Desktop PC Buying Guide

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Holiday Desktop PC Buying Guide: Choosing the Right Desktop

Budget PCs

Acer Aspire AM3970
Acer Aspire AM3970
A budget tower desktop carries standard desktop components, but it can cost as little as $300 if you select older hardware or inexpensive, low-end processors. Typically, these PCs are minitower systems, with fewer drive bays than a full tower has. The Acer Aspire AM3970, for example, offers Core i3-2100 Sandy Bridge processor for relatively speedy performance at just $500. Beware models that come equipped with AMD Sempron or Intel Celeron processors, however, as those CPUs' performance drawbacks will negate the advantage of their low cost.

Inexpensive tower desktops usually incorporate low-powered, integrated graphics rather than discrete graphics cards. As a result, your entertainment options may be limited. High-definition media playback suffers on models equipped with older Intel-based integrated graphics; and if you're interested in gaming, you'll be hard pressed to tackle anything more demanding than Flash-based offerings. Lower-end machines equipped with Intel's Sandy Bridge build improved integrated graphics performance right onto the chip. Though they still aren't be adequate for video games, Sandy Bridge CPUs will support satisfactory high-def media playback.

Budget PCs generally offer at least 320GB of storage space and at least 2GB of RAM, but support few upgrades beyond adding RAM or a larger hard drive. They rarely leave much room for expansion inside their cases, either. Still, if you need a machine for simple word processing, email, and occasional DVDs or online videos, these machines should suit you just fine. For a ranked chart of systems in this category, see "Top Budget Desktop PCs."

Mainstream PCs

Higher up in the desktop chain, you'll find machines aimed at mainstream users. These PCs start in the vicinity of $1000, and carry at least 500GB hard drives and about 4GB of RAM. Powered by dual-core and lower-end quad-core processors, they deliver better performance than budget desktops do, without breaking the bank. Consider the Micro Express MicroFlex 25B: At $850, this machine features a quad-core Core i5-2500K processor, and an AMD Radeon HD 6870 graphics card.

Photo-editing applications stand to benefit from working with multicore processors, and entertainment enthusiasts will appreciate the improved gaming performance and stutter-free HD media playback that a discrete graphics card helps deliver. Many of the machines in this category include a Blu-ray drive, either standard or as an extra-cost option. And if your video-editing needs are modest, you'll probably be able to find a machine in the mainstream price bracket that has enough power to handle your creative projects. Since the line between budget and mainstream PCs has blurred lately, however, we've combined our rankings of such machines. Check our "Top Budget Desktop PCs" chart for affordable systems from both categories.

Performance PCs

Origin Genesis 2011
Origin Genesis 2011
Occupying the high end of the spectrum are performance desktops. Such PCs generally start at a little over $2000, with some outliers--like the Origin Genesis-- hovering in the range of $7000. Most performance PCs are full tower systems, equipped with a slew of drive bays and expansion slots. Designed to tackle challenging tasks, they come equipped with the latest and greatest Intel and AMD dual- and quad-core processors, 6GB or 8GB of RAM, and at least one discrete graphics card. Some performance desktops include multiple graphics cards to deliver improved graphics performance.

Performance desktops are suitable for users who need a lot of processing power to get their work done--professionals who do extensive high-resolution photography or video editing, and gamers who are willing to pay for top-of-the-line visual effects.

Traditional PC manufacturers like HP and Dell sell performance machines, but so do smaller boutique PC makers that specialize in highly configurable custom machines, tailored to your needs and budget. For a chart of recent high-end models, see "Top 10 Performance Desktop PCs."

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