphrase some of our more aggressively updated brethren in the hardware stakes, we haven't laid down the smack for quite some time. It's time to catch up: let's have a look at what we can find on retailer's shelves in January 2002 that might improve our framerate in recent PC releases, like Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The Athlon XP 2000+ running at 1.67GHz is definitely the fastest processor on the market at the moment, outperforming the top Pentium 4 in many of the most important areas. Heck, even the Athlon XP 1900+ outstrips the top P4, as Anand discovered last month. However, if Bolton-based e-tailer Scan are to be believed, they have stock of the new Pentium 4 2.2GHz, codenamed Northwood. In terms of price versus performance though, it's no match for its barely inferior competitor. XP 2000+ costs a whopping £250 before VAT, but at £469 the Pentium 4 2.2GHz deserves some sort of award. On the graphics card front, ATI's long-awaited Radeon 8500 (and 7500) has appeared on the market, weighing in at around £190 before VAT. After some shaky driver issues, the Radeon 8500 has rejoined the running as top dog of the graphics card market, demonstrated best by this rather long and unexciting review at HardOCP. You could pay as much as £100 more for a GeForce 3 Titanium 500, and wouldn't you put up with the occasional slurping of new drivers to avoid that? Pretty boring though they are, motherboards play a big part in everyday PC use. On the Athlon front, boards based on NVIDIA's nFORCE getup have started appearing on the market since we last convened. MSI were indeed the first with theirs, as we reported on September 11th during ABit's unfortunately timed roadshow, the K7N420-Pro (oo-er), and ASUS recently followed suit with the A7N-266 and A7N-266-E (with built-in 100Mbps Ethernet support). There have been a few teething problems, and apparently something was up with our demonstration at ECTS, because nobody else seems to have witnessed performance quite as impressive as we did. The best (although perhaps not safest) bet for Athlon XP buyers is something of the KT266A variety, sporting VIA's most recent Athlon chipset and outperforming its rivals hands down. DDR memory is still the memory of choice for Athlon buyers, but prices have risen again slightly, bucking last year's trend of out and out freefall. Intel motherboards are a tricky matter, with VIA chipsets supporting DDR and Intel's own i845 DDR solution starting to appear on motherboards from companies like ABit, ASUS and Intel herself. You must be Johnny Lots-of-money if you are even considering a Pentium 4, so it probably makes no nevermind to you which you end up with, but Anandtech have some nice reviews to keep you on track. There are still some people using the lowly Pentium III and Celeron, we're quite sure, so we ought to bring to their attention the lovely little Shuttle SV24. Reviewed by Scott Wasson of The Tech Report and his obliging son, the SV24 is a tiny barebones Socket 370 computer, with onboard graphics, sound and networking, and one expansion slot. The reason? It's roughly the size of a large shoebox, has a case made of brushed aluminium and has front-mounted USB ports, Firewire support, TV out via S-Video and composite and runs very quietly indeed. Some people might find that with a decent PCI graphics card, that makes a nice first computer for junior, or a good university PC - something like that. At a perfectly reasonable £165 plus VAT from our old pals, you could be forgiven for finding a reason… To round off the desktop bunch, hard disks are falling in price too. 61.5 Gigabytes of finest 60GXP IBM Deskstar will set you back a meagre 90 quid and some VAT, yours for about a ton. These are the fastest IDE drives you will find on the market today, although perhaps not for long. And finally we come to the subject of laptops. Our GeForce 2 GO-equipped Dell slab is now run of the mill of course, as we knew it would be before long, with newer, faster laptops with 1.13GHz and 1.2GHz Pentium III processors, and even the odd Athlon and Duron-driven lappy filtering onto the market. The GeForce 2 GO with 32Mb of memory is no longer king here either, with the new ATI Radeon Mobility giving NVIDIA a quick lesson in humility. Prices are ridiculous as usual, and there isn't a laptop out there with a sound chip to meet our requirements, so there seems little point in last year's buyers looking for an upgrade just yet. There's always a fair amount going on in the hardware market, and at the start of 2002 it's in a fairly good shape. It will be interesting to see which way it goes. We're also going to keep an eye on these so-called Personal Data Assistants. Some of them have got a bit fancy, like the new Sony Clié 770C, which has a full colour screen and even plays MP3s and AVIs. It won't be long before there are some decent games to rival those seen GameBoy Color at least. And what about that PowerVR MBX chip from STMicroelectronics? It's gorna be a bonny year.