Desktop starter kit
Want to skip all the details and research and just buy a great desktop? Dell's high-end XPS One 27 has the largest screen resolution of any Windows 8 all-in-one PC. For gamers, check out the small-yet-powerful Origin Chronos. I can also recommend Apple's new Mac Mini to those looking to spend under $1,000.
Who still wants a desktop PC?
Despite the recent shift to mobile computing, many PC old-schoolers, gamers, and professionals remain loyal to the desktop platform due to familiarity, performance and/or feature demands, and upgradability. For parents, businesses and institutions, and other users, desktops also have appeal due to their immobility. It's harder to steal a desktop, and (sorry, kids) tougher to use it on the sly.
Even if the desktop platform is no longer the center of the computing world for many, enough people still buy them and enough vendors still sell them to sustain a diverse market. Here, I'll offer some general guidelines for picking the best desktop for your specific needs.
Rules for buying a desktop PC
1. Buy the best desktop you can afford, but one that has only the features you need: Ever-improving technology means that today's dream PC is tomorrow's paperweight. Generally speaking, buying a PC with a faster CPU, more RAM, and a larger hard drive today will give you a longer window before the system starts to feel obsolete.
Beyond those core components, though, you should be selective about the features you pay for. A fancy graphics card isn't that important if you're not a gamer. And a Blu-ray drive has limited value if you're not going to watch Blu-ray movies. More PCs are sold as fixed configurations these days, so it's harder to pick and choose components. When you can, shedding extras you don't need can save you money. And on a traditional tower PC, if you find you do need a certain component, you can always add it post-purchase.
2. Consider an all-in-one: All-in-one PCs -- iMac-style PCs that offer a large monitor, with the guts of the PC built directly into the back of the screen -- make up the fastest-growing desktop category, and every mainstream vendor makes one. You can find them across the PC price spectrum, and in a diverse array of screen sizes, both with and without touch input.
Among the benefits of all-in-ones are easier set-up and a cleaner appearance than separate tower-and-display setups. Built-in Webcams enable video conferencing without the need for a separate camera peripheral device. With fewer wires, it's easier to bring an all-in-one into a non-office environment such as a kitchen or a bedroom. An all-in-one with a larger screen can also work well as a secondary home entertainment center.
All-in-one PCs have their limitations, of course. They often have the laptop versions of their listed CPU and graphics card, which tend to be less powerful than the desktop equivalents. They usually lack the upgradability of desktop. And while monitors usually last longer than computing components, if your all-in-one's display does develop issues, replacing it means buying a whole new computer.
3. Timing is key: It hurts to miss out on a deal, and it hurts more to buy a computer only to find a new CPU or other major component on the market for the same price a few weeks later. Solving both problems means research. Yes, Black Friday can be a great time to find a deal, but PC vendors also launch sales and "instant rebate" programs year-round, seemingly at random. Look around at all of the major PC vendors' sites, comparison shop, and don't be afraid to put off a purchase for a week or two to see if you can get a better price.
To ensure you get the most current tech for your dollar, it pays to read the news. If you like a certain PC vendor, or you're loyal to Intel or Nvidia, search around for news of products that have been announced but not yet launched. That way you can time your purchase to get either the most recent hardware or a great deal on the previous generation.
You can slice up PCs in a lot of different ways, by chassis design, by vendor, or by operating system, to name a few. I prefer to go by your intended use for the computer, and then by price. Within those parameters, it's easy to slice off only the most relevant portions of the PC landscape.
General-purpose PCs (under $1,000): If you're simply looking for a workaday PC for Web browsing, general office-type tasks, and light-duty media consumption and editing, you don't need to spend more than $1,000 -- and rarely even that much.
For the most budget-conscious user, any mid-tower around $400 or $500 will do here. You can go lower if you look to refurbished machines or extreme deals, but generally speaking, a current, budget-priced Windows PC will start around $400. A slim tower PC, a smaller version of the familiar tower desktop, can be a great choice here.
If you're a Mac loyalist, or want more hard drive space or a bit more computing power, you'll want to look in the $700-to-$800 price range, where you'll also start to find low-cost all-in-ones alongside more common tower desktops (and the Mac Mini for you fans).
Spend $1,000 and you can usually find a fully loaded all-around desktop that will net you a faster CPU, a large hard drive, and a discrete graphics card. Unless you want to dabble in gaming, video editing, or some other advanced multimedia task, general-purpose buyers rarely need to spend this much.
Gaming PCs ($1,000-plus): You can absolutely get away with a sub-$1,000 gaming desktop if you're willing to settle for lower image quality settings and choppy performance. For dedicated PC gamers, though, you will want to spend for at least a mid-range 3D card and a decent CPU, which will put you in $1,000-to-$1,500 territory.
The good news is that you don't need to spend much more than that to play current titles at 1,920x1,080-pixel resolution and decent image quality. Yes, those $5,000 desktops will have crazy-fast load times, gigantic hard drives, and let you play on three monitors at ultrahigh settings and at even higher resolutions, but those kinds of PCs are far from necessary for a perfectly solid PC gaming experience.
Luxury PCs ($1,250-plus): You could also call these "lifestyle" PCs. This class of desktop tends to be an all-around higher-end computer with a focus on media consumption, particularly video. Most of the recent class of 27-inch all-in-ones falls into this category, along with some more 24- and 23-inch models. Higher-end towers from Dell and HP also land here.
PCs in this category tend to have TV tuners, Blu-ray drives, and generally higher-end computing components. The all-in-ones will have a touch screen and occasionally gesture controls.
Media or specialized professional PCs ($1,250-plus): Business PCs aren't much different than mainstream general purpose PCs, but for media editors and others with particular work-related performance or features needs, the desktops most suited for you tend to be more expensive.
Typically this class of user requires a large display and/or a high-end, workstation-class graphics card or storage array. The 27-inch iMac can satisfy those needs for a lot of users in this category. Dell also has an XPS One 27 all-in-one with the same high resolution display as the big screen iMac, along with more current processors. For serious graphics work, or if you need storage that's fast or with enterprise-class stability, you might get away with a standard tower, but the specialized graphics card and hard drives you need will drive the price up.
Like it or not, you'll still have to pay at least some attention to specs and components. Here are the current Intel and AMD processors, and where you're most likely to find them.
AMD: This company (also the parent of of the GPU maker formerly known as ATI) has recently launched the second generation of A-Series accelerated processing units, previously known by the code name Trinity. Rather than CPU, or central processing unit, AMD these days uses the term APU, or accelerated processing unit, meaning that a CPU and a discrete-level GPU are combined.
Named the A4, A6, A8, and A10, these new processors claim to double the performance over the previous generation of AMD APU chips. They tend to offer slower general performance than Intel CPUs in the same price range, but better performance in 3D games. Note that far fewer desktops are available with AMD processors than Intel ones.
You may also run across AMD's E-series chips at the very low end of the desktop spectrum. AMD has a list of current processors here.
Intel: If you're looking at a desktop PC, chances are it has an Intel CPU in it. The current line confusingly has the same product names as the previous two generations. But the new chips, introduced in the second half of 2012, are also known by the code name Ivy Bridge (the previous generation was Sandy Bridge).
The 2012 Ivy Bridge (or third-generation) CPUs are easy to spot, as they have a part number that begins with the number 3; for example, the Intel i7-3770 CPU. A similar Sandy Bridge chip from 2011 was called the Intel Core i7-2770. A more detailed list of processors is available from Intel here.
- Core i3 Found in many budget desktops, this dual-core CPU is fine for everyday computing.
- Core i5 Intel's mainstream quad-core processor, found in many desktop between $600 and $1,000, as well as some more expensive, large-screen all-in-ones.
- Core i7 Expect to find Intel's flagship CPU in more expensive performance machines, although unless you're a gamer or serious video editor, it's unlikely you need this much power.
- Pentium and Celeron -- Yes, Intel still makes these lower-end chips, which have been the bane of our Labs testing team for years. If at all possible, avoid desktops with these parts. Step up to a low-end Core i3 instead, even if it's an older version.
Hard drives and storage: Your new desktop is going to have either a traditional spinning-platter hard drive (HDD), or a solid-state hard drive (SSD), which is flash memory, similar to what you'd find in an iPhone or an SD card. We've also seen a few examples of hybrid drives, where a small SSD (perhaps 20GB or 32GB) is paired with a larger HDD. In theory, this lets the system boot faster and helps apps open quickly, but stores bulky music and video files on the standard hard drive.
HDD Found in the vast majority of desktops, platter hard drives are large and inexpensive. Look for at least a 500GB hard drive, even in a budget system. Most drives run at 7,200rpm (revolutions per minute), but some run more slowly, at 5,400rpm. You won't really notice a difference in day-to-day PC use, but you will appreciate a faster hard drive when you transfer large files around or when you want to load a game or render a video file.
SSD These drives are much faster than traditional mechanical hard drives, but they're also much more expensive, with smaller capacities. You can usually find them as optional features in higher-end customizable PCs.
Frequently asked questions
What kind of ports and extras do I need? A couple of USB ports are a minimum. Most desktops now include at least two USB 3.0 ports, which are faster than the older USB 2.0 version, but only when used with compatible USB 3.0 devices, such as external hard drives.
For all-in-ones, many models, but not all, will include an HDMI input. This is a great feature that allows you to connect an external video component, such as a cable box or a game console, to your all-in-one to use it as a second display. With an HDMI input, you can turn your all-in-one into a true home media hub, which is a convenient option in space-constrained rooms such as a den, a bedroom, or a home office.
What kinds of ports and extras can I skip? DisplayPort for video or Thunderbolt (another high-speed data connection) are needed only if you have compatible hardware. Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are both potentially useful, not to mention tidy, but they're not crucial given the desktop's stationary nature (assuming, of course, that the PC will be near an Ethernet port for Internet access).
Do I need an optical drive? The answer is starting to trend toward "no," and a few all-in-ones have gone without. Some people are definitely still tied to CDs, DVDs, and Blu-ray discs as storage or media playback formats. And while you may have legacy software that's available only on disc, almost every current application is available for download, minimizing the need for optical drives going forward. Note that you can also add an external USB-powered DVD drive to any PC for under $40.
Do I need a graphics card? Unless you plan on playing serious PC games on your desktop (Skyrim, Battlefield 3, and so forth), you can get away with using the graphics capabilities built into desktops by default. Intel's current version is called HD 4000, and while it's not for serious gamers, you should be able to get away with playing casual or older games, or even newer games such as Diablo III if you keep the visual settings set to "low."
Shouldn't I just get a laptop or a tablet instead? If all you're doing with your desktop is watching Netflix movies, reading online news, and playing Bejeweled, a tablet can make sense. And if you fall into the general-purpose user category outlined above, you can often get away with a laptop.
The advantages of a desktop are larger hard-drive space, full-speed CPU and graphics cards, and, for towers especially, expandability and the ability to replace components yourself. Desktops also make sense for those who want to prevent user mobility.
What's better, Windows or Mac OS X? A loaded question. Windows users appreciate the flexibility of that operating system, allowing for extreme tweaking and personalization. It's also available on a nearly limitless variety of hardware. Apple's operating system, on the other hand, is available only on a handful of desktops and laptops. That said, the joint hardware/software platform makes for a much more stable/predictable overall experience, and many prefer the user-friendly OS X layout and controls. Finally, Windows has a much larger available software library, especially when it comes to free software and games.
What about Windows 8? The newest version of Microsoft's operating system debuted in October 2012. If you purchased a desktop before that but after June 2, 2012, you can, in most cases, upgrade to Windows 8 for $15. Other upgrades generally cost $40. That said, upgrading between operating systems can cause a lot of problems, so make sure to back up important data first. Nearly every PC maker also has new desktop models specifically designed to work with Windows 8 and its iPad-like interface and touch support. By now, any new desktop you buy will have Win8 pre-installed on it, so virtually every PC buyer will be using it eventually. For a list of new Windows 8 laptops, desktops, tablets, and hybrids, see our master list here.
Where can I find the latest desktop reviews? You can find all the newest desktop news and reviews here at CNET.com/laptops.