I'm lucky enough to have been published in five countries (soon to be six), and you'll find my work on all the major book-selling sites.
Simon Haynes Recommends
Back in the late 80's I was a computer salesman for a small family-owned business. I was there when the first 80386 PCs hit the market ($7,999 plus monitor), and I remember the first colour laptop computers. ($13,999 thank-you-very-much.) Watching the industry evolve over the past 15 years or so has been a delight, even though I'm no longer involved. Actually, especially now I'm no longer involved. That allows me to sit back, pick and choose components, and share the gems with you. I own all the stuff below, and if I replace any of it I'll let you know.
If you live in Australia I recommend PC Case Gear for computer fans & other bits and bobs mentioned below. If you live in the US, clicking any of the images will open the amazon.com page for that product.
All this stuff is good quality, but don't bother if you just use your PC for web and email (although we could all do with less noise from our machines.) Also, if you don't know one end of a screwdriver from the other, have this stuff installed by a pro. I've been doing this for twenty years so it's second nature to me.
Almost all these products are designed to make your PC quieter, while still being super-powerful and capable of the latest games.
Intel Core2 CPU
I run an Intel E6700 Core 2 Duo cpu and fitted it to an Intel D975XBX motherboard. The Core 2 offers great bang for the buck AND comes with similar power saving features. However, the motherboard has one absolutely ridiculous problem, especially from a company the size of Intel: the integrated audio uses a program called the Intel Audio Center which helpfully tells me to switch to 96 dpi fonts when I try and run it. I don't want 96 dpi, (which requires a reboot in any case) and so I can't control the onboard audio. This 96dpi requirement is because they've tried to make their app look good, instead of making it work on a wide range of machines. Update: My complaints must have achieved something (as if), because Intel is now offering an alternative driver download with the Sigmatel control panel instead of their own effort. This one works with 120dpi fonts. (download and install the STAC driver - I've linked to the XP Pro page, so you'll need to navigate around a bit for other OSs.)
(If you're not using your large screen monitor with 120dpi, you should be. Please see How to configure Windows XP for 120 dpi fonts).
Zalman CPU cooler
Stock CPU and video card coolers are all very well, but you can't expect top quality when chip companies are all competing on dollars and cents. Anyway, their goal is to cool the chip down, not to save your ears from humming, whining and chattering.
I've tried a number of brands but always come back to Zalman. Their CPU coolers have a gigantic fan which moves just as much air as a tiny one, but only has to run at a slow speed to do so. Low speed = less noise and less noise = more happy. Each fan comes with a controller, allowing you to manually set the top speed.
I paid over AUD$70 for one of these about 18 months ago, but they're cheaper now. Top quality stuff.
Zalman VGA cooler
I switched the cooler on my NVidia 7600GT to a Zalman VF900-cu, and it's almost inaudible! Another brand I tried had a product called a 'Silencer' which was louder than the fan I had in the first place. The Zalman keeps the chip almost 10 degrees Centigrade cooler, which is all good news.
Antec Power Supply
I now have a Coolermaster 600, since my Antec didn't support the power connectors on my new Core 2 Duo motherboard. This one is noisier, but I've not felt anything but cool air coming out the back of my case, whereas the Antec ran quieter but hotter. One downside is that the Coolermaster runs at 100% fan speed when the load is above 50% - which on mine seems to be 90% of the time. (Six hard drives will do that to you, I guess.)
Antec P180 case
A cheap tinny case is fine for a junky no-name PC, but when this thing is sitting alongside you there's nothing like a hefty chunk of silenced aluminium to keep the noise at bay. My Antec P180 case cost more than most MP3 players, but it has room for 7 hard drives plus four CD roms, comes with three whopping great 120mm fans and incorporates dual heat chambers, independantly cooled - one section for the hard drives and power supply, the other for the motherboard. Every hard drive slot comes with thick silicon washers for noise damping, suspending the drives away from the metal frame.
Round IDE cables
Ditch those flat ribbon cables for your floppy disk and hard drives and insist on round ones. They'll improve airflow around your ram chips, and they make it easier to get at the computer internals. (Ignore this if you have SATA - those cables are already slender.)
Logitech Z-5500 or variants. In a word, wow. Turn this baby up and half your neighbourhood will think there's a thunderstorm happening. And who cares how much noise your computer is making if you can drown it out?
Calling them computer speakers is an insult - with a 10" subwoofer encased in a box the size of a shipping crate these things will bring the house down.
Street price is almost AUD$500 but look on the bright side: you can chuck out your CD player, amp and speakers and use these instead. I'm about to get another set for the lounge room, where I'll run the media stuff through them.
Even if you don't spring for a set of 5500's, make sure whatever speakers you end up with have a headphone socket within easy reach. I can't stress this enough - sometimes you need headphones, and getting down on your hands and knees behind the PC is no joke.
NVidia video cards
Unless you specified otherwise, the video card in your computer right now is like a workhorse 4 cylinder car. Fine for everyday use, but no good out on the V8 Supercars track. If you want to run decent games you need a replacement, and the NVidia 7600GT is a good choice. (Superceded by better models of course, but if you buy the latest you just burn a bigger hole in your wallet.)
I can't recommend NVidia highly enough. Over the past ten years I've tried only two ATI cards and I had nothing but troubles with them. The last was a 9600XT which I had for just three days before taking it back and picking up the 7600GT recommended here. Sure, there are people who swear by ATI and hate NVidia, but I'm not one of them.
This is the exact model I bought for less than half the price I paid, but for heaven's sake make sure you replace the fan & heatsink with the Zalman mentioned above. If you DO buy a replacement video card don't fall for a budget cheapie. Often they're no better than the one you already have - what you want is a card which was top of the line two years ago and is now selling out, rather than a new, but very low-powered, card.
Viewsonic VG2021m 20" LCD
I got this at a Harvey Norman carpark sale for half the recommended retail price, which was also half what I paid for my previous LCD (a VP171b 17" - also highly recommended)
Massive viewing area, although the poorly labelled controls are ridiculous and when will manufacturers give these stupid high-intensity LEDs the flick? Do I really need an eye-searing blue gleam shining into my eyes from right beneath the screen? No! I taped over mine with black electrical tape, which is the same solution for all other gear with the same stupid form-over-function design.
Dlink DNS-323 Network Storage
If you have more than one PC in your house, buy one of these babies, throw in a couple of large SATA drives and plug it into a spare ethernet port on your router. You can configure users and groups with permissions, or just share the drives with everyone on the LAN. As a bonus, it also includes a USB socket with a built-in printer queue, AND runs an optional FTP server which you can access remotely.
I use ours for media files, virtual CDs, backups ... in fact, they're so good I have TWO of them, with 1TB of hard drive space on each. You can choose a RAID setup for extra peace of mind, or just format & share the two drives independently.
Finally, the system will automatically power down the drives after a user-defined amount of time passes without activity. Much better than having a PC chugging away 24/7.
By the way, the device isn't much bigger than two hard drives, and it's pretty quiet too. Highly recommended.
(If you do get one of these, here's a Dlink DNS-323 Icon you can use for your Windows desktop. I used an image of the device, resized it and gave it a transparent border.)