If you haven't noticed, we've been providing a lot of holiday shopping advice for the computer geeks of the world this week. So far, we've covered most of the major components: motherboards, memory, graphics cards, displays, and power supplies and cases. We still have a few component guides remaining, but plenty of people would just as soon avoid dealing with the hassle and instead purchase a prebuilt system. There's nothing wrong with doing that, and in some cases you can actually get a reasonable system for less money than it would cost to build the same system on your own (although without some of the upgradability and/or quality). So that's the topic for this article.

One question some of you are inevitably asking is: why all these holiday shopping guides when Christmas is less than a week away? Should we have posted these earlier in the month? Certainly we won't dispute that earlier might have been better, but it's also important to remember that holiday shopping doesn't end with Christmas. Plenty of people will get cash and will be looking for a good deal after Christmas, and there's no reason why you can't try to return that ugly sweater to Wal-Mart and trade it in for a game or some computer hardware instead.

Keep in mind that all of the pricing we discuss in this article is at the time of writing, and around the holidays it's not unusual to see a ton of flux as sales come and go. Don't be afraid to shop around, as we can pretty much guarantee that someone is going to come out with a better price/performance system than some of our choices; it's the nature of the beast. And if you would just as soon put together a system yourself, don't worry -- we will have a guide tailored towards system builders in the near future.

Today, we are going to be looking at four different options: an entry-level system, a midrange system, a high-end system, and a small form factor system. We searched around at some of the major OEMs as well as the smaller system builders and have come up with a pared down list of candidates. We certainly aren't going to try and pretend that these are the only four system builders worth consulting, but instead we provide these as a baseline of what you might look for in the market and what you can expect to pay. Customer service, support, and system warranty are all factors to consider as well, so look at some of the company reviews available online before taking the plunge.

And with that out of the way, let's begin by looking at entry-level system.

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  • JarredWalton - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Actually, that is *NOT* the case anymore. Dell specifically talked to me about this at last CES: for sure on their XPS models, they now use a 100% standard ATX power supply. It's possible that decision doesn't extend to the Vostro line, but I do know for a fact that the XPS 620 I have uses a standard ATX PSU. In fact, I think even my old XPS 410 used a standard ATX PSU, and that was ~3 years ago.
  • tacoburrito - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Some XPS models (possibly all?) use the BTX-form motherboards. I have the XPS 410 myself and it has a BTX MB. XPS models with the BTX MB might use a different power connector that only Dell suppled PSU can connect. This question was posed in a computer publication (I don't remeber which; it might be Smart Computing) less than 6 months ago and the reply from the magazine editorial was Dell's MB might not work with any standard PSU.

    it is also very possible that Dell is now using standard parts for all their newer systems. If that is the case, this thread is moot.
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, December 23, 2008 - link

    BTX in this case is merely an arrangement of internal parts; BTX motherboards still use ATX power supplies, unless the vendor decides to make something proprietary. Dell has told me outright that they have moved away from using proprietary PSU connectors, and as far as I can tell the PSU in the XPS 410, XPS 620, and XPS 720 H2C I looked at, and quite a few other non-XPS systems all use normal ATX PSUs now. (Thank goodness!)
  • Matt Campbell - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    I searched through some forums before writing that, and several of them all stated that the Vostro 220 uses a standard ATX supply. I can't be 100% sure since I don't have one myself, but our Inspiron 530 has a standard ATX supply, and as Jarred says I believe they've been moving towards that in general.
  • Pr1mus - Tuesday, December 30, 2008 - link

    I've done PSU swaps on many of them, and both the Vostro 200 and 400 series use standard ATX PSUs. We generally throw Corsair PSUs in when we can.
  • Matt Campbell - Friday, January 16, 2009 - link

    Thanks for the update! Helpful for those looking.
  • MalVeauX - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link


    Largely the reason there's no HTPC extravaganza is because exactly what was just mentioned. There's just too many codecs, hardware problems, questionable means of digitizing a media source, software issues for playback (it's hard to have a single piece of software that can do it all; not even VLC can do it all perfectly). A lot of the software is open source, but a lot is pay as well; and in the end, building a HTPC might be cheap hardware wise, but it gets costly when you start to use real software (compared to pirated/freesource).

    Then there's this one thing: simplicity. HTPC's are never simple. Someone who wants to sit back, click on the tube, and browse their collection while watching some HD content at the same time will have to keep maintenance, fix it, and make sure all the new things work with what they have. It's not nearly as simple as just putting in a disc or tuning into an HD channel with a hardware solution.

    HTPC's are generally for the enthusiast who is willing to put in the time and effort to know the system, know the hardware, know the media, and be able to fine tune and cope with codecs and `ripping' of sources. Not everyone can do that confidently. And that's why you don't see massive tech sites displaying new cases and systems for HTPC. It's a tiny market. There is however big forum communities for it (google will reveal them).

    Very best,
  • The0ne - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    For reasons you've mentioned already this is why I still use my main PC to output all music/video content. It's just not as simple I would like it to be and I really don't want to spend my weekends keeping maintenance or debugging problems. My co-worker has a fantastic setup but using myth-tv but when things don't work right it's a nightmare. I wish they were simplere but they're not. For now a Phillips DVD upscaling player that allows attachment of USB drives is easier :)
  • QChronoD - Friday, December 19, 2008 - link

    Is there a good option out there for a powerful but QUIET playback machine. Doesn't necessarily need space for tuners, but something small that can handle 1080p H.264 or anything else you could throw at it.

    Also hope that you guys put together a guide on HTPCs in all its glory. The net is severely lacking in a competent comparison of all the 10-foot interfaces, and the bazillion drivers and codecs needed to get anything more than .avi and .wmv to work. Please, please, please, look at the extenders and tell us if any can actually handle what formats (i.e. do they work with all my .mkv anime? can they play all DVD backups [yes i own the discs])
  • aeternitas - Thursday, December 25, 2008 - link

    Here are my steps to create a silent system that can play just about anything you throw at it at 1080i/p.

    Its complicated and long so try and pay attention.

    1. Build a silent cheap ($500) dual core system.
    2. Search "Community Codec Pack" online. Download. Install.

    The reason there isnt many guides for this is the fact it is not complicated. Plug the PC into a TV.

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