To narrow your choices further, consult our desktop reviews. But when you're ready to buy, keep these handy tips in mind.
Know your way around standard upgrades: Be wary of the upgrade options posted on a desktop vendor's website. Though prices for components like memory and hard drives are often competitive, a quick search on Amazon or Newegg for the same component can save you a few bucks--if you're willing to perform the upgrade yourself. Our guide to building your own PC steps you through the process of installing components yourself.
If you're inclined to go the do-it-yourself route, be aware of which components are easy to install, and which require extra effort. Adding a graphics card, for example, can be easy as opening the case, inserting the card into an open slot, and installing the necessary driver. Similarly, adding a second hard drive may involve nothing more than opening the case and popping it in. But if you plan to replace your primary hard drive after buying the system, you'll have to reinstall the operating system--a potential hassle that undercuts the advantage of buying a premade PC.
If you want to upgrade the system's memory, pay close attention to the type of RAM that came with your machine. Though RAM is relatively simple to install, motherboards generally only support one type, such as DDR2 or DDR3. If you're looking at dual- or triple-channel memory, and you're sure that your motherboard supports it, be aware that you'll have to buy your RAM in pairs or triplets, respectively.
When you're customizing your machine, always be on the lookout for deals--especially now that we're in the thick of the Holiday season. PC makers generally offer competitive prices on their components, but you may be able to find a better price by shopping around. If you're comfortable upgrading your PC yourself, a site like Newegg and Amazon is a great place to start. And for help in hunting for bargains, check PCWorld.com, where we'll be running features on the PC deals we find.
Consider an extended warranty and tech support: A two- or three-year warranty can add between $100 to $200 to the cost of your PC, with services and coverage varying by retailer. Before paying for such coverage, read the fine print. An extended warranty can be a lifesaver if your PC malfunctions--but you may never need it during the period it covers. When we conducted a survey investigating customer satisfaction with extended warranties, 71 percent of respondents said that they were glad they had bought one. If you aren't especially computer-savvy, or if you worry that your desktop may fall victim to a curious pet or messy toddler, you might want to pay extra to protect the investment--but only if the extra amount is within reason.
Be wary of pushy salespeople offering you services you may not need. Some retailers offer software installation or "computer tune-up" packages that consist of deleting shortcuts or clicking through software prompts. When in doubt, try to get a straight answer as to the specific services being touted, or do a bit of research: You can probably tune up your new PC yourself.
Make sure that your PC meets your connectivity needs: You'll probably use all sorts of electronics with your PC. External hard drives, cameras, and portable media players are among the devices that can occupy precious USB ports on your machine, so be sure you're satisfied with what your machine offers. Compact PCs have fewer ports than full-size tower desktops do, but even the most minuscule should offer at least six USB 2.0 ports, scattered around the case. Watch for different interfaces, too: Many external hard drives benefit from e-SATA ports, and still other devices may require FireWire.
If you purchase your monitor separately from the rest of the system, the interface connector may vary by brand or model. Connection options include VGA, DVI, HDMI, and DisplayPort. So if you buy (or already have) a nonbundled display, confirm that it will work the new system, by checking the interface connectors on your graphics card or on your computer's motherboard. The same advice applies if you'd like to stream media to your HDTV.
If your PC lacks the right interface--for example, because your HDTV has HDMI-only ports, and your graphics card has only a DVI port--you can buy adapters or cables that merge two different formats.
On larger towers, port placement is important. Most input ports are located on the rear of a PC, but nearly all PCs include at least a few on the front of the case as well, where they share space with headphone jacks, microphone jacks, and multiformat memory card readers. If you'd prefer not to have to fumble around behind the case when attaching or detaching peripheral devices, make sure that the model you chose has enough ports situated on or near the front of the machine.
Don't get caught on the upgrade treadmill: If you're a savvy consumer, you know that today's top-of-the-line PC will be tomorrow's budget box--and that you'll be able to get the latest dream machine on the cheap, if you wait just a little bit longer.
Prices will inevitably drop, and upper-end performance will continue to improve. But if you persist in waiting for a mythical sweet spot to appear, you may end up stuck on hold indefinitely. Though you should certainly keep potential sales and price cuts in mind, your best bet is to decide exactly what you need, pick your acceptable price range, and go for it.