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
The problem for the new systems in this category is that the old
The middle ground spread from $579 to $679, which might seem like a narrow price band, but it actually includes six different desktops.
The more expensive systems we received were a bit more scattered. A $1,119
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HP and Dell seem to have locked into an out-of-date motherboard on their lower-end desktops, which means no HDMI.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
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.