We began our look into holiday retail desktops in the beginning of November, reviewing a total of 16 systems that ranged in price from $199 to $1,199. Five weeks later, we have our top picks. This is also the end of a year spent focusing heavily on desktops available at brick-and-mortar retail outlets, and we think we learned something.
Desktops in our budget category ranged from the $199 Acer Aspire Revo 1600 to the $510 Gateway DX4822-01. We always advocate spending as much as your budget can handle for the purposes of longevity, so we weren't surprised when we found we liked the aforementioned Gateway best of the six desktops in this group for its speed and large 1TB hard drive.
The problem for the new systems in this category is that the old Gateway SX2800-01 from the back-to-school season (and our most popular desktop review in 2009) still holds its own. Gateway has a few Windows 7-based versions of that system available as well, although we weren't provided with any for the holiday roundup. We'll also give special mention to the $199 Acer, whose throw-away price made it the first Nettop we can actually sort of stomach.
The middle ground spread from $579 to $679, which might seem like a narrow price band, but it actually includes six different desktops. Asus' Essentio CG5270-BP004 won the prize here, but not for its looks. Instead, its fast Intel Core 2 Quad Q8300 chip powered this desktop past a handful of more expensive desktops from Gateway and HP. Its cavernous enclosure also gives you plenty of room for upgrades.
The more expensive systems we received were a bit more scattered. A $1,119 Dell Studio XPS 8000 midtower showed up alongside a $799 HP midtower and an $899 HP Touchsmart 300 all-in-one. We had to branch our comparisons out to include direct-order systems to get a better idea of each systems' place in the competitive landscape. Of the three, we found the Dell the most competitive. HP's Touchsmart 300 also has some niche appeal, thanks to its strong recipe organization software.
What we learned after a year of reviewing retail desktops
We actually began our focus on retail desktops and laptops during the 2008 holiday shopping season. This year we covered three more batches of off-the-shelf PCs, giving us four rounds in total. Prior to this effort our focus was a little more dispersed between retail and direct-order models. Since we've homed in on retail, we've noticed a few patterns.
HP and Dell seem to have locked into an out-of-date motherboard on their lower-end desktops, which means no HDMI. Perhaps you don't need HDMI on a budget midtower, but Dell's Inspiron 545s and HP's Slimline both count as slim tower PCs, which have strong living room cross-over potential due to their sizes. Acer and Gateway have had HDMI-equipped slim towers on shelves for over a year.
This lack of more up-to-date ports suggests to us that Dell or HP either plan their retail stock too far in advance and with too little flexibility, or that they would really rather you buy systems from them directly via their respective Web sites, where you can configure extra features.
We've also learned that the $500-to-$700 range at retail is a numbers game as far as specs. For about $680 you can configure a solid all-around midtower from either Dell or HP, including a Core 2 Quad CPU, 500GB or larger hard drive, between 4GB and 6GB of RAM, and even a discrete budget 3D card for a modest gaming boost. In retail PCs, 8GB of RAM and 750GB or 1TB hard drives are more common in this price range. Midtowers in this price also tend to have wireless networking.
None of those features are bad, but for our money a graphics card is worth sacrificing some RAM or hard drive space for, since it will let you use a broader range of software out of the box. Same goes for midtowers with Wi-Fi, to which you can always run an Ethernet cable instead.