We've spent the better part of the last two months reviewing the desktops and laptops you're most likely to find when you go to your local electronics retailer. The Apple systems are available at a number of stores, of course, and if you go into any Best Buy nationwide you should find every system we reviewed. Staples and others might have a few of the models listed as well.
You may have seen the wrap-ups of the various retail laptop categories. Now we're turning our attention to desktops. We'll discuss what you'll find at retail stores, and whether or not you should buy it.
For the purposes of this roundup we consider anything less than $600 to be a budget PC, but we've left off Nettops because they're not fast enough. Mostly we were underwhelmed by the desktops in this group, thanks to poor value or out-of-date features, or, in the case of HP's lamentable
Two systems stood out. We liked the
We were also happy with HP's AMD-powered Pavilion p6150y. This system's quad-core AMD Athlon II X4 630 CPU made it the best at multithreaded apps in its group. That would make this desktop a good pick for anyone looking for an affordable PC for light-duty photo or video editing.
This was our most competitive category, with four of the five systems earning 3.5-star ratings, although the price range is larger than that of the budget desktops.
The Mac Mini is the odd-man out in this category as far as its shape and size. Adding an HDMI to the overall redesign was a smart step toward making the Mac Mini more living-room-friendly, but a puny hard drive and no Blu-ray option hold this system back from greatness.
At the lower end of the price range, the $649
Emulating a pattern we found throughout these reviews, the Core i5 makes the Gateway faster at single-core focused tasks, but the HP and its true quad-core Athlon CPU is better at programs, like multimedia-editing apps, that can leverage all four CPU cores. We also appreciate that HP went with a glossy light gray for this Pavilion over the standard black exterior.
Spend some more money and you come to Dell's Studio XPS SX8100-1408NBC for $899. This system is an acceptable all-arounder, and even has a discrete Nvidia graphics card for low-level 3D gaming. Spend for this one if you need more visual-processing power for editing video or playing games.
Online alternative: Few worthwhile. Even going to HP and Dell and building a custom system to match these retail specials will generally result in higher prices. You might find a competitive refurbished system in this price range.
You can always run the price up and build a better desktop, so to keep the scope reasonable let's set the back-to-school performance ceiling around $1,500. Neither of the retail systems in this category were that impressive. The $949 or so
Online alternative: The above-referenced
First, forget about touch input at retail. The
Apple's newly refreshed $1,199 iMac, of course, wins the prize for its looks. It's also fast. Shortcomings include a small screen and a puny hard drive for its price, as well as the lack of Blu-ray. Macs have demonstrated efficient performance lately next to their Windows 7 counterparts, so if speed is a concern, the iMac is a solid choice, although it's also more expensive.
Online alternative: We like the