While we at AnandTech recognize that a good portion of our readership prefers to roll their own as far as desktops go, not everyone is that way. Sometimes there are also situations where we'd be better off just recommending a pre-built desktop to family than damning ourselves to being tech support at all hours for the next few years. So whether you want to kick back for a change, send something to family or a friend, or whatever your reason for going with a pre-built system is, we have a recommendation for you this holiday season.

I hope you'll indulge me for a moment. Even working on this guide I can already see a lot of the comments that are going to pop up for it. The fact is, I'm at the point where I sometimes wish I'd been able to just recommend a desktop to family members rather than building one and shipping it, or building one and then having to move away, or whatever the case may be. So for those of you that are able to build a machine on your own, I've no doubt that you can build a lot of these cheaper/better than the manufacturer or boutique can, but that's not really the point. There are myriad situations where a pre-built system is going to be a better choice, so many corner cases that it's not realistic to just say, "Well I could build it or you should find a friend that can." Trust me, if you're of that inclination, this guide simply isn't for you. If you're interested in our DIY recommendations, our Holiday 2011 Budget Guide is already posted, and we'll be following up with midrange and high-end guides in the near future.

However, if you're looking for a good recommendation for a pre-built desktop for this holiday season, you've come to the right place. While recommending notebooks has been pretty easy for us, the notebook market isn't quite as fluid as desktops can be. It's easy to target one thing or another, but the desktop market can be very gray. How do you really define midrange? What's overkill for a high end system? How low do you go on a budget system before it just isn't worth buying anymore? Trying to even target a certain price point can be nigh impossible; all of these machines can be configured within a massive range of prices from the manufacturer or boutique.

I've broken down desktop solutions into six categories: All-in-One, Budget, Budget Gaming, Midrange, High End, and LAN Machine. There's bound to be some overlap, but with these I've tried very hard to only recommend systems or at least boutiques I've reviewed and have experience with, and made an effort to recommend what I think is the most sensible configuration. If you have any other recommendations, by all means, that's what the comments are here for. I've also elected against including an HTPC recommendation; this is something that feels a bit hazy sometimes as even a PlayStation 3 can oftentimes handle HTPC duties for less demanding users. While I've built my own HTPC, my needs there are fairly rudimentary and I'd be doing our HTPC and media streaming enthusiasts a disservice by making some kind of recommendation.

Now, with all that rigamarole out of the way, on with the show!

All-in-One and Budget Desktops
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  • ckryan - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    Concerning the opening disclaimer, often times it's just a better idea to recommend a pre-build system for friends and family (especially lower-end systems for your less technically-inclined family members). And when geography gets in the way, that goes double.

    Fact is, when you add in the Windows license, it's sometimes hard to actually build lower-end systems cheaper. Even if price weren't a factor, building and shipping systems and then supporting them for your distant family members is just not worth the trouble. I learned that lesson the hard way recently, as even the most ridiculously simple problems quickly spiral out of hand. True, a budget system might have a much more generous warranty on each part than the manufacturer's paltry P&L offering, but try explaining that to your lil' sister 450 miles away when her system that you built her just died.

    Obviously, if you're building something more than a dual-core and IGP system you may wish to consider your options. But I for one have come back around to the idea of buying pre-built systems for family and friends as the situation arises. I outfitted a family member with a slimline HP Llano system (the system I built for her died from a motherboard failure -- which is now my fault apparently) so I wouldn't have to FedEx a system back and forth.

    When the HP dies, she can take it up with them.

    Totally worth it.
  • Eugene86 - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    Yep, did the same thing a few times now except that I ordered a Dell for them. As much as I love building systems, it's not worth the hassle if something goes wrong because it's automatically YOUR fault...
  • Grandpa - Thursday, December 1, 2011 - link

    Exactly! I always recommend a few and suggest they check the reviews. Been burned by the "it's your fault" too many times. I won't even try to help people any more. Most of the time they don't listen to good advise either.
  • jamyryals - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    I too learned this lesson the hard way.

    It's a lot of fun to do the research, comparison shopping to get the most for your money, and ultimately end up building a machine. However, the support expectations placed on you when something goes wrong is extremely taxing on both your time and the personal relationship.

    The business environment dictates components are not over-engineered and are not designed to last for 5+ years. They are designed for a price point with as many features and reliability they can attain at that price. Something will likely fail. If it does not, then you are an outlying data point.

    TL;DR - Always recommend other people buy from a system vendor. If you can convince them to get a warranty.
  • freezervv - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    "Fact is, when you add in the Windows license, it's sometimes hard to actually build lower-end systems cheaper."

    You probably aren't getting your Windows licenses in the right way for home use, then. ;)
  • mrseanpaul81 - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    I always learn something new on here... I mean I heard about technet but never bothered to find out how it really works. I am about to sign up for the subscription right now, ITS AWESOME!!! (I was thinking about building a rig for the living room flatscreen tv... so something with a small form factor but maybe a discrete graphics card too. The cost of hardware + windows license made it like above my budget. But with technet, it is definitely possible)
  • puttersonsale - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    wait a sorta confused after looking at this. This is just a subscription to evaluate and test so you can deploy with more ease. For 200 bucks a year i could see why some people would need it but for home use?

    Am i missing on something here? sorry for being little slow but i sorta wanna know so maybe i'll subscribe if i need it....I actually own small business and we may need this....Might help me save on work...seems like i am always fixing someone's computer.

    Worse thing is even after training people....they have to listen to best practices or else its all for naught.
  • meorah - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    You're not missing anything.

    Technet subscriptions aren't intended to be used as permanent licenses and are only legally valid for that 1 year (after that you are supposed to uninstall the software and reinstall new software if you renew your subscription). That being said, the software doesn't self-destruct after a year, all your updates continue to work properly, and your software capabilities never really expire... you're just running software that used to be legal and isn't anymore.

    If you own a small business its worth getting the professional subscription just for the 2 free support calls.

    Really the intended purpose is self-paced training on the majority of products that MS makes for back-office and data-center IT workers, so you can evaluate a beta product or a server platform without having to worry about it self-destructing after a 30 or 60 day trial *cough* VMWare *cough*.

    Its a great deal if you always have to keep up with the latest software and do lots of compatibility testing for new versions of products you rent under their volume licensing with SA.

    The CE credits are kinda nice, too.
  • vanadiel - Wednesday, November 30, 2011 - link

    Just a couple of things I wish to clear up concerning Technet subscriptions.

    "Only one user may install the software on your devices and use the software only to evaluate it, even if you obtained a server license. You may not use the software in a live operating environment, in a staging environment, or with data that has not been backed up. You may not use the evaluation software for software development or in an application development environment."

    So you will be breaking the license agreement if you use it in a business environment, or a live operating environment, or if you use it for training purposes for IT workers.
    If you want to use it for that purpose you have to upgrade to an MSDN subcriptions, or volume licensing.
  • Penti - Thursday, December 1, 2011 - link

    It's not intended or licensed for production. It is that simple. It's pretty much like all the other MSDN subscriptions. Except that your allowed to use MSDN software to say test your apps on as a developer. A real MSDN subscription is probably what most needs.

    This pretty much regards to both though.
    "Software is licensed for evaluation purposes only-not for use in production environments. TechNet Subscriptions include the most recent Microsoft software version. Visit Microsoft Software License Terms for details on your use rights for evaluation software and other components of the TechNet Subscription product."

    Your pretty much paying Microsoft to be a betatester that can't use the software in production.

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