Buying a PC that looks great – both inside and out

Computers come in many different guises; some barely resemble a PC at all. We’ve had it with plain-vanilla and boring black machines, and we’ve gone designer.

Here’s how to get a PC that looks great and works great.

Coming up with distinctive-looking systems makes sense for manufacturers.

It’s no secret that margins on computers are next to nothing and that both desktop and laptop PCs are sold at not much more than cost price. Instead of competing on price, computer manufacturers are forced to make their offerings stand out in other ways. Increasingly, they’re doing so by appealing to our vanity and sense of self.

A PC may not be able to outdo its rivals in terms of number-crunching capabilities, hard drive size or the number of peripherals that can be plugged into it at once, but it can become memorable in other ways.

Whether you should fall for the intangible charms of an individualistic machine is a question we will explore.

General PC buying advice

Buying a PC can be a confusing process, even if your needs are as simple as a decent processor, generous hard disk, good-sized screen, keyboard and mouse. Knowing where you can afford to scrimp comes with experience — and bitter hindsight.

You may have chosen the meatiest dual-core processor and the latest graphics card, but if you’re stuck with 1GB or less of RAM then those fancy programs you’ve bought will struggle to run. Forking out for extra memory probably wasn’t part of your plan.

The same is true of the systems here: they may squeeze a PC into a housing the size of an orange juice carton, but if your size-zero system has a scant gigabyte or two of flash memory then it won’t be much cop as an entertainment center.

If your off-the-wall PC is to be used for work as well as leisure, ensure the basic specifications include a 2GHz or faster processor — dual-core is a near must unless you’re choosing a Linux-based model. Several hundred gigabytes of storage will also be helpful although, as long as there are free USB 2.0 or FireWire ports, external storage is an option.

If it’s going to be running Vista at any point in its life, a 256MB dedicated graphics card supporting DirectX 10.0 should also be considered.

To get anything done in a hurry, you’ll ideally want 2GB of DDR RAM. If it’s to be more of an occasionally used curiosity, you’ll want to be able to swap screens and plug in or add a supplementary hard drive.

For the meanest system around, you’ll want to keep up with friends’ super-specced systems and make frequent upgrades to your powerhouse, beefing up the graphics, the power supply and the cooling setup.

Upgrades can be a problem for compact PCs and notebooks; with all-in-one systems there’s the added problem of what happens if the screen flakes out or your needs outgrow it. In a fixed environment — a kitchen or somewhere with a finite, inflexible space — a single-unit setup such as HP’s TouchSmart can be a brilliant option, but we wouldn’t recommend it as the basis of a family home entertainment system. You’re sure to want a larger screen.

Opting to buy a specialist system immediately narrows down your options, but that doesn’t mean you should content yourself with a standard tower system. And even if you do decide that power and up-to-date specs are more important than quirky design, you can always personalize your PC with a distinctive paint job such as Commodore Gaming’s C-Kins.
Pimp my PC

You don’t have to buy a whole new PC to attain a more memorable-looking machine. A few cosmetic changes can make a huge difference — and not just to its looks. The most obvious update is to the exterior.

It’s not just cars that lend themselves to being ‘pimped’. You can give your dull-grey box an outrageous makeover too. Rather than simply replacing a plastic case with a more durable brushed-aluminium one, you can make a statement while you’re at it.

If you’re not keen on replacing your PC’s case, but do want to give it a whole new look, red, green or blue LEDs and cathode-ray tubes running along its exterior could be just the ticket.

LCD graphic displays that reside in a spare hard-drive bay slot also have the benefit of keeping you informed of how hot or cool your PC is running – critical if you’ve installed dual graphics cards and overclocked things to the max.

Super-skinny models

For most of us, there’s far more cachet in understated style.

Apple’s MacBook Air is an obvious example. While Apple’s claim that it’s the thinnest notebook around seems a little spurious, there’s no arguing about the cachet that its products have, nor the appeal of an extremely light laptop.

The Air comes with either a 1.6GHz or 1.8GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, an 80GB hard disk and 802.11n Wi-Fi. If you want to be really flash, a 64GB flash memory-based version is also available.

Famously, the MacBook Air has no optical drive, which some will find an issue, but if you’re after some iconic eye-candy and want to avoid the risk of broken fingernails, the light-as-a-feather Air may well do.

The other ultra-desirable brand in the laptop stakes is Sony’s Vaio range, now expanded to cover more than laptops. If it’s an ultraportable model you’re after, the TZ range is what you need. These are 11in laptops that weigh just 1.24kg (undercutting the Air’s 1.3kg) and come with optical drives as well as Wi-Fi and generous hard disks.

Entertainment today

Attaching any PC to a flashy screen — perhaps a vast widescreen LCD or plasma — will immediately add to its entertainment credentials, although you’d do well to check on the amount of noise the machine makes in general operation. There’s a market for inaudible machines for good reason.

Just as importantly, look for support for high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) and high-bandwidth digital content protection (HDCP) — important standards for the latest high-definition content and the hardware that can play it.

Some entertainment-focused PCs have connections for Scart leads and S-Video, as well as the more usual digital visual interconnect (DVI) and component audio and video ports. If you really want a multimedia PC that works with your set-top box, plasma screen and so on, you’ll want some of these options.

Hi-Grade is about to update its DMS digital home range of compact base units with digital connectors, while Sony is making moves to bring more esoteric items into its Vaio desktop range — including the rebranded Vaio LocationFree Base Station, which enables you to push TV and video content between machines over a web connection.

The problem with buying into the very latest technologies became apparent with the recent demise of HD DVD. Blu-ray fans may crow, but anyone with a pricey HD DVD player in their PC shouldn’t worry too much.

HD DVD drives will continue to work and prices for such titles will no doubt plummet. Furthermore, optical drives in PCs are easily replaceable. Even so, it will have been an expensive lesson for some, demonstrating why having a decent broadband connection in a media-centric system is a good idea: movie downloads and online rentals don’t bind you in the same way.

Games fans keen to impress friends might also consider a cutting-edge display such as Zalman’s 3D Gaming Monitor. For less in-your-face entertainment, a screen that supports ‘true’ 1,080p HD playback with a response time of 2ms will do wonders for your viewing and gaming pleasure. Upscaled and 720p screens simply aren’t on a par.

All-in-one approach

About the same time that Microsoft decided it was a good idea to work with hardware manufacturers on a standard-issue set of components for media-center PCs, several companies decided to combine the lot to make single-unit systems. While these appear to combine the benefits of a laptop and a desktop PC, they can also be restrictive in terms of placement and upgradability.

A better bet are systems that combine the main base unit with the screen. Gateway’s ONE system is a good example, as is Apple’s iMac with its glorious 24in flatscreen.

You can position your monitor well away from the keyboard, making work more comfortable, although such screens tend to be less height- and tilt-adjustable than most LCDs.

And now for something completely different

Most of the options we’ve looked at here are unusual takes on fairly standard PC designs, with various elements hidden, miniaturized or proudly shown off, depending on its purpose and its owner’s personality.

More radical designs are in the offing too, however. Most notably, there are efforts to open up computing to the developing world and the less able — hence the appearance of Linux-based machines and systems such as the OLPC XO, Gateway’s ONE and the Intel Classmate.

Last year, Dixons Store Group showed off a carbon-neutral wooden PC while some distinctively non PC-like designs resulted from Microsoft’s Next Gen PC design competition, including a modular tree design.

Finally, if your thirst for quirky computing has yet to be sated, we urge you to take a look at our feature on the future of the PC and our quirky predictions for computing’s evolution over the next two decades.

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