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Most freshmen show up on campus with slim laptop PCs tucked into their backpacks. Not Ian Axelrod. When the 18-year-old Atlantan enrolls at Georgia Institute of Technology in the fall, he'll have a $3,600 desktop tower that won't leave his dorm room until school is out. Axelrod's passion is Quake III, an online game in which a few megahertz can make the difference between life and a grisly virtual death. "I couldn't see myself gaming on a laptop," he says. "It's just not enough power."
Don't stress, parents. Just because your kids want desktops doesn't mean they share Axelrod's priorities. Choosing a desk-bound PC can be a smart move even in this age of wireless mobility. Budding engineers can use desktops' superior horsepower as much as gamers, while multimedia enthusiasts will love their smooth and speedy multitasking.
Because desktops are a lot cheaper than comparable laptops, it can pay to give up portability. A basic, name-brand PC with a CRT monitor and printer can be had for as little as $299 now -- an entire system for the price of an iPod. For less than $550 (including flat-panel monitor), the eMachines T4010 will hold up admirably through four years of college. If you want to stick to a budget without cutting corners, consider the iBuyPower Value-Pro ($999 also with monitor), which easily does every computing job except for extreme gaming.
A low-priced PC doesn't have to be plain vanilla. Take the WinBook PowerSpec MCE 410, which stands for Windows XP Media Center Edition. Housed in a slim black cabinet no bigger than an audio receiver, it comes with a sexy 30-inch HDTV-ready wide-screen display, making it also an entry-level home theater system for only $1,898. The software records TV shows à la TiVo (TIVO ), burns music onto the 160-gigabyte hard drive or the double-layer DVD drive, and shows off slide shows of digital photos -- all via an easy-to-use remote control.
Of course, there are Media Center laptops on the market. But aspiring media mavens demand the powerful processors, huge hard drives, and expansion and connection options that let them create digital content as well as view it. "For media, consumers feel more comfortable using a desktop," says Giovanni Sena, marketing manager at Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ).
HP's $1,150 Media Center m7170n Photosmart PC is one of the best, thanks to several nifty features. Behind a sliding door on top of the mini-tower is a well that holds a dock for an iPod or digital camera. In front, there's a slot for HP's $189 personal media drive, a book-size 160 GB hard disk that's great for backing up your photo, music, or video library. When you pop it out, you can connect it to other PCs by a cable. But the coolest gizmo is LightScribe, which prints words, photos, or album art onto special CDs that run $6 for a pack of five. That's about two or three times the cost of generic CD-Rs that you write on with a Sharpie pen.
The m7170n also comes with the only true advancement in desktops this year: a dual-core processor. Both Intel (INTC ) and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD ) have rolled out new chips, the Pentium D and Athlon 64 X2, respectively, with two computing engines inside instead of the usual one. That makes simultaneously doing more than one demanding task, such as editing digital video while running a virus scan, faster and smoother. Choosing a Pentium D adds $75 to the $899 base price of a Dell (DELL ) Dimension 9100, one of the best all-around desktops on the market because of the seemingly limitless ways that you can configure it and a new design that is cooler, quieter, and more attractive.
Unfortunately, the most serious gamers now demand another kind of dual power: two graphics cards. Thanks to technology from chipmaker Nvidia (NVDA ), twin video processors can now work together to render 3-D images faster and more realistically for movie-like effects in games.
Be prepared to pay through the nose for this feature. The Overdrive PC Torque SLI, one of the fastest such systems, costs $5,000 -- not including the optional cost of custom painting by a Ferrari body shop. A slightly less expensive option is the Velocity Micro Gamer's Edge DualX for $4,350.
Most desktops are dull and utilitarian in appearance, but one alternative boasts enough aesthetic appeal to interest a psych class. Apple Computer's (AAPL ) eye-catching iMac G5 isn't for hard-core gamers or media freaks, but it's still the best-looking computer of any kind. And the gleaming white all-in-one design, which houses the guts of the computer behind an LCD screen, has all the power most students will need. Apple has made two flavors of wireless networking standard in the Mac: Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, which makes it a breeze to wirelessly sync up many handhelds and cell phones or connect cordless peripherals.
At $1,799, the 20-inch wide-screen version isn't cheap, but it easily displays two pages of a term paper at a time or quietly show DVDs at high resolution. If a smaller display will suffice, the 17-inch is a good value at $1,299. If you want the zen of Apple at a budget price, consider the $500 Mac Mini, though the processor is slower than the iMac and you'll have to supply your own monitor, mouse, and keyboard.
Still, looks are only skin deep. It's the software that makes the Mac difference. Macs are sold bundled with an assortment of excellent multimedia programs, called iLife, and the OS X 10.4 operating system, known as Tiger. A new feature called Spotlight allows you to instantly search your entire computer for files based on a range of criteria while working in any application, and the iChat AV video-conferencing software can smoothly connect up to four people via Webcam.
At the touch of a button, the new Dashboard application overlays an array of Web-based utilities called Widgets, such as an English dictionary for defining words and another for translating them into a foreign language. Apple released Tiger with just 14 Widgets, but made them easy to write so there are now some 900, including one that converts any sentence into the backward syntax used by Yoda, the diminutive green hero from Star Wars. As the Jedi master himself might say, "Cool, that is."
By Andrew Park