The small-form-factor (SFF) case is in a bit of a transition phase right now, because the bread-box-size design we normally think of is starting to look clunky compared to even smaller case designs that have cropped up, including that of the Mac Mini, the Enano, and others. This doesn't mean that we expect the traditional SFF case to disappear, though. We've been surprised at the number of features desktop vendors have been able to cram into the ultra-SFF boxes, but what those ultrasmall cases can't accommodate is expansion cards. So for most gaming, digital video encoding, and other tasks normally aided by PCI and PCI Express cards, you'll need the bigger little box.
Finding the right desktop specs
Like most consumers, you probably have an idea of how much you want to spend on a desktop. But how do you ensure that you get exactly what you need? The different shapes and sizes, the wide range of configurations, and the seemingly constant arrival of new and faster technology all make for a difficult decision. To help you find the right mix, we've outlined the four basic types of PC user.
These days, $500 to $1,500 will net you a desktop with a dual-core CPU and enough power to run productivity apps, view and edit vacation photos, manage MP3s and videos, and even play many of today's games--the core activities most common to families, students, and the general purpose PC user. At $1,000 and up, you should easily be able to perform those tasks. Spend around $500, and in most cases you'll still be able to run common tasks without delay, although 3D gaming becomes a stretch. You will definitely find a dual-core chip in a $500 PC (you should insist on a dual-core chip these days, unless your budget keeps you under the $500 mark), but Vista could still give you trouble. Be sure the PC is equipped with at least 1GB of memory, and it's a good bet that you'll be able to smoothly run Vista. Add in a 128MB graphics card, and you'll get the Aero effects with little to no performance loss.
If you're leaning towards Apple, you should keep in mind that Apple's OS X operating system is due for an update in October. We recommend waiting until then to purchase a new Mac, so you don't have to worry about updating the operating system yourself later on. We also wouldn't be surprised if Apple came out with a new desktop between now and then. We can't say what it might look like, but any Mac Mini or iMac will get the job done for most of today's day-to-day users. We have no reason to doubt that Apple will continue to offer relatively affordable, capable home systems.
|AMD Athlon 64 X2, or Intel Core 2 Duo processor|
|1GB of DDR2 memory|
|250GB to 500GB hard drive|
|128MB, DirectX 9-capable graphics card from ATI or Nvidia|
|17- to 19-inch LCD|
|2-piece or 2.1 speaker set|
|Windows Vista Home Premium or Apple OS X Leopard (when it becomes available)|
|Apple iLife or Microsoft Works Suite 2006 (students might want full-blown Office 2007 or iWork '06)|
It's easy for the price to get out of hand with a power PC. Take, for instance, any of these quad-core PCs. If you shop around, you should be able to find a more than adequate gaming or digital design box for between $2,500 and $3,500. Look for an Intel Core 2 Duo CPU and up to 4GB of DDR2 RAM.You'll also need a large, fast hard drive--perhaps two or more if you plan to transfer and edit movie files--and of course, a DVD burner or, if you have an HD display, a Blu-ray or HD DVD drive. If your goal is digital design, Apple's Mac Pro continues to shine in this arena. We still won't recommend an Apple for gaming, though, so if that's your aim, it's Windows for you.
The graphics card issue is a bit stickier. Right now, we recommend either of Nvidia's GeForce 8800 GTX or 8800 GTS cards, or one of ATI's newer Radeon HD 2900 XT cards. Each shows promise in current generation games. Which one will be better for next-gen DirectX 10 games we can't say, because the games with which to properly test them aren't here yet. If gaming is your chief concern and you can put off your purchase for a little while, you might wait until the shooter Crysis comes out (allegedly this September). That game represents the next leap forward in PC 3D graphics, and while it won't be the only game that matters, most performance junkies will rely on it to determine which graphics card is the most advanced.
|Intel Core 2 Duo E6600, E6750, or E6850; Core 2 Quad Q6600 or Q6700, Core 2 Extreme QX6700, QX6800 or QX6850|
|2GB to 4GB of 800MHz or 1,066MHz DDR2 memory|
|500GB to 1TB 7,200rpm hard drive(s)|
|512MB ATI Radeon HD 2900 XT, 768MB Nvidia GeForce 8800 GTX, 640MB or 320MB GeForce 8800 GTS|
|Blu-ray, HD DVD, or DVD+/-RW drive|
|19- to 21-inch LCD|
|Digital 5.1 speakers|
|Windows Vista Ultimate or Home Premium|
|Microsoft Office 2007, DVD-authoring program|
Media Center functionality is built into Windows Ultimate and Home Premium, so you could make the argument that a home-theater PC doesn't need its own category anymore. Of course, you'd be wrong. We never really bought into the idea of putting a standard tower desktop in the living room, which is why we're glad we're to see so many ultra-small-form-factor designs such as Apple's Mac Mini and Shuttle's XPC X200M . You don't need all the power of a traditional desktop to simply watch downloaded movies and listen to music, as long as you can output video and audio from your PC to your TV and your audio receiver, you're all set.
If you demand high video quality, you might sacrifice some of that caability if you opt for a lower-end system. As an alternative, you can get a larger A/V component-style case with a full-fledged video card in it to help with the video processing. We've had mixed experiences with Windows Vista's new CableCard support. If you're set on compressing all of your home theater hardware into one box, it might be the solution you're looking for (just don't do it in New York City yet), but otherwise it's probably easier to just stick with your cable box.
Another question to ask yourself with a media PC: do you want to use your TV as your primary display? Flipping through your recorded TV shows via Media Center is easy to do on your TV, but simple PC tasks, such as writing e-mail and browsing the Web, aren't ideal with the 10-foot interface of sitting on your couch and squinting at small text and icons. This is why we think that wireless networking and smaller, cheaper PCs have helped the media PC come a long way. By minimizing the cables and their own footprint, these less offensive computers make it easy to justify owning two PCs: one that's hooked up to the TV and a more traditional system that sits on your desk. The desk-bound PC can even store the bulk of your media files if your smaller system doesn't have a large enough hard drive. You can also look for a Windows Home Server for centralized file storage for every PC in your home when they come out later this year.
|Intel Core or Core 2 Duo or Athlon 64 X2 CPU (quiet and cool operation is more important than raw power)|
|1GB to 2GB of RAM|
|500GB or more hard drive space (or Windows Home Server, in a few months)|
|256MB or better graphics card from ATI or Nvidia|
|Analog or CableCard tuner (optional)|
|Blu-ray, HD DVD or combo optical drive|
|21-inch or larger LCD or a direct connection to your home-theater display|
|Wireless keyboard and mouse and Media Center remote|
|Front Row, Windows Vista Ultimate or Home Premium, or other media management/DVR software|
Graphics are less of a concern for most businesses, unless you run a design shop. At minimum, you'll want a system with enough power (read: dual-core CPU) for multitasking your daily office chores. The money you save on the graphics you can put toward a larger flat-panel display and a better warranty. Vista complicates matters a little. Microsoft recommends at least 512MB of system memory and a DirectX 9-capable graphics card, and it ups the specs to 1GB of RAM and at least 128MB of independent video memory for Vista Home Premium with Aero. Of course, an iMac will get the job done, too, though at a higher price than your typical business PC--and again, you'll want to wait for October and Apple's new Leopard OS before purchasing a new Mac.
|Midrange AMD Athlon 64 X2 or Intel Core 2 Duo processor|
|1GB of DDR memory|
|250GB or 300GB hard drive|
|128MB ATI or Nvidia graphics card|
|19- or 21-inch LCD|
|Windows XP Pro, Windows Vista Home Premium, Windows Vista Business, or Mac OS X|
|Microsoft Office XP or Works Suite 2006, or Apple iWork '06|