Nate Ralph, PCWorld
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; 12:19 AM
Remember when buying a desktop computer was simple? You'd stroll into your local electronics boutique, pick out the homely beige box with a logical moniker that perfectly complemented your needs (and a copy of Windows XP), and then head home, eager to begin what was sure to be an effortless setup and installation process. No? We don't either. The PC market has always been inundated with more options than the average shopper could hope to puzzle through, and the march of time has only complicated matters. Even the act of buying a desktop has been muddled, as towers of varying sizes have been joined by computers of entirely new designs.
Fortunately, the most important choice you can make is also the easiest: Whatever shape, size, and price range you settle for, you'll want your new PC to run Windows 7. The disappointment of Vista is still fresh on many minds, but Microsoft's latest operating system offers improved performance, surpassing even the venerable Windows XP. And while each class of desktop offers divergent capabilities, strengths, and weaknesses, they also take advantage of Windows 7's features in their own ways.
We tested a number of Windows 7-based desktop computers spanning the three major categories: compact PCs, all-in-ones, and the traditional tower. The six systems that we discuss here represent new and notable entries in each of those categories.The Right Tool for the Right Job
The first step in buying a PC is identifying a need: Who is going to use the machine, and why? You might be tempted to buy Grandma an inexpensive e-mail appliance, to help her keep in touch. But what if she wants to stream Matlock in high definition to her living-room TV, edit and store terabytes of family photos, or video-blog her cooking show? A pricey, high-end desktop computer could handle those tasks with aplomb. The trick is to know what you want and, as a smart shopper, to find a machine that delivers exactly what you need in a convenient, cost-effective manner.
As the smallest members of the desktop family, compact (or "mini") PCs tend to favor size over performance. A combination of low-power, energy-efficient components and quiet operating decibels makes compact PCs cheap to purchase and affordable to maintain. You're likely to find them serving in small living rooms, as Internet access points, or deployed en masse in an office environment, where a low price and energy efficiency help the balance sheet. They also make handy companions for cash-strapped students.
Many compact PCs come pitched as Lilliputian media dispensers. Equipped with power-efficient CPUs, HD-friendly integrated graphics, roomy hard drives, and HDMI connectors, they're designed to live beside (or behind) your television set, streaming Web content to your TV for a fraction of the cost of traditional set-top boxes or a cable subscription. Read our online stories "7 Savvy Tips for the Web Video Underground" and "Cable Cutters" for more on such uses.
Compact PCs have become a good choice for home theater use in recent years, if you don't mind sacrificing a little processing power. Besides streaming content, they're a good set-top DVR alternative. The mainstream editions of Windows 7 (Home Premium, Professional, and Ultimate) have Media Center software; this software, with a TV tuner installed in your PC, lets you watch and record television programs. You could also install DVR software such as SageTV or even the familiar TiVo interface.
With Windows 7 alleviating much of the bloat associated with Vista, you can enjoy the operating system without dragging your little machine down. Sure, some mini-PCs still run Windows XP, much as their netbook counterparts do. And our tests show that Windows XP will perform slightly better on some Atom-based machines. But you would be missing out on the streamlined media-sharing experience afforded by Windows 7's HomeGroups and its Internet TV functionality, among other improvements.
Check out the chart of our "Top 5 Compact Desktop PCs" to see our favorites in this category.
A decidedly different approach to fitting PCs into small spaces is what's known as the all-in-one. These slender computers are essentially the laptops of the desktop world: Their components are built in behind their displays, giving you a full-fledged workstation with a minimal footprint. They're more than attractive. Many all-in-one PCs include touchscreens, which offer a novel way to interact with your computer. Windows 7 added native support for multitouch gestures, letting you navigate the operating system using natural hand motions. You can flick Web pages to travel back and forth through your browsing history, pan through documents with your fingers, or pinch images to zoom in on them, much as you would on an iPhone.
Lower-end all-in-ones often sport screens with only single-touch capability, but more PC makers are taking advantage of Windows 7 by providing multitouch displays at a lower cost.
With no cords to manage or peripherals to juggle, setting up an all-in-one PC can be as simple as pulling the machine out of the box and finding a power outlet. Just keep in mind, though, that this convenience can become a double-edged sword: As with laptops and most other self-contained gadgetry, you may find yourself out of luck if you decide later on that you would like to upgrade particular components.
Cost and screen sizes vary. Depending on which is more important to you, browse to our "Best Big-Screen All-in-One PCs" chart or to our "Best Budget All-in-One PCs" chart.
Tower PCs are the most familiar member of the desktop family, and their chief strength is versatility. You'll find desktops in all shapes and sizes: petite minitowers, gaming behemoths bedecked in LED bulbs, and the midsize tower, aimed at mainstream users. Need more room for your family photos, or music? Open up your case and add an extra hard drive. Has your machine lost its pep? Pop in a stick of RAM, or swap out an aging motherboard for a newer model.
If you aren't afraid to get your hands a little dirty--or are willing to take your machine to a shop--no other category comes close to matching a tower desktop's flexibility. The right components can prepare your system to tackle almost any task, whether you're slaying dragons or rendering them.
You'll want to get the best possible performance out of your workhorse, and Windows 7 is faster overall. But Microsoft has also reworked how the operating system runs multithreaded applications, such as image editors and games. This is an especially important change for computers that sport multicore processors--a feature of the great majority of new tower PCs--as they will see snappier performance under Windows 7 than under either Windows XP or Vista.
On the other hand, a plethora of options isn't always a good thing. Tower systems are arguably the most confusing category of the desktop bunch, because the dizzying range of choices and price ranges here can have you buying far more machine than you need if you don't do your research. To narrow down your options, see our charts for our favorite budget, mainstream, and performance desktops.
You have lots to consider when shopping for a new desktop. But take heart: The following pages can bring focus to your search and help you make the right choice.
Which Kind of Desktop Is Right for You?
If you're on a shoestring budget and you just want to send a few e-mail messages, a compact PC can get you on your way for as little as $200 (sans monitor). If high-def video strikes your fancy, you'll want a machine equipped with an nVidia Ion processor, for improved Flash and video decoding, and an HDMI output, for HDTVs. Such PCs start at just over $300.
Sometimes, bigger is better. Gaming, or even heavy multitasking, on a low-power, compact PC can be an exercise in futility. The price-to-performance ratio works against you, too: For $400, you could acquire a budget desktop that offers stronger performance, albeit in a larger package. You may also need to supplement your mini-PC with external peripherals, such as a hard drive or an optical drive, if the model that you've purchased lacks key features.All-in-One
All-in-one PCs are self-contained--the innards are mounted behind displays typically ranging between 18 and 27 inches. Many models tout their wireless functionality (wireless keyboards and mice, Bluetooth support, and wireless Internet connectivity). This keeps cord clutter at a minimum, an important consideration in spaces where a rat's nest of cables may clash with a neat, spare décor. You are also likely to end up with a single-touch display--but even multitouch support is becoming more common on budget all-in-ones now.
All-in-ones may flaunt a small size, but their svelte dimensions often require notebook processors, to mitigate heat and power limitations. As a result, PCs of a traditional size generally offer equal or superior performance, for less. All-in-ones priced between $500 and $1000 typically offer a 20-inch screen, but performance will be on a par with that of netbooks and low-end PCs. Paying more will get you a larger screen and superior performance, but often with the trade-off of limited upgrade options.Tower
A system that is built with the right components will play the latest video games, stream movies and music to every media outlet in your home, store a lifetime's worth of memories, and give you the computing power you need to create rich media content. The right tower is also readily upgradable-an important consideration, as that will let you keep your machine in top shape for years to come.
The Achilles' heel of towers hasn't changed over the years: Their girth, relative to smaller PCs, can make them at once unsightly and ungainly. Noisy fans can ruin the home theater experience, but they are quite necessary to prevent hardware failure in such high-end performance machines. Those large fans will also accumulate dust, especially if you have pets in the house--so keep a vacuum handy (air circulation is vital to a tower computer's health). And then there is the silent nemesis of power consumption: A top-of-the-line computer can generate an impressive bump in your monthly electricity bill.
Compact PCs: Byte-Size Media Machines
Dell Inspiron Zino HD
The ideal home theater PC can dish out high-definition media while remaining unobtrusive-qualities the Dell Inspiron Zino HD excels at. The minuscule 8-by-8-inch shell will fit just about anywhere you can think of, is whisper-quiet, and can connect to your HDTV or monitor using HDMI or VGA connections. It also has two eSATA ports and four USB slots (perfect for connecting external hard drives full of media), and a multiformat media card reader lets you view photos on the big screen.
The Zino HD starts at $250 and scales up to specs that include a 1TB hard disk. The $557 configuration we tested had Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit), 802.11n Wi-Fi (important for streaming HD video), 320GB storage, and 3GB of DDR2 memory. Its 1.5GHz AMD Athlon 3250e dual-core processor also offers a considerable performance gain over the Intel Atom CPUs that compact PCs commonly use. The Zino HD's built-in optical drive (a DVD player/writer) is another rarity in a PC of its size.
The Zino HD's ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3200 graphics processor makes it far from a gaming machine, but most compact PCs aren't designed to tackle gaming, anyway. You'll be using it to consume video, and the Zino HD will handle high-def media just fine, whether you're streaming from Hulu or watching DVDs.
For almost $600, the Inspiron Zino HD presents a well-equipped, attractive package in a compact, colorful shell. Home theater buffs should benefit from its potent processor and quiet operation, but anyone in need of a compact PC would do well to consider it.
While its performance is admirable, your upgrade options are limited, as are your connectivity ports. Its price tag also brushes up alongside those of budget midsize towers, which will likely deliver better performance. If you aren't fixed on a mini size, look at such alternatives.Asus EeeBox 1501
Although Dell's Inspiron Zino HD makes a stellar home theater PC, offering compelling performance at a fair price, people on tighter budgets hoping to find something a little cheaper without sacrificing too much versatility should consider the Asus EeeBox 1501.
At 7.5 by 7.5 by 1.5 inches, the newest EeeBox is one of the smallest mini-PCs we've encountered. Running Windows 7 Home Premium (32-bit), the system achieved a WorldBench 6 score of 38. That puts it right on a par with rival Atom-based compact PCs, though they all lag noticeably behind the Zino HD.
Inside the 1501, you'll find a 1.66GHz Intel Atom N330 dual-core processor. Intel's Atom chips are a popular choice for small, cheap PCs, as they offer low power consumption while letting a model remain competitively priced. But they also don't hold a candle to the performance we've seen from the Zino HD's AMD chip. Rounding out the 1501's internals are 2GB of DDR2 memory, a 250GB hard drive, and nVidia Ion graphics. Ion is a great asset, allowing even middling CPUs to tackle high-definition content while maintaining their svelte dimensions. Even with capable media playback under its belt, the 1501 will likely be of most use to folks who are looking for an inexpensive productivity machine but still want to be able to enjoy high-definition media.
To make up for its lack of raw performance, the EeeBox 1501 offers quite a few compelling features. Make what you will of the unit's eye-catching, tilted alignment, but with its slot-loading DVD burner, the EeeBox keeps a trim design while also possessing a quirky sort of elegance.
The system packs a total of six USB ports, an HDMI port, a multiformat card reader, and an eSATA port, in addition to 802.11n Wi-Fi and a gigabit ethernet port. The package makes for a nice range of options, though not quite as many as you'll find in more capable PCs. Nevertheless, the EeeBox 1501 fits an impressive offering into very little space.
Although it makes a competent Internet kiosk for the techno-savvy grandparent or cash-strapped college student, the Eee Box 1501 isn't afraid to let its hair down and stream a bit of Hulu. Some people might also find it easy on the eyes.
At $500, the EeeBox 1501's price is a bit steep. You can find other models in the compact category that offer similar performance but take some $50 to $100 off the cost.Check out These, Too
An HDMI port and nVidia Ion graphics make the AspireRevo R3610 a media-capable machine. With a petite 1.2-inch shell and a $330 price, it'll disappear in your living room but leave your wallet intact.
The VOT530 packs a Core 2 Duo laptop processor into a chassis that's just 2 inches tall. You also get whisper-quiet operation and a roomy 320GB hard drive, while a plethora of ports and 802.11n Wi-Fi keep you connected.
All-in-Ones: Reach Out and Multitouch
Sony VAIO L117FX/B
In the upper echelons of the all-in-one bracket, the Sony VAIO L117FX/B could let you do away with your TV altogether. Just connect your cable or satellite receiver to its built-in TV tuner, and you can enjoy widescreen, high-definition playback on its vivid, 24-inch-diagonal display. An HDMI input means that your video game consoles can come along for the ride, too. The built-in speakers offer fairly decent performance, but you'll likely want to replace them with your own set before long.
Does a 24-inch screen offer enough viewing real estate for your living room? The answer will vary from person to person. In cramped quarters, or in a private room, an all-in-one PC with potent media capabilities will run circles around the average TV set-and this VAIO doesn't need to be fully powered on to function as a traditional display for your gaming or TV-watching needs.
The VAIO's 1TB hard drive will allow you to make ample use of its DVR capabilities. If you do manage to fill that hard drive, feel free to offload some of your media using the built-in Blu-ray player/writer. The machine also offers a full range of wireless functionality: a wireless keyboard and mouse, speedy 802.11n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth and Bluetooth Stereo support. Couch surfers will appreciate the bundled remote control and a design that lets them leave their machine on a television stand or shelf, operating it from the couch.
If you must have some peripherals and cables hanging off of the slim, sleek chassis, you'll also find a multiformat card reader, five USB ports, a FireWire port, audio and microphone inputs, and gigabit ethernet. The generous connectivity options will make expanding the PC's functionality a bit easier. It lacks an eSATA connection for external storage, but otherwise the selection available is enough for most users.
The VAIO is no performance slouch either, earning top honors on our list of the best big-screen all-in-ones. Powered by a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8400s processor and 6GB of DDR2-800 memory, it achieved a score of 105 in WorldBench 6-among the highest results in its category. And let's not forget the coup de grâce: multitouch. The screen takes full advantage of Windows 7's capabilities here. It's a fine representative of what all-in-one PCs can offer.
This VAIO has a lot to like, and Sony charges accordingly: Expect to pay around $2000, though configurations in the L Series with fewer features are cheaper. But as is often the case with all-in-ones, you could find a tower PC and a monitor with comparable specs for a few hundred dollars less.
Whether you're looking for an interactive TV, a gaming machine, or just a conversation piece, you can't really go wrong here. Impressive hardware performance, a gorgeous chassis, and a vibrant 24-inch display make this multitouch all-in-one the PC to beat.
The Sony VAIO is pricey, even for an all-in-one-it starts at $1300 and can go up to $2000. You will pay a premium for that shapely chassis, so if looks aren't a priority, keep hunting: Perfectly capable alternatives are available for less.MSI Wind Top AE2220
When shopping for an all-in-one PC, you'll often need to contend with an unfavorable price-to-performance ratio. In the case of the VAIO L117FX/B, an energy efficient quad-core processor keeps things svelte while bolstering the machine's score-and its hefty price tag. But Sony also excels at designing attractive products. Consumers have grown accustomed to paying a premium for Sony goods, if only to have something to show off to their friends. Smaller PC makers don't have that luxury. They generally outfit their products with less-expensive laptop and netbook components, trading performance for affordability-as their customers want.
A few rungs down the all-in-one ladder, we find the MSI Wind Top AE2220. If you're in the market for a touch-friendly all-in-one that isn't necessarily a media powerhouse, it's a strong contender. The AE2220's 21.6-inch widescreen display delivers high-def media at 1920 by 1080 resolution. Like the VAIO, it sports a multitouch screen with full Windows 7 gesture support, courtesy of Windows 7 Home Premium.
The MSI Wind Top's similarities to the Sony VAIO continue: Its VGA and HDMI inputs let you use the device as an external display for a video game console or other device. And it comes bundled with a wireless keyboard and mouse, plus 802.11n Wi-Fi. It also has six USB ports and an eSATA port (handy for external hard drives), a combo Blu-ray player/DVD burner, and a multiformat card reader.
So the AE2220 appears to offer a package similar to the VAIO's, in a marginally smaller, less attractive shell. But it can't hope to compete with Sony's all-in-one in performance. The AE2220 is powered by a 2.2GHz T6600 Core 2 Duo-an energy-efficient laptop processor. It also has a 500GB hard drive, 4GB of DDR2-800 memory, and integrated nVidia Ion graphics. While Ion GPUs can deliver competent performance, they're usually in netbooks and nettops, and are no match for the VAIO L117FX/B's potent discrete graphics. The AE2220 earned a respectable score of 90 in our WorldBench 6 test suite. That looks even better when you consider the price tag-the MSI Wind Top AE2220 can be had for $800, significantly less than Sony's aesthetically superior offering. And performance runs in the family: The AE2220's smaller sibling, the 20-inch AE2010, is our highest-ranked budget all-in-one PC.
You get strong performance, high-definition Blu-ray playback, and a multitouch display. It may not be as chic as the Sony VAIO, but the money you save with MSI's Wind Top AE2220 will more than make up for that.
If you aren't dead set on an all-in-one design, $800 can buy you a marginally superior PC and a 22-inch monitor. While the MSI is not as fast (or as attractive) as Sony's offering, you will still be paying a premium for a svelte chassis.Check Out These, Too
The single-touch EeeTop ET2203T lacks Windows 7's gestures but boasts a 21.6-inch, high-definition screen. Features for media buffs include a Blu-ray player and discrete mobile graphics from ATI, for a home theater experience packed into a small space.
HP's custom TouchSmart software creates touch-friendly widgets out of popular Web destinations like Hulu and Twitter. The multitouch-capable TouchSmart 600 Quad includes Intel's Core i7 quad-core processor, for top-tier performance in a slender shell.
Towers: Data-Crunching Monoliths
The Maingear Shift is the quintessential performance desktop: Billed as a "personal supercomputer," it delivers blistering performance by stacking all of the latest components and technology into its imposing metal chassis, overclocking them, and implementing liquid cooling and clever airflow mechanics to keep all those up-to-date parts humming along smoothly.
The Shift is powered by a 3.33GHz Intel Core i7 975 Extreme Edition processor overclocked to 4GHz. At $1000 for the chip alone, the 975 Extreme is the fastest processor that money could buy at the time of writing, but Intel's upcoming six-core Core i7-980X processor could soon change that.
Meanwhile, the Shift's pair of Intel X25-M 80GB solid-state drives ($250 each), arranged in RAID 0, serve as the boot drive for Windows 7 Ultimate Edition (naturally); a 2TB Western Digital Caviar Black hard drive ($300) handles storage. And don't forget the three XFX Radeon HD 5870 graphics cards ($400 each) that are paired with 6GB of DDR3-2000 RAM.
The Shift achieved a score of 181 in WorldBench 6--one of the most impressive performances we've seen on our test suite. In our gaming tests, we saw a whopping 204 frames per second in Unreal Tournament 3 (2560 by 1600 resolution, highest settings).
The final price tag: just over $7000.
As for the Maingear Shift's case, a unique, vertically mounted design offers improved cable management and airflow. The case is beautiful inside and out, with a brushed-metal exterior that's free of garish paint jobs or decals, and a meticulously organized interior that makes tinkering a hassle-free endeavor.
The Shift also has a grand total of ten USB slots, an eSATA port, two FireWire 400 ports, three HDMI and DisplayPort connections, integrated 7.1 surround sound, a multiformat card reader, and a Blu-ray burner-a bundle that should handily take care of just about every media-related need a user could dream up. Should you wish to expand the machine's innards even further, four free hard-drive bays and three free 5.25-inch bays are available. Maingear also offers an extensive warranty program, and prides itself on its customer service.
Is $7000 too much? For most users, the answer is likely an emphatic yes. High-powered PCs that approach the Shift's level of performance can be had for far less, especially if you are willing to roll up your sleeves and build one yourself.
While this configuration of the Shift would make a rather convincing poster child for excess, some users--if their pockets are deep enough--will throw caution to winds for such a dream PC.
Boutique PC shops are the premier source for excessively powerful performance PCs, and everything is made to order. The Shift, which starts at $2600, can push well beyond $7000-or even past the $20,000 barrier, if taking out a second mortgage strikes your fancy.
If you're looking for raw performance, enough fistfuls of cash will buy it. If you're a bit thriftier, however, you should be able to find an appreciable middle ground by knowing exactly what configuration you need and maintaining a strict budget.
While such super-PCs are expensive in themselves, buying one from a boutique shop entails paying a premium-and labor isn't cheap. If you'd rather not build your own PC outright, do a bit of comparison shopping before you buy, as you could save a bit of cash handling some upgrades yourself.HP Pavilion HPE-170t
Fortunately, performance machines are available for the rest of us, too. Though the plain midsize-tower chassis won't turn many heads, the HP Pavilion HPE-170t delivers where it counts. We'll start with two pleasing numbers: a WorldBench 6 score of 146, and a price tag of just under $1500.
The HPE-170t is powered by a 2.8GHz Intel Core i7 860 CPU, with 8GB of DDR3 memory. Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit) is housed on the two 500GB hard drives, which are arranged in RAID 0 for a total of 1TB of storage space. Graphics performance comes from an nVidia GeForce GTX260 graphics card with a pair of DVI ports. Whereas the Maingear Shift achieved 204 frames per second in Unreal Tournament 3, the HPE-170t managed a very respectable yet comparably paltry 66 frames per second (2560 by 1600 resolution, highest settings).
The HPE-170t offers a total of nine USB slots, two FireWire ports, a multiformat card reader, and an HDMI port, while a combo Blu-ray/DVD-burner drive is coupled with integrated 5.1-channel audio to round out the multimedia faculties. For networking, you'll find gigabit ethernet and 802.11n Wi-Fi. The latter is a curious addition to a performance desktop, but not without merit. If your desktop is already pinned down underneath a myriad of cables, an ethernet cable is just one more. Taking advantage of the gigabit ethernet will result in a faster networking experience. But if you would rather keep things tidy or your PC is in an inconvenient location, 802.11n Wi-Fi is just fine for streaming media and files.
Once you slide off the HPE-170t's case, the Maingear Shift's premium price starts to make a bit more sense. Inside the HP, you'll find a haphazard mess of cables, with little room to tinker or to add more components. While the Shift offers an expansive case with room to grow, the limited expandability of the HPE-170t is indicative of its much lower price bracket-and of the kind of buyer that this machine is built for.
A casual user who simply wants a beefy workhorse and who is unlikely to take off the PC's case would do well to consider the HPE-170t when looking for a tower system with a bit of spring in its step. If you're a power user or gamer hunting for bleeding-edge performance, you probably haven't made it this far: You're still fawning over the Shift--and that's fine, too. Keep the level of performance you want in mind, but don't dismiss a reasonably priced machine without giving it a thorough evaluation.
The performance takes this tower ever so close to the deep end of the PC pool for only a fraction of the investment. It's a great way for folks with stricter budgets to enjoy high-end performance.
The confined chassis leaves your future upgrade options limited, which will likely disappoint PC enthusiasts who are looking for tower-sized expandability.Check Out These, Too
A mere 9.4 inches tall, Dell's business-centric OptiPlex 780 USFF is powered by a Core 2 Duo desktop processor with Intel's vPro technology-your IT department will thank you. And the Energy Star 5.0-compliant 180W power supply will keep Accounting happy, too.
The potent Intel Core i5-750 processor makes the MicroFlex 75B a strong performer. Its chassis offers lots of room to add hard drives, plus a gaggle of ports for your peripherals.