The CNET editors' guide to desktops clues you in to what you need to know, from finding the type of PC that fits your lifestyle to catching up on all of the latest trends.
Choose a case: big or small
The variety in desktop shape and size has only gotten broader. Traditional towers are still popular because they offer the most room for expansion. But space-saving, small-form-factor PCs have grown even smaller in the last year. Living room-friendly, AV component-style cases are still around to some degree, although we're not sure for how much longer, and thanks to Apple, the all-in-one PC remains healthy.
Small form factor | All-in-one | Living room-friendly case |
Midtower case | Full-tower case
Small form factor
The small-form-factor (SFF) case is in a bit of a transition phase right now, because the bread-box-size design we normally think of is starting to look clunky compared to even smaller case designs that have cropped up, including that of the Mac Mini, the Enano
, and others. This doesn't mean that we expect the traditional SFF case to disappear, though. We've been surprised at the number of features desktop vendors have been able to cram into the ultra-SFF boxes, but what those ultrasmall cases can't accommodate is expansion cards. So for most gaming, digital video encoding, and other tasks normally aided by PCI and PCI Express cards, you'll need the bigger little box.
HP TouchSmart IQ770
Popularized by the iMac, the all-in-one PC is a desktop with a built-in monitor. The desktop components (processor, memory, hard drive, and such) may be in the base or hidden behind the flat-panel display itself. Like a SFF desktop, an all-in-one limits expansion, but many boast advanced features, such as DVD burners and TV tuners. Because the display and the computer itself are enclosed in a single box, they're generally more space efficient than a traditional tower-and-monitor combination. On the other hand, the PC components will become obsolete faster than the LCD, one drawback of having the two so tightly integrated. If you have a small space in which to setup your computer, an all-in-one can save the day.
Living room-friendly case
Your home theater looks like a cross between a sci-fi movie set and a Philippe Starck hotel lobby, so why destroy the vibe with a boxy desktop PC? A small percentage of dedicated Media Center PCs are built into low, wide cases, designed to fit in among the cable boxes, DVD players, and video game consoles in the typical home theater. Some call them "living room PCs," others "A/V-style" or "rack-mount systems," although very few are ever actually mounted in equipment racks, and you're likely to find extras such as LED displays and copious audio and video connections. A trade-off for some smaller models is half-height expansion card slots or no slots at all, limiting possible upgrades.
The box no longer has to be beige, but the basic design of the tried-and-true midtower case remains the same: several internal and external drive bays, PCI Express and regular PCI slots for expansion, and a long list of ports on the front and the back for connecting peripherals, such as digital cameras and printers. You'll still find the trusty midtower case under many desks.
If you are a serious speed junkie, then this is your hot rod. The interior space allows for plenty of expansion room, with many internal and external bays for both optical drives and hard drives. It should also include an x16 PCI Express slot or two for high-end 3D gaming cards, as well as at least five PCI or x1 PCI Express slots.
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Rich Brown, Dan Ackerman, and Matthew Elliott wrote and edited this guide. For more information on desktops in general, please visit our desktop center