Holiday Buying Guide: Finding Your New Desktop PC

Budget PCs

Gateway SX2840-01 budget desktop PC
A budget tower desktop carries standard desktop components, but can cost as little as $300 if you select older hardware or an inexpensive, low-end processor. Typically, such PCs are minitower systems, with fewer drive bays than a full tower has. The Gateway SX2840-01 offers a Core i3 processor, delivering relatively speedy performance for just under $600.

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 find that such a system is hard-pressed to tackle anything more demanding than Flash-based titles. Machines equipped with Intel's Core i3 processor offer improved integrated-graphics performance built right onto the chip; though they aren't adequate for video games, they do support satisfactory high-def media playback.

Budget PCs generally have at least 320GB of storage space and at least 2GB of RAM, but permit you to make few upgrades beyond adding RAM or a larger hard drive. They rarely leave much room for expandability inside their cases, either. Still, if you need a computer for little more than word processing, e-mail, and occasional DVDs or online videos, one of these machines should suit you just fine. For a ranked chart of systems in this category, see "Top 10 Budget Desktop PCs."

Mainstream PCs

Dell Studio XPS 7100 mainstream desktop PC
Higher up in the desktop chain, you'll find systems aimed at mainstream users. These PCs start in the vicinity of $800, and carry at least 500GB hard drives and about 4GB of RAM. Powered by dual-core, quad-core, or even lower-end six-core processors, they deliver better performance than budget desktops do, without breaking the bank. Consider the Dell Studio XPS 7100: For just over $1500, this machine features a six-core Phenom II X6 1055T processor and an ATI Radeon HD 5870 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 desktops in this category include a Blu-ray drive, either standard or as an optional extra. And if your video-editing needs are modest, you probably can find a machine in the mainstream price bracket that has enough power to handle your creative projects. Check out our chart of recent models in "Top 10 Mainstream Desktop PCs."

Performance PCs

Origin Genesis performance desktop PC
Occupying the high end of the spectrum are performance desktops. Such PCs generally start at a little over $2000, though category titans like the Origin Genesis sit at just under $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 or AMD quad- and six-core processors, at least 6GB of RAM, and at least one discrete graphics card. Some performance desktops contain multiple graphics cards.

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

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

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