11-step buyers' guide to designer PCs

If you're tired of plain-vanilla and boring black machines, it's time to go designer and get a PC that looks good, 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 good, both inside and out.

Take a stroll along London's Tottenham Court Road or the equivalent electronics heartland of any other British city and you'll be struck by just how many guises a PC can assume.

Showrooms may be chock-a-block with hulking PC towers and plastic cases housing cheaply assembled bargain machines, but the store windows are crammed with garishly lit models that look little like those that usually feature in PC Advisor's charts.

A neon striplight here; a glowing, pulsating orb there; a multicolored, apparently gyrating fan announcing itself inside yet another, Perspex-sided case. These are the style statements of the committed PC enthusiast.

Elsewhere, the PC has morphed into a buttonless box, controlled by remote control and paired with an almost comically large flat-panel or plasma screen, reflecting the fact that consumer electronics companies are pushing the entertainment credentials of computing.

Still others make a statement in an entirely different way. A couple of doors further down the street, sleek, unobtrusive lines are the main selling points as desktop systems vie for desirability with super-slim laptops. The much-maligned grey box still exists, but if you want a PC that breaks the mold, there's plenty of choice.

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.

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Rosemary Haworth

PC Advisor (UK)

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