Jed Rose began shopping for a PC earlier this summer, and he knew he wanted something different. The 23-year-old marketing manager for Microsoft craved a machine that would let him edit videos and play games, DVDs, or downloaded music -- with resolution and sound fidelity good enough to grace his large-screen TV and living room stereo. The prospect of a plain PC box in his Seattle apartment repelled him. "If you look at PCs from 10 years ago, there hasn't been much advancement in the cool factor," he says. "I didn't want an eyesore."
To get what he desired, Rose looked beyond the usual suspects. Due to industry consolidation, four companies -- Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Gateway, and eMachines -- supply roughly two-thirds of the home PCs sold in the U.S. Instead, Rose bought a Mini QBox 845-3000 from Polywell Computers in South San Francisco. The size of a small toaster oven, it has a grip on top so it can be easily taken to the office or to a "LAN party" where gamers get together to compete over a fast local area network. It has a metallic, industrial-hip design, with plexiglass sides illuminated by a blue-tinted inside light. "Frankly, I'm surprised Dell or Gateway don't have a product like this," says Rose, who paid $1,200, not including monitor, keyboard, or mouse. "Most of my friends are young technology enthusiasts. When they see it, they all say, 'Wow, this is cool."'
There are some universal rules of thumb for PC shoppers this holiday season. Now that there are finally easy ways to manage digital photos, buy songs, or rent movies online, you'll want at least 80 gigabytes of storage. The minimum amount of memory you should demand is 256 megabytes, though 512 MB is a safer bet. For the microprocessor, you'll want Intel's powerful Pentium 4 or Advanced Micro Devices' Athlon. (Intel's Celeron could slow you down if you try to do anything beyond word processing and other pedestrian tasks.) Still, don't bother buying the fastest models. A 3.2-GHz Pentium 4 costs around $300 more than a 2.8-GHz, and only gamers and other power users would be able to tell the difference in performance.
There are plenty of cool choices beyond the big brands. Apart from differences in style, outfits such as Polywell, Pacific NorthWest, and Alienware use a variety of strategies to squeeze optimal performance out of their PCs. Major players such as Apple, Sony, and Hewlett-Packard still do a better job developing families of products designed to work together -- say, a PC, photo printer, and digital camera for photography buffs. But in many ways, the small boutiques outshine them.
The no-name brands that make up most of our top picks have various ways of setting their machines apart. Gamers -- whose virtual lives can depend on whether their machine can outgun rival players -- have flocked to these brands because they're oftentimes built with higher performance components. But others can benefit, too. Rose says his Mini Qbox boots up in less than 10 seconds, partly because the machine isn't loaded down with the reams of prepackaged programs the bigger brands often add. The Mini Qbox also sports enough USB and FireWire ports to connect Rose's digital camera, camcorder, MP3 player, and wireless mouse, keyboard, and network. What's more, the premium he paid gets him personal service: When he has questions, he's routed to the same support person. This is Polywell's policy, unless that service rep is unavailable.
Brands large and small are focusing on models based on Microsoft's clunkily named Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 software. Media Center PCs are designed to be used while leaning back on the sofa rather than leaning forward over the keyboard. With a TV-style remote, you can look at digital photos, watch videos, or play music, either through a flat-panel monitor or a TV. Media Center PCs also mimic the popular TiVo personal video recorders, automatically storing your favorite TV shows for later viewing and allowing you to pause or rewind during live shows. The picture on many models remains inferior to that on the average TV. Still, Media Center will probably be one of the biggest trends in home computing by mid-decade.
Already, computer makers are unveiling Media Center models designed for places other than Dad's office or the desk in the kids' room. ZT Group International's pricey Home Theatre PC A5071 looks more like a high-end stereo than a PC. Gateway's new 610 Media Center PC has an appealing all-in-one design, with the PC stuffed behind the 17-inch wide-screen flat-panel monitor. There are cheaper versions that look more like garden-variety PCs. Dell and Gateway have already introduced Media Center PCs for around $1,000.
Shoppers will also have the option to buy a PC that's bundled with other products designed to work with it. Apple Computer has been packaging consumer gear with Macs for years, as has Sony with its Vaios. Hewlett-Packard is pushing digital-photography bundles, complete with a digital camera, photo printer, and related accessories. Gateway will offer bundles centered on video, and a music configuration will include Gateway's MP3 player and a month's subscription to the Napster 2.0 music service.
Many shoppers just want good value on a plain old PC. Sixteen-year-old Jacob Wolfe of Bethesda, Md., is perfectly happy with the eMachines Inc. PC his father bought him for $400 after rebates. "For everything I need to do, it works fine," he says.
So take the time to look beyond the big brands. Keith Sanders, a manufacturer's representative from Deptford, N.J., recently spent $1,500 for a PC from ABS Computer Technologies in Whittier, Calif. He bought a model with a 3 GHz processor, 80 gigabytes of storage, a video card for zippy graphics, and a 17-inch flat-panel display. "Dell wanted close to $2,000 for the same thing," he says. A former Dell customer, Sanders says ABS's phone support compared favorably with Dell's in recent years. For shoppers willing to do a bit of extra research, one of those unfamiliar brands may have your name on it. By Peter Burrows