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Dell desktops head to the top of the heap

The Alienware X51 (*Est. $650 and up) from Dell is a trim, tapered desktop that shows you don't need a giant tower for PC gaming. It squeezes an Intel Ivy Bridge Core i3 processor, 6 GB of RAM, a DVD burner, a 1 TB hard drive and NVIDIA GeForce GT 640 graphics into a slim, sassy box hardly bigger than a gaming console. The discrete graphics card that you won't find standard in other budget-priced desktops certifies this as a gaming machine.

The Alienware X51 racked up a PCMag.com's Editors' Choice award for entry-level gaming desktop PCs, a Hot Hardware Editor's Choice award and both an Editors Choice and Good for Gaming awards at Computer Shopper. Experts either love this desktop -- or love it a whole lot.  And yes, it does more than game. Reviewers say it has the muscle to slam through everyday computing and hold its own on multimedia benchmarks even in the base configuration. But bear in mind, most reviewers tested step-up versions with Core i5 or Core i7 processors, more powerful graphics cards and a Blu-Ray/ DVD burner that add significant cost to the bottom line.

The computer's case is on the small side, and the standard 240-watt power supply comes in the form of an external brick; if you need more power for better graphics or other options, a 330-watt power brick is available as an option. That said, expansion possibilities are limited by the small chassis. If you want a solid-state drive, you'll have to switch out the hard drive post-purchase. And there's no memory card reader, though you can hook one up via a USB 3.0 port.

Still the Alienware X51 is highly recommended and delivers excellent mainstream gaming value.

The Dell XPS 8500 (*Est. $700 and up) also has its share of fans. Within its moderate size, it offers plenty of power. Don't expect anything earthshaking, just a worthy all-round desktop that can provide more than enough computing muscle.

The base model sports an Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 processor, 8 GB of memory, discrete NVIDIA graphics and 1 TB of storage. A solid choice for families and home businesses, it can whip through everyday computing, quickly transfer pictures and stream video without effort. Add a top of the line graphics card and you'll soar through the most demanding 3D games.

The bottom line can rapidly soar too in step-up configurations that boost processing power, double the RAM and triple the storage. You can even kick in a 256 GB solid-state drive for a burst of blazing speed. As reviewers report, those enhancements add up to overkill unless you're a dedicated gamer or graphics professional. Many users can safely stick with the base configuration for terrific performance when tackling everyday tasks.

The Dell XPS 8500 ships with the Windows 8 OS. You'll have to supply your own monitor and speakers.

Think of the sturdy Dell Vostro 470 (*Est. $550 and up) as the even more budget-friendly brother of the Dell XPS 8500. In their base configuration, these desktop computers share similar though not identical Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5 processors. But the entry model Dell Vostro 470 lacks a discrete graphics card, making it a lesser choice for gaming. Even if you add a discrete graphics card later on, don't expect to play above moderate video settings.

Winner of PCMag.com's Editors' Choice Award for enterprise-aimed PCs, the Dell Vostro 470 has enough versatility for all everyday tasks and most graphic chores, including some media rendering. It's not quite up to heavy-duty drafting. As with all these Dell systems, you'll have to pick up a monitor and speakers on your own. The Dell Vostro 470 which originally shipped with Windows 7 Professional is now available with Windows 8.

Lenovo cheap desktop computers draw praise, too

The Lenovo ThinkCentre M92p is a capable enough tower computer, but reviewers look at its alter ego, the Lenovo ThinkCentre M92p "tiny" (*Est. $650 and up), which offers the same guts, spec for spec, but in a case that only displaces a liter's worth of volume on a crowded desktop, says PCMag.com -- making it small compared to even other small computers, like the Mac mini. Don't be fooled by the system's small size, however, with an i5 Ivy Bridge processor, 4 MB of RAM, and a 500 GB hard drive, it's a more than competent business performer. Gamers, however, will need to look elsewhere.

Buyers on a budget might also want to consider the Lenovo H520s (*Est. $400 and up). In its base configuration, the H520s still relies on a previous-generation Sandy Bridge i3 core processor -- but that processor is still more than powerful enough for everyday use for home or business. The rest of the core features include a 1 TB hard drive, 4 GB of memory and, of course, Intel integrated graphics. Step up configurations bring newer, more powerful Ivy Bridge processors into the equation, but also add considerably to the bottom line.

Zotac offers a cheap home theater PC

While the tiny Zotac Zbox ID80 Plus (*Est. $325) can serve as a traditional, albeit low-power desktop computer, the best reason to buy it is for use as a home theater PC (HTPC) to stream and play back media. Easily mounted to the back of your TV or monitor or stacked upright in your entertainment rack, it delivers smooth performance with nary a sputter.

To start with the basics, the Zotac Zbox ID80 Plus comes equipped with a 2.13 GHz Intel Atom dual-core processor, a NVIDIA GT 520M graphics card, a 320 GB hard drive and 2 MB of RAM. For a power boost, add another 2 MB memory module in the empty slot, as reviewers generally recommend. The box also contains a plastic stand, a VESA mount with screws, a DVI-VGA adapter, an AC adapter, power cord, Wi-Fi antenna, driver disc and a media remote with USB IR receiver.

The Zbox ID80 Plus does ask a bit more from its users. For one thing, as shipped, it lacks an operating system. That's not as daunting as it may sound. You can install one from a USB stick or via your own external optical drive connected to a USB 3.0 port. ComputerShopper.com installs Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium without any problems. Other options include OpenELEC, a free version of Linux designed specifically for HTPC use.

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