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 multicoloured, 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 mould, 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 in the following pages.

NEXT PAGE: general buying advice > >

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different

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.

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 centre.

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 personalise your PC with a distinctive paint job such as Commodore Gaming's C-Kins.

Commodore gaming system

NEXT PAGE: pimp my PC > >

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different

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.

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. These cost as little as £6.

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.

If you're looking for dials to crank up the processor speed and fans, plus pumps and radiators to keep things cool, try PC Advisor Shopping, dabs.com, overclockers.co.uk and maplin.co.uk.

Pimped PCs

NEXT PAGE: crystal-clear > >

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different

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.

Crystal-clear

Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana may be yet to embrace the designer wrapping for svelte home electronics concept, but there's nothing stopping you from adding some bling. InWin does a floral case encrusted with rhinestone jewels. Philips' Swarovski crystal-covered USB thumb drives and earphones will complete the look.

And, if you really must, a Hello Kitty crystal-encrusted NEC laptop is available for import from the Far East.
But if you simply want to create a distinctive look for your system, shop around at sites such as eBuyer.com, PC Advisor Shopping, dabs.com, overclockers.co.uk and maplin.co.uk for cases that fit the bill.

For one of the widest range of choices in both PC design and cases to houses them, Commodore offers more than 200 different finishes, superbly applied by airbrush artists.

Laptop fans don't get the professional paint job – but several accessory companies now sell 'skins'. You can either choose one of the existing designs or upload your own photo to be turned into a fascia. At sites such as lapjacks.com, laptopskins.net and the wonderfully named backslaps.co.uk you can order self-adhesive skins from as little as £11.

What's more, everyone from Sony and Apple to Dell and even Lenovo now offer laptops in a choice of coloured finishes. Asus and Acer let you advertise your allegiance to Lamborghini or Ferrari respectively, while Hannspree makes football team-themed screens as well as ones reflecting your interest in other sports.

Backslaps

NEXT PAGE: super-skinny models > >

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different

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.

Super-skinny models

For most of us, though, 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.

As with the MacBook, a flash-memory version can be had for somewhat more than the £1,199 base price.

MacBook Air

NEXT PAGE: entertainment today > >

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different

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.

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.

NEXT PAGE: all-in-one approach > >

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different

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.

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-centre 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.

NEXT PAGE: miniature PCs > >

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different

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.

Miniature PCs

You don't have to saddle yourself with an all-in-one PC to save space. A miniature PC is a far more flexible option, as you can position the screen wherever you want and angle it as required (something that isn't always possible with single-unit systems). The tiny box that houses the PC's workings can be placed anywhere you choose, either out of sight or taking up a scant few inches of desk space. You may find such a setup superior to constantly kicking a bulky tower PC.

The best-known maker of miniature PCs is probably Shuttle. As well as selling complete PCs such as the Shuttle XPX X200, the company also acts as an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) supplier for other manufacturers.

Shuttle systems use a micro ATX motherboard – a mainboard that's not much larger than the cover of a hardback book. Such systems tend to feature integrated elements such as onboard sound and don't have the very fastest processors or the most generous hard disks. Even so, mini-ATX computers can be useful as secondary PCs or entertainment machines.

With cost becoming more and more important, Shuttle added a new model to its mini-ATX line-up this February. The £100 Shuttle KPC is a cubed-shaped model with an 80GB hard disk (expandable up to 1.5TB) and 512MB RAM. This can be extended to 2GB depending on the configuration chosen. With 5.1-channel audio, the Linux-based PC has a changeable front fascia that's reminiscent of a digital photo frame.

For those that want to spec out the KPC themselves, the Shuttle machine will also be sold barebones for just $99 (£50).

Shuttle sells many of its machines this way, which makes it ideal for other manufacturers to use them as a base.

Tranquil PC also aims to keep your outlay low while offering a miniature platform for basic computing. The design isn't as appealing as some of the others we've featured, but if your needs run to a capable but tiny system that's near silent in operation, its range is worth a look.

Prices start from £198 for a 600MHz Linux Puppy-based setup with 256MB of RAM. An extra £50 turns this allocation into a rather more acceptable 1GB, although the lack of hard disk space will be a worry for many users.

Up-to-date specifications can be found on mini systems by AOpen. Like Shuttle, it's in essence an OEM company that offers a range of fascias and upgrade options to its Penryn-based PC base units.

Models such as the MP965 DR come with a remote control, making them a good bet for entertainment use. A slide-in optical bay and hidden ports combined with the shiny casing make them a good alternative to Apple's derivative Mac mini.

NEXT PAGE: ever-decreasing circuit boards > >

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different

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.

Ever-decreasing circuit boards

Even smaller motherboards and PC cases can be bought. For example, DIY fans can build themselves an entire desktop system based on a laptop motherboard. However, this can be an expensive exercise, given the higher cost of laptop-sized components. And keeping laptops cool requires some skill.

World's Smallest PC sells fanless mini PCs designed for use as discreet entertainment systems. The benefit of going fanless is the lack of operational sound interfering with music and video playback. For a setup that suits the home, either a fanless machine or one acoustically dampened to quell the whirr of fans and busy hard drives will make a real difference.

NEXT PAGE: silent nights > >

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different

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.

Silent nights

Another company that specialises in such systems is QuietPC. A reseller of PC and audio components as well as a manufacturer of its own silent PC parts, QuietPC deals in sound-proof cases for towers and horizontal PC cabinets. The latter are a popular choice for consumer electronics for the living room, where their horizontal design fits more naturally.

Finally, for some tasks, it's questionable whether you need a PC at all. Media extenders and music servers are good alternatives to having a PC destroy the minimalism of your lounge. Your hulking great PC can serve up songs, photos and films from the depths of your study, while you enjoy them in comfort on your sofa.

NEXT PAGE: and now for something completely different > >

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different

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.

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, miniaturised 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.

  1. Designer PC buying guide
  2. General PC buying advice
  3. Pimp my PC
  4. Crystal-clear
  5. Super-skinny models
  6. Entertainment today
  7. All-in-one approach
  8. Miniature PCs
  9. Ever-decreasing circuit boards
  10. Silent nights
  11. And now for something completely different