HotHardware's 2012 Back To School Shopping Guide

Small Form Factor / HTPC

Dell Alienware X51

The Alienware team played it smart configuring the X51 and at a reasonable entry point of $699, they didn't skimp on the guts or glory.  If you're a gamer, you need a fair bit of CPU horsepower and clock speed to drive data requests to the primary graphics engine that ultimately works the magic of rendering shaders and pushing pixels to the screen. However, you darn sure better have a decent GPU at the ready, so Alienware's choice of NVIDIA's GeForce GTX 555 was spot-on.  The GeForce GTX 555 is a 288 CUDA core machine and while you may be lulled into thinking it's a midrange workhorse, it's actually no slouch, as you'll see in the benchmarks that follow.  Also, backing Intel's quad-core Core i5 CPU is 8GB of DDR3-1333 system memory and a fairly peppy 7200RPM 1TB WD hard drive.
It's not often we're fully satisfied with an SFF PC and though the X51 isn't perfect, in our opinion the folks at Alienware should be commended for putting out an exceptional product. It's great for small dorm room areas, though, and you can find our full review here.

ASRock Vision 3D 252B

The ASRock Vision 3D 252B performed very well throughout our entire battery of tests. Its performance in comparison to the other HTPC and low-power systems we tested was excellent and power consumption was somewhat lower than the previous-gen Vision 3D PC which is based on older Intel tech. Within the confines of a system designed to be an HTPC though, the user experience is also a big factor in determining performance, and in this regard the ASRock Vision 3D 252B excelled. The system’s combination of high-performance components and a GeForce GPU allowed it to flawlessly playback all of the media we tested.

The only caveats are price and availability. ASRock’s HTPC systems are somewhat tough to come by in the US and they are priced at a premium. The Vision 3D 252B model we tested sells for about $900+, which is no small chunk of change. Please keep in mind, however, that if you were to try and build a system like this yourself, similarly performing parts alone would cost upwards of $700, which includes a mini-ITX case. Factor in the time it would take to assemble the system and the cost of software like Cyberlink’s PowerDVD which is included with ASRock’s Vision 3D machine and the price disparity gets even smaller. Even then, you wouldn’t be able to build a system as compact and it likely wouldn’t have as many ports either. Trust us, your movie-loving college mates will love you. Our full review is here.

Maingear Potenza Super Stock SFF system

It starts with an Intel Ivy Bridge foundation, and Maingear bumped up the default processor option to an unlocked Core i7 3770K chip. Maingear then goosed the CPU as part of the company's optional Redline overclocking service, and while that's usually asking for trouble in a cramped form factor, cooling chores are carried out by Maingear's Epic 120 Supercooler, a self-contained liquid cooler built by CoolIt. That's some serious hardware for a mini-ITX system, and we haven't even begun to talk about the Nvidia GeForce GTX 670 graphics card or the speedy Corsair Force GT solid state drive (SSD) in the excellent Maingear Potenza Super Stock.

Just because you have a couple grand to spare on a gaming PC doesn't mean you want a machine with a size that's as large as your budget. Maingear's Potenza is pricey as configured, no doubt, but it's also stout and muscular, able to play games on high resolution displays while sitting tucked underneath your desk, in the corner of your home theater, or anywhere else you choose to stick a system that's barely larger than a bookshelf speaker. Our full review can be found here.

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