Engadget's Holiday Gift Guide: Desktops

Welcome to the Engadget Holiday Gift Guide! The team here is well aware of the heartbreaking difficulties of the seasonal shopping experience, and we want to help you sort through the trash and come up with the treasures this year. Below is today's bevy of hand curated picks, and you can head back to the Gift Guide hub to see the rest of the product guides as they're added throughout the holiday season.

Desktops don't get much love these days, what with newfangled "laptops" hogging all the spotlight, but it's still an incredibly vibrant category, full of cutthroat competition, insanely powerful computers, and superfluous LED lighting. The result is tons of hot deals, particularly if you don't mind bringing your own monitor, wrangling wires behind an entertainment center, or being chained to a desk. In return you'll get performance that simply isn't possible on a laptop, expandability should you choose take advantage of it, and so many hot deals. Follow along after the break as we show you some of our favorites.

Stocking stuffers

When Dell first introduced the Zino HD it seemed like a mere riff on the Mac mini, but Dell has "pulled a Dell" and continually ramped up the features while slashing the price. This new model is perfect for plugging into a TV for use as your living room's media hub, or for traditional lightweight computing duties. For a brand name PC the price is hard to beat, and the form factor is as lovable as ever.

Key Specs: 2.3GHz AMD Athlon II V140, integrated ATI graphics, 2GB of RAM, 250GB HDD, optional Blu-ray drive, optional wireless keyboard and mouse

Price: Starts at $299

Zotac Zbox HD
- Starts at $399

Sure, the Zino HD is a steal, but you'll have to shell out a lot more than $299 if you want Blu-ray as well. The Zotac Zbox HD solves that with a Blu-ray drive in the base model. Better yet, the beautiful hardware design is tossed in for free.

Dell Studio XPS 7100 - Starts at $499

If you're shopping for someone with technical chops that might want to customize and expand their computer's abilities in the future, the XPS 7100 is a real bargain. Sure, it's a little drab and large, but there's a world of potential under that gray shell.

Oh, you shouldn't have

The age of the touchscreen desktop isn't quite at hand, but HP's TouchSmart 310 offers more than just a touchscreen in its all-in-one form factor. HP has some of the best basic software for a shared "family" PC, which hides away some of the complexity of Windows, offers a pretty interface for services like Netflix and Hulu, and is particularly great for kids who want to dive in fingers first.

Key Specs: 20-inch touchscreen, 2.8GHz Athlon II 240e, 4GB of RAM, integrated graphics, 1TB HDD

Starts at $699

Mac mini
- Starts at $699

It's hard to call the Mac mini a steal (the price doesn't even include a keyboard or mouse!), but it's the cheapest Mac available on the market, beautifully designed, and a wonderful addition to a home entertainment center.

Velocity Micro Vector Holiday Edition

- Starts at $849

Got a gamer hoping for something a bit more than the XPS 7100? Velocity Micro's "Holiday Edition" Vector might do the trick. If you find the myriad of custom options overwhelming, we'd suggest providing a budget to your gift recipient and letting him or her spec this thing out. If he's ultra nerdy you might consider just handing over the check and letting him build his own PC from scratch. It's educational, we swear!

We can't afford the rent now, can we?

For not much more than the cost of adding a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to the Mac mini you can get a lot more power in the iMac, along with a very high quality display. It's one of the most beautiful computers on the market, and should make any Mac lover that's looking for a bit more performance than their MacBook can offer very, very happy.

Key Specs: 3.06GHz Intel Core i3, 4GB of RAM, 500GB HDD, DVD drive, ATI Radeon HD 4670 graphics

Price: Starts at $1199

But what about a Windows PC past the $1,000 mark? We're glad you asked...

Taking matters into your own hands

Up above $1,000 in the PC space is a wild land, full of wonderful possibilities. It can also be a little scary. After all, almost every single PC in this guide can be easily specced past the $1k mark -- it's a breeze to double or triple the price with a few quick clicks in a choice-ridden configurator. We can't teach you everything, and in fact if you really feel out of your depth we suggest just giving your potential gift recipient a check and suggesting they go to town building their own computer or configuring it themselves. Still, if you want to give it a crack yourself, here are some of the brands we trust and a few tips for getting the most performance and quality for your buck.

When pure performance isn't as important as getting all the computer you need for less than $500, big brands are pretty much your only bet. Past the $1,000 mark, however, and particularly when you glide past $2k and on into the stratosphere, boutique manufacturers are building the fastest computers, and they're building them to last, usually with specific gaming optimizations. Here our some of our favorites of both types:

Big names:


You can spend infinity dollars on every spec under the sun, but here are some of the tried-and-true methods for improving gaming and application performance:

Core i7 or overclocked Core i5 processor. Core i7 is Intel's fastest out of the box, but some manufacturers overclock the cheaper Core i5 for better performance in some applications. Of course, the Core i7 can be overclocked as well, if you really want to go wild.

Multiple hard drives. One of the biggest bottlenecks to computer performance is the hard drive. There are a few ways to help alleviate this. Naturally, the first stop is buying a quality, high speed drive (Western Digital comes highly recommended). One of the cheapest ways to vastly improve your throughput, however, is to buy a second drive and have them set up by the system builder in a RAID 0 configuration. Alternatively, if you're comfortable with fewer GB for your dollar, a Solid State Drive (SSD) from Intel or OCZ can really pep things up -- and of course, maximum geek cred for putting SSD in a RAID 0 setup.

Multiple GPUs. This is a rapidly iterating, highly competitive industry, so it's best to read up on some recent reviews before you make the plunge. Still, here's the view from the afternoon of Friday, December 17th: NVIDIA's GTX 580 is currently the best single-GPU card you can get, though if your budget is unlimited and you know where to find one, AMD's Radeon HD 5970 is the best single thing available. Cheaper NVIDIA cards are also worth a look in a SLI setup -- two GTX 460 cards is a particularly good buy, with almost double the performance of a single 460. AMD is going to be putting out its followup to the 5970 before too long, and if you absolutely must have the best, you might want to get something cheaper right now while you wait around for that.

Beefy power supply. Most system builders will make sure you have an appropriate power supply for the job at hand, but it's worth making sure it's up to snuff. In the long run, like most things, it's worth paying up front for quality and efficiency. Corsair comes highly recommended, and you should be looking at a 1kW unit if you've got multiple GPUs to power.

Classy case.
Not every gamer is a 13-year-old anymore, or even a 13-year-old at heart. Still, for some reason, most of the boutiques and even a lot of the big name case designs are all about pleasing this LED and pizazz-obsessed, puberty-ridden phantom. Obviously you know your gift target better than we do, and he very well may be in the formative Dragon Ball Z years, but if you can we suggest erring on the conservative side, case design-wise. You might even save a few bucks.

High-end cooling. You're going to need something to handle all that heat from your souped up CPU and myriad graphics cards. Most configuration systems suggest appropriate cooling for your level of specs, but just a word of warning if you're trying to blow stuff out: liquid cooling can be great, but only the best liquid cooling. If it's a suspiciously cheap selection, it's not going to be worth the maintenance and other hassles in the long run. It might not even cool as well as a good fan system.

Brand name memory. Most systems don't really need much more than 8GB of RAM, but 8GB is a huge boost over lower quantities. Corsair is the main brand to look for.

Network card. Looking for the cherry on top? Professional gamers swear by the Killer 2100 network interface card to reduce ping times. Most people won't be able to notice the difference, but it's a really nice touch either way.