Microsoft's annual Next-Gen PC Design competition is now open for entries until 14 December. It's hoping for a slew of weird and wonderful systems, none of them ATX shaped.

The competition itself aims to encourage "ongoing enthusiasm for Windows-based PCs by engaging the imagination and creativity of the industrial design community". In a nutshell, Microsoft is urging people to: "rethink the grey box of the past, and envision the PC of the future". A big cash prize of $25,000 is the lure.

Digital lifestyle PCs

Microsoft hopes to identify some great design talent through its annual competition - it had 349 submissions for the 2007 competition, which saw a variety of off-the-wall PC blueprints.

The $25,000 first prize went to a PC dubbed 'Blok'. Designed by three Carleton University student designers, the odd box-like design was apparently inspired by classic toy building blocks.

The Chairman's prize (also worth $25,000) went to 'MADE in China' - its proposed MADE (Massively Administered Digital Entities) architecture consisted of a touch screen interface and remote servers that stored applications and data. What you can see in the picture gallery here is MADE in China's interface - a flat Asian-style dining platter complete with a CHOP stylus for input on a specialised touch screen.

How would it work? Your guess is as good as ours.

Think different

"Through insightful design, winning entries take computing to bold new places and to traditionally underserved audiences," said Kevin Eagan, general manager of Microsoft's Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM) Marketing Group.

According to Microsoft, the competition theme focuses on designs that help people fuel their passion, whether it's music, travelling or photography, and how to pursue them more easily. If you're interested in submitting an entry, you have to consider both the software and hardware elements of your next-gen PC, as well as its design, shape and colour.

The PC industry seems particularly impotent when it comes to producing striking PC designs. But there is some innovation and creativity out there. Need some inspiration? Then here are a few of our web-based favourites: ' Weird PC cases', ' wooden PC' and some of Intel's concept design efforts.