What's under the hood?
The CPU is the component that defines your system. How do you reply when someone asks you what kind of computer you have? Most people respond to that question with the name of their processor: "I have a P3-500," or "I have a K6-3." (Note, a small percentage of the population will respond with "I have a Mac." You can fill the awkward period of silence by asking "Hey, do you own a Saturn too?")
The processor you choose will define your system. What kind of system do you want to have? You could take the power user approach and get a Pentium III or Athlon, but that's an expensive path. Then there's the overclocked Celeron 366 PPGA system for value users, but not all processors are guaranteed to overclock and you don't get the Pentium III SSE instructions. Finally, the machismo user might go for the dual P3 or dual Celeron setup just to be able to brag about having a dual processor system.
What would we get?
We think the processors that offer the most value are the Pentium III 450 and the SL36C Celeron 366 PPGA. We like these processors because they're cheap, and they offer the most overclocking potential. The P3-450 has a good chance at reaching 558MHz (4.5 x 124MHz) and the SL36C Celeron 366 has a good shot at 550MHz (5.5 x 100MHz).
The sole reason we hold the P3-450 up there with the Celeron 366 is because the P3-450 has SSE. As we saw in our Pentium III 600 Review, SSE optimized video card drivers gave our Pentium III 500 processor 10-15% more Q3test frames than a Celeron 500.
The 500MHz Athlon looks promising, but the availability and quality of motherboards are still in question and we don't know much about the processor's overclocking ability.
Dual processor systems appeal to the techie in all of us, but people don't need two processors for a simple gaming rig yet. Quake 3 is the only upcoming game we know of that features SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) support, and unless you only plan on playing Q3A, dual processors might be overkill. You'll also need an operating system with SMP support such as WindowsNT or Linux. (Luckily, this writer is one of the Q3A only freaks, and I'll include the information on a dual processor system for my brethren.)
Currently, you can pick up a Celeron 366 PPGA for around $60, and an OEM P3-450 goes for about $200. Don't forget about the heatsink and fan. We'll budget out $15 for the PIII fan, and $10 for the socket-370 units. That puts the total for the single Celeron 366 system at $70. The P3-450 system is $215, and the dual Celeron system is at $140.