PCI Express offers dramatic performance improvements. Now the technology is maturing, Digit welcomes you on board.

Back in the summer, there was uncertainty as to whether it was safe to buy a new PC, with PCI Express technology just around the corner. The new technology has the potential to dramatically improve performance because it replaces the pokey old PCI system bus and opens the proverbial data floodgates for tomorrow's advanced graphics cards. So, is it safe to splash out now?

The short answer: If you're an Intel devotee, you should be able to find a mid-range to high-end system with PCI Express. Just be sure to read the fine print. If you're an Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) user, the wait is almost over.

Is this the Express?

Intel has been shipping its PCI Express-based 925, 915P, and 915G chip sets for some time now, and there are a plethora of motherboards and systems now using them. While our initial graphics tests showed that performance gains achieved from the move are modest at best, this technology is more about future-proofing your system.

Unfortunately, some vendors make it hard to figure out if the computer you're considering has PCI Express.

Dell, for example, doesn't spell it out well at all. Peruse the company's Dimension desktop offerings at its Web site and you'll be hard pressed to figure out which systems offer the new technology. It's not until you drill down into the customization screen for its Dimension 8400 systems that you're given a hint: You're asked to select a PCI Express graphics card, a surefire giveaway.

Other vendors do a better job. Gateway, on its consumer desktop page notes, its mid-range 5200 Series and Gaming PCs offer "Advanced Desktop Technology." Click on the link and you'll find a handy primer on PCI Express.

The bottom line is this: If PCI Express is important to you, and you're not sure whether a particular PC has it, get on the phone and ask someone before you buy.

And once you've established that the system you're eying does indeed include PCI Express, there's one more thing you'll need to check: Does it have a graphics card?

This sounds like a no-brainer, but many mid-priced PCs rely on integrated graphics chips, which are fine for basic Web surfing and other PC tasks. However, if you've gone to the trouble of seeking out a PCI Express desktop, chances are you're looking for the best performance possible. To get that, you'll want to make sure you get a system with a stand-alone graphics card.

AMD finally gets on the bus

Generally speaking, performance-minded PC folks aren't exactly what you'd call a patient group. For many fans of AMD's Athlon 64 and Athlon 64 FX chips, the wait for PCI Express has been a long one. That wait's almost over, and speed freaks will be happy to learn that for their trouble they're in for some extra-special technologies that weren't ready to go with Intel's PCI Express launch.

AMD partners Via and NVidia are both planning to roll out PCI Express-based products in the near future. Via has already announced its K8T890 and K8T890 Pro chip sets, and the company expects partners to begin shipping motherboards and PCs based on the products soon. NVidia has yet to make any formal announcements about the follow-up to its NForce 3 chip set.

There's one clear benefit these chip sets will reap by shipping later than Intel's product - they'll have more new stuff. Via, for one, plans to offer what it calls DualGFX Express technology, which will let you run two PCI Express graphics cards in your PC. Via says the technology will enhance performance whether you're running a single application or two applications simultaneously on two monitors.

Via's DualGFX is an obvious response to NVidia's SLI (Scalable Link Interface) dual-card technology, which lets you run two GeForce PCI Express cards side by side for better performance. Right now the only way to get SLI support from Intel is to buy a high-end workstation motherboard with dual PCI Express graphics card slots. Expect NVidia's next NForce chip set to support the feature at a more affordable price.

Beyond these graphics extras, don't expect AMD-based systems to get much more of an immediate performance boost out of PCI Express than the Intel-based systems did. But honestly, that's not what you should be looking for out of the gate. This is about buying a system that's ready for the future, and PCI Express is clearly that.