ZDNet Holiday Gift Guide: Top desktops for any budget

Desktops get little love these days as more and more users opt for notebook PCs. Laptops have closed the gap in recent years in terms of features and performance.
Written by John Morris, Contributor

Desktops get little love these days as more and more users opt for notebook PCs. Laptops have closed the gap in recent years in terms of features and performance. But the fact remains that desktops deliver a lot more bang for buck. In fact, you can now get a pretty good desktop and a netbook for when you're on the road for less than you'd spend on many laptops.

The basic choice between Microsoft Windows and Apple's Mac OS X remains the same. Apple has updated its product line, but it still really only offers one consumer desktop, the all-in-one iMac that starts at $1,200, while Windows-based PCs come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges--including a couple of decent all-in-ones (more on that below).

Quad-core systems are now commonplace, though dual-core systems with more memory and beefier graphics may still be better for many tasks. Intel recently shipped its new Core-i7 (aka Nehalem) quad-core chips, for performance systems, while AMD will unveil its Phenom II X4s in early January. Based on a new 45nm manufacturing process, these second-generation Phenoms should be significantly faster and they have a lot more cache, so I wouldn't recommend buying a high-end AMD-based system until after the holidays.

Thanks to plunging prices on memory, even budget desktops now routinely offer 4GB. Over the year or so you'll notice a transition from DDR2 memory to a new type of memory, DDR3, which is faster and uses less power. Initially DDR3 will be a bigger win on laptops since it operates at a lower voltage, but it is already showing up on many desktops, and as speeds go up and prices come down, it will become standard. Another big surprise: 64-bit computing has arrived. Take a quick cruise through the shelves of your local Best Buy and you'll notice that most desktops now include 64-bit version of Windows Vista. That's good news because it means you can take advantage of all that system memory.

Choosing graphics has become a lot more complicated with integrated GPUs, single graphics cards with multiple GPUs onboard, and systems using multiple graphics cards based on AMD's ATI CrossFireX or Nvidia's SLI technology (hybrid graphics on laptops adds yet another wrinkle). But the basic choice is still between integrated graphics--typically from Intel--and discrete GPUs from AMD or Nvidia. The latest and greatest are AMD's ATI Radeon 4800 series and Nvidia GTX260 and GTX280. Other features you may want to look for depending on your budget and needs include DisplayPort, an improved monitor connector; HDMI ports for hooking up an HDTV; eSATA for external hard drives; and Blu-ray.

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Budget (below $500): Acer Aspire X1200

Not everyone is familiar with the Acer brand in the U.S., but after a recent a buying binge--Gateway, Packard Bell and eMachines--and some major inroads in retail, it has quickly grown into the third largest PC company in the country. Acer is known for low prices, so it's no surprise they produced one of the season's best budget boxes, the Aspire X1200. Officially it starts at $450 with an AMD Athlon X2 4850e dual-core processor, 4MB of memory, Nvidia GeForce 8200 integrated graphics, a 320GB hard drive, DVD burner and the 64-bit version of Windows Vista Premium. But Best Buy is currently selling a model with a slightly faster processor, the 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 5000, for $414. You can also find a version with a Phenom X3 triple-core processor for about $480, but even the base configuration offers decent performance and is capable of handling everyday tasks aside from 3D gaming. It also offers a few features you wouldn't expect in a budget PC including HDMI eSATA connectors. And it is so compact (10.6 x 4.0 x 14.4-inches) and quiet that some customers have used it as an inexpensive home theater PC.

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Mid-range (below $800): Dell Studio Desktop

Dell's Studio line is a mid-range tower desktop with a few extras including HDMI and FireWire ports, and options that include a Blu-ray drive and TV tuner. It starts in budget territory ($550), but in this price range you'll find better deals on Dell's Inspiron line or PCs from other brands such as the Acer Aspire X1200. The Studio is highly-configurable, however, and you can put together a very solid system for less than $800. For example, I configured a system with a 2.33GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200, 4GB of memory, AMD ATI Radeon HD 3450 graphics with 256MB, a 640GB hard drive, DVD burner and Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 for $794. Best Buy sells a very similar model, but with 6GB of memory and a 750GB hard drive, for $799 that earned an Editors' Choice from CNET.com. Recently Dell added a version, the Studio XPS, with the new Intel Core-i7 processor starting at $1,000, but most users looking for a mid-range desktop would probably be better off spending the extra cash on more memory, better graphics, a larger hard drive or a nice LCD monitor.

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Performance (around $1,200): Gateway FX6800-01e

I've been a fan of the Gateway's FX series for a while because it pushes features and performance typically found in pricey gaming systems down into to more affordable PCs. The latest version, the Gateway FX6800-01e, is true to form. It is one of the first systems to incorporate Intel's new Core-i7 processor, yet it costs only $1,250. This configuration includes the 2.67GHz Intel Core-i7 920, 3GB of DDR3 memory, AMD ATI Radeon HD 4850 graphics with 512MB, a 750GB hard drive and 64-bit Windows Vista Home Premium SP1. The case design won't suit everyone, aesthetically speaking, but it does include a lot of nice touches. The ports on the front panel are angled upwards so you can access them easily with case on the floor, a pop-up panel on top conceals two additional USB ports and media card reader, a panel on the front has touch-sensitive media controls, and two sliding trays let you quickly add new hard drives without messing with cables. In this category, you may also want to check out the Dell Studio XPS, which for the about the same price offers the same Core-i7 processor and twice the memory, but with a 500GB hard drive.

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Gaming: Dell XPS 730x

It is a tricky time to be choosing a high-end system for gaming or other demanding tasks, such as digital video editing, because the technology is in transition. Intel has just announced its Core-i7 processors, which are only available in a handful of systems so far, and AMD won't release its Phenom II X4 quad-core processors until January. It would be easy to recommend one of the boutique systems, such as the Falcon Northwest Mach V, which have the latest and greatest of everything including an overclocked 3.2GHz Core i7-965. But let's face it: at more than $8,000 these bleeding-edge systems are really more of a novelty act. Dell and Gateway are selling more mainstream gaming systems based on the Core i7, and if I had to choose right now, I'd recommend the Dell XPS 730x, which starts at a more reasonable (relatively speaking) $2,000. For a little more than $3,000 you can configure a system with the 2.93GHz Core i7-940, 6GB of memory, Nvidia GeForce GTX280 graphics with 1GB, a 640GB hard drive, DVD burner and the 64-bit version of Windows Vista Premium SP1. That's a great system that won't be out-of-date anytime soon. But keep in mind that you may be able to get similar--or even better--performnace and capabilities by sticking with an older processor and putting the money towards dual graphics cards, dual hard drives in a RAID configuration or a Blu-ray player or burner. Also, there are many other excellent gaming systems out there, such as the HP Blackbird 002, which are in need of an update and will most likely be available soon with the latest processors and graphics, so you may want to wait for those after-holiday sales.

CNET.com has not reviewed the XPS 730x yet, but it has reviewed the original Dell XPS 730 H2C. Another reviews site, Computer Shopper, has reviewed the Dell XPS 730x.

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All-in-one: Sony VAIO JS series

This is the spot where I'm supposed to insert the perennial Apple iMac. There's certainly nothing wrong with that system. The design is still the gold standard for the category, and if you want a consumer desktop that runs Mac OS X, it's really the only choice--the Mac Mini is an afterthought and the Mac Pro really is for the pros. But for the first time there are a lot of interesting Windows alternatives--HP's latest TouchSmart PC, Sony's VAIO JS series, the Dell XPS One, and the Gateway One--and at the risk of incurring the wrath of ardent Apple fans, it's high time to recommend one of them. The VAIO JS may borrow a bit from the iMac's excellent design, but why not stick with what works. Though it starts at $1,000--compared with $1,200 for the 20-inch Apple iMac--the $1,450 VAIO VGC-JS190J/B is the more attractive model with a 20-inch display, 3.0GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Processor E8400, 4GB of DDR2 memory, Intel integrated graphics, 500GB hard drive, Blu-ray player/DVD burner and 802.11b/g/n wireless networking. Compare that with similarly-priced 20-inch Apple iMac, which has a 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 2GB of memory, Intel integrated graphics, a 320GB hard drive, and DVD burner--for $50 more. As for Blu-ray on a Mac, never mind. If you are looking for an all-in-one PC for the living room, Sony also has several models that are worth looking at including LT series and LV series.

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