A Guide to PCs This Holiday Season

Computers outranked peace and happiness for the most desired gift this year in an annual U.S. survey by the consumer electronics industry's largest trade organization.

PC vendors are happy to oblige. They've come out with desktops and laptops to cover a gamut of needs, budgets and styles. There are souped-up machines for gamers, attractive space-saving all-in-ones for home offices or kitchens, simple low-cost laptops for youths and pricey ultra-lightweight notebooks for those seeking flair and function.

More than ever, alternatives to computers running Microsoft Corp.'s long-dominant Windows operating system are also hitting the market.

A sampling of the offerings this holiday season:


Everex TC2502 gPC

The gPC stands out from the crowd like a man wearing sandals at cocktail party -- it's cheap and it's different. It's a simple desktop computer that eschews Windows in favor of Linux, the alternative operating system that's widely used by information technology professionals but has struggled for years to gain acceptance in desktops. The gPC is the first Linux computer to be sold in Wal-Mart stores (though only some of them), giving Linux another shot at the mainstream. It's designed to be easy to use and focuses on Google's Web services like Gmail and YouTube. But like some earlier Linux computers, it uncomfortably straddles two worlds: it's a low-end box for computer novices, yet considerable expertise is needed to get the most out of the software. (MSRP: $199 without monitor)


Apple iMac The reasons for not buying a Mac are running out. The iMac is fast, well equipped and very easy to use. It even runs Windows if you need it to. One look at the latest iMac shows you how much the line has grown up: the cutesy look of the earlier iMacs has been replaced with a chilly and professional aluminum chassis. The iMac is perfect as a shared computer in a household, since it starts up quickly from a power-saving standby mode and switches between user accounts much faster than a Windows computer. The latest iMovie software is great for simple home movie editing. Compared with a Windows box, the iMac is still somewhat expensive, but you get a lot for your money, including built-in wireless networking and a webcam. (MSRP: Starts at $1199 with 20-inch screen)


Alienware Area-51 m9750 Laptops are generally pokey gaming platforms, since they lack the high-powered chips needed to calculate realistic 3-D environments. Alienware's m9750 laptop busts that limitation, at least if you have the cash. It has a 17-inch screen and can be fitted with dual graphics cards and dual hard drives. All this power means it only lasts 1 1/2 hours on battery, so don't picture yourself gaming on a cross-country flight. And if you're the kind of gamer who likes to trick out your rig, there may be reason to wait. The m9750 looks surprisingly sedate, while Alienware (now a Dell Inc. subsidiary) has some cooler designs coming out next year that use LEDs in the decor to light up the laptop in unexpected ways. (MSRP: $3449 in recommended gaming configuration)


HP TouchSmart IQ775 Desktop PC For many households, the good ol' refrigerator remains the cluttered center for messages, a family calendar, to-do lists and favorite photos. If you're looking for a 21st century alternative, consider the HP TouchSmart PC. The all-in-one Windows-based computer is designed to be used in a kitchen nook or family room. It's not as sleek or fast as the iMac but its 19-inch widescreen touch-screen display lets you do a bunch of tasks without having to resort to a keyboard. Scribble virtual sticky notes right on the screen, record voice messages, or watch a movie DVD. Keep mom's, dad's and kids' schedules organized with the calendar. A photo slide show could be your screen saver, and a built-in digital video recorder lets you play, pause or rewind live or recorded television shows. (MSRP: Starts at $1,599.99)


Asus Eee PC: The biggest feature about this little laptop is its price. At $399, it's a good budget laptop for basic computing needs and Web surfing. The 2-pound, book-sized computer with a 7-inch screen is targeted for youths, and its shrunken keyboard is best suited for small hands. The navigation immediately feels simple. The menus have big icons, six basic tabs of "learn," "work," "play," "Internet," "favorites," and "settings," and shortcuts to Web destinations like Gmail or Wikipedia. Its components and mere 4 gigabytes of storage aren't meant for big jobs, though, and since it's Linux-based, programs made only for Windows or Mac platforms won't work on it. But adults will get some fun mileage out of it, too, whether it's to watch YouTube or play simple games. It even accepts voice commands, though only for a limited number of functions. (MSRP: $399)


Toshiba Portege R500 As far as gadgets go, the Toshiba Portege R500 can hang with the supermodels. It's sexy, super thin and ultralight. But like most laptops in its class, you pay for the weight that's missing. At 2.4 pounds and 0.7-inches tall, the R500 still amazingly squeezes in a DVD drive and a full-size keyboard. Its ultra thin 12.1-inch widescreen display uses a backlit LED screen instead of the typical LCD, though some might contend it almost feels too fragile since it could flex a little. But LED display technology is one of the key ways Toshiba and its rivals are achieving ever thinner laptops. A model with a state-of-the-art flash-based 64-gigabyte hard drive but no DVD drive is even lighter at 1.74 pounds, but it also costs about $500 more. (MSRP: Starts at $2,149)

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