A lot has changed since I made a list of desktops and checked it twice last year.
Intel released its Core i5 and Core i7 processors, based on a new design known as Nehalem, which brought significant performance improvements to desktops (not to mention servers and workstations). AMD is still playing catch-up with its processors, but on the positive side it has had a string of hits in graphics including the Radeon HD 4000 series and now the HD 5000 series. Nvidia will release new graphics processors based on its Fermi architecture early next year, but for now AMD is delivering the best bang for the buck.
But the biggest change in the world of desktops is the release of Windows 7. The problems with Windows Vista were a bit overblown, but everyone was eager for a fresh start and Windows 7 makes desktops easier to use, more capable and even a bit faster under certain circumstances. With some desktops shipping with as much as 6GB of memory now, there's no longer any reason to buy the 32-bit version of Windows, and nearly every new desktop comes with the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium, which will still run your 32-bit applications. Windows 7 also has support for multi-touch displays built-in, so you'll notice many more desktops and laptops that include these features such as HP's TouchSmart 600. I've tried some of these new Windows 7 multi-touch PCs, and they’re intriguing, but until someone comes up with killer apps for multi-touch on PCs, it will remain a niche.
One other new category you'll notice on store shelves this year is the nettop. These look like small -form factor PCs, but they are actually the desktop's answer to netbooks complete with Intel Atom processors. Some have slightly more powerful Nvidia graphics and they run Windows 7, rather than Windows XP, but don’t be fooled. Netbooks have their place, but I'm much more skeptical of nettops. The truth is there's very little price difference between a nettop and a budget desktop, and the trade-off in terms of performance and features simply isn’t worth saving a few bucks.
As you'll see from this year's gift guide picks, there are plenty of better deals on desktops.
Apple iMac 27-inch AIO
The competition in the all-in-one desktop space has gotten much stiffer in the past year. The Gateway One and Dell Studio One 19, as well as touch-screen models such as the HP TouchSmart 300 and TouchSmart 600 and Sony VAIO L series, are all significantly better than some of the early efforts on Windows. But the one to beat remains Apple's iconic iMac, and a recent refresh has made it even more compelling. The iMac now comes with one of two 16:9 LED-backlit displays: 21.5 inches (1920x1080) or a whopping 27 inches (2560x1440). About the only thing that hasn’t changed about the iMac is the price, but at least you now get a lot more for the money. The 21.5-inch model starts at $1,199 with a 3.06GHz Core 2 Duo, 4GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce 9400M integrated graphics and a 500GB hard drive. The 27-inch model starts at $1,699 ($200 more than the 24-inch model that used to sit atop the iMac line), but if your budget allows it, the one you really want is the $1,999 model, Apple's first to offer Intel's Nehalem quad-core processor. It includes the 2.66GHz Intel Core i5-750, 4GB of memory, ATI Radeon HD 4850 graphics with 512MB, 1TB hard drive and a DVD burner. All of the iMacs now come with Apple's new multi-touch Magic Mouse as well. Many reviewers have already put the 27-inch iMac through its paces--including CNET--and it has been racking up awards.
Gateway SX2800 series
Most major computer makers have a slim tower series. HP has its Slimline s5200 series, Dell offers a Studio Slim Desktop (as well as the Studio Hybrid), and Acer's X1200 series was our pick last year for a budget desktop. Because a slim PC is more compact than a traditional mini-tower, you can use it either as a space-saver on your desk or as a media server in a home entertainment system. But don’t confuse these with nettops--slim towers are full-fledged PCs with powerful processors, plenty of memory and a good selection of ports. Gateway's SX2800 series, this year's top choice in this category, is a case in point. It starts at $449.99 with a 2.33GHz Core 2 Quad Q8200 quad-core processor, 4GB of memory, a 640GB hard drive, DVD burner and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. Despite its diminutive design, the SX2800 series it packed with ports including eSATA, HDMI-out, FireWire and six-channel audio. CNET recently gave this retail model, the Gateway SX2800-01r, an Editors' Choice award. And PC Magazine gave high marks to a nearly-identical model, the Gateway SX2802-01, with a slightly faster processor and a larger hard drive that will be sold at Costco for $499.99. The only drawback of the SX2800 series is that it is limited to Intel integrated graphics, but overall you'd be hard-pressed to find another system that packs this much PC into such a small case.
Dell Inspiron 546
Dell isn’t known for building systems using AMD processors, which currently can’t match the performance of Intel's chips, but AMD's CPUs and ATI graphics together can deliver a very good value , and that's why Dell has chosen them for its latest budget desktop. I wouldn't recommend the $269 base model with its AMD Sempron LE-1300, but for $449 you can get a 2.70GHz AMD Athlon II X2 dual-core processor, 3GB of memory, ATI Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics, a 500GB hard drive and a DVD burner. The $649 model has a triple-core processor, more memory and a 19-inch monitor. Wal-Mart is offering a $698 bundle that includes the Inspiron 546s (triple-core processor, 8GB of memory, older Intel integrated graphics) and a 24-inch Sony LCD monitor. One nice touch for a budget desktop: the Inspiron 546 comes in eight different colors. Desktops don’t get much reviews coverage nowadays, and budget desktops get even less, so there aren’t many hands-on reviews of this relatively new model. But it's a solid choice if you're on a tight budget.
HP Pavilion p6200 series
HP hasn’t tinkered much with the basic formula for its Pavilion consumer desktops, and by now the glossy piano black towers have become familiar to shoppers. HP's mainstream Pavilion p6200 series extends all the way from the p6200z, a $289.99 system based on an under-powered AMD Sempron processor, to the $549.99 p6280t, which has a quad-core processor and 6GB of memory. Not long ago CNET reviewed an older model, the p6130y, with an AMD Phenom X4, and wasn't too impressed. But it's not representative of the entire series, which has been refreshed. Newer models with Intel processors such as the configurable p6280t are a whole different story. For example, on HP's site you can currently configure the p6280t with a 2.50GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8300 quad-core processor, 6GB of memory, ATI Radeon HD 4350 graphics with 512MB, 500GB hard drive, LightScribe DVD burner and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit for $629.99. A very similar model with 8GB of memory and 750GB hard drive, bundled with a 25-inch LCD display, sells for $999.99 at Costco. PC Magazine just gave that model, the Pavilion p6267c-b, an Editors' Choice. The Pavilion p6200 series has the features to meet the needs of a wide range of consumer applications, is easily expandable and, depending on the configuration you choose, should deliver solid performance. In short, it's everything you need in a mainstream desktop.
Gateway FX series
There's a long list of boutiques that will craft semi-custom (and very pricey) gaming desktops for you. Examples include Falcon Northwest, Cyberpower, iBuypower, Maingear and Velocity Micro. Dell's Alienware division is still going strong too (though HP's Voodoo PC line seems to be suffering from neglect). But for a gaming desktop that you can actually afford, it's hard to beat Gateway's FX series. In fact, because it starts at $1,129.99, it is sometimes reviewed as a mainstream desktop (Computer Shopper recently gave the Gateway FX6800-01 an Editors' Choice award) but even that base configuration includes a Core i7 quad-core processor and good discrete graphics. The new Windows 7 models are more impressive. The Gateway FX6830-01 has a 2.66GHz Core i5-750 quad-core, 8GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce GTX 260 graphics with 2GB, a 1TB hard drive and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit for $1,179.99. For a couple hundred dollars more ($1,399.99), the Gateway FX6802-03, includes the Core i7-920 and a whopping 9GB of memory. A nearly-identical model with Windows Vista received high ratings from both Computer Shopper (another Editors' Choice award) and PC Magazine. Last year's choice in this category is still the best gift for your gamer.