Desktops That Deliver

From movie editing to network nerve center, they do plenty of heavy lifting

Make no mistake, in the age of Internet mobility, desktop computers are the ugly stepchildren of notebooks. Now, following the lead of Apple Computer (AAPL ) and its wildly popular iMac flat-panel computer, PC makers from Gateway (GTW ) and Dell (DELL ) to Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) and Sony (SNE ) are gussying up the dowdy PC with special features and flashy designs.

With offerings for everyone from the sleep-deprived gamer to the work-obsessed administrator, desktop suppliers are straining to create a little buzz that will bring in new buyers. In the opinion of Peter Hamel, a VerizonWireless customer-service supervisor, the effort is paying off. When Hamel isn't flying down the roads in his Honda S2000 sports car, he's at home, moving at warp speed around the Web or playing games in overdrive with his Falcon Mach V Exotix desktop. It's loaded with a 2.4-gigahertz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 1 gigabyte of memory, dual 40 GB hard drives, and a high-resolution monitor. It also sports the latest powerful Nvidia GeForce graphics processor--a key feature on desktops that makes games like War Craft III look more realistic than the computer renderings in the movie Toy Story 2.

The machine from Falcon Northwest, a specialty PC maker, stands out for another reason: Its case shines with the same "Berlina Black" finish as Hamel's Honda. Falcon offers customers the option of painting a PC's case in automotive finishes, in any color or design, for an additional $400. Prices for a complete system vary--but none is low. Hamel didn't blink at paying $4,895. As he puts it: "Ferrari doesn't have a discount model, does it?"

Fear not, penny-pinchers. There are still plenty of spiffy mid-range PCs out there for people on a Saturn budget. Last January, Apple reminded the industry that style counts when it released the eye-catching iMac, currently priced from $1,199 to $1,999. Gateway responded with its Profile 4, retailing from $999 to $1,999. Like the iMac, the Windows-based Profile showcases a liquid-crystal display, but the screen's casing contains disk drives, processor, and other paraphernalia. And in September, Sony unveiled a $1,500 VAIO PVC-W10 widescreen desktop with a stowaway keyboard that flips up to provide extra space when you're not working.

Even PCs on the cheap can do an owner proud. At less than $1,000, PCs from Dell and HP provide decent processing power for today's business applications. At $899, the iBuyPower Value XP PC also is a great buy, although it lacks some of the frills of higher-priced models, such as networking cards for high-speed Internet access.

To put more people in a buying mood, technology advancements in desktops are coming fast and furious. PCs are being used to record and store TV shows. They're becoming the brains of home networks. And they're turning into virtual music and film studios. Good software helps, but the hardware also has drastically improved. A year ago, the most powerful desktop topped out at 1.8 GHz. Chipmaker Intel (INTC ) on Nov. 14 is expected to release a Pentium 4 chip that inches past the 3 GHz barrier, making it easier for PCs to run several heavy-duty programs at once.

The trick is balancing price against benefits, says San Francisco attorney Todd Norris. In September, he discovered after buying a new digital camera that he needed to replace his wheezy HP Pavilion, which ran at a turtle-like 233 MHz. Norris listened politely while a sales representative droned on about the bells and whistles on an expensive Sony model. Then he settled on an HP Pavilion with a 2.4-GHz Pentium 4 chip for $1,800. "I wanted a computer that can download screens and data quickly. And I got it at what I thought was a reasonable price," Norris says.

Price aside, it's important to sort out what uses you'll have for a desktop. Major manufacturers, including Dell, HP, Apple, and Gateway, typically include a rewriteable CD drive that allows you to burn music disks for your car or portable player. This is possible even with low-end models like the $549 HP Presario, which sports an Athlon XP 1800+ chip and 40-GB hard drive, and the $699 Dell Dimension 2300, one of our highest-rated budget machines.

PC makers understand that the digital revolution has breathed new life and new art into home-movie making. Nearly 10% of all users work with video editing software, up from zilch a year ago, according to the 2002 Odyssey Homefront Study, and 41% are editing pictures. That's why some PCs also include secondary drives that allow you to burn DVDS. About 18% of the desktops sold today include recordable DVD drives. By 2005, the number is expected to grow to more than 60%, according to Gartner Dataquest.

Choosing the right PC boils down to figuring out what you want to do--and living with what you pay for. Cheaper PCs can perform admirably, but likely will be far slower at multimedia tasks than more expensive models. Still thinking about those flashy notebooks that go everywhere? Remember: Desktops offer more capability--at a better price.

By Cliff Edwards

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