Desktops For The Power Player

Speed and storage are the Holy Grail for gamers and music, TV, and film collectors

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Laptops are the computer of choice for most college students. But design, film, and engineering students, not to mention anyone with a serious gaming habit or the desire to store several seasons' worth of 24, will need the brawn that only a desktop delivers.

Hard-core gamers and power users flock to the custom PC boutiques, such as Falcon Northwest, VoodooPC, as well as Alienware, now part of Dell (DELL ). Why? They like the companies' attention to detail, customer service, and outlandish designs.

Falcon's flagship PC is the Mach V. Loaded with the fastest pro cessor chips from Intel (INTC ) and NVIDIA's (NVDA ) top-of-the-line graphics processor, the machine will run you $3,272 in a basic silver case. But with more upgrade options than you can shake a joystick at -- a faster graphics card, an extra hard drive, or a better sound system -- you can easily push that price to more than five Gs. One unique extra: a custom, hand-painted case to match the color of, say, your car or the logo of your favorite band (mostly $150-$450, with some elaborately detailed designs climbing much higher). If that package is too steep, you can always choose Falcon's Talon, which can be had for less than $1,900, though that's without a fancy case or as many options.

VoodooPC pushes performance -- and price -- right to the boundary of reason, and then some. Its Omen i:121 Extreme machines can set you back $6,000. But you may never have to buy a new computer again as long as you're willing to open the case and replace the processor and graphics chips with company-supplied upgrades. The liquid-cooled Extreme actually sloshes when you move it, and you can see the cooling system in action though the tempered-glass picture window on the side of the box. Does it work? You bet: The computer is so quiet it makes the giant fans on rival Alienware's flagship sound like jet engines.

You probably won't shop for a computer without at least looking into what you can get from Dell. Its new XPS lineup is aimed squarely at gamers. The XPS 410, launched in July, starts at $1,595 and sports the newest Intel Core 2 Duo processor. Out of the box it works with both Windows XP and Windows Media Center and is ready for Microsoft's (MSFT ) forthcoming Windows Vista, now scheduled to be released to consumers in early 2007.

If you plan to use your PC for watching and recording TV and movies and building a video archive, which is the whole idea behind Windows XP Media Center, you might be better off with an HP. Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ) has pushed the concept of the entertainment PC further than anyone. Its Pavilion m7560y, which starts at $899, comes with removable hard drives that can be popped in and out while you're using the computer. HP calls them personal media drives, and you can buy as many as you need. Prices depend on capacity and range from $150 to $350.

EASIER ON THE WALLET

You don't need that kind of limitless storage? Take a look at Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion Slimline s7500 series, which starts at $449. Physically, it's a third the size of the regular Pavilion, and if you pony up for the $60 TV tuner, you can still use it to watch and record televison shows.

Finally, don't rule out the Mac, if only because it's almost entirely immune to the viruses and other nastyware that plague the Windows world. Now that the Apple line uses chips from Intel, it meshes more comfortably -- when needed -- with the Windows-centric college environment. The Mac Mini -- about the size of a tissue box -- starts at $599; the iMac, built around a flat-panel screen, at $1,299. If you're interested in the Apple flagship, though, hold off: The replacement for the PowerMac G5, which will feature the Intel processor, will be out before the end of August.

By Arik Hesseldahl

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